Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Santa Teresa, the closest town

Driving away from the ranch on the road to the south, one drives on the dirt roads (1.5 cars wide) for 20+ minutes, crossing through three streams and an often-dicey river, before coming to the tiny town of Manzanillo, population maybe 150 (a total guess), which features a partial bridge that may or may not ever be completed, a colorful and very simple public school and playing field, a small empty chapel, a poorly-supplied and overpriced small one-room grocery store, two small restaurants that are always (permanently?) closed, and a popular outdoor family bar/convenience store/restaurant where the road turns at the beach. While we drive through the village often, and occasionally resupply there, and have friends there, the town is really too small to be of any further note.

However, there is another town, a wonderful town, a town I visited at all available opportunities: after another 15+ minutes driving up and down some really pitted, washed-out, nerve-wracking, bone-rattling hills, the dirt road turns to again parallel the beach (but set in about 150 m) and you begin to see signs for hotels alongside the road. You are entering Santa Teresa, a chill tourist town of about 3000 residents.

Physically, Santa Teresa is one dusty dirt road, bordered by a turn on one end and a crossroad on the other, with a few dozen very small businesses, hotels, and homes scattered along its 3.5 mile length. The perfect beach stretches its length to the west, while a steep jungley hill ridge bounds the east about 1/10 mile inland.
The residents are largely dedicated to surfing and yoga. The beach along this small stretch of coast is rated by most of those in the know as the best surfing anywhere in Central and South America, and warm (water temps in the 90s!) azure steady curling 10’ waves do their best to live up to this claim. The yoga instructors and gorgeous open dojos are everywhere and are about 20 times better than any I’ve ever seen.

As you can imagine, with these lifestyles, all the long-term residents are distractingly beautiful: not an ounce of fat on their fit athletic bodies, very tan, casual long hair, tattooed, with minimal clothing (shirtless men in board shorts, women in bathing suits/yoga clothes). The demographics are generally young, ‘white’ to medium-brown skin, with varied national origins ranging from Ticas/Ticos relocating from San Jose to Argentines, Israelis, Americans, and the occasional European. I have not yet seen any people evidently of Asian or African descent.

These lovely people become no less lovely upon acquaintance. Everyone is surprisingly friendly, kind, and welcoming. It is the custom for even complete strangers to give a friendly smile, wave, and “buenas” upon passing. Friends are greeted with a kiss on the right cheek (unless between men, in which case a handshake/hug usually does the trick). Everyone checks in on one another and, if someone needs a hand, any passing stranger will do their best to help, be it giving a lift down the road, offering advice, giving your car a push or tow, you name it, because (as they will point out) you never know when you will be the one who needs the help, so offer it when you can.

Topics of conversation and general interest, as well as the morals and politics and priorities of most residents, align blissfully well with my own: wildlife and local plant identification and uses, local small-scale agriculture, sustainable infrastructure, experiential education, family, fitness, delicious healthy foods, life stories, ghost stories, myths. Most people work short, early days so they have half the afternoon and all evening to spend time with their loved ones and on their favorite activities: family and time is indisputably more important than money. And, unsurprisingly, people in this tiny region live longer than almost anywhere else, officially having more centenarians than all but 4 equivalent communities in the world.

Speaking of food: I already previously talked about the typical Costa Rican foods, but thanks to the international and health-conscious residents, Santa Teresa has a distinctly different cuisine culture than its surrounds. Smoothies are de rigueur. Salads and veggie sandwiches proliferate. Fresh pastas are made by Italians, pastries and expresso beverages made by Belgians, falafel made by Israelis, Thai fusion and sushi by ex-Asian-expats. Raw is very popular, organic is valued, local is the standard, homemade is assumed. The quality of ingredients and preparation is extremely high, even by NYC dining standards. Prices vary, and while less than American, prices aren’t cheap, but are well worth it.

But sadly, the town isn’t paradise, despite REALLY seeming that way at first. The main problem that Santa Teresa and its neighboring towns face is access to fresh water. The tiny town to the south, Mal Pais, gets some of its municipal water from a pipe that draws from the clear streams of the Cabo Blanco Nature Reserve, but though a similar plan is in the works for Santa Teresa to draw via an aqueduct from the Ario river (on the CIRENAS/Grew family property), there is not yet any municipal fresh water. A very few properties have wells, but these struggle to keep up with demand even during the rainy season, and go dry during half the year. Almost all residences and businesses, including the many hotels, buy their water and have it delivered by trucks. This water is transferred to private plastic cisterns, usually elevated for gravity-fed plumbing. The water is expensive, the transportation of it is energy-wasteful, and trucking in water for a fast-growing population is inherently unsustainable. It made me very grateful for the reliable (though non-potable) wells on the CIRENAS property, and for growing up with such proliferate fresh water all around all the time. Naturally reliable potable water is one of the biggest deal-breakers for any place I would want to live long-term.

Especially when you add the fact that the water trucks sometimes can’t make it to town because the roads are so bad. The municipalities do attempt road repairs and maintenance, but they struggle against massive erosion. The roads in the region are soft dirt, and it rains a LOT. They tried paving sections, but the pavement undercut and broke and eroded just as quickly as dirt, but with the added problems of having deeper cuts from faster-moving water and left-behind messy heavy sharp rubble. (I secretly love that the best engineering for the area is the most ancient: banked dirt roads with interlocked stone embankments, just like 6000 years ago.) Resultantly, the roads are narrow, deeply pitted, with proliferate and devastating potholes, deep standing puddles and washouts, and multiple river crossings unassisted by bridges. The average driving speed, even with a swanky 4WD truck with good suspension, is about 25kph/15mph. All driving times given at the beginning of this post are what it would take to drive given the optimal conditions available at this time of year. As the streams and rivers are often hugely swollen, the roads slippery or washed out or covered by landslides, the tides high, etc., the time to drive to town can regularly be stretched to 4 times as long, or often (weekly or so) become entirely impossible.

As you can imagine, this has other negative repercussions for the town and region, notable among them difficult access to emergency medical care. Though there is a competent tiny first-aid clinic in town, anyone needing anticipated medical care, such as childbirth, makes sure to stay near the larger clinic in Cobano or, much preferably, visit relatives in San Jose: Anyone needing emergency medical care, such as from a car accident, is airlifted to San Jose, only a 20 min flight away, but very expensive to access by air.

And that’s not all. There is also a very limited selection of groceries and other staple goods available for purchase in town. The quality of public education is poor: most students only receive 2.5 hours of instruction a day in highly under-resourced, understaffed rooms, and most only stay through the 6th grade. Private school options in the area are expensive, limited, and far too laissez faire even for my Montessori-loving tastes. Out of respect for the squeamishness of my American audience I won’t discuss the problems of sewage. And there is a fast and dangerous drug scene evident throughout the town, with the expected accompanying petty theft and personal safety concerns.

And yet… I love it here. Partially because of the simplicity of life. Partially because of the friends I have made who live in town, notably my co-worker Annette and her boyfriend Adam. Partially because of the food, and of course the gorgeous tropical-beach scenery. But more than anything, because of that ineffable sense of rightness, comfort, unthinking soul-relaxation, fluidity, and peace that accompany a feeling of being in a place in which one feels at home.

(Some of these pictures aren't mine: I didn't take many pictures of town, so I "borrowed" some from elsewhere on the web.)

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