August 3rd, 2009

Pilgrimage, the Modern Way

For the past 227 years, thousands of Costa Ricans have made an annual pilgrimage to the Basilica of Cartago, where they visit the statue of the Virgin of the Angels (Virgen de los Angeles), popularly known as “La Negrita.” This image of the Virgin is said to heal the sick. Suppliants approach her for cures, and the healed visit her in gratitude. The pilgrimage takes place August 2, the feast day of the Virgin of the Angels, but this year marked a radical change in the pilgrimage to La Negrita.

On July 21 of this year, the Catholic Church and the Costa Rican Health Minister (Ministra de Salud), María Luisa Avila, cancelled the 2009 pilgrimage to Cartago because of fears about the H1N1 virus. During normal pilgrimage years, thousands of Costa Ricans spend several days in close proximity to one another—taking buses and other forms of collective transportation from outlying provinces to the Basilica in Cartago, jostling one another in the streets during the miles-long walk to the Basilica, crowding together in restaurants and cafés during rest stops, sharing food and drinks along the pilgrimage route, and packing into the Basilica and its courtyard during the religious ceremonies. The Church and Ms. Avila worried that the virus could easily spread among these thousands of pilgrims.

Thus, for the first time in over two centuries, the Catholic faithful would not be allowed to make their way to Cartago and to La Negrita. The pilgrimage is one of the most important religious rites among Costa Rican Catholics, and some have walked to Cartago for dozens of years in a row. Outraged by the cancellation, many vowed to do the pilgrimage on their own, even though the government said there would be no official traffic closures or police escorts to protect them along the way.

The faithful need not have worried. Over the first weekend in August 2009, the pilgrimage did, in fact, take place, although in altered form to accommodate modern health demands. La Negrita herself made the cross-country journey to visit her own worshippers. In a pick-up truck and a helicopter donated by Costa Rica’s Channel 7 (Teletica Canal 7), the Virgin flew to crowds of adoring Catholics who greeted her with applause, prayer and tears. La Negrita began her journey in a new white dress, after her annual dressing ceremony at the Cartago Basilica on Friday, August 1. The following day, church officials loaded the statue into the pick-up truck, in which she toured the Central Valley provinces of San José, Heredia and Alajuela. A motorcycle brigade accompanied the Virgin on her stops to various churches in the Central Valley. The Virgin then returned to Cartago for Sunday’s journey. Near dawn on Sunday, the Virgin left the Basilica in her pick-up truck, which transported her to a nearby field. From there, church officials put the statue into the Channel 7 helicopter, where she joined the Bishop of Cartago, the priest of the Cartago Basilica and a member of the Costa Rican air services (Fuerza de Vigilancia Aérea). On Sunday, the Virgin visited the provinces of Limón and Puntarenas.

During both Saturday and Sunday’s journeys, the Virgin stopped at various arenas and stadiums, all of which were filled to capacity. At each stadium, the faithful processed with the statue to and from a nearby church. Once back in the helicopter, the Virgin proceeded to the next stadium. At every stop, the faithful waved white handkerchiefs and held aloft objects to be blessed.

Because the Virgin’s land-and-air journey began at the Basilica in Cartago, some worshippers did, in fact, make the pilgrimage to Cartago. However, their numbers were smaller than usual, and those who made the pilgrimage were unable to see the Virgin in her usual place on the altar. The statue was being readied for the cross-country journey, so a replica stood on a temporary altar outside the Basilica. Traffic police, on hand despite earlier government threats to the contrary, had an easy job of controlling the minuscule crowds and reported no traffic problems.

Although the Virgin’s 2009 voyage was unusual, her official historian, Carlos Oreamuno, says that La Negrita has traveled across the country several times in the past. According to Oreamuno, the Virgin has traversed all parts of Costa Rica but Cocos Island (la Isla del Coco). However, the 2009 journey was surely the first in which a GPS signaled the Virgin’s exact location throughout her trip. The faithful followed La Negrita’s every move online at santuarionacional.org.

[Please read our upcoming post about the history of the basilica in Cartago.]

Read more about La Negrita’s Sunday journey.

