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"Doing Latin America, Mostly by Luck"

30th Edition - February 2011

CLICK HERE FOR ARCHIVED EPISODES                                                                                                                 CLICK HERE FOR RESTAURANT ARCHIVES
OK, Guys, Waddayasay We Be Inconspicuous and Just Perch Here for a While - Who's Gonna Notice Us?

          Travel Quote of the Month:
    "The traveler sees what he sees, the tourist sees what he has come to see." - G.K. Chesterton

IN THIS EDITION: Broken News (Annual Holidays, Fiesta Fever, Nica Invasion Update), Rosalita's Secret and
Los Variadades , Chicharrones, What's-in-a-Word (Soda, Jacó), ROMEO Corner (Fish Hook - Golfito)

Broken News

Annual Holidays

The standard Tico work week is heavy duty, 6 days (48 hours). The standard vacation time is two weeks after one year; I haven't been able to find any source that says the amount of vacation time goes up with more years of service. To partially make up for this hard schedule, workers receive an extra month's salary at Christmas time (like their European counterparts) and are allowed to take, by law, up to 11 holidays, 9 of which are paid. The table below shows the national holiday schedule for 2011.


Paid/Not Paid
January 1st New Years Day Mandatory Paid Vacation
April 11th Juan Santamaria Day Mandatory Paid Vacation
Easter Thursday Easter Mandatory Paid Vacation
Easter Friday Easter Mandatory Paid Vacation
May 1st Labor Day Mandatory Paid Vacation
July 25th Guanacaste Annexation Mandatory Paid Vacation
August 2nd Virgin of Los Angeles Vacation (not paid)
August 15th Mothers Day Mandatory Paid Vacation
September 15th Independence Day Mandatory Paid Vacation
October 12th Cultural Day Vacation (not paid)
December 25th Christmas Mandatory Paid Vacation

Comments on the vacation days:

April 11 - Juan Santamaria is that dude that pushed the gringos out of Costa Rica (MORE) and got the biggest airport named after himself, along with getting a big statue of himself in front of the main terminal.

July 25 - Guanacaste was "annexed" from Nicaragua back in the days when Central and South American countries declared independence but most Costa Ricans say the Guanacaste locals elected to join C.R. . The Nicas have never forgiven Ticos for the "annexation". I wonder if there will now be a national Nicaraguan holiday celebrating the annexation of Costa Rica's Isla Calero (see invasion update below)?

August 2 - It's good to know that, for at least one fleeting moment in history, there actually was a virgin in a town called Los Angeles.

September 15 - Celebrates the break-up of the Spanish empire in Central and South America (probably not celebrated in Madrid).

October 12 - So that's why so many dancers in native costumes appear around the country at this time of year. (Sometimes GG is a little slow on the uptake)

Fiesta Fever

Nobody likes a festival more than a Tico (and certain gringo residents). During the big holidays of Christmas and New Year's, when there are already numerous religious and non-religious parties going on for kids and adults alike, other fiestas abound. There's room for many other fiestas of all types and the early months of the year bring them out in Ticoland. We are not talking here about all the cultural activities that abound in San José at places like the National Theater. Those are extra. We're talking about the more interesting and different festivals all over the country. Here's a sampling from some recent schedules:

  • Chicharrón Fair: Celebrating the traditional dish of fried pork, with cultural shows, games, music, food, through Dec. 19, fairgrounds, Puriscal (Puriscal is in the mountains southwest of San José). There's more to read on chicharrones below.
  • The Fiesta de Las Mulas (Mule Festival): Kind of a county fair that takes place in Parrita 20 kilometers or so up the road from Quepos. The mule festival stubbornly persists (couldn't resist the pun) after many years in the making. (MORE)
  • Fiesta Quepos: Dancers and entertainment at the bay front bandstand, carnival and bull games in the Paquita fairgrounds a little north of the city. One can't kill a bull in Costa Rica in a bull fight, but irritating the hell out of it is permitted and encouraged. (MORE)
  • Tope Horse Parade in San José. Typically, several thousand horsemen and horsewomen, take to the streets of San José, recapturing the city from vehicles. (Missed this one, gotta do it next year) My understanding is that the recent San José Tope drew an estimated 200,000 people.
  • Fiestas de San José - Zapote fairgrounds. This is one of the events (Fiesta de Quepos is another) where would-be bull fighters get in the ring with a 1,000-pound fighting bull and taunt it into complete confusion. Under Costa Rican law, unlike Mexico and Spain, you can't kill a bull in a bullfight here. To make up for it, Ticos from the audience, many fortified by multiple bottles of Cerveza Imperial (MORE on Imperial), jump into the ring and annoy the animal nearly to death, pulling its tail, etc. In San José they get about 100 nuts to do this; in Quepos we get about 10 Nicas and two town borachos (drunks).

