Is Cuba the next Costa Rica?
I have seen the future of Cuba, and it’s Costa Rica. At least if America has anything to do with it.
I started my extraordinary winter sabbatical in Cuba and ended in Costa Rica. I might as well have started in Venus and ended in Mars. The only things they share are a language, a climate, and slow moving roads. Probably because one has been embargoed by the U.S. for over half a century, while the other has been firmly sucking at her teat for about the same time. It felt like Costa Rica was created by Disneyland, while Cuba was created by Burning Man. One was a manufactured perfectness, clean, safe, and a bit antiseptic, while the other was jerry-rigged with duct tape and crazy glue, completely off grid and self reliant, yet sustained by wild creativity – music, dance, poetry, painting, and of course, those legendary art cars.
Costa Rica unofficially became our colony in 1949 when then-President Jose Ferrer abolished the military in favor of the laid back “pura vida” lifestyle. No fault his. But that was the first hint that Costa Rica had been neutered of its aggression, and could become the most secure place in Central America for tourism because the rest of the countries in the region are among the most violent and unstable places on earth. It’s kind of the Israel of Central America, minus the retaliatory strikes on neighbors.
The crowning moment of solidarity came not when Bruce Brown discovered the perfect waves of Tamarindo in 1966’s “Endless Summer,” but when Ronald Reagan made a deal in 1981 to covertly fund and train the Nicaraguan contras in Costa Rica in hopes of defeating the Communist Sandinistas (who were ironically inspired by the Cuban revolution). We needed Costa Rica not just for her abundant tropical fruits, but to keep the region from falling into those dreaded communist hands. I’m sure they were promised eternal vigilance in exchange for unfettered access.
Once things settled down, it was game on for real estate, eco-tourism, and adventure travel. Costa Rica allows the same property ownership rights to foreigners as they do locals. Now don’t get me wrong. Costa Rica is one of the most mind-bendingly beautiful places on earth. The bio-diversity – beaches, rivers, mountains, valleys, volcanoes, hot springs, rain forests, cloud forests, Caribbean Coast, Pacific Coast – all swathed in the most beautiful and robust collection of trees I’ve ever seen – is stunning. The climate, perfect. The waves, everywhere.
But I couldn’t get past the feeling that somehow Costa Rica was one big theme park. A huge array of action and thrill rides set against scenery so glorious it could have been created by Disney imagineers. Perfect little towns with perfect little tropical homes – all clean and bubble-gum colored. And just poor enough to remind you that you are somewhere exotic. Plus, nice, docile locals who are either preternaturally happy or working from the Disney employee handbook.
Then there’s the bland, overpriced food endemic to every theme park. And nothing of indigenous value to buy, just plenty of tourist dreck to take home and never use. No problem trying to figure out exchange rates. Just use dollars, as everyone does. And if you want to learn English, by all means go to Costa Rica. You hear it more than in Heisler Park.
The French and Italians have colonized the beaches with chill, open air groove lounges ala Ibiza, while the mountains have been settled by the Swiss, Germans, and even Quakers, who have made it look like Bavaria. Basically they could shrink the entire country and make it the new “Small World” ride.
But I kid. Because what’s really going on with all this eco-tourism is the preservation of their most precious resource, the land. You see, the Spanish never cared much for Costa Rica because it lacked gold and silver. So a strong Spanish heritage never happened. But what the country had, and what most every Tico today realizes is the true cultural heritage, is the magical, emerald land. And they walk the walk. Young people told me they were fine with the crass commercialism of thrill rides in the jungle, because otherwise that jungle would be clear cut for cattle. It’s the only country in the world to meet all five criteria established to measure environmental sustainability. It was ranked fifth in the world and first in the Americas in the 2012 Environmental Performance Index. It has a commitment to be the first carbon neutral country by 2021. And many expats have come to realize their dreams of sustainable, permaculture homes, hotels and farms. It’s a magnificent petri dish for saving the planet. And we are all better for her existence.
So though it’s thriving, many claim that Costa Rica’s improved standard of living has also created a culture of consumerism, with credit cards and bank loans being introduced. I went to a local rodeo and all the ads were for banks. So in the battle to be free from communism, Costa Rica is solidly in the throws of that other enslavement, unregulated capitalism and debt. And so the U.S. conquers again! Pura Greeda, baby! Is Cuba next?
Billy Fried hosts “Laguna Talks” on Thursday nights at 8 p.m. on radio station KX 93.5, and can be reached at [email protected]