Read more about the dressing of la Virgen de los Angeles.

Read more about the cancellation of the pilgrimage to the Basilica in Cartago.

Read more about the Virgen de los Angeles and the GPS.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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July 20th, 2009

Costa Rica v. Nicaragua: Border Dispute Resolved

For the past four years, Costa Rica and Nicaragua have been embroiled in a dispute over the San Juan River, which runs between the two countries. Fishermen, tour boat operators and pleasure boaters from both countries have, for many years, shared the river relatively peacefully, although undercurrents of conflict have existed for two centuries.

The Cañas-Jerez treaty of April 15, 1858 demarcated the border between the two countries. Under the treaty, the San Juan River belongs to Nicaragua, and the border runs along the Costa Rican side of the river. However, Nicaragua recently argued that its possession of the river allowed it to control river traffic as well. The Nicaraguan government refused to allow Costa Rican law enforcement officials to patrol the river. In addition, Nicaragua demanded that passengers on river boats have Nicaraguan tourist visas, arguing that these passengers needed to purchase tourist passes in order to travel along the river. Costa Rica argued that its commercial and police vessels had a right to freely navigate the San Juan River. Conflict escalated.

On September 29, 2005, Costa Rica took its case to the United Nations’ International Court of Justice in The Hague. At issue was the interpretation of the Cañas-Jerez treaty. Costa Rica claimed that the treaty did not allow Nicaragua to restrict navigation of Costa Rican police along the river and that such restriction violated the 1858 treaty.

On July 13, 2009, the court reached a decision in Costa Rica v. Nicaragua, granting most of the demands of the Costa Rican government. The court recognized the right of Costa Rican tour and passenger boats to freely navigate the river for commercial purposes. Passengers on these boats do not have to procure Nicaraguan tourist visas. In addition, Costa Ricans can use the river for daily transportation requirements—to ferry children to and from school, to deliver food and other necessities to people living in the region and for subsistence fishing.

Interestingly, Costa Rica lost on the one issue it originally brought before the court—whether Costa Rican police had the right to patrol the river. The court held that Costa Rican police had no right to this activity. In addition, Costa Rica can no longer use the river to transport weapons or supplies to police stations in the San Juan River region. The court also granted Nicaragua the right to inspect Costa Rican ships and their passengers at various predetermined checkpoints along the river.

On the whole, Costa Rica is satisfied with the decision, and Costa Ricans hope that tension in the San Juan River area will dissipate.

Read about Costa Rica v. Nicaragua in La Nación.

Read the International Court of Justice’s complete decision in Costa Rica v. Nicaragua.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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July 13th, 2009

The Lyrics of Costa Rica’s National Anthem

Costa Rica’s national anthem opens with a mention of the country’s flag, whose symbolism is so important to Costa Rican civic life. Alluding to the red, white and blue of the flag, the anthem praises the reddened faces of the country’s laborers, the white of peace and the blue skies above. A paean to tranquility and hard work, Costa Rica’s national anthem embodies the ideals of this peace-loving country.

In translation, the anthem’s lyrics read as follows:

Noble homeland, your beautiful flag
Expresses your life to us:
Beneath the limpid blue of your sky,
Peace reposes, white and pure.

In the tenacious struggle of fruitful toil,
That reddens a mans face,
Your sons, simple laborers, achieved
Eternal renown, esteem and honor.

Hail, gentle land!
Hail, honorable mother!
When someone tries to stain your glory,
You will witness your people, strong and valiant,
Exchange their rough tools for weapons.

Hail, homeland! Your generous soil
Gives us sweet sustenance and shelter.
Beneath the limpid blue of your sky,
Long live labor and peace!

In the original Spanish, the anthem’s lyrics read as follows:

Noble patria tu hermosa bandera
Expresión de tu vida nos da:
Bajo el límpido azul de tu cielo
Blanca y pura descansa la paz.

En la lucha tenaz de fecunda labor
Que enrojece del hombre la faz,
Conquistaron tus hijos, labriegos sencillos,
eterno prestigio, estima y honor,
eterno prestigio, estima y honor.

