Postcard from the End of the Earth: Nosara, Costa Rica

I am on the way back from Costa Rica, in Miami Airport, dodging posses of young Christians on their way to or from “missions” in the Caribbean or Latin America. They wear bright matching tee shirts printed with slogans that range from the patronizing to the scary. They give each other inaccurate travel tips in loud voices, and periodically cluster in tight groups and sing songs that involve lots of clapping. In Dallas on the way down, we saw more of these neo-missionaries. Doing some quick math, there must be hundreds, perhaps thousands, of these Jihadi for Jesus, pudgy young girls (who will someday become pudgy young women) gazing adoringly at decidedly effeminate teen age men.

I wonder if any of them get the irony. They come from the U.S., empirically one of the least religious countries on earth. And the Catholic nations they are headed to are among the most devout. It would make much more sense if they were to take their message to Park Avenue in New York. But of course the Park Avenue heathens aren’t poor and hungry and don’t have to put up with being patronized and hectored. These kids would never make it past the doorman. Alas, it’s not enough the people in Central America have endemic poverty, disease, corruption, violence and hurricanes. They must also endure smug teenagers from small towns in Alabama (who have come to save their souls on a budget).

I have just spent a week in Nosara. Nosara lies on a remote thumb of Costa Rica in the northwest of Costa Rica. To the south, and across a gulf, lies the raucous resort town of Jaco, and to the north lies Tamarindo, legendary surf town. But in between is the Nicoya Peninsula, a quiet place of steep hills, thick jungle, and unpaved roads. On the far side of the Nicoya is even quieter Nosara.

Nosara was created in 1962 by Alan David Hutchison, an American entrepreneur who “acquired” a sizable chunk of Costa Rican coast line and divided it into two-acre lots, which he then sold via American newspapers like the Journal and the New York Times. “The American Project,” as it was known, never really took off. The golf course and tennis courts were never built, and Nosara never became the next West Palm.

Perhaps it never took off because of the climate. Nosara lies at about nine degrees above the equator right against the Pacific. It is hot and dusty during half the year and warm and very, very wet the rest.

Sierra Leone, which also lies at the same latitude and orientation against the Atlantic, was known to English colonial administrators as “the white man’s grave,” because of its relentless heat, humidity, and inexhaustible supply of parasites and pests. (It was the black man’s grave as well, of course, but those were different times.) Here in the U.S., a hard freeze or two each year keeps the microbes and macrobes at bay. Places in America that don’t have freezes also don’t have a great deal of moisture, like California or Arizona. But the tropics has lots of moisture and no freezes, making it a giant Petri dish, with an endless supply of heat and moisture, where every scratch is a potential oozing wound, and every itch might be a fungus that will hang on stubbornly for years impervious to the best modern chemistry. House pests in the tropics are the size of house pets in the U.S.

Nosara lies two hours down the coast from the airport at Liberia (Lee-BAY-ree-ah). To get there you must either take a long series of roads that mostly go in directions you don’t want to go in, or drive directly down the coast, navigating steep rocky unpaved roads with deep gullies and potholes large enough to swallow a medium-sized dog. You must also ford three or four rivers, wheels spinning and water splashing against the windows.

We stayed a few miles north of Nosara in a borrowed villa, across the most formidable of the rivers, the Rio Montana. So instead of fording the river twice as we traveled to and from the airport, we had to try to cross it every time we needed more vodka and corn chips, which turned out to be pretty often.

Some days we made it across and into town, and some days we and everyone else pulled up to the river, saw the swift current and roiling water and backed our way back up the slick clay ramp, turned around and returned to the villa we’d borrowed for the week. After one ticklish crossing, we saw the next car behind us get stuck in the middle, harrowing because last year three locals drowned in the same place trying to do the same thing. This car got pulled out by a passing tractor, but then sat on the other side with a dead engine, all four doors open while water poured out.

Of course Key West and Cancun have iffy weather and shitty roads too, and they became popular tourist destinations. But, unlike Nosara, they have development right on the beach, while the people of Nosara had the foresight to protect most of the beachfront for the turtles. Also, Key West has gentle Gulf waves, not pounding 14-foot monsters pushed ashore by mammoth Pacific swells. And Cancun has the wonderful food and textured culture of Mexico, not the bland cuisine and forgettable art of Costa Rica.

