A gringofied good-bye (Caribbean Costa Rica)

Published: September 19th 2010
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(Day 894 on the road)Let's start a little off-topic: Travel guides, especially the most popular publications like Lonely Planet and Rough Guide, are notorious for glorifying sights and attractions. At times it seems that everything in any chosen country is “the most beautiful this” or “the largest that”. I have over time grown quite tired of these grand claims, and have always longed for a guidebook that tells you the way it is, without raising expectations too much through overhyped claims. But of course honesty conflicts with the interests of the publishers; after all, would you buy a guide book that basically said: Nothing to see here, don't go there, skip this, probably best to stay to visit a different country all together? Probably not.

So how refreshing it was to be in the possession of the older, 2004 edition of the Lonely Planet Costa Rica. The book must have been written at a time when political correctness was still in its infancy, and on countless occasions it was just great to read how the author of the guidebook wrote what was on his mind, rather than the dull and misleading usual doses of "X is a picturesque and laid-back mountain village, surrounded by lush forest that hosts a spectacular array of wildlife, and the locals are some of the friendliest around anywhere". Well done! Unfortunately, all this honest advice was suspiciously absent from the 2008 edition of the same guidebook. Not so well done.

After the white water rafting in Turialba, we were heading east onto the Caribbean coast. We had initially considered going up to Tortugero - and the national park of the same name - but had heard stories that it is a bit of a circus up there with tourists outnumbering locals by far. So we chose to instead go to another village, Parismina, 30 kilometres south along the Caribbean coast.

Getting there along the 40 kilometre dirt road was difficult to say the least. In the beginning, we were still able to hitch rides with locals who lived in the area, always alongside Finca Carmen, a huge Del Monte banana plantation that stretched for kilometres and kilometres on end. The locals were kind enough to take us along for as far as they went, but traffic thinned out considerably the further we went. For long stretches in between and for the whole last hour and a half we were forced to walk, the final hour in complete darkness as night had already set. The only car that we did see contained a lying local who told us it was still 30 kilometres to go (we knew it was no more than four kilometres) and wanting to charge us ridiculous amounts for the oh-so-far ride. On the bright side (so to speak), we nearly tripped over a fair-sized crocodile (probably a cayman, but who knows these things), who was laying dead bank in the centre of the dark gravel road, only dimly lit by our head-lamps. We took a few pictures and then carefully walked around it in a big loop to show our respect.

Once at the dock to catch the boat across (Parismina lies on a peninsular and can only be reached by boat), we were quoted yet another ridiculous price for the ten minute ride, with no lodging available. Out of sheer luck there was one single captain hanging around who was waiting for a family from San Jose who had pre-booked their crossings, and he gave us a lift across for free. Muchas gracias, amigo!

Tiny Parismina itself was pretty, and pretty sleepy. Two or three small guesthouses, a couple of restaurants, a community hall that doubled as a bar at night, locals with nothing but time on their hands, lots of boats. Very much the same landscape and the same scenery as Tortugero, but not a single other tourist to be seen anywhere.

After two days, a friendly Israeli family with one year old daughter arrived, which was great for all of us, as we were able to share the cost of a relaxed boat ride along the wildlife-rich canals which the area is famous for. Our very knowledgeable guide Jason was amazing; I have no idea how he managed to spot all the wildlife he did, but it is safe to say that without him we would have missed 80% of all the animals we saw. Especially spotting the green dragon-like iguanas, which were so well camouflaged amongst the jungle that even after Jason told us where to look it often took us another minute or so before we could actually see it, was priceless. Another animal I liked - but have no idea what they are called - was a tiny iguana-type thing that could literally run across the water; pretty amazing to see this. But even apart from that, simply paddling and floating along the wild canals was a very pleasant way to spend the morning.

