Impressions: Costa Rica

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These are my personal impressions of Costa Rica. They are highly subjective and the product of reflection well after the fact. I have been to many countries in my life and often try to create an abridged, condensed recollection of those places. The good, the bad, the ugly and the beautiful all weigh in, being synthesized into a sort of scenario.

Costa Rica must be viewed along two dimensions, the first, the economic dimension, the second, the environmental dimension. Both of those dimensions can then be split into three parts, thus, from my experience there are nine Costa Rican permutations (I’ll leave the subtleties of those permutations aside). This sounds a little complicated, but Costa Rica warrants it.

Firstly, the economic dimension: there are the poor, the middle class and the tourists.

The poor are much like the poor in Nicaragua ostensibly but don’t seem to have the downtrodden mentality that their “friends” to the North have (Costa Rica, apparently, does not view Nicaragua favorably, as the US does not view Mexico favorably). There is a pride to the people, they care about their appearance, they try to look good. They may be poor but they give a shit about their surroundings. Their lots are not covered with trash. They may be living in what we would call tin shacks, but they are neat and tidy. They do not look upon foreigners with distrust or disdain – they may not be overly friendly, but they are not overly antagonistic either.

The middle class seem to be much like the middle class of America, though not nearly as wealthy. They are friendly and talkative and helpful. They have radiant smiles, are well groomed and would not look out of place in America at all. They form the majority of the people any tourist would deal with.

Then, there are the tourists… they range from the hippie, through the backpacker, to the aged, to the opulent. They are mostly American and form a significant portion of the population of the country at any given time. Costa Rica is a tourist Mecca, plain and simple.

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The tourist trade has shaped Costa Rica, for good or ill, to a very deep level. If you stay on the beaten path, in your tour bus, you can have all your American comforts, if you stray from that, you still can live quite comfortably but will not see as many hallmarks of corporate America. I think it fair to say that Costa Ricans have formed a comfortable détente with their many visitors, both people and corporations, which informs any impression of Costa Rica to a large extent.

Aside from the problems Wiggles had getting into the country, the authorities have a very hands off approach to foreigners. The infrastructure of the country is quite good. All the telephone poles have fiber optics on them. The cell coverage is excellent – much better than the United States. There are schools everywhere. The main roads even have reflectors and government installed signs that are mostly accurate. The secondary and mountain roads however are VERY treacherous. If you go there and rent a car make damn sure it’s a four wheel drive with some clearance. If you’re caught in a rain storm on a mountain road, you’re somewhere between stuck until the road dries out or at the bottom of a 300 foot cliff in a smoldering pile of twisted metal – seriously!

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As for the environmental dimension, any given area seems to be in one of three states.

Firstly, “untouched” Nature abounds. It can be found just about anywhere in the country, with caveats. The national parks are first class, not exactly US first class, but first class nonetheless from an ecological standpoint. The beauty you can find there is breathtaking. The mountains, the volcanos, the rainforests and the beaches are truly splendid. You can pay someone to show it to you, or you can go it alone.

Adventure tourism seems to have hit Costa Rica in a big way. How much of an actual adventure you’ll get from any given company remains to be seen, but our experience there is that they deliver on their promises. Do not expect it to be cheap because it most certainly will not be. Someone there said that Costa Rica was the fifty-first state of the US, referring to prices. So be prepared to spend for the fancy stuff.

Then there is the behind the scenes kind of area. These are primarily deforested areas. There are vast expanses of Costa Rica that have no trees. That is not the natural state there. The beautiful rollings hills with green grass and cows and whatnot are completely unnatural, though still beautiful and well kept. There are also large plantations of palms, bananas, etc. Costa Rica seems to have learned early enough though to preserve at least some of its natural wonders from the slash and the burn.

Then there are the urban, tourist and industrial areas. There are signs everywhere saying “for sale” – in English, with prices in US Dollars. San Jose is a sprawling hodgepodge of slums, resort hotels, middle class houses, modern buildings and US chains. Large industry has carved out niches here and there in the country as well. To compare it to the United States as a whole based on land use percentages seems unfair because of Costa Rica’s small size, but it “feels” like more of Costa Rica has been preserved than in the US, though that is undoubtably untrue.

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When I think of Costa Rica, I think of natural beauty in an awkward but possibly sustainable balance. The people have not sold their souls completely to America, but may. The land has not been completely subsumed by greed, both foreign and domestic, but may. Costa Rica has an optimism to it, an effortless sophistication, while maintaining its wild banana republic feel. I truly hope its optimism isn’t an opiate allowing a slide into Nature confabulated onto the balance sheets of American chain hotels and rich retirees’ gated estates.

Jeff Chapple

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Impressions: Nicaragua

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These are my personal impressions of Nicaragua. They are highly subjective and the product of reflection well after the fact. I have been to many countries in my life and often try to create an abridged, condensed recollection of those places. The good, the bad, the ugly and the beautiful all weigh in, being synthesized into a sort of scenario.

