This article of mine originally appeared in The Costa Rica Star, please stop by and have a look around. Thanks, Solson
Do pay for the GPS option. You’ll learn to love that heartless voice. And if you’re thinking you’ll turn it off. Don’t. You’ll want to keep your eyes on the road.
When you come from any developed country driving in Costa Rica may be the most maddening, if not downright terrifying thing you can undertake. I read an article recently that suggested that Costa Rica would have to invest $2 billion per year for 25 years to catch up on its road infrastructure. Throw in an average fleet age of 13 years and a notable absence of traffic cops (which are a different group from regular cops) and you’ve got a recipe for trouble. I don’t recommend driving on your visit especially if you suffer cardiac conditions or would like to preserve the health of your marriage, but if you must I’ll try to help you survive.
It took me about a year to stop breaking into a sweat every time I had to venture into San José in morning traffic. Every intersection seemed like a bumper car rink where someone had turned off the power; motorcycles materialized out of nowhere and the buses were always in the way. I suffered a thousand tiny heart attacks every time a cab pulled into my lane. Eventually I began to learn a few of the basic local rules.
Lanes are more like suggestions—if they are even marked at all. What may seem like a dangerous invasion of your lane is pretty normal even on the highway, and a necessity in town. Buses have legal stops all over the place (including highway lanes) and will often stop anywhere someone requests. This slow speed stop-and-go game is no fun for those behind them. So folks just go around. If you are on a road with two lanes in the same direction you need to be aware that people will just squeeze into the other lane a bit to get around the stopped bus. Your normal first-world reaction is to slam on the brakes, honk the horn and curse. Here your reaction should be to just drift a bit left even at highway speeds. If you have time, do a quick mirror check for motorcycles. If you’re on a two lane road and you see a stopped bus in an on-coming lane be prepared for someone to pop out suddenly from behind.
Certain intersections in urban areas will get choked with magically appearing extra lanes as locals jockey for position. A good rule of thumb is to add at least one lane to whatever is marked. A hand wave and eye contact are often effective in slow speed merge situations. Flash your high-beams or wave to let someone in. Wave or blink your hazards once to say thank you if you are let in.
Speed limits are very slow by most developed standards and change very frequently and often for no apparent reason. Try to follow them reasonably closely (within 10kph or so). Scoot a bit to the right to let someone by if they want to go faster, you’re probably on vacation and not in such a hurry anyway.
If you get pulled over, don’t offer a bribe. That’s illegal here just the same as back home. While some cops might pull you over just in the hopes of collecting a bribe, it’s not worth the risk. Also it’s worth noting that police vehicles run around with their blue lights flashing permanently, it doesn’t mean you’re being pulled over. Traffic cops that stop you will generally be in a fixed position and just point to you and signal you to pull over. If you hear sirens then you do need to pull over, either to let them by, or get your ticket for an infraction.
If you’re hauling suitcases and/or surfboards be careful where you park. Those flip-flops and shorts you’re wearing make you a target for getting all your stuff stolen (plus you’re driving a late-model car). Most public places have a gentleman in a reflective vest hanging around helping you park and “taking care” of your car. While they will certainly not be held responsible for any damages to your car they do provide a small amount of security and not playing along is often a sure-fire way of having a problem. The going rate for tipping these guys is 500-700 colones per hour and is a good way to use those giant coins you accumulate on your trip.
Back to that GPS I told you to get.
Directions here are really difficult to follow since they require you to know some fixed reference point and also which way is North, South, East and West (not hard for people from Saskatchewan). A great tip for figuring out which way is North is by finding a Catholic church. Nearly every Catholic church faces West, so that should help you get oriented. If you forgo the GPS or it doesn’t have the reference point you want, don’t be afraid to ask. Your wife will thank you and locals are very helpful in this regard since we have to ask as well.
Also local vernacular will often substitute “abajo” (down) and “arriba” (up) for left and right. In flat terrain “abajo” means left and “arriba” means right, this all goes out the window if there is a hill. If you are confused get clarification via left and right before proceeding.
