On Costa Rica

When you think of Costa Rica, what is the first thing that comes to mind? Beautiful beaches? Wild, dense jungles filled with exotic animals? Or simply, an adventurous escape from the mundane 9-5 with your best mate or soon to be wife or husband?

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I can’t deny that Costa Rica is all of this. It is captivating nature that will fill you with regret as you prepare to board your departing plane back home. It is spectacular wildlife that you will be hard pressed to find anywhere else in the world. And of course, it is the adventure of a lifetime that will be told to coworkers for years to come when they ask for recommendations on where to vacation to. But, tucked away in a seemingly neglected capital filled with over 300,000 residents, lies a Costa Rican reality that is nearly the complete opposite of everything mentioned above.

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Farmer selling his produce at the weekly Feria

(Author’s note: Allow me to apologize upfront. During my time in Costa Rica, as with anywhere, if something caught my eye, I took a picture of it. For me, that normally (read, almost always) consists of something nature related, the unspoken beauty of Earth. And, while Costa Rica is a country filled to the brim with nature, this article tackles the inverted reality that is Costa Rica for its average citizen. Of that polarized reality, the partially disheveled, sometimes disheartening Costa Rica, I have very few photos. In fact, yesterday, knowing that I wanted to write this article, I went to a part of town that always saddened me just so that I would have a photo to convince you, the reader, that I’m not making all of this up. As you read, the pictures above and beneath words will be in high contrast to the words I have written. I hope you, as the reader, take this opportunity to experience just how much of a contrast there is between the Costa Rica that the tourist experiences and the Costa Rica its citizens know.)

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Monkey outside my hotel window. I accidentally left my bad outside full of bananas and fruit the night before. Heard a screech in the early morning. Needless to say my bananas were long gone.

Costa Rica, a former Spanish colony, gained independence from Spain in 1821. Due to the sudden power vacuum, a civil war erupted between Imperialists who wanted to join the Mexican Empire, and Republicans who wanted full independence. Republicans won a decisive victory at the battle of Ochomogo in 1823 and the capital was moved from Cartago to San Jose; however, Costa Rica was still a part of the Federal Republic of Central America. In 1838, due to the inefficiency of La República Federal de Centroamérica, Costa Rica withdrew and became fully independent.

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In the early 19th Century, Costa Rica experienced significant economic growth due to the export of coffee, along with tabaco and cacao. (For a more in depth history of Costa Rican coffee, be sure to check out my “History of Coffee in Costa Rica” post). In order to provide a faster, more efficient transportation of coffee from farm to shipping port, Minor Keith, a United States businessman, was contracted to build a railroad to Limon in exchange for land and a lease on the train route. Keith, being a shrewd (read: exploitive) business man, used this lease to produce a “Banana route” for exportation. As banana exports grew and competed with coffee as the major export, foreign investment also grew and foreign corporations began to hold a lot of power in the direction of Costa Rica’s national economy. Some of its historic symptoms (read: exploitations) can still be seen in Costa Rica’s economy today.

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Compared to the rest of Central America, Costa Rica enjoyed an extremely peaceful 20th century. The only exception was a 44 day Civil war in 1948 that left 2,000 Ticos (Costa Rican’s) dead. Following the civil war, a new constitution was drafted, true democratic elections were held, and the military was disbanded, making Costa Rica one of the few nations without an armed force (alongside Kiribati, Grenada, Andorra, and Iceland).

And that brings us to present day Costa Rica. Since 1953, Costa Rica has held 15 presidential elections and is deemed, rightfully so, the region’s most stable country.

