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Costa Rica, Pura Vida

 April 24, 1997, Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica
 

    The first time I landed in Costa Rica, I stepped off the plane and  stood around in the musty airport at San Jose, feeling doubtful, waiting  for the customs guy to stamp my passport.  Everywhere were signs  welcoming me to “El Jardin de Paz,” and indeed it was all that  Garden-of-Peace propaganda and Costa Rica’s reputation as “The  Switzerland of Central America” that made me want to see the place for  myself. 
 

    That, and the enthusiasm of a friend who had just come back from  Manuel Antonio, on the Pacific coast. “The most beautiful beaches in the  world,” he said.  “Go.  See if I’m wrong.”  
    “Have a good time in Puerto Rico,” my mother said.
    I explained that Costa Rica is not a Caribbean island, but a country  about the size of West Virginia, tucked between Nicaragua and Panama on  the skinniest part of the American isthmus.  Great beaches, no army,  universal education and health care, the Garden of Peace and the  Switzerland of etc.
    “That’s nice,” said my mother.  “Have a good time anyway.”
    I spent the first night in San Jose, which I had pictured as a leafy  old city full of old men dozing on park benches, and faded examples of  Spanish colonial architectural glory.  There are a few glories  remaining, among them the small, perfect Teatro Nacional in the city’s  central plaza, but it’s hard to appreciate them when you’re standing  beside six lanes of smoking, honking traffic.  The old men are too busy  hawking lottery tickets and dodging taxis to doze.  I found it all very  foreign and interesting.  The next morning I rented a car and got out.
    Driving south on the Pan American Highway, I felt the country  spreading out around me, the air growing sweeter.  San Jose sprawls  through a broad highland valley, surrounded by ranges of jungle-covered  mountains.  The country beyond the city is green, green in profusion, a  million different kinds of green.  I turned off the highway on the road  to Orotina and entered a series of different worlds, each greener and  more lush than the last.  The foothills are scattered with modest  estates beautified by generations of gardeners.  Huge sprays of  bougainvillea spill over white walls.  The road climbs into coffee  country, where green shrubs in waves describe the contours of the  mountains.  
    Cresting the ridge, I pulled over to drink in the view:  behind me  the valley, spread before me the hills marching down to the blue shining  Pacific in the distance.  A pale mist drifted up between forks in the  mountains.  A man on an oxcart clopped by, with a wave and a grin.  It  didn’t look a bit like Switzerland, but it was lovely.  
    Three hours later I was bumping along a rutted road, dodging my  thousandth pothole, surrounded on all sides by vast plantations of  African palms, and wondering why I hadn’t just stayed on that mountain.   Right off I’d learned the most important lesson of traveling in Costa  Rica:  getting around is not as easy as it seems.  The condition of the  roads ranges from okay to awful, and just because a place looks close by  on the map does not mean it will not take forever to get there.  
    I was sweaty and tired when I pulled into Quepos, the ramshackle  port town that serves as a tourist gateway for the beaches of Manuel  Antonio.  The sight of fishing boats on a placid inlet lifted my  spirits, as did my first taste of Imperial cerveza, the national brew.  
    Manuel Antonio is a geological oddity, a string of high hills rising  from a stretch of low coastline.  Land meets ocean in a dramatic  confrontation, densely forested hills plunging to the sea -- rather like  the coast of northern California, if western Marin County were covered  with tropical jungle.  The folds in these hills are lined by rocky coves  and perfect white beaches.  Three of the best beaches are protected  within the boundaries of a 464-acre national park.  The road from Quepos  to the park runs along the summit of the hills, and most of the small  hotels and open-air restaurants are arranged to take advantage of the  views.
    Within ten minutes I was stretched out in a hammock, gazing fifty  miles out over the Pacific at a sky full of drifting pink clouds.  The  swell of the ocean was audible, far below.  A mild breeze carried the  scent of jasmine and ylang-ylang.  A dozen squirrel monkeys were making a  noisy feast of the berries in a huge deciduous tree just beyond my  balcony.  The air was full of butterflies and pink light.  
    I thought:  this is the place.  
    I drove down to the beach.  Just at sunset I stepped out onto a wide  stretch of white sand fringed by coconut palms and mangroves, a mile of  beach-lover’s heaven.  A gathering of rock islets stood offshore, like  whales with backs of jagged gray stone.  The warm blue Pacific rolled in  even white lines, a long rolling curl crashing around the ears of  surfers.  The támbalo in the national park -- a former island connected  to the mainland by a thread of jungle-covered sand -- and the range of  hills behind me gave the beach a sculptured shapeliness, a dramatic Bali  Hai dimensionality that took my breath away.  I thought it was the most  beautiful beach in the world.
    Seven years later, I’m still here, and I still think so.  I built a  kind of treehouse on one of those hills, just above a rocky cove.  If  your idea of heaven is standing on a high hill in the jungle, looking  out across the Pacific with a breeze and good surf and a year-round  water temperature of 82 degrees, you might find it agreeable here.  
    The weather is always warm and humid, in the range of 80 to 90  degrees, occasionally hotter, but generally there’s a breeze from the  sea.  Costa Rica has two seasons, rainy and dry.  Dry is the high  season, verano or “summer,” December to April, when tourists from the  U.S. and Europe come to broil themselves in the all-day tropical sun.   (A local term for a scorched tourist is langosta, or lobster.)  The rest  of the year is the rainy, or “green season,” as the hoteliers like to  call it.  Tourists are fewer, beaches emptier, prices lower.  Usually  the sun will shine hot all morning.  After midday the clouds stack up  over the inland mountains, and bring a gullywasher before sunset.  Five  inches of rain in one night is not uncommon, and the lightning storms  can be spectacular.  