Now you know why you and your wife will end up loving that monotone self-righteous GPS voice. Welcome to Costa Rica.
This article of mine originally appeared in The Costa Rica Star, please stop by and have a look around. Thanks, Solson
To most valley dwellers Heredia means, traffic, universities, call centers and Intel. To the foreign visitor it’s all just San José. Most outsiders haven’t a clue about the places we prefer and most of them are not famous outside our little city, unlike places in San José like Soda Tapia and Avenida Central. We’ve got our favorite spots to meet and eat, and I’ll share some with you.
Fair warning, the following are presented with absolutely no scientific study and are in no way definitive, feel free to add to the list.
5) Bol Cariari. Probably the latest arrival to the trendy list in Heredia. Tucked awkwardly near the Real Cariari Mall you may have seen the sign from the highway, but you still may have a little trouble finding one of the few bowling alleys in the country. Locals have found it just fine. By American standards it’s a bit cramped and noisy, but it’s brand new, good fun and usually hopping. You’ll probably have to wait a while for a lane (charged by the hour not by the game) and be sure to dress appropriately. Its proximity to business centers, and the ritzy Cariari area means that most folks are on the upper side of the income scale and are either blowing off steam after work or pre-gaming for a night out so you won’t find many grungy tee’s or blue collars.
Food here is a predictable assortment of fried things, nachos, pizza and beer. Also, if you’ve ever attended a bowling alley in the States don’t expect anyone to follow any sort of basic lane etiquette, so just breathe deep and have fun.
4) Café Scarlett. A block east of the courthouse, this unassuming cafe is the requisite meeting place for local politicians and lawyers. A number of expansions over the years means that diners are often seated in a labyrinth of rooms where one would expect to find the kitchen. The odd layout brings new meaning to the term “backroom deal.” Don’t be surprised if you end up rubbing elbows with folks like the mayor, city council members or other folks you’ve seen on TV, but don’t be intimidated, plenty of locals stop by as well.
Open for breakfast, lunch and afternoon coffee, Café Scarlett serves up a nice alternative to the greasy spoon “sodas” widely available in downtown Heredia, often featuring lovely green salads and lasagna. Be sure to be in early enough to grab lunch while they’ve still got some.
3) La Parrillita de Pepe. Open late (5am on weekends) and serving up goodness for what ails you La Parillita de Pepe has seen near instant success despite a somewhat awkward location on the fringe of downtown. Featuring a mix of local “soda” style short order as well as Colombian specialties means they have an extensive menu that is especially well suited to the tastes of local college students. While students aren’t their only customers, the proximity to university watering holes means they’ve taken full advantage of the buzz-busting power of their menu. They’ve recently expanded their dining area as well as their hours (opening at 11:30am) while retaining their speedy delivery service. I expect that they get quite a lot of late night business from our next place on the list.
2. El Bule. Technically it has the awkward name of Bulevar Relax Bar Restaurant & Grill, but ask for it by that name and you’ll get nowhere. This is THE bar in Heredia. Locals go and bring their out of town guests with them. Weekend nights mean loud music overflow onto the sidewalk, and little access to parking on the streets. Heaven help you on game day. Like La Parrillita de Pepe the clientele is largely student driven but it’s iconic status means that young and the young at heart still drop in to revel. I can’t say anyone I’ve met has ever commented on the food, but we’ll take that as a good sign. They open for lunch but the party gets started late.
1. El Parque Central. The historic central park still serves its role as meeting place for the community. It’s where championships are celebrated and heartbreaking losses are mourned. High school students flirt and kill time while older gentlemen complain about the government and the the management of Club Sport Herediano. All the bustle is flanked by the historic “Fortin,” the historic post office, the renovated Escuela República de Argentina, and a couple of iconic eateries: Pops and Soda Testy.
While Pops has grown into a well recognized national ice-cream franchise, the central park location has been there for close to 40 years marking it as an Heredia institution. It’s always bustling with folks of all ages with a sweet tooth, but an endless stream high school students keep this place in the black. Soda Testy is equally iconic, serving up classic Tico short order food and is well known for its air-raid type siren that sounds with unwavering devotion to the victories of the local soccer team.