Not so successful unfortunately was my attempt to see some nestling green turtles, which were apparently laying their eggs onto the beaches just outside the village. To say it up front: Despite my best efforts, I didn't manage to see one. I had figured that my best chances were actually going out with the volunteers that patrolled the beaches at night to protect the eggs from poachers. Locals had told me that the only way to see them was with an expensive tour guide, but that is rubbish. The beach is free, and you can just go down to the beach at night and see what's happening. Only red lights however are allowed so as not to disturb and scare the turtles. We walked along the beach for four full hours but didn't see a single turtle, what a shame!

At least I didn't have to pay for this experience - unlike the volunteers that is. They were paying 15 dollars a day for the privilege of doing a job that none of the locals wanted. Accommodation and food was extra, of course. What a scenario - in the village of Parismina, with an estimated unemployment of over 70%, foreigners are paying to work for a job that nobody else wants to do - or cares about for that matter. On top of this all, the whole thing is a legal joke: Parismina is a tiny village (maybe 200 people live here), and the poachers are well known to everybody, including the police. But nobody feels compelled to do anything about the root of the problem, which would solve the whole problems once and for all. Rather, they get well-meaning (I dare not say naive) foreigners to pay for the pointless privilege of patrolling the beach. Sisyphus sends his greetings.

For us, it was time to move on after four days of taking it easy. We were heading south, towards Puerto Viejo Talamanca, near the Panamanian border. We had initially decide to skip this altogether after our honest guide book told us it was the party central of Costa Rica, where the local men’s main pastime was to get drunk and hopefully score sleeping with a gringa (female foreigner). But some people we had met told us it was a great place, so we went to check it out. But nope, it was not, and we should have trusted our instincts and the guidebook.

Like a few places we have seen in Costa Rica (ugly Jaco on the pacific side comes to mind) and many more we had read about, Puerto Viejo Talamanca was a completely overdeveloped and gringofied town. Whatever once existed here in local charm and flair has long been driven out, replaced by sushi restaurants, bagel shops, SUV dealerships and hordes of noisy (almost exclusively German, Israeli and US-American) tourists and pensioners. Foreigners cruising around in massive Hummers and shady local, super-cool rasta-boys ("Want some wheat bro, high grade, high grade…") dominate the scene.

The restaurants were ridiculously overpriced, often more expensive than similar places in Europe. And of course, tax and service were mostly not included and charged extra, a personal favourite of mine. Liars and cheaters, that's what the people who run their businesses like that are to me, and they don't deserve any of my money. So we made use of our hostel's kitchen instead for a down-to-earth pasta night. It was all rather unattractive and in parts downright depressing.

I didn't enjoy myself very much, and the inconsiderate Israeli group next door in our hostel who kept shouting and playing guitar at two in the morning after I had asked them politely three times to please keep it down didn't help much. We fled after one day as soon as Tino had completed a couple of expensive dives with a dive school that was much too busy to make money than to look after its equipment, which was in very poor shape.

And this marked the end of our travels in Costa Rica. Whilst I had not been expecting much to start with, we were surprised how nice, ordered (there are actually bus schedules and bus stops here), and wealthy (part of) the country is. Quite a change from its more chaotic and poorer neighbours. An interesting fact: Costa Rica abolished its army in 1949; the money saved was invested in education and the health system. I am not a macro-economist, but I would assume that there is a well-documented cause-and-effect relationship between the triangle of how much a country spends on its military, how much on health and education (where the money is lacking due to high military expenditures), and the general wealth of the country.

But even so, it must be said that Costa Rica didn't hold any real highlights for us. It was pleasant enough for sure, but apart from some wildlife in the beautiful national park of Manuel Antonio (white-faced monkeys for instance) and the whitewater rafting on the Pacuare river (near Turialba), it didn't offer us anything that has left a lasting memory. I can see how the stability and raised living standard of the country is appealing for vacationers when the country is only a short flight away, but from a backpacker point of view and seeking more authentic experiences, I would give Costa Rica a miss any time.

As one article I read about the country had put it: Costa Rica is great if it's the only country you visit in Central America. If you have more time on your hand, you can see very similar things in other countries of the region, for considerably less money and with far less tourists and all the problems they have brought with them.

