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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?
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.
(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.)
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.
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.
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]
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.
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%.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A good buddy of mine had been telling me for days, “You gotta check out this podcast man, you’ll love it.” Now…nothing against Ryan, I wasn’t doubting his taste in podcast, but I had been given podcast recommendations COUNTLESS times by COUNTLESS individuals claiming that a particular podcast was the next best thing. I don’t doubt that shows like Pod Save America, Planet Money, and How I Built This are amazing shows, with five star ratings, loyal listeners, and thought provoking episodes; however, that wasn’t enough for me. In order for a podcast to take me away from my daily routine of listening to Josh and Chuck discuss the working of life on Stuff You Should Know, a podcast really had to stand out.
After Ryan’s third recommendation, I decided I should stop being a terrible friend and at least give the podcast a chance. I found the podcast, downloaded the first two episodes, and gave it a go. This was at 5:45 PM on 25 July 2017… It is now 8:30 AM on 26 July 2017, and except for a short 8 hour sleep break, I have not been able to stop listening to this podcast. I type this with this most seriousness of thought, it is the most captivating podcast I have listened to yet.
If you are into outdoor activities, great narration, and/or survival strategies, I cannot recommend Outside Podcast enough. With binge-worthy story-telling, outstanding presentation, and informative science, I cannot imagine ANYONE, even avid-indoors people, not loving this show. The first episode, a recreation of Peter Stark’s 2001 classic “Last Breath,” with an excerpt below, starts the Podcast series out strong. Give it a listen, let us know if you agree.
“An hour passes. at one point, a stray thought says you should start being scared, but fear is a concept that floats somewhere beyond your immediate reach, like that numb hand lying naked in the snow. You’ve slid into the temperature range at which cold renders the enzymes in your brain less efficient. With every one-degree drop in body temperature below 95, your cerebral metabolic rate falls off by 3 to 5 percent. When your core temperature reaches 93, amnesia nibbles at your consciousness. You check your watch: 12:58. Maybe someone will come looking for you soon. Moments later, you check again. You can’t keep the numbers in your head. You’ll remember little of what happens next.
Your head drops back. The snow crunches softly in your ear. In the minus-35-degree air, your core temperature falls about one degree every 30 to 40 minutes, your body heat leaching out into the soft, enveloping snow. Apathy at 91 degrees. Stupor at 90.
You’ve now crossed the boundary into profound hypothermia. By the time your core temperature has fallen to 88 degrees, your body has abandoned the urge to warm itself by shivering. Your blood is thickening like crankcase oil in a cold engine. Your oxygen consumption, a measure of your metabolic rate, has fallen by more than a quarter. Your kidneys, however, work overtime to process the fluid overload that occurred when the blood vessels in your extremities constricted and squeezed fluids toward your center. You feel a powerful urge to urinate, the only thing you feel at all.”
大 – big
菩 – sacred tree, kind of grass
薩 – buddha
嶺 – peak
My buddy Andrew and I decided to set out on another hike. This time of course, he was able to get his hands on a pair of hiking boots so that the snow wouldn’t dominate him like it did last time.
We got to the trail head shortly after 8 AM after a 4 hour drive and the first thing we saw was the picture above. We both had no idea what the majority of the words were but we didn’t need to. The ominous outline provided enough information.”Welp, guess we’re not hiking today Andrew.” He let out a small laugh, “maybe its for Pokemon Go and its one of the pokemon that hasn’t been unlocked yet. They might just be asking for help to unlock it.” I didnt laugh. I knew that the first two kanji were for bear and “outing” and the last two at the top were for “caution.” Andrew’s smile faded as he acknowledged the potential danger that lay ahead. Neither of us had ever seen a bear, let alone a warning sign that there has been a recent bear sighting.
He sighed, “A ship in harbor is safe —but that is not what ships are built for…” I closed my eyes and shook my head. “Ship’s also don’t have to worry about bears…Andrew….” His smile returned, “Hey man, my money is on the Pokemon Go theory.” I knew we didnt have much of a choice. We had already driven four hours, and neither one of us were the type to turn around after such a commitment. Accepting our challenge, I sarcastically recommended that we take out our bear bells, since neither of us had one.
