Monday, March 30, 2009

Montezuma's Revenge

Now that I've got your attention, I'll let you in on a secret: There is no revenge in Montezuma. (Unless you count when the direct bus to Montezuma from San Jose suddenly turned into a Mal Pais bus when we were in Cobano, forcing us to take a cab, but that was no biggie). While it's growing in popularity among budget travelers, Montezuma retains its surf charm, something of a Puerto Viejo on the Pacific Coast. There are deals, too. We stayed at Pension Arenas, which had simple private rooms with a shared (and dirty) bathroom for $10 apiece. That's Nicaragua prices.

Montezuma is located on the southern tip of Nicoya, and you have to take a ferry from Puntarenas to get there. Which, it turns out, is part of the fun--watching the sun set on a Friday afternoon, as gulls and pelicans swoop overhead. While the ferry takes longer than the hour you are told it will, it is nonetheless enjoyable and the time passes quickly.

Montezuma's highlight is its 50-odd-foot tall waterfall a short walk south of town. There's a brief walk through a creek and some smaller waterfalls to get there, then you suddenly turn a corner and realize you're in a magical spot. Beneath the waterfall is a deep pool for swimming, and, for the brave, jumping from the boulders and cliffs nearby.

The scene first reminded me of some swimming holes up along the American River. That is, until some capuchin monkeys showed up, scurrying through the trees high in the canopy above. Then, when we were heading out, we saw some up close as they came down to the creek for a drink. Such is the wonder of Costa Rica: Just when you think you've seen it all, there's another surprise around the corner.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Un remanso de paz (a peaceful haven)

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and first impressions are important. So, to sum up my fantastic weekend down on the Osa Peninsula with the parents, I'll share an anecdote from our arrival and post some pictures, hopefully elaborating more when I have some time.

Things got off to a rocky start. There was a miscommunication, and I arrived at the airport minutes after our plane took off. Luckily, there were two seats free on a flight a couple hours later, so my mom and I cooled our heels in San Jose while my dad got the head start to Osa (he seemed to be embracing "Pura Vida" well, and met us at the Puerto Jimenez airport with a smile after having a couple beers and getting a tour of the city while he was waiting).

Are you kidding me?

The ride itself was rocky, too, to say the least. We walked out onto the tarmac (there's no jetway when you're fliyng to Osa) to find a small 12-seat plane awaiting us. This is not what I signed up for, I thought. Needless to say, it was a bit bumpy, but the flight went quick and soon we were landing in Puerto Jimenez. Where, of course, there is a cemetary right next to the airport. Not a good sign for those harrowing landings.

A short but bumpy car ride later, we arrived at El Remanso lodge, which, we soon found out, lived up to its name (see title). Within an hour, we were greeted by two scarlet macaws, which swooped in out of the jungle. You can hear them miles away (we later learned that most birds either look good or sound good, compensating one for the other to attract a mate, and macaws clearly fall in to the former category). There were also true toucans (yes, the "toucans" from Arenal were actually aracari) in the tree right outside our room. We walked down to the beach, and, after watching the sky fill with majestic, heavenly color, we encountered monkeys and a huge, two-meter long (allegedly) bird-eating snake (Kathy was less excited about this). Not bad for a first impression.

We split most of our time between exploring the jungles around El Remanso and relaxing by the pool or enjoying the lodge's excellent meals and cold beers. El Remanso's guide, Gerardo, was top-notch. Saturday morning, we went on a three-hour hike along the "ridge trail," where we saw more monkeys, collared peckaries (like a wild boar) numerous birds and butterflies, and learned about the amazing "walking trees." Gerardo was eagle-eyed and extremely knowledgable but made it easy to follow along. He got so excited whenever we encountered something new ("OHMYGOD!" he'd say, "This is going to be very good for us!") that it was hard not to as well.

the crew

We liked Gerardo so much we decided to take the birdwatching tour the next day. I never thought I'd get in to birdwatching (I am very impatient) but it was actually a great time.

Finally, we woke up at 6 our last morning (most days we woke up that early anyway, as the sounds of the jungle don't let you sleep in) to have a canopy breakfast, where you zip-line to a platform up on a tree to have your meal. I must admit, gallo pinto and eggs are especially delecious when you are over 100 feet in the air, in the middle of rain forest canopy.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Biden my time until the next quake

For anyone keeping up on the news, yes, there have been a couple earthquakes in the last two days in Costa Rica. But they were centered down off the southern Pacific coast, and while I felt some rumbling, there was no damage. I hope, however, since I'm heading that way this weekend, that things calm down for a few days!

