Costa Rica: A beautiful land and much more
What can one say about the beautiful green land called Costa Rica that has not been said before? Is it still the land where people and their needs are paid for by the government with universal health service and free schooling? Is it still the place where people from everywhere are welcomed? Is the rain forest in one quarter of the country being saved?
Yes, Costa Ricans have universal health service and there are no children suffering from malnutrition. It is the only Central American country that does not need the United Nations’ help to feed its children. In fact, we saw dairy cows everywhere and were told that Costa Rica provides dairy products to all of the other Central American countries and to Mexico. Of course, a lot of cloud forest was removed to make the pastures.
As for schooling, we saw children in uniforms everywhere, often going to either a morning or afternoon sessions of school. The government has not kept up with building schools, so double sessions are common. The teachers have to teach two sessions, and much of the teaching is of the rote memorization type, of which our guide was critical. However, the literacy rate is high and more than 90 percent of the population vote in elections.
It is true that a bit more than 25 percent of the rain and cloud forests has been turned into parks. Tourism is important to the economy. On the positive side, sustainable forestry is adding more cloud forest. Trees can be harvested in just fifteen years! On the negative side, neighboring countries are endangering forests near the borders. Our guide had a number of concerns about Panamanian and Nicaraguan activities.
In a talk by the former Costa Rican President Rodrigo Corazo, founder of the University of Peace, we were warmly invited to enjoy the country and to even live there if we should so desire. He expressed the idea that all Costa Ricans are immigrants and all have brought their gifts to the country. We spent a night at his Villa Blanca, adjacent to the Los Angeles Cloud Forest.
The rooms are in small casitas of white plaster with blue roofs and trim reminiscent of the 1820s in Costa Rica.
San Jose, the capital, is a million strong and the streets are crowded with buses. Building freeways is not a high priority and the laid back Costa Ricans travel with grace at a reasonable speed. Road rage seemed non existent. One also saw a few homeless people; drugs have reached Costa Rican young people. Some graffiti was evident in the larger cities.
The story of the National Theater is very interesting. Although the leaders of society in the late 1800s at first planned to pay for the building, which is very decorative with Baroque styling, they soon taxed the people. Unfortunately, only the better off had the clothing and money to allow them to attend the theater.
The floor can be raised to stage level, which means that it can be used as a large ballroom. We enjoyed viewing the presidential box and the many paintings, which were not realistic, when it came to depicting peasant life on the coffee plantations or the shipping of coffee. The Italian artists obviously had not visited the plantations or the shipping center.
Near the National Theater is the Gold Museum, which has just been reopened after modernization. It has a beautiful display of animals from the rain forest, pre-Columbian art and history, and lovely jewelry of that early period. Other Central American countries have indigenous artisans, which Costa Rica lacks today. We found the cemeteries in San Jose most interesting. There is a cemetery for wealthy Catholics with family vaults with much marble and carved figures.
There is a cemetery for the poorer members of society with above-ground monuments. The two are next door to each other divided by a wall. There is a cemetery for the non-Catholics and a Jewish cemetery. Every small town we visited also seemed to have the very decorative above-ground monuments.
We spent time at a coffee plantation in San Jose where an American has planned the marketing. The Britt label is seen everywhere. We learned that a tree treated with pesticides lasts twenty five years and that a tree raised organically lives for 100.
Costa Ricans are going organic and destroying all but the best coffee they produce in order to claim that part of the market that desires the best organic coffee. Our guide had not heard of the “fair trade” label but said his country is promoting “shade grown” because it was better for people, birds and trees.
A tour of the Puntarenas Province allowed us to see a sloth and baby, crocodiles, numerous birds and monkeys. Then we were on to Tilajari where we saw more birds, iguanas, and small green parrots that entertained us at a fruit feeder while we enjoyed breakfast and lunch.
The national bird of Costa Rica is the Clay Colored robin which is a rather dull bird. However, we saw 26 varieties of birds such as the beautiful black and red Scarlet-rumped Cacique, the yellow, black and brown Great Kiskadee, the black and white Mangrove Swallow and the white and black Wood Stork. Orchids in the gardens were brilliant and plentiful. We also enjoyed the Los Angeles Cloud Forest and saw huge hummingbirds as well as many varieties of tiny ones.
A trip to the Poas Volcano granted us a view of the lovely aqua waters in the cone just before the clouds closed in. There are nine volcanoes in Costa Rica; one the Arenal is still erupting and we enjoyed its show at night. This is a land where earthquakes are known, as it is a part of the “Ring of Fire.” Houses in the country have tin roofs under the red tile which is common as part of the earthquake rules.
The one art that makes people think of Costa Rica is that of the highly decorated ox cart. We passed a man using oxen on the road to the Poas Volcano. Our guide warned us not to ask to take pictures because the man demands payment.
He is always on the road with a load of bamboo. However, in Sarchi we watched an artisan painting a large cart. The standard decorated cart costs as much as a small car. They are used in parades and on special holidays.
A new Archbishop was installed while we were in Costa Rica. We watched as he led an entourage to Cartago, the original capital where there is a basilica, Basilica de Nuestra Senora de Los Angeles, which is built over a grotto where a peasant girl saw the Virgin.
The basilica is a very ornate gray and white building in Byzantine-style, facing a huge square. Due to earthquakes, the church has been rebuilt several times. A beautiful gold cross in a triangular setting hangs above the altar. People were crowded into the seats waiting for the archbishop to finish walking the 26 kilometers to Cartago from San Jose. Some people make this trip on their knees during religious holidays!
Small homes on small plots of land are a fact of life in this country. Often homes are built right next to their neighbors with shared walls. Each house is painted a different bright color. Even the Nicaraguans, who do most of the coffee harvesting and squat upon land where there are absentee landowners, have tiny but brightly colored houses.
Often, we were told, a sharp legal assistant will help the squatters claim the land after they have been in possession for four years and the government will, at the end of ten years, turn the land over to them. The legal assistant will then claim most of the land leaving the squatters with their home on a tiny corner of land and the assistant with a large piece. This is happening often out on the western coastal area.
A treat for us was our visit to a Thursday night farmers’ market, Market de Artesonio. Many farmers wished to shake my husband’s hand and the children beamed at us and followed us around. Tourists do not stop at this market and we did so during pouring rain. (They say it is raining frogs and snakes when it pours in Costa Rica. )
The vegetables were very fresh, lush and inviting. Vegetables grow all year. Pears and apples are imported but strawberries, bananas and sweet, round pineapples are grown here along with a dozen other fruits, some of which look like our citrus but taste very differently.
Some of our group continued to the East Coast after ten days, but we had to return home. The culture of the Caribbean side of Costa Rica is much different from the areas we visited, so we hope to make another trip in the future to learn more about that area.
Linda Marschall lives in Grass Valley.
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