¡Salve oh tierra gentil!
¡Salve oh madre de amor!
Cuando alguno pretenda tu gloria manchar,
Verás a tu pueblo, valiente y viril
La tosca herramienta en arma trocar.

¡Noble patria! tu pródigo suelo
Dulce abrigo y sustento nos da;
Bajo el límpido azul de tu cielo
¡Vivan siempre el trabajo y la paz!

Click here to read about the Costa Rican flag.
Click here to read about the Costa Rican coat of arms.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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July 6th, 2009

Costa Rica’s National Anthem

In 1852, Costa Rica had just declared its independence from Spain and would soon need to defend itself from American imperialists. During a relative political lull, Juan Manuel Mora Porras, Costa Rica’s president, prepared for diplomatic visits from the United States and Great Britain. He realized that the country was ill-prepared to receive foreign visitors, because it had no national anthem. The president quickly commissioned an anthem to be performed for the visitors.

At the time, Manuel María Gutiérrez was the director of San José’s military band, and he dashed off the music to the anthem in time for the official visits. Although Gutiérrez was a consummate musician, he was not a lyricist; he wrote only the rousing music to the national anthem. Its words would not be written for another fifty years.

In 1903, the Costa Rican government, headed by President Ascención Esquivel, sponsored a lyric-writing contest for the national anthem. The poet, José María Zeledón, won the contest’s 500-colón prize with a passionate poem about peace, national bravery and the good hearts of the country’s laborers. Interestingly, Zeledón used the pseudonym of “Campesino”—a reference to Costa Rica’s honorable labor force and to one of the country’s true ideals—when he signed his name as the anthem’s lyricist.

Costa Ricans heard the complete national anthem—and Zeledón’s lyrics—for the first time on independence day, September 15, 1903.

Listen to the Costa Rican national anthem.

Read more about the history of the Costa Rican national anthem.

Read more about the American imperialists and Juan Santamaría, the Costa Rican hero who defeated them.

Read more about the Costa Rican idea of the campesino.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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June 5th, 2009

Rafa Fernández, A Costa Rican Master

Connoisseurs of Costa Rican art recognize Rafa Fernández as one of the country’s most influential painters. Born in 1935, Rafa Fernández has produced a large body of critically acclaimed work and has had many national and international exhibits.

Largely self-taught, Rafa Fernández has won several important awards for his artwork, most notably the 2002 Magón Prize, awarded by the Costa Rican government. His paintings often focus on the feminine form in surreal, magical settings, and his palette is rich and colorful.

In 2002, Rafa Fernández put together a viewer-friendly exhibit of his work, rejecting the traditional museum space in favor of San José’s city streets—the “heart of my city,” according to the artist. For this exhibit, the artist hung high-quality reproductions of his work on the outdoor information kiosks that stand in the pedestrian mall of Avenida Central. Viewers could stroll outside, studying 28 paintings that represented 50 years of the artist’s work. Johnny Araya, then mayor of San José, declared that this exhibit would bring the artist’s work closer to the average Costa Rican and that the images would speak to the spirit of the entire community. The exhibit acknowledges the artist’s own efforts to bring good art to the average Costa Rican.

In March 2009, Rafa Fernández exhibited 25 of his recent oil paintings at the Calderón Guardia Museum (Museo Histórico Rafael Angel Calderón Guardia). The exhibit included fantastical images of acrobats, unicyclists, trapeze artists and marvelous animals.

Of this recent exhibit, the artist said that

…[m]y paintings are the ghosts, large or small, who surrounded me in my childhood and who showed me that the world could be seen from an alternate dimension: filled with magic, mood and craziness, that I could create the most absurd worlds from the most concrete reality and that I could allow myself the luxury of absolute belief in the reality of these worlds. [The ghosts] taught me to create images that did not exist, to speak with characters I did not know, and in time, they became my family.

Read a brief biography of Rafa Fernández.