Shortly after completion of the Festival weekend for the San José bull festival, a newspaper reported the following: "The bull ring at the Zapote fairgrounds produced 119 cases for the Cruz Roja (this organization is known as the Red Cross in Rio Linda - ed.). That is more than the 116 cases treated from the rest of the fairgrounds. And the cases from the bull ring or rondel were more badly hurt in some cases.  Only 30 persons had to be taken to a hospital." I bet the Imperial and Pilsen was flowing heavily before, during and after throwing the bull.

One of the things I love about this country is that people are always ready to have a celebration, a fiesta. And they manage to do this even with a 6-day work week. Pura vida!

Nica Invasion Update

The Chronicles reported last month on the Nicaraguan aggression along Costa Rica's northeastern border (see: INVASION). We also reported one objective of this "annexation" might be to create a new river mouth as a prelude to building a Panama-type canal. Another idea that popped up this month was the possibility that the Nica government wants to put a new port in the disputed region. The new port would be suitable for cruise ships and could be combined with a new airport planned for southeastern Nicaragua to give a big boost to tourism in Nicaragua and, perhaps, steal some tourist business from Costa Rica. That's a second theory anyway.

Señor Ortega and the Nicaraguan government might try to understand that ultimately it's not the infrastructure that builds tourist and ex-patriot attraction as has been done in Costa Rica, but rather it's the stable investment climate as well as the ambiance and friendliness of the natives towards outsiders that builds success. Chopping off a piece of your neighbor's yard by force is not a good example of friendliness. Linking yourself to Hugo Chavez' star does not build confidence in Nicaragua as an investment opportunity.

Go home Danny Ortega.

Rosalita's Secret & Los Variadades

The "market" or population here does not usually support specialty clothing stores but perhaps we've discovered one that will last.

GG and another ROMEO were wandering through barrio Los Angeles (also known as our neighborhood) a short while ago when we came across a new store. The store is located near the Monge Memorial Bridge. (go here for MAP of Quepos and bridge location) The large sign on the store front proclaims "Steven's solo íntima" - in Rio Linda this would be "Steven's Intimate Apparel". Yes Dorothy, we now have the Quepos equivalent of Victoria's Secret right here in Quepoland (that's like Chicagoland only a bit smaller). Pura Vida!

There was a gentleman sitting behind the counter when we first found the store but I didn't have time to stop and introduce myself. You know how it is, the press of meetings with beach vendors, keeping up with the Nica war etc. can keep a retired ROMEO tres occupado (just can't resist mixing Spanglish with Franglais). When I get a chance, I'll have to stop back and introduce myself to Steve-o as I have a suggestion he might consider.

ROMEO Paul Pointing Out Some of the Fine Products Featured at Our New Intimate Apparel Store
(We Note Here That ROMEO Paul Took an Inordinate Amount of Time In Making This Inspection)

Yes, the picture of the pretty girls on the store sign gives a good indication of its contents but it seems to me that a general conversation about the store held away from its location (or a listing in the phone book, if we had one) might be misconstrued. A significant portion of our resident and tourist communities here are gay. Methinks "Steven's" solo íntima can be misconstrued and be misleading to this community.

Our Hero would like to propose a new name for the store to improve its clarity of purpose: "Rosalie's Secret" ("la secreta de Rosalita - solo íntima"). Think about it amigo Steve, it's worth a shot don't you think?.

It's interesting to me that the stores that seem to do the best in a small, conservative town like Quepos, are the variety stores. They can be recognized by the word "Variadades" in their title; like Variadades Jhonan on Avenida Central across from the bus station (picture right).

