Soylent Green in Costa Rica

When Steve and I left behind San Jose last Wednesday (6/2), weeks had passed since I watched a television show or movie. That morning we drove in our rented SUV to El Castillo, a tiny village (pop. 250) that clings to the slopes of Volcano Arenal in northwest Costa Rica. I had traded more of my guest points to arrange a five-night stay in a delightful two-bedroom bungalow owned by a couple of American ex-pats there.

That’s the roof of our house with its view of the lake in the distance.

A moon gate on the grounds led to a private trail into the rainforest. We had our own little private swimming pool… ,,,hand-carved doors and other colorful decorations.We also found an extensive collection of DVD movies, through which Steve and I leafed Thursday night after dining on excellent burgers at a local joint named after the monkeys that serenaded us every morning with their barks and moans (Howlers). Craving some electronic entertainment, we decided to watch Soylent Green.

Somehow we missed this movie when it came out in 1973. Turns out it’s set in the year 2022 in New York City, where the population has reached 40 million, a hellhole so insanely crowded that people sleep in stairwells, piled up like trash bags in a garbage strike. But it’s home to a buff young city cop: Charlton Heston. He and everyone else in the throngs are sweating because global warming has gone critical. We see people wearing masks (yikes!). In the end Charlton figures out that dead humans are being transformed into green wafers (Soylent Green) because that’s the only food left on the planet; even the plankton in the seas has all been eaten. Shortly before this climax, we watch him bust into the creepy facility where his old friend Edward G. Robinson, dispirited and hopeless, has gone to be euthanized. Because Edward G is so old, he remembers what the world used to be like, and as he’s dying, he gets to watch images from the pre-apocalyptic days on a giant screen. Tears well up in Charlton’s eyes when he sees deer eating grass in a flower-filled meadow; schools of fish swimming in the sea. “How could I have known?” he chokes out.

Pretty corny stuff. But also wildly comforting to be watching in 2021. New York City’s population, Wikipedia tells me, is actually just 8.3 million (and that was before the Great Covid Exodus). In the movie, no one mentions Costa Rica, but anyone paying attention in the 1970s would have likely predicted a worse future than New York’s 50 years down the road. More than 75% of Costa Rica had been covered by forests in the 1940s, but by the 50s and 60s, people were chopping down ancient giants as if they were weeds, clearing land for cattle and pineapple farms whose produce could be hollowed out and used to hide bags of cocaine. By 1987, more than two-thirds of the forests were gone.

And then the Costa Ricans miraculously changed course. By 1998, the deforestation had not merely stopped; the forested areas began expanding. Costa Rica is the only tropical country in the world where that’s happened. According to one estimate, 53% of the country was again covered by trees in 2019, up from 21% at the nadir.

Today the money from ecotourists and adventurers drawn by the tropical splendor makes up a big part of the economy. And now I understand why. If Charlton and Edward G could have seen what Steve and I experienced over our five days in El Castillo, they would have stocked a backpack with Soylent Green and headed south.

At least 1200 species of butterflies live in Costa Rica, and we saw a couple dozen types of these beauties on a visit to a butterfly conservatory located in El Castillo.

These two are mating.

We went on several long hikes, through dripping rainforests…Across suspension bridges…

…and over lava fields created by Volcan Arenal.

The volcano had been quiet for 400 years before bursting into life in 1968. It put on a spectacular show for 42 years, then it abruptly stopped in 2010. So we didn’t see any lava flowing, but the mountain is still a powerful presence.

Its magma heats an extensive network of hot springs throughout the area; frolicking in them is a popular tourist activity. Steve and I spent a couple of hours in one resort, and I thought soaking in the hot water was pleasant. But finding otherworldly flowers like these in the garden mesmerized me.

Even more mind-boggling was the guided walk we took yesterday morning on the Bogarin Trial. We’d been told this was a great place to see both wild sloths and local birds. We wound up getting that and something even more magical: more than three hours in the presence of Marvin “Geovani” Bogarin.

Geovani told us he was one of 11 children born to poor parents; their small house didn’t even have electricity. He was named Marvin (god knows why), but he always hated that, and as we learned quickly, he is not a fellow to passively accept what fate doles out.

Now 58, by the time he reached his late 20s, he somehow found his way to a career in guiding biological research teams and tourists. He worked at that for 10 years, and then around 2000, he was seized by a crazy vision. He wanted to take 300 acres near the center of La Fortuna (the larger and more touristy town near El Castillo) and transform it from grassland for cattle into a nature preserve. He had no money. But somehow he struck a deal with the land’s owner: if Geovani would do all the work to effect this transformation, he could use the land in exchange for splitting any eventual revenue.

