With everything we had heard about Costa Rica, and the nature-oriented excursions we had booked in advance of our trip, our expectations as to the beauty and tranquility of Costa Rica were quite high.
However, expectations and reality rarely match, as we discovered upon arriving in San Jose late on a Friday night. Don’t get me wrong – the countryside of Costa Rica is breathtakingly beautiful and lush and filled with fascinating flora and fauna. We thoroughly enjoyed just about every moment we spent outside population centers.
And yes, it rains a lot (and we were there during rainy season, so that was not unexpected).
But where our expectations were seriously at odds with reality was in the cities and towns of Costa Rica, and especially the capitol city of San Jose, where our hotel and most of our day-to-day existence were situated.
Let me preface the following by saying that we’ve been to many cities, towns, and villages all over the world over the last several years including ones in Morocco, Fiji, several European countries, as well as Taiwan and Mexico, but none felt as unsafe or intimidating as San Jose.
The materials we had read about San Jose had indicated that thievery and pick pocketing were common, but we had seem similarly phrased warnings about Seville, Prague, Marrakesh, and countless other places, so we assumed the conditions in San Jose wouldn’t be that different. We had our PacSafe backpacks and camera straps, and planned on exercising common sense with our belongings as we always do when we travel. But San Jose, as it turned out, felt and was very different from everywhere else we had been.
It’s not easy to enumerate exactly what caused the inner disquiet and discomfort we instinctually experienced in San Jose’s streets, but there’s no doubt in our mind that a number of visual factors contributed to our unease. First and foremost was that virtually every building, home, and store was enmeshed in steel bars – to the point that even driveways and carports were caged in. And in places were bars were not deemed to be sufficient by the owners and occupants, we also saw copious amounts of razor wire lining the tops of walls, roofs, and even the steel bars themselves.
Added to this was the wariness and furtiveness we perceived in the people walking along the streets, especially after night had fallen as we observed from the relative safety of our taxi or tour bus. All while praying that our vehicle would not suddenly break down.
The observed behavior of the people out and about, combined with the obvious acceptance that living in a cage was part of normality was very disconcerting, but we didn’t realize how right our perceptions were until we started talking to locals – a number of which regaled us with stories about how many times they had their belonging snatched as they walked around, and in some cases, were held up with a knife or gun wielded by the thieves. And in one case, even pistol-whipped. While I admired the bravery of folks who can return back to the streets after being mugged, repeatedly, my inner voice was screaming “get out of there!” But, this acceptance of the status quo that our acquaintances exhibited seemed to be part of the whole malaise as well.
It brought to mind the story of the boiling frog, which, whether true or not, refers to the concept that if change is gradual enough, those within the sphere of change just accept it instead of getting out and trying to make changes.
Several people, from markedly different socio-economic backgrounds, told us the problems with crime in San Jose started getting noticeably worse about eight years ago, and that was when razor wire started appearing everywhere. Of course, that had the effect of forcing those people who didn’t have razor wire yet to also get some or implement other draconian security measures as otherwise they would be easier targets.
And many local neighborhoods have guards sitting in booths on the corners to keep an eye on neighborhood activities, while people with big homes have permanent guards themselves (including, in some cases, body guards they travel about with or who provide chauffeur services) or they live in condominium compounds with a sizable security force shared by and paid for all of the compound inhabitants.
The causes of the crime in San Jose and other Costa Rican cities is attributed to a number of causes, including drug addicts in search of quick cash to feed their habits, organized crime, an influx of criminals from other countries due to lax immigration policies, people too poor to support themselves, a lack of stringent sentencing guidelines for criminals that are caught, and corrupt police, among others. But whatever the actual causes, universally everyone we spoke to agreed that something needed to be done, as things just keep getting worse and worse.
We were personally told a number of times to not wear expensive looking clothing or watches (not that we brought any with us), not wear jewelry of any sort (I only wear a plain wedding band anyhow), and not visibly carry cameras with us in the cities. We even had a taxi driver admonish us for using a camera to take photos from inside the taxi through an open window, as he was concerned someone might try and reach in and steal it from us.
And most stores and all the hotels we visited had security guards. And security guards in banks kept the doors locked, only letting people in after they had been scanned with a metal detector wand, apparently in an effort to prevent armed robberies at banks.
And security in parking lots was heavy too, with entrants receiving a parking chit which had to be returned in order to exit, and with police guard towers overlooking the parking lot at the local Hiper Mas super store (Wal-Mart in all but name, for now – it will be changed to Wal-Mart in 2010, we were told, as it was already owned by them).
So, overall, San Jose felt like something of a war zone threatening to erupt into open combat at any moment. Day time was better than night time, but that’s not saying much. We count ourselves fortunate that we were not victims of any crime ourselves, but we also severely restricted our movements and our use of cameras in urban areas, which was disappointing to have to do, but no doubt safer.
That was the downside to Costa Rica, and I will add that our visit to Tortuguero had none of the safety issues we found in San Jose, and we understand that the Pacific coast’s towns are not quite as disquieting as San Jose and the surrounding urban and sub-urban areas we visited.
The “good” about Costa Rica was very good. First and foremost, the people we met and spoke with were generally warm, friendly, and welcoming, even with our minimal Spanish-language skills (which did improve significantly during our two weeks of intensive immersion training). And the countryside… Oh my.
Coming from a Caribbean island which looks remarkably like the deserts of Arizona, we were stunned by how incredibly lush and fertile Costa Rica was once we got outside of urban realms. The frequent and heavy rains intermixed with brilliant sunshine and volcanic soils have produced incredible beauty, and created great habitats for a plethora of wild life, including monkeys, birds, arachnids, and much much more. I will get into some of that in a future post.
Suffice to say that all the negative things about San Jose aside, Costa Rica is a place that is well worth visiting, but limit your in-city stays to the absolute minimum necessary, and stay in a nice, comfortable hotel and don’t plan on walking around after dark.
We stayed at the Apartotel & Suites Casa Conde, and had a very nice stay. Decent sized rooms (ours had two bedrooms, a bathroom, a living area, and a kitchen which included a washer and dryer, all for about US$105/night. It was a US$6 or more taxi ride to get to anywhere of interest. This hotel was chosen for us by our language school, and it was a good choice.
There are a fair number of other small but nice hotels all over the place, including Jade Hotel in San Pedro (to the east of downtown San Jose), Grano de Oro in San Jose, Hotel Le Bergerac in San Pedro, and the Alta Hotel high atop Escazu (south of downtown San Jose) – we saw each of these four hotels while dining at their respective restaurants (more on that later too), and would recommend them all. There are also a bevy of name-brand chains, such as Marriott, Inter-Continental, and Choice/Clarion, among others, to choose from.
However, the real highlights of Costa Rica are the relatively unpopulated areas, and these are best seen using expert tour operators. We used Costa Rica Expeditions, as I had previously mentioned, and couldn’t be happier with their services. And, because it was technically low season (because it was rainy season), tours that might otherwise have other people on them were limited to just the two of us, in effect granting us a private guide for just us – simply perfect.