The bare bones of this is that international flights arrive in San Jose, Costa Rica, slightly too late for the passengers that stumble blinking into the light to pick up connecting flights out to the sticks. This might be a clever strategy. Being stuck and devoid of all alternative options is certainly the best reason I can think of for staying in San Jose itself. It is more transport hub and holding centre than holiday destination. Most tourists seem to think a day in this capital is enough, or more than enough, and are therefore not only willing but grateful to scramble onboard a plane the size of a fridge and fly over mountains to the Osa Peninsula, the Nicoya Peninsula, or to Tortuguero the following morning.
Actually downtown San Jose (mainly blocks of bargain shirt stores and dark bars criss-crossed at right angles by open drains and potholed roads) has spirit and ‘local flavour’. Local flavour tends to be something people think they want until they’ve got it, but in the case of San Jose it is a lot better than the alternative. For about a decade the city underwent half-hearted clean-ups and made some misguided attempts towards Westernisation, more specifically, Americanisation. The Guatemalan trouser vendors, the blowers of panpipes and ocarinas, and sellers of interesting, exotic tat were removed from outside the Teatro Nacional, some budget chain hotels appeared. But eventually, efforts to change the city failed, and, much like a cultivated plot in the tropics reverts to jungle, San Jose is now, once again, just what it is: shabby, raucous, malodorous, like a big old market, Latin and unapologetic.
Even when manoeuvring a pushchair out of the Coca Cola bus terminal, around drunks who’d fallen through the saloon doors and knocked themselves unconscious, I had a warm feeling for downtown San Jose – but I didn’t live in it. No sirree! I lived in the western suburbs, and kept moving west maintaining that distance there as the city spread like a disease until, eventually, I was over the hill and far away in Santa Ana, back then a dusty cowboy town, now a dusty town.
So anyway, it’s off to Santa Ana I go for my obligatory night before the flight to the Osa. I buy a packet of M&Ms, some shampoo and then, after some consideration, a local sim card. Thus prepared for several months in the jungle, I take a stroll and end up outside the gates of my old house. The drive is overgrown, the grass is waist high, and the house looks neglected. I can see where the guard goose used live. I stand there for a long time listening to the grackles in the dusty trees and trucks labouring up the hill, wishing, wishing, wishing to go back in time. Offering anything.
At the Sansa terminal the following morning, people wait for the flight with studied nonchalance as bollards and papers blow by in the Dec-Jan Central Valley winds. The plane lurches over the mountain backbone and traces the Pacific coast south over glittering tin roofs to the old palm oil town of Palmar Sur. From there it’s to Sierpe, which can loosely be described as a town, a great little place with a couple of barn-style stores selling papaya and motor oil, Don Jorge’s Las Vegas bar (and dock), a football pitch, and a green and steamy river in which crocodiles frolic and jump for chicken.
It’s roughly 40 minutes down river to the boca, the river mouth, and about the same again down the coast who where I’m dropped off, a journey that ends with wading ashore through hot water and, traditionally, a large rum and coke.