Posting will be light here since I'm heading down to the Osa Peninsula with the parents. In the meantime, here's part of my story about U.S. Vice President Joe Biden's visit to Costa Rica later this month:

U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden will be visiting Costa Rica later this month, the Casa Presidencial announced Thursday.

Biden, the first member of the Barack Obama administration to visit Latin America, will stop by Costa Rica March 29 and 30, after participating in The Progressive Leaders Forum in Viña del Mar, Chile, on March 27 and 28.

Chile and Costa Rica are the only two Latin American countries currently on Biden's itinerary, according to news reports.

In a statement released Thursday, Costa Rican President Oscar Arias hailed the visit as a mark of increased engagement with Latin America on the part of the White House.

“The visit of Vice President Biden is a clear sign of renewed interest of the U.S. government with its closest partners and neighbors,” Arias said.

Biden, 66, is a seasoned hand in U.S. foreign policy, having previously served in the Senate, where he was chair of the Foreign Relations Committee. As a senator, Biden voted against the Central American Free Trade Agreement, which Arias had lobbied hard to pass in Costa Rica, citing a lack of labor or environmental standards.

Biden will be accompanied by his wife, Jill, and is the highest-level visitor from the United States since then-President Bill Clinton came to Costa Rica in May 1997.

Note: the Casa Presidencial is basically the Tico equivalent of the White House.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Sun, fun and funk in Samara

It's important when you're down here to remind yourself that this is Costa Rica. It's not Hawaii. And it's not Mexico. There is a substantial tourist infrastructure here, but it's not a completely developed country. And that's fine. As one tourism consultant told me, Costa Rica's competitive advantage is its amazing natural resources and eco-tourism opportunities. If it tries to turn into Cancun, it will lose.

Which is a long way of introducing this post on Samara, which is somewhat of a funky beach town on the Nicoya Peninsula, on the Pacific Ocean. In many ways, Samara reminds me of a smaller Manuel Antonio, except without the National Park. The upside of no national park, however, is no tourist hordes. I was only able to stay in town for 24 hours with the parents before coming back to San Jose, but the whole time I couldn't help thinking that we nearly had the place to ourselves.

What really brought the funk, however, was our hotel, Brisas del Pacifico. Clearly, with its faded paint and tacky architecture, its better days are behind it. And it was somewhat disconserting that the worker behind the counter first tried to take us to the worst room in the place before we corrected him. But once we were there for a little while, the funk soaked in and eventually felt even a little bit charming. The cabanas on the beach, with a bar just a few feet away, were definitely a nice touch. And we had the top section of the hotel, which compenstated for the steep, long stairway up the hill with amazing views of the Pacific, almost completely to ourselves.

All in all, Samara is just a little too far from San Jose to make it a cinch for a weekend beach trip, but was a nice way to check out Nicoya. There didn't seem to be any cheap hostels, but there looked to be some low-priced hotels. Unless you want to eat at a soda, the food isn't cheap either (We ate dinner at Las Brasas, a Spanish restaurant in town that served up a mean paella and refreshing gazpacho, although the service left a lot to be desired. We ate lunch the next day on the beach at a place whose name escapes me, but offered some delicious, although pricey, chicken and mushroom quesadillas). It's definitely worth returning to, although I hope that my bus doesn't have mechanical difficulties on the way back to San Jose next time. It wouldn't be Costa Rica, however, if there wasn't bus drama.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Time and NY Times weigh in on newspapers

A couple more interesting reads out there on the future of newspapers. Both advocate for some sort of pay-per-view model for online news, arguing that advertising is not enough to generate the quality or quantity of news content we need.

The firrst, from Time Magazine, says there's some hope in a future "micropayment" system where, like we've become accustomed to paying $0.99 for a song on iTunes, we'll someday pay a couple pennies for each news story we read on iNews (or, more likely, each news source's Web platform):

Under a micropayment system, a newspaper might decide to charge a nickel for an article or a dime for that day's full edition or $2 for a month's worth of Web access. Some surfers would balk, but I suspect most would merrily click through if it were cheap and easy enough.

