Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Global Economic Crisis Hits Costa Rica Tourism - Monday 3-30-2009

It’s a four hour ride on the Greyline shuttle from Monteverde to the transfer at Limonal, and then from Limonal to Playa Tamarindo through dusty, dry hills that look like California’s Santa Ynez valley. On the shuttle bus, I briefly talk with a woman who says her husband is the “CEO of Ocotal.” He’s responsible for tourism development and real estate development and she tells me that both activities are down all over Costa Rica. In addition, she says, this high season has been disappointing. Past high season crowds in Tamarindo were so large that people had difficulty walking down the street and hotels were booked weeks in advance. I tell her that I booked my stay in Tamarindo only four days ago. She informs me the new JW Marriott near Tamarindo is only 25 percent full. It should be nearly 75 percent full.

I arrive at my hostel, Hostel Botelle de Leche, amid blazing heat and wicked humidity. I sit in my room doing nothing and I sweat. I explore Tamarindo briefly in the mid-afternoon heat. The town seems dead. Souvenir stores are full of flip-flops, t-shirts, ceramic pots, and other knick knacks but there are so few tourists. Beach side restaurants and bars are similarly empty, one table full for every ten or more that are empty. I go swimming in the late afternoon. Dozens of surfers enjoy the steady, gentle swells and there are maybe one hundred people on the beach, but there is still plenty of empty water and empty sand. I put my gear down and go wading. The Pacific is bathwater warm. This is why I came to Costa Rica, to swim in warm water under sapphire blue skies while palm trees wave in a gentle breeze on shore. I splash around for an hour, then walk south along the beach for several kilometers. Fewer surfers down this way and even fewer sunbathers – I’ll come back here tomorrow. After I turn back and head north, I pass a middle-aged couple speaking English. I ask where they’re from and they say Pennsylvania. I tell them I spent two years in Pittsburgh and that breaks the ice. They are family of the people who own Iguana Surf, a local surfing school and retailer, and Aqua, a local dance club. This is the sixth consecutive high-season they have visited Tamarindo. They tell me that past high season crowds were so thick they could barely walk down the street. Their relatives have told them that this high season is the worst in recent memory.

After returning to the hostel, I look for dinner. There are plenty of restaurants in Tamrindo, and they all serve similar food for similar prices. I see plenty of $15 penne pasta, $8 pizzas and $20 steaks. But they aren’t crowded. I walk through town around 7:00PM and each restaurant has maybe 10 people, enough to fill two or three tables. More searching, though, and I find a steal – El Corcel Negro (The Black Warhorse) at Plaza Conchal serves 2,800 colones hamburgers, a plate of nachos for 2,300 colones, and two taquitos for 1,500 colones – it’s the cheapest place I find and so I have four taquitos and then call it a night.

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