It’s 4:30 in the morning, and I’ve been up since midnight. Costa Rica’s Centenario rum has a big plus going for it in it’s so smooth, you don’t get hangovers. The downside is it’s so sweet, you wake up in the middle of the night and have more shakes than a kindergarten class. The scary thing is I could’ve pulled an all-nighter. I found a great bar near my hotel and only a lack of funds and pending lack of sleep kept me staying there past 9.
It was Bar Morazan, a dark, local hangout and total opposite of the sports bar next door. Chubbs has all the trappings of an American sports bar: big screen TVs, half of which were showing MMA on a Monday night, greasy menu, lots of white guys. Chubbs is where the mass expat population of San Jose gets into Tico culture by watching the Red Sox play.
The only difference is Chubbs’ waitresses are all buxom, curvy Ticas, most of whom worked down the street at Il Re. Il Re is the one bar in the world that combines two of man’s evenings out: sports and prostitution. Yes, Il Re is a sports brothel. I went last year ONLY – emphasis ONLY – because Il Re also has the only ATM in the area. I was watching the NFL Playoffs at Chubbs and went to Il Re to get cash. I noticed the screens were bigger, the bar was shinier and the women were cuter. I sat down to watch a quarter when a drop-dead gorgeous Colombian sits down and starts rubbing my leg. I looked around and realized this may be the only sports bar in the world at that moment where none of the men were watching the games.
So I asked this woman, “So, how do you think Colin Kaepernick is going to handle the Giants’ Cover 2 Zone?”
I didn’t go back last night. At Bar Morazon, I butchered an order of rum in Spanish and a Tico eating next to me said, “If you need any help let me know. I’m a tour guide.”
His name was Amadeus, suitable for a guy who looked like a teen idol. Buff, dark and handsome, he was born in Costa Rica, moved to Miami then returned to San Jose halfway through high school. He has two kids with a Tica ex-girlfriend and an ex next door at Chubbs. She was the blonde with fake tits and, what he said, a fake ass. Yes, Ticas are into surgery here.
Amadeus was meeting his latest flame while he filled me in on the latest in Costa Rican women. Yes, they love surgery. His girlfriend had breast implants and some kind of butt implant I didn’t want to inquire more about. They get nose jobs, lip jobs, anything to get the right jobs. It must work. The San Jose women, even the ones walking around downtown in business suits, looked much more presentable than anyone I saw on the beach.
On the big screen over the bar, grainy black and white videos of American ‘60s bands were playing. A guy on my opposite side tapped my shoulder and said in a heavy Spanish accent, “Is that Janis Joplin?”
I looked up and there was a young Joplin, looking much prettier than her older, pre-death days, singing “Bobby McGee” in concert. The guy said he was 34.
“How did you know that was Janis Joplin?” I said.
“I’ve always liked old American music. Many Ticos love American music.”
We chatted for a while about American culture and Costa Rica’s complete lack of contribution to the world rock scene.
I was about ready to leave when Amadeus warned me to take a cab the three blocks to the hotel. He echoed Alvaro who said this area of Costa Rica was one of the roughest in town. Funny, it was no ghetto. A beautiful pink grad school and the lovely Parque Espanol, where lovers made out as I walked through it, dominated the neighborhood.
“But this is a lonely area,” Amadeus said. “Tourists are here alone. There is no one here to help you. Trust me. Take a taxi.”
I trust myself. I walked back without incident. The closest thing I saw to a bad neighborhood were the smoking hot prostitutes standing on the street corner.
Which brings us to my five best and worst things about Costa Rica. The prostitutes will not make either list.
1. Wildlife. Crocodiles. Gorgeous birds. Iguanas the size of small dinosaurs. Costa Rica is paradise for wildlife lovers and environmentalists. Like most areas where the people value anything wild and alive, the reptiles and birds actually look happy. If an iguana can smile, they did.
2. Beaches. Every beach was a perfect half-moon bay lined with palm trees. The sand isn’t real pretty. Don’t believe the guidebooks. It’s not white. It’s gray. But it’s so fine and so free of pbebbles, it makes walking along the beach one of the simple pleasures in life.
3. The people. They’re warm here. Maybe because they have the highest standard of living in Central America, they like to show it off. They work early and work late and rest in
between. It’s a very evolved way of living. It’s one reason they live longer than anyone in the Western Hemisphee.
4. Rum. Centenario is as sweet as nectar. So good, it’s even more expensive than the Flora d’Cana they import from Nicaragua. I just came from the duty free store where I bought one for myself and another for my surfer-dude nephew.
5. Ceviche. Costa Rican cuisine is real bland. It’s up to the individual restaurants to spice up seafood. What they do real well is ceviche. They basically take any seafood laying around – squid, octopus — I had sea bass last night -– and soak it in lime juice. With a few soda crackers it’s an appetizer that serves as a meal.
1. Mosquitos. Away from the humid beach, my legs have made a remarkable recovery. The strawberries have turned into simple red pricks. I haven’t itched since I woke up. But for 10 days my legs felt like they were being tortured by pins, needles and feathers.
2. Roads. It added to the rural, off-the-beaten-path feel of the place, but I’m still recovering from the pockmarked truck rides I took all over the Nicoya Peninsula.
3. Food. When your national dish is rice and beans, you have problems. The problem with traveling in Central America is many of the cultures blend together. Same language, same music, but also same food. Rice and beans not only gets old it starts out unhealthy and doesn’t get any better. The amount of expats living here does not translate into great ethnic cuisine. I had one good Italian meal in the whole country. The rest would be Grade B Italian restaurants in Fargo.
4. Prices. The expat avalanche has skyrocketed prices to the point where Costa Rica is no longer the cute little bargain it was in the ’90s. More and more expats complain that they can no longer make ends meet. Hotels are reaching European levels of pricing. Food is expensive and usually not worth it.
5. Crime. My first trip to San Jose I could roam the city without incident or warning. During my time here, four locals told me not to walk in the capital at night. Last year, American expats told me they moved into gated compounds in suburbia to avoid crime. When San Jose starts getting compared to Managua on the safety meter, Costa Rica has to take stock of its role in the drug trade.