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"Doing Latin America, Mostly by Luck"


Quepos, Costa Rica, August 2011 - Edition 36

   CLICK HERE FOR ARCHIVED EDITIONS                                                                                                                         CLICK HERE FOR RESTAURANT ARCHIVES

Unidentified "Equipo" - A Costa Rican Futbol Team - Circa 1906. Possibly in Between Pineapple Harvests

"La Liga" - A Modern Futbol Team and One of the Top Two Teams in Costa Rica. This Team is based in Alejuela (You Know - Where the Big Airport Is Located)

A Map of Costa Rica Showing the Seven Provinces - How About That Piece of Gerrymandering Called Puntarenas?

IN THIS ISSUE: Broken News (Milestone, Money Changers), Confessions of a Banker, Java and More Java, On the Prowl in Parrita, What's-in-a-Word (Palo Seco, Veranilla), ROMEO Corner (Karola's), Founder's Quotes (Noah Webster/Tom Jefferson)

Travel Quote of the Month:  

“When preparing to travel, lay out all your clothes and all your money. Then take half your clothes and twice the money”.

Unknown Author

Broken News


This 36th edition of the Golden Gringo Chronicles represents the three year anniversary of our gilded hero's arrival in Tico land. Almost immediately after finding a place to live amongst the other monkeys, GG began sending periodic email reports on his experiences here to friends and family back in the U.S. Over time these emails became more elaborate and complex, adding pictures and lately videos. The GGC Newsletter now operates as a private division of my personal web site; a Golden Gringo Chronicles link is available on the main web site at www.bobnormand.com. To Chronicles subscribers, a private email is sent monthly to people on the distribution list (currently about 200) giving links to the current Chronicle as well as links to the archives for previous editions and also for the archived restaurant reviews done by the ROMEO club (Retired Old Men Eating Out).

There is no fee or charge for subscribing to the Chronicles and there is no advertising or other solicitation in its pages.

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If you know of someone who might like to receive the Chronicles, send me their email address and, only after confirming their interest by email, will I add them to the distribution. Or forward this issue to them with a suggestion that they contact me using the email link at the bottom of the page if they're interested.

If for whatever reason you'd like to be removed from the distribution list please send an email stating such to bob@bobnormand.com and I will delete your email address from the list after a short, but appropriate, period of mourning.


Pura vida!

Money Changers

Here we go again. The money changers are changing our change again. Well, actually it's the bills this time.

The Chronicles displayed a summary of Costa Rican coins and bills in the January 2011 edition. To see the old bills go here: MONEY. At that time several of the coins, such as the old octagonal 5, 10 and 20 colone coins and a 500 colone commemorative coin, were eliminated by the government. Shortly thereafter the BCCR (Banco Central de Costa Rica) began issuing new large denomination bills, the 20,000 and 50,000 colone billetes (that's $40 and $100 respectively in Rio Lindan currency). I've not seen the 50k in circulation but the 20k is becoming more prevalent.

You notice I didn't say more popular - it's not infrequent here to run into trouble getting change when paying with a 10k note; a 20 is that much more difficult, a 50 will be still more trouble. I guess they're good for paying large bills but they're more difficult to handle on small matters or at small retailers. It's also interesting to see whether or not you're going to get 3-20,000, 6-10,000 or 12-5,000 bills when you ask for 60,000 colones at the Cajero Automatico (ATM). Remember that 85% of workers here make between $450 and $600 per month so a $100 bill is a big note.

New 1,000 Colone Bill - 125 x 67 mm (Not True Size)

Now, in a continuing effort to modernize Costa Rican money and achieve better safeguards against counterfeiting, the Central Bank is issuing new small bills. That is, the 1,000, 2,000, 5,000 and 10,000 colone notes are being replaced. These new bills have magnetic strips, multi-colors, detailed watermarks etc. much like their U.S. brothers, although the colone bills are more colorful. The new 1's and 2's ($2 and $4) are shown to the left and are already in circulation. I'm told the 5's and 10's will come a bit later.