In the NY Times, David Carr advocates for something similar. He also points out that the traditional regulations that have prevented newspaper mergers in a single market are outdated and have prevented some necessary consolidation. I'd like to add that antitrust laws keeping newspapers and TV stations from merging are also too old-fashioned, at some point they're both going to be doing the same thing on the Web, so we might as well get them working together now. The traditional barriers are meaningless, and meanwhile the old stalwarts are crumbling. Here's the money quote from newspaper analyst John Morton:

“Only newspapers are economically organized to cover a broad swath of events,” he said. “A lot of aggregators have been taking advantage of that, and pretty soon, there will be nothing to aggregate. But that can’t really be discussed among newspaper owners because of antitrust problems.”
Clearly, newspapers have done a lot to get themselves in this hole. But outdated regulations shouldn't be making the problem worse.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

The top 5 most annoying things about Costa Rica

Since I'm now just over the half-way mark of my time down here, I figured it would be good to sit back and reflect on the first two months. Lest you think I'm lounging away in paradise, Costa Rica is far from perfection, and has many frustrating aspects that I didn't foresee beforehand. And since, starting this weekend with my parents, we're soon to have a lot of visitors, I figured I'd give everyone a heads up on what to expect. Thus, I present to you, the top 5 most annoying things about Costa Rica.

1. Traffic/Tico drivers: Someone told me that "Costa Rica is fun... once you learn to drive like a Tico." But I don't think such skills could be taught. This isn't India, mind you, but it's not far off, and a far cry from what I found in Chile.

The biggest problem, though, isn't the drivers. It's the roads. San Jose's infrastructre was built long before the population skyrocketed to the 1 million-plus currently residing in the metro area. The same rings true for the country in general--it has largely overgrown its initial infrastructure development, and the roads and highways haven't caught up. If you're a Sacramentan, think of the stretch of I-80 right before Cal Expo (where, for some reason, they think an arena should go) where there is traffic at all hours of the day. Now, extrapolate that across an entire city, only the people drive like maniacs. That's San Jose.

I used to hate the honking, but when you're in a cab and some idiot is blocking the only lane in the street so he can run into the local convenience store to buy ciagarettes (there is no parallel parking here), by all means, I say, lay on the horn. Speaking of cabs...

2. Sketchy cab drivers: Taxi drivers in Costa Rica recently went on strike because they felt the government wasn't doing enough to crack down on the piratas, or unoffical, non-sanctioned taxi drivers. But, as far as I can tell, even offically liscenced taxis (you can tell because they're all painted red with a yellow seal on the side) aren't the most scrupulous bunch. Especially at night, they'll come up with some reason that they can't use their maria, or meter, and will charge you some arbitrary, absurd amount to rip you off. The worst are the vultures that cluster outside bus stops, hawking their services to the desperate, unwary tourist. Now, I've made it a habit to walk a few blocks away from the bus station and just hail a cab from the street. So far, that's worked.

3. Unreliability, or Tico time: No, not The Tico Times. But "Tico time" -- the fact that most Ticos run 15 minutes to a half hour late. I've had interviewees make me wait over an hour in their office, then tell me they're busy and would call me later. I've seen government press conferences start 40 minutes late, and arrived at the airport at noon only to learn that the press conference I was told was at 12:30 was, in fact, at 2:30. For a country that seems to eschew all things "complicated" they could do a little more to help themselves out.

4. Arbitrary adherence to random rules and regulations: This one is also somewhat transit related, as I can't count the number of times I'm on the bus, and it pulls into the stop behind another bus or taxy, but the driver won't open the doors. Instead, he'll wait the several minutes it takes for the previous bus to fully unload and load. Then he will pull up only a couple feet and open the doors, as if the small space made all the difference in the world. And yet the same driver will stop traffic if he pulls up to another bus at a red light and will chat away with the adjacent bus driver long after the light turns green.

But it's not just buses. Press secretaries will make me formally arrange an interview with a government minister or submit emails, giving me the bureaucratic run-around to ensure that whatever quotes I get are unoffensive, proper, and completely useless, only to have the minister give me his cell phone number and spout off, completely breaking the party line.

5. Prices: To be fair, this is more of a misconception than anything. But Costa Rica is not a bargain. If you're looking for dirt cheap travel, go to Nicragua. Costa Rica is wealthier and more stable than its neighbors, and such is the price of development, apparently, that things simply cost more. While you can get a solid lunch for 1,700 colones (about $3) its almost always going to be chicken, rice, and beans, and something more spectacular will set you back more. While it's still way cheaper than the U.S., I guess it's just more expensive than I thought it would be. Or maybe it's my pittance of an intern salary is going faster than I thought it would...

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Guitar Hero

When I first came to Costa Rica over two months ago, I made a to-do list that went roughly as follows: 1) see a sloth, 2) learn to surf, and 3) buy a guitar. The first, as readers of this blog know, I crossed off the list a month ago in Puerto Viejo. Number two is still to come, hopefully. And three, I'm happy to report, is finally in the bank.

