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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October 7th, 2008

The Sleep Inn Hotel—Old Meets New

When the Sleep Inn San José Downtown was first built, there had been no new hotels built in the central downtown area for about thirteen years. The Sleep Inn brought new hotel, restaurant and entertainment services to central San José, but it hoped to seamlessly fit itself into a charming downtown area known for its gracious parks and large, old trees. The Sleep Inn builders made several design and decorating choices that have helped the hotel blend nicely with its older surroundings and earn praise from guests and city officials alike.

Before the Sleep Inn was built, the Escuela Metálica, one of San José’s oldest high schools, stood directly across the park from the hotel’s proposed site. The Escuela Metálica is one of the most unusual buildings in San José. As its name suggests, the outer skin of the building and its fine architectural details are made entirely of metal. The building has become an attractive downtown landmark, its greenish hue playing off the green of the surrounding trees. The building was manufactured in France and shipped in pieces to San José, where it was assembled. The Sleep Inn builders hoped to acknowledge the Escuela Metálica when they built the hotel. The outside color choice for the Sleep Inn is a similar, slightly modernized green—a respectful nod to the older Escuela Metálica.

A visitor to the pre-construction Sleep Inn site looking toward the Escuela Metálica would also see beautiful old trees lining narrow streets. When the Sleep Inn lobby walls went up, these trees were no longer visible. The Sleep Inn commissioned Denis Salas, a Costa Rican painter, to do some paintings for the hotel’s lobby walls. Denis Salas, who loved the old tree-lined streets, painted the very images that the pre-construction visitor would have seen on the unbuilt hotel site. The lobby now boasts a series of paintings that work almost like windows, providing views of the surrounding downtown area.

San José’s mayor and several prominent city officials have praised the Sleep Inn for modernizing the downtown area and renewing business while creatively acknowledging the area’s past.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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October 2nd, 2008

View from the Outside

Although Costa Rican authors, like Carlos Luis Fallas, provide the kind of inside look at Costa Rica that only a native can (see “Literary Lessons” in this blog), there is something to be said for the viewpoint of a complete outsider to the country. Expatriates in a foreign land or long-time visitors to another country often have a completely different sense of the social and political events around them, and their writing about the country reflects their outsider viewpoints. Interestingly, Costa Rica does not yet have a definitive outsider author who has described the country from this alternate point of view. Costa Rica has not yet found its Hemingway.

When Ernest Hemingway went to Spain during the Spanish Civil War, he wrote about the country and its people from his own expatriate point of view. Hemingway’s identity as an American abroad colored his take on the politics of the country, its customs, and even his depiction of its language. Our collective view of Spain has forever been broadened by Hemingway’s experience there.

In much the same way, John Berendt forever changed Savannah, Georgia after the publication of his Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Berendt’s heartfelt descriptions of Savannah’s charm and history lured thousands of tourists to the once-sleepy Southern city. His vivid description of the eccentricity and self-reliance of Savannah’s people made readers feel as though they had actually met the characters in his book.

Although literary fame can take its toll on a country, this kind of fame can also add an interesting facet to the country’s image. Costa Rica has yet to meet its expatriate author.

from an interview with Shelby McAdams

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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May 11th, 2008

Tourism on the upswing in Central America

In 2008, the seven Central American countries witnessed a strong upswing in tourism. The previous year, as many as 8 million people from all over the world were expected to visit Maya sites in places like Tikal (Guatemala) and Copan (Honduras); the wildlife refuges and beaches of Costa Rica; the Panama Canal; and the volcanoes and colonial cities of Nicaragua. Nearly 100,000 tourists were expected from Germany alone, according to Pilar Cano, general secretary of the Central America Tourism Agency (CATA). Speaking in the Costa Rican capital of San Jose at the start of the tourism fair CATM (Central America Travel Market), Cano said, “The countries’ joint marketing, including in Europe, and the stable political situation are bearing fruit.” Belize and El Salvador also reported more tourists in 2007 than in 2006. In 2006, about 7 million people visited Central America. Costa Rica remained the region’s most popular destination. In 2006, it received 1.725 million guests, a figure that Tourism Minister Carlos Ricardo Benavides expected to increase by about 10 per cent in 2008. “Tourism provides a livelihood for the people of all seven countries,” Benavides said. “To keep it that way, we must continue to work for peace as well as climate and environmental protection.”

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