"Where old Americans go to die." – Monike, San Jose.
Looking at a map of Costa Rica, five things that tend to stand out are the abundance of green space, the nine volcanoes, the twenty-two national parks, the dearth of gas stations, and the numerous tiny airstrips along the coasts. One might also notice the economy with which carretera pavimentada has been laid down. Before you start complaining that progress hasn’t yet come to Central America, think about two things: It’s hard and heart-wrenching to build highways when beautiful, verdant and luxuriant mountains of rainforest are blocking your path. And when was the last time progress gave you anything but a migraine? Believe me, traffic jams are more fun when you’re stuck behind two horses and a vehicle that looks like it came off the set of the Beverly Hillbillies.
But anyway, Costa Rica has one inter-American highway that runs through the country from the Nicaraguan to the Panamanian border. The normal highways, with enough exceptions to make exceptions the rule, are classified by route numbers. If you were to follow Route 34 from its beginnings near the international airport in San Jose, you would find yourself heading westward, past billboards, giant locked gates, and tiny rusted corrugated metal shacks, until you reached a gentle southward curve that put you generally parallel with the Pacific coast. You'd enter the province of Puntarenas, pass a river of giant crocodiles that were a prime method of illegal corpse disposal until a police unit was stationed at the bridge, and drive past Herradura before finally coming, two hours later, to the tiny town of Jacó, where old Americans go to die.
Jacó is a one-street, multiple horse town that claims to harbor five thousand residents, but I don’t believe that number for a second. I see the same thirty-four people every goddamned day walking up and down Avenue Pastor Diaz, which is the town's main drag. Pastor Diaz, or Abuelo Pastor as he was called, was the first resident of Jacó. The original crusty local, Diaz was born on March 30, 1882 in nearby Herradura but made the switch when he was eight. For a century, Abuelo Pastor lived in front of the Pacific, enjoying the sun, sand, and ocean breezes, thinking about how glad he was not to have a crappy administrative job at an unfeeling global conglomerate*. Though Jacó grew around him, the only thing left of Diaz's home is an empty lot. But, hey, the guy got a street named after him.
To get to Avenue Pastor Diaz from the highway, you have five choices: the Boulevard, Calle Ancha, two streets that, as far as I can tell, don't have names, and Avenue Pastor Diaz itself, which eventually curves back toward the highway. The main strip fades out quietly after turning into a pitted dirt lane that abruptly ends at a river that may or may not be infested with alligators. Other streets in Jacó include a number of unnamed dirt roads that lead to the beach, and Calle El Bohio, Calle Cocal, Calle Central, Calle Hicaco, Calle Las brisas, Calle Barahona, and Calle Morales, all of which also run from Avenue Pastor Diaz toward the beach. Not all of them offer beach access to you, the general public.
Playa Jacó is a pretty little cove of gentle good-for-beginners surf that exists between two jutting mountains covered in vegetation. It has, among other things, three small rivers (in one of these, there is an alligator roughly three meters long that is tormented daily by young adolescents who throw sticks at it and, personally, I hope that alligator grows up and eats one of the little assholes), one stream, and two small creeks that drain into the sea, cutting ever-changing patterns into their sandy banks. Horses piss in the water, but I see enough ticos swimming in them to lead me to believe that they are safe to wade in. There are sometimes lifeguards on duty, but not often, (maybe they help those who help themselves?), and ladies, Playa Jacó ain't Cancun, so keep those dugs under cover.
The local newspaper, which is bi-lingual in an eerie and fun sort of way, is El Garabiteno. If you need something associated with, say, staying alive, Jacó probably has it. Anything else is a toss up. We’ve got a police station, a post office, a seat of judgment, a center for single mothers, two emergency medical stations, two veterinarians, a center for blood analysis, multiple dentists, three pharmacies, a gas station, a spa, churches, four car rental outlets, a florist, Internet cafes, sushi, a Pizza Hut, two totally fresh cement half-pipes, two supermarkets, more surf shops than you can shake a stick at, hookers, billiards, liquor, one real sports bar, hotels as cheap as seven bucks a night, street urchins, frequent blackouts, days without running water, and a wild and colorful array of mangy, chewed-up, tick-infested stray dogs with game legs.
In case you didn't already know, Costa Rican locals are ticos (or ticas when referring to those in possession of vaginas). Americans, Canadians, Europeans, and other white devils make up the gringo (or gringa) population. The more Spanish you know, the less likely you will be overcharged and under-serviced, but in Jacó, you could probably get by without knowing any at all. Good luck, muchacho.
