Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Costa Rica Part 1: San Jose, the Capital City.

Skyline of Costa Rica's capital San José, with high mountains rising in the background. Carole and I visited Costa Rica in December of 2015. We had heard from friends and relatives that the country is beautiful and full of national parks teeming with native plants and animals. However, when we attempted to arrange a visit several times over the years, something always came up to prevent us. Finally, last fall, we decided it was time and set up our trip through Caravan Tours. In Part 1, I will provide a look at San José, the capital city, along with some background information about the history and culture of this little Central American nation. In the rest of this multi-part series, we'll visit rain and cloud forests with a variety of animals and plants, tour a coffee plantation still using 19th century technology, take a couple of different river tours, check out  a little workshop which crafts colorful painted oxcarts, and bask on some beautiful beaches.

Costa Rica: an overview

A relief map of the country shows a long mountain range filled with volcanos, some still active. Costa Rica is bordered on the north by Nicaragua and by Panamá to the south.  The mountainous areas (in yellow) have a moderate climate with fertile volcanic soil. Most of the population lives in the broad plateau of the Central Valley, surrounded by high volcanic peaks. The llanuras (low plains) in the northeast (light green) and along the coastal areas are much warmer and are more lightly populated. Both coasts have hundreds of miles of beautiful beaches, some built up in resorts, others empty and pristine. The country has only .01% of the world's land area, but contains 5% of its bio-diversity, with 840 identified species of birds. To protect this heritage, the government has set aside 25% of the nation's landmass either as a national park or a protected area, the highest percentage in the world.  By contrast, the developing world averages 13% and the developed world is at 8%. The US stands at 14%. By 2005, Costa Rica reduced its rate of deforestation from one of the worst in the world to nearly zero. Ecotourism now brings in more money than the combined revenue of the top three export crops of bananas, coffee and pineapples. In the Global Green Economy Index, Costa Rica is ranked top in the world. Presently, 93% of the nation's energy comes from renewable sources, with a goal of 100% carbon-free by 2021. San José, has the 4th cleanest air of any city in Latin America, in spite of the fact that over 1 million people live or work there.

View of the foothills outside San José.  You can see a small part of San José in the center right of the photo. The city is located in the Central Valley in an area called the intervolcanic zone. Verdant coffee fields can be seen in the foreground. Such fields, deep with fertile volcanic soil, cover much of the foothills of the mountains surrounding the Central Valley. The population of the city of San José itself is 288,000, but the metropolitan population is much larger, comprising 1/4 of the whole country. This is the economic, political, and transportation hub of the nation. For a Google map of the city, click here.

Caravan Tours

Caravan Tours has long been our favorite company for visiting Central America. Using it, we have traveled in Panamá and Guatemala, as well as southern Mexico and Yucatan. Seen above is the luxury bus we used to travel through Costa Rica. The seats were large and comfortable, the windows were huge, and there was an on-board bathroom. Caravan's tour directors always ensure that there are plenty of bottles of water on board, and that the seating is rotated on a daily basis so nobody gets to hog the "good" spots. In the photo's background is the Hotel Barcelo San José Palacio, where we stayed on our first night in the country. The 5-star facility has a lovely location, but we wished it was closer to downtown so we could have walked around and gotten a sense of the city. Like every large city, Costa Rica does have some bad neighborhoods, with crime and possibility of robberies, but we sometimes thought Caravan went a bit overboard in isolating us from potential problems.

Laura, our Caravan Tour Director. Laura is young, perky, full of energy, and she worked very hard to see that things ran as smoothly as possible. There are a thousand details involved in a trip like this, and keeping 40+ tourists of various nationalities all moving in the same direction must be harder than herding cats. Laura is Costa Rican, but speaks fluent English. She taught us "pura vida!" (pronounced poo-rah vee-dah). This is the ubiquitous, all purpose expression in Costa Rica. The literal translation is "pure life", but it means much more than that. The expression is used in dozens of different contexts. For example, it can mean "enjoy life", "all's good", "hello", "goodby", "thank you", "that's life", etc.

