Posts Tagged ‘Costa Rica’

Central Squares

Again this is an entry that i started some time ago, the time when i devoted part of the day to writing. I yearned for a central park when i was in the tourist towns of manual antonio, monteverde and montuzuma, and now i have been around them but i do not linger. I hung around the various squares in San Jose, but never stayed long, watching people, children playing, families gathering, people listening to music, and a few tourists taking photos – myself included.

I came to Granada, as a colonial town, one with a restored parque central dominated by the huge yellow cathedral off to one side. Yet i do not linger there – it is dominated by the locals, who have claimed all the shady benches, and i do not feel right sitting there alone – the tourist blocks the run towards the lake, with the outside tables at the restaurants seem the place for that. There are vendors selling hotdogs, cigarettes and drinks, souvenirs, and snacks, and two shady stands set up with tables in the corners to buy coffee or icecream. As many times as i walk through it, i do not stay, it is not a place for me to people watch and i am disappointed.

But i do not know why – i had the same feeling in many of the squares in Mexico, those that i idealized and yearned for – some were ok for a woman, a gringa, alone, and others were fine when i wsa with someone else, but others were for the locals, the place where they can relax and live their lives.

But still, they provide a centre, a place that you can come back to, a public place with trees, as many of the homes and buildings are built straight on the sidewalk, the leafy gardens hidden away in the courtyards. And for those who have, that is the private place for retreat.

And around this square, here in granada, are some restos and bars where you can sit outside and watch all go by. And the traffic around it is sane – actually the traffic on the narrow one way streets in general is same. Another smaller square abuts this, and the pedestrian street is off beside the cathedral. Yet where the action and chaos is is the market place.

I was in one more town, Liberia, in costa rica, not a tourist town, with a central square, not leafy and green, only a bit of shade. i sat there briefly consulting my guide, it was a place to sit. Crossing into it was a challenge, as traffic whizzed by on all the sides, A smaller church at one end of course, and restos around. Yet, it provided an anchor to the place, the middle of the commercial zone, and a few paused here to sit a while – maybe it was the lack of shade, but was not a place where children played.

Initial entry

Ososi where i stay is a wonderful small town, but i have felt that something was missing, but it was a something that i could not define. But now i know what it is – it is the parque central or central square that forms the centre of most cities and towns that i have been in in this land.
The square is an essential feature of the towns, it is their hearts, the core, though the city or town may have spread far beyond, and other parks and squares may have been built as well. But the centre is the centre it is the heart. And where one should be in Orosi lies the soccar field, also an essential component of Costa rican towns, but it is not a place to gather.
The parque central is the heart, it is a relief from the craziness outside, a place to rest and reflect, and a place to gather, for people alone, for children to play, friends and lovers. It is the place in the centre of the maps ‘ a defining place from which you can explore, if you can find your way back you know how to go out in another direction.
They are often leafy, with trees and benches below. You can sit and watch the world go by. And while there are similarities each has its own flavor.

I fell in love with them on my trip to mexico a few years back – the zocallo they were callled, and they were full of life – often a church on one end, and in colonial towns historic buildings surrounded, and cafes were laid out upon the endges. Here there are no cafes in the towns where i have been, a fast food chain somewhere on the perimeter in the larger places, but still. And while the village green is a part of old new england towns, and i spent time in the squares in new york they are not as ingrained part of the culture, and i wonder if they still are here.

In Alueja it was the place to where i returned over and over again, trees, benches, music and later in the week vendors as well. On the peremiter are banks, a few stores, a heladeria )ice cream places and people line up at the special counter at McDonalds for icecream. on the edge is a church.

In Cartago the center square has few trees, but it is large. It sits beside las ruinas, the remains of an old church that had been rebuilt too many times and now is an open structure with gardens within. It is near the market, the local buses stop on one edge and the other bus companies stop within a few blocks. There are panderias near by, and banks, and stores, the centre of the shopping district. Traffic whizzes by, but on one end are the ever too rare traffic lights to you may easily cross the street. While not as removed, it is an oasis, and when you find your way there, directions finally make sense.

I spent but a few moments at the square in Hereida that one day i was there, but dogs lounged and children played, people ate lunch and there was more life than in the fancier gardens that belongs to the church that sat on its edge.

My favorite so far has been the square in Turrialba though it held less human life, and it was mainly men who sat about. Still it has many trees, and wooden sculptures of monkeys and other animals, a new gazebo, and like the town, they are trying to bring life to it. It sits across the street from a newer church, and signs inside announce the free wifi available in the town. I feel life coming back, the town was poorer at the edges, and from above it sprawled out a bit more – the shop streets led out from the park and some sodas and restos surrounded it – the traffic was less crazy as they had built a new bus station up the hill a few blocks away a few years ago.


What i long for is a square to sit and reflect, to write and relax and people watch. My morning in New York at Bryant Square was one of those moments – i could be there, sit and write. What will i find as i journey on – i do not know, but i will find out.

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I started this entry a week and a half ago. I have changed countries and the unease continues – i limit myself, stick to the centre and the tourist places, limit myself and my journeys. I stick out, solo gringa, for all  to see – and while i am a poor gringa i am a rich nica, and i see eyes of resentment upon me. I fear, and that limits me and consumes me, i create a shell around myself, a small world, and am hesitant in all. This is what i wrote in Costa Rica and i have experienced it since, in a sleepless night in Montuzuma, in walking a few empty streets in Liberia with all my stuff, and here in Granada, as i leave the tourist zone and i dont like feeling this way – for i limit my boundaries, and do not reach out. Try to plan a trip so i do not need to cross Managua at all, for all one hears about is crime, and maybe even taxis are not to be trusted. People are friendly, and it is not healthy to approach others with distrust, it eats away at the soul. I do not venture out, sit in courtyards, in restos in the interior safe spaces. There was a brief break from this feeling in the national parks in costa rica, especially in Monteverde, where i got over this fear when on the trails alone, and could commune with something larger. And i long for the places where i used to camp alone, walk down the two lane highway, beaches, or trails by myself, and explore the corners of the towns. The places where i would feel sure and confident – even though that would be an illusion and others would sometimes ask are you not afraid. And the answer was generally, not really, maybe a bit but it feels fine. Here i fear, and how much is real and how much is me – like in Alaska where i did not hike much because of my fear of the bears, and looked behind my back.

