Sunday, February 11, 2018

Costa Rican Impressions

I had long been wanting to go to Costa Rica to visit. Most of the people I have known who have gone there have raved about the experience, so I my expectations were high.

Now, I may have selected the wrong location in Costa Rica to visit; the beach town of Tamarindo, though my wife and I also booked some tours that took us away from there, and it was a fair drive from the airport in Liberia, so our impressions might be indicative more of the Guanacaste region than the whole country - but I was somewhat disappointed with my trip, and probably will not ever return.

YMMV

The Good

The Costa Rican people, or Ticos, were extremely friendly and helpful wherever we went. We had no negative interactions with any of them, really.

The food was very good; we never had a bad meal. For the most part, the selections made great use of fresh local produce and fruits, and at least allegedly, of locally caught seafood, though we saw no evidence of a fishing port or productive fishermen nearby, so for all we know it could have been frozen elsewhere and shipped to Tamarindo.

Our favorite place to eat was the NOI Bistro, which had fantastic ceviche. The Flying Bull was delicious, but upscale in ambience and price. The Shrimp Hole was very good and far more casual. The Green Papaya was fun. La Esquina had awesome pizza and a play area for kids. The Breakfast Grind was good, with tasty breakfasts and machaca burros and quesadillas and the cleanest restroom in town.

Speaking of fruit, we feasted every morning on fresh papaya, avocados, pineapple, a variety of bananas, melons and mango. The avocados were perfectly ripe - the entire bin at the store, not merely one or two out of dozens - and of "jumbo" size, creamy texture and smooth rich flavor.

The fresh squeezed orange juice offered in many local restaurants was wonderful, and the "lemonade" made from fresh squeezed limes and cane sugar was like nothing I'd ever tried before. The same concoction, spiked with the local casique liquor and with a splash of club soda, was called a Guaro Sour, and was very good, too.

We also encountered a Golden Sangria drink at the Night Market on Thursday which was spectacular.

The apartment where we stayed was clean, quiet, comfortable and well-equipped.

WIFI was everywhere, in every restaurant or bar where we spent time, and usually of sufficient bandwidth

The weather was absolutely perfect, sunny and warm. The only downside was a near constant gusty wind. On the flip side, the humidity made us shower several times daily, especially after walking back from the downtown/beach area to our apartment.

Although I had stocked up on insect repellent wipes, we didn't have any major issues with mosquitos. The only pests that got to us were some fleas that either made the jump from the horses we rode, a stray cat stropping our legs, or some tall grasses on a path we walked to our apartment.

Excursion highlights - ziplining, watersliding, "contrabando" moonshine made from sugar cane, sunset on the catamaran, coffee made in a sock, "dinosaurs" in Filadelfia.

The Bad

I had always heard that the cost of living in Costa Rica was very low, but this simply wasn't true for groceries, even locally grown produce and fruits. In Tamarindo at least, without renting a car for transportation there was no way to get to a larger supermarket than the handful of mini mercados that seemed to service the tourists. The most egregious price-gouging was for a tube of sunscreen, which was sold for a minimum of $20 US, and on up from there. Other than that, most prices seemed comparable to stateside, and the shelves were filled with U.S. products for the tourists.

Personally, we enjoy "going native" at the local stores, on our travels, and that seemed a little more difficult to do than in other locales. The only farmers markets were on Saturday mornings, aside from the "Night Market" mentioned elsewhere in these impressions, so we never got the chance to shop small, really.

The rest of the souvenirs and goods available around town seemed to be either made in India or China, and we never really found much that we could be certain was made in Costa Rica by Ticos or indigenes, apart from some cool pottery we saw on one of our tours.

The "street" vendors were ubiquitous and annoying. Every five minutes, if you were sitting on the beach, someone would walk up to you and try to sell you something - usually the same something they had tried to sell you just a little while ago. The goods ranged from knockoff "native" pottery to sunglasses, whistles, jewelry and "coco pipo" (coconut with a straw to sip the milk), to weed, blow and "I can get you anything you want". So much for peace and quiet on a tropical beach. You couldn't walk anywhere without someone trying to get you to ride in their taxi, join their excursion, buy something they barbecued, etc. This started the moment we left Customs at the airport.

Costa Rica is one of the richer nations in Central America, but poverty is all over, the streets are often unpaved or in poor repair, there are no shoulders to the roads, and certainly no sidewalks. Trash is scattered everywhere and no one seems to care enough to stoop and pick it up, despite all the ECO propaganda in the country.

We weren't the only ones to report that many of the toilets in even the best locations were not able to handle flushing toilet paper, but required that used paper be placed in a wastebasket. This is a shocker to most Americans. Also, we were totally unable to find any public restrooms (outside of bars and restaurants) or changing rooms near or on the beach.

The Curious

While Costa Rica is also touted as being a wonderful place for wildlife viewing, I didn't find it particularly productive in that regard. We booked a "river safari" in the Palo Verde National Park and wildlife refuge. The boat never went more than about 200 yards either up or down the Tempisque River in the refuge, and while we saw a few creatures new to us, like capuchin "white faced" monkeys, several species of heron, a pygmy kingfisher, a scarlet macaw, some bats, and a few skittish crocodiles, the "volume", so to speak, was far far less than I had expected. The guides were very pleasant and helpful, but quite frankly I see far more wildlife from my balcony at home most days. On our other excursion, we saw a few toucans and a parrot. I had really been expecting a ton more wildlife, but perhaps that's only available in other areas of the country.

The largest iguanas I have ever seen were not found in the wild, but in a public park in the village of Filadelfia. Most of them were over six feet long, fat and happy. I was given to understand that they feast on the leftover fruit from the outdoor markets, and are the unofficial mascots of the area.

Costa Rica has its own problem with illegal immigrants from Nicaragua, who "do the jobs Ticos won't do". Unemployment there is said to be near 40%. I felt sorry for our Nicaraguan gardener at the apartment, until it became obvious that he was attempting to scam us out of cash with his stories.

Liberia's International airport is about half the size of Boise's airport, and seems to handle a ton of traffic.

We were hard pressed to find any authentic Central American music. Everywhere we went, American Top 40 music from the 60s through 80s was blaring.

P.S. Blogger is misbehaving. If you want to see some of our photos, just check my facebook page.

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