Read more about Rafa Fernandez’s exhibit on the streets of San José

Read more about Rafa Fernández’s exhibit at the Calderón Guardia Museum

Read about César Valverde, another great Costa Rican artist.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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May 27th, 2009

The Old Corner Grocery

About thirty years ago, shopping in Costa Rica was very different from what it is today. Imported goods were scarce and very expensive. Manufactured goods—clothing, furniture, and large appliances—were all but unavailable, and shoppers with the means would buy them outside the country. However, fruits and vegetables were plentiful, and most Costa Ricans could buy these at small corner grocery stores called pulperías. Once a vital part of daily life, the pulpería has all but disappeared from the newly modernized Costa Rican landscape. Many Costa Ricans fondly describe the pulpería as a symbol of the country’s slow-paced and charming past.

Pulperías were always small, modest buildings that crouched unassumingly on street corners. They usually had colorful names that referred to nearby attractions or to desirable attributes. Locals gathered there daily to buy milk, cheese, and eggs before refrigeration was common. Pulperías were popular gathering places, and most customers prolonged their visits, talking and joking with their neighbors as they bought their daily supplies.

Pulperías had a feel and look uniquely their own. Their floors were often unfinished wood planks. Because the doors stood open all day, pulpería floors were warmed by the sun and slightly dusty. To either side of the open doors wooden bins held fresh fruits and vegetables, and plantains and onions often hung from hooks in the ceiling. Employees stood behind wooden counters that had been worn smooth with use. Customers requested items stored on shelves behind the counters. Pulperías always smelled of warm wood and gently ripening fruit.

For children, the best part of the pulpería was the glass-fronted shelf that held candy. It sat at eye level on the wooden counter, each candy relegated to one section of a vertical grid. Just as children could buy one individual piece of candy, adults could buy an individual cigarette, a match or a cotton ball pre-moistened with nail polish remover. One-colón coins and smaller céntimo pieces still had value, and almost every transaction involved just a few small coins.

Pulperías—also known as abastecedores—still exist in Costa Rica, and they still retain some of their traditional flavor. However, flashy new stores are slowly taking over what was once the sole domain of this small corner grocery.

Read about an art exhibit dedicated to pulperías.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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May 6th, 2009

A Boggy Past

Visitors to the Hotel Sleep Inn might be surprised to learn that, in the early 1800s, the surrounding area was primarily marshland. Costa Rican historians refer to this part of town as the “lagoon,” a swampy area just north of the Sleep Inn’s current location. In fact, if the Sleep Inn had existed during this period, guests in north-facing rooms might have had pleasant lagoon views. As the 19th century progressed, San José grew in size, and the area where the Sleep Inn now stands became one of its most vibrant centers.

Until the mid-1800s, San José’s lagoon occupied an area bordered by the current Morazán Park (Parque Morazán), the Park of Spain (Parque España) and the beautiful metal-clad school (Escuela Metálica) that overlooks the Parque Morazán. Neither the parks nor the Escuela Metálica existed at the start of the 1800s; the liquor factory was the only building on the banks of the lagoon before the late-19th-century building boom. Across the boggy marshland from the liquor factory stood the train station to the coast.

In the latter half of the 1800s, coffee became Costa Rica’s leading export product, and the entire country changed and grew. San José’s population increased, as did train travel to and from the coasts. As the population shifted toward San José’s lagoon, city planners soon realized that they would need a way to connect the lagoon areas with the busy nearby train station. Until then, train passengers struggled to traverse the boggy lowlands on their walks to and from the station, and train workers slogged through the marshes to reach the railroad yards. In 1875, work began on this traffic connector, which would essentially traverse the marshes to allow for more efficient traffic flow. Upon completion, the connector became Third Avenue (Avenida Tercera), which is the street bordering the Hotel Sleep Inn to the north. At the time it was built, the street was called Paseo de las Damas, a reference to the beautiful trees growing along its edges.