There is some discussion among the unknowing like myself as to just how to pronounce "Jhonan" but the consensus seems to be "Joe - nahn" with the emphasis on the first syllable (mea culpa amigos if it's really Ho - nahn).

One Might Think From This Photo That the Store is Quite a Large Building with a Second Floor. Actually Variadades Jhonan is Only One Floor and Limited to the Width of the Entrance Sign Shown. The Rest of the Building is a Hardware Store and Warehouse

Variety Store Concept is Alive and Well at the Jersey Shore

I've come to learn that these stores can become indispensable, particularly to a neophyte resident gringo. Variadades Jhonan in particular falls into that category for GG. I've learned to stop there first if I can't figure out where to go for the item I'm seeking. Other times I stop at Jhonan as a last resort having gone to other Quepos stores that seemed to be the right place to go but instead ending up frustrated. Either way, more often than not, I find what I'm looking for at Variadades Jhonan.

I've become friendly with the lady who usually runs the place. When my Spanglish fails, she has become adept at interpreting my charades to describe the item I'm looking for.

If I don't find it at Variadades Jhonan, rest assured it will be something I will have to pick up in San José on my next pilgrimage there (going to San José is a bi-monthly necessity to a Quepoan). 

My guess is that Variadades Jhonan can't be more than about 70 square meters (800 square feet) floor space; but it is literally packed to the rafters with "stuff". To inspect an item, one often has to call upon an attendant to use a pole to bring down an item to floor level. There is so much stuff piled in the aisles that sometimes it is virtually impossible for two people to pass each other - one has to back up to the top of the aisle and yield to the person coming the other way (much like the old one-lane bridges). I'm sure the place wouldn't pass any town's fire code in the States but here it's part of the charm. There is no bar coding of items - everything has a hand-written price sticker on it and is rung up on the register without wanding.

While I was writing this, I glanced around the apartment and noticed a rather wide variety of things I've purchased so far from Variadades Jhonan. They include: bed sheets and pillow cases (2 sets), bed pillows (3), throw pillows (2), bath towels (2 sets), beach towels (2), clothes hamper, pots for plants (4), a wall mounted toilet paper dispenser, shower curtain, assorted supplementary dinnerware, frying pans (2), scissors, a plastic stool, a waste basket, small throw rugs (2), electrical extension cord, plain letter envelopes (yeah, really), back brush for the shower, toilet brush, wooden back scratcher, fly swatter, waste basket, 2 umbrellas (the remainder of the nine I've purchased there so far and forgotten all over town), Christmas decorations for my Hanukkah bush, sunglasses (similar number to the umbrellas), floor mop, spiral notebooks for Spanish lessons (2)...

I suspect there would be more if I kept looking. Considering I rent a furnished apartment, it appears that I have virtually completed its outfitting, and the outfitting of my life, at Variadades Jhonan. 

Recently, a visitor to Quepos asked me to help him find a microwave he wanted to give his host as a present for letting him stay at his home. Of course, we first visited the usual appliance stores in town, of which there are several, but he couldn't find what he wanted. We were walking by VJ and I blurted out "Well, we can stop here but it's not the kind of thing they should have". Oh ye of little faith, GG. Sure enough there were four of the type and size my friend was looking for tucked away in a back corner of the store. He bought one.

Variadades Jhonan is virtually the Wal-Mart of Quepos. I could probably get along if almost any other business in Quepos were to shut its doors but if Variadades Jhonan disappeared I think I would have to enter psychotherapy for grief treatment.


What's-in-a-Word Department


Our hero spent his formative years in a small town 35 miles from Boston on the cold North Shore of Massachusetts. It wasn't until the age of 14 that I took my first road trip across state lines, other than going with my Dad on regular car runs to New Hampshire to buy cheaper booze.

It was around that tender age that I went with my parents to see my newly married sister in Detroit. Looking back at that trip now, over 50 years ago, I can only remember two significant discoveries on that voyage. Firstly, traversing Eastern Canada by rail between Buffalo and Detroit and gazing out the window of the railcar sure brought us through a lot of mono-colored wheat fields (brown, ca-chink, brown, ca-chink, brown, ca-chink).

