Chillin' With the Ex-Pats in Costa Rica
...getting adopted - "and loving it!"
December 31, 1996 - February 11, 1997
When we were in Baja California, I was anxious about mainland Mexico: all those stories about crooked cops stealing your car and selling it back to you again. When we were in Central Mexico, I worried about Chiapas: all those revolutionaries! While we were loving Chiapas, I was uneasy about Guatemala. After three months in Guatemala, I finally learned my lesson and (mostly) got over worrying, confident that, eventually, I would get my bearings in the next strange land.
We never thought we'd leave Guatemala, and seriously considered staying put on the shores of Lake Atitlan for the remainder of our trip, making ocassional excursions into other parts of Guatemala. Dave even toyed with the idea of looking for a bit of land on the lake. But a few days after Christmas, we finally got back in the car and headed south on a course taking us through El Salvador, a little corner of Honduras, Nicaragua and, finally, Costa Rica. It was Costa Rica that we were aiming for. Getting to know the likes of El Salvador and Nicaragua, given how much one-sided information we had about them, seemed more like work than play. We'd met enough people coming from these countries to know that they were fascinating, relatively safe and extremely worthwhile places to visit. 1996 is probably the first time in thirty years where no "active" wars are going on in all of Central America, a great time to be travelling in this region. But the idea of heading out into new, previously war-torn countries is always a tiny bit nerve-racking. Maybe I wasn't completely over my worry-complex after all.
Nonetheless, New Year's Eve was spent atop a mountain in Cerro Verde National Park in El Salvador, watching the last sun of 1996 set behind a giant volcano and the Pacific Ocean. We drank "El Salvador Slings", my own monstrous creation involving peach juice and pinapple. Sounds better than they tasted, because peach juice here tastes just like Revlon's "Ooh La La Red" lipstick. But it seemed liked a sufficiently festive and exotic way to celebrate the new year.
Following the recommendation of an American man with a Salvadoran wife, we drove out to the Pacific Coast of El Salvador in search of a certain exotic and inexpensive resort. The coast at this time of year was very parched, but it was nice to glimpse the ocean again after 4 months inland. But the resort proved to be neither exotic nor inexpensive, and we found ourselves driving on to the seacoast town of La Libertad for the night. We arranged to sleep in the parking lot of some type of health clinic with the night watchman, who asked us to come back a little later after the New Year's revelers had cleared out. We strolled a few blocks to a beachside restaurant, enjoyed a first-rate ceviche and watched the sunset while the last body-surfers caught a few more waves before nightfall. "What a nice town", we thought. "So attractive and pleasant". We paid our bill, and decided to see a bit more of town before going back to the van. We found ourselves first strolling, then scurrying, through what turned out to be the most hellacious hell-hole of a town you could possibly imagine: open, oozing gutters, drunkards lying across the sidewalks, choking black exhaust from the holiday traffic that fill the streets, and dark, scary, threatening looks from the people who peered at us from the shadows. We hurried back to our car, admired the large gate between us and the street, and locked our doors, amazed that this was the self-same delightful beachtown we admired so much before the sun went down just a few hours earlier.
We crossed the border into Honduras after only a few days in El Salvador. We'd had a relatively good experience when entering Honduras from Copan Ruinas back in September en route to the Bay Islands : there was a big, prominently displayed sign on the wall of office saying "Denounce Corruption! Pay ONLY the following fees..." The fees themselves were steep, but we were charged exactly what the sign said, and the customs officials were extremely friendly. Not so at the Goascaran crossing from El Salvador to Honduras. The "Denounce Corruption" sign was conspicuously absent, and we got screwed, not to mention confused, abused and misused. Financially speaking, we're not talking big dollars: we paid about $17 more than we should have. But the indignity! The frustration! The outrage! By the time we left that border, I was seeing red, on principle. We stopped several times to have our papers checked, a common occurance at all borders on either side, very normal, and since we're squeaky clean and our paperwork is always in order, we usually don't sweat during these stops (except when the guns are bigger than the kids holding them). In Honduras, an armed military guard actually asked us to buy him a soda after he checked our papers. "No, thank you. Goodbye.", Dave said coolly. Another officer tried to catch us by claiming we didn't have a spare tire, a violation. "It's here under the car." "Oh. Well, do you have your 'triangulos'?" Our what? With what seemed to me like a triumphant florish, the officer produced a regulation booklet with Point #36, "You Gotta Have Triangulos in Honduras" boldly underlined for the entrapment of feckless foreigners like ourselves. He got us. We didn't have 'em. (Triangulos, by the way, are triangles that you put in the road to warn other cars that you've broken down. Never mind that standard operating procedure in this region is to hack down a sapling and chuck it out in the road, if it even occurs to you to warn anyone in the first place). Well, what this poor patrolman didn't count on was that this particular gringa was still feeling rather moody about the shabby treatment back at the border, and needed a good whipping boy to take it out on. I ranted that it didn't matter if we had triangulos; even if we did, he'd just find something else to get some money out of us. His feelings were very hurt. "Senora. I do not need your money. The government pays me a 'sueldo'!" he says with pride. A what? "A SUELDO! A salary!". And with a look of disgust, he dismissed us and we were on our way.
