March 8th, 2012

Even Arriving is Fun

Twenty or thirty years ago, Costa Rica was almost unknown as a tourist destination. All of that has changed, and about a million visitors flock to the country each year. Some people might think that these arriving hoardes would create chaos and unpleasantness at the airport. But as the Tico Times reports, Costa Rica’s main airport, Juan Santamaría, has been named the third best airport in Latin America for the second year in a row.

The airport has been completely remodeled, a project that finished in 2010. It is now sleek and very modern. Immigration lines, never very much fun for the arriving passenger, are almost pleasant at the Juan Santamaría airport, because arriving passengers gather in a light-filled space with lively murals. Departing passengers can do last-minute shopping at several well-stocked gift shops. And everyone can have a last-minute cup of Costa Rican coffee before boarding the airplane.

The Sleep Inn provides free shuttle service to and from the Juan Santamaría airport. The drivers are friendly and very professional, and the Sleep Inn van is speedy and very clean.

Who was Juan Santamaría?

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August 10th, 2010

Five Good Years

If the Sleep Inn seems in an unusually festive mood these days, part of the reason is that the hotel has just celebrated its fifth anniversary of operation.

When the Sleep Inn first opened, no new hotels had been built in the central San José area for over fourteen years. The Sleep Inn heralded a new period of optimism and excitement in the downtown area, and it has witnessed a resurgence of activity in its immediate surroundings.

Along with the general enlivening of the Sleep Inn’s surroundings, several other changes have taken place during the five years of the hotel’s existence. The Sleep Inn has won a highly coveted hotel award, the city has undertaken several beautification projects in the neighborhood, and changes are in store for some of the hotel’s public spaces.

Stay tuned for details about some of the various changes in the Sleep Inn and its neighborhood during these past five years.

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April 2nd, 2010

An Olfactory Tour of Costa Rica

A trip to Costa Rica can be a sensory adventure. Visitors to the country describe its glorious sights–its beaches, volcanoes and tropical forests–and its delicious flavors–gallo pinto, fresh tortillas and exotic fruits. Northerners rave about Costa Rica’s balmy tropical climate–the warmth of its oceans, its pleasant tropical breezes and its near-constant sunshine. And others are thrilled to hear Spanish spoken all around them, when they aren’t listening to the thunder of a tropical rainstorm or to exotic birdcalls on a walk through the jungle. However, few tourists ever really describe the wondrous smells they encounter on a trip to Costa Rica. But we believe that the scent of a Costa Rican trip is something to savor.

During the rainy season, visitors to Costa Rica can experience the complex smell of a tropical rainstorm. At the beach, the rain carries with it the green, vegetal smell of tropical undergrowth; the scent of clean, wet sand and the salty undercurrent of the storm-tossed sea. In San José, the rain has the distinctly urban smell of wet paving stones and the steamy scent wafting from outdoor food stalls, but it still has within it a baseline of the tropical Costa Rican wilderness–a smell of dark soil and wet leaves.

The beaches of Costa Rica have their own smells. The harsh, raw smell of the inside of a green coconut, or “pipa,” mixes with the briny scent of the sea and a pleasant underlying smell of sea life. All give an outdoor meal of ceviche and a fruit drink, or “fresco,” a layer of flavor they don’t have anywhere else in the country.

The volcanoes of Costa Rica have a distinctive ashy, sulfuric smell that reminds visitors of the geological tumult before them. Poás has the smell of rich, black earth, damp under the thick vegetation that grows right near the volcano’s sulfur-filled crater. Irazú, the volcano that looks most like a lunar landscape, has a dry, burnt smell that blows in cool, damp gusts across the black fields of ash. Arenal smells of fresh eruptions and the steamy warmth of the hot springs at its base.

As much as Costa Rica is a pleasure for the eyes, ears and taste buds, it is a marvelous destination for the intrepid visitor with a scent for adventure.

Read more about cas, the best tropical fruit drink in Costa Rica.

Read more about visiting Costa Rica during the rainy season.

Read more about Costa Rica’s volcanoes.

Read the rest of this entry »

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August 31st, 2009

The New Tropics

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.

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March 9th, 2009

Don’t Let Pejibayes Pass You By

The pejibaye is one of Costa Rica’s most intriguing fruits. Readily available all across the country, pejibayes add an unexpected dimension to Costa Rican cuisine.

Pejibayes grow in clusters on the very same palm trees that produce hearts of palm. Costa Ricans hack the entire cluster from the tree once the fruits ripen. The shiny orange skin of the pejibaye might suggest a sweet, fleshy, mango-like interior. But pejibayes are dry and not at all juicy like their other orange tropical fruit counterparts.