Still, Nosara is a pretty likeable place. Probably the best thing to be said about Costa Rica in general is it feels safe while most of Latin America doesn’t. I am used to traveling in Mexico, Brazil, Peru, El Salvador, and Colombia, where boys with Mossbergs guard convenience stores and my CEO-host assures me that Bogota is now safer than Miami, even as we are driven to the airport at seventy miles an hour blowing red lights wedged between two motorcyclists with submachine guns and an SUV glued to our back bumper carrying men wearing body vests and packing AK-47’s. Compared to the heart-in-your-throat intensity of climbing into a street taxi in Mexico City, Costa Rica is a sleepy yawn, a cruise ship of a country.

And if Costa Rica is a cruise ship, Nosara is the ship’s spa. That is, Nosara didn’t quite turn into Miami Beach, like Hutchison envisioned. But it didn’t fade away either. Instead, it evolved into a funky little cultural island in the jungle, equal parts upscale eco-hip Americans with aromatherapy and juice bars, stoned surfers, and world class yoga retreats. It’s an odd combination. I’ve seen some strange little backwaters—artist colonies in Indiana; social clubs composed of twinkle-eyed ex-Nazi grandfathers in Porto Allegre, Brazil (no kidding); hippie dope farmers in Byron Bay, Australia; and pastel-colored kosher hotels catering to New York septuagenarians in the mountains outside Mexico City. But I have never seen a stranger, and more likable little anomaly than Nosara. It’s cool and I am not sure there are many places left like it.

Nosara reminds me of Santa Barbara, California. Santa Barbara tourism is an oxymoron. There’s nothing to see and nothing to do in Santa Barbara. There’s stuff to do in Nosara, but for the most part it’s similar to stuff you might do at home–take long walks, drink great coffee in good cafes and swim in the pool. (The most notable exceptions are the world’s longest zip line, horseback riding and deep sea fishing.) Getting cursed by a howler monkey isn’t all that different from being chewed out by a squirrel in the back yard of my Chicago home. In Vegas, people do things they would never dream of doing at home. In Santa Barbara, people do exactly the same things they do at home—go to the Starbuck’s, have lunch, shop at the Gap, but they do it among prettier people and at a year-round temperature of 70 degrees. People visit Santa Barbara because they want to live there and can only afford to do so one week a year. Nosara is like that. It is a place you might not visit again, but a place you wouldn’t mind living in.

Even if you do have to stand in line behind hundreds of clapping teenagers to get there.

18 replies »

  1. A very inciteful and enjoyable piece. And absolutely right on with the Jesus freak, do-gooders. They give me a royal pain. I live in a small village about 15 minutes from Tamarindo and got lectured to by an over self-assured Utah missionary about “exploiting the 3rd world’s resources”. He climbed into a Mercedes-Benz tour bus with his L.L. Bean backpak, hopefully never to be seen again!

  2. People think and imagine negative things about other people in order to avoid thinking negative about themselves. I like Nosara, we actually have property to the North about 20 clicks and even though the environment is harsh I like it because it discourages too much development and the natural habitat gets inherently protected by it.

  3. Rex–I usually let my posts stand on their own, but in this case I am genuinely confused by what you wrote. I like Nosara too, and agree that the environment has protected it from over-development. Sorry if that didnt come through. At any rate, who am I imagining negative things about? Otherwise.

  4. We lived in Costa Rica from 2000 to 2006 and watched the transformation of Guanacaste. There was a lot of immature people doing stupid things and taking advantage of the people like stealing the poor farmers ocean view property for the price of a new pickup truck so they could turn around and sell it for millions and then trash the environment. But the focus of our attention here is directed to question the efforts of a group of normal immature youth who are at least attempting to bring whatever encouragement they can to poor people wherever they may be in the world. Many of the youth I came into contact with came to visit orphanages or villages with small children. It boggles my mind. I don’t get it, what’s the harm and what’s the point here?