[If you’re not interested in Mexican history that is more or less not directly related to this article, skip this paragraph] Ok, I’m going to derail a bit here, but I think you’ll enjoy it. I initially began writing “Just to provide some perspective, here are the internal conflicts other Latin American countries have had since gaining independence with Spain.” I began my research and, I found that in 1926, Mexico experienced a Cristero Rebellion, a battle against the secularist (think Separation of Church and State) and anti-Catholic policies of the Mexican government at the time. Then President Plutarco Elias Calles enacted a statute that would place restrictions on the Catholic Church. It would require all churches to register with the state, priests and ministers could no longer hold public office, nor could they “inherit property from persons other than close blood relatives.” In this reform, which came to be known as “Calles Law,”  penalties were places specifically on members of the church. Wearing a clerical garb in public was punishable by a fine of 500 pesos ($250 at the time, or $4,250 now). Any religious figure that criticized the government would be imprisoned for 5 years. And lastly, church property was seized, foreign priests expelled, and religious schools permanently closed. As a result, a rural uprising, supported by the church of course, temporarily tore the country apart. The rebels called themselves Cristeros (Of Christ). Peaceful resistance quickly turned to violent uprising, government troops were killed in raids and priests were tortured and murdered in public. In 1929, US ambassador to Mexico Dwight W. Morrow was able to draft, and have signed, a peace pact that would allow worship in Mexico to resume; however, the church would be held to some secular law (only some priests would have to register with the government and religious instruction could only resume in churches, not schools). The interesting part, perhaps more trivia factoid, as if the above wasn’t interesting enough, is that in the mid 1920s, high ranking members belonging to, none other than the Ku Klux Klan, offered Mexican President Calles $10,000 to aid in fighting the Catholic Church. They appeared to share his sentiments that “The Catholic Church…must be eliminated in order to proceed with a Socialist government free of religious hypnotism which fools the people.” I find it incredible that the KKK, an organization that believes in the success of the white race, and only the white race, would support the Mexican government, but I digress. [End tangent]

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As I was saying, compared to countries such as Mexico, that have had 5 internal conflicts since independence from Spain, Guatemala with a bloody 36 year Civil War, El Salvador with a Civil War that left 80,000 dead and 8,000 disappeared, a CIA backed army unit in Honduras that was responsible for the torture, murder, and disappearance of 184 students, professors, and journalists, Nicaragua with its infamous Banana War along with its Civil War and Revolution that left over 40,000 dead, and lastly Panama with its US invasion that resulted in over 300 dead in the span of one month. Relatively, Costa Rica has been a place of political paradise in the region.

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Young Nicaraguan FSLN rebel soldiers

Today, Costa Rica continues to enjoy a stable democracy as well as, for the most part, economy. In 2017, the estimated GDP for Costa Rica was at $57 billion, ranking 76th in the World. The country also has  a high level of quality health care as well as one of the highest literacy rates in Central America at 97%.

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Well, with all of this, how is Costa Rica not the perfect country to live in from any perspective? Well, for starters, even though GDP has increased significantly over the last 20 years, the national debt has been steadily increasing as well. In 2015, it accounted for 41% of the national GDP. In June of 2017, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) expressed concern over increasing deficits and public debts, as the proposed 2017 budget was $16 billion, 33% of which accounted for debt payments. In August of 2017, President Luis Guillermo Solis stated that the country was facing a “liquidity crisis” and declared that higher income taxes were desperately needed in order to pay debts AND keep government services operational.

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Former President Guillermo with Former President Obama

Compared to other Latin American nations, Costa Rica is easily the most expensive country to live in. A tax is placed on every imported good (as seen here), which in turn drives retail prices up, costing citizens more money. Things that are found for reasonable prices in The States such as clothing, electronics, and automobiles, are rather expensive in Costa Rica, sometimes double the price.

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Manuel Antonio

Where does all of this tax money go? I truly have no idea. The cost of living in Costa Rica is extremely high, while salaries remain low, with the average salary being $730. A good portion of that is taxed, either directly or indirectly. And yet, you cannot drive down any road in Costa Rica for more than five minutes without having to swerve just to avoid a tire flattening pot hole. Still, trash litters the streets of downtown San Jose, as well as the highways, and even parks. Still, there is a soul numbing rush hour that could easily be avoided if major “roundabouts” were done away with. And while crime rates are relatively low for the region, they have also increased significantly in the last ten years. Ticos are investing heavily into their government and country, be it willingly or not, but the return on investment may be taking longer than expected.

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Whats more, Costa Rica is hailed as a country with one of the best health care systems in the world, but if you ask a Tico, would he rather go to the public hospital on insurance, or a private one, I can guarantee that all would say private. The wait time for the public hospital is, all jokes aside, sometimes life-threatening, taking weeks, sometimes months just to get an appointment. And the treatment by staff at a public clinic lacks hospitality in comparison. At a private clinic, you can be seen within a couple of days if not hours and are treated like the money you spend. Of course, not everyone can afford this exclusive attention.

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Hospital Calderon

To make matters even worse, a base salary for a nurse in a public hospital in Costa Rica is a mere $550 a month, which is under the national average for salaries. It’s a bit difficult to compare directly, but the average nurse in The United States makes $5,660 a month, ten times as much as here, and still, the cost of food in both countries is the same, and the cost of clothing, electronics, and automobiles is much more expensive in Costa Rica. Everyone pays for health insurance and everyone can get it, and while I’m sure it has helped, saved, cured many poor workers, homeless, or those that just wouldn’t be able to afford health care, it has left many middle class Costa Ricans frustrated and disappointed.