The other cultural awakening on that trip was how people of the same language can employ widely different words to describe the same thing, There's a great line in the movie "Patton" where the general has been exiled from the war theater to London because of his overly stern behavior towards his troops and is forced to deliver a speech to a ladies club. Says he: "It's nice for an American to be back in England, two great countries separated by a common language". Exactly.

There exists (or did) a narrow enclave around Boston, perhaps 50 or 75 miles in radius, where soft drinks are known as "tonic". I knew no other name for soft drinks until we arrived in Detroit and people started talking about "soda" and "pop". A soda back home was a yummy treat concocted with carbonated water and either a sweet syrup, or ice cream or both. "Pop" was what some of my friends called their dads. It took a while, but I eventually came to accept that soda = tonic = pop = soft drinks.

Not in Costa Rica, amigo. If you ask for a soda here, you're likely to be directed to a nearby restaurant. If you ask for a soda in a restaurant to accompany your meal, you're likely to get a confused look from the server who's thinking behind that smile, 'you're in one, tonto'. Soft drinks here come under the classification of "frescos". Soft drinks = frescos. And don't ask for a diet soda, they're called "light" here. You'll have a very hard time in a restaurant finding any diet drinks except Coke and Pepsi (occasionally I do find diet ginger ale at the supermarket).

The word soda here is used to describe a simple, sometimes very small restaurant often run by a family. You can get a simple but good Tico meal ("comida tipica") in a soda for perhaps 2,500 to 3,000 colones ($5-6). The closest U.S. equivalent to a Costa Rican Soda in my experience is what we used to call a luncheonette. Another possibility might be a "Diner", but diners in the Northeast U.S. are usually fancier than a modern Tico soda and classic diners sport a polished aluminum facade. In addition, most diners usually have more extensive menus.

Some of the best known Sodas in this area are Soda Sanchez, Soda Como Bien, Soda El Jardin all in Quepos and Soda de Angels at the top of Manuel Antonio. Among the common offerings in these sodas are Gallo Pinto (MORE on Pinto), served with many combinations of eggs, bacon and beef or chicken in sauce. Other common offerings include Sopa de Mariscos (seafood soup in a light brown broth) and Sopa Negra, black bean soup, in which is hiding at the bottom one whole (shelled) egg that cooked in the soup on its way to the table. And, of course, the "casado", that basic plate of meat or fish, with beans, rice, salad and optional other stuff is always available at a soda.

Of course there is a fuzzy line between a soda and a restaurant just like that between a luncheonette and a full service restaurant. There also is a very loose definition of what constitutes a soda. For example there are at least four sodas within a two block radius of where I live. If Carmen thinks she's a good cook, she might throw a couple of tables on the porch and announce her home is now "Soda Carmen". She might not even give a name to the place, that'll come later. She'll rely on her friends to support the place until then.

Soda Sanchez - In the Neighborhood
Along the Road
Near the bridge
At the Beach

It's nice to see that the friendly neighborhood business concept is still alive and well somewhere in the world.


We have a sister village about 70 klicks (40 miles in Rio Linda parlance) north of us that is very popular with gringos, Canadians, Europeans and assorted surfer yoots (humans under 30). The town's name is Jacó. It's pronounced Hah-ko, with the emphasis on the second syllable. That's what that little mark over the last syllable in the title above, called a "tilde", is all about. It helps the user put the pronunciation emphasis in the right place. Lacking a tilde, the emphasis is almost always placed on the second to last syllable of any Spanish word (don't ask - it's just the way it is; well of course there's also the diphthong rule - no GG , don't go any further).

Jacó is not Jack-oh or Yach-oh. I couldn't stop laughing recently while watching a TV show about Costa Rica on the Travel & Leisure channel. The segment featured a group of a half a dozen or so young people (to me, that's anyone under 50 these days) that had been commissioned to explore Latin America and report their opinions. (Schweeet job, amigos, I'm available for assignment if and when you need another evaluator). The team gave their report on Ticoland including a 15 minute segment on Jacó. Evidently their group conscience dictated they should pronounce this town Yach-oh. Over and over I heard this mal-articulation of the poor town's name while they wandered around the village and tried to surf on Jacó beach (badly of course - OK, OK, so I'm critical because I'm jealous of the job they have, nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah).