  5. Ahhh. I get it now. You’re defending the neo-missionaries, although I still am not sure what I said that you are defending them from.

    Let me respond anyway. I was not attacking the kids. I was not even attacking poverty tourism, which is likely not as harmless as you suggest, but that’s an argument for another day. I was attacking Evangelical Christianity, basically for picking soft targets.

  6. That is a nice and tidy bottom line, but not necessarily right. You devalue your own main points about Costa Rica by making a vague point based on the assumed motives of individuals traveling to Guanacaste, and you picked the “soft target.” Why don’t you pick a hard target and pick something that everybody can agree on like the tourists that have less than altruistic motives?

  7. I don’t know if you ever read PJ O’Rourke’s HOLIDAYS IN HELL, but you seem uniquely qualified to perhaps write a 2000s answer to it.

  8. I agree with Rex. Your article was good except for the bashing you did over the youth missionaries. It was like a drunken rant amidst and insightful article, maybe that was when you had plenty of the vodka and corn chips you were talking about. More likely, considering the website name that includes the word “scholar” and your apparent distaste for what those teens represented, you are too smart to believe in God, much less this whole business about Jesus. I often wonder, if there really is no God, what really is wrong? Why is it wrong for people to do what they want – kill, murder, steal, destroy, talk trash, beat someone up, lie, and any other number of things that people who don’t believe in the God stuff would say are wrong – because who is to say it’s wrong? By vote? By reason? By observation? It’s all just opinion at that point with no base or foundation. Crawling from the mud is just crawling from the mud (yep, that evolution thing). I mean really, if enough people agree that the Nazis killing Jews was okay, then it would be okay. Right? Funny because based on that viewpoint, that also means it’s not wrong for those teens nor is it wrong for what they represent. Nothing ever is “wrong”, it’s just someone’s opinion that of course will change with time, depending on that persons mood, what they think they’ve learned or know, progress, etc…
    BTW – I don’t frequent your site, it was linked from somewhere else.

    • Doug: Otherwise doesn’t need me speaking for him, but speaking for myself I think Christianity has earned plenty of gratuitous sideswipes because of its long, ugly history of “kill, murder, steal, destroy, talk trash, beat someone up, lie, and any other number of things that people who don’t believe in the God stuff would say are wrong” in the name of their god. Your implication – at least, I think this is what you’re implying, is that people do bad when they do what they want. I say I think, because you’re not really very clear, so if I’m missing what you’re trying to say, please try again.

      But humans have done unspeakable things in the name of god, and the simple truth is that there is no good thing you can do in the name of a god that you can’t also do for purely secular, humanist reasons, and history is ridiculously full of examples.

      I liked the context that the airport scenes brought to the article because the article hinges throughout on American cultural exports of one sort or another. You may not get it, but it fits perfectly.

  9. Great description of Nosara, I keep telling my wife a cross between Port Aransas and Austin Texas in the 1950’s but your description is better. Thanks

  10. I really enjoyed reading this piece! Your style and voice is humorous and candid; exactly what I like to read. Thank you. My yearlong adventure in Manuel Antonio has been wonderful for the most part. It really does feels safe as a young, single woman. If anything, the petty crime is the bane of the pura vida experience, from what I’ve gathered from other gringos. But crime is something found everywhere.


  11. Ahhh. I get it now. You’re defending the neo-missionaries, although I still am not sure what I said that you are defending them from.

    pudgy young girls (who will someday become pudgy young women) gazing adoringly at decidedly effeminate teen age men

  12. Love Costa Rica. Enjoyed Jaco. Also appreciate your wit! Did I ever tell you about a volunteer for “Amigos de las Americas” back in 1967? She was as naive as could be, and came back with a very serious side after working in Central America. Kids go naive, but travel really does broaden them. Have mercy! Those kids may yet prove themselves a positive force here and where they are headed!

  13. The point here is that there are people out there, as your first commentor pointed out that are known as “do gooders”, and there are obviously people out there that are not so good doers as I tried to point out. Your point is that you would rather take the opportunity to use your article to make shallow sport of do gooders over people who have obviously gone to Guanacaste over the last several years doing MUCH harm, how could you have missed it?, unless of course you are actually trying to be shallow?