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Typical road in San Jose. Passed by this every morning on my way to work.

This frustration and disappointment is not just felt in health care. On any street in Costa Rica, along with 2-3 foot potholes, you will easily find brand new BMWs, Porsches, Audis, mixed with beat up used cars from the 90s, even the 80s, that your average Costa Rican drives. The class disparity in Costa Rica is unbelievable, seriously, ridiculously unbelievable. The middle class seems to be shrinking dramatically, almost to the point of non-existence. Upper class Ticos, enjoy a relaxed life, as they should having earned their wealth; however, the rest of Costa Rica, struggles simply to get by, trying to emulate the wealthy in whatever way possible so that they too, may escape financial stress. But, with 20% of the country below the poverty line, a ridiculous amount of imposed taxes, and a laughable salary in comparison to the cost of living, escaping a paycheck to paycheck lifestyle for the majority of Costa Ricans does not seem plausible, not any time soon at least. And without a strong middle class, consumer spending plummets and takes the Costa Rican economy with it. Luckily, the country’s saving grace is, still, foreign investments, due to Free Trade Zone which brings American companies seeking tax breaks along with their investments.

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Coffee Expo with Cafe Doga at the beginning of the year.

Costa Rica, is, without a doubt, one of the most beautiful countries in the world filled with beautiful people. Its nature, beaches, and world class resorts make it a prime destination for travelers world-wide. However, if the country continues on the path its headed, there may be little that separates it from one of its less politically stable neighbors to the North.

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Irazu Volcano

For those of you who’ve made it this far, thanks for reading. If you disagreed with anything I’ve said, feel free to send me a message, would love to discuss. If you have any questions, feel free to ask away.

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Bonus treat for reading. Me 300 miles deep in the humid, exotic rainforest with my unkempt survival beard. Jk, I was at a nature walk 5 minutes from my car….

 

 

 

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Cafe del Barista

What separates a good cafe from a mediocre one? What motivates loyal customers to continue choosing your cafe instead of the competition just down the street? What encourages new customers to give your spot a chance? Is it the atmosphere, the customer service, or the quality of the coffee? These were the questions that I came down to Costa Rica to have answered in my crazy pursuit to one day have a cafe that I can call my own.


I’d been in Costa Rica for a little over a month, and I still couldn’t find any real work. I applied to every, single, cafe in San José (That is no exaggeration) and even to a few outside of the city. Every interviewer always immediately asked me, a bit arrogantly it seemed, “Well what cafe experience do you even have?” I’d reply, “My five years in the Navy has not given me much direct experience with hospitality, or coffee for that matter, but I can assure you that what I lack in experience, I can more than make up for in dedication and willingness to learn…” Didn’t seem to matter.

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Volunteering at Cafeoteca, a good 8 pounds lighter than when I arrived to Costa Rica

Tired of waiting for so many 2nd calls or emails that never came, I began thinking that coming to Costa Rica, the source of quality coffee, to learn about coffee maybe wasn’t such a good idea after all. Looking back, I was carrying a decent amount of stress with me and I was losing a good amount of weight. I began toying with the idea of getting a job outside of coffee. Get something that wouldn’t have anything to do with specialty coffee, or even hospitality for that matter, but could afford me the opportunity to survive financially and volunteer after work or on the weekends at a cafe since I “lacked experience.” Swallowing my pride, I accepted a volunteer position (via a good family friend) at Cafeoteca, one of the previous cafes that more or less scoffed at my inexperience. They just happened to be one of the best speciality coffee shops in Costa Rica.

I began volunteering there just about every day from 8AM to 3PM and would use my downtime to search for a paying job. Luckily, I was able to learn quite a bit while “working” from how to use an espresso machine, to how to prepare “Metas” or brewed coffee (Chemix, Aeropress, French Press, V60, Gondola), how to properly steam milk for a Cappucino or Latte, and, most importantly, how to provide great customer service, all in Spanish mind you (It had been a quite a while since I had spoken Spanish daily). After about three weeks of what seemed like indentured servitude at best, I had finally been accepted as an English teacher at a learning academy. The pay was absolutely atrocious, but I could work nights, keep my day schedule at the cafe, and afford to buy food without much stress (Costa Rica is an expensive country contrary to popular belief, its just the salaries that are low).