If you want to sound less like a tourist and more like a seasoned or sensitive visitor, try using the correct pronunciation for our towns. For additional dubious guidance on how to pronounce local names, go HERE.


WARNING: It might be best for vegetarians, the squemish and those overly concerned with free flowing arteries to by-pass this article.

The Chicharron Festival was mentioned in the Broken News segment above. Chicharrones (chi-cha-roh-knees) are pieces of pork deep fried and often cooked out in the open in a large vat of rendered pork fat over a wood fire. Chicharones are very popular all over Costa Rica. Uncooked chicharone pieces are available at many butcher shops and the fried versions are on many restaurant menus. Some restaurants are dedicated to this specialty and are called Chicharroneras. A word of caution: some menus have two types of Chicharrones, the meat version and something akin to a pork rind. Having never been a fan or connoisseur of pork rinds, GG always asks for the meat version.

A long, long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, before GG had become GG, I was first introduced to Chicharrones during a visit to Ticoland in 2003. I was staying in Manuel Antonio with a couple of reprobates who owned a beautiful house on the side of the mountain that faced the Savegre River Valley and mountain range to the southeast.

One day one of my friends said, "C'mon, we're going to lunch". Says I: "Where?", Says he: "You'll see." I love a good mystery so we jumped into my friend's car and headed north out of Quepos on the road to San José. After about 10 klicks or so he abruptly turned right into the middle of a palm oil farm. The sign at the head of this unpaved side road said "Las Vegas" and pointed into a large palm tree plantation. After about two kilometers we reached a T in the road and took a right, followed by another kilometer and then a left. In about 300 meters, we pulled up at a wide spot in the road where, under the shade trees, was nestled a very simple restaurant with about four tables protected by a corrugated metal roof.

Chicharrones Cooking in the Vat

There were also a couple of outbuildings housing what looked like work tables and a couple of ladies waiting for something (probably our business). At the far end of the lot was a hog pen with several hogs grunting and running around.

As we sat down, I noticed that between the outbuildings and the restaurant proper there was a wood fire burning strongly with a large vat (like an old wash tub) perched on top of the burning logs. A man was stirring the liquid in the vat with what appeared to be something akin to a boat oar and I could see pieces of something were swirling in the thick liquid. I would later come to understand those pieces were chicharones.

Without being offered a menu and without asking me what I would like, my friend ordered for the three of us. I thought I heard the word chicharone used but, at the time, I had no idea what they were. I also thought I heard the word "yucca" (yoo-ka). I figured my host knew I liked different kinds of food and that a new taste was likely to be the resolving of this mystery but I was not prepared for what came next.

Immediately after the order was transmitted to the kitchen, a rather muscular dude with a very large machete appeared from the kitchen and walked over to the hog pen. When he opened the gate, all the hogs ran for the opposite end, but this dude was experienced and he quickly grabbed a hog and dragged it by the hind legs out of the pen. There he gave it three hard and fast whacks about the neck with the machete.

A Classic - Chicharrones with Fried Yucca and Limone Juice for Seasoning
Chicharrones with Sauces for Dipping
"Hey Guys, Try the Arroz con Pollo!"

Needless to say, this stunned the hell out of the poor creature, but it didn't kill him, prompting the cerdo slayer to whack him a few more times until the critter finally gave up the ghost. The man dragged the carcass back to the huts where the women immediately began butchering the hog into large and small pieces, into chicharones and roasts and hams and bacon and what-have-you. My host just sat there with an irrepressible grin on his face watching for my reaction having surprised me with this performance. I was simply speechless.

After a while, a large platter piled up with hot chicharones, arrived at table accompanied by another heaping platter of yucca (also fried in the pork fat). Along came an assortment of condiments and the inevitable limone wedges to sprinkle that wonderfully tart juice over the meat. The pork was incredibly tender and tasty. The yucca was the best I've ever had, even to this day.

I have been back to this restaurant one more time since then and the product was just as good as it was the first time. On the second visit, however, there was no machete-wacking performance and I'm told that the restaurant padron has decided not to do butchering in front of lunch patrons any longer. Good idea, amigo.