When fear increased in the US after 911 i used to poo-poo it, and much of that fear that was put forth was a scare tactic – and how much of what i hear here is, and how much is real caution. But what is real is the way it eats at you, and changes you. It is not a definite fear, it gnaws at you slowly not one large bite, away of your surroundings. If nothing else i understand this feeling that others have had, i feel it. But i do not know how to move beyond it. And yes, i have this feeling in other areas of my life – the anxiety about belonging, trying new things, being accepted, and maybe some of that that i had slowly moved beyond, i thought, has come back in another way, to remind me. Yes, i have moved beyond my comfort zone – can i make this it, or do i run back to the zone that is familiar and comfortable. will it ever be here?

Well here is the entry that i wrote

I tossed and turned last night, unable to sleep, thinking about this place and moving on – about travel and safety. About safety and security and fear. And here i feel unsure, i watch myself, my belongings, i do not walk after dark. I have felt this fear in myself and in others and i do not like it. Where i am now is safe, or safer, a tourist enclave, but still signs everywhere not to leave your belongings unattended.
Yesterday i met a guy who had been mugged his third day in quepos, the owner of the hostel where i stayed in san jose – a native tican (though blatantly gay) had been mugged the night before i got there – and the muggings were not just give me your money – but violent – the first had 7 stitches in his foot, and the latter had bruised ribs. Both were alone at night coming home from bars but still. I miss the safety of my native lands, of being free to come and go as i please, to poo-poo the fear that others have, to camp alone and walk alone and hike alone.
And here the road to the beach twists and turns, narrow with no shoulder, and is unsafe to walk, not out of human danger during the day, but with cars, i walked on monday when the park was closed and the traffic light, but it is crazy. Not like the roads in orosi, also narrow, but with less traffic and mainly local and accustomed to locals walking on the side of the road.
And here places are not barred and gated. Yet it seems like a bit of an illusion. Maybe it was my first arrival in the country coming into Alujeala after 10pm, when all was shut, metal sliding grates like in New york cover all the shops, bars on windows and compounds. It was quiet, too quiet.
And there is talk of crime everywhere – some of it country vs city folk, in orosi and environs, actually everywhere, talk of crime in the capital, the tican on the bus warning about crime in Jaco – the drugs, prostitutes, and gangs, the beach in quepos apparently filled with crackheads – much like in america, but so often i have felt safe, now i feel the unease.
And costa rica has been a safe country, not the history of wars in places that surround, and maybe that is what it is, building compounds and walls, abolished the army in 48, no wars. the water is safe to drink.
but this fear, is this what it is like so many places, i move beyond it, it is random. but i have rarely felt it before.
and is that why people grasp for safety.

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I crossed the border yesterday, traveling from Costa Rica to Nicaragua at penas blancas by public bus. I wanted to beat the holiday rush, but did not quite make it, the international buses were sold out with Nicas returning home for the holidays in droves, so many working in their neighbour to the south. Yet the crossing was both simpler and more chaotic than i imagined.

I made it though the confusion – sort of, and now i am wondering what the rush was and why i am here. There is something about a border, a line drawn between two nations that is symbolic as well as real. It is about a crossing over a line, a zone, a movement along, and within yourself – a breaking down of the borders within us. Something that holds us back and urges us to go forward, something that makes us wonder what is on the other side.

And the border here is not like those i have encountered in North America – well organised and official – not like central american bus terminals it is chaotic and confusing. Thankfully in the first line i met two other women who had been traveling alone (they met each other on a 430 am bus) and we went through together.

I had gone from Puntarenas to Liberia by bus the previous day to ensure that i would have an early start. Checked out the departures the day before from Liberia – about 1 1/2 hours to the south, and am glad i did, as they did not depart from the terminal listed in the guidebook – but then again very little in Liberia was where it was in the book. It was an open terminal, the one where i arrived, out on the edge of town (a five minute walk but worlds away with emptier streets near the pan-american highway), and i the only gringo there. I was first walked the block and a half to the other station where the guide book said the international buses departed to see if on the off chance i could procure a ticket – the window was closed and the station was empty except for three americans onthe way to the beach and some shipping workers. A man told to go to the hotel guanacaste (where i had thought of staying) 2 blocks away – went – no tickets and the woman was busy, so i went to another hotel and then back to the first station without my backpack. I asked (or tried to) the driver on the penas blancas bus that was in the station what the schedule was and if you needed to buy tickets in advance. Thankfully, the guy with the bullhorn calling passengers forth to the different buses, spoke english and gave me the info – no you pay the driver, and hourly beginning at 5am. I decided to aim for the 7am the next day.

The city was nearly empty in the morning – so i took a cab to the station – at 1.50 it was nearly as expensive as the bus for the 1.5 hour, 43km ride to the border. I grab a coffee and a bakery goodie and a big bottle of water for the trip. I am the only gringo in the station, the bus seems full of Nicas who are going home. I have a window seat, and nobody wants to sit beside me – it is the last seat taken on the bus which has several standing. The guy with the bullhorn gets on and announces a change in schedule for the holidays beginning the next morning. Off we go, making frequent stops on the road. In Santa Cruz- the closest town to the border, 2 blond girls with backpacks get on, but i do not speak to them as they head to the back of the bus – but at least i am not alone.

