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Costa Rica’s Coasts Are Flipped

July 1st, 2019 by dk

You know how they say you never really understand grammar until you learn a second language? Your first language comes naturally, so you don’t learn until later that there are rules you’re following. I’m wondering if the same idea applies to national geography.

I’ve spent most of this month in Costa Rica. And I think I may understand the United States better now. The coasts of Costa Rica are closer, but the cultures are as far apart as New England from California. The middles of both countries seem happy to be keeping the coasts apart.

San Jose sits in the center of Costa Rica. It’s where things get done. The country’s largest city serves as its center for commerce and transportation. Almost everything in Costa Rica passes through San Jose.

The country’s midsection mixes volcanic mountains with fertile fields. Higher altitudes, cooler nights, and regular rainfall produce a lush countryside. Cows are plentiful across Costa Rica, but Cartago’s cows are fatter. There are no Great Plains of Costa Rica. But there is industry and agriculture to feed the nation’s population, along with majestic vistas to make the middle worth visiting.

The coastal cultures seemed familiar, but flipped. I traveled first along the Pacific coast. It reminded me of Myrtle Beach or Daytona. The Pacific is way too warm for an Oregonian to recognize. The beaches are too uninterrupted. It’s easier to think the sun has reversed itself than to try to make sense of it all.

Driving down the Pacific coastal highway to Uvita, every restaurant beckoning drivers offers food from somewhere else. French cuisine, sushi, Chinese food, Texas BBQ, burritos, and of course the ubiquitous pizza. If you lost all of your senses but taste, I’m not sure you could know you’re in Costa Rica.

Authentic local cuisine is available on the country’s west coast, but it doesn’t call attention to itself. The hole-in-the-wall cafe is as common as holes in walls. They just don’t seem to care whether visitors discover them.

What a shock it was when I made it to the opposite coast.

On the east edge, every business in Puerto Limon and Puerto Viejo seemed to offer its variation on the same theme: Caribbean cuisine with organic yoga massage — plus a healthy dose of Rastafarian “one love.” Costa Rica’s Pacific “mixing bowl” contrasts with the “melting pot” along its Caribbean beaches.

“Laid back” barely captures it. I saw a cat and a dog playing like cousins. I rented an electric bicycle with no ID and just some pocket cash. The gate to my house was chained closed, but without a lock. People protect themselves, but they don’t try very hard. Everything is free and easy — or at least affordable, and always easy.

Their West Coast culture in on the eastern side of the country. That’s when I realized that I have never tasted East Coast cuisine in my home country. What would that even mean? How many of our local chefs tout their Pacific Northwest-inspired recipes? That’s not a thing on our eastern seaboard, and I never saw it until now.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at

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