(P.S. Dave wouldn't hear of buying any triangulos for when we made the trip back north through Honduras. His reasoning was that we carry flares, which are much better than triangles anyway. I mostly wanted to buy triangulos for the satisfaction of crowning the next officer who asked for them. But we didn't buy them, and yes, we were stopped and asked to produce our triangles. Dave calmly explained that we have these flares, they are much better than triangulos, this is how they work. "Very nice", said the officers, "can we have them?" Dave explained that we needed them for our own personal safety, not to mention the next cop who stopped us. "Then can I have that flashlight?", they asked. Dave doesn't remember this part.)
A few things we can say confidently about Honduras: great food, and really cheap. A "plato tipico" consists of a piece of beef or chicken, rice, beans, salad, fried bananas, "crema" (like sour cream) and local cheese, and costs about three to four bucks. And the roads are generally excellent. We overheard someone claim that the roads are so good because the U.S. military built them back when they were assisting the Nicaraguan Contras from bases located in Honduras. But it was good to drive solid roads with lines, shoulders and gutters, things we take for granted at home. We actually hit 70mph for the first time in months.
We entered Nicaragua from Honduras. In Nicaragua, we visited Leon, Masaya and Grenoble. In total, we spent only about a week travelling through El Salvador and Nicaragua combined, so we have pretty much a dashboard perspective of these countries: the roads were good to atrocious, they speak very quickly there, the tourism industry doesn't seem to have recovered much from the wars which ended only four years ago in El Salvador and 7 years ago in Nicaragua. In Guatemala, we met a man in a parking lot who had El Salvador license plates. "We're going to El Salvador soon!", we announced, fishing for tips on where to go. "Ech, it was destroyed by the war. They've wrecked it all", he said grumpily. So much for hot tips. But here was yet another point of political reeducation for Dave and me. Having absorbed the nefarious role our government has played in Guatemala, we felt compelled to reacquaint ourselves with the history of El Salvador and Nicaragua, and-- surprise!-- we weren't on the side of the angels, once again.
Nicaragua is relatively large, but has a small population, so it feels different from the more crowded counries to the north. It is an extremely poor country, and depends very much on U.S. aid. The U.S. threatened to withdraw the millions of dollars in aid we send annually if the Sandanista party won last November's presidential election (so much for "free" elections!). This gave an enormous boost to Aleman, the conservative candidate who turned out to be the winner in a closely watched election. You'll recall that in the 1980's, the Sandinistas were the "bad guys", the "communists" who were legitimately elected after the fall of the Somoza regime in 1979. The Contras were the "freedom fighters" assembled, armed and trained by the US ostensibly to oust the "illegitimate" Sandinista revolutionary government. In reality, the fact that a small, poor Central American country had managed to oust a U.S.-backed regime set an extremely dangerous precedent in this volatile region, and to be sure, the Nicaraguans' success in removing a corrupt family dynasty from power was a powerful lesson for El Salvador, for one. And all in "our" backyard! The US devoted tens of millions to this cause and LOST the battle for control of Nicaragua; the Contra forces were disbanded in 1990. Ironically, though, Nicaragua today is moving slowly but surely towards a free market economy, and is firmly within US control as a result of the monetary aid we provide. But the country remains extremely poor and disorganized. Some people believe that the recent conservative electoral victory was not so much "for" the conservatives nor "against" the Sandinistas, but was an indication of just how fed up the people are of the terrible poverty they live in.
