September 29th, 2008

Sunny Dispositions

First-time visitors to Costa Rica often have the same impressions about the country. They agree that Costa Rica’s natural beauty is breathtaking. They say that the food is simple but very tasty. And they all comment on the friendliness of Costa Rica’s people.

This last impression might seem an empty platitude, were it not for its truth. The people of Costa Rica are, in fact, remarkably friendly, cheerful and happy. They are quick to make jokes, plan parties, laugh at themselves, and they are especially friendly to foreign tourists. Costa Rican good cheer probably stems from various sources.

Costa Rica is one of the few Latin American countries that does not have an army. There are no soldiers standing on street corners with machine guns or keeping a watchful eye over people in public areas. Costa Ricans are proud to say that their tax money supports schools and education, and not a standing army. The country has one of the highest literacy rates in Latin America, and Costa Ricans almost all share a lifelong love of learning. Costa Ricans like to say that their country is best represented by the happy march of uniformed schoolchildren to and from classes, rather than by the ominous march of a national army.

This lack of a military creates a sense of that is fully alive in the minds of most Costa Ricans. They like to think of their country as a union of gentle and peace-loving souls. Because Costa Ricans would rather get along peacefully than argue, the country has developed a reputation for good-natured joke- and story-telling. Costa Ricans enjoy making one another laugh and passing their time in good humor.

Family is of great importance to people of this country, and extended family members have traditionally lived close to one another and been very involved in each other’s lives. Everyone has cousins and aunts and uncles who are as close to them as friends. Because family gatherings tend to be large, almost every family occasion turns into a party. Costa Ricans love parties with their families, friends and fellow workers, and they throw parties at the least provocation. Everyone loves music and dancing, and social gatherings become boisterous and lively.

Fun and enjoyment are practically a tradition in Costa Rica, and visitors are right to note that the Costa Rican people are a cheerful bunch.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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September 29th, 2008

Literary Lessons

Carlos Luis Fallas is one of Costa Rica’s best regarded authors. His life and his books touch upon some of the most important periods in Costa Rican history. His most famous books, Mamita Yunai and Marcos Ramírez, deal with the plight of Costa Rican agricultural workers and the lives of everyday Costa Ricans, respectively.

Born in the early part of the 1900s, Carlos Luis Fallas had little formal education. He spent much of his early life working in the banana plantations of the United Fruit Company near Limón, on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast. He became involved in the labor struggles of the plantation workers and soon was an active member of the Communist party in Costa Rica. He later served as a Diputado, or Congressman, in Costa Rica’s national congress and took part in Costa Rica’s civil war of 1948.

Mamita Yunai describes the unfair labor treatment and grim conditions Carlos Luis Fallas witnessed firsthand on the plantations of the United Fruit Company. (“Yunai” is a latinized shortening of “United.”) This book was an early criticism of American involvement in Costa Rica’s economy and workforce.

In Marcos Ramírez, the eponymous hero is a young boy in 1920’s Costa Rica. More lighthearted and far less political than Mamita Yunai, Marcos Ramírez still makes an important literary and historical statement. The details of life and customs it describes are those of a pre-industrialized and pre-globalized Costa Rica that has now all but disappeared.

Before Fallas’ death in 1966, Marcos Ramírez won an award from the William Faulkner Foundation for the best Latin American novel, and Fallas won Costa Rica’s highly regarded Magón cultural award.

Costa Rica’s congress posthumously awarded Carlos Luis Fallas the country’s highest national honor, Benemérito de la Patria.

Click here for more information about Carlos Luis Fallas.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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September 24th, 2008

Artwork that Once Worked Hard

Before there were cars and buses, paved roads and traffic lights, Costa Rica’s most common mode of transportation was the oxcart, or “carreta.” Dirt roads crisscrossed the countryside, winding through coffee farms and sugar cane plantations. Farmers loaded their goods onto wooden oxcarts to transport them to market.

Oxcarts all looked relatively similar, and their traditional shape has since become an iconic Costa Rican design. Oxcarts had one axle, to which were attached large, round wheels. These wheels were flat and had no spokes. Two oxen usually pulled the cart, a heavy wooden yoke over their necks. Someone often walked in front of the cart, guiding the plodding oxen to their destination.

At first, oxcarts were plain and unpainted, their wood slowly weathering to a natural grayish brown. But the simple lines and utilitarian beauty of the oxcarts soon lent themselves to decoration and embellishment. Oxcart decoration became something of a national art form. Wheel-painting was particularly popular, and artisans decorated cart wheels with brilliant geometric patterns that radiated from the center of the wheel. Yokes also became a popular design element, and painters covered them in flowers and curlicues.