In addition to the counterfeiting safeguards, the new bills are printed on a plastic material which I presume is more durable and difficult to copy. The 1,000 note has a see-through window in the upper right corner with a ghosted picture of the same dude who appears in the center. The pictures shown are not true size but they are proportional, the bills having slightly different lengths (I guess color and number differences are not enough for the money changers). This is a bit of deja vu for our hero who used to deal with several sizes of French Francs before the introduction of the Euro solved the problem. You couldn't get that damn 100 franc note into anything but a suitcase, it was so large.

The dude on the new 1,000 colone bill is Braulio Carrillo Colina, a one time head of state for Costa Rica back in the 1840's who tried to declare himself head of state for life. Turns out this was a bad idea as he was then deposed by a general and ended up getting assassinated in El Salvador. As the first Head of State, Señor Carrillo developed much of the initial Costa Rican government structure, which is probably why he was selected for the currency; certainly it wasn't his inglorious ending.

New 2,000 Colone Bill - 132 x 67 mm (Not True Size)

The dude on the 2,000 colone bill is Mauro Fernández Acuña, an academic with a more stable past and who had a more positive ending. He was a law professor, served in several positions in the government and the supreme court in the late 1800's. He died peaceably in San José after being pronounced Benemérito de la Patria or a generally good and helpful dude for the country.

One of the more interesting aspects of currency changes here is the policy on what one does with the old cash. In the States, when an issue is changed, the banks are charged with the responsibility of slowly and quietly withdrawing the old units from circulation. The old bills are sent to the regional Federal Reserve bank where they are exchanged for new issues to compensate the bank. There is no time limit to this exchange procedure.

Here they issue an exchange deadline with the new bills; the current cut off date for the old 1's and 2's is August 31. After that date you might as well use the old stuff for wallpaper or for sanitary use as banks and stores will not accept it. For weeks after the coin change last year, people pawned off the old coins to other people, particularly unsuspecting tourists (or unsuspecting gringo residents like you know who).

Caveat emptor, amigos.

Confessions of a Banker

In a previous life our hero was a banker (friends back in Sarasota still call me "Banker Bob"). This period of GG's varied, some would say checkered career only lasted about three and a half years. I was a branch manager at two locations in Pennsylvania and a loan officer and investment dude in Sarasota. In all three branches I worked for First Union Bank.

The banking industry was a staid, even dull business in the United States until the eighties and nineties. Then deregulation in the 1970's permitted banks to expand beyond local limits (often they had been restricted to just a county) and the expansion and merger/acquisition frenzy was on (M&A baby, M&A). First Union, who had made 27 bank acquisitions between 1971 and 1998 to become the U.S.'s fifth largest retail bank, then merged with Wachovia in the early 2000's, retaining the W name. They ended up buying World Savings for billions at the height of the mortgage boom in 2006. One report stated that when the mortgage bubble broke, the write-downs at the World division were more than the purchase price of the bank - ouch! Wachovia was then acquired by Wells Fargo for a trifling $15 billion in 2008, chump change in a major banking merger.

Banco de Costa Rica (BCR) - One Block East
of The Quepos Bus Station

I must have opened 100+ checking accounts over my three and a half years with F.U. (sorry, I couldn't resist) as part of our every day services. With two forms of picture ID, an address and some deposit money, say $20 minimum, I could have a checking account open in five to ten minutes and equip you with a half dozen counter checks, on which I had entered in pen, your new account number.

After the computer system automatically checked your name through a State Police link to make sure you didn't have any outstanding warrants, le voila!, you had checking.

Of course I would always try to draw out the meeting in order to size up the customer. Opening a checking account gave me the opportunity to discuss investments, especially if I smelled serious bucks behind the application (often the case in a place like Siesta Key, Florida).

So when I arrived in Quepos in the fall of 2008, as Wells Fargo was stealing, er perdoneme amigo, bailing out Wachovia, it was instinctive for me to go and open a checking account.

My first stop was BCR (Banco de Costa Rica - picture top left) simply because it was the newest, freshest and most modern bank I could find around the Q town. If I I'm going to sit waiting for service I would like to be comfortable.

Interestingly, although most emporiums here are not air conditioned despite the tropical climate, all the banks are. First rule of banking: Let them be comfortable whilst the moolah flows our way.

