Visiting Costa Rica to Solve a Mystery

                      How to Best Arrive In and Explore Costa Rica


Awakening in San Jose, the Capital of Costa Rica I try to sleep in. My feeble attempt to rest up after my flight quickly becomes a wrestling match fraught with images and even imagined whiffs of the best breakfast buffet in the city, a scant few floors below. This morning I sleep, in hopes I will shake off any lingering jet lag. While living in Mexico I grew up hearing about Costa Rica. It seemed so cool-even hard to believe. Little did I know years later, as an adult, I would visit this lush tropical paradise repeatedly in search of perfect, sand bottom, left – handed surf breaks.


A sunny morning I pushed back the thick grey curtains in my superbly located hotel room (Inter Continental Hotel). There, just across the street, almost close enough to touch is Costa Rica’s famous mall Multiplaza in Escazu providing any and everything I could possibly need busily trying to open. I didn’t know where to look first. The good-looking couple playing tennis? The tropical gardens? The cabanas poolside?

I left the curtain open and side-slipped into the bathroom. A glance in the frame- lit mirror over the thoroughly modern sink revealed a sight anything but grand. Sure I now recognize that when the lady at the store says “Sir” she’s talking to me. Yes, the backs of my hands look like my fathers. I buy dime store glasses to read. I put orthotics in my shoes; and intentionally mis-calibrate the settings on my digital scale. I survived cancer and divorce. More Absent –minded, forgetful, not that I can recall. Disciplined in my respect for the power of the nap, you betch ya. And I now finally understand what former president Bill Clinton meant when he stated that the close proximity of the Presidential bathroom to his office was key to his affair with Monica Lewinsky. Sure, I used to work out to be attractive to women, now I work out to stay alive. Boo hoo, so what now what! A short drive to Cartago that’s what.

Regularly hailed Costa Rica is one of the coolest places on the planet.After stuffing myself with plate after plate of delicious foods featuring dizzying varieties, tastes and textures I can barely walk to the pool. A quick check of the pool scene reminds me to call and get my rental car delivered to me here at the Hotel.

It’s cheaper, safer and easier this way rather than going directly from the airport to the rental agency. Save taxi fare and the Airport Rental Car Tax, and potentially a days rental fees if you end up hanging out at the hotel the first day. Better to get picked up at the airport by the courtesy hotel van and go directly to one’s hotel. For rental cars I usually book with Dollar but check around for the best deal, they all speak English quite well so it easy to make your reservation.

You’ll happily discover Costa Rica has excellent technology making things surprisingly efficient. Call early on the morning you want your car and they’ll bring the car, keys and paperwork to your hotel to complete the transaction. Typically your U.S. car insurance coverage is sufficient (bring proof) so no need to buy extra in country insurance. For a few extra dollars surf racks and GPS systems are available. This isn’t Mexico. In the off-season (our summer) I’ve been rewarded with unbelievable deals by calling around and shopping rates on the morning I need the car with no reservation.

Relaxing in the hotels Botanical Garden, sipping on a Mimosa surrounded by tropical plants I sign multiple times and receive my car keys. Typically I get the smallest SUV class Hyundai etc. which are best suited for and handle admirably on the roads of Costa Rica. I recommend keeping your gas tank half full in the event of a breakdown you’ll appreciate having air conditioning. Worth noting you can drive practically from one end of this small lush country to the other in a day.

Today I’m determined to solve a mystery. The Mystery of the City of Cartago. A quick visit to the mall across the street ends at the Super Mercado where I buy a Styrofoam cooler for a whooping $5.00, an umbrella and lots of drinks and extra ice. Driving during the day in Costa Rica is a breeze, plenty of good paved roads. However one’s very near the equator so it is hot and humid sprinkled with sudden brief intense rain showers. Stopping roadside at Starbucks for regular refreshment is a bit fanciful. I recommend you bring your own drinks, lots of water and snacks in the car. For lunch keep your eyes peeled for unique restaurants dotting the highways of Costa Rica and you’ll be deliciously rewarded.

Driving out of the city past the airport, I make my way to Cartago. Costa Rica is one of the most beautiful exotic tropical places on earth. Warm friendly, educated people make you feel relaxed and welcome. The Ticos (Costa Ricans) version of “Aloha” is “Pura Vida.”

