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Dave and Jan's travels, day 284:
Eastern Costa Rica

27th February
San Jose was the site of our latest mail pickup - thanks to all our correspondents! Whilst in San Jose we also took in a couple of museums where we saw a lot of beautifully worked pre-colonial gold. There's one thing that always strikes me when viewing the national museums of central American countries. There's usually a chronologically ordered display of fine art, that features creative and whimsical art as varied as the artists in the countries. This variety usually persists from the dawn of time up until the arrival of the conquistadors, whereupon there's this immediate collapse into the same dreary, depressed art throughout the area. Whatever else Catholicism did or didn't do for the area, it certainly put a damper in anyone actually enjoying making or seeing artwork.

After a couple of days in San Jose, we pressed on to an establishment that rejoices in the name "Eddie Sendero's Finca". This is basically a set of cabins on a few private acres of land in yet another cloud forest, that just happens to offer a great chance of seeing the elusive quetzal. We went to the place for one last shot at seeing this thing, which had started to become something of an obsession. Ever since Mexico City we've been hearing about the beauty of this creature, and a series of near misses meant that we were still in the dark.

You'll be pleased to hear that it didn't disappoint. Its full name is the "Resplendent Quetzal" (is there a watching ornithologist that can tell me whether there is a lesser cousin, perhaps the "Shabby Quetzal"?). And it fully merits that name. Its breast is a shocking scarlet, and its back and tail electric green. And what a tail: the body is perhaps a foot long, but two curved tail feathers extend twice as long again, glistening in whatever sunlight is available.

A bonus was the evening spent with our fellow quetzal-fanciers, all stout fellows. A special mention to Nick and Andy from Bristol, who entertained us richly. In only two weeks they've managed to lose more possessions that we have in nine months, not to mention covering hundreds of miles in hair-raising fashion at the wheel of a more or less entirely decrepit hire car. The great things about this for us are (i) a welcome dose of silly British humour and (ii) the knowledge that a couple of professional business planners have managed to tour Costa Rica even more disorganisedly that us. Thanks for the morale boost, boys.

Eddie Sendero's was also memorable for a fine display of English plants (fuscias, geraniums, busy lizzies, oak trees) and for being bleedin' freezing. It's a few kilometres short of the highest point on the InterAmerica highway which is near to 10,000 feet, and even with four blankets it was a chilly night.

The next morning we sprang up and, after a bit of very just-in-time decision making, drove to Manuel Antonio beach and park. This is a drop-dead gorgeous picture postcard tropical beach, with white sand, palm trees, forest that comes down to the beach - complete with monkeys - a warm blue sea and richly coloured sunsets. And it's a lot warmer than Eddie Sendero's Finca. Two days there doing absolutely nothing passed remarkably quickly.

Costa Rica is somewhat different to the other Central American countries that we've visited. It's visibly wealthier, and a lot of that wealth stems from tourism. The country is many years ahead of its neighbours in that regard, for better and worse. Better is the well-run and widespread national park system, which both preserves a diverse set of habitats and makes them accessible to visitors. Also better is the way that information is easily available, and little things like banks work quickly and efficiently. On the other hand, it's more expensive than it's neighbours, and the number of professionals that you meet as a tourist means you have less genuine encounters with friendly locals.

An interesting side-effect of all this is that several Costa Ricans have complimented us on our command of Spanish, something that never happened in Nicaragua, for example. I think the reason for this is that Costa Ricans are used to a steady stream of English-speaking holiday makers that speak no Spanish at all, by which yardstick our stumbling efforts seem advanced. In Nicaragua, on the other hand, it's almost impossible to do anything without speaking Spanish, so all the visitors tend to have at least some grasp, and so we don't stand out.

Another aspect of the country that stands out is the huge range of climate and terrain. Baking tropical beaches swelter twenty miles from foggy damp cloud forests. In the hills, the weather can change from sun to rain in minutes.

Finally, a quick word on "tico driving". Tico is the name the locals give to themselves, but in fact the comments apply to just about all Central American drivers. Regular readers will remember our comments on driving in Mexico. Driving in Central America is quite different. First, there don't tend to be topes, or sleeping policemen. On the other hand, there are plenty of precipitous pot holes, usually strategically positioned on downhill blind bends. Hit one of these at fifty kilometres per hour and you can be airborne for quite some while. The local approach to overtaking is terrifying until you realise that it relies on cooperation. A lorry travelling at twenty-nine miles per hour will happily overtake one travelling at twenty-eight miles per hour even if there is a bend in fifty metres' time. They can afford to risk this because they know that if someone does come around the corner at seventy miles per hour, the newcomer will break, the lorry being overtaken will brake, everyone will swerve to the sides of the roads, and as long as we all breath in, it should sort itself out. Come to think of it, it is still terrifying, but at least there's a deranged logic to it.

No-one has brake lights. Most people turn their hazard warning lights on if they are about to attempt any manoeuvre at all, and only about fifty percent remember to turn them off afterwards. Slow vehicles helpfully beckon you past when they think it's safe, but unfortunately they use standard tico criteria for safety (see above) and so are not to be trusted. Anyone with a pick up truck will always stop for up to twenty hitchhikers, who will then stand around in the back of the truck and also helpfully beckon overtakers on. And if you pause for even a split second before overtaking, everyone behind will immediately write you off as a rank coward and then hurtle past you, the person in front, and anyone else that happens to be around.


   (click thumbnails for a larger picture)

Quetzals and quetzal fanciers

Manuel Antonio

Beach goers

Sun set