The roads are simply atrocious in Nicaragua: giant axle-breaking potholes could swallow an economy car whole. We were grateful for the kids using shovels, milk cartons, their hands, whatever, to fill the cavernous potholes with dirt and stones from the side of the road. They do this in return for a handout, which we were happy to give: they need the money and we were grateful for the roadwork.
We reached Costa Rica on January 7th, only a month "late". We LOVED Costa Rica, and especially loved seeing it via campervan. If there were ever a pronounced difference when you cross a border, this is it: no trash, beautiful scenery, well-kept parks. The border guards smiled and said "Welcome to Costa Rica" and didn't ask for 10 pesos for saying it, that really turned our heads! We saw fantastic birds (Costa Rica purportedly has over 800 species of birds, compared to only 350 in all of North America!), several deer, huge crested iguanas, lots of monkeys, a couple of sloths, snakes, iguanas, and HUGE crocodiles in the river. I saw a scarlet macaw fly right in front of me, not 25 feet away. We watched 6-foot 500-pound leatherback turtles lay their eggs on the beach at midnight, an incredibly impressive sight. It made such a difference to see wildlife again; the relative poverty of the other countries we'd visited and ensuing destruction of habitat made even squirrels and songbirds a rare sight. Costa Rica certainly isn't the most interesting country culturally or politically, but the natural beauty and wildlife are a fine compensation. Even though it's completely overrun with gringos, they are incredibly nice gringos. We camped by invitation on people's front yards, used their showers, met their friends, were invited in for dinner, etc. The downside of Costa Rica is that it's very pricey for Central America, and we get tired of seeing the term "eco-" attached to virtually every tourist service there is (swear to god, folks, I saw my first "ECO-CASINO". Really, I saw it). We didn't expect to like it so much when we where in the midst of our cultural and political awakening up north, so we didn't budget enough time, only 5 weeks. With the added delay of our first big-deal breakdown, we had to trim our plans to see more of Honduras and Nicaragua.
The Big Breakdown turned out to be a pretty minor problem in the end, but it was so nerve racking, I feel compelled to recreate the pain and frustration for you here, so you can suffer right along with us: our car just died-- as if the ignition had been turned off-- while driving along a dirt road at-- get this-- the very moment we were turning north, having gone as far south as we planned to on this trip, about 10 miles north of Panama. We were lucky enough to breakdown in front of a bar with a phone, and in the shade. After a few hours, a mechanic showed up, Ivan Caesar, who looked at the engine, all the while shaking his head and muttering, "muy complicado, MUUUUYYYY complicado." Dios mios. As the sun set, Ivan generously and skillfully towed us back to his garage, where he telephoned a "norteamericano" (who turned out to be Hungarian) named Roberto who was supposedly a genius in electronic matters, a marine engineer it turns out who drives a 70's vintage VW van. We passed the rest of the evening shooting pool with Ivan in the loft above his house and enormous workshop, which resembles a salvage yard for giant tractors. I felt like little Alice in Turbine-Land. Roberto arrived the next morning at 6 a.m., berated us for driving anything with an electronic ignition system and integrated distributor south of the San Diego border, said "S.O.L." way too many times for my taste, and reminded us that all these specialized parts we needed were certainly not available in Costa Rica. He offered to replace our gas-and-electronic engine with a diesel-run engine with a good ol' carburator. No way, Jose. We called Rodrigo, our mechanic at Gangalf's Garage in San Francisco. Rodrigo happens to be a great guy AND an ex-Nicaraguan. We put Rodrigo on the phone with Ivan, and over the course of 3 days and a few long distance phone calls, they determined that the problem was a broken ignition coil, easily replaced locally. The bill, including labor: $70, plus phone bills. GREAT GREAT GREAT news. But in the meantime, Dave and I had very nearly ordered ourselves nearly $1200 in parts from the US, plus express shipping of maybe $150, not to mention import duty, because Roberto the Hungarian Genius was so sure that the problem was caused by the computer "brain" that controls all things including the ignition system.
