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El Mercado
Yesterday morning, January 17th, we arrived in San Jose, Costa Rica

Yesterday morning, January 17th, we arrived in San Jose, Costa Rica. We have been here twice before, the last time in 1996. I like Costa Rica, and especially San Jose, the capital. Greater San Jose has more than one million people—by far Costa Rica’s largest. It is situated on a plateau about 4000 feet high that lies just above Panama and below Nicaragua. The country has beaches on both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans that are less than 150 miles apart, so from San Jose to the Pacific beach is it is only perhaps an hour’s drive, depending upon traffic, while it is probably twice that to the Atlantic shore. Except for the mountains there might have been a Costa Rica canal here instead of a Panama canal there.

Because the city is high it has great weather all year round, in the 70s usually, maybe the 80s in the middle of the day, but maybe not. In the winter—the northern winter—it is nearly always clear, warm and pleasant here. You get up and go out; the sun is up; the air is crisp and the day clear, and you think to yourself, without the slightest surprise: Oh, another nice day. Well, you can say this about a lot of small islands in the Caribbean too, but there, after a couple of weeks, there’s nothing to do; this is a whole country.

For most tourists the parts of Costa Rica outside the city are the best. Eco-tourism is now one of their largest sources of hard currency but, as I wrote, I like the city best. This year we noticed that San Jose seems to be more prosperous than the last time we were here. On that trip the most dominant feeling that I remember was a sense of pervading drabness and dinginess, of having disembarked from the airplane on the tarmac and from there being taken on a bus to a rather grimy terminal, and of exhaust fumes from rickety taxis way-long in the tooth. This time our airplane pulls up to a modern covered jet-way, we disembark into a shiny new terminal with acres of mirror-like marble, grand arches and, strangely for a land of salsa music, with Abba on the airport’s loudspeakers. In the men’s room urinals flush themselves as one walks away—an infallible sign of modernity—and faucets turn themselves on when you place your hands under them. Customs waives you on through with a friendly smile. Whereas last time, a bedlam of shouting taxi drivers competed to take you into town, this time they are politely queued in a civilized, first come, first serve line. Well yes, it is relatively easy to build a new airport terminal, so that may not tell much about the country as a whole, but it is not nothing.

Costa Rica is an interesting Latin American country in political ways as well: it is the oldest democracy in Latin America; it has a 96% literacy rate; in 1948 it dissolved its military and hasn’t had one since; capital punishment is banned; voting is compulsory; it has universal health care for everyone; life expectancy is 76, the highest in the western hemisphere, and that includes the US of A; there is a large middle class—although your middle is somewhere down around your knees since Costa Rica has a per capita GNP of about U$3,000. All of this is almost enough to give socialism a good name. There are two political parties that occasionally, and peacefully, replace each other in power. From a less statistical point of view one can simply observe that although there are some homeless on the street, there are certainly relatively fewer than in New York City. There are few or no Mercedes. There are few or no upscale shops. People are nicely-dressed, even stylish in an inexpensive and Latin sort of way. I can cite, as one measure of disposable income, the huge, wide-legged, completely dysfunctional pants worn low on the hips by teen-age boys, and the large, clunky shoes worn by boys and girls alike.


We pile into a cab to go into the city. There is a lot of traffic. Imagine the cars in a typical US city. Now age them ten years and beat them up a little. Subtract all the pickup trucks and 4 x 4s. Subtract most of the US-made cars so that what remains is predominantly Asian. Multiply them by three so that traffic is nicely jammed up and, finally, make every fourth car a cab. Now you’ve got a handle on the traffic in San Jose.

As to the countryside, the last two times we were here we took a week or so and went north in a van with a driver, almost to Nicaragua, to a place on the Pacific coast called Tamarindo, named after its Tamarind trees. On the trip there we got to see a lot of the vivid scenery. Most frightening were the high mountain vistas and narrow roads with only a thin, ineffectual-looking, living hedge of very small trees separating the road from perhaps a 1000 foot deep abyss. The driver had a crucifix more less permanently mounted on the dashboard and he made the sign of the cross before putting the auto into gear—really! From the way he then proceeded to drive he had obviously just made his confession and as a consequence didn’t seem nearly as worried as we were.  

After you get down from the mountains you come into lush, green forests with families of monkeys running in the trees, and large parrots flying around loose as though the door of a large pet store had been broken down by vandals and the animals set free.

In the village of Tamarindo itself there is an immense and largely undeveloped beach with people, dogs, and horses all taking the sun together, a sleepy little place filled with backpackers and windsurfers, many of whom just sleep on the beach in bedrolls or small tents. Dirt roads connect the beach to a few small hotels and restaurants.