The starchy pejibaye, potato-like in its dryness, makes for very interesting eating. Costa Ricans drop whole pejibayes into vats of boiling salted water and cook them for at least half an hour. Once the pejibayes soften, cooks slice them in half and remove the large central seed from each one, leaving a perfect hollow for a dollop of mayonnaise. Pejibayes and mayonnaise are as happy a combination as bread and butter, the smoothness of the mayonnaise pleasantly mitigating the dryness of the pejibaye, the tangy creaminess gently sharpening the pejibaye’s shy sweetness.

Some adventurous gourmet chefs forgo the mayonnaise treatment. They cook the pejibaye as though it were an exotic potato, lending a vibrant tropicality to more staid potato recipes.

One beach restaurant serves mayonnaise-filled pejibayes alongside spears of hearts of palm, a clever pairing of two fruits from the same palm tree. The orange pejibayes cluster charmingly on their side of the plate, their sister hearts of palm lying cool in their paleness. And the combination is wonderful—a moist vinegar tang with a tropical starchiness.

Roadside vendors sell boiled pejibayes at makeshift stands all across the country. Their stalls often feature hand-lettered signs with various idiosyncratic spellings of the fruit—“pejivalles,” or “pejivayes.”

But no variation in spelling can alter the allure of the pejibaye.

Click here to learn more about pejibayes.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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January 28th, 2009

Earthquake, Part 3

Earthquake, Part 3

Nearly three weeks after Costa Rica’s devastating earthquake, the land has subsided into new contours. In the area around the epicenter, formerly pristine waterfalls are now mud-brown, and rivers have changed course. Official rescue teams have discontinued their search efforts for the dozens of still-missing persons . The death count stands at 25, and those spared by the earthquake now face the task of rebuilding their homes and their lives. Disturbing reports have emerged about private helicopter companies charging exorbitant rates to rescue victims and phony organizations pocketing money they claim to have collected for earthquake victims.

The following poem by Susanna Lang (from Even Now, The Backwaters Press, June 2008) captures the post-earthquake feeling of loss and disorientation and the bewildering interplay between natural disaster and bureaucratic response:

Even Now
by Susanna Lang

Even diplomats are required to pay the tax, said the
mayor.
Shopkeepers have disappeared in full daylight and the
daylight disappeared as well.
The eclipse could be seen from Brazil to Mongolia,
but not here;
we did not even bother to look.

Even the flowing river has been blocked;
they had tape of the official announcement on the
radio.
A cemetery has been buried and another relocated,
the graves dug up one by one to make room for an
airport.
The developers arranged for a 120 year old oak to be
moved,
its rootball exposed and trimmed before it was lifted
onto the flatbed.

Even the government knows where the earth will
quake and split,
removing entire sections of the city as if they were
never there
except that we will remember them, the streets and
houses shaded by trees;
but no one knows when.

Even our parents have lost their way home.
The streets turn right where they used to turn left,
the lights blink red, the bridge is permanently raised,
the freight train stops at the crossing.
It may not move again until tomorrow.

Even you have misplaced your keys, your wallet, the
reason you were leaving the house,
and I can’t find that paper I just had in my hands
or the story I used to know by heart.

We have all lost so many things, perhaps all we had,
perhaps not

(Susanna Lang’s first collection of poems, Even Now, was published in 2008 by The Backwaters Press, and is available from the press or from Amazon. She has published original poems and essays, and translations from the French, in such journals as The Baltimore Review, Kalliope, Southern Poetry Review, World Literature Today, Chicago Review, New Directions, Green Mountains Review, Jubilat, and Rhino. Book publications include translations of Words in Stone and The Origin of Language, both by Yves Bonnefoy. She won a 1999 Illinois Arts Council award for a poem published in The Spoon River Poetry Review. She lives with her husband and son in Chicago, where she teaches at a Chicago Public School.)

Click here to order Even Now, by Susanna Lang.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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January 15th, 2009

Volcanoes

Costa Rica’s current earthquake disaster is only one of many seismic events that have affected the country in its recent past. One of the most dramatic of these events was the eruption of the Irazú volcano in 1963.

Many people still remember Irazú’s eruption, because of its profound effect on San José and the whole Central Valley. One visitor describes the eruption this way:

I remember “… the ‘black snow.’ This is not figuratively speaking. I mean literally. Irazú had acted up and was spewing out ash. One would brush ash from a car as if they were up north facing a snow storm. I don’t remember how long it ‘snowed.’” We arrived in Costa Rica sometime in the middle of November 1963. When that ‘snow’ stopped is when I fell in love with Costa Rica and her people.”

