Costa Rica is—and always has been—in the tropics, but the popular conception of the tropics has changed, altering the country itself in the process. The new idea of the tropics—essentially, a geographically unspecific blend of disparate tropical images—has transformed the image tourists and locals have of Costa Rica.
About thirty years ago, the Costa Rican image of the tropics was largely self-created. Few tourists came to Costa Rica, and most knew very little about what they would find once they reached the country. There were no websites about the country, few books about it that would reach an international audience and still fewer images of Costa Rica circulating outside its borders. Everything Costa Ricans and their visitors knew about the Costa Rican tropics came from what they learned within the country itself. Local and international scientists studied and wrote about the country’s own tropical attributes, although their publications only reached a limited readership. Costa Ricans enjoyed the country’s bountiful tropical fruits and vegetables and visited its parks and beaches. However, without the perspective of the foreign observer, Costa Rica’s early conception of the tropics was straightforward and relatively untainted.
Recently, this conception has become blurred by a more global and commercial sense of the tropics. Visitors to the country have seen movies about the tropics or visited theme parks about this part of the world. All have their own conception of the rain forest, beaches and life in this particular latitude, and many have superimposed their tropical notions on the country.
In the mid-1990s, American surfers “discovered” Costa Rican beaches and brought with them their own sense of the tropics. Surfboards, Hawaiian shirts and an Endless Summer-style sensibility crept into Costa Rican beaches where soccer balls and ceviche were once the only attributes. A commercial Caribbean influence soon emerged, bringing with it Rastafarian imagery, Bob Marley music and the other aspects of a sort of pan-Caribbean vision. Most recently, the spa set has imposed its sense of the tropics on Costa Rica, bringing with it hibiscus-infused therapeutic baths and seaside massages.
These new tropical conceptions, imposed from the outside, have little to do with one another and still less to do with the “true” Costa Rica, which has no past of surfing, steel drumming or therapeutic yoga. The image some newcomers have created is a sort of hodge-podge of the tropics, a blend of everyone’s idea of what the tropics ought to be. In some places, Costa Rica has become a receptacle for everyone else’s idea of tropical life.
However, some of Costa Rica’s “true” tropical sense still remains, and the intrepid visitor can still find it. On some quiet beach, there is still an open-air cinder-block restaurant, where the radio plays maudlin ballads in Spanish, nobody sells imported t-shirts, swimmers and seagulls share the afternoon ocean, and water condenses quietly on the outside of a glass of cás.
[Read more about cás.]
Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.