My first impression of Costa Rica is that it’s a country of high contrast. The downtown San Jose buildings are mostly old and decrepit. Everywhere there are locks, security gates, double rows of barbed wire and heavy cast iron bars on all the openings. It all gives one the impression of a poor and dangerous place. Even the Costa Ricans warned us about getting in certain taxis.
In the suburb of Escazù, however, the picture was completely different. The buildings were new and modern. There was a mall with a broad spectrum of shops including the finest names in clothing and other goods. How is it possible? Certainly, the Costa Rican with an average salary of about $550/month is not shopping there.
I suppose it’s like any other city caught in the crisis of rising prices and stagnant wages. Costa Rica’s economy was probably inflated by expats and tourism. It helped some people become comfortably middle class, but it also increased the demand for imported products with a resulting trade imbalance and inflation. It’s quite a shock to find that the prices here are not so cheap as one expects to see in Latin America.
In spite of the poverty, in spite of the outrageous inflation, the Costa Ricans are happy, friendly and helpful. Those that didn’t speak any English were eager to communicate when we asked for help or directions in our absurdly horrible Spanish. I felt bad that, mostly, I was so flustered I forgot to say “por favor.” At least I usually remembered my “gracias.”
Physically, the city is nestled among the mountains crowned by the vapor of rain that makes this country so fertile. Even from downtown, the vista of street lamps at night reaching up into the hills is amazing. The central, merchant streets are car-free zones and there are unique buildings in surprising places. Parks are scattered throughout the city and happily without too many war hero statutes.My favorite part of Costa Rica so far? They grow coffee here. It’s easy to find a good cup of coffee! Even the McDonalds chain here has, in many of their locations, an attached McCafe which serves almost excellent cappuccino. The worst impression so far? There’s a Starbucks in the mall. WTF?!1