For those unfamiliar with volcanoes and their eruptions, Irazú was particularly disturbing. People would walk to and from work through a shower of fine, black ash, and at the end of the day, their clothing was stained black. When it rained, the water would mix with the ash in the air, creating a thick, soot-colored rain. Buildings slowly darkened, and the sun was constantly masked by the eerie black fall of ash. To visitors who arrived in Costa Rica during the eruption, the whole country seemed bleak and grimy. And when the eruption finally ended in 1965, many people, like the above visitor, saw Costa Rica’s true beauty for the first time.

In the past few days, vulcanologists have been monitoring some sporadic activity at the Poás volcano, which was very close to the epicenter of the January 8th earthquake. Just after the earthquake, the volcano began to rumble and show signs of some activity. However, scientists from the Costa Rican Vulcanological and Seismological Observatory (Observatorio Vulcanológico y Sismológico de Costa Rica—Ovsicori) denied that the volcano’s activity was in any way caused by the earthquake. Instead, they determined that the volcano was merely making periodic shifts and adjustments, of a type it constantly seems to make. Scientists recorded similar volcanic activity at Poás in January 2008.

As routine as it supposedly is, some of the recent activity at Poás has been spectacular. On Monday, January 12 and Wednesday, January 14, the volcano had two phreatic eruptions—releases of steam, rock, ash and water. This type of eruption apparently occurs when very hot magma rises from beneath the earth’s surface and touches ground water, creating a sort of steam explosion. Phreatic eruptions do not involve lava, although they can release noxious or poisonous gases. Monday’s activity began with the appearance of what an Ovsicori spokesperson called a large “bubble of liquid” at the center of the volcano’s crater lake. Soon afterward, a stream of ash, vapors and rock shot about 50 feet into the air.

Phreatic eruptions are fairly common at the Poás volcano, making it a prime tourist attraction. Spouts of steam frequently shoot out from the volcano’s two crater lakes. Visitors can get very close to—and actually peer into—these crater lakes. They can also examine the volcano’s sulfur lakes, said to be unique in the world.

At this time, the Poás volcano national park (Parque Nacional Volcán Poás) is closed, so that emergency vehicles can more easily reach the earthquake-ravaged areas at its base. However, most tourist attractions are still open, as are Costa Rica’s other volcanic national parks.

Resting as it does on a constantly shifting geological base, Costa Rica boasts an ever-changing natural beauty.

Click here to read about recent eruptions at the Poás Volcano.

Click here to learn more about phreatic eruptions.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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January 13th, 2009

Earthquake, Part 2

With a death toll now estimated at nineteen and many persons still missing after Costa Rica’s worst earthquake in 150 years, the country now struggles to reassure potential tourists that not all has been destroyed and that most of the country is safe for visitors.

One particular worry for potential visitors is the fact that Costa Rica is still experiencing earthquake aftershocks. Many fear that these aftershocks indicate another potential earthquake in the near future. However, experts at the Costa Rican Vulcanological and Seismological Observatory (Observatorio Vulcanológico y Sismológico de Costa Rica—Ovsicori) maintain that these geological shifts are common and indicate only that the ground is settling after a major event.  There have been about 2,500 aftershocks between the 6.2 earthquake of January 8 and Sunday, January 11. These aftershocks register between 2.8 and 4.1 on the Richter scale and are not strong enough to concern Ovsicori in any way.

San José itself suffered very little damage in the earthquake, and businesses and restaurants continue to operate as usual. The Hotel Sleep Inn and the Casino Club Colonial suffered no ill effects from the earthquake. Gaming continues in the casino; the Magnolia Restaurant offers its daily buffet and fine menu; the hotel serves its free daily continental breakfast; and the staff of both prepares for the arrival of new visitors.

News reporting about the earthquake has created some confusion for some Costa Rican businesses, however. Sarapiquí de Heredia, a popular tourist destination, has suffered, because its name is very similar to that of an earthquake-ravaged region. San Miguel de Sarapiquí de Alajuela sustained great damage after the earthquake, and most roads leading to and away from it are impassable. However, this Sarapiquí is far from the Sarapiquí in Heredia, which was completely unaffected by the earthquake. Both locals and tourists, confused about the similarity of name, cancelled hotel and tour reservations in Sarapiquí de Heredia, even though tour operators maintain that the area suffered no damage. These operators now beg tourists to return. Rossilynn Valverde, the president of the chamber of commerce of Sarapiquí de Heredia wants visitors to know that the area was unaffected by the earthquake and that access to its many tourist sites is perfectly clear and undamaged by the earthquake.

