05.06.2012 - 10.06.2012 18 °C
While in the Nicoya Peninsula, we had the chance to experience a bit of Costa Rica’s rural life: a mix of coastal villages (populated by Tico fishermen, lots of surfer dudes and Ticos that cater to the needs of the surfer dudes) and inland farming villages, where cowboys (sporting cowboy boots and cowboy hats) on beautiful horses herd large trains of white brahma cows… We were eager to see what the big city had to offer! Although by Latin American standards, San Jose is a small capital: population 350,000 and 1.5 million in the larger metro area.
It should also be noted that Costa Rica’s story is a bit different than that of other central American countries: the indigenous population was very sparse when the Spanish came here. While they did manage to practically exterminate the few that were here, the area (initially part of the Kingdom of Guatemala) was relatively inhabited and primarily colonized by small, independent farmers over time. As such, the country does not have as marked a history of slavery and conquistas, so typical of its Central American neighbours. This also lies behind the country’s very progressive socio-political history: a culture built on solidarity, which led to the introduction of universal education and healthcare in the early 1940’s and, following the end of its last civil war in 1948, the decision that this tiny country would be without an army.
We only had four days in San Jose, and had our rental car for the first two. We therefore took advantage of our wheels to visit the lush green valleys that surround Chepe, as San Jose is affectionately nicknamed by the Ticos (Costa Ricans).
Day 1 took us to the summit of the Poas volcano, 2500m – a deep pit of grey ashes, at the bottom of which lies a turquoise lake… A very impressive site! And from there, we were off to the La Paz Waterfall Garden, a private botanical garden and zoo built around a stunning series of waterfalls (the highest dropping 37m) along the La Paz river. Because this park likes on the slopes of the Poas volcano, it actually combines two different types of ecosystems: cloud forest vegetation on top, and rain forest vegetation on the bottom. It was absolutely beautiful, worthy of a Jurassic Park film set. And their collection of animals – all of which were obtained legally or through animal rescue initiatives – was wonderful: we fed toucans, saw a real tree frog (you know: the cool green ones with the big red eyes!), and stared a mighty jaguar in the eyes.
On Day 2, we headed in the opposite direction and drove to the top of Volcan Irazu, the country’s highest active volcano at 3500m. The summit was shrouded in thick clouds, and the temperature was 10oC cooler than at the bottom (12oC!)… we were afraid that the 1 hour drive to get here was all for naught, but Mother Nature was on our side: we walked through the clouds to get to the edge of the main caldera and lo! The clouds parted and a ray of sun shone through, illuminating the jade green lake that lies at the bottom of the volcano… Stunning! The kind of view that makes you go "wow!" when you first look upon it! We also spent a few hours in Cartago, Costa Rica’s second largest city, and home of the country’s most venerated relic: La Negrita. This is a small, black, stone statue of a woman holding a small child which was allegedly found in the forest by a young indigenous girl hundreds of years ago and miraculously kept disappearing, only to reappear on the spot where she had been found… Over time, she was named the country’s patron saint, and the Basilica de Los Angeles was built to honour her. This, I must say, is perhaps the most strikingly beautiful church we’ve seen in South America… While the outside is rather dull – grey granite and white cherubs – the inside is a symphony of precious Costa Rican wood and natural light. It was built in 1912 (previous incarnations of the temple here having fallen victim to earthquakes and other natural disasters), and its architects avoided the rococo style so prevalent in former Spanish colonies… Truly, it was worth the visit. Faithfuls come here from across the country and beyond to worship and pray to La Negrita, often going from the church's front door to the main alter on their knees - on a Thursday afternoon at 2pm, we saw at least 10 people going down the aisle on their knees (they also leave small medallions representing the object of their prayers - there was full window full of body parts left by cancer patients, for example)!
With two days remaining in the capital (and no more rental car), we made friends with Roger, the taxista, and had him drive us around a bit to get a feel for the city… The centre is rather small, and not much of the colonial heritage has survived, so we focused on a few attractions:
- The beautiful Teatro Nacional, which is the city’s architectural crown jewel. In 1890, the city’s rich coffee growers felt their capital (which was the third city in the world to have electric lighting, after New York and Paris!) should have an Opera House where the elite could enjoy a bit of culture. They approached the government of the time with the idea, and offered to pay a voluntary tax to fund the project. It was agreed that they would thus provide a budget of 200,000 gold pesos… However, as with most construction project, they quickly ran out of money and the final price tag came to 3,000,000 gold pesos! The balance was funded by an importation tax, which mostly affected the country’s poor and middle classes – a group who could only have access to the theatre’s third balcony, and only via an outside door that ensured they couldn’t mingle with the rich and famous!
- The Plaza de la Cultura, a small, non-descript plaza which is the central gathering point in the city… and where the girls found as many pigeons to feed as they found in Venice’s Piazza San Marco!
- The Museo de los Ninos, a combo of science museum for children and art gallery, housed in a former prison that looks like a medieval castle – and the largest and best children’s museum I’ve seen! We spent two hours and only got through half of it… and every exhibit was excellent. The girls loved it.
A friend of a friend who work at the Canadian Embassy here also did us the kindness of bringing us to her neighbourhood in Ezcasu, where we visited the workshop of Mr Biesanz, Costa Rica’s most eminent woodworking artist. His specialty is woodturning – Alain’s favourite hobby… Mr Biesanz came by the workshop to autograph the pieces we purchased, and gave Alain a tour of his workshop, sharing wood samples and trade secrets. Needless to say, Alain was absolutely delighted! And our luggage suddenly got a few kilos heavier… but it was impossible to resist: his craftsmanship his truly superior, and the exotic woods he uses (all from naturally fallen trees on his personal property) are breathtakingly beautiful.
Oh, and very important: our Sony Camera was promptly repaired, under warranty, by the very nice people at the Romano Sony Service Centre in La Uruca, 2km away from our hotel – or as they explained it tom me: 175m east of the sport field, right in front of the waterhose central. Of course! The cab driver found it in no time…
We also treated our Super Papa Alain to an early father’s day gift: a night out at San Jose’s brand new football stadium, for the first World Cup qualifying game in the Concacaf: Costa Rica vs El Salvador. The excitement in the city mounted through the day, with street vendors hawking Costa Rica’s red jerseys and busloads of el Salvadorians painted and dressed in blue and white pouring into the city. The evening did not disappoint: the match was excellent, fast and fluid; the stadium was packed; the crowd cheered and booed as one as the game unfolded and spontaneously broke into chants and the wave all night… and the power went out for 30 minutes at the 31st minute of the game! Thankfully, Ticos are laidback, friendly people… no one got overly upset, and they just worked on their chants as they waited for things to get back on track. Final score: 2-2.
Which reminds me that I should perhaps explain the reference to “Pura Vida” (“Pure Life”) in the title of this entry… Ask just about any question to a Tico, and if the answer is positive, he or she will give you a “Pura Vida” response: How are you today? Pura vida. How was the football game? Pura vida. How was the weather at the beach? Pura vida. You see and hear this phrase everywhere, and the government has adopted it as its official marketing slogan – although I was not able to find out whether the line emanated from the people first, or whether they adopted it following a governmental marketing campaign (my vote would go to the former).
And that’s Costa Rica for you in a nutshell: bountiful and beautiful nature; laidback, friendly people; Pura Vida.