Costa Rica: Sure, go for the birds and monkeys. Watch out for the beautiful–but poisonous–tiny frogs. Marvel at the giant sea turtles as they dig deep nests to lay a hundred eggs. It’s an incredible country with volcanoes, waterfalls, and cloud forests. If you haven’t been, get there.
I was astounded by Costa Rica at every turn. Each day brought new surprises. And more…aside from flora and fauna, I made a few discoveries of my own:
The happy people
Costa Ricans call themselves Ticos. They are fiercely independent…and kind. Costa Rica was a Spanish colony, but Spain couldn’t muster up much interest because there was no gold. The mountains made it impossible to cross the small country, so explorers had to enter the area from the Pacific coast. Because they received no attention, Ticos learned to fend for themselves and to rely on neighbors. They avoid conflict; indeed, in 1948 they abolished their army and redirected funds to education. Today the literacy rate is 97.8%. People of Costa Rica are friendly and gracious. I especially like that when they respond to gracias they say con mucho gusto (with much pleasure) instead of de nada (you’re welcome). Costa Rica ranks at the top of the “happiest country” list…and Ticos show us why.
The delicious casado
Casado is the Spanish word for married man. Men working on coffee, cocoa, or banana plantations used to get up at 3 am to start work before the day got too hot. Wives would fix a meal and wrap it in a banana leaf for their husbands to eat during a break. Single men didn’t have the time (or ability) to prepare their own food, so they would stop for a meal similar to what married men got. Inexpensive and filling, it’s served everywhere in Costa Rica. Black beans and rice, along with some type of meat or fish, are the foundation of a casado.
After that, there’s a wonderful variety, based on what’s fresh and available. Plantains are a frequent addition. A vegetable medley, salad, avocado, or fruit may show up on the large plate. Maybe a fresh tortilla with sour cream. The casado is Costa Rica’s national dish. Don’t pass it up!
The pretty money
Lucky citizens of Costa Rica get to use the colón (named after Christopher Columbus) every day. I’m always jealous of countries that have gorgeous currency; Americans are stuck with dull green money.
Every denomination is a different color and size, designed to assist the visually impaired. And then there’s the artwork! The country celebrates its wildlife with a picture of an animal on each bill. How fun to spend a monkey or a shark! On the back are pictures of leaders, including a woman…something the U.S. still doesn’t have. She’s Carmen Lyra, a would-be nun who realized she had a greater calling, as an activist and teacher. It’s also fun to carry around “thousands” of dollars, even if the exchange rate makes 1,000 colóns actually $1.77… A delicious casado costs about 3,000 colóns, or $5.31.
The exotic fruit
WOW! What a treat to go to breakfast and get to choose from fruits that seldom make it to my grocery store, or if they do, they cost a fortune. Heaps of pineapple, watermelon, and mangoes–all perfectly ripe and sliced. Just waiting for me. But alongside these, others that the Ticos were snapping up: carambola, green guava, and my favorite, rambutan. Roadside stands had piles of rambutan waiting to be peeled and eaten; it tastes like a lychee, only better. I also loved peach palm, the fruit of a special palm tree. It needs to be boiled before doing anything else with it, but makes a lovely soup. Fruit is a big part of the Costa Rica diet and why not? It certainly made returning home to apples seem ho-hum.
The painted oxcarts
Oxcarts–carretas–are the national symbol of Costa Rica and listed on UNESCO‘s Intangible Cultural Heritage. Since the 19th century, the large wheels allowed coffee beans to be transported for 10-15 days over the mountains to the Pacific coast for exportation. The carts were plain wood at first, then the coffee barons started to paint them different colors, to distinguish their plantations. After that, it was a short leap to decoration on the carts and wheels. Carretas became status symbols, as well as the main way for rural people to travel.
The wheels are an interesting combination of spokes and solid disc that results in a sturdy design that can last for years. Given the primitive condition of many Costa Rica roads, they’re still in use. Cool fact: Each oxcart is constructed to make a unique chime, produced by a metal ring striking the hubnut of the wheel when the carreta hits a bump.
Photos by Suzanne Ball All rights reserved.
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