We drive for a bit, and the land gets a bit lusher, and then it comes, a line of trucks parked on the one side of the two lane road (yes, the is the panamerican highway) waiting to cross the border. We drive past the trucks on the other side of the road, sharing a single lane with cars and trucks coming in the other direction – it is tight – but it works for a while. After a kilometer or 2 there is a snag, we need to merge into the endless line of trucks. The guy with the big red cab behind us, does not want to let the bus in, had a loudspeaker and makes comments. We sit and sit, people get up to look out the window to see what it is all about, a truck up ahead coming the other way cant get through, is it stalled- after what seems like ages it finally squeezes by us, with several vehicles on its trail, we move on – a few vendors go up and down with carts selling food and drink, and the truck drivers stand outside chatting. In the 3 or 4 kilometers to the border we pull into the line of trucks 2 more times. Finally the bus stops and we get out. It is a dirt parking lot, and a see a simple locket hut with a bathroom sign. Step off the crowded bus, grab my bag from underneath, and then the money changers arrive and those who want to sell you the forms that are free. No,no,no – it is choas, i see a line of people, more buses pull in behind us, and i run tothe line to get the exit stamp from costa rica.

There are 2 gringa women ahead of me – we begin to chat – and go through the process together. They had met at 430 am at a bus stop, and had just got off the bus that pulled in behind me. We join the crush, one man is there directing it, it moves ok, 20 people allowed in the building at once – money changers keep coming up to us – heard that it ws better on the nica side of the border which it was – finally we get let in – put your packs outside the 2nd door, we hesitate – all we have been told about not leaving baggage unattended and not an official telling us we must – are 2 lines, one for entry stamps and one for exit stamps, all in the same room. We get stamped and wonder where to go.

It is about a 5-10 minute walk down a dirt road with cars parked on the side until we get to the nica side – just keep walking on, a few officials, and some guys with carts helping a few with their luggage. A few sodas by the side. A metal fence, a narrower walk, show our passports with the exit stamp, and then look around – no building in sight – only trucks – someone points across the parking lot, we cut through the parked trucks and then i spot a bigger building with buses parked nearby. That must be it.

More money changers though were are in nica now. And people trying to sell us the forms and offer a pen. I see a sign that says buses and passengers (in spanish) so we go around. Offers for cabs and buses abound, talk, talk, talk at you. The german women who has the best spanish gets us the forms. A woman is at the window sorting through a pile of documents – she has been there for a while. Another around the side opens up, the official waves us over – there is no one directing the people traffic. In fact you could easily bypass this building all together – and with the short cue i am sure that some have.

I go over first – it takes a few minutes – i ask for 90 days. I wait, he pauses on the computer, stamps my passport, takes my 7 USD and gives me two forms. I check the stamp in my passport, it says 90. it is only once i get to granada that i realize the tourist card is for 30 only – need to re figure my plans. The other two women finish, one wants to take one of the NICA international buses that now has room – she is going all the way to Managua, i to granada and the other women only to Rivas. I desperately need to pee – i go looking for a bathroom – find the nica tourist office and how to get to granada by public bus – over behind the blue wall they say. I go back to say goodbye – to you want to get on it is ready to leave – this bus takes the passport number, and i pay 10 rather than the 2, but it is spacious and air conditioned (and not a school bus) and direct. I make it to Granada before 1pm.

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Puntarenas is a strange town – described as a faded port city that most tourists just pass through on the way to somewhere else. It is a low-lying spit jutting out into the bay, about 8km long but only about 500 metres wide, just above the level of the water.

And i passed through twice to make bus and ferry connections and then decided to stay a night on my last pass through. It is gritty and run down in many ways, crumbling shells of buildings on the way in and out and in the town centre, but with a charm. The Paseo de los Turistas by the beautiful but unswimmable beach, where cruise ships dock was more interesting than many of the beach places i had been – more real. The buses run from there as well, the station for the nicer buses to san jose, and then the stand where rest of the long distance buses pull through, with people selling drinks, fried stuff, green mangos, coconut and ices. Palm trees line the walk where there are benches to sit – too few in the shade – along the promenade, a few tico tourists, gringos with backpacks making connections, and just regular people. Restos with outside seating areas, covered of course from the intense sun, selling ice cream, waters, and food. In some ways it is a beach as i imagined, except for those that lay on the benches and are down and out, and the emptiness and sadness of the place. But in that run down nature there is something more down to earth – the guy at the resto where i had coffee on my first pass through, asked me how Monteverde was when i was through again 6 days later.

Initially the place freaked me out a bit – there is something about the low lying peninsulas that make me uneasy – the feeling that they will eventually be swept away and consumed by the ocean. And the broken buildings on the way in. The buses pulled in around the corner from the Paseo de los Turistas on street with empty lot, cracked and missing sidewalks and decayed buildings. i was not the only one with the look of shock on my face when the bus stopped – this is it” on my last pass through i knew that it wasnt it. I hesitate like the others, and walk around the corner to where you can see the beach, and a few buses parked by the side of the road – all who have seen better days. The long distance buses, except to San Jose pull up there – to a covered stand, with a few vendors and many locals milling around- and painted wooden signs indicating the departure times of some of the buses. And no ticket booth – you pay when you get on, though many looked for it. I go to the nicer san jose terminal to confirm this and use the bathroom (paid of course but only 20 cents(

I walked up and down the beach a bit and it felt more like the beaches for locals i had seen in mexico, not too gringofied. On the two blocks to the main crowded shopping street, you pass decent restos – tica style – and empty buildings and a few banks. There are small stores, several panderias, clothes, shoes etc. and people milling about, women many with kids, and men, several a bit down and out – but it seemed so real after the tourist zones.

The ferry departs from the other side of the town about 2km away. Took a cab with a woman who stepped of the bus from monteverde and travelled to montuzuma with her. Maybe that was something about the place – people tend to great each other – a woman having a coffee my first day there, the couple from montana who i never say again on the way to monteverde, the 2 guys from san francisco on the way to montuzuma, all of us going there accidentally. The ferry area is nothing special, a few sodas across the street – too many pastries and coffee, a window where you buy the ticket. It is functioning chaos like the bus stations. On my trip back i take the crowded local bus into the center. The traffic is busy but not insane.