The first time we came to Tamarindo, for reasons that escape me now, we stayed at a sort-of hotel named El Milagro (The Miracle). After first hearing, and then watching, two frighteningly large lizards copulating on the corrugated iron roof above our room, we then discovered a small but nasty looking scorpion sleeping with us in the bed. It certainly was a miracle that we stayed there the whole week. But we went back to Tamarindo again on our last trip and—having learned our lesson and loosened our purse—we stayed at a very nice Swiss-run resort hotel, the Captain Suizo, pushing right up there to about three stars. The ironic thing is that of the two trips we remember most vividly the first.

Another time when we were here in Costa Rica—I forget which—we stayed across the street from the large complex that is the Universidad de Costa Rica, in an elegant little boardinghouse that was run by one of the professors at the university (a little side money). Fellow boarders seemed to be from everywhere in the world.  Tricia took a class in Spanish at the university; I seem to have taken a class in bars, majoring in one of the local liquors, which unsurprisingly I can no longer remember the name of. We both learned considerable. One of the things I most remember of the university itself is what I think of simply as, The Bug Museum. This place is a permanent exhibit of the insects to be found in Costa Rica. I can reliably report that there are more, and different, bugs in Costa Rica per square kilometer than perhaps in any other place in the world. It was quite an amazing array, and I thought, as I strolled through the exhibit, that human beings certainly had luck with them when they first managed to achieve a foothold here in Costa Rica.


This trip we don’t plan to do very much, or to leave the city.  We’ll just stay a few days and then it will be on to our Latin American tour.  We are staying at the Gran Hotel de Costa Rica in San Jose. Certainly it once was grand. It is now merely very pleasant and a little tacky. Situated on one of the large squares in the central part of San Jose, the hotel has a delightful terrace where we eat breakfast with the sun shining, out in the open yet protected overhead if it should rain, a terrace which blends seamlessly with the acre or so of tiles that make up the square itself.  There was a fancy dining room inside the hotel, and it’s still there, but closed; people prefer the out of doors.  The square is always filled with people, and the hubbub in the early afternoon is noisy. There are venders selling hand carved wooden flutes, silver jewelry, leather this and that. There are shoe shiners. There are Indian-looking beggars. Also in the square is a stand of some 16 very ornate pay phones, often with people two or three-deep, standing on line, waiting to use them; many people don’t have phones at home. Having made this observation I should also say, contradictorily, that there seem to be as many cell phones here as in any city in the States.

While thinking of communications, and people not having phones in their homes, we notice once more that there are many internet “cafes”, around the city. People also don’t ordinarily have computers in their homes either. In three of these cafés that we visited to get our email, computers were crammed closely together in every nook and cranny of the place, and people were internetting away intently at nearly every machine. The charge is a dollar an hour most places. The café part of an internet cafe is minimal; at some you may have coffee and perhaps a sweet, at others, nothing. Mostly it is business-like, concentrated internet browsing and internet telephony which is a big thing south of the border where the government owns the phone system and through exorbitant pricing uses it as a cash cow.

Returning from the terrace of the Gran Hotel to the lobby, there is on the left a junior-variety casino with some blackjack tables and a small forest of electronic gaming machines. This establishment seems to operate 7/24s, and it is probably where most of the hotel’s money comes from. Passing through while going to breakfast at 7:30 one morning we noticed one blackjack table still in operation. It wasn’t clear whether these people were winding up the night or starting off the morning. The gallo pinto (GUY-o PEEN-toe, literally Painted Rooster), that is black beans and rice, that one of the patrons was eating from a plate on the green baize table didn’t resolve the question as this ubiquitous and hearty food—one of Tricia’s favorites—is eaten here in Costa Rica at breakfast or at any time of the day or night as a snack. The tuxedoed croupiers at the other tables stood at bored attention looking somewhat out of place as the sun flooded into what should ideally be a den illuminated only by artificial light.

Our room on the second floor of the hotel, like most of the rooms we have occupied in hotels in Latin America and Spain, is spare: minimal furniture, bright and airy and looking out over the square through a large window hazily draped in shears. King and queen-sized beds are rare in Latin America, single beds being the most common accommodation in hotels, but our room here has two “matrimonials”,  double beds, so-named I suppose because, being just barely large enough for two, the occupants must sleep blissfully close.

After only a few days, having now become somewhat acclimated to Latin America, our basic Spanish beginning to come back slightly, and our tolerance for a different way of approaching life resuscitated, we fly on to Lima, Peru.



Gran Hotel de Costa Rica

Gallo Pinto
Breakfast, Lunch or Dinner

Salsa Rumbera #13