I've never had better pork than at this eat-in-the-ruff place; and certainly none fresher.

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

The Fish Hook, Golfito

Location: On the bay side of the main road about 1 kilometer south of Golfito Center
Hours: Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner; Limited Off-Street Parking

Three ROMEOS decided to take a field trip down the coast to Golfito (my unscientific guesstimate was that Quepos to Golfito was 150 kilometers one way) for the express purpose of taking advantage of the duty-free zone that has been established there by the government. Accordingly, prices on electronic devices and appliances are often 30-40% lower than any other place in Costa Rica, putting them on a par with standard U.S. pricing of such items and almost as cheap as Panamá. The zone is called the "deposito" and the rules require one to stay overnight or at least to pick up your purchase the next day. So we looked for a hotel/motel to meet the unenlightened bureaucratic requirement of staying overnight (I'm biting my tongue so as not to bore you with an extensive dissertation on misguided government practices I call "commercialism by capture").

Here's a Tip: Make this trip in the middle of the week when crowds are smaller and motel rooms more available. We arrived on Friday and left Saturday morning. The crowds on Saturday were substantial and finding an adequate motel on Friday night was difficult. After three tries, we found a motel that could accommodate three of us (who needs Fodor's or TripAdvisor when you can bludgeon you're way through life in this adventurous way). The rooms we finally found were CRB level - Costa Rica Basic - i.e., clean, very little in the way of accoutrements, no A/C and offering only a cold shower; yeeeeah, baby, mountain water in the morning sure gets you moving - Pura Vida!. (So GG, waddayawant for twenty bucks a night - one place that turned us down was $98)

View From the Dining Room of the Fish Hook Restaurant - This Of Course is a Daytime View - Like Most Places in Costa Rica, Dinner Views are Largely Dark as the Sun Sets at 5:30 PM

Having acquired shelter, we turned our attention to the most basic and profound of ROMEO needs: food (a friend likes to say we're on two-hour feedings down here). Earlier in the day, we had passed a place not too far from our hotel on the road to the deposito. The sign proclaimed it to be the Fish Hook Restaurant. We learned later that the place is actually The Fish Hook Marina and Lodge. Had we surmised that fact earlier we probably would have stopped to check out the rooms. Another ROMEO later told us rooms there started at $107!

We sat down to dinner around 6PM (gosh, I miss those early bird specials in Florida). It was a sparse but large and pleasant room with a very sizable round bar at the landside end of the room. I felt ghostly vibes emanating from the bar which I'm sure resulted from all the fish stories that must have been told there over numerous libations. It was dark but we could make out the marina which was dimly lit (the daytime view is shown in the picture to the left)

Our waiter was efficient, courteous and helpful. As I often do, I asked where he was from and he replied Golfito. I like to ask that question because many wait staff at tropical resort areas have emigrated from other climes, like Nome. I must admit, however, that our guy did not look Chinook.

My companions stated they were going to eat lightly for dinner (something about those oversized burritos we had consumed for lunch in Uvita on the way down) and they both chose an offering of Caesar salad with chicken, which they reported was very tasty and "just right" in size. Looked small to me.

Of course, GG , having never felt the need to limit a current menu choice because of a previous selection at another time of the day, went for a plate of grilled tuna filets accompanied by steamed vegetables and mashed potatoes (I know that use of smashed taters as an accompaniment with fish is a Tico standard but isn't this one dish where you might actually want to be served rice, or at least give the option?). The tuna was a bit overcooked but covered in a sort of chimichurry sauce that was quite tasty and a bit piquant. The vegetables were uninspired at best.

We all commented as we sat down that the prices looked a little steep and indeed they were. My entreé went for nearly 10,000 colones (these days that's twenty bucks in Rio Linda). You should get rice Pilaf for that, amigos, not mashed potatoes. The salads were 5,000 colones.

The basic conclusion about the Fish Hook is that the atmosphere is above average because of the bay view, the service is adequate, the food is average and the deal is fully priced. That sounds like 3 sloths and 4 dollar marks to me.


Don Roberto de Quepos,
El Gringo Dorado
Pura Vida!

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