I stay at a cheap hotel recommended by lonely planet and the couple from montana. It is simple, but so clean and well-maintained, with rocking chairs in the common area. My single room is cheap, and definitely a single – a single bed, about a foot and a half to the wall on one side, a tv, a tiny stand at the end of the bed and that is it. But the bed is ok, but the sheets are crisp white and the bed well made. It is not a tourist hotel, the men seem to be workers passing through, though in the morning i meet a Belgian man on his way out. Still, it feels safe and comfortable after where i had been the night before – the bathroom, with the cold water shower, is clean and the toilet water is blue . I walk around, watch the sun set over the mountains on the pennisula across the bay, get groceries and sweets and head back to my room.

I am up early the next day – 6 am as i often am. Want to walk before the heat of the day descends. This town is quiet then (others are not) and i walk through the fairly empty streets, grab a coffee at Musami (the chain bakery) and go down to the water where there is life. Tons of new shiny buses and nice minivans with the turismo sign. The regular bus stand where i will go is empty though. Stalls are setting up with jewelry, sarongs, t-shirts, coffee and trinkets, many more than i have seen. I sit and watch, and then see why, a cruise ship pulls in. Traffic directors as the buses and trucks pull onto the dock. I watch it all, an american couple who live in san jose share my bench (several others have men sleeping on them) – they are waiting for friends to disembark.

I need to pack to get my bus, so i head back. A bit later i head back to the bus stand. The vendors there still have not set up though it is now after 8. I sit on the bench with a few tico guys with my pack on the pack and see the shiny buses with the tour boat passengers pull out. Like the backpack crowd, many pass through without seeing the town, on the way to the “real” destinations. Still, to get out, they need to drive up the long road to see what remains of the once important port. My bus finally comes – part of me is sad to leave the town, there is something there beneath it all. Despite the dock scene, the down and out, there remains a quality to the place.

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The name intrigued me.  Montezuma.- what type place was that – at the end of the Nicoya peninsula, a ferry ride and then a bus ride away. Maybe it was just another¨M¨ town i had to go to – i go through periods of following the alphabet in places that i go. I had thought about going there after manual antonio but wanted to get back to cooler weather, so i went to monteverde, but once i was there there the ocean called me back – i needed to visit it one last time. When i had been in Puntarenas on the long wait between buses, i looked across the bay at the mountains and wanted to take the ferry ride – of that i´m glad i did. And it also appealed to me – from what the guidebooks and others said it was one of those end of the road, alternative type places – a bit touristy now but still retaining its bohemian elements. And that i must admit is true. maybe i have moved beyond, no longer seek the end of the road.

I met a german woman in Puntarenas and we shared a cab to the ferry dock and had coffee while we waited for the ticket office to open. The 930 ferry (from what we thought) left at 9 so we had an hour and a half to wait. A large ferry pulled in and we went over but it was the wrong one. We asked around amongst the confusion, and were told ours would be there soon. We met two men from San Fransisco in the next soda where we went for coffee, and all of us seemed to be going there somewhat unplanned. I was going to skip it but decided then night before to go, the woman had thought to stay in Puntarenas but did not like the vibe, and the two guys had missed the morning bus and their connection to elsewhere, and maybe it was that type of place – accidental.

The ferry ride was both hot and beautiful on the covered lower deck, being out upon the water, past hills and rocky islands in the bay. The hour and a half ride took you to another land. As the ferry pulled into Paquera, all rushed to leave lining up well before it docked, as is often the case with ferries. We rushed towards the modified school bus, for the almost 2 hour trip there – i had been travelling since 6am. The landscape was dried and less dramatic than the cool rainy mountains i had left that morning, flatter and i must say duller. The roads were potholed, and took us away from the sea but not yet into the hills. distance markers appeared regularly, and the tall american who sat next to me and whose legs did not fit between the seats, kept asking how much longer it would take – yes 40 km takes 2 hours here. For sale signs appeared in English. We passed through the one small town of cobano with restos and some people selling fruit, where the ticos got off the bus, and a few more gringos got on. The last 7km towards the water took the longest. A dirt road at the end, twisting down the hill to the town.

The bus let us off by the beach, just by the 3 road town, the road was dirt and it was hot and i was covered in sweat. I felt sad. i do not know why – on the bus i wondered if i was right in coming here. I walked to one place five minutes away from town, but they had no singles and were hesitant in offering up the dorm – “the solo woman” i heard — through i had heard good things from other women who had been there alone – maybe that turned me. I walked back, looked at another place, shabby, another, no singles, another, i was hot enough and just took it though i did not feel secure and it was grim and maybe that space influenced me. Like many it was run down, not in the sense of merely being old or simple, but unkempt like some of those on the beach in front, more passed out than relaxing in the hammocks. Still i stayed, could not get on another bus.

It was small, peaceful, a place away, a place to drop out of live, young boho couples, and the hippies and dirt – expensive restos and cheap dives to stay or shell out alot for a decent place. And i was disappointed immediately. Or maybe i should have looked more at the web sites, but i did and that is what drew me, an alternative place of Bohemians, artists, hippies, creative visionaries – and maybe it once was – and still is but at the higher end. I felt at a loss, the beach had some character, but it was narrow and did not have the headlands or rocks of manual antonio, and looked out on open water, but to the south where you had neither an excellent view of sunrise not sunset. A few hippies sold macrame and other jewelry by the side of the road, and few places has large patios to catch the breeze or watch people while sitting in the shade or look out upon the water. Maybe i just could not get into the zone and saw the lack, for there was a veggie resto with inflated prices, pizza places, some drinking places, many with foreigners (ie north americans) working, signs for yoga and a calmed vibe after the cities. Maybe i am not just there anymore.

I met a woman from Manual antonio hostel and we shared dinner, but she seemed to be elsewhere, not in love here either – maybe for us, and the other woman i had met on the bus and then left behind, it was being a solo woman in young boho couple and neo-hippie youths and some real older hippies, and being alone – it is hard to say. I sat outside the hostel, on the small town beach, listening to the waves, but went in early, felt visible a woman alone. Though my room faced the ocean, the sound of the fan that failed to cool drowned the small waves a few feet away.

