The first European explorer to encounter Costa Rica was the great navigator himself, Christopher Columbus. The day was September 18th 1502, and Columbus was making his fourth and final voyage to the New World.

As he was setting anchor off shore, a crowd of local Carib Indians paddled out in canoes and greeted his crew warmly. Later, the golden bands that the region’s inhabitants wore in their noses and ears would inspire the Spaniard Gil Gonzalez Davila to name the country Costa Rica, or Rich Coast.

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Among the cultural mysteries left behind by the area’s pre-Columbian inhabitants are thousands of perfectly spherical granite balls (‘bolas’ in Spanish). These have been found near the southwest coast and on an island about 30 miles offshore. These relics range in size from that of a baseball to that of a small Volkswagen.

Ruins of a large, ancient city complete with aqueducts was discovered east of San Jose. Marvelously sophisticated gold and jade work was created in the southwest over 1000 years ago. Some archeological sites in the central highlands and on the Nicoya peninsula have shown evidence of influence from the Mexican Olmec and Nahuatl civilizations.

The east coast was the realm of the Caribs, while the Borucas, Chibchas, and Diquis resided in the southwest. Only a few hundred thousand strong to begin with, none of these peoples lasted long after the dawn of Spanish colonialism. Some fled, while many others perished from the deadly smallpox brought by the Spaniards. Having decimated the indigenous labor force, the Spanish followed a common policy and brought in African slaves to work the land. Seventy thousand of their descendants live in Costa Rica today.

Regrettably, only one percent of Costa Rica’s nearly 5 million inhabitants are of indigenous heritage. An overwhelming 98 percent of the country is white, and those of Spanish descent call themselves Ticos.

Luckily, in my opinion, the country was a tough and unpopular place to settle with few valuable resources the Spanish sought, mostly gold. The first successful establishment of a colonial capital was not until 1562, when Juan Vasquez de Coronado founded Cartago city.

The Tico culture is a varied and warm culture, and since the arrival of so many ex-pats fleeing the injustice of their native countries, the culture has taken on a multi-national flavor, making Costa Rica a very special place.

I don’t think you could find a more friendly place anywhere on Earth. Ticos would rather run away than have a confrontation with anyone (except when behind the wheel!) They are notoriously aggressive drivers and its fun to navigate on their highways because of this. All told it’s a very polite society.

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I was stopped once by a police officer heading out of San Ramon. He was standing beside the road and waved me over. He said something in Spanish and I just said “no Española” and he just laughed and said “you going to Arenal?” I said yes and he graciously waved us on with a big smile; I loved it. None of the bullying attitude you get in the states.

The many friends we have made over the years are ones we will never forget. We still keep in touch with some by Skype and of course Facebook! When we were preparing for our first trip in ’05, a friend called and asked me if I would take acupuncture needles down to a friend of his in San Jose who likes a certain brand.

Customs never said a word which really surprised me; of course this was before the airlines went nuts about what you could bring on board.

I picked the Orquideas Hotel because it was right on the edge of Alajuela, the second largest city in Costa Rica and a suburb of San Jose.

When you leave the Orquideas you are in the country and have many alternative road options other than the Pan American Highway.

We delivered the needles to Dr Kim and he was so happy. He gave Kathy a full treatment and after that he came into the waiting room and played “My Heart Will Go On” on his flute. There was a photo of him on the mantle when he was Tae Quan Do champion in Korea.

The next day we headed north to see the famous Arenal volcano in Fortuna. Fortuna had a different name before the eruption in ’68. After the eruption it drew so many tourists they changed the name to”fortune” in Spanish!

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We took our time and arrived late in the afternoon, finding a quaint place to stay called Las Gemelas. The owner, Fredis Corrales, was cleaning one of the rooms which already looked clean. She didn’t speak much English but we managed to make a deal for $25 a night – bed and bath!

We later discovered that Fredis had her painting studio directly behind our room. She also teaches painting and has since moved her studio to her home. My wife Kathy showed Fredis a couple of photos of my paintings and we became fast friends. Her daughter, Karina, was anxious to practice her English with us as she was studying to become a tour guide.

The next day Fredis took us to see the farm of one of her painting students. It was a bumpy ride but the view from her student’s house was spectacular. You could see the volcano from almost every window in the house. We had a lovely time except when a goose bit me on the ass! We all laughed but if you’ve ever been bitten by a goose you know it’s not pleasant!

After three days in Fortuna, enjoying the Corrales’ hospitality, we headed out of town toward Lake Arenal. We hadn’t gone but about four miles when Kathy said “That’s a really great looking place. Let’s stay there for a night or two!” So we pulled into Montana del Fuego (mountain of fire) and rented a cabaña with a view directly across from the volcano.

We would sit out at night in front of our cabana and watch big red boulders shoot out of the top of the volcano. We were very fortunate to see this as it doesn’t happen all the time. Our neighbors were a young couple from Austria and we enjoyed breakfast with them. They wanted to know all about American culture.

Montaña had a pool and a great spa. We took advantage of both and also treated ourselves to massages. Kathy got a facial and I got a foot treatment. The massage rooms were wood with the back wall all of glass so you could look up and see the jungle. You could also hear the birds and monkeys while you were relaxing. This was a great stop.

Two days later we made it around the lake and out to the Pan American highway. We were invited to stay at a nature preserve named El Pelon, located about 20 miles north of Liberia. The preserve is about 3000 acres and they have plans to develop it in a limited way. El Pelon is an unusual environment referred to as a dry tropical forest.

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We arrived at the house where a couple from California lived and they welcomed us and showed us around. They had a parrot that could speak both English and Spanish.

If the couple from California didn’t water their yard it would have been all brown. They had a lovely house and the guests’ room had an enclosed outdoor shower. It was made from smooth river stones and felt very good on your feet.

After our visit to El Pelon we decided that Costa Rica was the friendliest country we had ever visited. We had made so many new friends and we had only been in country for a week.

We visited many places on the Nicoya peninsula. The town of Nicoya is one of the three places in the world with a record number of people over 100 years old.

We spent most of our time in Samara, a (then) sleepy little beach village. And again we made many friends while there. We met people from all over the world. It was a very relaxing place.

This was our first trip to Costa Rica and we were exploring. We chose to drive until we found a place we liked and stayed there until we felt like moving on. The funny thing is we ended up back in Fortuna because we loved Fredis and Karina and the wonderful hospitality they had shown us.

Returning to a historical view of Costa Rica, military rule has reared its ugly head from time to time, though it has not been marked by the sort of violent extremism that has occurred elsewhere in Central America and Mexico.

General Tomass Guardia, in 1870, made some of the first stepping stones towards the democratization of the nation. The 1948 civil war later resulted in major reforms to public policy that improved social conditions in the country including voting for woman and blacks, bank and educational reforms and health care for all.

If you haven’t visited Costa Rica by all means do so! It is a wonderful place with many different climate zones from tropical rain forests to beautiful beaches and many latitudes in between.

There are now more Americans in Costa Rica per capita than any other country in the world. In the mountains above 2500 feet the temperature stays between 60 and 85 year round. My kind of weather!

Our Trip To The Lake Arenal Area of Costa Rica.

Article/Property ID Number 5320

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