We left the bear sign behind us and began our hike. We were lucky. There was no snow, no wind, and as the sun lazily crawled across the sky, it became warm enough to hike in just a shirt.
Unfortunately, the first thirty minutes didn’t feel like a hike at all. To our right was a long, winding road that had the occasional car pass by, completely robbing us of our “immersed in nature” feeling. To our left was nothing by fallen over logs that could have been hiding spots for bears. Without any incline, or boulders to scale, we were unable to focus on anything but trying to spot a bear before it spotted us. We stopped every five or ten minutes, wondering what a particular rustling noise was, or looking behind us for a curious bear.
Finally, as the hike started to pick up, we were able to distract ourselves from “bear evasion.” Unfortunately for this story, the hike was pretty straight forward…for the most part.
Almost a soon as we reached the main peak, we saw the mountain’s previously dull personality come to life. As we cleared the trees, the wind almost instantaneously began to pick up to 20-25 knots and the clouds rolled in. People ahead of us were leaning and digging into the wind as it roared across the mountain top. It was hard to hear anything greater than 15 feet from you as the wind whistled its way past you. Had I had any small children with me I would have seriously been concerned about them being blown off the side of the mountain. The temperature dropped AT LEAST 15 degrees, hell, I would argue maybe even twenty. The easy going conversation Andrew and I were having quickly became a chore as the numbing wind all but eliminated our facial motor abilities. I cursed myself for not bringing gloves as my hands began to shake and capturing pictures became increasingly challenging.
As the wind and chill continued to pick up, Andrew and I noticed what looked like it was a rain cloud off into the distance heading our way. I began to panic a little. I had no gloves, no rain coat, and my >$5 camera was not water proof at all.
We picked up the pace, knowing we had at least 3 hours left on the trail, hoping we could beat the rain cloud. We made it down what would have taken us an hour in just over twenty minutes.
That’s when the skies decided they could not hold out any longer and it began to sprinkle. The falling rain started to freeze our already numb faces and hands. I took the picture below, turned my camera off, and placed it in my backpack. Worried that the rain would pick up, our brisk walk turned into a jog, which then turned into a sprint. Luckily for us, it was all downhill from there. We reached the car after a challenging 90 minute run down the side of a mountain with no hypothermia and no bear sightings. Still, Mt. Daibosatsu seemed to have gotten the better of us that day.
茅 – miscanthus reed
岳 – peak, mountain
A good friend of mine had just gotten back from deployment and contacted me. “I’ve been around people 24/7 for the last few months, I just need to get away from people for a few hours.” I knew the perfect solution. My recently newfound hobby, hiking.
“You got any hiking gear? Boots, pants, packs?” I asked. Andrew responded, “Nah, but I should be fine with my running shoes. You think there will be a lot of snow?” The next two sentences would stick with us throughout the entire hike.
“Shouldn’t be that much, I went hiking last week, not that much snow. Plus its a whole ten degrees warmer this weekend, I’m willing to bet it’s all melted by now.”And with that, I convinced him that running shoes would be perfectly suitable for a spring hike.
We set off by car the next morning at 0600 en route to Mt. Kinpu. After about two hours of good conversation and empty (yet still expensive) highways, my buddy looked off into the distance and made an alarming observation.
“Are those mountains ahead of us where we’re headed?” I looked at my phone, “Yeah, they have to be…”
“There’s umm…it looks like there’s quite a bit of snow on those mountains…”
“Yeah…I guess we’ll see a little snow after all. You think your running shoes will be able to hold up?”
“Meh…not much I can do about it now I suppose.”
As we got closer to the mountains and left the city behind us we felt what must have been a ten degree drop in temperature. The car took its first wind up the side of the mountain, and just as it did, we saw just how much snow there really was. “There shouldn’t be that much snow” had quickly turned into “Will my car be able to make it out of here with these abysmal tires?” I looked over at my friend and I could tell he was of the same opinion as me “We drove out this far, theres really no turning back” although I sensed his level of thrill was not quite as high as mine, given the running shoes situation.
I followed the course on my phone that the lovely british voice was directing me towards and we came to an unexpected stop. Before us was a small white truck with an older Japanese man, in what appeared to be his maintenance uniform, closing a large yellow gate that blocked the road. I knew I was in for some exhausting and confusing Japanese.
