In the spirit of my defunct site, “Odd Guides,” it is worth reiterating, that I do not write travel posts. So if you are looking for tantalising information about Costa Rica, there are many learned, enthusiastic writers out there who will tell you where to buy sloths, eat bugs and stare at sunsets. I am not one of them.
Travel has always been for me an opportunity to collect impressions. As such, I try my best to wander the world with an open mind for one never knows what is lurking around the next corner. The world is full of those corners – places where you can get lost, find your way and gain your mind. It is also full of terror, hardship and horror. Ultimately, I do not travel to seek out anything in particular – if the opportunity presents itself, I take what I can, but I have found travelling with a goal in mind can ultimately lead to disappointment. Realistic expectations are certainly wiser – if I want to scuba dive I am not going to go to Afghanistan on vacation. If I want to see orangutans I won’t go to Costa Rica.
Thankfully I did not want to see orangutans.
Unlike the soon-to-be sadly disappointed 20-something sitting on the bus from San Jose to Manuel Antonio, who stated, with little regard for vocal volume, that if her boyfriend ate an orangutan she would have his head. I am not sure why her boyfriend would eat an orangutan as I had missed that part of the conversation – he was playing chess on his phone and did not look particularly bloody-minded. Miss Loudly proceeded to show Mr Chess pictures of orangutans. She then told him, and everyone else on the bus, what orangutans eat, how cute they are when they are little, how sweet they are when they are all grown up, their overwhelming intelligence, amazing ears…And how, she couldn’t wait to see them in their NATURAL ENVIRONMENT in Manuel Antonio National Park. Mr Chess did not have the heart to tell her that orangutans live several thousand miles away on the other side of the world and over half of them have been killed off by man’s greed.
Unrealistic expectations indeed.
When you read travel sites about Costa Rica, one is left with the impression that wildlife saunters about city streets, that it drips from trees and flutters about, dimes, dozens etc…
San Jose is a city – it has people in it, and where ever there are people, there can be a surprising lack of wildlife. Our hotel had an oasis garden so our breakfast was graced with the presence of astonishingly large squirrels and beautiful birds, humming and otherwise. As a city, there is not much redeeming about San Jose. There are plenty of places to shop for cheap Chinese plastic imports of the garish variety, an interesting central market which keeps kittens in cages and sells amazing herbs. It has all the usual baubles of a city – butchers, bakers, banks. Surprisingly there were no tourists wandering about like us. We saw tourists in buses, and tourists in cars but none on the streets. I guess they actually read the guidebook that said there is no point walking around San Jose.
I beg to differ. Local markets tell you much about a country, look at the price of milk, not the cost of souvenirs; check how much bread will set you back. And I learned in Costa Rica that prices are wishful for the most part. In a small store, milk was realistic, hit the tourist track and it was suddenly more than in Switzerland. Since I doubt average Costa Ricans have Swiss salaries and I don’t appreciate being screwed, I chose to shop elsewhere. There are two economies in Costa Rica – their own colones-based system and the American dollar. Of course, everyone wants the greenbacks even though Costa Rican money is infinitely prettier, it has wildlife on the bills.
The dollar is widely accepted, in fact, everyone and their uncle wants dollars. But here is the clue – paying with the dollar might seem cheap because it is “less than in the States” but no one seems to ask what would they pay in colones? Americans appear to be so enamoured with their own currency and far too lazy to change money, they prefer paying USD prices in a country where in fact they could pay less if they had the gumption to actually pay in colones.
A litre of milk costs around 840 colones in a regular store – in a tourist shop it went as high as 1500.- Since it already costs nearly the same as in Switzerland (675 colones is 1 Swiss franc and milk in my local store is CHF 1.90) paying double because my wallet is supposedly full, is galling.
In fact, where money is concerned, Costa Rica is eye-watering. For those of you who have stacks of cash then Costa Rica is the perfect destination. For those of us who saved up for a vacation, we are a little more discerning as to how we spend our money. Many things Costa Rica offered were simply out of our budget.
The question is, did we miss anything?
I don’t think we did.
We didn’t zipline through the tree tops – I am sure it is a lovely experience for those who enjoy screaming in the wilderness. We didn’t hop through the cloud forest on hanging bridges – the last place we stayed in happened to have the forest just outside our front door and the clouds rolled over and through the trees for free. We did do 1 tour – to a volcano and to a waterfall with a quick dip in a hot spring. And we went to 1 national park. In the park, we saw a snake, a sloth, a frog, a few monkeys and plenty of people who think if you yell loud enough the animals will miraculously appear. There were 2 nice beaches in the park itself which were lovely and the water was warm.