When I asked for a checking account, the bank rep asked me for a cédula (residency document) or a corporation document. I had neither, so I said thank you and left. I was told it would take $400-600 and six months to form a corporation. Later I learned that some lawyers have a bag of corps in their desks (better than skeletons the closet, eh?) that you can get for a few hundred each).

Banco Popular in Boca Vieja

Technically Not a Bank But More Like a Credit Union, the ATM Here Works Just as Well as the Others
Banco Americacontro (BAC) - 30 Meters West of
Dos Locos Restaurant
Banco Nacional - The Largest Bank in Costa Rica and the Only Bank Drive-Through In the Area
Summary of Banco ATM's in Quepos/Manuel Antonio
Banco Location $ ATM Colone ATM ATM Charge(1)
Banco de Costa Rica (BCR)
Quepos & Manuel Antonio Yes(2) Yes No
Banco Nacional (BNC)
Banco Popular
Quepos (Boca Vieja)
Banco Promerica
Manuel Antonio
Banco de San José (BAC)

Table Notes:
(1) ATM charges on debit/credit cards depend not only on the bank you're trying to get money from but also on the type of card you have and who issued it. Typically, a third party card such as a credit union or some airline issued cards tend to encounter charges more frequently. If you have mucho dinero, mucho assets and you ask for the right card, you stand a good chance of avoiding almost all charges of this type in most locations.
(2) There are two ATM's side by side at BCR-Quepos and only the one on the right gives dollars as well as colones. The single BCR machine in Manuel Antonio gives both currencies.
(3) You can only get dollars from a BNC ATM if you have a dollar account with them.

Five hundred dollars being a rather large fee just to open a checking account and, after a couple of days thinking about it, I decided to keep my account at RBC Bank (Royal Bank of Canada, eh?) in Sarasota and live out of the ATM here for cash and use the debit card as a credit card when necessary. I'm still living with this system three years later with no complaints. In the early days my card produced no charges when used at most of the banks listed on the table above. I came to like BAC (Banco de San José) because of short lines at the ATM and the ability to get both dollars (the landlady likes dollars) and colones from the same ATM. Only a few of the ATM locations here can do both (see table).

About a year later BAC started charging my card $3 per transaction - adios amigos, have a nice fiduciary life. Now I use BCR, particularly for the dollars, and Banco Popular, which is only three blocks from my apartment, as a backup for colones when the lines at BCR are too long (like on the 15th and 30th when people get paid).

So there you have it amigos, I'm a retired gringo, living in Costa Rica, keeping his meager assets in a Canadian bank in Florida. How's that for being a world citizen, Mr. Obama?

Yeah baby, Pura Vida, eh?

Java and More Java

Have you seen the reports recently that coffee is now considered good for you?  Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!

It seems to our hero that, having lived almost seven decades, most nutritional "studies" reverse their conclusions every 20-25 years. To be cynical, I've learned to ignore them all. Practicing moderation on all consumables is the way to go (and I promise to try it sometime).

In the case of the change in attitude towards coffee, it's the antioxidant thing again. It seems java is full of them. Of course, if you suffer from high blood pressure or a weak heart too much caffeine is not good for you but many good brands today come in a decaffeinated version. I have no idea if the decaffienated versions contain the same anti-oxidants as the untreated versions. Fortunately, I have never had a problem with caffeine or blood pressure and I've always been a coffeeholic. Never say never GG and never say always, it often comes back to haunt you, but at the moment there's nothing I like better at breakfast than a good hot cup of rich dark coffee with my gallo pinto and scrambled eggs with tomatoes.

If you like coffee, Costa Rica produces some of the best mountain grown beans in the world and over the last thirty years or so, new coffee companies have sprouted here faster than cilantro. It's no secret that Starbuck's buys a large portion of it's bean requirement here and also that coffee is a major export item for Costa Rica (although microchips are #1 - see this article for more: Coffee, Bananas, Microchips Anyone?)

Below Are Some of the Largest and Most Popular Costa Rican Coffee Brands (Plus One Boutique).
From the left: Cafe Milagro, Cafe Rey (Probably the Largest Producer Here), Cafe Britt, Cafe Volio and a "Boutique Brand"
Although Sales Figures are Difficult to Obtain, Cafe Rey, Cafe Britt and Cafe Milagro are Among Those Listed as "Large" Coffee Companies
Buenos Dias - Gallo Pinto Amigo?