Well let the debate begin, this is my list, make your own. Let some other towns chime in with their best local guides, I’d love to know where the local hot-spots are for when I’m wandering about.
This article of mine originally appeared in The Costa Rica Star, please stop by and have a look around. Thanks, Solson
Feb 2013 EDIT! I’ve Created a video with the pictures from the gallery but also including sounds from the Farmers’ Market that I think helps put the photos and the article in context. Thanks!
Inspired by the The Costa Rica Star’s recent articles, and frustrated by the poor quality of the bell peppers at my local supermarket (you know the one that starts with “W” and ends in “almart”) my girlfriend and I decided to visit the Farmers’ Market in Heredia. I had heard that I should arrive early for the best products, so when we arrived at a leisurely 9:30 am we expected things to have cleared out. Nope. It was packed. About 600 meters worth of packed. Noises smells and bumping elbows everywhere. Good thing I packed my cameras.
Peppers were tops on the list, but of course all the bounty on hand meant we quickly got distracted with the samples of homemade jam, ripe fruit, fresh meat and even a “soda” to grab a late breakfast. The lottery sellers competed with the venders and the cat calls to see who would be heard. I tried my best to keep a low enough profile to get some candid photographs. It didn’t go very well. I blew a number of shots as people looked at me in confusion. I probably gave my girlfriend a similar look when she came back with a pack of garlic: “Honey did you really just buy garlic grown in China at the local farmers’ market?”
As we continued to wander around I got bolder and pulled out my film camera. I also paired it with my one of my favorite lenses. The lens that really helped me grow as a photographer. An 85mm f1.8. For those not versed in photo-speak that is a fixed length lens with a large maximum aperture, which allows it to be used in low-light, as well as to allowing for reduced depth of field. This type of lens is known as a “prime” lens and if you use an SLR camera you should have one. These lenses can be a bit frustrating in the beginning since you are “stuck” with one field of view. Your feet become your zoom. You get over this problem quickly because these lenses let you compose in a whole new way. Not only can you compose withing the four walls of the frame, now you can choose your depth too, like thinking in 3-D.
Being able to selectively blur things helps you emphasize what is important in your shot, it can also be useful to blur out distracting backgrounds or sometimes even distracting foregrounds. And when it the light gets low prime lenses can let you keep shooting before you have to go to a flash. Sometimes—and especially with candid photography, you don’t have time to move your feet to recompose, so you have to use that selective focus to your advantage. It takes some time and practice and a lot of missed shots to get the hang of it. The first few times I used that lens I got tons of shots that weren’t focused in the right place. Once I got a feel for it though, well… I always have a prime lens with me. These days it’s a 50mm f1.4, which is the lens that cameras all used to come with. Newer zoom lenses are more practical, but a prime lens WILL improve your photography in a hurry.
A prime lens will improve your photography, while a trip to the farmers’ market will improve your supper and your appreciation for proper produce. If you don’t live here, it’s still worth a trip since you get a dose of how locals live, shop and interact. You are also likely to encounter a number of fruits and veggies that you won’t find at the supermarket. Also do buy the glorious bell peppers, don’t buy the Chinese garlic. Do get yourself a prime lens, don’t hesitate.
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.
As I sit here sweating enough to refill the Arenal lake, I really wish I were sea-side with a frothy adult beverage in hand. That’s a place I haven’t made it this year. You may be thinking I missed my chance now that Easter has passed, it’s unofficially not summer here in Costa Rica, the rain is looming (which frankly in this heat, I welcome) and vacation days are over. I’m glad you feel that way. I hope you continue to feel that way because then you won’t be there hogging all the good tourist spots, taking up parking and jacking up the rates for everything.
I think now is the best time to start visiting places. I might not get a great tan (though my dermatologist will be happy), but it’s still warm most places and the tide isn’t going to stop changing. Oh but the RAIN you say… I’m a grown up living in a country where it rains seven months a year; I can plan for that. Plus I’ll be saving money while helping small businesses through lean times. Everyone’s a winner! (Except my dermatologist who I won’t be visiting since I didn’t get that tan).
