5:30 pm. There is a slight breeze brushing on my hair, and my fingers itch with the touch of the blades of grass. I open my eyes and see mountains descending for kilometers and kilometers until they reach a golden coast, covered in the rays of the sleepy sun. I’m sitting in one of my favorite places in the world: Las Piedras (The Stones). This corner of my world, where hundred-year old volcanic rocks are used simultaneously as a teenager’s bench and a beetle’s shelter, was all I knew; my secluded home that seemed, like a bug’s refuge, a bit too small.
When I turned 17, I had just finished high school and I took the decision of moving my life to France for a few years. Some people have called my decision brave, others impulsive, I call it inevitable. Few small-town people that I’ve met have told me that they’d enjoy spending the rest of their lives in their hometown and I’m no exception. Almost two years after my departure, I came back to Monteverde for a second time and, naturally, I saw the town with different eyes. The food tasted better, the sunsets were slower, people’s smiles were sweeter. I was reminded of how particular this tiny place is and how distinct its culture is from much of the country. I admit many people will say that about their respective homes, but bear with me, that is precisely my point.
To get to Monteverde from San José, Costa Rica’s capital, you have to take a 4-hour bus, of which one hour is up a dirt road next to immense cliffs. Regardless of the intimidating journey, the town’s humble population of 6,750 is visited by about 250 thousand tourists yearly, meaning a monthly average of over 20,800. It’s not hard to imagine why this is after spending just two minutes googling pictures of the place, but Monteverde’s cosmopolitan side does not end here. To understand why, we have to take trip to the United States in the 1950’s.
The Korean war had just sparked at the time, and the US government was drafting soldiers from all around the country. A group of Quakers and pacifists from Fairhope, Alabama who refused to take part in the conflict, decided to move to a more peaceful place. Costa Rica, which had abolished its army in 1949, seemed like an ideal new home. The group of Americans bought land in what is now Monteverde, where only a few Costa Rican families were living at the time. In order to sustain themselves, they created the nationally famous Cheese. The Quakers soon founded the Monteverde Friend’s School which is now one of two bilingual schools in town. As time passed Quaker and Costa Rican culture began to mix. As an established melting pot for Americans and Ticos (Costa Ricans’ informal demonym) more families joined the town. Subsequently, tourism boomed during the 1980’s in Costa Rica, Monteverde’s biodiversity and international nature only stimulating the growth and the global presence of the town.
Driving around, you can see a public soccer field, often crowded with loud, energetic youth; street-open, repair workshops where muscular, greasy, middle aged man are laughing as they fix motorcycles; the Catholic Church in the middle of town, in which elderly ladies close their eyes and hold a rosary. Scenes such as these are the representation of Costa Rican culture at its core, maybe even a good peak into Latin America itself. Look a little closer, however, and you will see less conventional scenes. Wake up early in the morning and it would not be uncommon to see a group of teenagers with binoculars heading into the woods to birdwatch; on a Saturday night you might hear folk music from the Friend’s School, where both young adults and seniors are square-dancing.
A culture can be analyzed and differentiated through many factors. One recognizes cities as Paris or Rome for their art and architecture or makes the difference between Argentina and Chile based on language and accent, or even distinguishes between Chinese families and American families based on their traditions like when they celebrate the New Year. Monteverde, by this standard has, undoubtedly, its own culture. Concerning art, on top of square dancing, it has become a summer tradition for many to go watch the yearly musical organized by Far Corners Musical Theater. This is a non-profit that has produced plays for over 10 years in the community with kids from the ages of 12-18. Furthermore, language is an amusing topic in the town. Younger generations have excellent levels of English, and many young adults, including myself, have the habit of speaking Spanglish, swiftly changing languages half-sentence or using certain words that might be more precise in a second language. Beyond that, the formal way of saying “you” (Usted) is used much more than it is in the capital, which changes the whole conjugation of your sentences and, in turn, the way you sound.
Some instances of Costa Rican culture are also harder to find in Monteverde. For starters, there is a very specific structure of how towns were built hundreds of years ago in the country. The Church was most likely facing the East, with a park in front of it and the school next it. This arrangement is not found in the town which was built fairly recently in very irregular geography. The church is far from any school and, although nature is abundant, there is no real park in town. The massive amount of agriculture that can be found in many other parts of the country is also missing; rather, the town harnessed its potential for agriculture into tourism, which is the absolute core of the economy in the zone. Tours of coffee and sugarcane plantations, as well as many reforestation activities are easy to find around.
When visiting a country, it is easy to simply use stereotypes to understand the place. It makes us feel safer to know something about a place and we often get carried away by it. Many go to France expecting to see mimes and tons of smokers. What’s more, many of these images that we hear about come from cities, as they are often the most visited place in a country. Stereotypes and assumptions are necessary for people to feel safer while traveling; often it can be the only information one has of a place. But regardless of their importance, their dangers have to be considered as well.
This town is not exclusively a part of Costa Rican culture, as it is not the case for hundreds of thousands of towns world-wide that you and I have yet to discover. The outcome of what the town and its inhabitants are right now, as it is the case for a country, comes from specific occurrences to the place. Granted, it is heavily affected by both our Costa Rican and Latin heritage, but just like the country’s culture is not a hand-down from either Central or Iberian America, what Monteverde has become is an independent phenomenon that overlaps with what the larger culture around it is.
After spending some time in Europe, I realized I was scared to say that I knew what Costa Rican culture accurately was, knowing that my town was not an absolute representation of my country. How could it ever be, though? I now understand that this is not an unreasonable feeling. Like cities, towns can deeply contribute to a country’s culture while remaining distinctive. Fortunately, this notion only widens the possibilities of learning, exploring and experiencing the vastness of the globe. And I urge you to, as you may have been told all your life, rid your mind of any prejudice and observe, truly observe, what each and every corner of the world has to offer.
To see many more beautiful photos of Costa Rica, you may want to go check out local photographer Félix Salazar’s website (https://www.felucointhewoods.com) and Instagram: felucointhewoods!