My first memories of Costa Rica come from the late '70s, when it was a refuge from the war in Nicaragua, which I was covering as a journalist. Whenever we crossed the border into Costa Rica's Guanacaste province, schoolchildren in the small villages along the Pan American Highway were neatly dressed in blue, seemingly scrubbed and well fed; farmhouses had roofs, and walls, and concrete floors, and livestock. Lush green mountaintops were terraced with coffee bushes under fluffy cloud covers. A hospital we visited in Liberia, which cared for Nicaraguan wounded, was clean, well maintained, staffed by numerous attentive young nurses and doctors.
Once, when I needed information from the Foreign Ministry, I was able to wander about for some minutes, unimpeded, in the corridors of the principal old government building in the capital, San Jose'. I knocked on one official-looking door and was told to enter. A gent in a guayabera was seated behind a desk, going over some papers.
I explained what I wanted and he said he thought he could probably answer my question as he was the foreign minister.
Costa Rica is no longer as relaxed as all that, but it is more so than almost any place else in Central America. Surrounded by despotisms of one sort or another throughout much of the Central American isthmus, this republic, only a little bigger than Vermont and New Hampshire, does not even maintain a proper military establishment. And it always has welcomed exiles, if they could afford to keep themselves, and, recently, even when they couldn't.
The great Nicaraguan poet and founder of Spanish modernismo, Ruben Dario, thundered against Teddy Roosevelt's imperialism from the newspapers of San Jose'.
"There are bands in all the plazas of the villages / and in San Jose' windows and balconies are filled with young women and flowers .../ and the president walks on foot in San Jose'," observed the Rev. Father Ernesto Cardenal some years back, with the envy of a poet forced to live under Somozism in neighboring Nicaragua.
More recently, international swindler Robert Vesco, and a host of lesser scam artists, contrabandistas, gold prospectors and American husbands who couldn't pay their alimony have found refuge here, along with numerous post-Pinochet coup Chileans and many Nicaraguan refugees, including former guerillero Eden Pastora, who now works as a shark fisherman on Costa Rica's tropical East Coast. There are condo developments for American and European retirees, and lots of young gringo enthusiasts whom both left and right refer to as "sandalistas," in that they come to the beach resorts of Costa Rica to recuperate from their strenuous conducted tours of the "revolutionary process" in Nicaragua to the north.
I remember a certain amount of wooden-shack poverty, and occasional drunks, and beggars, and waifs, but I never encountered destitution in Costa Rica like the shoeless, roofless, rickety-legged, unwalled varieties one encounters to the north and the south, and there was no terror. At the Turtle Bar, a somewhat sleazy taverna in downtown San Jose', I once asked a young woman if she ever felt afraid in the city. "Yes," she replied, "after I saw 'Ghostbusters.' "
What I find special about this city of 800,000 is the lack of fearfulness in the comportment of its residents, compared with such other capitals as Managua, San Salvador or Guatemala City. Lovers smooch in the parks; young women promenade together as they shop along Central Avenue, unafraid; teen-agers jostle each other in line at movies and discos. There's a national dance troupe and quite a few decent bookstores. The wealthy exiles hang around the yuppie bars in the suburb of Los Yoses, near the University of Costa Rica. When I asked a uniformed policeman outside chichi Risa's if he found his job difficult, he complained that it was "mostly boring ... a lot of traffic accidents, sure, but not too many real bad criminals ..."
Compact downtown, then sprawling like L.A., the capital boasts some handsome old public buildings and arcades, a few dense, well-watered parks and squares, and many fine shops in the central district.