In the last few years, many of the bean producers and roasters have followed the logical road to diversification and now offer different grinds, roast types (light, medium, dark, espresso), more package sizes, and mixtures of ground coffee with other materials such as sugar. Britt has gone one step further and diversified by introducing a series of candies and cookies based on coffee. How about a coffee, caramel and chocolate chew - hmmmmm, yummers. I know several people (GG and friends) who are nearly addicted to Britt Chews. They're not cheap but they are sooooo good.

People have their favorite coffee brands and certain myths have grown up around them much like the French mystique about their mineral waters (hunh, hunh, hunh, monsieur). My personal coffee favorite is Cafe Milagro Oscuro (Dark Roast). I've compared the bean with others and they are consistently more evenly roasted than their competitors. The Milagro Dark bean also is richer in coffee oils that I contend yield more flavor. And Milagro is roasted right here in Quepos, so I'm unlikely to run out of a good supply. There are cheaper coffees but in my view none better.

When I used to visit here, I often had a box of six bags of coffee shipped back to the States for personal use and for gifts. I was able to deliver these boxes at a price per bag, including taxes and shipping, lower than the typical "gourmet" coffee offered at Starbuck's, or at Whole Foods or other specialty shops in Sarasota. If you would like to explore the offering of some of the larger Costa Rican coffee Companies, use these links: Cafe Britt,   Cafe Rey,   Lindo Coffee Group,   Cafe Volio Coffee,   Cafe Milagro

Pura vida and puro cafe, amigo!

On the Prowl in Parrita

I love Manuel Antonio Beach but sometimes I like to get away from the vendors, the ogling gringos with their floppy hats and the pasty white skin of the mid-westerners, in other words , every now and then I need relief from the developed resort scene. Playa Palo Seco near Parrita is a place of refuge where you can commune with raw nature and where it's still possible to walk a mile before encountering another human.

Playa Palo Seco reminds me of the beach where I grew up, that is to say, Plum Island, Massachusetts, about 35 miles north of Boston. The southern 6 miles of Plum Island are a Federal Wildlife Reservation with no houses or residents other than the birds, a few reptiles and a small population of deer. In the fall, after the kids are back in school and the tourists have retreated you can also walk Plum Island beach for a couple of miles and not meet a person.

Parrita is a small town, perhaps one third the size of metropolitan Quepos. It's situated about 24 km north of the Q and is a quick 20 minute car ride or half hour bus ride from Quepos. Of course, I've never seen the buses go out to the beach there, so it is probable that if you use the bus from Quepos, you'll have to walk the last three mile leg to get from downtown Parrita to the beach or take a taxi from the bus stop.

Caballos y Mas Caballos Amigo
(Now That's a Real Horse's A....)

The road to Palo Seco beach is a classic old Tico byway, sometimes paved, sometimes unpaved with the unpaved often a more comfortable ride than the paved (muchas huecos amigos, lots of potholes). And occasionally you have to blow your horn to convince the cows and horses to get out of the way (left). They particularly like grazing the rich grasses on the bank of the Rio Parrita which runs parallel to much of the road.

From downtown. the beach is about 5 km west, similar to the distance from Quepos to the main beach in Manuel Antonio. Once there, you will see a beach that is as wild and untouched as you can find in a populated area (see picture right). For the most part, the beach is heavily spotted with small islands of sun-beached driftwood, but it is almost totally empty of humans.

This is not a swimmer's beach for the less than expert swimmer or the aging troglodyte like our hero. On a visit about four or five years ago, a Tico buddy introduced me to this beach and we ended up playing in the backwash of a little sandbar near the shore. The powerful sweeps and cross currents (corrientes peligrosos) are not to be trifled with amigos.

This time, after negotiating the 5 km access road and arriving at the playa, I noticed a small sign that said "Mar a Lago" and pointed south down the beach road. This road is partially paved but mostly unpaved like the town access road but in some sections it's actually in better shape than the access road.

From the intersection with the access road, the beach road appears to run about 11 kilometers along the shore from the mouth of the Parrita river to the mouth of another inlet in the south. It's this southern inlet that creates the "lago" seen in the picture to the left. It's actually a salt water bay - in Florida we would call the resulting strip of land a barrier island.

