Costa Rica Journal: Samara is one Costa Rican town where ex-patriotism works

Samara is a peaceful village where expats and Ticos live peacefully but a shadowy drug culture threatens the climate.
Samara is a peaceful village where expats and Ticos live peacefully but a shadowy drug culture threatens the climate.

For a change of scenery I decided to upgrade beaches. Samara’s beach is idyllic, something out of a travel posture or off a bottle of suntan lotion. But all the Ticos say it’s nothing compared to others north and south of it.

The prettiest, most desolate beach in the area is called Barrigona. To get there you need a taxi, some good hiking boots and suicidal tendencies. Constant undertows. Lots of drownings. No one there to help.

Instead I went to a place called Playa Carrillo. It’s about five miles south of Samara and the public bus took me through part of the real Costa Rica that’s so hard to find in these expat towns. We passed a school where all the kids wore white shirts and blue skirts and pants. Nice single-story houses with bright paint and acceptable yards. Some big gated houses with archways leading to long driveways. You can tell the expats from the Ticos but the disparity of wealth here is nothing like you’d find in Jakarta or Rio or, well, Chicago.

Playa Carrillo is a town but you see none of it when you pull into the city limits. Playa Carrillo’s landmark is a wall of palm trees, so identical they look like sentries guarding the green forest behind it. In front is a swath of gray sand beach with great surf and no people.

They say Costa Rica’s beaches are white sand. They’re not. They’re gray. It’s not as palatable to the eye as the white sands of the Caribbean islands or South Pacific but the texture is so fine here you don’t mind the drab color. Playa Carrillo and Samara’s beaches aren’t manicured yet the sand is as consistent as the sand traps of Augusta. Fine, granulated sand that squishes under your soles. In the ocean, I could run into the surf and dive straight into a wave without worrying about rocks or coral carving up my legs in an underwater knife fight.

There’s just enough driftwood swept up from the sea to remind you that you’re not at a five-star resort. At Playa Carrillo you don’t need much of a reminder. There’s not a single structure in sight, sans for the remains of a concrete picnic table next to the road.

I laid down my striped, worn beach towel, laid down and read “Rolling Thunder,” my latest John Varley science fiction book. It’s a weird dichotomy reading science fiction in paradise. I’m reading about a society on Mars where mankind has taken refuge after the mother of all tsunamis wipes out a fifth of earth’s population and ruined nearly the entire planet. Yet here I am laying on a beach I normally only see in my dreams. Earth … it still has some gas left in the tank.

In three hours I saw all of seven people: a young American woman who was on my bus with me, a couple jogging and a family of four eating under some palm trees and taking turns swinging in their hammock.
I can see the allure for expats. I could live here. It’s a good life when you wake up and the biggest decision of your day is choosing the beach on which to do nothing.

After my daily siesta, I went down to the info center and interviewed Christopher about Samara. Christopher is a tall, gentle Canadian with a long face and Fu Manchu. He moved here from Winnipeg 15 years ago because “I needed a change.” Fifteen years ago, Samara looked nothing like this. But expats and tourism have transformed it. Christopher said there are 200 businesses in this area. Nearly half are owned by outsiders.

I asked him if that angers the Ticos.

“Here, everybody’s equal,” he said in his tiny office on the main street as a fan whirred nearby. “You go to a bar and see three guys all dressed exactly alike. One’s a Tico, one’s an average joe and one’s a multi-millionaire.”

He said Samara’s growth has been much slower than places like Tamarindo, a town with a whole list of god-awful nicknames. Add “Scamagringo” to the list. Everyone in Samara hates Tamarindo. It’s like they’re rival towns.

“Places like Tamarindo, the expats are loud, wear Hawaiian shirts, smoke a stogie and have a beer belly,” Christopher said. “It’s half an hour from the (Liberia) airport. If you come here, you have to want to come here.”

True, when I was in Tamarindo in 1996, back when it was a dirt road and a few guesthouses, Liberia hadn’t built its airport. Curse you, Orville Wright.

But Samara has always been a little different. It’s kind of like the weird little brother that refuses to conform to the rest of the family. It has the same vibe as Ocean Beach with the surfer presence, even if the surf here doesn’t make Costa Rica’s radar. It also has the rural beat of Jamaica. Between the roads and the beach are little dirt roads with wooden houses where Ticos sit on their porch and pet their dogs or wax their surfboards.

“People who come to Samara have a commom thread,” Christopher said. “They’re all a little quirky, a little hippier. They’re more gentle. They want to be part of the community instead of just occupying space.”

I asked him about the lure of selling land to giant hotels as in other towns.

“Most of the Ticos here are land rich,” he said. “Since they’re content, they don’t need to sell their properties.”

Did they learn from Tamarindo?

“It is in people’s minds, yes,” he said, understating every word before unleashing a broad smile.

I went across the street to Coco’s, one of the many Mexican restaurants in town. I was looking for Memo, my kayak guide who bartends here. He was off but Jairo was in his place and, like every other Tico on the North Pacific Coast, spoke great English. He’s 27 and was born and raised in Samara. He’s lean as a rake with a pony tail and a Brooklyn Nets ballcap worn backward.

He poured me Coco’s happy hour special, a $6 margarita served in the size of a small fishbowl. As ESPN Esportes played highlights of FC Barcelona’s press conference on a flat screen behind him, he talked about how Samara has changed.

“Ten years ago there was nothing here,” he said. “Just ground.”

The Ticos aren’t complaining. The growth has provided jobs, money and, let’s face it, women from all over. Mixed relationships are everywhere around Samara. In fact, that’s the biggest area of conflict between expats and Ticos.

“Sometimes for the ladies,” he said with a laugh.

The problem with Samara is what is plaguing all of Costa Rica. It’s a recurring theme that I keep thinking is going to devastate tourism here.

“The drugs,” he said. “For kids to see what’s happening on the beach …”

After I downed my ‘roided-out margarita and peed for 20 minutes, I did some big-time, major league barhopping. I went to the Zen Den where Evelyn nearly knocked me over with a perfume called Channel Chance. Not to say that it smelled good, but I offered to be her slave for life. She smiled and handed me a bottle of Zacapa’, Costa Rica’s high-grade rum she sells for $10 a shot. I told her I’d come back Sunday night to toast Costa Rica.

I went to Gusto Beach where I nursed a cuba libre while a Tico romanced a tall, skinny, real pretty blonde in too-short shorts. I dropped by Lo Que Hay where a 63-year-old expat from Georgia bent the ear of pretty women from France and Belgium about the three divorces that drove him to Costa Rica. He looked a lot like John Denver, in a goofy sort of way and the women were mildly amused.

The French woman has been in Costa Rica for 20 years. One of her kids was born here, married a Tico and is now separated with a child. The woman had a massage business and now has opened up a clothes store in Nasara. Every person you meet has a unique story.

And every story is worth hearing.