I had first hoped to buy a classical, Spanish-style guitar in Spain last fall. But due to the luggage constraints of solo backpacking, as well as difficulties navigating around the Spanish siesta, this was a no-go.

Thus, I resolved to buy a guitar to satisfy my musical cravings in Costa Rica. Two months later, I finally have one. Since we rarely stay in San Jose on the weekends, and I'm usually busy with work on the weekdays, it has been difficult to find time. But this past weekend, I made it my top priority.

Buying guitar is a surprisingly dangerous venture here, unless you're willing to settle for a pawn shop or cheap model. But I wanted to buy mine from the legendary Hermanos Guzman, brothers who have been crafting hand-made guitars in Costa Rica for years. The only problem is that the Hermanos Guzman live in Tibas, a notorious San Jose suburb whose murder rate ranks up there with Detroit, Baltimore and Newark.

It was a Saturday afternoon, however, and we took a cab and were fine. I did, unfortunately, lose my glasses on the way--they were in my pocket in a case and must have fallen out when I was in the cab. I was so pleased with my new purchase, however, that I didn't care. Glasses are replaceable, but this guitar is pricess. OK--it was more more money than I planned to spend, but it sounds awesome and is without a doubt one-of-a-kind.

Monday, March 2, 2009

More on Manuel Antonio

I realize that my post the other day on the Manuel Antonio trip is somewhat discombobulated. I think in trying to recap the travel as well as the issues at the park, I may have tried to bite off more than I can chew in one post. So here, if you're interested, is my story recapping the current situation at the park:

Manuel Antonio National Park will stay open, for now.

Local businesses and tourism outlets breathed a sigh of relief Friday after Health Minister María Luisa Avila gave the Environment, Energy and Telecommunications Ministry (MINAET) a four-month extension to resolve the park's longtime sewage contamination problems.

Avila announced the decision after touring Manuel Antonio Friday with officials from MINAET and the Costa Rican Water and Sewer Institute (AyA). The Health Ministry had given MINAET until Thursday to correct the problems at the park, which included mosquito-breeding standing water, a garbage dump on site and sewage leaks from the bathrooms near the park's most popular beach.

While park administrators had resolved the first two issues last week, MINAET and local business leaders sought an extension to resolve the sanitation problems, which they said could not be solved before the Health Ministry's 10-day deadline. According to a statement by MINAET, portable bathrooms will be installed for tourists while construction begins on new, permanent bathrooms and a sewage treatment facility for the park.

Greasing the wheels will be ¢120 million (about $214,000) from the Costa Rica Tourism Institute (ICT), half of which will fund the sewage treatment plant, while the rest will be earmarked for infrastructure improvements, including new buildings to house park rangers.

Between 1,000 and 2,000 tourists attend the park every day, generating over ¢1 billion (nearly $1.8 million) last year in revenue. That money is put into a general fund and split among the country's national parks, however, leaving meager resources for the country's second-most visited park, park administrators said.

Richard Lemire, president of the Aguirre Chamber of Commerce, Industry and Tourism, expressed gratitude for ICT's assistance and the Health Ministry's understanding, but warned that park operations must not return to business as usual.

“Obviously, that won't be enough,” Lemire said of the ICT funding. “We're still very concerned with the basic administration of MINAET.”

For its part, MINAET said it is conducting an internal investigation to determine how conditions have deteriorated so badly at Manuel Antonio, and how funds appropriated for the park are being used.

While a happy ending, especially for those hoping to visit the park in the coming weeks, it's far from the end of the story. Needless to say I'll be keeping an eye on whether the government actually follows through and cleans up its act.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

More on newspapers

I happened upon this essay, originally from The New Republic, this morning when I was reading the recap of last night's Kings game on The Sacramento Bee's Web site. The author, Princeton Professor Paul Starr, does a good job summarizing the current state of newspapers and analyzing their importance to the public. I thought it was interesting he referred to news as a "public good" here:

Public goods are notoriously underproduced in the marketplace, and news is a public good – and yet, since the mid-19th century, newspapers have produced news in abundance at a cheap price to readers and without need of direct subsidy.

Public goods usually are something you want the government to subsidize, since the market is not producing the optimal amount on its own. I expected Starr to follow with some proposal for the government to subsidize newspapers, which, thankfully, he didn't. Not every paper can be BBC or NPR, and the idea of the watchdog having a tie to the government makes me nervous.

Taking a step back, the fact that I even stumbled upon this story shows that reading news on the Web isn't all bad. Many have cited the "serendipity" that print newspapers allow--the stories that you wouldn't go out of your way to read, but are happy you found--and lamented that there is no such parallel online. But that's not necessarily true, as I found out this morning.