Costa Rica

Costa Rica

Her skirt swings round like a spinning top, the dark, smooth skin of her long legs holding my attention for a moment longer than is decent.

‘Come on, dance,’ she says.

I could, but that would be the same as her saying jump from an aircraft, thrusting a parachute in my hand. I get the general idea of what to do but there’s no guarantee that I’ll do it in the right order before I end up in an unkempt heap on the floor. Her eyes tease me as she lifts her arm in a clearer invitation and I know I should respond, but I turn away and take a further sip of beer. She gets bored of trying and moves away to dance with herself.

I’ve been in Costa Rica for a week, soaking up the atmosphere. It’s a work trip, but the excitement of a new place spurs an adrenalin smile that I will wear for as long as the memory lasts. My dancing colleague, with her swivelling hips and tanned legs embodies energy and I’m more than happy to soak it up from the comfort of my stool. Pura Vida they call it here, which suggests a purity of life, an innocent enthusiasm for enjoyment.

I’m in San Jose, the sprawling capital sitting in the deep central valley, surrounded by green sided volcanoes. Coffee plantations line the hillsides inspired a by 90’s policy to give every citizen a coffee plant to start a farm. Coffee is to Costa Rica, what wine is to France. There is the terroir and the variation of bean which creates its own brand of coffee elitism.

Costa Rica could never be described as a linear place. Roads tend to go round the landscape rather than through it. The place lacks a hub, growing randomly, houses mixed with industry. Cars seem to be the only way of getting around, but narrow, poorly maintained roads turn into rat run connections. The Pan American Highway, which should be the grandest road I ever drove onto makes the A1 look like the 8 lane ultra-modern highways of Dubai. It’s a terrible, clogged, car park.

Hearing local people talk of the country I detect a naïve optimism, like a ragged traveller displaying a bag of unique jewels at the market. There’s a furore of interest. The man leaves without a sale unaware of the true value of what he holds. He scuttles away to his bed for the night. The next day he realises he’s been robbed. The Chinese have invested in the country, even paying for the football stadium. This seems to delight Costa Ricans but no-one questions why Chinese companies would invest in a tiny jewel such as Costa Rica.

It’s a sour thought and also unfair because to be in Costa Rica is to embrace that naivety. The country swells with transcendent beauty and why should they not be proud. I plead for them not to give it away cheaply.

Most of the places I travel, I get sucked into the work culture and have little time to explore. After all, an office and hotel are usually only varied by the length of the taxi journey. This time I have days free so get to sample the country. Costa Rica has two magnificent coastlines but I am instantly drawn to the Pacific. Not only is it an hour’s drive closer to San Jose, it also feels like a firm step to the other side of the world. I have ventured to the Pacific from the Australia side, here is a chance to close that loop.

A few colleagues join me in driving to the coast. We pass a number of national parks and decide to visit one. The car park is quiet and the sun burning hot, so it makes sense to take the shade of the forest. I grumble about handing over $15 dollars for seeing nature that comes for free throughout the country, if only I knew the places to go.

The forest is magnificent. The trees statuesque, dramatic and buzzing with life, each a relic of another age, outliving our ancestors and no doubt many others to come. The path beats its way through the park. I marvel that in 100 years’ time, I would still see the same things. Climate change and American Presidents permitting, there will still be ants scurrying in regimental lines with their leaf cuttings, monkeys screeching in the high branches, colourful birds chirping for a mate and insects forming their own electricity as the sounds merge into one power hum. Maybe my £15 dollars wasn’t so wasted.

The road trundles on till our coastal destination of Jaco. I have no idea what to expect. My vision of a coastal town switches between the gaudy vulgarity of a holiday resort or a twee fishing village clinging onto rocks. Jaco is neither. My colleague describes it as an African village, with small ramshackle shop units selling beach wares and various eateries around a central road. As is typical, the pavements and road surface are poor. The shops are random concrete containers with big colourful signs. Behind the shopping street is the beach, a vast open space with dark sand disappearing into the distance. As we head further down the coast to a quieter spot, the beach gets wider and more serene. The sea is surprisingly warm, with unforgiving waves buffeting me each moment making swimming pretty pointless. Trying to swim underwater and see any fish life proves futile as the dark sand mixes with the turbulent water.

Costa Rica has so much to offer but I won’t be telling to too many people. A few more visitors would probably be a few more than the roads can take and some of the naïve open welcome may be ruined by mass tourism. I love Costa Rica. To my dancing colleague, holding out her hand, I say thank you. Next time, I might just take it.