The busy city of San José 

San José's Metropolitan Cathedral is dedicated to the Assumption of Mary. As you can see, it is located on a very busy plaza with lots of foot and auto traffic. While we never actually got to walk around in the city, Laura did give us a tour on the bus and I was able to get some shots out the window. You may notice that it is cloudy in this photo while the previous ones have been bright and sunny. The weather is very changeable here, so it pays to layer your clothes and bring rain gear. San José did not gain the title of city until 1813. That's fairly late in the game since the country's first European visitor was Christopher Columbus, who stopped on its coast during his last voyage in 1502. Costa Rica's other main cities of Heredia and Cartago were already well established by the time San José's collection of pueblos melded together enough to justify its designation as a city. A templo was begun in 1825, and completed in 1827. Finally, in 1850, the templo achieved the status of Cathedral when Bishop Anselmo Loriente y la Fuente became Costa Rica's first bishop.

Parque Central, with its magnificent quiosco is adjacent to the Cathedral.  There are many plazas, parks, and museums adjacent to both the Parque Central and the Cathedral. Once again, we regretted that Caravan did not include a visit to any of these. I would have especially liked to visit the Museo de Oro (Gold Museum) which has many pre-hispanic gold artifacts. The discovery of these kinds of trinkets among the native population living along Costa Rica's Caribbean Coast gave the country its name: "Rich Coast". Click here for a map of this area of San José

Juan Mora Fernandez (1784-1854) was the first President of Costa Rica. His statue stands in the Plaza de Cultura, adjacent to the Cathedral. Costa Rica gained independence from Spain in 1821, at the same time as Mexico. For a short time, the country chose to be part of the Central American Republic, which was dominated by Guatemala. However, Costa Ricans soon decided to split away. A conservative bloc called the Imperialists centered in Heredia and Cartago wanted to become part of the short-lived Mexican Empire. Opposed to them were Republicans, based in San José and the neighboring city of Alajuela who wanted a separate nation governed as a republic rather than a monarchy. In 1823, the Republicans prevailed in a short but bloody battle at Ochomogo in the Central Valley. The Republic of Costa Rica was established that same year with its capital in San José. The leader of the Republicans, Juan Mora Fernandez, was a merchant, teacher, and politician.  After becoming temporary president in 1824, he was elected to a full term in 1825 and was elected twice more, finishing his service in 1829. Mora Fernandez not only guided the new nation through its critical first years, but established Costa Rica's first printing plant and newspaper, making him the "Father of Costa Rican Journalism". He encouraged the exportation of brazilwood and coffee, which transformed the agricultural economy, and pushed for mining in Montes del Aguacate. Following his term as president, he became a judge, member of the constituent assembly, and delegate to the Central American Federation.

This grim-looking structure was formerly a prison but now serves as a Children's Museum. The Museo de los Niños is part of the Costa Rica Center for Science and Culture. The building served for 80 years as the Central Penitentiary, a place of "horror, crime, and violence...scene of a dark chapter of human rights violations." The prison was originally established in 1899 and finally converted into the Children's Museum in 1979, after a period of disuse and decay. It was the brainchild of a former First Lady of Costa Rica, Señora Gloria Bejarano de Calderón. The museum contains 40 rooms--formerly jail cells--for interactive exhibits. Almost 300,000 people visit every year. Unfortunately, we were not among the visitors, but could only view the building from our bus windows.

Strollers on one of the city's pedestrian-only streets. Almost everyone I saw appeared prosperous and healthy. Costa Rica has a population of 4.5 million, and about 1 million of those live or work in the San José Metropolitan area. Since 1869, education has been free and compulsory. By contrast, the compulsory education movement in the US didn't start until the 1920s. Costa Rica's literacy rate is now over 94.9%, higher than the average for Latin America, making the country a mecca of foreign investment. Although Costa Ricans do not have the income levels of the US, Canada, or Europe, they are very well-off by the standards of Latin American or the rest of the developing world. This has resulted in a continuing problem of illegal immigration from much-poorer Nicaragua. In addition to their relatively high per capita income, Costa Ricans enjoy a high-quality system of free universal heath care. In fact, in terms of access, affordability, and outcomes, it is superior to that of the United States. Costa Rican life expectancy at birth is 79.3 years. By contrast life expectancy the US in 2012 was 78.8 years. The Nicoya Peninsula area on the northwest coast is one of the world's Blue Zones, i.e. an area where it is common to find people living active, energetic lives at ages in excess of 100 years. All this has created a boom in "medical tourism" by as many as 100,000 foreigners each year.

