The road up through the mountains from Panama to the Costa Rican border was a tricky drive; first came the rain which turned the road into a river, then the falling rocks and, finally, crazy “King of the Road” bus drivers who saw my jeep as mere football.
When I arrived with my work colleague at the border post, I was both shaken and stirred and joined the passport line keen to get the hell out of Panama even though I’d actually enjoyed its capital and then its beaches; there’s no point dying for want of sanity and a decent road.
I remember the border post that night was suffering from a power cut. Some hapless Peace Corps volunteer – a rotund lass called Marge as I remember – had fallen into a hole and was covered in something stinky. It was 2004 and I was young enough to find that rather funny at first although I recall my laughter turned to grimace when we had to put up with her smell in line for a good half hour while border guards stamped our passports by flashlight at the rate of one every five or so painful minutes.
The drive from the border to San Jose was easy enough and all I remember was stopping at a steak house for a succulent slice of cow served with avocado sauce and dancing until the wee hours while tequilas flowed. I do not recall reaching the apartment assigned to us in the Costa Rican capital; just waking up late morning itching all over from mosquito bites and suffering a hangover from hell whilst smelling like; well, smelling not dissimilar to Marge really.
My first full day in Costa Rica was a memorable one. We headed out after lunch to a bar near the Hotel del Rey Casino where we were due to meet our colleagues. The Blue Marlin bar was our resting place all afternoon and I recall watching Gringo after Gringo passing by with winking Costa Rican maidens on each arm whilst we talked business and sipped on Bloody Marys. After yet another superb steak, I remember the roulette wheel beckoning and it was not long before my colleagues and I had left our papers behind and were enjoying the best of Chepe and josefinos alongside debaucherous Gringos and drunken Ticos.
San Jose back then was the most cosmopolitan capital in Central America. Packed with office towers, shopping malls and fast-food restaurants, capitalism had done more for San Jose than most; less perhaps for the tugurios (slums) which I understand have become more desperate and increasingly more violent; atypical of the pura vida spirit which plagues the Americas and certain Asian places with Spanish colonial pasts.
After Del Rey I recall feeling cold and buying an excellent jumper (non-Brits would call this a sweater) which lasts until this day. The markets were excellent and the josefinos good fun to chat with; back then never short of a sports book or brothel to recommend; mistaking me for a vacationer.
Three other things make me remember Costa Rica:
First, flamingo-less Playa Flamingo where we sipped mojitos in a Tico’s splendid shoreline villa and puffed on fat cigars. A place where the white sand might as well have been cocaine as there was so much of it around! Walking on the moonlit beach with a beautiful woman could have been a romantic bliss – alas I walked it with my sunburnt work colleague Marcus. Off Playa Flamingo the next morning I caught my first ever wahoo; rather the instructor caught it as I was too busy finding my sea legs that morning.
Then I remember that beautiful girl who shall remain nameless; greetings to you across the many passed years; that your beauty remains as resplendent.
And, finally, I remember the surreal moment when I looked across a restaurant in Alajuela, saw a TV screen in the kitchens and spotted the peach-bikinied Miss Bolivar representative in a televised Miss Venezuela beauty pageant; thinking to myself out of nowhere that is my wife. (There years later she and I were married. How bizarre is that!)
I must return to Costa Rica.
My memories are fast fading.
I need some more Tican times before I’m done.
Dominic Wightman is a Brit and the Editor of London’s Westminster Journal.