Jaco, Costa Rica: Surf, sunsets and sleaze.

“Jaco has a lot of two things. A lot of coke and a lot of hookers”.

This was the reassuring statement of a hostel owner in San Jose when I told him that I was headed out to the small town on the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica. When I told most people that I was headed out that way, the response I got most often was: “Jaco! You’re going there?”, as if the name of the place itself was dirty. I had no expectations when I turned up in this busy surfing town. After spending two week in town at the Escuela Del Mundo (School of the World) learning Spanish and Photography, I was pleasantly surprised by what I found in Jaco – it really is the wild west.

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A panorama of Jaco beach from the south.

The bus ride to Jaco ( pronounced ha-ko) was fairly eventful. Four other gringos and myself paid our $4 USD for the 3 hour journey to the capital’s nearest beach getaway. The driver picked up anyone and everyone on the roadside and crammed them in, exchanging all sorts of strange looking boxes for cash . 15 minutes from Jaco, a huge bang shook the bus and several people screamed as we pulled over. Discovering that one of our tyres had popped, we grabbed all our bags and put them onto another bus which miraculously sat right in front of where we had pulled over. Soon, we made it to the busy town and I found myself wandering the streets in the Sunday afternoon sun, after checking into the School.

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I took a walk back into the main street of town to check it out and get some groceries and something about the look of the town just didn’t seem right. Groups of people on spring break flying down the main drag on their ATV’s. Old women selling lottery tickets. Smoothie bars churning out delicious drinks. But as the sun dipped – the neon signs flickered to life, giving the whole town a seedy glow.

One of the first things I notice as well, is that everyone is riding a bicycle and its not uncommon to see two people on a bike. Many are carrying surfboards under their arm, heading down for a sunset surf in an area that hosted the ASP World Surfing championships in 2009. I make my way back to the school, cook up some dinner and prepare for my week of classes.

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Jaco and its surrounding towns have a combined population of about 10 000 which fluctuates during high season. The town itself is really only made up of one long avenue that runs parallel to the beach and is full of commercial activity. Until 15 years ago, Jaco was a small surfer’s paradise, but when the secret got out, North American expats moved here on mass, hoping to turn it into another Cancun. Suddenly, high rise condominiums were being built as the tourists and prostitutes slowly trickled in. But unfortunately the builders of these monstrosities didn’t realize that Jaco’s clientele are largely surf-obsessed backpackers with no need for luxury. And today, only a single beachfront high rise is fully occupied – the others have been abandoned or left unfinished, leaving a scar on the face of the town.

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Three nights in and myself and two other students at the school have just been what some would call sexually assaulted. Groped. Stripped of our manhood by three, square shouldered prostitutes who made desperate grabs for our crown jewels as we tried to negotiate our way past. Hassling/hustling the customer has never proven a successful sales technique in any industry. Freaked out, we soon realized that the northern part of town over the bridge, like a lot of Jaco, turns pretty sour after dark. Drug dealers on bicycles, cruise past slowly, reciting shopping lists of their goods which they sell from the basket on the front. Costa Rica abolished their military in 1949 most law enforcers take a laissez-faire approach to things. Despite this, the country is amongst the most well developed and has amongst the lowest crime rates in Latin America.

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Some of the bars we pass on the way back from our misadventure are dank, dingy places where the only illumination comes from a lamp above a pool table. Other establishments can be found towards the centre of town and I had to make sure I was sufficiently drunk to wander into these on a couple of nights, so as to ensure I didn’t remember too much. At some point, I’m sure every male in Jaco has found in one of these bars that they are suddenly the centre of attention; the most popular guy in there. Then for some, but unfortunately not all, the realization comes that the scores of women gyrating vigorously are in fact prostitutes. That being said, I never really felt unsafe in town as there are plenty of friendly, helpful locals who don’t want business to slump because of crime.

Wandering around, I cant help but feel sad and sorry for the women who are part of this. Being a town centred around tourism, there are lots of opportunities for work, however many resort to selling themselves on the streets because they can earn much more money when wealthy tourists come to have some fun in town.

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Most lascivious behavior occurs at night and the days are hot and sunny, perfect for shopping, exploring nearby towns or simply relaxing. Jaco is centred around beach life and its mostly the surf that draws people to this beautiful coastline. The year-round warm waters of the Pacific Ocean deliver consistent swells, making Jaco beach an great place for all surfing skill levels. About 10 minutes south is the famous Playa Hermosa for more challenging surfing; surrounded by palm trees, black sand and lined with relaxed hotels and bars. Further south, there is Esterillos, another gem for all which breaks over a sandbar on the inside and a reef on the outside, providing excellent waves. And to the north, there is Herradura and the renowned Escondida – where a powerful left breaks over a horseshoe shaped reef. From Tamarindo in the north, all the way to the south, there are places that need to be ticked off any serious adventurer’s To-Surf-List.

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The sunsets over Jaco beach that I witnessed were spectacular – some of the best I have ever seen! Laying there on the beach with new friends, amazing cloud formations and surfers ripping up the tide, definitely goes down as one of the fondest memories of this trip. One Monday evening, myself and 4 others were sitting on Jaco beach when a smelly, toothless old Costa Rican fisherman stomped up to us in steel-capped boots, carrying a rusty guitar. After offering the guitar to one of my friends who had a quick strum, this guy launched into a heartfelt love song as the last of the sun’s rays radiated outward from behind him. The sunset and the serenading were a sight to behold. Once the sun had dipped, all of us got up and wandered 100 metres to one of my favourite places to eat – Soda Rustico.

