We spent Thanksgiving week in Costa Rica, visiting my older daughter who is an exchange student at a high school in Monteverde — the Cloud Forest School, it’s called. Today, and in days to follow, I will share my impressions of this beautiful country, its culture, its people, its terrain.
As we fly into Costa Rica on approach to San Jose, our plane slipping between strata of clouds and soaring past low, scudding rain squalls, several aspects of the terrain below catch my eye. First, outside of the cities — of which there are precious few — there is almost no cement or asphalt visible from above. I see houses and a few other buildings. I see dirt roads meandering up into the hills and winding through coffee plantations and endless tracts of forest. But the straight highways etched into the open lands of the American West, the lattice of roadways visible from 40,000 feet as one flies over New England or the Midwest — these are absent.
Instead, I see below me a vast unbroken expanse of land so green and lush that it doesn’t seem real. Surely this a movie set, an imagined landscape from the next Jurassic Park movie. There appears to be no exposed rock, no barren land, nothing that isn’t covered with growth of one kind or another. Even the mountains — the most dramatic features of the Costa Rican landscape — are green, like ancient boulders covered with moss. These are relatively young mountains, volcanic, rising sharply from the plains and central highlands. But rain and mist and countless storms have blanketed them in vegetation. Clouds rest heavily on their shoulders, obscuring the peaks, feeding the insatiable tropical forests that thrive on their slopes.
Once on the ground and away from the airport, it becomes clear that humanity has had a hand in shaping this landscape as well. Sugar cane and coffee plantations surround the city of San Jose. Tame and yet somehow exotic, like the ubiquitous palm trees and banana plants, they are in their own way as distinctive as the mountain ranges and cloud forests. So too are the buildings — the bus shelters, sheds, homes, roadside restaurants, and other structures with their corrugated steel rooftops, and, in some cases, walls as well. Had you asked me two weeks ago if corrugated steel could be attractive or quaint, much less beautiful, I would have laughed. But it is. Simple, yet exotic (that word again), scalloped like shells on a Southern beach, it is the perfect complement to palm fronds and banana leaves, rain forests and waterfalls.
There is one major road that cuts across the country — the Pan-American Highway, also known as the Interamericana. It also runs through Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua to the north and Panama, Colombia, Equador, Peru and Chile to the south. It may well be the longest continuous roadway in the world. The speed limit along much of the road in Costa Rica is 80 km/h, which translates to just under 50 mph. Your chances of maintaining that speed for any significant stretch are somewhere between slim and none. The road is two lanes wide — one lane in each direction. It is windy and hilly and filled with trucks, ancient cars, tourist vans, and cars rented by visitors from the States or Europe who are too terrified by the road and its traffic to accelerate to the speed limit. Even when the speed limit drops to 60 kph (about 35 mph) or 40 kph (about 25 mph), as it does with some frequency, perhaps in the hopes of generating revenue for local law enforcement, chances are you won’t go that fast for long.
Livestock grazes along the road — sometimes in the road. Muffler-less motorcycles zip past, darting among the slower cars and trucks, trailing ephemeral clouds of blue-gray smoke. Signs warn unnecessarily of strict enforcement of the speed limit. It is, in essence, controlled chaos, measured mayhem. There is something charming about it, but I am glad to leave the driving to the native Costa Ricans who drive us to and from our destination in the northern mountains.
Next time, People and the Culture.