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The taxi driver at the Coca-Cola bus station in San Jose did not fill me with confidence.
“You enjoying my country?”
“Yes” I said, “It’s beautiful”
“Then get out of San Jose” he almost spat “It’s ugly and dangerous.”
As he drove to my hotel I felt rather nervous, I had never seen so much barbed wire in a city. Atop of every fence and wall were foreboding rolls of razor wire. But my hotel was welcoming and well decorated with a pool table and a little garden.
“Am I safe to walk to the shops?” I asked the American on the desk. “What time is it?…” he mused “Yeah you should be fine.”
It was a Sunday and I had sadly missed the only train currently running on the old line to Puntarenas, Tren de las Madres, a mothers day fiesta…on a train.
But I hadn’t missed the Dia de las Madres and downtown San Jose was buzzing with families out buying gifts and enjoying the day. Women shouted to sell their roses on the side of the streets and men sold wonky posters with love hearts on them. I nipped into a busy little eatery to get some lunch and sat opposite a woman in the tightest pink top I have ever seen, with matching lipstick. I stared in wonder as she ate her rice and managed not to smudge any of her lippy. Families around me laughed, smiled and sung along to ‘amore de madres’ which boomed out of the jukebox.
I felt a little lost in the big city after the kindness of my host family in Quepos over the last couple of weeks. I missed them and their crazy tales. During dinner one night my ‘Mama Tica’ told me how she had thrown out her drug-running husband, there was always a drama. Another night a mad man had cut holes in the tin roof of the house. It was like living in a mini Costa Rican soap opera.
I got chatting to an American who had lived in San Jose for a couple of years: “The men are all like horney teenagers, who haven’t grown up and the women are very territorial, it’s a bad combination.” We talked about the state of the city, it seemed to me a mishmash of concrete rundown buildings thoughtlessly shoved together, with the odd gem, such as the Teatro Nacional, shining through. Rubbish I could see, was an issue, and he had some strong opinions on the way the Ticans ran their capital: “That’s the problem with the Costa Ricans their Pura Vida (Pure Life/That’s Life) motto extends into all areas of their lives, so much so they don’t take pride in their city, ‘hey don’t worry about it‘, they think its someone else’s problem, pura vida’ and that laid back attitude leads to the state this city is in.”
When I asked about safety he didn’t improve my confidence: “My friends brother had a machine gun put to his head the other night and he had only just locked his front door. You take your life into your own hands walking around in the dark after 10pm here”
I told him I had to go to the bus station to get my bus to Panama at 10pm.
“Don’t worry you’ll be fine.” he said, with a little too much chirpy confidence in his voice for my liking.

Pacific Station

Godliness and cleanliness at Pacific Station

I popped my head into the Royal Dutch in San Jose. The hotel is now by day a kind of budget casino with pale green plastic chairs and a few bored looking Ticos playing slot machines. By night it hosts Nick’s Disco, which from the outside (I was not brave enough to venture in) consisted of bright flashing purple lights and women in very tight lycra.
The Pacific Station was impressively clean and still houses the eight-foot statue of Jesus, but was closed and deserted except for a train station official, who confirmed for me that the only train that runs now is the commuter train to Heredia. Sadly no more trains to either Puntarenas or Limon.
To get to Panama I’ll be taking the bus, despite the lack of trains I’m going to try to stick to overland travel as much as possible, as like yourself I find those carpeted tubes in the sky far from enjoyable.
I’ve got an excellent book for the 14 hour trip – A House for Mr Biswas, V S Naipaul. I needed to exchange The Sheltering Sky somewhere and I found a bookcase of English books in a little bar in Quepos, Mr Biswas, with your quote on the back, seemed like the perfect choice.
Actually this leads me onto a question. On your travels you always had an excellent book on hand. Did you carry all these books with you from the start of the trip as you especially wanted to read them? or did you pick them up as you went along? I’m carrying a few with me but it’s causing me to almost topple over when I have to try to get my backpack on, I’m pretty sure you travelled with a suitcase – perhaps it was easy to keep your books in there – but still surely no lighter, anyway I’m intrigued…
Best Wishes
p.s I’ve got a few pictures of the Royal Dutch also, let me know if you would like to take a look.

Paul Theroux 1983

Left: Paul Theroux photographed by Sally Soames around the time The Old Patagonian Express was published.

Rachel leaving Quepos

Below: Rachel Pook in 2010 bound for San Jose (sadly not pictured at a train station…yet…)

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Paul Theroux felt homesick in San Jose when he spotted a couple buying a vacuum cleaner. The friendly American ex-pats made him want to move on and away from such familiarities.
They have also made me keen to continue my travels, but for different reasons.
The quiet beauty of Costa Rica has certainly been disturbed by the huge numbers of ex-pats that have converged on this paradise. Thirty years ago Manuel Antonio was a tropical hideaway, boasting rainforests, wild monkeys, mountains and stunning beaches. Now its rainforests are punctuated by ever-growing hotels, restaurants and tourist activities. You can’t swing a monkey without it getting caught in a zip line.
Compared to the Guanacaste province tourism here is in its infancy and the regions natural beauty reigns supreme (see slideshow above), but over development to meet vacationers demands is a country-wide problem.
I’ve heard stories of locals being priced out of their own towns and Dibbs, the fat man Paul Theroux met in Costa Rica, would be happy with the bars of Quepos and Manuel Antonio. His disappointment that all the hookers had gone to Panama would have been replaced with gratitude had he been in El Pescadorar on Friday night.
Supping on an Imperial beer, I did think it a little strange that the bar was filled with older men, each sat alone. All of a sudden as if on cue a wave of prostitutes in tight lycra and with dubious levels of attractiveness swooped into the bar and began fawning over the men.
I discovered the next day locals laugh at the name of the bar as it’s where the hookers go to fish for their clients.
My hopes to see the stunning scenery of Costa Rica by train are fading as I received an email informing me that the railway tracks from San Jose to Puntarenas are currently damaged and the line to Limon is certainly no longer. My final hope lies with La Tren De Las Madres, this would certainly not have been a first choice for Paul after his Mr Thornberry experience as peace and quiet on this train may be an impossibility.

Frontier Airlines. ‘A whole different animal.’
I’m still not really sure what that means, or why Frontier Airlines have badly photoshopped, smiling animals on their promotional posters.
Neither am I sure that their ad campaign ‘Running late? We’re not’ was working for the people who had been delayed for hours in the line in front of me at LAX.
Despite my marketing frustrations I tried my best to keep a cheery disposition as I boarded Carl the coyote (my plane).
I sat next to a lovely Tico (Costa Rican) called Chris, a high school student, who when I asked him about the trains in Costa Rica assured me lines still ran to Puntarenas and Limón. Excellent, I thought.
Five days, 20 hours of Spanish lessons and several totally contradictory opinions on trains in Costa Rica later, I am feeling somewhat confused.
Currently I’m fairly sure the line to Limón is no longer and an American company run a train from San Jose to Puntarenas for tourists along the original train tracks.
Tomorrow if I dare to ask anyone else, that could all change.


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