Insights on Travel from Costa Rica Expeditions’ Founder Michael Kaye and his Expert Friends.

Nicholas Kristorf’s Column on Costa Rica in NYTimes.

In last weeks post I promised to tell you about one of Yolanda and my biking vacations to illustrate the role tolerance plays in vacation planning.  Ever since I’ve been nervous about boring you with a personal anecdote.

Then I a saw Nicholas Kristorf’s column in the January 6 New York Times in which he tells of a recent visit to Costa Rica with his 12 year old daughter and praises the country for conserving natural areas, eliminating the armed forces and dedicating the money saved to education. Much as I appreciated the plug, the column struck me as reflecting the typical superficial view of a place that results from a conventional vacation.

Then I started reading the readers comments.  I was very quickly hooked.  To me it was a fascinating study in how differently people could view the same place. By the time I was done, between the comments at the end of the column and those on Kristorf’s blog I had read over 400 of them—many quite lengthy. Taken together they presented complex, paradoxical and in my view quite accurate picture of the country.

It brought me back to one of the questions that I have been wrestling with virtually since I started Costa Rica Expeditions.  “For those of our guests who are interested, how do we help them during a short vacation, get a complex, nuanced understanding of our country?”

Then I took up the time I had put aside to write this weeks Vacation Time is Precious post to post on his blog an open letter to Nicholas. (And incidentally cleverly avoided stressing out about making my anecdote interesting.)

The letter that was published on Kristorf’s blog is below.  Let me know what you think.

I’ll try to write an interesting post about Yolanda and my trip and tolerance for next week.

Dear Mr. Kristof

What an interesting bunch of contradictory comments your column has inspired!  Costa Rica devil or angel?

I’ll get to that question in a moment but in light of your suggestion at the end of the column that your readers come here and see for themselves, as a tour operator based in Costa Rica I would love to know more about how you planned the Costa Rica portion of the trip and how you and your daughter experienced the country when you were here.

Did you plan it on your own or did you use a tour operator?

And most interesting to me if you had guides on the trip did they inform you of the problems mentioned in the comments and if you did not have guides who enhanced your understanding of the complexities of reality here, do you wish you had?

Over the past almost 32 years I have spent a considerable amount of time working with Costa Rican guides on how to avoid the temptation to gloss over the problems and to help our guests leave with a relatively deep and balanced understanding of my adopted country.

I’m not sure whether you even have time to read all the comments let alone respond, but if you do get a moment, your response on this would be very helpful to me.

To return to the original question, “Costa Rica devil or angel,” the short answer we have come up with is, “Both.”

This is not the place to go into depth, but to get an inkling of how a country that has done so well in protecting it wild lands and extraordinary biodiversity has done so badly at treating its sewage, I suggest you consider the question of whether Costa Ricans are happy because they have, “…done an unusually good job of preserving nature…” and invest in education instead of a military, or whether Costa Ricans preserve nature and opt for learning instead of arms because they are historically a happy people.

Finally I cannot end without responding to Joseph Tether’s January 7, 2010 2:42 pm comment about the BS  guide’s answer (Tether charitably characterizes it as “rather implausible.”) that the reason for all the houses and business being protected with barbwire topped walls is an inheritance from the original Spaniards.  My word!

The short answer is that if you did not have the walls you’d be much more likely to be robbed.

But it is all much more complicated than that.

I am going to be commenting on this in my next post in my blog, If anyone is interested in pursuing this and the other Costa Rican contradictions, post a comment here or on Vacation Time is Precious and I will be happy to do so.

P.S. Mr Kristorf, Answer my questions and I’ll give you my on the one hand/on the other hand  no BS take on the Costa Rican socialized medicine system.

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Comments and Replies

  • At January 12, 2010
    3:42:01 pm
    Peter J. Purdy said:

    Thanks for sharing your perspective on your adopted country. We of course, saw only the best side and eco-tourism and learning Spanish were are reasons for coming in he first place. Having lived in India and Indonesia and worked in 23 African countries, I KNOW every country has its issues regardless of how great it appears on the surface. We tasted only a bit of the downside because we asked and it was interesting to hear varying views on education and health care. Indeed, I had a “health incident” while I was there and was treated just amazingly. We hope we’ll return one day to Costa Rica and, in the meantime, are glad to remain in touch with you;.
    Peter J. Purdy

    • At January 11, 2010
      10:26:23 pm
      Kathie said:

      I’ve been a voyeur following your posts. My family had a fantastic vacation with Costa Rican Expeditions several years ago. One of my daughters has been living in Panama for the last 4 years.
      As a physician, an Ob-Gyn, I would like to hear more about the pros and cons of the health care system in Costa Rica. As I approach retirement, I would like to practice at a reduced volume and stress level. Is that possible in Costa Rica?

      • At January 11, 2010
        11:27:40 pm
        Michael Kaye replied
        to :

        Hi Kathie,

        I do not know enough about the stress levels in either place to answer—except that in general the stress levels are higher in the US. I also do not know to what extent licenses are transferable. I’ll find out if Yolanda’s gynecologist speaks English and if he does, put you in touch with him. If he does not I’ll find one who does. It may take me a couple of days

      • At January 11, 2010
        7:00:58 pm
        Elnora Chambers said:

        Loved your response to Mr. Kristorf! Every country is complicated. My husband, our nephew, and I traveled around Costa Rica two years ago, most of our trip organized by Costa Rican Expeditions. We had a marvelous time, especially hiking in the rain forest at Corcovado with our incredibly well-informed guide, Fillo. Because my nephew is studying to be a nurse, Fillo made sure to tell us about which rain forest plants have traditional medicinal uses. We thought Costa Rican Expeditions did a great job for us! I’m happy to have the opportunity to thank you.

        In a few days my husband and I will return to Costa Rica to help build a house with Habitat for Humanity. We’re looking forward to it.