The earthquake has negatively affected both the Costa Rican dairy and export fruit industries. Tourism operators hope to restore the faith of potential visitors, so that the tourism industry will not be equally affected.

Click here to read about recent tremors in Costa Rica.

Click here to read about Sarapiquí de Heredia.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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January 10th, 2009

Earthquake

On Thursday, January 8, Costa Rica suffered its worst earthquake in over 150 years. Although accounts differ, about 30 people have been reported killed in the 6.2 quake, and hundreds more remain missing. Many of those killed were children trapped in mudslides. Several parts of the country have been devastated by the quake and its subsequent aftershocks. The beautiful La Paz waterfalls, a very popular tourist attraction, were particularly affected by the earthquake; much of the hotel collapsed, and visitors had to be evacuated from the area by helicopter. Other nearby hotels and tourist attractions also suffered damage and cancelled all reservations. The epicenter of the earthquake was near the Poás Volcano, some distance from San José, so the capital itself escaped some of the more severe destruction.

As devastating as this earthquake was, tremors and small seismic shifts are common in Costa Rica, because the country lies on a fault line. Costa Rica experiences a surprising number of small tremors in an average year. These tremors often occur in clusters, a sequence of several tremors happening one after another. Some tremors are strong enough to rattle windows, knock vases from shelves and send people running to seek shelter in doorways. Most, however, are almost too slight to feel.

Costa Rica’s presence on the fault line also creates some of the country’s most beautiful geological features. The mountain ranges that run through Costa Rica burst up from the fault line thousands of years ago, due to shifting of the two tectonic plates beneath the country. Costa Rica’s many scenic volcanoes also point to its underlying geological activity. One of these volcanoes, Arenal, has been active for the past several years. Geothermal heat warms the beautiful hot springs at the volcano’s base. Since Thursday’s earthquake, geologists are closely monitoring the Poás Volcano for signs of renewed activity, although most argue that the earthquake did not cause the volcanic activity.

Rescue workers are now sifting through rubble in order to rescue those trapped by the earthquake. Several foreign countries have sent volunteers to help in the rescue effort, and the Red Cross, the National Bank and Bank of Costa Rica are accepting donations for the victims.

We send our condolences to the friends and families of the earthquake’s victims.

Click here for more about the earthquake in Costa Rica.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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December 17th, 2008

Pura Vida

The expression “pura vida” is a favorite among authors of guide books to Costa Rica. These authors—often newcomers or visitors to Costa Rica—claim that the expression, literally translated as “pure life,” perfectly embodies the Costa Rican love of purity, nature and of life itself. Costa Ricans, these authors argue, have such an ingrained love of life that it trickles down into even their slang expressions. While Costa Ricans really do embrace life joyfully, this guide-book interpretation of “pura vida” is not entirely accurate. Just as widespread American use of the term “cool” does not mean an ingrained love of low temperatures, Costa Rican use of the term “pura vida” does not, in itself, encapsulate the whole Costa Rican philosophy of life.

Despite what the guide books say, “pura vida” is not an expression on the lips of every Costa Rican. Many Americans could go a whole lifetime without uttering expressions like “rock on” or “totally awesome,” and most Costa Ricans do not use “pura vida” as often as the guide books would have us believe. In fact, the term emerged about twenty-five years ago, mostly among young urban males, as part of a whole set of slick expressions they used to describe their activities. Before it was seized upon by the guide books, “pura vida” had as clear a demographic association as terms like “grody to the max” or “radical, dude.” It was a term reserved for only a specific young population.

Even when it first emerged, the expression probably did not indicate a deeply felt philosophical conviction. Its users were no more enamored of the purity of life than are most other twenty-somethings all across the world. Instead, the expression was just a colorful new way to comment positively, as “the bee’s knees” was long ago.

Interestingly, the guide books have probably breathed a life into the expression it never would have had otherwise. Like all slang, the expression probably would have all but disappeared as its users grew and adopted other expressions. Now, however, visitors to Costa Rica often buy “pura vida” merchandise, because the expression seems so life-affirming and positive. Vendors sell hundreds of t-shirts, hats and flags emblazoned with the expression, which now boasts an economically fueled existence. “Pura vida”’s current meaning is one it never had among its original users.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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