Nicaragua is poor, really poor. Nary a multinational corporation has planted its flag there, for good or ill. The country has a feel of victimization, like a dog that’s been mistreated and then will either cower or growl at a passerby. While the people themselves were friendly enough, welcoming is not something I would classify them as. The land has been ravaged to a large degree. The deforestation is quite profound. Many of the lakes have been tainted to the point of being unusable. Garbage is EVERYWHERE. It is not hyperbole to say that every square meter of untended land has at least one piece of plastic trash on it, primarily plastic shopping bags. There are millions upon millions of them. They are everywhere. Fires burn day and night on the steep hillsides. I don’t know if they are set purposefully or accidentally, but they smell of destruction, they smell of burning plastic.

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Managua, the capital, is shabby and run-down. Its public buildings crumbling remnants of some bygone glory day. Ironically, the airport sparkles by comparison – that first impression quickly disavowed by the rest of the city. Its police harass both locals and foreigners incessantly, extorting bribes unabashedly. There seems to be little pride in anything. I suppose that’s a luxury the population cannot afford or cannot muster. I do not know the full history of the country, but it feels like it has been taken advantage of in many ways and by many groups over many eras. By far, the nicest building to be found in the city is the American Embassy. Its reflective windows and marble facades gleam mockingly, purched on a hill away from the dust, dirt and flaking paint of downtown. Its manicured gardens an insult to the natives passing by. Managua seems a haunted place, haunted by a past I do not know, but afraid to cast off that past and surge forward.

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The beaches the natives go to are crowded and vibrant, but there is the ever-present garbage washing up amongst their feet, ignored. There is a sense of resignation hanging in the air, of defeat – eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die. The more remote beaches, the ones the natives don’t visit in significant numbers, are cleaner and almost wild, sporadically harboring small tourist outposts at the ends of treacherous dirt roads, footholds for vagabond Americans and Europeans.

As you move south towards Costa Rica, the country changes, with every passing kilometer the ghosts of the past begin to dissolve. The people smile more. The roadside trash thins. The land greens. The trees begin to reclaim the horizon. Someone there said that Nicaragua wants to be the next Costa Rica. If that is indeed the case, Nicaragua has a monumental battle to wage against the scars of its past, both physical and psychological. When I think of Nicaragua, I feel a sadness, a paradise lost.

Jeff Chapple

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OK, I’m a Wimp.

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Let me clearly state: I am a wimp. Camping is not an activity that is super high on my list of things to do, camping in the jungle and on the beach even less so. Nature is dirty and constantly trying to kill me. Someone should really clean Nature up… I mean, there’s dirt EVERYWHERE. So, after several weeks being au naturale, I think some observations are in order.

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Firstly, bathrooms, real bathrooms, with water and porcelain and soap and toilet paper and walls and doors, are REALLY, REALLY great. I cannot over emphasize that. THEY ARE GREAT! While it is possible to “take care of business” without one, it’s just not the same. You can do your damnedest out in the wild to successfully achieve the principle goal, but there will always be some sort of problem, sometimes minor, sometimes major. I will spare you the gory details.

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Secondly, showers, any sort of shower, even a garden hose, are likewise amazing. Since Nature is so dirty and sticky and salty and sandy and oily and dusty and sweaty, having a good fresh water cleanse is so much more than a trivial luxury. It is virtually impossible to sleep when you are covered with salt and sweat and sand. Again, I’m a wimp, but I stand by my assertion. My first item, the simple bathroom, coincidently can, in a pinch double as a shower. I just recommend that it has a locking door as not to offend the natives. (A trip to the local Walmart subsidiary, pictured above, and using the facilities therein raised a few eyebrows when the “showers” started…)

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I never thought I would appreciate America’s contribution to world culture in the ways I did. McDonald’s has mediocre, but consistent food worldwide. I have been to this de facto American embassy many times around the world, particularly when feeling a little homesick. These little trips “home” have usually been while staying in a city and therefore I didn’t realize the subtler aspects of these visits. First of all, McDonald’s believes strongly in climate control. Air conditioning is indeed a luxury, a luxury I now appreciate much more. Ice that you can actually eat is also in that category. Free WiFi service (while being A/C’d) as well as great bathrooms is likewise a potent combination – the WiFi network was charmingly named “McInternet”.

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While I never felt particularly in danger during the trip, aside from traveling some rather hair-raising mountain roads, the sign above being posted outside a fairly upscale grocery store did not instill confidence. Culture shock on my part? Perhaps.