I left the next day after a walk on the beach and a simple breakfast, catching the emptier bus out. I had two hours to wait on the ferry dock in Paquera and i just loved it. Just the dock, a soda, and some tables in a shady park overlooking the hilly bay where i watched pelicans and drank coffee and finally felt at peace – there was little here, a but the hills and water and clouds that came in were wonderful, a few dogs lounged about, and the few people were  ferry workers,  two vendors sat who around between boats, and the couple from San Ramon who had been on the bus. I sat in the shady breeze and smiled.  I watched the ferry pull in with  the next group of tourists on the way to the beach, backpacks or the occasional wheeled suitcase in hand, full of expectation. And i went back to the mainland.

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i get off the bus at dusk. It has been an all day journey to get to here from Manuel Antonio – two bus rides from Quepos, stopping for a four-hour break in steamy Puntarenas but now i am here. A 30km ride up a narrow twisty dirt road to get to the village of Santa Elena where the cheap hotels and hostels are, about 5km from the renowned Monteverde Biosphere reserve. I get off the bus, an older run down bus, that stopped everywhere on the three-hour journey. I get out, and as i am picking up my knapsack from the luggage compartment, someone asks do you have reservations tonight, and hands me a brochure, and then another and another, all the gringos are being approached – one person, 8 a night with shared bath, 10 a night and includes breakfast, 7. I hold them off – need to get my bearings, but am relieved that there are plenty of places to stay. As i am to discover, tourism in this town is hurting. I go with one to the Quetzal Inn, it was next door to the pension where i was thinking of staying, so i figure, lets take a look. It looks good, a nice room, common area, a few people milling about, a kitchen that could be cleaned but i have seen alot worse. I take it – $7 a night for a decent private room. Then the sales pitches begin – here is the map it starts out slowly, and then the highlighter comes out, a night tour – $20, a canopy tour in a private park – $35, a zip line, bungy jumping, oh how about coffee or a cheese tour, i tell him i want to go to the reserve and have to think about it. I am handed a stack of brochures – book through me, i can get you the best deal. And i read, a tarzan swing, a bungy jump, zip line tour, fly over trees, a superman cable and helmets for adventure – everywhere – the commercialization of nature. The thrills of it. Yes, you can learn a bit in the nighttime tours, but they do not promote those offered by nature reserves, and there are insect and snake and butterfly gardens. I walk out to get something to eat or some groceries. The center village is small – two blocks of a triangle with tourist restos and prices so i go to the grocery store. I pass a few of the other places that were offering cheap rooms, and they too have big book your tour and adventure awaits signs out front. I cook dinner, and then the ¨fun¨begins – a group of your sterotypical aussies – the ones that give the people of that nation an unfair bad rap, start in on the drinking games – yelling, swearing, pounding glasses easily heard through the thin floor – the environment i had hoped to avoid. An older man complains as do i – yet the guy who brought us here is with them, drinking along. It stops at 10 but i am ready to go. The next morning i leave – but not after talking to some interesting people who had been out the night before and seeing the monkeys out back that he had said would come – the one that he was encouraging guests to feed.

I find another hotel in the early morning – one recommended by Lonely Planet, and that had a nicer room for $10 . I take it and go back to get my stuff. I return, and the manager is there, and then the sales pitch for tours begins again. I had been handed a stack of brochures when i first came in but then upon return it was more pressured sales. I had booked the overpriced bus to and from the Saint Elena community reserve already (as i had missed the buses – on a reduced schedule – to the monteverde reserve). Part of me feels bad, as i know that is how these cheap hotels make much of their money, but the thrills seeking of this place, the ¨attractions¨ that surround the reserves, that seem to be merely money grabs, get to me. While they are not as cheesey or tacky as many say at Niagara Falls, they do hinder the landscape. But then i wonder about my criticism, for they are making money by keeping the land, flora and fauna relatively intact rather than destroying them, so is it all wrong – no. And why did i expect it to be different – i think of North American tourist towns and areas, and some of the junk that surrounds national parks and they are really no better.

I go to the reserve – started by the community – reforestation began in 1979 about the same time that many of the parks began. A cab shuttles me and another woman to the bus – we are the only passengers on the 6km trip. The reserve is pricey $14 but basic – trials, a guide service offered, a small cafe and gift store. A few cars parked, but that is it. I walk alone on the trail, run into one or two people occasionally. It is green, and i see little wildlife, butterflies, a few birds, but i listen and know more is around. It is peaceful, Four of us get on the bus back down and there is a car with three people from montreal. The next day i miss the morning but to monteverde again, the kitchen here was locked and i needed to pay for another night so i sleep in til 8. I laze and then i stroll. I enquire about the night tour at the not for profit Children’s Eternal Rainforest but am encouraged to go on more commercial tours with brochures of flow in the dark tarantulas and florescent frogs. I decide to wait. I walk up the hill, and see the other monteverde, i pass a few of the attractions, but also some galleries, the pricey hotels, nice restaurants with english menus priced in dollars (hotels and hostels are always priced in USD in Costa Rica, as it admission to the National Parks and the reserves and other attractions), and a few cafes with wifi. I was looking for the turnoff for the one free hike in the area, but stumble upon the info centre for the Children´s Rainforest – i talk to the guy who was shutting the info centre for lunch,and head on down to the reserve. It is small – started in 86 with fund raised by a group of swedish school children, but they have other larger preserves nearby, and engage in education – it is at a lower elevation and is primarily second growth, smaller trees and much drier as it gets less of the clouds. i walk the trails and run into only one other couple. On the way out i see spider monkeys playing in the trees oblivious to me. I pass by the town centre of monteverde into the womens art and crafts coop, and the store, and head up the dirt road, and down the curvy, shoulderless road back into Santa Elena