Before you do anything else in Jacó, you will need a home base. There are plenty of hotels, cabins, and campgrounds in town. Many of the hotels would no doubt be considered economical by folks who like spending one hundred and twenty bucks a night for starched sheets and cable TV. Don’t be fooled. There are fine rooms to be had for as little as eight dollars per night, including those of Hotel De Haan and La Cometa. Mid-priced lodging includes the Paraiso Hotel and Gaviotas Apartotel. And, for those people who want to pay top-of-the-line prices, there are always the ninety-nine-buck-a-night rooms at Poseidon. Hotel De Haan and Poseidon are located on Calle Bohio and La Cometa is right across from Bambu on Avenue Pastor Diaz, but most of Jacó’s lodging is located on the various unnamed dirt roads. This gives the town what is known as character.
If, after seeing the wonders of Costa Rica, you decide you simply cannot go back to your home country and the soul-crushing desk job waiting there for you for at least another three months, there are plenty of long-term living arrangements to be had. Most apartotels (or aparthotels) offer rooms or apartments by the month and you can always do what I did: Go to the nearest condominium complex and ask the gatemen if any of the owners are willing to rent.
"There are thieves on the beach. Do not leave your possessions!" - the sign posted where my street merges with the sand
No doubt, once you arrive, you'll want to head straight for the beach. Yes, there are thieves. There are also packs of hungry stray dogs, horse droppings, and hairy men wearing Speedos that wouldn’t fill a coffee cup. Not to mention to alligators, the sharks, and, of course, the perverted fuckers. If none of these things bother you, pack a beach bag but leave EVERYTHING of value locked in your hotel room. I have watched a tico make a beeline for my bag and then sheepishly veer off when I made it clear that I was going to fuck with him if he fucked with me. The sign is not kidding.
At the beach, it's business as usual: sun and surf; tiny bikinis, hardbodies, toddlers in droopy bathing suits, sand dollars (alive and dead), pretty pebbles, prettier shells, darting silver fishes, tired-looking men selling fresh cut fruit, boulders, rivers, crabs, oysters, pelicans and pipers, and so on and so forth. The water is warm and clear and clean, if you don’t mind a little mud driven oceanward from the rainforest and, on sunny days, it's a beautiful Caribbean blue-green. The sand ranges from deep red to pitch black and from tiny, sticky grains to large stones. It’s very beautiful. I feel sorry for the poor jerks whose sand is a single color and of a uniform grain.
A man’s gotta eat, even in a tropical paradise. Luckily, the people of Jacó like to eat almost as much as Americans and they enjoy a wondrous variety of cuisine. There are plenty of mid-priced and, shall we say, luxurious restaurants in town. You want chicken? We got Rostizados and Pollo Express and a veritable district of chicken shacks scattered throughout town. You want pizza? Forget Pizza Hut (yes, I was not joking, there is one) and hit Big Bamboo or Tabacon. You want breakfast? Try Sunrise Breakfast, owned by Dan, who makes the claim of "the best breakfast in Jacó." That may or may not be true but I can say without a doubt that they have the best gallo pinto for a gringo spot. You want an interesting selection of tico-gringo fusion cuisine printed on a menu replete with insane typos? Try The Colonial, which has an all-you-can-eat seafood buffet on Fridays and Saturdays. On Sundays, I eat at Poseidon’s restaurant because the chef, the owners, the wait staff, and just about everyone who works there are awesome. The food is good, too.
Okay, look. Jacó is a town of tourism and that means you can't spit without hitting some upscale restaurant that won't care if you act like a loud and obnoxious tourist because you're paying with the thing they love most: American dollars. But if you want to get out of the traps and experience the tico life, you’re going to go to a soda. In Jacó, soda isn’t just something you mix with whiskey. Sodas are small, extraordinarily inexpensive restaurants that offer local fare that feels home cooked because it usually is. If you’re operating on a budget or just a cheap fucker like me, you’ll love the sodas, where the prices range from one to four bucks. For example, at Soda El Recreo, which is located on a gravel driveway that branches off Avenue Pastor Diaz across from Banco National and next to a bus stop (this is how you give directions in Costa Rica), the typical casados plate with rice, beans, salad, buttered macaroni, and crispy batter-fried fish costs two dollars. For four dollars, you can have a huge mound of seasoned rice with pinky shrimp with French fries and salad. A slight grasp of Spanish is appreciated but usually not required, though it's always in vogue to at least say por favor and gracias.