Now that Costa Rica’s transportation systems are fully modernized, oxcarts are almost nonexistent as transportation. Some rural farmers still use them, but oxcarts have now become mostly decorative. Restaurants and museums across the country hang hand-painted yokes and oxcart wheels on their walls. “Carretas” are the subject of many nostalgic historical paintings, and entire oxcarts stand in the lobbies of theaters and art galleries nationwide. In 1988, during the first presidency of Oscar Arias Sánchez, the Costa Rican government officially declared the “carreta” a national symbol. And in 2005, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) declared the “Oxherding and Oxcart Traditions in Costa Rica” a “Masterpiece of intangible cultural heritage.”

These beautiful, cultural symbols once put in generations of hard work.

Read about UNESCO and Costa Rica.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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September 16th, 2008

Keeping the City Green

The park district of San José has embarked on a serious program to restore and renew the green areas of the city. Under the auspices of this program, known as Socios Ambientales, or Environmental Partners, the city works together with individuals to protect nature in urban areas. The municipality has chosen plants that are native to the city and appropriate for urban life. The municipality encourages business owners to plant these particular trees in sidewalk planters or to grow these native flowers in the city’s park areas. The individual business owners are then responsible for the care and watering of these plants. The idea is to promote the growth of native flora and fauna and to encourage individuals to take an active role in restoring the beauty of their city.

The Sleep Inn is doing its part to revive the green areas in the city and to protect the environment in general. In honor of its third anniversary, the Sleep Inn recently planted several trees around the edge of its property. These trees are of two types, selected by the city for their appropriateness to the urban climate and for their attractiveness to birds and other animals. The first type of tree produces a fruit that birds enjoy, and the other attracts hummingbirds when in full flower. The plan, according to hotel manager Horlando Salas, is to help restore San José’s natural beauty and to draw birds and other animals back into the center of the city.

The new trees are only part of the Sleep Inn’s overall effort to protect the environment. The hotel is currently working with the Costa Rican Tourism Institute (ICT) to qualify for a certificate in environmental sustainability. To that end, the hotel has implemented energy-saving and recycling programs in both the hotel and casino buildings. Each hotel department has been working toward more efficient use of natural resources and more environmentally sound cleaning and waste-management practices.

Mr. Salas hopes that local businesses will work together with the Sleep Inn to protect and restore San José’s natural beauty.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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September 16th, 2008

San José Posible

San José is poised for a major transformation. Like many cities in the United States, San José witnessed a significant economic and population shift in the eighties and early nineties, as city residents and businesses left San José for the new surrounding suburbs. The city economy suffered, and urban crime rates increased.

City leaders and urban architects worried about this recent downturn and created various incentives to encourage both businesspeople and homeowners to return to the city. They also recommended several city beautification projects and urban improvements. The municipality of San José formed the Committee for the Regeneration and Repopulation of San José. Following the precepts of the Committee, the Institute of Tropical Architecture came up with a plan, San José Posible, to address the architectural, ecological and aesthetic issues facing the “new” San José.

As part of the San José Posible plan, the Institute of Tropical Architecture proposed closing off several of San José’s congested streets to form outdoor pedestrian areas. The city followed the Institute’s suggestion and closed traffic in areas that would then become city pedestrian zones. The first such zone met with great success; its communal outdoor space is free of traffic noise and vehicular congestion and is a pleasant place for pedestrians to stroll.

The Institute also hopes to promote and encourage the construction of multi-use buildings that incorporate commercial space, parking, residential units and plenty of outdoor garden space. San José Posible hearkens back to a time in San José’s history when the city streets were tree-lined and quiet, and businesses and residences coexisted in urban tranquility.

The Sleep Inn San José Downtown has been a leader among the businesses hoping to restore and reinvigorate San José. When the Sleep Inn was first built, there had been no new hotel in the central downtown area for fourteen years. The mayor of San José praised the Sleep Inn for its strong show of faith in the economic future of the city. Recently, the Sleep Inn has undertaken several projects to contribute to the beautification and improvement of the downtown area.

Click here for more information about the Instituto de Arquitectura Tropical.

Click here to read more about San José Posible.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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September 11th, 2008

The Case for Cás

Some of the best items on Costa Rican restaurant menus are not actually food at all. They’re drinks–the frescos naturales, or natural fruit drinks, that most restaurants serve. Frescos are different from pure juice, or jugo, because they contain sugar. When you order a fresco at a restaurant, you will need to specify whether you want the fruit blended with water–en agua–or with milk–en leche. Both contain sugar.

Frescos are appealing, because restaurants rarely make them from pre-packaged concentrates or mixes of any kind. Instead, these drinks usually contain huge amounts of the freshest tropical fruit. Although almost any flavor of fresco is delicious–and a wonderful opportunity to try delicious fruits–one of the most unusual and tasty fresco flavors is cás.

A small, yellowish tropical fruit that grows on a tree, cás is very sour. Costa Ricans never eat it off the tree. Instead, they extract the pulp for a terrific juice.

Fresco de cás en agua is like a tropical lemonade. Cás drinks are cool and pleasantly tart with enough pulp to make them slightly frothy. They are the ideal accompaniment to a plate of rice and beans or a nice ceviche. Cás is refreshing on a hot day and is definitely the best of Costa Rica’s wide array of tropical drinks.