    All this sunshine and rain and humidity makes for the astounding  diversity of life in a coastal-zone tropical rainforest.  On this land  bridge between the Americas, the variety is too rich to count.  Manuel  Antonio is famous for monkeys, which abound in three species: the mono  titi, or squirrel monkeys, the carablancas, or white-faced, and the  congo, or howlers.  The forest teems with coatimundis, three-toed  sloths, raccoons and opossums and armadillos, iguanas and lizards,  frogs, iridescent butterflies and some of the largest, strangest insects  in the world.  I’ve seen a firefly with high beams and low beams, and  beetles as big as my hand.  I have done battle with ants of every  description, among them the leaf-cutters that can strip a whole tree in  one day.  My yard is a stopping-place for toucans, hawks, macaws,  parakeets, pelicans, innumerable hummingbirds.  We have a bird that  makes a sound like an old-fashioned manual typewriter, complete with the  ching! of the bell.
    I have never ceased to be amazed by all this fecundity.  In March of  last year, I scraped some papaya seeds off a plate onto the ground.  By  June, the papaya tree that grew from the seed was five feet tall, and  in September I picked the first ripe fruit from that tree.  
    A hummingbird is nesting right now in the lime tree beyond my  kitchen window.  In a nest the size of a doll’s teacup she has laid two  minuscule eggs, perfect white lozenges.  This morning I glanced in the  nest, and saw one tiny egg and a brown thing the size of a bean, with  some prickly hairs on one side.  Leaning close, I saw its tiny heart  beating.  The world now has one more hummingbird.  On mornings like this  I feel lucky.
    In the years since I came here, I’ve explored other parts of Costa  Rica.  As Columbus observed, it is a rich coast, big for its size and  incredibly gifted by nature.  I’ve spent unforgettable days paddling  down whitewater rivers through mountain rainforest.  Riding a rickety  bus through endless banana plantations on the Atlantic slope.  Sitting,  steaming, in a natural volcanic spring while Mount Arenal spews lava  into the night sky.  Witnessing the miracle of two dozen newly-hatched  sea turtles making their first triumphal waddle down the sand to the  sea.  Dancing to electric reggae on the beach at Cahuita.  Watching the  fireworks marking the peaceful ascension of a new president in Central  America’s longest-lived democracy, where election day means a wild  party.  
    Slowly I am coming to know the Ticos, as the Costa Ricans call  themselves.  They are a beautiful, prideful, hard-working, warm,  slightly cryptic people, intensely proud of their country, friendly to  strangers but hard to know well.  Inherently peaceful, they seek to  avoid conflict and anxiety, a national trait expressed in the  all-purpose phrase for “good morning” or “terrific!” or “see you  later”:  Pura vida.  It means “pure life,” and is more a thing to be  wished for than a statement of present reality.  
    The philosophy of pura vida has served the Ticos well in leading  other Central American countries down the path of peace.  It also means  that everyone will cheerfully offer directions to where you’re going,  whether or not they have the slightest clue, and they’ll say anything to  keep from disappointing you.  Friends and I once sat in a restaurant  for thirty minutes, studying the menus we’d been graciously offered,  before the waiter worked up the nerve to tell us they were all out of  food.  
    Keep in mind that in Costa Rica, as in many Latin countries, mañana does not mean “tomorrow,” it just means “not today.”    
    The Tico approach to preserving their country’s natural wealth is an  impressive and fairly recent development.  In the days before ecology  mattered, many of the country’s virgin forests were clearcut, with  American encouragement, to make way for banana plantations and cattle  pasture.  On a bus through the breathtaking mountain passes of Braulio  Carrillo National Park, I noticed a sign that asked riders to please  maintain the cleanliness of the bus by throwing their trash out the  window.  And yet Costa Rica has done more to preserve its natural  heritage than any other developing nation, with very little outside  help.  The chain of national parks and reserves that grew in the 1960s  and 70s now covers twelve percent of the nation’s land mass, and is the  pride of the people, the heritage they will hand to their children.       I am hardly the first gringo to have discovered Costa Rica.  The first  wave of surfers and backpackers came in the 1960s, followed by retirees  in the 70s, ecotourists in the 80s, and now, in the 90s, a new species  of visitor:  the movie star.  Marlon Brando and Woody Harrelson spend  time here.  Ditto Michael Keaton, Charlie Sheen, Michael Douglas, and  Jimmy Buffett, all of whom breezed through Manuel Antonio recently.   Costa Rica seems to attract stars who like macho vacations:   sportfishing, sea kayaking, and whitewater rafting are the preferred  diversions.
    If you’d like to be join in, you’ll find yourself welcome.  Ticos  are famously hospitable, and kind to gringos with little Spanish.  It’s  easy to wander off the tourist track and make yourself at home.  You can  get lost on a beach, or in a cloud forest.  Don’t come expecting a  great deal of luxury; many first-time visitors think they’re coming to a  kind of Central American Hawaii with fancy cuisine, fine roads, lots of  swanky hotels.  If you're looking for great archeological ruins, stick  to Mexico or Guatemala.  If you don’t like rice and beans, if potholes  annoy you excessively, you won’t care for Costa Rica.  But if you’d like  to see what a beach looks like when it’s completely alive, you might  like it a lot.  
    P.S.  Just checked the nest.  Make that two hummingbirds.  Pura vida! 

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