And speaking of foreigners... You can surmise a great deal about people from the stickers they choose to paste on the backs of their vehicles. My eye was attracted to this little auto parked in a neighborhood through which we passed. Although the car is licensed in Costa Rica, the number of English-language bumper stickers leads me to believe its owner is probably from the US or Canada. The sticker using various religious symbols to spell out the word "tolerance" indicates a likelihood that the owner is a liberal. So does the "Free Tibet" emblem. The "National Geographic" sticker and the dive emblem indicate an outdoors orientation. This probably means the owner is an environmentalist, not a surprise in this ecologically-conscious nation. Almost 16,000 American expats live in Costa Rica as of 2011. This is the third largest US expat population in Latin America, behind only Mexico and Ecuador. The number of Americans in Costa Rica has jumped almost 60% from 2000, when it stood at about 9,500.

Architecture of the past

We passed this graceful 19th century mansion, possibly of the French style. Although much of San José is now covered by modern glass and steel office buildings and North American-style shopping malls, we passed through some neighborhoods that still contain beautiful old architecture like this. I was puzzled by how different Costa Rica seems from the rest of Latin America and began looking for reasons. The country is unusually prosperous, with the wealth shared broadly in the population, and not clutched tightly by a small oligarchy at the top. It has an unbroken 68-year-long history as a stable democracy in a region that, during that same period, has regularly been roiled by military coups, dictatorships, and brutal repressions against workers and the poor. As recently as 2009, a military junta in Honduras seized power and  exiled the democratically elected Honduran president to...Costa Rica! I wondered about the reasons for the existence of a stable, economically prosperous and socially progressive society in a region like this.

This beautiful little two-story house was probably built in the late 19th or early 20th centuries. Notice the lovely, lacy ironwork at the top of the thin, graceful columns. It appears to have become some sort of cultural center. The roots of today's Costa Rican society lie in the earliest days of the Conquest. When the Spanish arrived in 1502, they were excited by the gold trinkets worn by the people, but found the country very thinly populated. In a later posting, I will go into pre-hispanic Costa Rican history in some detail. Suffice it to say that most of the people lived in hamlets and small towns and were governed through a system of chieftaincies. Recently, a couple of ancient cities have been discovered. While these may eventually change our understanding of Costa Rica before the Conquest, nothing yet has been found on the scale of the great pre-hispanic cities of Guatemala, Honduras, or Mexico. Costa Rica's ancient cultures seem to have resembled those of Panamá more than those of northern Central America and Mexico. Spaniards came to the New World for the wealth it would bring them. This was achieved either through the mining of precious metals or, later, by the establishment of great estates. Both of these avenues to wealth required large scale forced-labor, which Costa Rica's small native population was unable to provide. Disease and maltreatment of the native people exacerbated the problem. As a result, a system of small-scale agriculture developed in which the land was worked by the Spanish settlers themselves. This created an economic environment radically different from that of the rest of Latin America. In 1719, Costa Rica's governor described the area as "the poorest and most miserable Spanish colony in all of America." After all, if you couldn't get filthy rich and lord it over the natives, what was the point?

