Guanacaste Costa Rica: A trip beyond the Beach and Tourist scenes
This article of mine originally appeared in The Costa Rica Star, please stop by and have a look around. Thanks, Solson
For most people the mention of Guanacaste conjures up visions of ocean, surfing, palms and most anything beach related. That’s because most of us head there on vacation. Locals have a life to live and it usually doesn’t involve sand in their toes.
I took the bus from San Jose to Liberia on a trip to meet my in-laws. Family dynamics aside, taking the bus really changes your perspective on this trip. It’s hot, noisy, and cramped (if you are taller than 1.70 m–5’7”). I think my bus was called the shin-buster 2000. Really. There’s more leg room on local-run buses than on these long-haul ones. But for about $7 each way it’s a whole lot cheaper than a tank of gas, plus these guys have no fear of traffic cops as speed limits and no passing zones apparently do not apply to buses.
The trip runs about 4 to 4.5 hours which is similar to what it takes to drive the 220km in a car. The discomfort is mitigated by a pit-stop near Puntarenas. Bathrooms and snacks are available at the company owned restaurant/convenience store. The nice part of this is that you won’t be left behind since the restaurant has an intercom system that will let you know your bus is leaving, plus after all that bouncing around at the back of the bus you will be ready for a break.
When you reach the terminal in downtown Liberia you will be greeted by both legitimate as well as “pirata” taxis. Pick your poison. Don’t be surprised if the cabbies here don’t use the meter. In three days I don’t think a single one did. Also the first kilometer is not the legal 585 colones it’s 1000, that’s the minimum for any cab run. You are on notice.
Although Liberia really is small enough to walk most places, you’ll be looking for a cab since it’s HOT. It’s so hot that I actually asked an old-timer why the heck anyone would choose to live in such a place. I didn’t get much of an answer on that front but I did become privy to the local rivalries in Guanacaste. Liberians and folks from Santa Cruz don’t care much for each other since their town is clearly the best and the others are just arrogant. I also found out that Liberia is in the “Altura” (highlands) and that west of the Tempisque river is the “Bajura” (lowlands). There is apparently also some dispute over the spurs used during bull rides. I’m still working on figuring that one out.
Having been shown off to aunts, cousins and grandparents and educated on local geography, I set out to photograph a local bull ride. Apparently the heat means that even the most remote bull rides are held at night with basic artificial lighting. These are usually accompanied by “fiestas” which resemble small town fairs with amusement rides, music and local characters. Good fun for everyone except photographers (no light!). Also it rains this time of year. Project pending.
Though I didn’t get shots of locals riding bulls I did get a very insider tour of a large-scale rice farm. Which famous local producer owns this farm and who provided me with a ride on a working rice harvester will remain a secret to protect the guilty as well as my chances of going back. The farm is so big it has its own town of about 45 families complete with two soccer fields and its own school. It’s a very close-knit community where left over bbq can be traded next door for fresh “arroz con leche” and there is more free fruit from the local trees than can possibly be eaten (including cashew fruit which is yummy with a pinch of salt).
Riding in a rice-harvester is a totally unique and eye-opening experience. Our driver (who is also the mechanic) turned out to be a remarkably good impromptu tour guide. He explained all the problems with the harvest and why there were so many birds in the fields, some eat the bugs, some the grain, some each other and some are just pests. If you have never seen a bird calmly pace 30cm in front of a 5 meter machine waiting for bugs, while a crane eats a chick, it’s a very National Geographic type moment.
I had been hoping to stay long enough to catch a sunset in the huge fields at the rice farm but other matters and the promise of air-conditioning pulled me away. I’ll be back for that sunset one day. I had to make due shooting in mid-day sun which isn’t my favorite, but in this case I think it helped reflect the kind of conditions that these guys are working in. Fortunately for some soul the oldest rice harvester wasn’t working that day. That’s the one with no cab, no radio, no air-conditioning. You know the one the rookies get.
Far from the beaches, Gaunacaste moves quietly and at a local pace, with its own little secrets to explore. If you get a chance and can pry your toes out of the sand give local Guanacaste a chance for a change. It’s gritty and sweaty but authentic and very real for a lot of folks who aren’t on vacation.