2000s Archive

Riding the Ticowave

Originally Published November 2003
One thing you should know about Costa Rica is that there’s nothing to do there. The other is that there’s so much to do, it takes years to even get started.

Six years later, I still can’t believe I said it. There we were, bouncing along a bone-jarring dirt and gravel excuse for a road south of the sleepy Costa Rican surfing town of Tamarindo. We had just crept warily across a ravine navigating planks not much wider than two-by-fours and were slamming up the hill on the other side, dodging potholes and ricocheting off rocks, when a large, well-kept house surrounded by a hedge of flaming-red bougainvillea suddenly appeared. Amazed, I shouted above the roar of the engine, “Who would be crazy enough to live out here?”

Soon I would have my answer. The weather was perfect—low 80s, light breeze, only a few puffy clouds in the sky—and I finally stopped concentrating on the road and began to pay attention to our surroundings. Long sweeps of tawny gold dry pastureland, a kind of Central American savanna studded with dark green canopies of elephant’s ear trees, stretched off toward the mountains jutting up from the horizon. Soon the trees grew denser and closed in on the road. Tantalizing flashes of sparkling blue ocean appeared and disappeared through the low woodland, the dusty green foliage regularly punctuated by cascades of brilliant blossoms in yellow or orange or coral, like swarms of miniature butterflies.

This is ranching country, and periodically we had to stop for horse-riding Ticos (as Costa Ricans are called) driving small herds of gaunt white cattle. The beasts failed to see the importance of moving aside for us, and the cowboys simply smiled, waved, and called out “Pura vida,” the all-purpose Tico greeting. Their attitude was contagious, and before long these annoying roadblocks had become pleasurable exchanges. Then we got to the tiny town of Paraíso and discovered that the “gas station” we had been told about was really a kind of convenience store. Yes, you could buy gasoline from the large barrels stored out back, and you could pour it through a funnel into your gas tank—but not until the owner came back from lunch. By now we were bemused rather than irritated. Where were we really going, anyway?

Good question. We filled our tank, headed off again—and came to an abrupt dead end at the ocean. Giving in to the spirit of the day, we downshifted and drove right out onto the beach. The tide was low, the beach wide, flat, and hard, and soon we were racing along in the brilliant sunlight, not another human in sight. To our right, long lines of stubby brown pelicans undulated just above the waves; to our left, a pair of hawks plied the currents above the trees. It was what I have now come to recognize as a true Costa Rican moment—giddy in its freedom, at once relaxing and profoundly exhilarating. It was also a triumph of Tico mentality, taking each event as it comes and enjoying it for what it is, not for what you had planned it to be.

I guess this helps explain why, when we returned to Tamarindo that evening, we had, quite unexpectedly, become the new owners of a little plot of land overlooking a fine rock-reef point break in nearby Playa Negra.

This ability to inspire spontaneity (not to mention fiscal irresponsibility) is one of the things I love most about Costa Rica. Another is that there is nothing to do. Or, more precisely, nothing you must do. No museums that you will kick yourself for not wandering through, no boutiques with hyperstylish clothes at bargain prices, no ancient ruins that will enlarge your sense of history, no world-class restaurants to seek out. There is only the countryside and the people. But that, it turns out, is more than enough.

Though only about the size of West Virginia, Costa Rica has an amazing geographical diversity, from rolling plains to sultry tropical rain forests, serene mountains, and active volcanoes. With its modified monsoon climate (there are eight different words for rain in the Tico vocabulary), the country also has an incredible range of flora and fauna—more species of birds than the U.S. and Canada combined, more butterflies than the entire continent of Africa, more plant varieties than all of Europe, including over 1,400 types of orchids.

Decades ago, the government realized that this natural wonderland was a more likely source of income than industrial development would be and has worked hard to preserve it. Despite a scattering of the hideous oceanfront resorts that have spoiled so many tropical paradises, the country’s conservation efforts have been more successful than most.

Even more appealing than Costa Rica’s natural beauty, though, is its collective national mind-set. This, after all, is a country that abolished its army in 1949 so it could devote the money saved to social services and education (today, it has a 95 percent literacy rate). Even the smallest villages have electricity and potable water, and democracy, peace, and stability are primary national values. In spite of some problems (rampant cronyism, an all but impenetrable bureaucracy, lingering poverty) most Ticos have a profound sense of national pride and self-identity: This is their country, not some offshoot of the United States, and they are happy to be here. As a result, you feel almost none of the angry resentment toward the U.S. that pervades much of the region and indeed, these days, much of the world. It’s also an engagingly informal culture in which remaining amiable at all times and making a good impression on strangers are core values.

There is an occasional downside to this national desire to be accommodating. Once, for example, I asked for grilled shrimp in a little seaside restaurant, and the waiter politely wrote down my order and disappeared into the kitchen. Forty-five minutes later, further inquiries revealed that they in fact had no shrimp; the waiter just did not want to be rude by saying so.

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