At about the time that the city finished construction on the new Paseo de las Damas, city officials decided to drain the lagoon completely. On this former swampland, the city established the Parque Morazán. This new park, the National Liquor factory and the train station soon demarcated one of the busiest and most important regions in late-19th-century San José. Train passengers bustled to and from the station along the new street, which was soon dotted with businesses and restaurants. Wealthy Costa Rican families moved into the area, and elegant new neighborhoods grew up around Amón, Aranjuez and Otoya, on the outskirts of this fashionable new part of town

Although the city has shifted and changed several times since the heady late 1800s, visitors to the Sleep Inn’s neighborhood can still see the fine old buildings and beautiful parks of Costa Rica’s past. The Hotel Sleep Inn is proud to stand in this lovely historic neighborhood.

[from a radio broadcast based on research by Raúl Francisco Arias Sánchez, a Costa Rican historian]

Read more about the history of coffee production in Costa Rica.

Read more about the Hotel Sleep Inn, the Escuela Metálica and their historic setting.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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April 30th, 2009

It Really Is Rocket Science

Costa Rica has recently become host to one of NASA’s most important and most intriguing aerospace research projects. Headed by Franklin Chang Díaz, Ph.D., Costa Rica’s famous NASA astronaut, the project could revolutionize space travel and exploration, greatly reducing costs for astronomical missions. Franklin Chang and his team of scientists conduct their research in Guanacaste, at the headquarters of Ad Astra Rocket Company Costa Rica, the Costa Rican branch of Franklin Chang’s aerospace research company. Ronald Chang Díaz, Franklin Chang’s brother, serves as General Director of the Costa Rican laboratory; he supervises all day-to-day operations.

Franklin Chang worked for NASA for 25 years and took part in seven space flights with NASA. He is the inventor and patent-holder of several important aerospace inventions, one of which is the Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket (VASIMR, U.S. patent 2002). He received his Ph.D. from MIT, where he conducted research in applied plasma physics and fusion technology, two subjects unfamiliar to most laypersons but integrally related to the work of the Ad Astra researchers.

The beauty of a plasma rocket, like the one Franklin Chang has patented, is that it uses cheap and abundant fuel sources—hydrogen, argon and neon gases that are plentiful in the air we breathe. The plasma rocket converts these various gases into plasma, which is the rocket’s revolutionary secret. Sometimes considered a fourth state of matter (along with the usual three—solid, liquid and gas), plasma is made when scientists heat a gas to an incredibly high temperature—sometimes up to a million degrees. Interestingly, the layperson is familiar with matter in a plasma state, because lightning, the sun and some very hot flames are in the plasma state.

Once the plasma rocket converts a gas into plasma, the rocket energizes the plasma so that it reaches an ideal temperature for use as a rocket fuel. Then, using magnetized fields, the rocket converts the energy of the plasma into forward thrust. Ad Astra’s use of plasma as a cheap rocket fuel source could change aerospace travel and transport forever.

Because plasma rockets generate a great deal of heat, researchers have noted the importance of a thermal cover that will protect the rocket parts from intense heat. The Costa Rican branch of Ad Astra has the specific duty of creating a thermal cover for the rocket. Once its thermal-cover research is complete, Ad Astra Costa Rica hopes to send the plasma rocket up to the space station for the kinds of propulsion tests researchers can only conduct in outer space. Ultimately, Ad Astra Costa Rica plans to move into space transportation, delivering machinery and supplies to the space station and other outer space destinations.

As its Latin name suggests, Ad Astra’s dreams reach to the heavens. If Ad Astra’s research continues as successfully as it has so far, Costa Rica could play a major role in outer space.

Read more about Franklin Chang.
Read about the advantages of a plasma rocket.
Read more about plasma.
See The SJO Post, “Costa Rica Points to the Stars,” by Ivette Sojo, Edition No. 6, April 20-26, 2009

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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April 20th, 2009

Costa Rica: The New Roswell?

UFO enthusiasts who hailed Roswell, New Mexico as the destination of choice for earthbound aliens in the 1950s might have a new location from which to monitor alien visits to Earth—Costa Rica. For the last several years, people wandering Costa Rica’s less-populated areas have reported unidentified aircraft and other extraterrestrial-looking objects hovering in the tropical sky.

