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Once were Gondwanan

Costa Rica, the Happiest Place in the World

COSTA RICA | Wednesday, 29 February 2012 | Views [1354]

Costa Rica is the happiest place in the world. It says so on a big welcome sign at San José’s Santa Maria International Airport, and they didn’t just invent that slogan, it is based on the results of an independent survey conducted a few years ago.

I arrived after a delayed flight and a very early start to the day. More of that exciting story in my previous blog. I hadn’t been able to buy a guide book, so other than what I had read on-line, I was in the dark about Costa Rica.

After a very straight-forward immigration and ATM stop I exited the airport without even having decided on a hotel. A taxi driver approached me immediately and, feeling slightly railroaded, I was ushered into his taxi and driven to a hotel of his recommendation. I know this can be a scam sometimes, but he seemed nice so I took a chance. When we got to the hotel  he made sure my room was sorted and by then we were such good friends that on saying goodbye, he gave me a hug and a kiss.

I knew that Costa Rica is more expensive than other Latin American countries but paying $47 USD for my room still stung a bit. Lately I had been paying about $10. Anyway, it was a much nicer room than the ones I had used lately, so I thought it was value for money.

I spent several days relaxing and seeing the sights of the city. I have mixed feelings about San José. It is not the most interesting or beautiful place, but for me its attraction is the potential to spend time people-watching and relaxing in the plazas and parks. It is also close to volcanoes which can be visited – but I haven’t even done that yet. The public areas are not the most attractive plazas and parks, but being new to this country I was happy to watch the people and get a feel for the place.

In Latin America it is not unusual to see amorous couples in public – most people live with their parents until they are married or beyond, so for privacy, they often go public, in a manner of speaking. Well, in San José, there is certainly no shortage of couples in the parks and plazas. There are also plenty of people selling things in the main streets; music and movies, handbags, collapsible laundry baskets, socks, bubbles, stickers, and scratchies and lottery tickets to name a few. I saw three separate people selling Dove soap, I’m not sure why this is such a popular brand – fell off the back of the truck? I sympathise with these people having to repeat the same thing over and over again, all day. For example, the sock seller calls “Socks - white, black, cream, sizes small to large, five pairs for 2,500 colones.” ($5) I am not sure how many vendors are legal. I saw people who were selling DVDs pack up as soon as they knew the police were coming. They were so fast it was impressive to watch. If I hadn’t been looking at that specific moment I wouldn’t had known that seconds ago they had stock neatly spread out on a cloth on the pavement. Compared to South America, there are not many street vendors selling food here, I have only seen one, who was selling ice-creams. Having come straight from Santa Marta, where you could sit and have plenty of food and drink options come your way, this was different.

You don’t have to spend much time around the city to notice piropos, comments by men to women. This does happen often in South America but in Costa Rica it is even more common. Piropos can be complementary, vulgar or sexually offensive; they can be shouted, hissed or said innocently. I don’t know what a lot of the comments directed to me mean, so I generally just ignore them.

Crime rates are apparently high here, but so is the police presence. In San José there are bicycle police (I can’t help that think it would be easy to pull their gun from the holster while they have both hands on the handle-bars) and foot and car patrols. In some of the plazas there are Fuerza Publica stations, raised platforms where the police look out across the public spaces and see what is happening. It is not unusual to see groups of eight or ten police together, but I haven’t worked out what they are doing.

I visited the National Museum which is now housed in an old army fort. Costa Rica does not have a military force; it was disbanded in 1948 after a civil war. Entry to the museum is via a butterfly garden, which is quite pleasant and interesting. The old barracks are displayed, including cells used to discipline the soldiers. There are exhibits of Pre-Columbian history, Indigenous gold, national history and two adjoining houses that were used by the first and second commanders of the army are displayed with furniture of the period. In the temporary exhibit section there was a very interesting retrospective photographic display by Francisco Coto with photographs depicting people and places from Costa Rica from 1945 to 1990. One of the most interesting exhibits for me was some Pre-Columbian spheres that have been discovered in parts of Costa Rica. They are made from granite, and range in size from that of an orange to up to two metres in diameter. It is not known how they were made or exactly why.

After a few days I visited the city of Heredia, which although it is only 11 kilometres away from San José, is in a different province. Heredia is known as “The City of Flowers” but I’m not sure why. From my guide book (which is fairly average to say the least) I imagined a very different place to what I actually encountered.

At first I wasn’t even sure I was in the right place. It seemed that on the bus trip there, we didn’t even leave San José but were just in another suburb. After confirming with my map that I was actually in the right place, I checked into a hotel that I found from my guide book. I don’t want to complain but I will say that was my worst accommodation choice of my trip so far. Well, actually, I do want to complain. The private bathroom was actually a cold water shower in the room, separated from the bed only by a shower curtain, and the toilet was shared (one for females, one for males.) I knew this when I accepted the room which the owner said cost “eight”. I took this to mean $8 USD. (Both Colones and USD are used here.) When, later, I went to pay, it was actually 8,000 colones, about $16 USD. What I didn’t know was how thin the walls were. That night I was treated to the sounds of numerous bodily functions and the couple in the room next to me having sex. Every time their door opened it sounded so close that it was as if it was my door, so I kept my light on just so I could reassure myself that no one was coming into my room. My pillows and mattress were covered in plastic, which although not nice to sleep on, may have been for the best hygienically speaking. I was seriously considering going back to San José but in the end it was easier to wait for the next day.

I had been under the impression that Heredia was a charming old-world university city but actually that wasn’t my experience. There were some interesting buildings, mainly the cathedral and a tower, but the city just felt to me like San José. It didn’t take long to see the sights. I don’t know what I was thinking when I thought I needed to stay overnight, two hours would have been enough.

After the trauma of the hotel of a thousand noises I returned to recover in the comfort of my San José hotel until I headed to my next destination – the cloud forest region of Monteverde.

Tags: bad hotel, central america, costa rica, heredia, museum, san josé, travel

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