Costa Rica… (Part 1)

¡PURA VIDA!

It seems like almost everybody I know or have ever met has either been to or wants to go to Costa Rica!  I mean, what the heck is so special about this place, over any of the other countries in Central America that neighbor it, that makes it the #1 destination choice for so many?  In fact, over the last 25 years, the emphasis on this “paradise” has been steadily on the rise.  To be honest, I was also on the Costa Rica bandwagon for many years, mostly due to the hype and word of mouth. “One of these days,” I’d tell myself, “…I’m gonna go there and find out for myself!”

Finally, I’d found my golden ticket!  The perfect reason to turn my long-time fantasy into a reality ended up being my wife… but it’s not what you may think (I know some of you are sick puppies)!  I didn’t go there for my honeymoon or some romantic getaway.  Rather, I went there with my wife and our son to visit her family (and meet her father for the first time).

Side of the volcano

Vanessa & Devan

Vanessa, my wife, is Costa Rican.  Her dad is Costa Rican and her mom is half Costa Rican and Argentine.   She was born in California, raised in Escazú, Costa Rica and then moved to the U.S. when she was 11 years old.  Vanessa is a Tica… and thus, our son Devan is a Tico!

I’ll start by saying that I have been luckier than most in that I was there for 3 weeks.  One or two would have been nice, but three weeks allowed me to do much more than the average tourist can accomplish…you do the math.   This was possible because we were able to stay with her father, thus saving a nice chunk of change on hotels.

Santa Ana - John's houseEssentially, our base of operations was my father-in-laws house in Santa Ana (pronounced Santana – like the guitar player), just outside San José, the countries capital.  The first week we didn’t venture out very much, but then again, there was really no need to.  We had some adventures on foot around the neighborhood as we were acclimatizing to our new surroundings and the weather, but not too much more.  We simply relaxed and were thankful to be there.

However, I must admit that despite being more relaxed than I’d been in quite a long time, two things immediately struck me as extremely odd AND disturbing!

1)  The first thing that bulged my peepers was the overwhelming amount of decidedly American businesses that assaulted me from every possible direction from the moment we left the airport to the moment we turned off the main road closest to the house we were staying at. We were completely inundated with junk food galore and a whole lot more.  I’m talkin’ Taco Bell, Wendy’s, KFC, Denny’s, McDonald’s, Burger King… you get the picture, right?  It never seemed to end!  And that was severely disappointing!  I went there to get away from all that crap… really!

Abuelo's backyard barbed wire

Barbed wire...

2)  Secondly, I was shocked to see barbed wire adorning each and every home I saw, regardless of town, neighborhood, mansion or hovel… EVERY residence had it!  When I asked what the deal was with all the barbed wire, I was told that, “It keeps the criminals/thieves out of your house… anybody will steal anything, if they get the chance.”  So I said, “So, crime is pretty bad here?” – “No! Costa Rica is virtually crime free.”  I then asked, “But I thought you said that ‘anybody would steal anything’ if given the chance?”  To that, I received a response that blew my mind and made me laugh in the same breath!  Ya know what it was?  “Ah-hah!” stated in a decidedly comedic tone, such as Eddie Murphy’s old Jewish patron of the neighborhood barber shop character from Coming To America … you following me?  Sheer genius!

CR restaurantIf you’ve ever been anywhere in Central or South America, Costa Rica will come as no real surprise in regard to infrastructure and general lifestyle.  For those who have never been, you’re apt to find several curiosities, though none are unpleasant, they are simply different from what you’re used to and thus, all the more intriguing and ultimately endearing.  Some examples are the shops and markets, driving habits, vehicles, roadways, city planning, and parking to name a few.

Upscale neighborhoodOn the flip-side, there are supermarkets and shopping malls that easily rival those in the United States.  But the biggest mystery I encountered, hands down, was the fact that there are NO street names!  If you were to ask someone’s address, you’d get a response that contained a series of landmarks and distances from those landmarks to the next.  WOW! That one has still got me scratching my head!

Anyway, if you’re good with directions, like I am, It’s not too big of a deal.  But if not, I suggest sticking to guided tours, pre-arranged transportation, or simply staying within eyesight of where ever it is that you’re staying!

Also, this should go without saying, but always safeguard your valuables, don’t carry excessive amounts of cash on you, and never act like a typical American! Remember, you are not always right and that you are a guest in another country!  Costa Ricans are some of the warmest and truly kind people you’ll ever meet, but if you act like a jerk, you’ll wish you hadn’t!  This should go without saying and is applicable no matter where you go!

Downtown San JoseBull ridingIf you like hustle and bustle, make sure you visit downtown San José!  It’s no New York City, though it is Costa Rica’s equivalent.  There’s plenty of opportunities for shopping, eating and taking pictures.  If you were to visit only one place in San José, I would suggest you visit the Mercado Central!  It is an indoor marketplace filled with small shops and sodas (little food stands) of every variety.

Indoor market San Jose

Mercado Central

You can find anything you need as far as souvenirs are concerned right here. Plus, the quality is pretty darn good as well.  This place is the locals choice for one-stop shopping.  We saved considerable time and money by going there!  And with all that there is to see and experience in Costa Rica, the last thing you want to be doing is wasting time shopping or circumnavigating downtown San José!  Get in, get it done, and get out! Don’t waste even a single day shopping or roaming San José…just go see and do the things that you came to Costa Rica for!  There is so much diversity in landscape, environmental zones and amongst the people of this country, it is hard to imagine not trying to make the absolute most of your time here!

Comida tipico 2DulcesComida tipicoOne way I like to experience other cultures, to get a real feel for who and what a people are, is to dive headlong into that cultures food!  I won’t lie…Costa Rican food is a bit on the bland side in comparison to Mexican or Cuban food, for example.  But let me be clear, typical Costa Rican food is very good! However, it won’t knock your socks off with exotic flavors.

Devan & the bulls

Devan & the bulls

Roadside Cafe

Roadside Cafe

Gallo Pinto

Gallo pinto... Yum!

Costa Rica is best known for its gallo pinto, which translates to spotted rooster.  Essentially, gallo pinto is rice, beans and eggs.  This is Costa Rica’s national dish. It is served with cilantro and Salsa Lizano.  Gallo pinto is comfort food all the way!  For the absolute best food when traveling in Costa Rica, do yourself a favor and get off the beaten path!  If you try to stay in town or go to an establishment that is a bit more upscale, you’re going to get slightly less authentic dishes that are tailored to your gringo tastes.  They’re still quite good, but they won’t be the truly authentic, typical fare enjoyed by the locals. BTW, make sure to bring some Salsa Lizano home with you… It will easily become a favorite for you and your family!

Pacific Ocean view from roadside cafe

Pacific Ocean view from roadside cafe

Next up is getting out-of-town to see some of the many incredible things there are to experience while in Costa Rica.  Some of these include volcanoes (there are six of them), rain forests, beaches, fincas (estates or farms), national parks and resorts.  I’ll also clue you into the rainy vs. the dry season and how it will affect your trip, if at all. Stay tuned, as the next in the installment will arrive shortly, packed with pictures and who knows what else!

MA 4

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