The post Easter tourist drop-off is upon us. It’s bad for business but good for you and me. The discounts haven’t taken long to show up and Canatur is already offering discounts for residents with a media push from Teletica. In the past the banks have gotten in on the off-season discounting by offering deep discounts for payment with certain cards so keep your eyes peeled as I suspect we will be seeing that Aside from the discounts what’s the advantage to seeing Costa Rica in the off-season? Green, green, green. We’re famous for being a green place but a couple of weeks ago the park in front of my house had taken on a sort of natural sepia-tone. Guanacaste gets that way in the dry season as well, through in unpaved roads and you get a lot of dust too. But add a little water to the mix and you get beautiful expanses of fresh green and no dust. It only took a handful of rain showers for the park to show signs of green glory once again and Guanacaste is much the same way.
You need more than just green? I offer you no crowds, no traffic and probably staff that is happy to have you there. I had a friend visit a couple of years ago, and we booked a zip-lining tour on a Monday in the off-season. Our tour group for that morning consisted of the two of us and the two zip-line guys. We had a blast, though I can’t say we saved any money as a much larger than average tip was called for given the private nature of the service. But the zip-line operators didn’t complain about having to come in or about the fact that there was a small crowd. We actually spent most of the time chatting and doubling up on the number of lines we ran so they could stretch the tour to two hours (see a 20sec video clip of that trip here).
The other thing the off-season does is change your photography options (If you have read any of my other blogs I bet you were wondering how long it would take me to get around that). Gone are the deep blue skies but you get a change in scenery, plus mist and clouds that you can play with. Remember that you may have to take a few shots since light bouncing through clouds can create a wall of light that may confuse your camera’s light meter and darken your subject. Misty scenery can be gloomy and interesting. Water pooling or droplets on leaves or flowers are excellent options as well. Try to see things differently as you sit around waiting for a shower to pass. Storms are also excellent subjects just be aware of flooding as an issue and don’t get caught in an awkward situation. Once you are on higher ground look for sunlight breaking through while areas are still cloudy.
The off-season is your chance to see and photograph Costa Rica in a new way. I like it more. If you disagree please feel free to stay home and leave the beach and the discounts to me. Now where’s my beer?
Honesty: Webster’s Dictionary defi….no you know me better than that. Google it if you must. We all know the definition, but digital photography and it’s ally, digital editing really start to blur the lines of photographic honesty. Up to what point is it still a photograph…I don’t know. I would say that advertisers have probably taken it too far. If your ad for mascara requires adding digital lashes then I’d say you’re being dishonest with your photography. That being said, for the rest of us mere mortal photographers not working on multi-million dollar campaigns there is still hope for digital darkroom redemption.
Purists argue that if you got it right in the camera you shouldn’t have to fuss with your picture anyway. I defend myself with Ansel Adams, who was famous for spending endless hours in the darkroom fussing over his photographs to get them to look just how he wanted them. His son went so far as to suggest that his father would have found a way to use digital photography had it been available to him. I don’t have a darkroom, at least not a real one. Mine is well lit, stuffy and right now rather messy. I have software with 3.2 trillion sliders, bars and curves where I push, stretch, crop, saturate, de-saturate, correct distortion, add distortion, layer, filter, vignette and do anything else to get a shot to look like what it FELT like. That’s the key to my photography. Emotional honesty.
Often I just have to add a bit of contrast or fill a shadow and very frequently adjust the white balance (that’s the overall color cast of the shot). Sometimes I go big though. I push some of those bars pretty far to get the feel I want. I’ll give you an example a shot that people really like (from Lola’s Restaurant) that wasn’t very interesting until I edited it. I knew what it could look like, and more importantly I knew what the people enjoying the sunset were feeling, even if the original shot didn’t reflect that.