Today, i finally made it to the reserve – being Sunday, the 730 bus did not run, so i had to make the 615 (next bus was in the afternoon. I wake at 5 in the dark and listen to the wind howl, and drag myself out of bed. I take the schoolbus that runs up there, and with the few others arrive shortly before the park opens at 7am. I expected more people as i had always read that the park was more crowded, but it was not. A few were taking a guide and i head out on the trails the ranger recommended. It was cloudy (it is a cloud forest after all) and it drizzled off and on, and was cool. I walked the well marked and well maintained paths, looping around back and forth. In my first two hours i say only a father and son, and then later less than a dozen people in the area. It was beautiful, lush and green but not as special as i had imagines – when i first dreamt of monteverde i had not yet been to the rainforests of the pacific northwest, or elsewhre. Still, it was lovely, and so grateful that it was preserved, first by the Quakers who came to this area in 48, and then in 72 it became established by visiting scientists George Powell and his wife and long-time resident Wilford Guindon and has since grown in size and renown – and has helped to not only preserve forests in this area of costa rica, but by example elsewhere. As i walked the trails i felt far away from the commercialization of the town – at peace in nature, listening to the wind and the birds. while i was there i could tune it all out, though its fame spawned the growth of all the commercial enterprises – some im sure with conservation in mind, but others not, but still this area is now forested, and ot cleared for ranching as with much of the land that surrounds.
Still the park today was close to empty, a downturn in tourism to here and the entire country i feel.

For the preservation of land draws tourists and it is our dollars that help make it possible.

I will not go to Arenal after all – the lava stopped flowing from 3 weeks to 2 months ago from what i hear. Still they, the tour organizers, the transports people, and the hotels try to keep it quiet. I understand La Fortuna is as touristy as here, and totally dependent on volcano tourism. Still nature has its own beat. There will be other volcanos as i go north that will be much cheaper to visit so i will wait. I know there are other cloud forests as well, but this one had claimed my imagination and despite the expense $17 i could not not go – and i felt safe hiking alone.

There are many sides to this place – and it depends what you focus on still…

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I will remember Manual Antonio for the monkeys, and the heat and the beach and the calm. But the heat got to me and i wonder if i am in the right area of the world at all. I wrote that line a few day ago and not i am in the cool drizzle of monteverde. I have left the costa rica of the nationals and have entered the tourist zone, the face that the nation presents to rest of the world. And while the two places are worlds apart climate wise they are also similar.

As i said i will remember manual antonio for the white faced spider monkeys (photos to be posted and added soon). I went back to the park another day, not only for the quiet beaches but to watch them and i wondered about myself for doing so. The first day i was there, i was thrilled to find the first bunch, on a quiet trail away from all the people and guided tours. I had seen a sloth earlier that day, but here i was alone – initially behind two people, but they left and it was me and the monkeys running and sitting under a tree. I saw them again down on a quiet beach, initially just one that a couple was photographing, but then a few meters away, a few people began to picnic, and they came out in droves. At first they were cut, one stole some mango and climbed into a tree to eat it, and then more came down, and began to come near, a perfect photo op, and then one grabbed a juice box out of the side pocket tan off and then back going to open up the back. The cute white face became aggressive, and we backed away – the monkeys were no longer so cute. On the path back to the trail, i looked cautiously overhead, wondering what the monkeys might do. Then i went down to the main picnic area and beach where the tours all stop for a break, and where i had eaten my breakfast in the early morn. The trees were filled with monkeys, who eyed the people and stole their food. Signs saying not to feed them, but the garbage can did not have a lid. They dumpster dived, and apparently know what to take, opened up plastic containers and ate the fruit inside. And they stole food from those who were not looking (the raccoons patrolled the other side of the path), and one fellow hosteler, whom i was not with, had his small bag stolen by them – they took the apple and banana but thankfully threw back the camera and money. And while i love to watch them play, i worried about this scene – with the open garbage and picnic area they are around, and unlike the sloths who just ignore the human presence, they have learned to make it work for them. But i think of my time in california where the bears were out of hand in many of the parks, breaking into not only coolers, but cars and homes in search of food. Is the scene at this park any different than that at the parks where people used to feed the bears and watch them dumpster dive. What are we creating, but still i loved to watch then.

And when i got here to monteverde, i saw one in the yard of the first hotel i stayed in – had been told they were there in the morning, but then i saw the owner feeding them bananas, drawing them in. Finally, yesterday, i saw them again as they should be in a natural reserve, ignoring me, as a pair swung from branch to branch up above, chasing and calling one another, oblivious to my presence down below.

But people come to see the animals and what is done to attract them? How much business would be lost if they were more illusive? The guides who can see through the jungle point them out, and in the national park there, is where people gather. And here there are reserves, and way to many ¨natural¨ tourist attractions where you will see them. But that is another entry – the role of parks and reserves, and the whole tourist attractions and tourist locales.