At the waterfall, where I gave in to the tourist in me and took a dip in the water, we were regaled by the sight of human animals in their current environment. Humans have grown a new appendage it seems, the one that is glued to their hand and forces them to make funny faces and take pictures of their bottoms. I would have liked to enjoy the waterfall, perhaps contemplate a poem or so, allow the glory of the beautiful water sink into my soul. Instead it was all,
“OH MY GAWD!!! PAUL TAKE A PICTURE OF MEEEE!” and “CHARLENE, TAKE OFF YOUR SUNGLASSES, PUT YOUR HAIR OVER YOUR LEFT SHOULDER; NO TO YOUR RIGHT; WAIT; TURN AROUND; LIKE YOU KNOW; KIM KARDASHIAN!!!” And of course Ms Selfie professional was there, in a neon green Borat bathing suit and fake eyelashes, taking pictures of her bum. Her boyfriend, following his steroid breakfast, looked too stoned to drool. The waterfall may as not have been there. Replace it with a green screen, dump the whole thing in the parking lot and let everyone just choose their own backgrounds since no one really seemed to care whether it was there or not. Natural wonders, bah humbug. They are all going to photoshop their pictures anyway.
We did see white-faced capuchins. The ones in the park were doing their best to get away while the ones outside the park were looking for dinner. Cheeky monkeys, clambering through trees, hopping into a makeshift bath by the side of the road, nicking fruit and generally just being monkeys. Two of them deigned to pose for a moment but soon started baring their teeth and shaking branches at the cameras – we all moved back and the monkeys went off to their own business. It was as close to the capuchins as we would get on the trip, but a blessed hour indeed.
Our hotel was within earshot of howler monkeys – although we never saw them, getting up at dawn to listen to their chorus in the early morning stillness is memorable. I am glad I did not see them and we didn’t go looking. Nature is supposed to be out there, away from us. I heard them and that is enough.
We were beset by little squirrel monkeys one morning, and in the evening by the raucous cries of mandibles. Once I saw two macaws flying in perfect synchronicity through the dusk sky. The incessant drone of cicadas made the jungle suddenly seem all encompassing, nature’s voice in a million insects.
The one local bus trip we did do before we gave up on that idea took us from San Jose to Manuel Antonio. On the way, I saw the Pacific Ocean in glimpses, the first time I have seen any body of water that isn’t a river or a lake in four years. It moved me to a few tears of joy, not because I missed the ocean so much but because it made me realise it still exists. Grand, raging water, fearsome and majestic. After being forced to be away from the sea for so long, I had almost imagined I had never seen it at all and my mind had just made it all up.
Yet there it was. Sand between my toes, salt in my hair and sunburn on my skin. It didn’t matter. The ocean is bigger than all of us put together, it holds our past, waves to our present and brings our future. And long after we are gone, the waves will be crashing on those shores, never remembering any of us. It is the glory of nature – we are but a little pin in the scale of things, ultimately only we think we matter.
Costa Rica is not what it seems.
They have Nature but they have a thousand ways of spoiling it, primed and ready.
I could not speak to the people as my Spanish is limited to Cerveza. Ignorant, I know, but I have never had to learn Spanish – my stomping ground until now, has always been Asia. If anyone spoke English in Costa Rica, they were very good at not letting on. Some who did were not keen on talking, coming up over and over again with the same lines until it didn’t seem any point asking anything. Everyone wanted to sell the Costa Rican dream, the one you see on travel programmes. The adventures, the animals and the jungles. They were quick to point out how progressive Costa Rica is in conservation but only one person admitted that planting soya and palm oil trees were ultimately poor choices that would eventually bite the country in an uncomfortable place. Don’t believe the hype. There is no such thing as truly sustainable palm oil. One day, dear readers, I will write a long and terrible article about palm oil. For now, even in Costa Rica, where the “big thing” is the environment, it leads to not just deforestation and the consequential loss of homes for wildlife and to perfectly slave-like working conditions for the pickers. This is hypocrisy at work – and no, I did not go on the “tour the palm oil plantation” offered by some companies. I am the wrong person for that kind of tourism. For those of you who want to know more now, check out:
https://youmatter.world/en/is-palm-oil-bad-for-the-planet-can-palm-oil-be-sustainable/ and if you haven’t dropped your Oreos in disgust yet, go ahead and read – https://www.greenpeace.org/aotearoa/story/5-problems-with-sustainable-palm-oil/
In Costa Rica, everything seems to cooked, baked and fried in palm oil. With the liberal doses of msg or ajinomoto which is readily available in stores, I could not help being a little turned off by the food. Maybe that is the European in me.
Now of course, no one in their right mind will diss their country to a foreigner. Yet, I came away with the distinct impression I was supposed to buy into the idea of the perfect dream country, where, as they state on billboards at the airport “mothers never have to worry about their sons going to war as Costa Rica has no army, that is true freedom.” Somehow so much of the country came off as surreal. Everyone doing their damnest to convince you this is paradise there is unfortunately an impression they are trying a little too hard. I can’t put my finger on it. Two weeks is too short to dissect a country and I went there with the prime objective of relaxing. Yet I somehow wish I had seen a bit more of the bones and less of the meat.
What is real in Costa Rica is the true beauty of Mother Nature.
And nothing is complete without one perfect sunset.
I will never return to Costa Rica – but I will cherish the memories.