9 July, 2015
We’ve been in Costa Rica for a month. Costa Rica is like living in the United States, without most of the conveniences. Speaking Spanish here is not a daily occurrence, but English is. Many items are priced in US dollars, and in some cases, the local currency is not even represented. It’s about the same cost to dine out, to rent a place (in some cases, even more pricey), and even meat prices run similar to those in the USA. However, unlike the USA, a wide variety of foods are not to be found here in Samara. Nor is decent internet. Even streaming is iffy and the fastest place in town is half as fast as the slowest place in Mexico.
What food is local and abundant is cheap – the most delicious pineapples for $1-$2, chilled coconut water for $1, bananas are less than a dime each. The Tico staple of beans and rice are cheap. The trees on the property we are staying on have offered up ripe papaya and bananas since our arrival. It you keep your eyes up and look at the scenery, it feels ridiculously abundant.
But in a small beach town populated by equal amounts of expats and Ticos, tourism brings with it steep prices. I can say that all these expat yoga instructors and surfers coming to town also means we actually DO have access to a natural foods store here, and even organic items. But they come at a cost. NAFTA clearly did not reach Costa Rica, and those import taxes mean items such as olives, quinoa, and soy sauce are absurdly pricey. When you are an extra crunchy momma with a food snob palette and a fondness for imported cheeses and fermented aminos, the $45 dollar price tag for maple syrup and $30 price tag for a bottle of Bragg’s does make you die a little on the inside. I drown my sorrows in piña. And tequila.
Costa Rica also presents the same challenge I found in Mexico – additives and preservatives in food. Mexico was fond of artificial colors and sweeteners; Costa Rica cannot get enough MSG. I picked up a small packet of curry powder at a super (the word they use for supermarket) and came home to discover it was actually curry flavored salt and MSG. The affinity to color everything also runs deep here. No yogurt drink is without colors added; even tortilla chips are not yellow enough – luckily a little yellow #5 will fix that!
Costa Rica is a small country made up of many small towns. The natural, wild beauty of the area also serves to isolate it – mountains and rivers, dirt roads along cliffsides with sweeping vistas, numerous volcanos, lakes and jungles make a 15 mile trip to the next beach town a full day adventure of at least two hours in the car if all goes well (no cattle attacks, no broken axles, no dunking the car into a river). Getting around is not easy, and there is not much to get around to, near as I can tell.
The capital, San Jose, is just over 300,000 people and is the largest ‘city’ in the country. Here in Costa Rica, there is a lot to do if you visit – but if you are living here, what do you do?
This answer I have not discovered for myself – at least not in any enjoyable way. I’m not a big beach person, but Squish loves playing in the sand so we usually head out daily for an hour or so. I go and get fresh produce every day, out of boredom if nothing else. Zip Lines, eco tours, horseback riding, surf lessons, etc are all available here, but most require an additional trip just out of town, are multi-hour adventures, and are not very toddler friendly. Costa Rica is an amazingly beautiful place to go to either get your adrenaline on, learn about ecological diversity, or sit down at the beach and turn your adrenaline off. It is not, however, a terribly exciting place to live long term.
I had this thought immediately after I booked our stay. I told myself that three months is a long time to stay in small isolated communities. The promise of visitors (who are thankfully making the trek to visit) made it easier to dismiss the reality, and truthfully, I needed to see for myself what became of this country while I had been away.
My love affair with Costa Rica spans 20 years, when I was a scrawny sophomore vegan wannabe who felt there was no greater mission than saving our planet and its inhabitants (now I just wish people would be kind to one another, and then I think we’d do the rest of the world better by it). I received a brochure in the mail from one of my vegetarian/eco-lover magazines about a ten day trek in Costa Rica, this amazing country with no army, high literacy, and a commitment to ecological preservation. I fell in LOVE with the dream.
When I visited the country in my 20’s, I did so as a tourist. I did the cloud forest, the volcano, hiked the rainforest and walked along the beaches. This removed experience – as a tourist – supported my vision. I knew that in the last 8 years I had changed a lot, and Costa Rica was bound to have as well. It was important to see those changes for myself, and to spend an appreciable amount of time here to see what it is really like. I did this knowing I am a city girl, a food snob, and a woman who’s post-partum health status is best served with unprocessed, hypoallergenic foods.
If we did not have visitors coming, we would have left after a month. We are feeling even more isolated, have less activities to stimulate and occupy, and soy oil is even more prevalent here than in Mexico, so I nearly always get sick when we dine out. Neither NomMom nor NomPa are getting basic needs met, so Squish is not getting the best parents he can right now. He is also showing desires for an expanded community and more friends, yet oddly ignores anyone who wants to play with him at the beach. We also have not found the people here to be terribly inviting. I suspect that is true of any local population of a highly transient tourist town. Now that we have been here a month and are clearly not weekend visitors I get a couple conversations in, but the overall friendly factor is quite a bit less than both Guanajuato and Mexico City.
Next week we leave Samara for Herradura – which is reported to be easier to travel around and closer to bigger towns like San Jose and Jaco (the ‘Las Vegas’ of CR). It is also supposed to be 10 degrees cooler, which means I may be able to scrape myself up off the ground and get a workout in. The next round of visitors will be a salve for nearly all of August, and we have decided to leave and return stateside in early September.
If anyone has any tips for integrating or adjusting to any of these challenges I would love to hear them!