Villas crest the hills of the northwestern suburb of Escazu', and the mansions of the well-off are creamy beneath bright florid patches of bougainvillea and hibiscus. At one such place, I interviewed half the present Nicaraguan government as they awaited the military victory that would bring them to power; and one of my memories is a conversation about Walt Whitman's and Ezra Pound's poetry I had with Father Cardenal, the Marxist, in a sun room high above the hubbub of the city while, one floor below us, in the kitchen, a servant prepared mouth-watering carne asado (pot roast), the odors wafting up to me as we colloquied. When lunch called a halt to the interview, I was not invited, carrots, meat and potatoes displacing Whitman and Pound for Cardenal and his companåeros, while I trudged downhill again in the noon sun.
San Jose' is not really an expensive high-life city, but the telephones work, the mails are prompt, and English is spoken by many. There are decent inexpensive pensions such as the Chinese-managed Costa Rica, which is located south of Morazon Park and offers weekly and monthly discounts, and a number of more luxurious so-called apartotels, which rent with kitchens and family rooms, and sometimes pools, by the week or the month at moderate prices. With a dish antenna to catch stateside TV, you can feel right at home on one of San Jose''s golden, eucalyptus-groved hills.
There is really not much special here in the way of restaurants or hotels, although many are more than adequate, with all the usual amenities. The Corobici, the former Playboy Hotel, even offers casino gambling. And in Escazu' there are two excellent small, intimate hotels, the Pico Blanco and the Pegasus.
In the center of the city, opposite lovely Morazon Park, is an old mansion called Key Largo, which has been converted into a hangout for various "dealers" in one thing or another. It certainly looks as though it has been transported from the set of that old Bogart-Bacall-Edward G. Robinson movie, and probably has the best jukebox in town, although drinks cost more than they should.
Ticos, as Costa Ricans are called, are often regarded as bourgeois and somewhat dull by their Central American neighbors. That may be because they clean their streets, like fast foods and uphold decent living standards, in the main. In the capital every other person seems to be some sort of civil servant, and literacy is high. I saw a fine outdoor production of "Waiting for Godot" in Spanish a few summers back, and the audience was as involved and attentive as any I'd been part of in New York.
There's also an impressive, ornate, white-columned National Theater in the center of San Jose', which was donated to the nation by some wealthy planters at the end of the 19th century, and it faces on the handsome white-porticoed Gran Hotel Costa Rica, with its veranda cafe' and elegant top-floor restaurant. For many years after being built in 1930 this was the tallest building in the isthmus.
Costa Rica is largely without an indigenous population. The Chorotega and Carib Indians -- who lived here before the Spanish arrived in the early 16th century -- perished as a result of disease or at the hands of the Spanish. They left behind numerous grave-site deposits of pre-Columbian pottery and jade; both the National Museum and the Pre-Columbian Gold and Currency Museum, in the capital, have extensive collections of Indian artifacts in pottery, stone and precious metals.
Columbus landed here in 1502, on his fourth and final voyage, and according to legend, named the land Costa Rica -- "rich coast" -- because of rumors of its hidden treasures. The Spaniards who followed him came in search of El Dorado's gold and silver; those hidalgos who stayed on became isolated ranchers and farmers. Costa Rica was barely populated when it achieved independence from Spain, along with the other Central American nations, in the 1820s, and its population was augmented by Southern Europeans, Sephardic Jews, Germans and Britons. It held its first free elections in 1889, and when in 1948 an incumbent president, backed by right-wing military, refused to hand over power on completion of his term in office, there was a popular uprising led by Jose' (Pepe) Figueres, who established an interim government and initiated numerous reforms, abolished the military, and expanded the welfare state and public education.
Costa Rica, subsequently, has become a banana-producing republic, without succumbing to any sort of banana republican tyrannies. Its two ruling parties contest elections fiercely; its press is conservative, but there are legal left-wing parties, including the communists. On the Caribbean coast there has been considerable labor unrest directed against the big banana producers, but the country, as a whole, is placid.
There's still plenty of land to go around. Because of agrarian reform, campesinos are able to buy land and sell it to Americans for vacation homes and then apply for more that can be cleared and sold, or farmed. A recent immigrant of my acquaintance, from Eastern Europe, operates a large and profitable hacienda for the marketing of frozen steaks, which he ships by air to the Japanese market at very fancy prices.