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san jose beach

Can i write about a place once i have left its energy zone? I did not type up my scribbles about san jose last night when i was there and now it seems but a blur – an imaginary place so far away. The dinginess of the coca cola bus terminal – a zone really – not a terminal in the way we think – yes a stand where the buses pull in, but the ticket booths all over the block, in what appears to be a dingy ill-lit grey market – and it is where the coca cola plant once was – once upon a time, no sign of it now but the terminal is known as that- or of the taxi ride there – traffic heavier this morning when i wanted to leave – a monday rather than a sunday – the traffic started well before 6am around the parque national down below – that beautiful park-square that my hostel faced, trees and a famous statue – the fun of trying to cross the street to get to the taxi stand – and the cab, did not like his vibe, began to worry as we drove around, in a loop – to avoid the traffic he said, and he may have been right through the fare was about $1 more than it should be, up the block, past some of the down and out druggies of san jose, through the grit.
And the grit was a far cry from the hostel i left, and the drama of the place again so far away. An old mansion, with high ceilings and pale walls full of art, hard wood floors, and etchings on some glass doors, a real kitchen, and the most comfortable bed i have slept in in well over a year (or 2 or 3). An alternative artistic intellectual atmosphere to the place one that i had been craving, The owner – the house was his parents, an open fairy, stereotypically gay, a dancer, and adds his flair, and drama. Hed been mugged the other day, the housekeepers brother was hit by a car, and then a dog a purebred pomerian was missing and assumed stolen – yes san jose has a crazy underpinning.
But i also got some of the intellectual stimulation i needed – conversations about the economy, conservation, the arts, energy and the brain more than just the typical backpacker jabber or the limited talks in spanish of the school. I felt alive, the costa rican national museum, the pre-Columbian gold museum, and alternative xmas fair with crafts, organic products, herbal remedies, social justice and veggie fare that i stumbled upon accidently – i felt at home there – though i could not really speak the vibe of the costa rican alternative crowd was similar to that at home. And so many more museums that i could have gone to but did not – and the parks and the bit of old architecture that remains (the new tends to dominate and be bland and functional)
And the life – the crowded pedestrian mall through downtown – streets and streets closed to traffic where people wander – families, teens, young and old, saturday music in two of the squares – one heavy metal the other pop, and the endless stores selling bric brac and the crowded (and expensive) international fast food chains. Kids chasing pigeons in the central square. Police in pairs are everywhere. Something beneath the surface – an instability and fear.
But it was not that which got to me – that instability that lay below, but the intensity of energy as i began to wander – up and down the streets in search of something – food i believe – the thick crowd became too intense, too much as you bustle through, and down near the central market a different crowd than at the fiesta – looking at and shopping for cheap clothes and the like. I became over whelmed. Bought some food at maximenus (one of the many grocery stores here that are owned by Walmart) could not find the one i had been to the day before – past groups of teens in heavy black boots. and then back to the creative calm of the hostel.
Today finds me at the beach – manuel antonio though i have not yet been to the park. It is a different zone and i passed through several to get here – crossed the mountains on those twisty roads of endless switchbacks that i love, and then down to the coast level – a straight road, with palm tree (of some sort) plantations – out of the coffee zone and into the heat and the bus was hot. Before the mountains and the coastal plain, the traffic leaving the city, a mega accident and an endless jam – got frustrated sitting on the sunny side of the bus behind a woman who would not open the window which she controlled, but when we saw the wreck, i realized that agitation is misplaced – someone died for sure, more than one i do not know – car scrunched by mas truck – yes accidents common place here but this was intense- should have thought about the families, the people, but all i could see was the blocked flow.
And then i came here and then to the beach – the ocean – walked 3km there down winding road, to the beach passed small hotels and pricier restos for this is tourist zone – a nice tourist zone, but still a tourist zone, not one of everyday life – a winding road from quepos to here of tourism institutes, but the road lush and leafy green.
The beach – reminded me of the oregon coast, but hot, with warm water and a blue sky – headlands of the park, and huge rocks off the coast. I walked with my feet in the water – it was not too crowded. Had late lunch in simple soda on the beach, in the shade under coconut and other trees, smiling.
Now i am at the hostel and it is time to go to bed.

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Why do we imagine that it should be so different elsewhere? How much is similar, and how much is truly different? Is it the essence or the flavour that changes from place to place. I am leaving Orosi tomorrow, this village of about 5000-8000 where i have spent the past two weeks, where i have spent the majority of my time in costa rica. I am sad to go, yet it is time for me to leave, to branch out beyond the mountains that surround this place. I am also glad to go.

 How much of what i sense here is me, and how much is the place itself. And of the place, how much is the hostel where i stay, the people who stay and pass through, and how much of it is the town and the area in general? And of the town, how much is Orosi per se, how much is small town life in general, and how much is a costa rican mentality. The answer to all of those is of course a bit of each.

I have gotten to know orosi in my time here, and what initially seemed different and a tad foreign now seems much more familiar. At first i noticed the differences – the lush landscape that surrounds, While Orosi is a costa rican town, it is also a small town and thus has so many similarities to the small town life i have seen in the north. Yet it is also, in many ways, an ideal small town, one that works, and has what many towns now lack. It is what we imagine that they should be or were. Yet, it is a real place, with the plusses and the drawbacks of small town life. and of course, as an outsider, a visible foreigner, there is much that i do not see, but that also allows me to stand back and observe.

The landscape is different – the town is enclosed by lush green mountains, with fields of coffee, and unlike in the cities from which i came there is much green within – plants and trees in the yards, bananas, coffee, mandarins and more. But is that different in essence or in flavour than gardens of homes elsewhere? The side streets are of dirt, a few potholes where the rain collects, and the gullies that run down the sides to drain off the frequent and plentiful rain. The language is different, one i barely understand and the people look somewhat different and yes, i stand out as a foreigner – not only in my given physical characteristics – the colour of my hair and skin – but also in the manner that i hold myself and in the way that i dress. The women here dress differently – either in tight tank tops with breasts flowing over and painted on pants that leave nothing to the imagination  or in the opposite manner, with loose t-shirts untucked from baggier pants – the matrons. But being a small town, one that has some tourism but is not a tourist town, the outsiders are visible even if they look the same, for in small towns people know one another, stop to chat and to gossip. Families are related, and neighbours are close. In many ways it is an ideal small town – the way we imagine that they used to be, that they could be, if only.

And it is that closeness and that tightness that makes me love and hate the small town. It is a sense of familiarity, one that can be wonderful – and one that can suffocate. I like that the women in my favorite cafe, in the internet cafe, in the place where i but my fruit know me, but the guy at the other vegetable stand who tries to overcharge us gringos also knows me, and the gossipy, unfriendly chica in the grocery store does to. It is a place where all you do becomes known and visible.

And that closeness helps keep the town safe. I immediately noticed that the houses do not have bars on the windows like they do in Alujuela, Heredia, Cartago or San Jose. It is not that crime does not exist – two people had their bicycles stolen when they left them locked by the side of a path that led down to the river – but it is also a place where you feel secure following a trail alone down there, and feel secure enough to leave your bikes. It is a place where kids play outside, women and men chat on the street, many greet you with a buen dia and some look away.

