March 10th: Punta Arenas, Costa Rica
At first glance there’s little to recommend Punta Arenas, (second of its name, – the first was in Chile). The beaches are palm fringed and sandy, but the sand is brown, not gold; and currents along the shore make swimming hazardous. The small town adjoining the port is poor and scruffy. Shanties and shacks of corrugated iron stand between more robust, but modest homes. It’s a non-descript and unappealing little town.
Our trip whisked us away from the port and up into the surrounding hills for an eco-tour, and we began to gain some insight into what an interesting little country this is.
During the twentieth century, most of the country had been deforested for farming – in particular, raising Brahmin cattle for meat. By the 1980’s however, Argentina’s rise to pre-eminence in that industry meant Costa Rica was struggling to compete. Further, they had begun to realise the dangers of destroying their natural environment, and recognised that tourism, in particular, eco-tourism was a desirable and viable option. Some 45% of the country is now in natural reserves – most owned by the government, but some in private hands.
Farming has reduced – although the emphasis is not on obliterating the industry, but on keeping it in balance with nature. The Tarcoles river, on which we spent the afternoon watching birds and crocodiles, used to be the most polluted river in South America. It’s been cleaned up, and the coffee factories upstream, which used to discharge waste matter into its waters have been persuaded to find alternative practices.
The other fascinating decision made by this country back in the 1940’s was to dismantle and obliterate its armed forces. Costa Rica has no army. Instead, what used to be the military budget is used to fund education. Costa Rica now prides itself on a 98% literacy rate. (I don’t know New Zealand’s, but I’d be surprised if it was that high.). Education is encouraged, mandatory and even University education is financially accessible for all. I gathered that a large amount of vocational training is available as well to get students into good jobs.
The population is now educated and literate. Possibly as a consequence of this, Costa Ricans, or Ticos, have had peaceful government for over 60 years, which in central America is unique.
Another consequence, as the guide wryly pointed out, is that immigrant Nicaraguans, many of them illegal, have now taken over unskilled jobs which Costa Ricans are no longer keen to do. The guide was too tactful to speculate on where all this was going, but it will be an interesting story to follow. You certainly can’t blame the Nicaraguans for wanting a part of their neighbour’s relative prosperity.
We took an aerial tram up over and through the jungle. Unfortunately, the temperature, even at 9am was 38°C, and any sensible native creature had gone to bed for a long siesta in the shade. Still, it was fun, and the small wildlife park had snakes, frogs, butterflies and leaf-cutter ants. These latter weren’t of course in a cage, but simply wandered across our path. Helpful signs are put out to alert unwary tourists to the dangers.
The afternoon was spent on the river which holds one of the highest number of crocodiles in the world. We found Smiler, an old croc who had lost a chunk of his face and was left with a massive underbite. The really big croc was Osama. He lay on the bank looking peaceful, but you wouldn’t want to fall into the water near him. He has competition from an even larger old beast called Tyson, who unfortunately was out when we went to visit him.
There were loads of birds – and a bizarre fact. The greatest threat to crocodiles is the white egrets, who eat their eggs and the baby crocs when they hatch.
Tomorrow Cavan and I leave the ship for four days to head into the Andes and Machu Picchu. It hadn’t occurred to us to worry about altitude sickness, so we didn’t bring any prophylactic pills. Ship board gossip is full of how essential this medication is, and how we’ll suffer if we don’t have it. Let’s just hope we don’t need it.