"People here have certain European traits," he told me. "They like to make a good impression. If they make an appointment with you, they keep it. They can be depended on to do a day's work ..."
In San Jose' the pace is business-like, efficient. At the Soda Palace, a cafe' off the Parque Central, one is apt to meet disgruntled insurgents from all of Latin America, but the card players and coffee drinkers and newspaper browsers hanging out at this rendezvous spot are mostly old retirees. While the old men grumble about the cost of living, and shoeshine kids pass messages, revolutions and counterrevolutions elsewhere are conspired.
The second smallest Central American country (El Salvador is the smallest), Costa Rica is divided into seven provinces. In the north, the country stretches from the rolling hills and plains of the Guanacaste province, in the west, across the rugged peaks of Alajuela and Heredia provinces to the eastern jungles, banana plantations and beaches of Limo'n province. The province of San Jose', and its capital city, lie at the heart of the country, bordered on the south and east by Puntarenas and Cartago provinces.
Scattered throughout this diverse countryside are three active volcanos; beautiful and well-maintained national parks; rain forests with parrots, hundreds of other bird species and butterflies with exotic silken wings; cattle ranches and coffee plantations. The sea abounds in tarpon, tuna and other game fish; and in Costa Rican water off the Caribbean coast are found manatees, or sea cows, charming and benign.
All down its Pacific Coast, Costa Rica has beautiful and spacious beaches, with Ocatal, Nosara and Nicoya three of the most popular resorts. Puntarenas, the country's second city, is a major resort and conference center, with fine black volcanic sand beaches, from which there are connections by ferry to the Nicoya Peninsula, a folkloric center and breeding ground for thousands of green sea turtles.
The people of Costa Rica's East Coast are black and Creole, with English spoken around the steaming Caribbean port city of Limo'n. Its beaches are mangrovey, its climate humid, its cultivations lush and tropical: bananas, mangoes, etc. There are occasional palm-sheltered sandy coves, and rustic accommodations on stilts. A nice rinky-dink banana railroad makes stops in the jungle for tourists as it crosses daily from San Jose' to Limo'n, a city of about 50,000, in about eight hours.
Caribbean Costa Rica is also rice- and sugar-growing country; the latter product is distilled to produce various high-grade rums and aquadientes (sugar-cane brandies). These brandies are also produced, along with the potent and strange-tasting quaro, in San Jose', at the National Liquor Factory.
All in all, Costa Rica is peaceful, orderly and, for Central America, prosperous. At the University of Costa Rica, students dress and behave pretty much as they do in the States in the age of the computer. When I stopped one student to ask where a famous poet would be giving a reading, she replied she hadn't yet been "programmed" for poetry.
In San Jose' there's still a good central market where you can find cheap and pretty flower earrings of baked and painted dough, hand-carved and painted wood objects, custom-made kids' boots for less than $10, fretted lace, filigreed gold and silver, a cheese from the old Spanish capital of Cartago and country ham, and chocolate, and buttons, and sundries of every sort. But Ticos are doing more and more of their shopping in the supermercados. They mall-hop in cars, munch "burgers" laced with coriander and sometimes seem as suburban as Long Islanders.
A Cuban exile living in Puntarenas told me that "more Americans should come to Costa Rica so they will know all the Hispanics are not violent, superstitious and poor ..."
I asked if that was why he lived in Costa Rica.
"Mano," he said, "it's just damn pleasant being here, the next best thing to the States, and a heck of a lot less scary ..." For
more information: Costa Rica National Tourist Bureau, 200 S.E. First St., Suite 402, Miami, Fla. 33131, (305) 358-2150 or (800) 327-7033.
Richard Elman is the author of 20 books of fiction and journalism, including "Cocktails at Somoza's." His forthcoming collection of stories is called "Disco Frito" (Peregrine Smith).