Now, Jacó is hot as hell, especially during midday. You’re going to want ice cream (for this, go to Pops on the man strip), ices, smoothies, and the like. Fuck your diet and forget your eight dollar sissy-pants smoothie with protein powder and wheat grass juice. Here in town, a tall smoothie is going to cost you a dollar or two and you’re going to get your choice of squished up fruit from big plastic jugs blended with ice and milk. I like blackberry, pineapple, and mango. Maybe you like something else. Mix it up, baby. Most of the restaurants and bars have them and there is a smoothie shack about halfway down Calle Bohio. If you are a woman or have roughly feminine characteristics, the man who makes the smoothies will attempt to pick you up.
Whining for something cold and sweet and cheap as hell? You want that which I have christened Pinksnack. For less than a dollar, a neatly dressed, nearly toothless man wearing a fisherman’s cap pulled down low over his eyes who pushes a green cart with a blue awning will deliberately and lovingly scrape a cupful of ice from the large block in his cart. He adds powdered milk, more ice, kola syrup, and tops it off with a generous topping of sweetened condensed milk. Sure, he sometimes has coconut, grape, or lime syrup, but that's only for losers or little kids. Pinksnack sounds kind of gross, what with all the powdered milk, but truly it is heaven in the heat.
And, if you want to do your own cooking, Jacó boasts not one, but two supermarkets: Frutastica and Mas X Menos. Mas X Menos is definitely the more super of the two.
Fun, Gringo Style
If you’re like me, fun is found in books and avoiding other people. Jacó is not so good for that. Besides the tiny, well-hidden shelves in the darkest corners of certain turista shops, there are two places to find books in English: Poseidon and Books & Things, the local bookstore. Poseidon has a few shelves of used books near the front desk and their policy is take-a-book-leave-a-book. The selection is small and more and more books in French are turning up, but it's free. Books & Things has both books and…things. Most of their stock obviously originated in the sun-melted minds of vacationers who forgot their books in their mad dashes for civilization. This would account for the majority of the books in Jacó being romance novels, contemporary corporate thrillers, and self-help books. For some reason, there is a glut of novels written by L. Ron Hubbard. This must be a clue to something big, I'm just not sure what.
Jacó has no movie theatre but the owners of Poseidon (Tim and Chrissie, who are both fantastic) have instituted the Tuesday night movie on the big projection screen in the new Sky Lounge sports bar. The movies are mainly American comedies shown with Spanish subtitles. Comedy is good because it makes people want to drink unlike Fahrenheit 9/11 which, during the four repeat showings, drew huge crowds who didn't order food or drink anything because no one wants to eat when watching soldiers taunt a man with an erection. Anyway. There are two DVD rental outlets in town, but don’t go to either. Their stock has been so mistreated that most of the DVDs peter out halfway through.
Another way to amuse yourself in Jacó is to pretend you're the Black Widow and shoot a little eight ball. There are a few choices including Tabacon and Rock 'n Olas. Another option, Onyx, a big, open-air bar overlooking the main avenue and the paddock of a friendly dapple grey, has pool tables and will sell you a guaro con agua quinada (that's 'with tonic water' for you gringos) for less than two bucks if you ask for it in Spanish. If you're a sissy and ask in English, plan to be charged more.
Fun, Tico Style
Right after you and your spouse buy matching pura vida t-shirts and couple of clay pots made by Nicaraguan child labor, you can start taking tours! Just kidding. Unless you are hardcore like NotFabio and plan to bike the mountains, the best way to see the rainforest (which is full of deadly snakes, scorpions, centipedes, and other nasty things) is under the watchful eye of an experienced guide. There are zip-line canopy tours, wherein you are attached by harness to a metal line and are shot from one treetop platform to another. If you’re lucky, you will see a sloth. There are ATV tours during which you may see waterfalls, monkeys, and mud, and will definitely see foliage, foliage, and more foliage. There are tours on horseback, tours that bother nesting turtles, tours that will get you up on a volcano, and tours to hot springs, though why anyone would want to go to a HOT spring in a country where the temperature seems to hover around one hundred degrees Fahrenheit every day is beyond me. Whatever your pleasure, Jacó is full of tour brokers happy to take your money.
If you’ve come to Jacó to pointlessly lose money or get laid (or both!), you'll want to try one of the many casinos or dance clubs. Because blinking slot machines that play badly-done electronic versions of songs like The Locomotion are everywhere in town, the casinos feature mainly things like rummy, canasta, and something called tute. Jazz Casino & Sportsbook in the Amapola Hotel claims to have Jacó’s only craps table and paigow in town. The dance clubs are for dancing, but men beware. The pretty little thing asking you to buy her a drink is probably more interested in what's in your wallet than what's in your pants. More on that a bit further down.