I’ll admit to being a bit more dishonest with my shots of people. Namely portraits (especially of the ladies). I have fancy software that can erase any semblance of wrinkles and imperfections while changing your eye and hair color. It works great when used in moderation or can be a lot of fun if you think of it as a digital Halloween costume. I try to limit myself to the using it right up to the point where a really good make-up job and better lighting might have given similar results. I actually did a completely ridiculous version of a friend of mine with the title ‘Bad Photoshop’ to support her claims that what we see in the media is not a reasonable expectation of beauty. The result: tons of “wow you look great,” and “you look like a model.” Epic fail. I told people I was being dishonest and they didn’t care, maybe it was an emotionally honest picture—people really saw her like that in their mind. I’ll go with that rather than think that all her friends on Facebook are rather dim. I won’t share her picture to protect the innocent as well as the guilty.
I have quite a lot invested in photo editing software and I’ll admit to not knowing what half of those sliders do. If you want to fuss with your shots—and I hope you do, and you are one a budget (like most of us) then just go ahead and download Picasa. by Google. It’s free, and works pretty well as long as you don’t ask too much of it—it ain’t Photoshop. If you want more power, then try Photoshop Elements which is about $100 online and very much worth it. Once you have your weapon of choice I’ll point you towards a few areas that can help you improve your shots quickly: Contrast, Saturation, Color Balance and Fill light (or shadows)
I don’t want to keep you reading forever and I want you to learn on your own as well, but take any shot you have and play with just those aspects one at a time, and you will quickly discover what a difference they can make. Contrast can give you a bit more “punch,” while you need to be careful with saturation which affects color intensity—a little goes a long way. Fill light or shadow adjustments are great to bring out detail in darkened areas, especially faces. Color balance is useful for making skin tones look healthy depending on what kind of light was available or just changing the overall look of a picture–try it with a shot of the sunset.
Whatever you final edit looks like remember the bit about the honesty. I’ll leave you with a shot that is totally emotionally honest and totally unedited…I guess it can be done.
“That’s going to end badly.” I knew it. Having grown up traipsing through the woods with friends–something just short of Lord of the Flies, I knew a group of stick-wielding children would inevitably end badly. I scanned the park for a parent. Nope. Three minutes later, tears. Now I was parenting and I don’t have kids, just a really obedient dog. Here goes nothing.
After a quick check of the offended child my expert medical diagnosis was: no blood no harm. I herded the scattered, slightly shaken kids together and replaced their sticks with a Frisbee. This being Costa Rica, anything other than a soccer ball is a relative mystery and January winds didn’t contribute to their success. Needless to say my attempts at organizing a game of Ultimate Frisbee failed miserably. However no more sticks have been thrown and now I am the neighborhood sporting-goods-lending-center-for-bored-children, all-time quarterback, 12th string goalie, and occasional dispute resolver. The kids love me. They all know my name (I know two of theirs), they call my dog Bonita by name too.
Having made myself known and trusted in the neighborhood I started wandering the park shooting all sorts of things: Graffiti, “mejengas,” sunsets, rainbows, parents, kids, dogs, more dogs…anything. I shot film and digital and got swamped by the kids when I showed up with two cameras and telephoto lenses, they felt like sports stars…
Some people wonder why I would shoot such mundane things when I live in a country as striking as Costa Rica. I find interest and even beauty in the mundane. Those fleeting moments and interactions are more a part of our life than vacation photos, but we almost never share them. Photography doesn’t have to be grandiose to be meaningful.
I’m by no means a great street photographer but I particularly enjoy shooting people acting natural. My portrait sessions are laid back and the first fifteen minutes are usually spent just letting folks get used to the camera until they stop posing and start laughing and smiling for real. My friends and family already know to ignore me knowing I’ll wait for the moment. I make a point of telling my wedding clients not to look at the camera unless I ask them to. I look for those kinds of moments when I am shooting in my neighborhood park. Since my cameras tend to be quite obvious I like to used telephoto lenses so I can get natural interactions without having to get too close. Often I have to shoot a few “posed” shots so folks forget I’m there and relax. It’s a matter of taste, but I have been lucky with it. Try it, you’ve got nothing to lose, and you may just come back with some great shots (and probably a lot of blown shots too).
I’m a bit short on words this article so I’ll leave you with more pictures than normal. Normal pictures from normal lives, but worth sharing none the less.