Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Tico Time

Costa Rica is the most stable, prosperous and visited country in Central America. It's also probably the most boring. Named the Rich Coast by Christopher Columbus it proved to be anything but, with next to no mineral wealth, and not even much of an indigenous population to enslave it became the forgotten backwater of Spain's American colonies. This proved to be beneficial to the country's future stability as it made the agrarian society, made up mainly of immigrants and their descendants, more equal; unlike other Central American countries where a coterie of families controlled the vast majority of political and economic power. It was so far-removed with what was happening in the rest of the colony (it was nominally a province of the Captaincy of Guatemala, but had very few dealings with the leadership there) that it was informed of its independence from Spain by letter a month after it theoretically occurred. Fast forward to the present and Costa Rica has been spared the wars and internal turmoil that have plagued its coregionists. It also embarked on an enlightened, somewhat socialist (though don't tell the Americans), path. In 1949 it unilaterally got rid of its armed forces, the only country of any consequence to have done so in the world (the other ones are all tiny and usually island nations in the South Pacific). Then in the 70's, seeing that it had little to offer the world other than coffee and bananas, a conscious decision was made to preserve the country's forests in an attempt to lure foreign capital via tourism.

In a country devoid of historic monuments the rather ho-hum national theatre from the turn of the last century is the most grandiose historical building.

And it's been a huge success. When Ticos (the term for people from Costa Rica) saw how rich foreigners were willing to spend good bucks to come and gawk and trees and animals without them having to do anything at all they realised they had a goldmine on their hands. And so they quickly set about creating national parks, biological reserves, and even privately owned wildlife refuges, placing about a quarter of the country under some sort of environmental protection. Today tourism is the country's largest earner, with almost 2.5 million tourists arriving last year. Of these about 40% were Americans, wanting to go somewhere exotic, but with sit-down toilets, McDonalds, pre-organised tours, and no recent history of guerrilla warfare (which excludes most of the rest of Central America - but more on that in a later post). It's all very pleasant, well-organised - the proof being in the overabundance of hotels, tour agencies and shops with the word "eco" in their names - and, in my opinion, unexceptional. All the natural habitats - cloud forests, rainforests, mangroves, beaches, volcanoes, etc. - can be seen in other countries in the region, without significantly more bother, and for a fraction of the price. Which is why, whilst still in Panama, I took the opportunity to visit La Amistad national park, the largest protected area of cloud forest in Central America. To be fair, it is a transnational park that straddles the border between Costa Rica and Panama. It's home to tapirs, jaguars, sloths as well as the two birds any twitcher to Central America wants to see: the resplendent quetzal and the harpy eagle. Of course I saw neither. I did, however, see plenty of clouds ... and rain. But facetiousness aside, my main sightings were various bird species, such as hummingbirds, and a whole host of insects. And although it would be nice to see all these amazing animals in the wild, sometimes it's worth it just knowing that they're out there somewhere,living their lives untouched by the destabilising influence of man. In fact it may even be better that I don't see them.

Your typical cloud forest view of clouds and ... forest.

Although I'm quite scathing towards Costa Rica's cultural heritage, my hosts in San Jose Diego and Maria, an interesting couple who run their own theatre troupe) took me to see some very interesting ruins. What they lack in antiquity (they were first built in the 1910's and abandoned in the 60's) they make up in atmosphere. The Duran Sanatorium was built to treat tuberculosis patients with its fresh mountain air, but became redundant with the advent of effective antibiotic treatments. Abandoned for decades it caught the local imagination after being featured in various videos and TV programmes. The crumbling walls, peeling paint, vacant institutional bathrooms, layers of graffiti, and dank corridors all give an air of American Gothic; of some haunted insane asylum where the most heinous of experiments were carried out. Of course it was probably quite a bright, cheerful place, but the echoing hallways are just begging for an overactive imagination.

The slow decay of the abandoned sanatorium gives it a mystical air and makes it the most popular "cultural" attraction in Costa Rica (OK, I'm totally guessing about that last fact, but it wouldn't surprise me at all if it were true).

No comments: