afraid of nothing happening, of experiencing nothing. That is what the
modern traveller fears .... Emptiness."
– Colin Thubron, Shadow of the Silk Road.
a store with a bus stop in the tablelands above Atenas; it was a
bus stop because locals knew the bus would stop there, not because of
any signs, and the store wore its Coca-Cola colours proudly.
Escaping Vancouver's gloomy winter, we spent the last half of January in peaceful, tropical Costa Rica thanks to our friends Howard and Ann, who loaned us their cottage in the highlands near Atenas, a coffee-growing town about an hour west of San José, the capital city.
The democratic, well-educated "Ticos" have no army (they abolished it 60 years ago), universal health care and typically a modest middle-class lifestyle, especially when compared with their northern neighbours in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Honduras. So "nothing happens" in Thubron's sense – there's little chance of being mugged or murdered or witnessing the extremes of human misery, which rather takes the edge off it. The biggest employer is an Intel chip plant; more traditional industries that define the landscape include coffee grown on the steep terraced hillsides, cane sugar and palm oil.
Costa Rica is a very mountainous country, with a real humidity break between the steaming jungles near the coast and the beautiful tablelands – National Geographic some years ago described Atenas as having the best climate in the world ('el mejor clima del mundo,' announced several roadside signs). The country is known worldwide for its environmental consciousness and its diverse wildlife, none of whom will stand still for a painter; as is usual for me, I was more interested in the people and their vernacular buildings while savouring the flickering impressions of passing butterflies, parrots and hummingbirds.
I carried a pencil sketchbook and took some brush and ink materials and watercolour but didn't produce a huge amount of work. It was a very laid-back sojourn! After our return, I added "comic book colour" to the two brush and ink (black and white) drawings below with Photoshop and painted the two small oils.
Above: first day we drove the incredible switchback roads over the mountain to Palmeres. Motorbikes, dogs on the roadsides, buses occupying 9/10s of the narrow pavement and killer potholes.... Always in the blue distance are mountains, covered in jungle right to their peaks, their conical shapes betraying their volcanic birth.
Classic roadside fruit stands and little stores. Pipa is a fruit (a loquat, according to Wikipedia, another word I've never heard)
On the beach....
Not being beach people anymore, we briefly visited the Pacific Coast shoreline from Jaco south and didn't try to fight the traffic on the Panamerican highway over to the Caribbean coast. The beaches were beautiful although notorious for their rips, and you wouldn't want to be on one like Esterillos above when a tsunami was coming in. At the jewel-like Parque Manuel Antonio, below, there are perfect tropical coves lined with palms and huge jungle trees like a Swiss Family Robinson fantasy. But it was breathlessly hot – we entered the park at dawn and by 10 in the morning the air was sticky and thick, the ocean offering little relief as it was the temperature of an English boarding-house bathtub.
Above: the Tico villages straggle randomly over the hilly ground, usually without a grid or any evident land division, connected by narrow tracks. The houses are modest by North America standards; the oldest are wooden with horizontal board siding and galvanized tin roofing, more recent ones are typically concrete block rendered over with stucco and terracotta tile roofs. People have cars, cell phones and lots of jeans and T-shirts so they don''t look much different on the surface from Hispanic Americans or urban Mexicans. Below: the jarring contrast is the slums said to be of the "Nicos" (Nicaraguan refugees escaping the ongoing civil war/dictatorship just to the north). This one had sprung up on the edge of the river at Jaco, the coastal resort where many people from the capital city escape for weekends.
The Atenas bus depot and its Sodas ....
As in previous trips such as the one to Spain and France in 2008, I found the bus depots, with their ceaseless motion of local people travelling from town to town, great places to sit and draw. The Atenas bus depot had it all: mobs of people, a couple of dozen market stalls for produce and meat, and several "sodas," cafes in Tico-speak. Every soda offered el casado – the universal "married man's lunch" of beans, rice, salad, a small portion of chicken or fish or beef and a slice of fried plantain – for a few dollars (casado means married), as well as the usual staples of fast-food places everywhere, hot dogs and burgers.
My pencil drawings while travelling have evolved into annotated aides-mémoire, partly because I can't see painting large pictures of long views like the ones here, partly because photographs flatten space and lose detail in the haze. Sometimes a word or two is worth a thousand pictures. The peak of Volcan Arenal (above) was all but hidden in clouds on the day we were there, but mesmerizing nonetheless; unfortunately, it has refused to puff smoke and lob boulders in the last few years so the local businesses have fallen on hard times. The image below is from a "mirador" cafe on the road to Volcan Poas, the national park quite close to the capital city.