HOLIDAY IN COSTA RICA By Tim Williams (Article)


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March 17, 2006







Tim and Gloria Williams


We did not know Costa Rica, but having bought three guide books five years ago, we felt obliged to spend several thousands now to make use of them - a classic case, perhaps, of “penny-wise, pound foolish”. What follows is a first-blush account, subjective but unvarnished, of the resulting three weeks in the Flamingo Beach area of the north-western province of Guanacaste. The time was January 21 to February 11, 2006.

Three weeks away from Ottawa’s ice, snow and slippery driveways was in itself a blessing. That said, this first experience of Costa Rica revealed good and bad sides. The first good point was the friendly local population in this particular locality, as yet largely unspoiled by excessive tourism. Locals - some of them legal or illegal Nicaraguan workers - still exchange greetings with the visitor while walking by on the beach or road. If you take elementary precautions, security around Flamingo Beach - located about an hour and a half from the Liberia airport - is relatively good by general Latin American standards.

The name “Flamingo”, the site of a yacht harbour, denotes both the particular small Flamingo Beach itself, one of the whitest and best, and the surrounding location that includes several nearby beaches. The area is pretty, encompassing many hills with excellent views, several white-sand beaches (Flamingo, Conchal, Azucar and Penca) and promontories and islands that add visual variety. We stayed at a small Canadian-run apartment complex whose high standards ensured twice-daily watering of the Bougainvillea and palm trees and other beautifully tended vegetation - a veritable Garden of Eden including an adequately-sized swimming clean swimming pool. By comparison, though, a good many of the other hotels and apartment complexes we observed from the road looked somewhat less well tended and entering their second generational stage. Nonetheless they too offered easy access to the beaches and the same spectacular views of nature and the fabulous sunsets.

While we were largely ignorant of Costa Rica’s broader history and current politics, the good side of the ledger should mention the admirably democratic politics. National presidential and legislative elections held during our holiday resulted in a lively debate and a near-draw result as between Oscar Arias and Otton Solis. Issues under discussion included corruption, the proposed free-trade agreement with the United States and the need for stronger national action on infrastructure, social welfare and the poor, whose number was given as over twenty per cent. After a run-off vote, Arias, the former president and Nobel Peace Prize winner, won and became President again after the requisite hiatus.

The state of the roads in Guanacaste - with the exception of the Pan - American Highway - is scandalous. Potholes and washboard surfaces make rental of SUV’s the preferred option but they are expensive ($1,118 for two weeks). Yearly inflation has been running at 15%. Other more negative sides include the unkempt, down-at-heal facilities that we encountered an hour down the coast at Tamarindo, a popular resort now gone a little to seed in some parts. In this area of Costa Rica there is a veritable real estate boom. The local English-language magazines , though financed by ads paid for by real estate and service companies, were full of denunciations of the many problems - bad water management and sewage, uncertain real estate rights and poor public administration in general. Contradicting this to some extent were the stories and ads depicting increasing foreign interest in new hotels, apartments and condos and private home sales. A closer reading suggested a lot of hype, promises that might or might not be kept and the many pitfalls represented by over-exploited aquifers and inadequate application of theoretically beneficial regulations. A lot of initiative is taken by local community associations, heavily foreign-dominated, often in a sensible way. Where is it all heading? Is the beauty, cleanliness and tranquillity sustainable?

On a lesser note, gourmets should probably not expect to find satisfaction in these parts. Several restaurants - Lola’s on the lovely Playa Avellanas or, reportedly, the Red Snapper on Playa Brasilito - are excellent, thanks to American management. Marie’s at Playa Flamingo is good and reasonably priced. Otherwise local food often seemed mediocre, repetitive and often not cheap. We often cooked ourselves, making daily trips to small nearby grocery stores in search of the rather poor selection of vegetables and looking out for limited selection of meat and the comparatively inexpensive and good fish.

Outings are a desirable complement to a beach stay in Costa Rica. We took only two and both were disappointing in some respects. The first took us to the jungle uplands in between two volcanic peaks and close to national parkland. The temperature on the coast had reached 38 centigrade, producing dust clouds on the roads, under continually sunny skies. It was a heavenly contrast to run into a tropical downpour in the jungle lodge, though it confined us initially to our quarters. At La Carolina Lodge these consisted of an immaculate and roomy hut amongst well-groomed grounds and tropical vegetation besides a rapid-running river in whose clear water we bathed agreeably. The total change was welcome. As usual, instant solidarity prevailed amongst the nine other foreign guests at a communal lunch table. Everyone proffered their experiences and analyses in several languages, in this case over meals of fish, soup, mutton, beans and rice and several varieties of vegetables. The culinary result was not great, but the bonhomie and the warmth of the service compensated for that. And that particular lodge was unusually inexpensive - only about $55 per person (everything U.S.) including food.

The novelty offered was advertized as offering sightings of some of the fabulous array of wildlife depicted in the tourist brochures. They were shy. Had they disappeared because of human intrusion? Guanacaste is, after all, very much a cattle rearing province, which presupposed deforestation and clearing of much of the original forest cover. Was the rarety of animal and bird life due to that clearing? At all events we bestrode our tame horses and ambled through mounds of manure over pasture land and down perilous-looking gullies. We then dismounted and picked our way through mud along a path beside the substantial river, looking for birds and insects. Our one find consisted of two kinds of frogs, a small red one said to be poisonous and an inoffensive brown one. Birds did not oblige us close up but continued references to disappearing ones on the horizon kept us busy craning our necks. A notable exception had to be the two genuinely beautiful, long-beaked toucans, as magnificent in their reds and yellows as any come-on pictures in the brochures.

So what had the upshot been? A total change in atmosphere as a relief from the coastal heat, the sight of a beautiful jungle dwelling, a degree of new knowledge about habitats and micro-climates - but the animals in the pictures remained largely over the horizon. It was well worth the inexpensive price in this case and we were glad we went, but the question has to be asked: Is the fabled ecological environment in fact being preserved? Do the Costa Ricans realize how little is sometimes offered compared to what is advertised? Perhaps, though, there is more elsewhere. We had seen only a tiny corner of the country.

The other outing - at a cost of $35 U.S. a person - was a three-hour snorkeling trip up the coast and to some neighbouring islands. Beautiful fish were not/not plentiful but again the outing itself was agreeably different and the trip around the islands and the different views were a change.

How sum it up? Flamingo Beach in Guanacaste offered a pleasant three week escape. With a two-week SUV rental, it set us back about $5,500 Canadian - as much as we used to pay for one week at a good Caribbean resort during the March school break. What was pleasant was the heat, spectacular views and pretty surroundings, the warm local welcome and acceptable security and the opportunity to use some Spanish again. Take plenty of gripping books with you because the heat will confine you to your quarters part of the day!

We have booked another two weeks next Christmas.

P.S. A batch of our photographs could be shown to Justottawa friends if they are interested.

Tim Williams

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