Somehow he turned a landscape like this…

…into this:

In the early years, he dug deep trenches and built up trails made of gravel and clay — flat and smooth enough that blind people and folks in wheelchairs could use them, as they do regularly today. (Giovanni thinks access to nature shouldn’t be limited to the able bodied.) He planted everything except for the handful of old-growth trees that still dotted the pastures. For long intervals, he slept on a platform open to the elements. Everyone in town thought he was crazy, even his siblings. But he persisted and by 2010 he had accomplished enough to begin shepherding tourists around the place. Today he welcomes visitors from all over the world, and if they see it through his eyes, as we did, it’s a wonderland.

A green basilisk (known as the Jesus Christ Lizard because of its ability to walk on water) greeted us near the entrance, but we soon moved into the forest where Geovani scanned the canopy like someone taking in the headlines on Apple News. He pointed out a large male sloth that I would never in a million years have spotted in the leaves above us. For several happy minutes we watched him hang there, scratching at the parasites infesting his fur.Then Geovani heard a toucan, and we scurried after him to find and photograph it.

At another point, we called a broad-billed motmot to us. Or rather Geovani did. He commands at least 100 bird calls, an achievement that has gotten him onto the pages of the New York Times. For us, he not only whistled the motmot’s pretty song, but got an answer back.Eventually the bird alighted not far away. As much as it looked like the two of them were engaged in a conversation, Geovani said the bird and his mate had a nest nearby, and this guy probably had mistaken Geovani for another motmot who might be moving in on his territory.

There was more. Just three days before, Geovani been bitten for the first time in his life by the fearsome bullet ant, a denizen of these parts, and we wanted to hear the gory details (“24 hours of excruciating pain.”) Another grisly story involved a close friend who a few months before had died from the bite of a fer-de-lance, a highly venomous pit viper that lives in these woods (along with coral snakes and several other deadly serpents.) Compared to them, the tiny poisonous frogs (provider of the poison for blow darts) look childish, like something Fisher-Price would make. Geovani told us how he once had gotten careless after handling one, touched his eyes, and went blind for three days.

He was careful not to touch this guy, whose charming name is the Blue Jeans Frog. You can see why.

It wasn’t all horror stories. Geovani’s a thoughtful guy with a passion for studying geopolitics. So we talked about next year’s race for Costa Rica’s presidency. And we asked him how Costa Rica had been able to turn things around; how it had avoided becoming Soylent Green South. His thoughtful answer was too long and detailed for me to fully reprise here, but he cited many factors: the realization that struck many of his countrymen in the 1980s that tourism could be more profitable than farming, proselytizing on the part of some key environmental visionaries, the country’s high education level (something like 97% of the population is literate, an achievement Geovani attributes to not having to spend money on a military); some sensible laws protecting key resources.

He didn’t say it, but we left thinking we’d just met another piece in the puzzle: the existence of people like him. Tough, generous, brave, inspired, intelligent, unbelievably hard working. As long as individuals like that keep popping up on the planet, I don’t feel terrified about its future.

Vice squad: San Jose

San Jose (SJO) may live, but these days it lacks a certain vivaciousness.

I have no personal interest in sex tourism. Never have; never will. It was instead a journalistic impulse that drove Steve and me to the Hotel del Rey Tuesday night. Costa Rica is one of the few countries in the world where women are allowed to legally sell their sexual services, though pimping and other forms of promoting prostitution are illegal, as is having sex with minors. Trying to wrap our heads around these extraordinary facts, we’d stumbled on wild online descriptions of the bawdy offerings to be found in “Gringo Gulch,” just a block off one of the main avenues in the heart of San Jose (Costa Rica’s capital city). Could this still be going on in the midst of what appears to be continuing Covid panic? Curiosity nibbled.

Nothing else about San Jose has seemed spicy — or even particularly attractive — since our arrival late Monday morning. The 91-year-old Gran Hotel where we’re staying in the city center is very nice, and it’s been fun to look out our window and see the people strolling across the Plaza de la Cultura. Almost every one is masked. But before 9 am, after about 7 pm, and at times in between, the streets radiating out from here have been depressingly empty.

This was mid-afternoon
And this was shortly before 8 am this morning.

The buildings lining those streets for the most part are forgettable, a mix of tacky strip mall and architectural brutalism. The national theater adjoining our plaza is an exception, and the post office building is so pretty we stopped to admire it. But where was the Spanish colonial heritage so evident in other Latin American capitals? The guidebook suggested an explanation: early Spaniards came here but when they found few natives to enslave and no gold, they lost interest and never left much of a footprint. “It’s kind of like Panama!” Steve exclaimed. “Only with volcanos and earthquakes.” (And of course no Canal.)

We spent most of yesterday giving San Jose our touristic best shot. Visited the Cathedral. Spent time in the national museum.