The English Academy had planned to send me to a “teacher prep course” a month after I accepted the position; however, about two days after I officially accepted the job, one of my “co-workers” had gotten pretty irritated that the cafe wasn’t paying me, but still expected me to work so much. He recommended that I talk to a friend of his, an owner at another cafe, after he put in a good word for me. Not even a day later, I found myself face to face with the world famous Manuel Dinarte, Costa Rica’s 2008 National Barista Champion, and owner of Cafe del Barista. After a brief conversation and demonstration of my recently learned skills (I’m sure the recommendation helped more than anything), I was offered a position as manager at one of his cafes. And that was that. I immediately called the English Academy and regretfully informed them that I was no longer available and got to work.

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Jose preparing a V60

I quickly fell in love with everything about the cafe. The employees were all a part of Costa Rica’s budding 3rd Wave Coffee scene. Eager to both teach and learn anything and everything there is to know about coffee. The repeat customers were in love with the customer service that they received at the cafe, and that showed not only through their repeat business, but more so with how they interacted within the cafe. Nothing but laughs and smiles the entire hour or hour and a half in the shop. Only once had I ever seen a customer have a bad experience and that was because we closed at 530 PM, but they hadn’t taken the hint by 615. The kitchen, bakery, and baristas all loved what they did and that was easily reflected in the products that we delivered to the customer, be it a delicious, glazed cinnamon roll, mouth watering white wine sauce chicken with rice and beans, or our coffee, at the time, a natural processed Geisha from Herbazu, Costa Rica.

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My coffee knowledge seems to have quadrupled, luckily, while working at Cafe del Barista. I was fortunate enough to go directly to the farms from where we bought our beans and see the (sometimes manual as seen above) 1st, 2nd, and 3rd selection process that dictated how much a sack of coffee would ultimately cost.

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I was able to, under the guidance of owner Manuel, get hands on roasting experience. Seeing first hand, what it meant for a coffee to “Yellow,” how the official first crack was noted, and what parameters to use to determine when to stop a roast depending on coffee variety, process, and desired taste.

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At the time this picture was taken I was still learning about Quakers…

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I even got some hands on experience baking. Although, as Cindy, our baker below, can tell you, I have much to learn in the art of baking, and it may just be that I’m not cut out to be a professional baker.

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This was one of the few times in my life “You make it look so easy” applied perfectly

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As you can see, my empanada (Above Left) looks nothing compared to Cindy’s (Above right)

 

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Silky espresso shots

Our cafe was even featured in a TV program on best cafes in Latin America. Guess who the only other cafe was in Costa Rica that made it onto the program…..Cafeoteca.

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The kitchen crew, Monica, Enrique, and Ariel who probably provided me with 95% of my laughter throughout the day

And in everything that I’ve learned through my experience at Cafe del Barista, I’ve finally figured out what the secret is to running a great cafe. Its not how well the beans are roasted, nor is it the quality of the coffee beans, or the baked goods, or even the food. What turns a good cafe into a great one, is, as you’ve probably guessed, the people. The basic essence of what a cafe is, a place to escape the stressors of life and relax, a place to enjoy good company, share a cup of coffee, and laugh away your thoughts. The baristas serving your cup of coffee, with care and attention, take it from a mediocre cup, to an excellent one, and the difference is easily tasted. The chefs eliminate your growling stomach, with carefully prepared dishes from the heart. And, cafes fortunate enough to have an in house baker like ours, the baker provides the perfect, mouth watering complement to your great cup of coffee.

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Love these guys to death

I’ve heard stories of cafes, in Costa Rica at least, that seem trendy, seem hip, seem like a great place to relax, but the owners treat the employees like trash. I’ve visited these cafes myself. Sure, they have great coffee, good food, and everyone greets me, but each time, there is something that is just off. I’ve never felt a burning desire to go back to these places, to waste away my quiet Saturday afternoon enjoying their coffee, or even support their organization with my money. I strongly believe that is because the people were not taken care of, so how could they possibly fully take care of me.


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“You can smell it. The warm subtle notes of fresh Costa Rican coffee calms you as you breathe it in. The steady drip from the pot reminds you of when mother would pour her coffee early Saturday mornings. As you bring the warm cup to your mouth, your taste buds expand, anticipating the beautiful embrace of perfection. Come join us for a cup of coffee.” -Cafe del Barista, written by yours truly.