‘Pretty much the same’. A simple, but uncommon answer to the common question, what was it like around here 20 years ago.
You don’t get that answer often in Costa Rica. Usually you get the honest but worn out refrain of how it was before, man you just missed it, this isn’t the place, the other place is the place now. But that was what the proprietor of Cafe de la Suerte in Pavones told me when we were talking at breakfast one morning. An Isaeli expat about the same age as me, he had come to Costa Rica about the same time I made my first trip. The big difference of course, he never left. Why would you, he smirked.
Great question. One that’s kept me up more than a few nights.
Cafe de la Suerte has an enviable location right at the end of the road, one of the world’s best waves right out front, and I had plenty of time to think about what he said while I rested in a hammock of one of the guest rooms upstairs, watching surfers glide by with one eye sleepily half-open.
In general, Costa Rica, like most of the world, has changed a lot in the time since my first trips in the late 90’s. The opening of the Liberia airport and direct flights from Miami, Houston, and other points north blew up the Guanacaste region as the drive to the beach went from 5 or 6 hours to less than one hour to Tamarindo. Beach towns closer to San Jose like Jaco and Dominical continued to grow. San Jose itself has experienced the same gentrification and hipster influx of great food, third-wave coffee that many other global cities have had. You used to actually need to speak Spanish to get things.
Many things have changed.
That town at the end of the road, too far for a day trip, too wet in the rainy season, maybe the wave too fickle. Too unplugged for the remote workers, lacking the kids day camps, organic juice cleanses and year round international schools of Nosara or the opportunities to make money in real estate of Tamarindo. It just hasn’t changed that much.
I had wanted to come here for 20 years, but had never made the trip, talking myself out of it with all of the usual justifications – my trip too short, maximizing my beach time, the wave, again, fickle. Honestly, without my trusty Google map, I don’t know how people ever found this place. As I drove I imagined my early, pre-GPS and cell phone, trips to Costa Rica. For me it was adventurous enough, full of flat tires, broken down rental cars, long bus trips.
And the relatively recent construction of a strategically placed bridge opened up what was impassable during certain times of year. Even now, this tiny one lane bridge is a bottle neck, but one where you rarely have to wait for oncoming traffic.
Walking around Pavones, it’s easy to see just how right he is. It looks like the Costa Rica I remember from early trips – small, quiet, dark when the sun has gone down. Compared to the party towns up north, there’s very little action once the sun goes down. People are here for the wave, or for the quiet, or because they have always been here, the same as it was.
This is still a town where you might want to have a headlamp with you when you wander around at night, or a snack in your room if you get hungry late. If you don’t seek out news of the outside world, you probably won’t get it.
As a family guy now, one of the first things I look for when I dream of packing up the family and dropping out is what the school options are, which in itself goes to show the limited lens through which I now view the word ‘necessity’. English or bilingual school, check.
In most of Costa Rica you’ll find plenty of options, from Montessori to Waldorf, bilingual and international, all the expat keywords of the comfort of home life. Not in Pavones. I wish I had asked him if he had kids, where they had gone to school. But I’m pretty sure i know the answer, to the one school, the local school, where a gringos kids can play with locals they way they did a decade or two or more ago. I wish I asked the local gringo woman sitting next to me at a restaurant as well.
This place haunts me in this way. Could I drop off this far? Still in Costa Rica, this country where you get the adventure with comfort, where you are off grid but safe, where you can get most of the comforts of home plus the culture but don’t have to speak Spanish in some places if you don’t want to or can’t.
Could I move to Pavones? The place that would be like Costa Rica was when I first fell in love with it, because it hasn’t changed. I wouldn’t be able to sit around complaining about how you don’t even need to speak Spanish while I sipped my chai latte smoothie or ate my poke bowl. I would just be there, as it was.
In our over-traveled, over searchable, Uber-available, Instagramable world, travelers are always looking for the next thing and they are getting harder to find, too connected and accessible, with the new Green School for the wealthy travel set taking their year abroad. Pavones is there for the other experience, the one that requires a leap.
But how long can it really stay this way. The road will get nicer, the population will get to the point where someone can justify a private school, internet access will improve, maybe a co-working space will open or a Selina will fuck up the whole place.
Get it while you can.