Costa Rica in many ways resembles Hawaii 25-30 years ago and is somewhat unique in Central America. Ticos enjoy democracy, a higher standard of living, excellent infrastructure, a good education system, excellent health care, and friendly police.

No army is decreed in their constitution and strict environmental protection policies are enforced. This plant rich country understands the significance of its precious resources which has helped put Eco-Tourism on the world map.

Passing public buses (Mercedes) on the highway to Cartago I’m reminded of Costa Rica’s somewhat unusual beginnings. The Spanish Conquerors arrived on the shores of Costa Rica in 1524; Francisco de Cárdoba founded Villa Bruselas, in the East Coast of the Gulf of Nicoya. This was the first settlement founded by the Spaniards in Costa Rica. they were completely blown away by its beauty, climate and natural resources. What should have been easy living turned out to be anything but due to the fact there were very few natives for the Spaniards to conquer and put to work building this new nation.

So totally hooked on this spectacular natural resource the Spaniards bit the bullet and against best practices decided to do the work themselves. Consequently the food in Costa Rica has a decidedly European feel, mayonnaise vs. hot sauce, wine vs. tequila so to speak.

Leaders sat down over the years and discussed transportation needs; infrastructure, roads, bridges etc, the public transportation system, buses etc. and an interesting fact revealed itself. The mothers, sisters, daughters, granddaughters and their friends were neighbors of the gentleman making public transportation decisions. These were the primary customers of public transportation. The homogeneous nature of the people of Costa Rica ensured a high quality transportation experience for all Costa Ricans. Unlike Mexico Costa Rica lacks the mixing of many races producing politically based class distinctions and warfare.

Intel computer chips are made here with the precision of small productive Tico hands. Good technology is the rule not the exception (sometimes called the Silicon Valley of Central America) as is foreign investment, as well as strong ties to the U.S. and global economy. Next time you have a banana it likely came from here. Coffee is a big export item as cocoa, sugar, lumber and wood products, beef and tourism is increasingly important to Costa Rica’s future.

clip_image006                                                            Basilica de Los Angeles

The Mystery of the City of Cartago

In 1963, a volcanic eruption of Irazu Volcano which for two years covered San José in ashbadly damaged some agricultural areas around Cartago, but not the city.

Cartago is a city in Costa Rica, about 25 km (16 mi) east of the capital, San José. It is at an elevation of about 1435 m (some 4,707 ft) above sea level, at the base of the Irazú Volcano. Cartago is the capital of Cartago province. The city covers an area of 152,68 km². It includes the districts of city downtown: Oriental, Occidental (known as the typical downtown area), San Nicolás (the main entrance to the city, at west), El Carmen (north), Dulce Nombre, San Francisco (at south, San Francisco is known commonly as Aguacaliente), and Guadalupe (Arenilla). The city is part, with the cities of San Rafael de Oreamuno and Tejar del Guarco, of a continuous urban area that, in 2008, had a populationof 156,600 inhabitants, according to the Statistics and Census Institute of Costa Rica.

The city was granted a coat of arms by King Philip II of Spain in 1565, and the title of Muy Noble y Muy Leal (“Very Noble and Very Loyal”) by the Cortes (Spanish Parliament) in 1814. It served as the first capital of Costa Rica until 1823, when Republican leader Gregorio Jose Ramirez, moved the capital to the bigger city of San José, because Cartago wanted to unite the newly independent province of Costa Rica to the Iturbide’s Mexican Empire while San Jose and Alajuela supported a Republican system. The city was severely damaged by major earthquakes in 1822, 1841 and 1910. In 1963, a volcanic eruption of Irazu Volcano which for two years covered San José in ash badly damaged some agricultural areas around Cartago, but not the city.

Many pilgrims come to Cartago annually, to visit the nation’s principal church, the enormous Basílica de Nuestra Señora de Los Ángeles, on the feast day of the Virgin of the Angels (August 2). The church has a statue of the Black Madonna known as La Negrita, who supposedly had great healing powers. The sick come to her statue in hope of a miraclefrom La Negrita.