  14. Got me to thinking about your, and my Peace Corps service. I don’t think we sang and clapped iin the airport, but I think thst some of the permanent staff did.

  15. Miles

    Late at night and just flew in from West Coast, so this ramble may not make any sense, but let me try.

    There was a time when I gave speeches for a living. And usually after a speech some person would wander up and start talking to me animatedly, and I’d have no idea what they were talking about. Eventually, I figured out that what was happening is as I’d been giving my speech, they’d been “conversing” with me inside their heads, and now they were way ahead of me down the conversational path. That exchange was about the only thing I liked about public speaking. It was so cool to get immediate reaction to your ideas. And that’s also the coolest thing about blogging.

    There seems to be a general concensus on this comment thread that I was too tough in this post. I dont think so, but when a guy I respect as much as Miles wags his finger at me, maybe I did go too far.

    Was I too tough on the kids? Maybe. According to the great editor Otto Penzler, part of my “talent” as a writer, is the ability to spot the resonant detail that completely describes a scene and convey it in a handful of words. For the most part, my description of the missionaries was just that, an anecdote to pull the reader into the scene so you could see what I see. Was it cruel to call the kids pudgy and effiminate? Maybe, but they were. I thought, and still think, that my description allowed the reader to see the scene quickly and perfectly. If I was describing myself, I would say something like “bony, disheveled looking, irascible, bulbous nose, patchy red skin and growing bald spot.” I would be just as honest in describing myself.

    Was I too tough in poking fun at the whole missionary trip? Maybe. But not because as Miles points out, I was Peace Corps, which is different from the neo-missionaries in degree but not in kind. And let me say, I was just as loud, just as clueless, and just as ignorant as any of these kids. In fact, in today’s world of 400 channels and the internet, it’s probably not as possible as big a hick as I was. However, I could see where maybe I was too tough because these kids were, at the end of the day, well-intended, and I could argue that the well-intended are scarce enough they deserve a little leeway. So maybe, Miles, but not because they are like you and me, but rather because they are trying to do a good thing.

    Finally, was I too tough on evangelical christianity, as some in the thread argued? No.

    I have given up on the idea that humankind will ever outgrow religiions. I have come to terms with the fact that our species is fearful, and every culture needs to create some contrived story to explain things we dont understand, to give ourselves an out when we behave badly, and to reassure ourselves that some extra-bodily power will step in to save the day when we are in a pickle. For whatever reason, people need to believe in invisible forces, be it God or the Invisible Hand or nanotechnology. I am confident that if we eliminated all 10,000 of the world’s religions at midniht; at 12:01 we’d have 10,000 more, and by six a.m. each of those would have a clergy with a radio show asking for money. So we are stuck with religions and we need to just accept it.

    Christianity isn’t the best religion out there, but it’s probably not the worst either. It’s certainly not as feral as Islam or as self-serving as Hindu-ism or as hilarious as Mormonism. So I guess I should back off pulling the pigtails of Christians, even if it is fun, because they aren’t any worse than any of the other religions.

    However, I do not believe that anyone has the right to tell someone how they must live and what they must believe in, and I think that evangelism is a horrible thing, be it evangelical christians or evangelical liberals or evangelical heath food nuts obsessed about fiber and colon health. My soul and my colon are my business, and I believe the same about those folks in Costa Rica. Those kids may be OK, but the purpose of their trip was absolutely heinous.

  16. So you are some kind of an intellectual giant because you only (believe) in what you can see? What you can prove or disprove only rests in what you know so I guess you would have everybody (b e l i e v e) that you know everything, how ironic is that?

    Giving hope to people that are OTHERWISE hopeless is not about right or wrong.

  17. I honestly didn’t get very far into the story because I was flabbergasted at the author’s unwarranted commentary on these teenagers’ bodies. What in the name of anything do the girls’ weights or the boys’ body types have to do with the story? Absolutely nothing, except to further disparage them and enforce harmful cultural norms.