Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Costa Rica – the Switzerland of the Americas

As the exclusive family vacation planner, I researched and eventually settled our annual family X’mas vacation for a visit to Costa Rica that was concluded on New Year’s Eve. Below let me share with you briefly our itinerary and experience.

Tues, Dec 25: flew nonstop from Newark to the capital San Jose’s Juan Santamaría International Airport near the center of the country. Stayed overnight at the airport Hampton Inn. As one tour book puts it: if you are worried about cultural shock, you can stay at this place and will feel right at home since it is identical to every Hampton Inn in US!

Weds, Dec 26: picked up a 4WD rental car and drove through the winding narrow two-lane mountain roads of Central Valley to the Central Pacific Coast at the south west. A little bit of adaptive driving skill and courage helps – for those who have driven in countries like Taiwan and Italy know exactly what I mean. Stopped by for lunch at the bustling beach town Jaco which is famous for surfing. We then took a Canopy adventure tour, clipping on and zipping through twelve long steel cables in-between 100+ feet tall tree-top platforms. If you are sufficiently relaxed, you could enjoy the beach view and possibly spot some birds or monkeys. If you are flexible and daring enough, you can do a up-side-down ride to enjoy the view of the forest beneath your head!

Thurs, Dec 27: strolled on the beautiful Manuel Antonio beach. Enjoyed a $1 coconut drink fresh right from the fruit. Browsed the street vendor stands. Took a guided tour of the Manuel Antonio National Park in the afternoon. The park is right next to the beach and is full of some interesting and diverse animals and plants (by the way, Costa Rica is one of the highest biodiversity countries). In addition to four local varieties of monkeys – White-faced, Hawler, Squirrel, and Spider monkeys, we saw two contrasting and fascinating animals: Jesus Christ Lizards and sloths. The former is so named because it can "Walk on the Water". According to a National Geographic News article on how Jesus Christ Lizard walks on the water, they can burst across water on their hind limbs at about 5 feet a second (or 3.5 Mph) for a distance of approximately 15 feet (4.5 meters)! Sloth on the other hand, is extremely economical (or “lazy”) and has a very low metabolic rate – they sleep 15-18 hours a day and come down to the ground about once a week to urinate and poop. They mate only once a year; our tour guide Rudy has filmed such an act earlier this year and put the video up on the Youtube. In the evening, walked across the street from the hotel to this popular restaurant/bar called El Avion to have a drink (which turns out to be awful). The center piece of the restaurant is the “Contra Bar” converted from an old C-123 cargo plane that the owner bought in 2000 for $3000. It is one of the two C-123s involved in the infamous Iran-Contra Scandal of the Regan administration in 1980’s that was exposed and definitely “proved” when its sister plane was shot down with its CIA cargo handler captured by the Nicaraguan government troops. It is not clear if Nicaraguan government had used any “enhanced” interrogation techniques to get the confession though!

Fri., Dec 28: Relaxed on the Manuel Antonio beach in the morning. Went for an afternoon horseback riding to the Tocori waterfall in the mountain near the town Quepos

Sat Dec 29: drove back to the Central Valley region. Took a lunch break on an open air hilltop café which has a spectacular view. Drove to and visited Sarchi, the village famous for its arts and crafts, especially the Oxcarts.

Sun Dec 30:
visited the Doka estate coffee farm (who is one of the coffee bean suppliers of Starbucks!) and learned the whole life cycle of coffee from a seed to a brewed cup of coffee on our table in a traditional way. It is the picking season; the driver and tour guide pointed us to the Nicaraguan workers, some are illegal, who work for the coffee farm with room and board provided, to pick coffee beans as no locals want to do that work – a universal immigration issue. Spent the rest of afternoon and evening at the near by Resort, enjoying the garden, river and waterfall trails, pool and spa.

Mon Dec 31: flew home

Now the more serious sides – why is Costa Rica considered the Switzerland of the Americas? Wealth and standards of living? Don’t think so. Scenery and landscape? Doubt it but can’t say it for sure for the whole country since we did not visit the Arenal Volcano and Lake region at the north which is supposedly comparable to the Alps and lakes of Switzerland. The most important event that every tour book and the locals proudly point to is the abolishment of its army in December 1, 1948 by President José Figueres Ferrer (which was later introduced into its constitution) after a bloody and last civil war. Unlike its neighbors in central and south America, Costa Rica has since enjoyed peace, free election and democracy when many others were busy recruiting or using nation’s (otherwise idled) military forces against their political rivals and own people.

It is often suggested that Costa Rica government has wisely diverted the military budget to education and health care. According to The World Fact Book by CIA, Costa Rica has ~ 4M population (with ~0.5M legal and illegal immigrants!), ~51K sq Km and a purchasing power parity (PPP) based GDP of ~$51B, or per capita of $12,500 with quite good social security, universal health care and education system. To put in perspectives, Taiwan (and US) is about 1.4 (200) times in size, 5+ (80) times in population, with a GDP per capita of ~$30,000 ($44,000) and spends about ~$10B (~$500B, respectively) in defense budget. Not bad at all for a small country without much resources!

Of course there are several other historical factors shaped the country as well since its discovery by Columbus in 1502. Apparently, it was “left alone” by the major powers due to its lack of highly desired natural resources, the rugged terrain with little arable land, and lastly, independent-minded free spirited people who would rather retreated into the high mountains than being slaved. As a result, the country is primarily made of a large number of smaller farms and communities with no apparent class structure and limited economic parity although there are some well-off groups and elites.

We had a wonderful time and learned a bit about yet another country. Talk to you soon!

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