Some of the coolest things there were these samples of the mysterious pre-Columbian stone balls that have been found in the south.

We should have done the jade museum, but after two exhausting hours of Costa Rican history, tromping up and down 5 stories to look at 7000 objects made of pretty green stone didn’t push my buttons.

In the afternoon we returned to the central market area (which had been lifeless at 8 am). It was crowded and colorful and studded with what seemed like the highest concentration of cripples and old ladies and other folks hawking lottery tickets I’ve seen anywhere in memory. I went Full Tourist and bought t-shirts that seemed to represent some of Costa Rica’s greatest charms.

Sloths are native and iconic.

And one of their presidents in 1948 dismantled the country’s military. Costa Rica still doesn’t have one!

Then it felt like we were out of things to do except study Lonely Planet for dinner options.

For my birthday Monday night, we’d had a great score — an Argentine joint featuring beef. Every table was filled, and we spent a couple of hours swooning over the food and loving the all-tango musical background. But even though Nuestra Tierra (our choice last night) had hundreds of enthusiastic online reviews, we and two saggy business types were the only customers, apparently for the night. Our waiter looked sad when we said we only wanted one beer apiece. When we turned down the free dessert, he looked almost desperate. The manager, sitting at the bar, may have been thinking of heading for the US border. It was then we resolved to stroll by the notorious Hotel del Rey, den of iniquity par excellence. Could some hilarity at least be found there?

We turned off the pedestrian-only Avenida Central…… which looked like this a little before 8 pm and walked the short block to Avenida 1, where the already-dim streets were darker and creepier. Almost all the storefronts were shuttered. Almost no one was out walking. But Google Maps insisted the Del Rey was just a block or two away. An online report had described the massive pink structure as sticking out like a sore thumb. This was true enough that we easily spotted it, but this thumb looked more dead than sore. Dark and lifeless, it made us wonder if it was yet another victim of Covid. Or had we simply been misinformed about its heyday?

We scuttled back to the main street, where a lighted storefront caught our eye: clearly a casino. Such gambling also is legal here. Lest our brief stab at vice-detecting fail utterly, we let the guy at the front door take our temperatures, and we squirted yet more sanitizer on our hands (the universal drill) and wandered throughout the two-story establishment. The light was gray and metallic. A few dozen patrons, each shielded by plexiglass barriers between their slot machines, slumped in front of the whirling mechanical images. In the far rear of the place, we found an electronic roulette wheel, so deserted that I managed to sneak a photo.

We didn’t feel particularly lucky, so we hurried back to the plaza of culture and were asleep well before 10. Now it’s morning, and we’ll say goodbye to San Jose in a few minutes and drive ourselves to the north. There the true Costa Rican experience reportedly awaits.

Costa Rica does have marvelous money. Their 5000-colon note (about $8) is beautifully colored and includes plastic see-through areas. In the distance is the view from our hotel window.

Central America, finally

It’s time for this blog once again to justify the “Abroad” portion of its name. Thursday Steve and I will fly down to Central America. Unless you consider Mexico part of that region (which I don’t), this is an area in which neither of us has ever set foot. It’s not for lack of interest. Rather, we were saving it up. Now the time seems right.

One reason we were saving it is because for some years we dreamed about driving in our aging van all the way from San Diego to Panama, then donating the van to a charity and flying home. That would have been a real adventure, and it would have required a significant chunk of time.

Eventually, however, several factors gave us pause about the wisdom of this plan, not the least of which were the bureaucratic nightmares that would have been involved in taking a personal vehicle across all those borders. On the other hand, unlike Europe and Asia at the moment, all the countries in Central America are once again open to visitors, particularly fully vaccinated ones such as us.

So we scrapped the driving plan, and I worked for a while on concocting an itinerary that would have us flying to all seven countries (Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama). I quickly learned that even if all the countries are open, service on the regional airlines that connect them is far from fully restored. The staggering current cost of short flights into El Salvador and Honduras (troubled countries on other counts too) led me to scratch them from the program. We had wanted to start in Belize and cross the land border into Guatemala (then continue on), but then I learned the Belize government was not allowing visitors out of Belize that way. This annoyed me so much I scratched Belize.

So now the current plan calls for us to fly to Guatemala and spend a week and a half there, followed by visits to Panama, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua (in that order). For me these will be my 66th through 69th countries.

In the short time before we depart, along with packing and otherwise organizing, I’m trying to prepare for other as-yet-unforeseen challenges that may arise in the wake of global pandemic lockdowns. I’m telling myself this trip will be like traveling in the days of yore, when you couldn’t just assume everything would run like clockwork. But some intrepid spirits nonetheless hit the road then, because then, as now, it was better than not going. I can relate.