The author in Palo Verde National Park, Guanacaste, Costa Rica.
I recently returned from a Top Secret Mission.
Mission: Vacation in Costa Rica.
Mission status: Best. Vacation. EVAR.
New mission: Move to Costa Rica.
I confess I had been rather skeptical (I know—moi?) about the gushing reports from people who had visited the country. It also occurred to me that of the many people of Central American ancestry I’ve met, not a single one was Costa Rican.
Now it all makes perfect sense. Because why would anyone ever want to leave Costa Rica?
Environment. Costa Rica has the highest density of biodiversity of any country in the world. This is attributed to its twelve climatic zones, its position relative to the North and South American continents, and a variety of ecosystems within its borders including tropical rainforests, deciduous forests, Atlantic and Pacific coastline, cloud forests and Mangrove forests. What’s more, Costa Ricans value what they have: over 27% percent of the country enjoys protected status as national parks, wildlife refuges and forest preserves. In 2012 Costa Rica became the first country on the American continent to pass a total ban on recreational hunting. It is also illegal to cut down wild trees, and there is presently a country-wide effort to pay rural people to plant trees along every roadway. The reason: tree dwelling species like howler monkeys and sloths cannot cross roads without being endangered by human activity or predators, so the Costa Ricans are creating continuous, connected canopies of trees to mitigate hazards to tree-dwelling wildlife. There is a five percent tax on gasoline, and the revenue is used to pay landowners to refrain from clear-cutting their land, in effect encouraging tree farming instead of cattle ranching. The New Economics Foundation (NEF) ranked Costa Rica number one in its 2009 Happy Planet Index, and again in 2012. The NEF has also ranked Costa Rica “the greenest country in the world.” In 2007, the Costa Rican government announced plans for Costa Rica to become the first carbon-neutral country on the planet by 2021.
No military. Just imagine for a moment living in a country that is not in a state of permanent war. The effects on Costa Rican culture cannot be overstated. No imperialist scheming to brutally occupy foreign lands, no taxpayer money spent spying on everyone in the world, no plundering the globe’s resources, no glorifying war and violent patriarchy for the sole benefit of the wealthiest elite. Costa Rica abolished its military by constitutional amendment in 1949, and the budget previously dedicated to the military is now dedicated to security, education and culture. The country maintains small Police Guard forces for law enforcement actions and foreign peacekeeping to a limited extent, but it has no permanent standing army. About the only good thing I can say about the United States in this regard is that in the event of war in Costa Rica, the US has offered its military at Costa Rica’s disposal. (Although I wouldn’t exactly bank on that if I were them.)
Dearth of epic dirtbags. In the wake of the Iran-Contra affair—wherein the Reagan administration illegally sold weapons to Iran and funneled money, weapons and drugs through Costa Rica to supply Nicaraguan guerrillas waging war against the democratically elected Sandinista government—Oliver North and other American ringleaders were permanently banned from entering the country. Seems the Lieutenant Colonel enjoyed a very nice beach house in Guanacaste while directing the construction of covert airstrips in the area so that illicit flights could land near the Nicaraguan border, among other nefarious activities. But that is at least one epic dirtbag I will never, ever run into in Costa Rica.
Health care. Costa Rica provides universal health care to all citizens and permanent residents. It offers some of the best quality health care in Latin America, and is a popular destination for medical tourism. Statistics from the World Health Organization frequently place Costa Rica in the top rankings in the world for life expectancy. The UN ranks Costa Rica’s public health system in the top 20 worldwide, and number 1 in Latin America. Many pharmaceuticals (e.g. birth control pills, cholesterol medication, migraine medicine, etc.) are available over the counter without a prescription, and common ailments are routinely diagnosed and treated by pharmacists, not doctors.
Food. Costa Rica’s multicultural history is on vibrant display in its cuisine, a dynamic blend of influences from the Native American (Nahuatl and Chibcha) cultures the Spanish encountered in the 16th century, African and Afro-Caribbean in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, and more recently Asian, while the Spaniards themselves brought with them many new staples and ingredients from other lands, including spices and domesticated animals. Fresh fruits, root vegetables and seafood are as ubiquitous as rice, beans and corn, all harvested domestically. Coffee is a major export crop, and Costa Rican coffee is robust and smooth. Fresh fruit purees of tamarind, watermelon, mango or blackberry are as abundant as they are refreshing. Pineapple grown in Costa Rica is so sweet and flavorful it will make you weep. What I’m saying is, don’t knock the Caribbean-fusion sushi rolls until you try them.
Booze. Guaro, made from sugar cane, is the national liquor of Costa Rica. It is extremely cheap, and by all accounts extremely terrible. Costa Rica does produce some fine rums, as well as several beers that I have no way of evaluating because I know next to nothing about beer. Interestingly, there are no major wine producers in Costa Rica, even thought the climate seems particularly well-suited for it. But what do I know about vineyards? Even less than I know about beer, that’s what. Fortunately there is no shortage of imports from Europe, California and South American upstarts like Chile and Argentina: try as I might (and I tried mightily), I simply could not drink the hotel bar out of a crisp, pale, dry rosé from Provence.
Costa Rica is not without problems. Despite enviable economic growth, a 20%+ poverty rate has remained stubbornly intractable for decades. Petty theft is rampant. Narco-trafficking between South America and the U.S. puts Costa Rica squarely in the cross hairs of our ridiculous “War on Drugs.” There are active volcanoes. Abortions are restricted only to situations that preserve the “life or physical health of the mother,” and are illegal in cases of rape, incest, for economic reasons or when the fetus suffers from serious medical problems—a legacy, no doubt, of the Catholic Church’s pernicious influence in the region. On the other hand, the average number of children born per woman has fallen from about 7 in the 1960s to 3.5 in the early 1980s to below replacement levels today, a trend that points to the church’s waning influence in Costa Rica’s culture and public policy. So yes, there are big problems. But unsustainable growth, the NRA, the world’s largest prison system, crappy processed food, fracking, permanent war, regulatory capture, Oliver North, and an all-powerful Military-Industrial Complex are not among them.
Anyway, I just wanted to say adiós to my American friends, colleagues and fellow citizens: I’m ditching you all for my fabulous new friends in Costa Rica. Hasta la vista, amigos!
This is a picture of all my new tropical fish friends.
(I don’t actually have an underwater camera. But I snorkeled in these waters, so I can tell you they are amazing.)