Playa Palo Seco, Nary a Homo Sapiens Anywhere
Note the Dark Volcanic Sand
The "Lago" Behind Playa Palo Seco
Plum Island, Massachusetts (Federal Bird Sanctuary)

Although the north end of the beach was quite acceptable as a refuge, I decided it might be interesting to navigate that southern road where the sign said "Mar a Lago - 9 km". What's another five and a half miles on an adventure such as this? So I headed down the beach road gawking like the tourist I was. The first thing I noticed was all the Ticos coming north on the road, most of them on bicycles. Invariably, they smiled and waved - nice welcome from the locals thought our hero.

The next thing I noticed was the availability of real estate opportunities dotting the first 5 kilometers of the road. These were both private residences and hotels or hotels-to-be (see pictures left). One of them was labeled a Ramada Inn, which looked like it had been completed but which now was dark, empty and cordoned off.

Then there was Hotel Hopeful which never made it past the window installation phase (left). Maybe the right owner could turn it into an irresistible resort.

The real estate boom, bust and crunch hit Costa Rica's coastal construction market as hard as it did Florida's. Canceled or stopped projects and skeletal structures abound up and down the coast. There's a place on the main road to Jacó that is gray and unfinished we call Villas Skeletonas.

But our golden boy is an incurable optimist. At the right time (next year or maybe the year after?), some smart money is going to enjoy these bargains and realize some nice profits in the future.

I was told that at the end of this road there is an island at the point where the sea enters to form the lago. Unfortunately I wouldn't get to see  the island on this trip. The road kept getting more difficult and I finally chickened out.

Here the Road Was Breached by High Tides. That's the Pacific Ocean to the Right Nearly Abutting the Road . The Answer was to Build Up the Gravel Base for One Lane and Create a New Shore Line. You Need to Know What Might Be Coming from the Other Direction Before You Start Across or There Could be Some Tricky Backing Up.
Ramada Inn - Playa Palo Seco (Dark and Empty)
Hotel Hopeful - They Got the Windows in But That's About It

At the 9 km mark I saw a small compound of buildings that I suspect was the Mar a Lago hotel. It seemed that way both because I had reached 9 kms and also because the view from the compound was from the sea to the lake (Mar a Lago, get it; GG isn't always that slow), The peninsula narrowed as I went south and the road slowly deteriorated after that point (see picture upper right).

When the road became two tire ruts heading blindly into a reed swamp, I thought it best to turn around. I might have been braver if I hadn't been using a friend's car.

I love this wild stuff! Pura vida.

What's-in-a-Word Department

Palo Seco

The word "Palo" as used in the beach named above made me curious. My handy-dandy online, often erroneous dictionary defines it this way:

1. stick (trozo de madera)

  • los palos de la tienda de campaña -> the tent poles
  • a palo seco (informal) -> without anything else, on its own; (sin nada más) neat (bebida)
  • dar palos de ciego (figurative) -> to lash out (wildly); (criticar) to grope around in the dark (no saber qué hacer)
  • de tal palo tal astilla (Prov) -> he's/she's a chip off the old block

So tienda, which I always understood to be "store" can also be a tent. Maybe in the old days most of the stores were tents (yes, I know I'm stretching for significance here). I like the second meaning for palo seco, namely : "without anything else, on its own" - a perfect definition for Palo Seco beach.

It's certainly better than "dry stick", which is what I thought it meant. So much to learn amigos...


For the last couple of weeks we have enjoyed some rather beautiful sunny days with very little rain although we're deep into the rainy season. It's also been a rather pleasant 86-90F during the day and 70-80F at night (so, my deep-fried Norteamericanos, come on down and cool off). When I mentioned this to a tico friend he said: "Yes, I think we're having a veranillo" (it would be correct to pronounce this as ver-a-nee-yo, but it is more commonly pronounced ver-a-nee-joe, with a j sound like in judge). Veranillo is derived from the word verano or summer and a veranillo is a small summer - sort of the same thinking that gringos use for Indian Summer.