We passed the time anxiously at a tropical beach named Zancudo (feeling sorry for us yet?), one of those remote and very undeveloped paradises where every gringo who comes for a week spends at least a day looking at property too good to pass up. Never mind that "Zancudo" translates roughly as "sandfly". One reason we went to this particular beach was because we knew they planned a big Superbowl party, complete with pre-game volleyball and horseshoes plus killer chili dogs by Mike "I Always Stand Behind My Weenie" Cassini, a local ex-'Nam vet. The game came in fuzzy but watchable from Panama, and we even got the play-by-play in English, although the longer ad-libs and analysis from Madden & Co. were pre-empted by the scintillating repartee of those renowned Panamanian Pro-Bowlers, Jorge Montana and Jaime Ditka. The party was building nicely until the end of the first quarter, at which point the screen went to snowy white, and we spent the rest of the evening fiddling with the rabbit ears, eating weenies, dialing San Jose for score updates, and speculating on why the broadcast would just vanish precisely when the 1st quarter clock ran down to 00:00. Noriega's last laugh, perhaps?
A few days later, we got the good news about our car, and, having heard more of the local Zancudo gossip than is healthy for passers-by, we hit the road again, yearning for the convenience, comfort, and thrift of our mobile casita and the sponteneity of life on the open highway.
Camping was such a joy in Costa Rica. Beaches are all public there, so technically, access can't be restricted by landowners or resorts. We almost always found a clean and safe place by the beach or in a remote spot off the road in the mountains, but when that wasn't possible, we paid a few dollars to camp on someone's ranch land, or asked permission to park alongside someone's house. We were amazed at the quality of our camping places, they just got better and better. One night we'd be watching the sun set over the Caribbean under coconut palms, and the next night we'd be atop a 10,000 foot volcano, wrapped in sleeping bags and reading by candlelight while sipping tea and baking something in the dutch oven. One night we camped on the slopes of Arenal, an active volcano. We couldn't see the summit through the rainclouds and fog that night, but we could hear and feel its rumbling and hissing. Every once in a while we'd hear something that sounded an awful lot like an avalanche. But the best part came late at night: the clouds parted briefly, and up above our campsite we could see dark red lava flowing down the slopes!
Our route through Costa Rica took us down the Pacific coast, through the Nicoya penninsula and the southern Pacific Coast, then back north via a beautiful, mountainous route, then out to the Atlantic Coast, and finally through the central and northwestern regions. As we worked our way along the beaches for the first few weeks, we were often approached by people interested in selling us lots along the coast. The land boom in Costa Rica is in overdrive, a veritable feeding frenzy of Norteamericanos. The prices of beautiful beachfront lots-- if you can find 'em-- may be reasonable by U.S. standards, but we're still talking $40-50,000 for a good-sized, undeveloped lot. But just a few years ago, these same lots were being gobbled up by North Americans and Europeans for maybe half that. We heard rumors that the real bargain hunters are starting to look at Nicaragua, perhaps the last domain for virginal and inexpensive Pacific beachfront.
In spite of having our curiosity piqued back in Baja, Mexico, and Lake Atitlan, Guatemala, the real estate bug never bit us along the coast of Costa Rica; the market's already pretty heated up, for one thing, and besides, we were panting from the heat and too busy slapping mosquitos to be too interested. But then we went to visit our friend Gail Hewson in San Vito, not far from the Panamanian border, and the bug bit! Gail is a director for the Wilson Botanical Gardens. She is also the owner of a pristine hilltop, complete with pond and trees and meadows, lovely historic buildings, all set in a verdant mountainous valley at maybe 4000 feet. The town of San Vito was settled by Italian immigrants in the 1950's; it is charming and has at least one outstanding Italian restaurant (we ate there twice), plus many others that look promising. It wouldn't be polite to say here what she paid for this paradise, but it was VERY CHEAP. We're green with envy, and it's the area we'd look at if we won the lottery tomorrow.
Somewhere in Costa Rica, we hit the 15,000 mile mark and celebrated our 11th month on the road. And to think we'd set out last March 4, 1996, in the direction of Mexico "and maybe Guatemala", for perhaps 3 to 6 months. We were camped on a beach in the Nicoya pennisula alongside some travellers from Italy who were making their way via Volkswagon van from San Francisco to Argentina and Chile, and we ourselves thought very, very seriously about continuing on to South America for another 9 months. We've met a number of people who have made this trip, and so there was no question of "COULD we do it?" but rather, "WOULD we do it?". It's a life-long dream of Dave's, and a recent muse of mine to drive from North to South America.
But alas, for various reasons, we decided to turn north, which means this is the second to last installment of our now hefty volume of newsletters. Look for the upcoming final installment, "The Gringoes Go Home" soonish at a cyber-newstand near you.