Costa Rica: Fast Food Central America
In front of me, two heavyset, middle aged men waited at the checkout line. Each wore tank tops that disguised their girth, flip flops, board shorts, sunglasses, and baseball caps. Both were white, with a hint of pink from the sun, and appeared as if they had been teleported from the American south. After their beer, cigarettes, and handles of booze were tallied, one reached into his shorts, handed the cashier a wad of cash and grunted – not a “thank you” or “goodbye” but rather some indecipherable, primal sound.
No, this was not Walmart. This was Tamarindo, Costa Rica.
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Despite being in Central America, physically thousands of miles from the States, Costa Rica was in a sense, a miniature version of America; a place for Americans to drop in, spend a few days boozing, and go home to tell their friends about their foreign adventures.
I suppose I shouldn’t have expected anything else. Costa Rica is one of the most expensive, touristy, and developed countries in Central America and Tamarindo happened to be one of the most expensive, touristy, and developed towns in the country. Young and old Americans, ex-pats, and vacationing families overran the place. Walking down the street, I heard more English than Spanish. While the beaches were beautiful, the town itself was a built-up mass of unsightly strip-malls, fast-food restaurants, casinos, and Costa Rica Vacation Rentals. Its streets clogged with modern sedans, SUVs, and trucks. To top it off, prices were similar (they even accepted US dollars), if not more expensive, to the States.
I’m probably coming off as a pretentious traveler but I’ll be the first to say that I have nothing against partying and having a fun time. I believe it’s an essential part of every trip but I’m also a believer of balancing it out with some culture and unique experiences. The problem with Costa Rica was that it simply didn’t have this other side.
It would be a lie to say I experienced all of Costa Rica but from what I saw in Playas del Coco, Tamarindo, Monteverde, and Puerto Viejo, it seemed that the country lacked identity. Certainly, a large part of it has to do with the massive amount of tourism. The industry made up nearly 6% of the country’s GDP in 2010, so you don’t need to be a genius to see why there are so many shopping malls, restaurants, and hotels. But at the same time, I found myself asking, “Where’s the real Costa Rica?”
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It’s not like Costa Rica is the only country that’s experienced tourism. Guatemala, Belize, Peru, Colombia, Argentina, Brazil, Thailand, and Vietnam all experience a high volume of tourists yet all have retained distinct and strong cultures. These countries had the restaurants, stores, and hotels but also the traditional handicrafts, food, and ways of life. They showed that it’s possible to have both sides of the coin: to keep traditions as well as accept the globalization of our world.
That is what confused and disappointed me about Costa Rica. I saw plenty of the globalized, “fast food”, and white-washed side of the country but none of the traditional. I felt like I was going somewhere in the States with a sprinkle of Latin culture. Maybe it was because I didn’t look hard enough or in the right places. I admit that I skipped a lot of the nature which is meant to be the jewel of the country. But that isn’t a fair comparison: nature is nature while culture is culture. Even as a tourist passing through, it shouldn’t be hard to spot something, anything, unique and special.
Costa Rica just didn’t have that. That’s not to say that I didn’t have any great times. Surfing in Tamarindo, zip-lining in Monteverde, and scootering around in Puerto Viejo were all amazing experiences. But at the same time, it all seemed artificial, man-made, like some weird and convoluted version of Disneyland.
Maybe I just don’t get it and perhaps I missed out on something amazing, something completely undiscovered. But is it worth it to come back and find out? Probably not.
Maybe when I’m an ex-pat.