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But, when it all becomes too much, for a not-so-small fee, you can take a vacation from the vacation. I highly recommend splurging every now and then and dipping your toes in the sterile chlorine water. Having amenities at your fingertips can transform, invigorate and give you the energy to dive back into the dusty, salty, sandy, sweaty, sticky oiliness of Nature. That at least is the opinion of this wimp.

Jeff Chapple

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Tourist Trap

If there is a constant in the Universe, it is that where there are tourists, there will be tourist traps. The Costa Rican variety seems to be centered on frogs. These charming attention-drawing concrete advertisements just begged to be photographed (and abused, those pictures, the “explicit” ones, I’ll skip – yes we had our way with the concrete frogs.)

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Our first character is not actually a frog, but rather a toad. The mascot for Toad Hall (a la Disney’s Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride), a combo restaurant, bar, hotel, liquor store and gift shop. The proprietors of such places tend to cover all the bases and they are quite numerous in Costa Rica. Toad Hall was actually quite nice and the American couple that own it were very gracious. Their hotel rooms were very beautiful and luxurious. I would highly recommend it to anyone wanting a little luxury in the Arenal region. The rate was approximately $150 per day for a large “villa” that slept six with multiple bathrooms, a nice living room and full kitchen. The infinity pool was very lovely too.

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Our next concrete monstrosity sits humbly outside a “ranario”, or frog museum. Thad got some excellent pictures therein, using Aubrey and Angela as lighting technicians with their LED headlamps to get things just right. Here is one of the photos. I’ll leave it to Thad to post the rest.

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OK, I can’t resist… just one explicit photo. I apologize, really, really I do. The roadside concrete frog (toad, whatever) anti-defamation league should send their hate letters and death threats to me directly and hold Angela and Thad et al blameless. It was early… I hadn’t had my coffee. Also in my defense, I was fully clothed. I generally do not prance around naked in public plus or minus 4 to 6 hours into and out of the daylight, I’m old fashioned that way. But, as the saying goes, if you build it, they will come. (Hangs head in shame.)

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Ah, sweet, sweet sanity bringing coffee, sadly a little too late for Mr. Toad (frog, whatever) – the damage is done, the therapy bills accrue, the criminal prosecution ensues.

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Jeff Chapple

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Rainforest Reverie

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This afternoon, after Dave and I spent the day lounging in Santa Alena while Angela, Aubrey and Thad went waterfall repelling, we hiked up a little stream just off the road in Monteverde, Costa Rica’s renowned cloud forest. This was my first trek into what could seriously be considered rainforest. The short version: amazing!

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The thing that struck me first was an overwhelming sense of life – everything was alive. The chaos of green hit me at a very deep visceral level. There was something absolutely familiar yet alien with the whole scene. I felt as though I had tapped into some long forgotten genetic memory from hundreds of thousands of years ago. I was quite surprised to find that I felt completely at home, or more to the point, that I had finally returned home.

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The creek itself was little more that a trickle, forming pools when stopped up by the numerous decaying trees and smooth round boulders. The air was thick and steamy, filled with strange calls presumably from birds both near and far. The palpability of the atmosphere was extraordinary. I have never felt so entwined in the fabric of Nature. The ants (goddamn them), the mosses, the tadpoles, the lichens, the uncountable trees, vines, ferns and brush breathing in silent sighs with the infrequent breeze. The rainforest is a mystical, spiritual place.

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As I blazed the trail for the group (yes, me the Nature-phobe lead the way), time stopped, calm descended into what I might call my soul. Scrambling up the boulders, sinking in the soft mud at the sides of the small pools, grasping vines as ropes, a profound quiet fell and I realized in a way I never had before just how amazing life is, how precious and miraculous it is. The glints of sunlight gently raining through the dense canopy made diamonds of the water and emeralds of leaves, sapphires of the flowers – treasures beyond measure.

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Jeff Chapple


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Wear Sunscreen, Really!

I think this picture says it all. WEAR SUNSCREEN! ‘Nuf said.

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Jeff Chapple

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Llanos Del Cortez

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Llanos del Cortez is a beautiful waterfall in the Guanacaste region of Costa Rica. It’s a little difficult to find, but asking the locals working the fruit stands on the Pan American Highway by Bagaces will get you fairly precise directions with only a couple of false positives – which is better than usual. Admission is a donation to a local school and it’s open from 8 am to 5 pm. There is a large area behind the waterfall that you can reach either through the waterfall (which is somewhat challenging to do) or from the side.

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This is the first waterfall I’ve been to in many years and its power was quite surprising to me. As you swim up to the front of the waterfall, the spray and wind are blinding (you might want to bring swim goggles). Standing under the waterfall was at some times actually painful. There are rocks you can jump off of into the pool, but be careful as there are rocks in the pool near the waterfall. I really enjoyed climbing into the waterfall. The blinding water trying to wash you away from a precarious purchase on slippery rocks made me feel like I was doing something extreme (which for me isn’t saying much.) The rocks around the waterfall are covered with ferns and orchids creating a beautiful tropical oasis in a surprisingly dry part of Costa Rica.