And as for drinks, go nuts. Bars open in the morning and, while extreme drunkenness is frowned upon by most ticos, if you want a cocktail with your breakfast, no one is going to look at you funny. They're all standing on the roadside drinking Cerveza Imperial so, by God, have a damned cocktail.
"Do you like to smell coke?" – a taxi driver
Welcome to the crazy world of Jacó transit! Taxis are red and taxis are everywhere and taxis will charge depending on how much they think you will pay. The younger drivers usually supplement their income by selling drugs to tourists. Buy from them, if that's what you’re into, but be aware that once you’ve been labeled another stupid gringo, they will try to shaft you on the fare. You can deal with this in a number of ways. You can give them what they ask for. You can give them what you think is fair, which they'll often accept with a shrug. Or, and this is my favorite tactic, you can play along and, stupid gringo that you are, "fail" to understand what they’ve asked for and just give them whatever you feel like giving them and get the hell out of the cab.
You want busses? We got busses, loads of 'em, big ones with Mercedes engines and big stripes on the sides. They go all sorts of places from San Jose to Herradura and, though I have a copy of the schedule, I have not a clue as to where one procures a ticket. Actually, that's a lie, because I know where the San Jose ticket window is (hint: it's by the Pizza Hut). A ticket that will get your ass from Jacó to San Jose will cost you four dollars. Not bad for a two-hour scenic drive over and around mountains of beautiful, lush rainforest and gorgeous soaring views of coffee plantations.
Reaching Out and Touching Someone
Because the beach, the rainforest, monkeys, feral dogs, alligators, sunsets that can make a grown man cry, earthquakes, thunderstorms that put the fear of God in your heart, exotic cuisine, interesting locals, and wild parrots are just not enough, Jacó comes complete with Internet and telephone facilities prepared to separate you from your hard earned dollars, charging by the hour or the minute, respectively. Though there are plenty of choices, I prefer Mexican Joe's, a two-location outfit run by a Bostonian named Mike, that has cable and uses one of those Internet phone gizmos, which means I can call my man for cheap. They also sell my favorite candy bar in the whole world: Mr. Big. However, if you find yourself in Jacó, I recommend that you forget about the checking your e*trade account, calling your mother, playing Literati, noding, and looking up pictures of naked ladies in favor of getting your ass to the beach and putting some tan on that corpse-white skin of yours. I can practically see the sun glinting off your hide.
Oh, yeah. The Naked Ladies (and Men)
“What happens in Jacó, stays in Jacó.” – the gringos
“Hola! How much money you have? You want sexo?” – the hookers
What is the point of traveling to a foreign land, if not to scientifically analyze the mating habits of the local population? To quote the September 2004 edition of Jaco’s Guide put out regularly by the town’s chamber of commerce, "there is a lot of partying, sex and disease being shared in Jacó." Once, when I complained to my favorite bartender that I was sick of being accosted by horny ticos every time I took a walk on the beach, she answered that they are just acting on their conditioning. It was her opinion that plenty of American girls come to Jacó to get their levels checked by the local dipsticks. And Billy Joel Syndrome runs rampant in town. Pale, skinny guys have as good a chance as anyone with the honeys of Jacó. This is all part of why it’s impossible to step out without being highly aware that everyone, men, women, tourists, locals, horses, dogs, alligators, cutter ants, you name it, seems to be on the prowl.
Jim, a crusty hard-smoking, hard-drinking local, told me that it used to be a man could walk into the Beatle Bar or one of the local ladies' nights without being approached by a herd of Nicaraguan hookers, but those days are long gone. And, had I come to Jacó a few years earlier, I would have been able to walk alone at night without being propositioned by men on foot, men on bicycles, men in cars, and men on horseback, all making various animal noises.
The luckiest of the lucky bastards, one might assume, are the people who come to Jacó to get them a little something they can’t get at home because in this town, it’s harder to avoid it than it is to find it. A man with a few colones in his pocket is guaranteed to get his oil changed and, for the ladies, a pair of tits and the merest hint of an ass is all it will take to attract a pack of slobbering ticos. Of course, if you're into things like, say, avoiding venereal diseases or not having your dick chopped off by a freaky coked-up whore, then you might want to just take a nice ATV waterfall tour instead and hit up Books & Things on your way back to your hotel.
Pura vida, baby!
*All thoughts attributed to Pastor Diaz are one hundred percent made up but probably true.