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Costa Rica: Fast Food Central America

2012 February 20
Tamarindo, Costa Rica

Tamarindo, Costa Rica. Mini-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.

– – –

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, and casinos. 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?”

– – –

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.

Manzanillo, Costa Rica

That’s not to say there weren’t some absolutely beautiful places…

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.

8 Responses leave one →
  1. CostaRicaSavvy permalink
    August 3, 2012

    I have large familial ties with Costa Rica (on my father’s side), and I found this post to be offensive. The towns you mentioned cater almost exclusively to American and Canadian tourists, so it would be no wonder that there would be so much “American” style construction. Cities such as Tamarindo are for Americans looking for an American beach experience, not for you backpackers. One of the most beautiful beaches in Costa rRica is in Manuel Antonio National Park, located just outside Quepos in the province of Puntarenas. This town is a real Costa Rican town, filled with family run businesses such as diners, markets, clothiers, etc. Although Quepos has it’s fair share of tourists (mainly European with some Americans and Canadians), they’re more oriented towards “Eco-tourism;” this type of tourist is oriented more towards visiting environmental wonders such as beaches or jungles, and they tend to modify little Of their surroundings, weather it be a national park or the locals’ town. Thus Quepos is one of the many “real” Costa Rican beach towns.

    Contrary to what is written in this blog post, Costa Rica is rich in unique culture! If you stay in the touristy beach towns, full of commercial centers and other American fare, however, you won’t gt to e pierience any of it. In San José, for example, take in some of the museums, such as the gold museum or the national museum, both located downtown. Or take a trip to Asia… via Chinatown; maybe even go to Sarchi to experience a (real, not made just for toirists) town filled with shops dedicated to making the finest handcrafted wooden furniture in the country. Many Costa Ricans from around the country come to Sarchi to buy furniture, and the last time I was there I counted about 70 different stores. 70! Also, there’s a place for you foodies, for Costa Rica is notorious for its hearty, traditional meals from back when most Ticos worked on the farm. Tantalize your taste buds in gallo pinto (black beans and rice cooked with English sauce (usually Salsa Lizano brand)), olla de carne (a hearty take on beef soup with cassava, corn, carrots, chyote (a type of squash), and of course large chunks of beef among other ingredients. While in Costa Rica, I recommend sampling some local fare aat any of the traditional cuisine restaurants (usually located in brown, open air wooden buildings) or going to Rostipollos, a spit-roasted chicken chain popular with Costa Ricans for it’s juicy poultry and savory, traditional sides (such as black beans, cabbage salad (my favorite), patacones (fried mashed plantains), etc. Oh, and by the way, if you’re coming to Costa Rica expecting the WHOLE place to be a Latin American Shangri-La where everyone lives in small villages among coffee fields, don’t be to surprised of you don’t get it. Yes, although there are some villages where this is true, Costa Rica, just like the rest of the world, is joining our modern, global culture. If you think it’s naot as authentic as some other places yove been to, Paul, then think again. I’ve also got my mothers family in Peru, and although there are some largely untouched, Quechua-speaking villiages, Peru has it’s share of urban nightmares, fast food, mega malls, etc. just as the United States, Costa Rica, and most nations open to the outside world. Even Cuzco, one of the most historic cities in Peru and possibly the world, has a McDonalds right of the main city square.

    So, Paul, for you to call yourself a backpacker and only visit touristy, fake beach towns is shameful. What more, having visited these cities devoid of true Costa Rican culture and stating that the whole country is devoid of it’s own unique cultural identity is an insult. Don’t wait until you’re an expat to come to beautiful Costa Rica, come back soon to see the real side of Costa Rica!

    P.S. I almost forgot: don’t forget to visit the city of La Fortuna, known for it’s ca ode hot springs heated by nearby Arenal Volcano!

    • CostaRicaSavvy permalink
      August 3, 2012

      Whoops, just meant to say “hot sprigs;” don’t mistake “ca ode” as a place, for it dosen’t exist.

      • CostaRicaSavvy permalink
        August 3, 2012

        HOT SPRINGS!! I hate typos!!

    • Paul permalink*
      November 13, 2012

      Fair points. Like I said, the places that I happened to visit were like that. And unfortunately, I didn’t have the time to visit many of the places that you mentioned.

      Obviously the entire country won’t be like and I’m certainly not suggesting that that is the case. However, when you compare the touristy hotspots in Costa Rica vs. other countries, even in those other countries you see a lot more of their own identity.

      Take for example Cusco. Yes, there may be a McDonald’s right in the center square but regardless, when you’re in Cusco, you KNOW you’re in Cusco. It has a feel that is completely different than any other modernized city. It’s certainly not American and even though it is very touristy, you know you’re somewhere special.

      I just never felt that in the places that I went. Mayyyyybe Monteverde and Puerto Viejo…

  2. Evelyn permalink
    April 4, 2014

    I live in Costa Rica, in San Jose, and have seen the “real” Costa Rica. There is almost NO indigenous culture here, and there is none of the colonial charm I found traveling in South America. Except for one or two buildings downtown. The food is bland and boring, except on the Caribbean side where they at least use coconut milk. The Caribbean culture is a bit more lively, but I find the Central Valley to be like a crappy American city, just more expensive. The museums downtown are OK, not great. There is very little art, not really any Costa Rican music, the libraries suck, outside tourist areas it’s dirty — there’s a reason the country is ONLY known for its beaches. The same ‘pura vida’ attitude that makes for laid-back tourism also makes for poor infrastructure. Another thing I hate? All the eco-friendly stuff. Only in the national parks and tourist areas, my friend. I can’t for the life of me figure out how to recycle in the city, there’s trash everywhere, everyone has a car, there are a million SUVs, the stores dt all sell imported crappy plastic disposable garbage mass-produced in China (oh, btw, Chinatown here is a joke) did I mention that CR is like the worlds largest importer of pesticides? … I’m so disappointed that I moved here, and can’t wait till my boyfriends contract is up so we can get the hell out. We moved here from Yaounde, Cameroon, a capital in a third-world country! And San Jose suffers by comparison. At least there, you know what you’re getting into, you don’t expect it to be eco-friendly, cosmopolitan or filled with awesome museums. Still, the people were more interesting, there’s a ton of indigenous culture THAT IS ACTUALLY VALUED not hidden away in “reserves” like in CR, it’s incredibly bio- and geographically diverse, the food was WAY better, you could find clothes that weren’t made of polyester … Basically, your blog post was spot on. You would’ve been even more disappointed had you been to the places the other commenter suggested. Rostipollos? Are you kidding me? It’s a chain restaurant like Pollo Tropical in the US that mass-produces Costa Rica’s already desperately uninspired cuisine. To conclude: Costa Rica has a massively misplaced superiority complex, and you didn’t miss much worth your time on your trip.

    • Evelyn permalink
      April 5, 2014

      I hate living here so much that I’m commenting on a two-year-old blog post. So pathetic 🙁

      • Paul permalink*
        April 6, 2014

        Wow thanks for the comment Evelyn! It’s interesting to hear this from someone who is living there. And your comment about the eco-tourism facade is definitely pretty spot on.

        I hope your boyfriend’s contract finishes up soon, it sounds like you cannot wait to get out of the country!

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