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Jeff Chapple

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Me & Mr. Crab

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After a day in the brutal Nicaraguan sun at Playa Gigante, I crawled into my new makeshift bed under a beautiful tree just off the beach. Beer, stars, sea breezes and my favorite music were to be my evening. Headphones on, comfortably reclined, I started to zone out. I started to doze off.

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Tickle tickle. What the hell was that I felt on the back of my neck under the pillow? Mr. Crab had found a new little hiding place to crawl into. After freaking out for a few minutes at Mr. Crab’s boldness, I settled back into bed. What was that moving at my feet? As it turns out Mr. Crab has a lot of buddies. This one was making a B line for places one does not want any sort of crab. Yes, Mr. Crab tried to rape me. This was only the first salvo launched by Nature that night. We then had the possums, the cow, the thorn in the heal… It was not a good night.

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Jeff Chapple


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Escape to Volcano Island

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JP, the father of the family living in the abandoned orphanage recommended that we go to “volcano island” for a day trip, or more properly called Ometepe. After a bumpy, semi-life threatening back o’ the pickup truck ride to the pier, we boarded the ferry for the hour long transit. The wind was delightful, the sun harsh and the crashing of the waves on the ferry’s bow soothing – I do love ferries. They are so mundane for those that ride them regularly,  but a true treat for desert folk such as myself.

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Lake Nicaragua is truly immense – it “feels” like an ocean really, and is relatively clean by Nicaraguan standards. The volcano rises majestically from its dark blue depths. While the volcano is inactive at the moment the possibility of eruption is quite real. Its perfect cone shape causes lenticular clouds to form at its summit as humid air is pushed up and cooled, giving it the constant appearance of being on the edge of violence. The island itself is quite large and could easily take a week to adequately explore – we only walked about four kilometers of it. The town is touristy, but apparently mainly by Nicaraguans only. The town is also quite poor, as is much of rural Nicaragua. We had quite a nice lunch (with many cold beers) for about $5 per person. The dirt floor of the café was “clean” and kept damp to keep the dust down, chickens and dogs greedily picking up any scraps.

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After a baking walk up the dusty main road, we turned off towards the beach. A small resort hotel, bar & restaurant at the end of a dirt road greeted us with a lovely beach and the much appreciated amenities of bathrooms, showers and changing rooms. The resort was quite pleasant, but definitely geared to locals. After an hour playing in the freshwater “sea,” we rushed back to catch the last ferry of the day. Ometepe should be on anyone’s list when in southern Nicaragua!

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Jeff Chapple


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Serendipity

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Never in a million years could I have imagined that I would be awoken by the gunshot like sounds of mangos falling from their tree onto a tin room that covers my hammock in an abandoned orphanage in a small town next to Lake Nicaragua let alone being invited there by its current inhabitants after a chance meeting at a gas station convenience store. And then there is that half of that family is from Utah. It is a strange and wonderful world.

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Jeff Chapple

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Zombie Apocalypse ATL

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Atlanta Hartsfield is one of the busiest airports in the world. From that, it follows that it should be busy pretty much all the time. Well, not so much. I arrived at 11 pm, late but not super late. Already all the shops were closing down. I stocked up on supplies for my all night layover. The bar tender slid a couple of unopened beers to me for free after hearing I was spending the night. I then set off to find a nest. For future reference, Terminal E (the old international terminal) should be your target.

Anyhow at about 12:30 am just about every other human being evaporated from the immense airport. I found myself quite literally alone. This was both fortuitous and unnerving. I strolled around the departure halls for hours seeing little more than a cleaners here and there and only one other passenger. I found a couch of sorts and bedded down. Airport CNN doesn’t seem all that loud when the terminals are full but god it’s loud when they’re empty. The 30 minute loop of the day’s news became a constant annoyance. Finally I put my headphones on and drowned it out with music.

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I awoke several hours later completely surrounded by people awaiting their departures. Going from zero to a million people in a subjective blink of the eye was very disconcerting. Lesson here: add ear plugs to your list.

Jeff Chapple

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Tick, tick, tick…

The clock seems to move so slowly now – two more weeks of waiting. I make lists of things to do, to take, throw them away and start over. Let me introduce myself, I’m Jeff and I’ll be joining the Wiggles crew, flying in to Managua after spending a sleepless night – a 22 hour layover – in Atlanta’s airport, for a too-short 22 day stay in the jungles and on the beaches of Nicaragua and Costa Rica.

The skies are so gray here in Salt Lake City, the world so devoid of color, even the sunny days seem bled of life. Suffice it to say that I’m very excited to get my ass in that plane seat and head off to join in the adventure. I’ll see you soon Angela and Thad!

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