The Magnolia Restaurant in the Casino Club Colonial serves a delicious selection of frescos naturales.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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September 11th, 2008

A Pretty Little Lesson

Costa Rica’s escudo, or coat of arms, appears on the “tails” side of every Costa Rican coin and decorates the central red stripe of the official Costa Rican flag. The escudo is aesthetically attractive, and its various elements reveal some important facts about Costa Rican civics and geography.

The three mountains in the center of the escudo represent the three mountain ranges, or cordilleras, that run through the country–the Cordillera Central, the Cordillera de Talamanca and the Cordillera de Guanacaste. Some say that the peaks represent volcanoes found along each of the mountain ranges, and the escudo recently has been altered so that smoke now emerges from the mountain peaks.

The green at the base of the mountains represents the fertile soil and rich vegetation of Costa Rica’s Central Valley.

The blue water in front of and behind the mountains alludes to Costa Rica’s Pacific and Atlantic coastlines, while the ships at sea indicate both Costa Rica’s nautical history and the fact that the country’s ports are free and open.

The seven stars in an arc above the mountains represent Costa Rica’s seven provinces—San José, Cartago, Alajuela, Heredia, Puntarenas, Guanacaste and Limón.

The rising sun refers to the newness of the country when it first adopted the escudo and to hope for its prosperous future.

The golden border represents Costa Rican coffee—the golden bean, or grano de oro.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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September 8th, 2008

Costa Rica’s National Bloom

Costa Rica’s national flower is the Guaria Morada, a purple bloom with a trumpet-like shape and several surrounding petals. The center of the Guaria Morada is often yellow or a darker purple than the petals.

Technically, the Guaria Morada is an epiphyte, and it once grew on trees in the Pacific region and in areas of lower elevation. Several generations ago, Costa Ricans cultivated Guarias Moradas in their own gardens, and typical Costa Rican houses often had a profusion of these beautiful flowers draped over their tile roofs and garden walls. However, because of over-cultivation and overexploitation, the Guaria Morada grows wild only in limited areas now.

Visitors to Costa Rica can see the Guaria Morada in national parks and botanical gardens. Costa Rica’s old five Colón bill also has an image of the Guaria Morada among its other intricate designs.

The Guaria Morada grows in all of Central America, although it is most abundant in Guatemala and Costa Rica.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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September 5th, 2008

Black and White and Served All Over

Guests at the Sleep Inn San José Downtown receive a free continental breakfast in the hotel’s downstairs eating area. One of the best parts of this breakfast is gallo pinto, arguably Costa Rica’s most traditional dish. This tasty mixture of rice, beans, onions, cilantro and red peppers takes its name from its appearance. A gallo pinto is a colored rooster, whose speckled feathers look like the color-flecked rice and beans.

Although various Central American countries make their own similar rice-and-bean dishes, none contains the one ingredient that makes Costa Rican gallo pinto so special—Salsa Lizano. This liquid seasoning, produced and bottled in Costa Rica, contains vegetables and spices, cumin in particular. Restaurants all across the country provide bottles of Salsa Lizano at tableside, and Costa Rican cooks always add a healthy dash of Salsa Lizano to their gallo pinto. The Salsa Lizano provides a depth of flavor that no other spice can.

Costa Ricans eat gallo pinto at any meal, but it is most popular at breakfast time. Restaurants all across the country serve it in the morning. Gallo pinto is delicious with a side of tortillas and fried plantains—and sometimes with one additional drop of Salsa Lizano.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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September 4th, 2008

What’s in a Flag?

The flag of Costa Rica is attractive both in its graphic simplicity and in its wealth of symbolic meaning. Adopted in 1848, the flag has three colors, which allude to those of the French flag, a symbolic recognition of the ideals of the French Revolution.

A Costa Rican government decree of 1848 provides the first official description of the flag—a “tricolor” made up of five horizontal bands. The central red band is flanked by two white bands, which, in turn, are flanked by two blue ones. Each band takes up one sixth of the flag’s width, except for the red band, which is two-sixths of the width.

Each of the flag’s colors has its own meaning. The blue stripes represent the blue of the sky and, by extension, purity and tranquility. The white stripes represent peace, an ideal of particular importance to a country with no army. The red represents the blood shed by those who fought for Costa Rica’s independence, although it has also come to symbolize the blood pulsing through the veins of the people and the reddened faces of Costa Rica’s hard-working laborers.

The unadorned red-white-and-blue flag serves for unofficial purposes. For official state and maritime purposes, Costa Rica flies the Pabellón Nacional. This flag has the same five horizontal stripes but also includes the country’s coat of arms, or escudo. The escudo floats on a white elliptical background, whose dimensions are also specified in the 1848 governmental decree. The white ellipse sits on the flag’s broad red band.

Costa Rica’s flag, whether in its official or its unofficial purpose, is a great source of national pride for its people.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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