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.