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In Costa Rica, Soda’s are usually a family run, restaurant/diner that offer set menu’s, called casados (not to be confused with the Castillian word for married), usually costing between $3 and $6 US for a huge plate of goodness. The traditional meal in Costa Rica, regardless of time of day is Gallo Pinto – rice and black beans – mixed with anything you desire. At Rustico, the portion sizes are huge and I would often accompany my Gallo Pinto with choices behind the bain-marie that included chicken/salsa de carne, grilled plantain bananas, salad and lots of chili salsa. 2500 colones (5 USD) including a homemade ice tea and I am left wondering how they make money when most people don’t finish their massive meals! Rustico is true to its name – bunches of bananas hang off its wooden structure, tourists are rare, laid back vibes float throughout and extra protein in the form of cockroaches can sometimes be found in the food. It doesn’t get much more authentic than this.

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Empanadas, deep fried pastries with a variety of fillings for only 500 Colones (1 USD) soon became a casual snack between classes. The alternative of course is always more Western or commercial food which is expensive yet comforting to the English speaking tourists who stick to the main strip of bars and restaurants. One of these – Tacobar, is a favourite of Escuela del Mundo students and I had a couple of juicy Tuna Steaks there, which came with an unlimited salad bar side – for only $9. For the same price, I made the foolish mistake one night, of going for a footlong Chicken Teriyaki from Subway :(.

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Delicious and nutritious, the local fruit is cheap and fresh. Fruit stands (fruterias) are found everywhere – the nearest to the school was only a minutes walk. I recall buying several bananas, apples, tomatoes mangos, 10 eggs and 2 coconuts – and it costing less than $5! My favourite thing about this fruteria was the easy access to my new favourite drink – Agua de Pipa or Coconut Water. The large, unripe coconuts are full of healthy water and electrolytes and for only $1, the muchacho hacks the top of it off with a machete, pops a straw in the top and you have over a litre of the freshest coconut water around. If you’ve never tried it, it most certainly is an acquired taste. A couple of us tried unsuccessfully one evening to pour some rum into the top of a coconut – but the bottles of liquor in Costa Rica are equipped with tricky, inbuilt measurement devices that often require a knife to get open. And I don’t think I’ve ever drunk that much Bacardi Gold Rum over a 5 day period. Ever.

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Like a lot of countries, Costa Rica has two preferred beers – Pilsen and Imperial. Imperial, however dominates and both cost around $1 in store, or $2 at a bar. On my first Saturday, a group of us from the school headed down to Playa Hermosa with some Imperials and lay back on the beach to watch a surfing competition. Starting at 4pm and going for roughly two hours, 50 surfers including several Costa Rican champions showcased their skills to the crowd of a couple hundred.

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We’re sitting on the soft sand in front of Hermosa’s most popular spot – The Backyard Bar. Surfers are carving up waves in front of us. Reggae classics are blasting out of the speakers as a local celebrity known only as “Freddy” commentates on the surfing while slipping in phrases like “remember guys, the children are the future of our world” and “these guys are surfing for cash prizes! So we need you to donate”. After the contest, everybody heads into the bar and we find a table overlooking the beach. Two sound systems are playing – the one behind me is blasting Damian Marley’s, Welcome to Jamrock, while the one to my right is playing David Gray’s White Ladder – an interesting mashup. The taxi ride back to Jaco was apparently pretty standard for a Saturday. Four of us hop into a maxi-taxi, only to be joined by two stoned, Canadian girls and their sketchy looking local “friends” who promptly light up a joint and say, “This is Costa Rica – Pura Vida!”

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That phrase, Pura Vida – literally translated as Pure Life – sums up Costa Rica in one phrase. It is used for everything; as a greeting, goodbye, thank you, when toasting, to mean “no worries” or said simply for its own sake. Life is really, really tranquilo out here and this phrase exacerbates it. Sun, surf, natural beauty, opportunities and more. After beer pong at a pizza place on Wednesday night, a weekly event, many of us head out to Backyard Bar for their version of “ladies night”, held at least a couple of times a week at any bar and where all women drink watered down vodka mixers for free. Outside, a bonfire is roaring on the beach and somebody is playing a guitar as others sing along. Lying out there, watching the white crest of the waves crashing down in the darkness and seeing the gazillions of stars above, it hits me – this really is Pura Vida.

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Accommodation can be cheap for backpackers – around $10 to $15 a night, but there are a range of prices for those seeking a bit more luxury. Hiring a car is definitely one way to get around the region and this can cost between $40 and $80 per day. The famous Manuel Antonio National Park is only an hour south and one of the best things about Jaco is its proximity to some gorgeous rainforests. Bicycles can be a rip-off but with careful negotiation and the use of Spanish, you can bargain your way down from $8 a day to $20 for a whole week. And for the scooter enthusiast, $20-$25 will get you a day’s worth of humming around. There is Zip lining, canopy touring, hiking and more to be found within a short drive.

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Jaco, like anywhere has good and bad sides, but the difference is so extreme that all you can really do is laugh about it and say Pura Vida. As the number one party destination on the Costa Rican Pacific, it will always attract a particular crowd. As one of the best surfing regions in the Americas, it will also attract another type of crowd. For nature enthusiasts, there are immense amounts of untouched beauty only a short drive away. And for aimless wanderers, it provides the perfect chance to escape in whatever manner suits. For me, Jaco is a surprising mix of touristy trends and local delights; a self perpetuating cycle of hedonism that somehow finds a way into your heart. Perhaps you can best describe the town using its Government’s marketing slogan: Jaco, Land of Adventures and City of the Surf. Stay tuned for the next post when I’ll let you know about my learning experience at the School of the World.

Until then, Pura Vida.

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