It is a walkable town where people and dogs meander up and town the streets. they walk to the store and to the homes of their friends. It is in a grid pattern with houses packed closely together, but where each has a yard or a courtyard of sorts. While homes exist on the way out of town, and a few roads go up the hills, there is not sprawl. A bright blue pedestrian suspension bridge connects orosi with the smaller pueblas across the river – each with a small store, and an independent existence. But all is linked here. And it is safe to walk, not only in terms of crime, but with traffic – the main street is not too busy, sidewalks start and stop abruptly, and people walk alongside the main road out of town. there are no shoulders but pedestrians are common.  Buses run frequently to the cities. Many homes have a single car, locked away inside the gates. There is not a traffic light for miles, and i do not believe there are stop signs at all (anyways they seem to be optional in this country)

The stores are different, and many people still shop daily – or perhaps it is only i. There are three bakeries – two regular selling the long white baquettes, which people buy daily and pastries. One is a chain, Musiami, and the independent one sells big sweet breads. There are meat stores, poultry stores and vegetable stores along with 2 dimly lit small grocery stores. Locals shop here but go to the city for the hypermas – the large groceries that are there. international chains have not made it here yet, and most business establishments are of the mom and pop variety. There are a few small restaurants and two small bars. the town itself is not pretty but it is quaint.

And while many work in town, at the small shops, in construction, at the coffee fincas or processor, many need to commute to the cities – Cartago or beyond to San Jose  for work and for entertainment. The town rises early, not only because it is the best time of the day, but because the commute is long. Buses run every 15 min from 445 – 815 am, and then every half hour. And the buses can be crowded and i encounter teenagers on cell phones or listening to iPods and a girl doing her makeup on the bus.  The bakeries open between 5-6, the grocery store at 7 and even the bank at 830. this internet cafe (one of 3) does not open until 9. When i am out walking before 7, i encounter groups of women out walking the short loop over the river for exercise and some men cycling the perimeter of the valley. And although many leave for the day, life continues within, with people shopping, walking, taking the kids to school and more.

At the center of town sits a soccer field where the parque central should be. It lies in front of the historic church,  the main restaurants faces it, and the taxi stand abuts it. Still it lacks a central place to just be, that square that is at the heart of many latin american cities and towns, and that i miss. A large park with some paths and picnic tables is several miles away overlooking  the valley below – still you must drive or bus or bike the narrow twisting uphill road to get there. The two balarios (thermal water – ie warm spring – swimming pools have places to sit, but they are enclosed and charge admission. A national part is about 12 km down the road, but there is little in town. While the river abuts the town but is not built up. The few poorer homes sit there (im certain that it floods) and some natural pools where people swim are out-of-town a bit, undeveloped.   

The town has few rich or poor – though the peublos across the way seem simpler, and a few large finca homes sit on the hills. It is large enough to have the few town drunks and down and outs, but small enough that all know who they are and let them be. Most seems middle class, a different type of middle class, but still middle – in town during the day we see the workers and the moms and some students in their time off and it seems more like a stable working class but i know there is more. 

And little happens here like in many small towns. Life seems simple and all about living it and getting on. And despite the dress of the women, there is a conservatism of sorts so it seems. Families are of most importance, and stability is prime. But how much of that is here, is small towns in general or the Tican mentality in general, one which prides itself on stability and the pura vida – the good life.

This place is special, i have written about the lushness of the land, but it is also ordinary in that all live their daily lives. The culture is similar and different, and it has what in many ways we in the north lack. it is a viable small town in a beautiful location.

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How much do you rebuild, and when do you let something be and let it have a life of its own? Las Ruinas de la Parroquia de Santiago Apostal in Cartago begs such a question. It is the remains of a church that was rebuilt time and again, only to be destroyed by yet another earthquake.

It was first completed and dedicated in 1575, and was reconstructed several times in the colonial are after being damaged by quakes in 1630, 1718, and 1822. It was destroyed by the earthquake of San Antolín, on the 2nd of September, 1841. The new construction in stone was started a few years later, but before it could be completed, the temple, along with most of Cartago, was completely destroyed by the famous earthquake of Santa Monica on May 4, 1910. Finally, after its final destruction in 1910, the city abandoned the church as cursed and left it as the ruins we see today.

Still, Las Ruinas, as it is popularly called, is as beloved today as it was then. It stands in the center of town, in the central square, where it is beloved by those who come to visit it, and walk in its interior gardens if they are lucky enough to find that the gates are open, and by those who come to take a break in the square itself, and by those who pass through, catching the buses that stop beside or near the park or who go shopping in the stores and markets that surround. It is there, and while a shell of its former self, it is grand and alive. The gardens inside are maintained, with flowers, plants, benches and ponds. The worship of place may be different than it was once, but perhaps it is more pure.

It is not, and maybe never was, as grand as Cartago´s most famous church the The Basílica de Nuestra Señora de los Ángeles (Our Lady of the Angels Basilica) which stands a few blocks away and can be seen for miles around. The basilica is a place of pilgrimage and a shrine to La Negrita, the famous black madonna. First constructed in 1639, it too was rebuilt and destroyed by earthquakes many times including that of 1910 (which destroyed the entire city) However, it was rebuilt¨- its current construction was completed in 1930. Today it remains a holy place. Mass was about to begin when i went to visit, a wedding was held later in the day and pilgrims come to visit the Negrita. Still, it does not seem as alive as Las Ruinas.

The city of Cartago itself is not what it once was. Founded in 1563 it is Costa Rica´s oldest city and served as the nation´s capital until 1823, two years after independence from Spain and a year after a major earthquake of 1822 when it was moved to San Jose. Cartago is now a provincial capital with few remnants of its colonial grandeur, but it is alive – like the ruins at its centre.

What do we rebuild? What do we leave be? When can signs no longer be ignored, when are we being told something? It is a question that is hard to answer. All rises and declines, much is destroyed and rebuilt. Yet, civilizations fall into ruin or are abandoned only to be ¨discovered¨ many years later. But here there is life among the ruins. It has been almost 100 years, and the structure still stands, and life flourishes inside and out.

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