I was attracted by this rounded corner entrance and its iron balcony. After a time, the colonists moved away from the hot, low, and often unhealthy coastal areas up to the cool, moist highlands of the Central Valley area. The volcanic soil there was rich, but the mountainous nature of the terrain didn't lend itself to the sort of vast holdings acquired by the Spanish grandees of the Valley of Mexico or the pampas of Argentina. At one point even the governor of Costa Rica had to work his own land. In addition, the precipitous terrain and poor roads made transportation of crops and other goods to coastal ports a difficult prospect. Farmers produced for the local market as a result. At least until the middle of the 19th century, export-driven production was limited. In turn, this limited the incentives of colonial and early 19th century wealth-holders to pour in outside capital and thus dominate the economy. After independence, President Juan Moro Fernandez did encourage the exportation of coffee and brazilwood. However, the dispersal of economic power--and thus political power--continued to be a major factor inhibiting the growth of the sort of oligarchical cliques so common in other Latin American societies. In Costa Rica, small-scale enterprises, individualism, and autonomy were essential to survival.

Detail of decoration on another 19th century structure. The capital on top of the pilaster shows a woman's face surrounded by flowery vegetation. The first shipments of coffee to Europe--grown largely in the Central Valley--led eventually to the construction of a railroad. US businessman Minor Keith overcame huge difficulties to build the rail line from the Central Valley down to the Caribbean port of Limón. To compensate him for his efforts, the Costa Rican government granted him large tracts of land on which he started to grow bananas, also for export. In fact, banana trees are sometimes planted so that they can provide the shade coffee plants require. Thus, two of the country's three main export crops were introduced at about the same time. The banana industry attracted the attention of the ill-famed United Fruit Company. Although United Fruit wielded considerable economic influence in Costa Rica, it never exercised the naked power over Costa Rica's society that it enjoyed in Guatemala or elsewhere. Perhaps this was due to the presence of so many small, independent farmers and entrepreneurs. In 1856, a man named William Walker invaded Nicaragua with a group of American mercenaries (called "filibusterers"). He seized power and reinstated slavery, previously abolished during the Mexican War of Independence. When Walker invaded his next target, Costa Rica, the people rallied under President Rafael Mora Porras. The Costa Ricans drove the filibusterers back into Nicaragua, where they were defeated in the Battle of Rivas. Walker himself was captured by the government of Honduras and executed in 1860.

The dark side of San José

Bars on gates and windows and concertina wire can be seen everywhere in San José.  Obviously there is a crime problem. It may be related to the lingering effects of the economic downturn of 2008 which caused the loss of some foreign businesses and investment along with a rise in unemployment. Statistics show, however, that Costa Rica's rate of crime, particularly violent crime, is far less than its Central American neighbors. The overwhelming majority of crimes are against property, not people, i.e. burglaries rather than assaults. Still, local authorities are concerned, particularly since Costa Rica does not want to gain the unenviable (but somewhat overblown) reputation of Mexico. Such a reputation would negatively affect the top industry: tourism. It is probably no wonder that Caravan wanted to keep its clients safely corralled lest we wander into a bad neighborhood and get mugged.

A homeless man catches a nap on a back street. He may be local, or he may be a Nicaraguan immigrant. It was a sad sight, regardless. Costa Rica is not a "workers paradise", but its people are measurably better off than many others in Latin America and the world. At least political violence is quite low, and has been for a very long time. From 1869 into the early 20th century, Costa Rica functioned as a stable democracy. However, in 1917, General Federico Tenoco seized power and held it until he was overthrown by a popular revolt in 1919. After his exile, the wealth, political power, and size of the Costa Rican military declined significantly. Then, in 1948, a disputed election led to another popular uprising led by José Figueres Ferrer. The resulting 44-day civil war cost 2000 dead, but the outcome was extraordinary. Figueres Ferrer won and, after he was subsequently elected president, abolished the army entirely! He pledged to replace it with an "army of teachers" and made good on his promise. Today, 67 years later, Costa Rica remains one of the few nations on earth without an army. Together with the population factors that prevented the development of a colonial oligarchy, the lack of a standing army helps explain the unusual differences between Costa Rica and its immediate neighbors, as well as with the rest of the developing world.

This completes Part 1 of my Costa Rica series. I hope you have enjoyed the photos and the commentary. If so, please leave your thoughts and any questions in the Comments section below, or email me directly.

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Hasta luego, Jim