According to folklore in Costa Rica, the statue was found by an indigenous girl in 1635. She brought it home several times, but it mysteriously reappeared at its original site.The rock where she found it is now kept in a backroom in the basilica and is revered as a sacred relic and object of inspiration. The rock is supposed to be in the same location it was when La Negrita was found, but it has been moved as the basilica was rebuilt. It is common for pilgrims to touch the rock in reverence.

Turning left off Highway —— I make my way to Basilica de los Angeles. I’m meeting my historian and guide shortly. Hopefully he will have the answers I seek.

Completing my no-nonsense on site investigation and interviewing several experts at Basilica de Los Angeles I was left excited and perplexed. I decided to catch a George Clooney movie which I’ve been dying to see the “Descendents”. It was playing at my favorite theater in Costa Rica located at TerraMall in Tres Rios on the way back to San Jose from Cartago. Here I can enjoy great food even Sushi or traditional popcorn, and not so traditional cocktails delivered to me in my fabulous leather, comfy oversized seats surrounded by industrial strength air – conditioning. I rationalize this distraction will help to briefly take my mind off unraveling the mystery. This could be the exact break I need to blow this mystery wide open. Plus I can’t wait to see the 20 minutes of the film shot on a beach on Kauai that I used to hang – out at religiously.

Kauai revisited, and back at the hotel poolside; I attempt to solve the mystery of Cartago. Laptop, books, notes, my taped interviews, and photographs clutter up my cabana. After a dip and receiving my ice-cold beer (Imperial the local favorite) which I keep in an ice bucket I get down to brass tacks. Evaluating, sorting, indexing, analyzing, connecting the dots CSI style I burn a sunspot into heart of this enduring mystery. Requesting a pool side phone I make few calls, take more notes and further evaluate the evidence before me. Re-applying sunscreen I dig deeper.

At my wit’s end I dive into the pool ordering a Cuba Libre at the swim up bar. The bartender noting the perplexed look on my face inquired as to its origin. After another round of drinks and relaying the facts as I saw them and he smiled knowingly simply saying “Pura Vida.” pure life, live life to the max. Good advice, time to get out of the city and head up to Tamarindo for a little R&R.

I Grab a quick shower and a three dollar cab and head over to the Cerutti Restaurant offering Gourmet Italian Cuisine, in San Rafael, Escazu just minutes from my hotel. I listen to Antonio Bochelle on my iPod just for good measure. This place is hands down the best Italian food in Costa Rica. Everything on the menu is awesome, excellent wine, decadent desserts and over the top service in a setting straight out Italy leaves one wanting for nothing.

Sipping an aperitif, lost to more opera I mull over the findings of my investigation yet again. Smiles and laughter bounce around this intimate room as I sift through the facts one more time. Confident I’ve missed nothing, no rock left unturned I make my way from Cerutti’s back to my hotel. Too full to sit and wanting to get an early morning start on my drive to Tamarindo a tiny coastal village (5 hours north) an easy drive through rolling backcountry, farmland, jungle and beyond to the Pacific coastline. I opt to walk around the upscale mall across the street indulging in window shopping and a gelato instead of dancing the night away in San Jose’s many nightclubs.

I enjoy learning from the past in hopes of better understanding how I can best live today. Yes, I’m disappointed at not finding the answer to the mystery of Cartago. I’ve resigned myself to the fact that this lack of understanding was unavoidable. Perhaps falling in love with Tamarindo, its people, farms, rivers, jungles, wildlife, beaches, surf, fishing, diving, seafood and volcanoes was just unavoidable too.

Contact Info

Inter Continental Hotel

Contact Info

Movie Theater in TerraMall in Tres Rios – Cinépolis Terramall – VIP

Mall Multiplaza Escazú;

Cerutti Restaurant, Italian Cuisine


About Roger O'Keefe

My background is in education and finance. I'm a published author and photographer, former radio talk show host, and creative retirement planning expert. My work is a love of labor, I do not sell any products of any kind. I've appeared as a guest on more than 50 national and local television and radio shows. With a Masters in education, I'm a licensed educator and author of the “Future Bright Program” and the California State Department of Education “Teacher Appreciation Program.” I'm a member of the American Association of Retired Persons and the National Care Planning Council NCPC. I'm currently writing my second book and reside in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. My mission is to reshape retirement planning one person at a time. Please visit my website and take advantage of the many complimentary online seminars, resources, and retirement planning tools.
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