“すみません、 あの、 行けませんか？” Now, this guy, was either a complete asshole or gave me too much of a benefit of the doubt. He replied, in full blown, fast paced Japanese. The only part I caught was 4PM. So of course I replied, “ああ、そうですか。えとね、いつに入られますか?” His next set of actions led me to believe he was leaning more towards being an asshole than the alternative. He looked at my friend, then back at me, then simply replied “明日.” And with that, he turned towards the gate and proceeded to close it as if we had simply vanished into thin air.
“Sweet. Welp, I guess we’re not going up that hike today…” My buddy, being the sharp Naval Officer that he is, responded without hesitation, “I bet if we can find a visitor’s center around here, we can make our way to a good hike. In less than a minute, he had one pulled up in his phone and we made our way, set back but undefeated.
After thirty minutes in the tourist information center, the employee there kindly recommended we check out a trail just south of there, Mt. Kayagatake. “But,” he warned, “It will be dangerous for your friend because of his shoes.” I looked Andrew inquisitively and as he gave a thumbs up saying, “Lets get this show on the road.”
We drove off and found ourselves at the start of the trail within the hour. Stepping out of the safety of our car into the cold forest with its makeshift parking lot, we could not see any snow and were both slightly relieved. That sense of relief lasted all of thirty minutes until we left the parking lot and saw nothing suffocating, blinding white snow in every direction. In fact, the only indicator of where the trail went was the absence of trees and slight indentation into the earth.
I have to admit I began to feel bad for my buddy that was about to hike this entire mountain overtaken by snow, in Nike running shoes. Even though it was fairly warm outside for April, every step had us shin deep in snow. And a wrong placement of the foot, could easily mean slipping and falling over onto the snow, or worse, a hidden rock.
The tempo of our conversations were timed by the focus, or lack thereof, on our foot placement. “This would be right around the time bears would be waking up,” Andrew pointed out, “I bet they’re going to be rather hungry.” Both lacking a bear bell, we attempted to keep a steady conversation, only when the snow was thinner and the ground, relatively flat. We did this to not inadvertently sneak up on any bears, and to try to keep our thoughts away from the subject of bears; however, that seems to be all we talked about. “What does bear piss smell like? Can you smell if a bear was recently in the area? Can you accidentally wake one up early from a hibernation?”
Pushing on with our bear talk, we came through this beautiful snow covered valley of trees, with an incline at the end. The bright white snow and thin white trees for hundreds of feet in every direction really made you feel like you were on another planet. It was absolutely stunning to see, but, you could only see so much of it as you made sure you didn’t slip and fall off of the trail.
The more we ascended, the more the snow seemed to thin out. We could feel earth beneath our footwear and the stress of foot placement eased tremendously. You’d be surprised how much brain power making sure your foot steps in the exact spot takes. We were both pretty relieved to be able to concern ourselves with other things. Like taking pictures, stopping to hydrate, and bears of course.
The rest of the hike was rather straightforward and uneventful, although challenging. The last 1/3 of this mountain saw the greatest amount of elevation change. Although the snow never died away, it did become small enough of a problem that we stopped paying attention to it. My buddy fell a few times of course, but that was mostly on the descent. Mostly.
I’m sure he will hate me for bringing this up, but during the descent, we decided to “run” down the mountain. Looking back it wasn’t the greatest idea, in fact it was more of a slide, but it was pretty entertaining. During one leg of this “run” I was leading and all of the sudden I stop hearing the sound of Andrew’s foot steps behind me. I assumed perhaps he was in the middle of a really long, quiet slide so I didn’t think much of it. After a good minute or two of silence behind me, I turn around to find, Andrew, laying flat on his back about 200 feet away. I double back and find him sitting in the snow, with a dirt streak all along his left pant leg. I stupidly remember asking him “What happened?” Even a West Point graduate could have pieced this one together. “Are you alright?” I asked, trying to deliver more purposeful questions. As soon as I realized he was ok, I was dying with laughter. He had, not even five minutes prior, bet me that he would slip fewer times than I would, running shoes and all.