                                                                                 R.O.M.E.O. Corner (Retired Old Men Eating out)


Location: Top of Manuel Antonio Hill, 50 Meters Down the Steep Driveway Next to Barba Roja
Hours: 7AM to 10PM, Monday to Sunday; Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner
Parking: Ample (at Least Until Los Altos Sells All Its Units), 20 Meters from Restaurant Entrance
Contact: Phone: 506-2777-1557

Reviewing ROMEOS: Roberta W., Mike L., Bob N.

We were happy to welcome Roberta as our first auxiliary member - she graced both our table and our conversation.

Karola's is a restaurant associated with the Los Altos condominium building but is open to the general public. I had been there once before for lunch and found it good.

That's the Restaurant in Front of the Condominium Building

The dining room Is a large open-air room overlooking a pool and facing the Pacific Ocean but, of course, like all the restaurants in Manuel Antonio you won't see that view if you arrive after 6 PM; we arrived at 7 PM. For the quality of restaurant we came to appreciate, the room is deceptively simple and plain. The tables are simple wood with place mats and unadorned with any decoration or flower. GG did much appreciate the chairs which were not the tico tipico hard wooden seats but instead had some give and support in the derriere area (aging gringos with bad backs appreciate this kind of stuff).

The lighting was soft and warm and of a high enough level to easily read the menus. When the bill was presented (after chasing down someone who would actually give it to us - I've mentioned previously the similarity between Tico and European practice in this regard), the waiter also brought an electric lantern to help us sign on the right line. Nice touch - although despite the aid I signed the wrong half of the chit the first time.

The service was very good, the waiter being attentive and prompt at clearing used dinnerware and utensils. It seemed to me also that the courses were brought to us in efficient order but not on top of each other. If you've ever waited around a restaurant for 45 minutes before you got your salad and then received all the other courses within ten  minutes, you know what I mean. Our fellow was very responsive and didn't exhibit a frown or any negative emotion when we asked, in good gringo style, a for a split check and then reversed the decision and put it all on one card.

But what the three ROMEOS agreed on easily was that the best part of this dining experience was the food. We three all had three courses (it's tough work but we struggle on). For the first course, one person had a simple fresh and crisp salad, another had an Asian salad with rice noodles and shredded beef in a sweet Thai sauce and I had steamed mussels covered with an onion cream sauce (yummers), For main courses one ROMEO had fish with rice (guess who was concerned most with their figure) and two of us had tenderloin medallions picata with garlic mashed potatoes and steamed crisp vegetables.

For desert, GG ordered a coffee flavored Créme Bruleé which was quite good but the piéce de resistance this evening would be the desert our novitiate ROMEO (or perhaps ROLEO since she's a lady) ordered. It was described as "leaves of chocolate with a picadillo of fruit" What arrived was a plate with four thin chocolate wafers about 3 inches in diameter, each wafer with a mound of small diced tropical fruit on top. There was a light fruit sauce dabbled on each mound.

Outstanding. Yeah baby, that's good eating.


The price level at Karola's is above average (we came in at about $40 per person without alcohol) but in line with the top restaurants in this area such as Kapi Kapi, The Falls and El Parador (for more on these and others see our Restaurant Archives). We gave the restaurant a five dollar ranking but we all felt it was worth it and not terribly overpriced. The team also concluded that Karola's deserved a full five sloths for ambiance, service and food quality.

Most people (like our hero) can't afford to eat in a place like this regularly, but for a vacation or the occasional need or want arises in the pscyche for a step up in self-gratification, you could not do better in this area than at Karola's.

Founder's Quotes

Insights from the dudes who put together the United States of America. First, from the first dictionary dude:

"Every child in America should be acquainted with his own country. He should read books that furnish him with ideas that will be useful to him in life and practice. As soon as he opens his lips, he should rehearse the history of his own country." -- Noah Webster, On the Education of Youth in America, 1788

And yet another from my favorite rebel:

"I place economy among the first and most important virtues and public debt as one of the greatest dangers to be feared." -- Thomas Jefferson

don Berto de Quepos,
El Gringo Dorado
Pura Vida!

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To Contact GGC Headquarters to request deletion from the Chronicles distribution, make comments, suggest topics or criticize my bad jokes, just send an email to: fiducry@comcast.net. Be pithy, but kind (I'm sensitive).