The April 15 edition of Diario Extra reported that a Costa Rican doctor, vacationing at Punta Leona for Easter, whiled away his time by taking pictures of ships at sea. When he later examined one of the digital images on his computer, he noticed an unusual object floating in the sky. Some might argue that the object looks like a parasail with two riders. Upon closer inspection, the object looks more metallic than a parasail would—more like a mechanized bronze jellyfish reflecting the coastal sun. The full-color photograph is so clear and sharp that refutation of its authenticity had seemed inevitable. One expected photography experts to find clear evidence that the image had been digitally enhanced.

Surprisingly, however, Diario Extra announced the next day that Edgar Picado, a UFO expert, determined that the photograph was authentic. He said that he could not conclude that the object in the photograph was, in fact, a UFO, but he did say that it could not be identified as any known flying object. Picado is very familiar with UFOs and their images, and he runs a battery of tests on UFO images to determine their authenticity. Picado’s pixilation test found that the Punta Leona photograph had no altered pixels; the digital image was completely uniform, a testament to its authenticity. Other UFO experts conduct more detailed authentication tests, and Picado will send the photograph to Spain and Argentina for those further tests. He and his colleagues should reach a final conclusion within one month.

Costa Rica’s most famous UFO photograph is from 1971, when members of Costa Rica’s Ministry of Public Works and Transportation (Ministerio de Obras Públicas y Transporte) visited a lake near the Arenal Volcano. Their assignment was to take aerial photographs that they would use in mapping the area. Their camera was set to take photographs every 20 seconds. One photograph in the series revealed a plate-shaped object floating above the surface of the lake. The government agency was unable to identify this object, as it did not resemble an airplane or helicopter or any object known to be in the area. Because the photograph was taken with government equipment and using a timing device, UFO experts rank it among the most authentic of unidentified object photographs.

Many of Costa Rica’s mysterious sightings have been near the country’s numerous volcanoes, a fact UFO enthusiasts believe is significant. These enthusiasts say that extraterrestrials could use geothermic volcanic energy to power their ships. Other UFO specialists believe that extraterrestrials and their ships in fact cause both tremors and volcanic activity.

Whatever the true nature of these mysterious flying objects—and their supposed pilots—it does seem apparent that Costa Rica is the new place to spot them.

Click here to read more about the UFO in Punta Leona, Costa Rica.

Click here to read more about UFO sightings in Costa Rica.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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April 6th, 2009

Bananas: A Mini History

During the middle-to-late 19th century, coffee accounted for nearly 90% of Costa Rica’s export revenue. The success of the coffee trade prompted business-minded entrepreneurs to seek other lucrative agricultural markets. Thus, the late 1800s witnessed the growth and development of the banana production and export business.

Until the end of the 1800s, Costa Rica’s Atlantic coast was all but inaccessible from the rest of the country. Its jungles and thick vegetation made trade with the area next to impossible, and politicians decided to finance the construction of a railroad that would link the Atlantic coast to the rest of the country. Construction of the railroad took longer than expected, and costs went significantly over budget.

In the end, an American contractor, Minor C. Keith, completed the railroad project, a fact which tied American interests to the Atlantic region for many unhappy years. As part of his contract for completing the railroad, Keith received large tracts of land in the Atlantic region. He used this land as a banana plantation and financed part of the railroad construction with banana exports. Keith exported many of his bananas to the United States and played an important role in forming the United Fruit Company.

The United Fruit Company soon developed a monopoly over banana production in the Atlantic Region, expanding its agricultural holdings across the region. Before long, the United Fruit Company—or “Yunai,” as it was known among agricultural workers—came to symbolize the worst of American imperialism. Banana workers suffered in the harsh coastal conditions, and Costa Ricans protested their mistreatment and the fact that workers received almost none of the profit from the lucrative banana exports. The Costa Rican Communist party emerged as a significant force in the clash between the United Fruit Company and its Costa Rican workers.

Revenue from banana exports soon equaled that from coffee exports, and a new chapter in Costa Rican agricultural history had begun.

The United Fruit Company influenced Costa Rica’s literary history as well. For more information about the United Fruit Company in Costa Rican literature, click here.

[See Historia de Costa Rica, by Iván Molina and Steven Palmer, Editorial de la Universidad de Costa Rica: 2007.]

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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