Along the same lines, we have also come to realise that the best way to travel across Central America would have to be from south to north (Panama to Guatemala or Mexico), and not from north to south as we have done. Many of real the highlights of the region (ancient Maya ruins, smoking volcanoes etc) lie further north, many in Guatemala and Yucatan in Mexico. Prices also tend to drop the further north one goes (easily halving by the time one reaches Honduras or Guatemala). So travelling south to north across Central America means that the attractions are increasing, whilst the cost of travelling is coming down (or one gets much higher standards and comforts for the same money, either way).

The way we have down it, we by now feel that Costa Rica (and from what we read Panama as well) is more of the same (another remote river, another jungle, another beach, another mountain town), but costing a lot more. It has been a long time since I had a true "whoa"-effect.

Doing a wild (and possibly not very fair) comparison with my travels across East and South-East Asia, I feel that Asia just has a lot more to offer, both in terms of diversity between the different cultures in the various countries and in terms of sights and attractions. In Central America, many countries are very similar to one another, to the point of being undistinguishable. Central America certainly sees less tourists than Asia, which is great for experiencing authenticity (Costa Rica being the notable exception with two million visitors a year with a population of a mere four million), but this might be a direct effect of the overall attractiveness of the region. Adding to this the fact that Asia is in most parts significantly cheaper than the countries here, one can see why Central America is not such a popular destination for vacationers and backpackers alike in comparison with Asia.

Anyway, I am not complaining and I am still having a sterling time here (hey, any kind of travelling anywhere beats a nine-to-seven office job), just something that has been on my mind for a while now. With this in mind, in Panama we will try and seek out the more unusual things if possible (dolphin and whale watching, maybe more whitewater rafting, jet skiing if I can find one, hopefully a nestling turtle or two). Let's see how that develops...

Next stop: Boca los Torros islands (Panama).

To view my photos, have a look at pictures.beiske.com. And to read the full account of my journey, have a look at the complete book about my trip at Amazon (and most other online book shops).


19th September 2010

Hallo Ben, da ich gerade auch unterwegs bin in Brasilien habe ich mal geschaut, wo Duy Dich gherade herumtreibst. Haette ja sein koennen, dass sich unsere Werge kreuzen. Ich bin noch bis 1. Oktober in Brasilien und dann geht es wieder nach Deutschland. Ende November Anfang Desember bin ich nochmal in Havanna. Viel Spass noch bei Deiner Reise.... Machst Du genau richtig.... MAch das, so lange Du kannst :-) und natuerlich Lust dazu hast.
19th September 2010

Another enjoyable read. I'm 20 days away from coming to the region and still reading blogs etc for tips. I too will be heading south from the north. Are you planning to go to the San Blas islands? What about Colombia? I know it's S. America but you hear a lot of good things about the place. Enjoy your time out there. P.s. are you taking anti malarials? And have you seen many bars in the region where you can watch football, as in soccer? Cheers.
19th September 2010

Hey Ben.. keep your spirits up, im doing the 9-7 thing and its not as much fun.. :-)
19th September 2010

nice post i have more information take from this blogs thanks for a searing
19th September 2010

Funny observation
Ben, as an American I was amused to read the words "nine-to-seven office job". I was recently talking with my direct report, who is originally from France. I was joking with her that we should be French in the respect of a 2 hour lunch break instead of 30 minutes. She then reminded me she worked until 7PM, so it not as perfect as it would seem. So, for me to read about "nine-to-seven" is amusing to me. For us, it's "nine-to-five" (well, really 8 to 5). We just don't take a long lunch break. And yes, traveling to gringofied destinations is more fun than 9 to 7 or 9 to 5...
20th September 2010
Dragon-like iguana

I've never seen one of these before, what a stunning animal! Great photo too Ben, loving all your photos at the moment.
23rd September 2010

The Caribe side is so beautiful, what months have the least rain???
2nd October 2011
Dragon-like iguana

If I had not seen your photo I would not have believed it. Doesn't nature throw up wonderful surprises.?

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