A Trip to Costa Rica

by Ben Best


The occasion for my trip to Costa Rica was the August 22-27,1999 ISIL (International Society for Individual Liberty, www.isil.org) conference being held in the capitol city of San Jose. Prior to the conference I did considerable e-mail lobbying to be included in the program so that I could give a presentation on the Y2K computer bug. For a long time I had no success, but when I made the point that ISIL Founder/Director Jarret Wollstein had written a book on the subject, I found myself sharing a slot with Jarret on the program to discuss Y2K. (For my essays on the Y2K computer bug see the Computer section of my website.)

Costa Rica gets its name from Christopher Columbus, who called it the "Rich Coast" after landing offshore on his fourth (and last) voyage to America. He had been impressed by the golden "mirrors" (flat gold circles) the Indians wore about their necks.

Later explorers discovered that Costa Rica had less gold than almost any area in "New Spain" and that the few Indians to be found were too fierce to be exploited for agriculture. Consequently, Costa Rica was settled by many who were fleeing the Spanish Inquisition, were willing to farm their own land and were wanting to be far from the administrative centers in Mexico & Guatemala. Costa Rica remained a country of subsistence farmers until the 19th century, when coffee became popular in Europe. Costa Rica became so rich from coffee & banana exports that San Jose was the third city in the world to have public electric lighting and was one of the first cities to have telephones.

Blacks were imported from the Carribean to help build the railroad from the Central Valley to the east coast and to work on banana plantations. Although slavery was abolished in 1824, blacks were denied citizenship and prohibited from working in the Central Valley or the Pacific Zone until 1949. They constitute 5% of the total population, and 25% of the population of the Atlantic coast, in the Province of Limon. Being Protestant & English-speaking also distinguishes them from the Catholic & Spanish-speaking majority.

The Costa Rican climate is very mild and uniform year-round — especially in the elevated Central Valley where most of the population lives. Temperature drops 3°F for every 1,000 feet above sea level, and San Jose has an elevation of nearly 4,000 feet. Seasonally, precipitation varies far more than temperature, with summer being the wet season and winter being the dry season. Monthly precipitation in San Jose ranges from less than one inch of rainfall in February to over 14 inches in September. There is no "daylight savings time" — the sun shines from 6 am to 6pm year-round.

Costa Rica is the most Spanish of Central American countries, although political turmoil has recently increased the number of immigrants from elsewhere in Central America (10% of the population is now Nicaraguan). In Latin America, Costa Rica trails only Chile, Argentina & Uruguay in literacy. Costa Rica has no army. Costa Ricans replace the normal Spanish diminutive "tito" with "tico" ("Un momentico, por favor") and have thus become known as "Ticos", just as Americans are knows as "Gringos" in Latin America. My favorite Costa Rican expression is "Pura Vida" ("pure life") — which is Costa Rican for "great!".

I flew to San Jose a couple of days before the start of the ISIL conference so that I could explore the city on my own. I stayed at the Hotel Diplomat, which was minimal while being adequate (bed, shower, toilet), inexpensive and located in the centre of the city.

San Jose has plenty of fast food outlets & restaurants, plus the occasional bakery & delicatessen, but I quickly became frustrated by my inability to locate what I would call a food store. Walking the streets was a mild adventure, but when I passed some tourist offices I was overcome by the temptation to sign-up for some tours: one city-tour of San Jose and one nature-tour of the area northwest of San Jose.

The city-tour guide was a knowledgeable historian. He explained that the iron bars & barbed-wire topped fences on most houses (even churches!) are an ornamental fashion that had been adopted to imitate the houses of the rich. But this did not explain the fact that even the tourist offices had "cell-bar" doors, which were only unlocked to let you inside.

San Jose is polluted — with 90% of the pollution belching conspicuously out of about 10% of the vehicles. There is an Avenda Central (Central Avenue) and a Calle Central (Central Street), with odd-numbered avenues & streets (1,3,5,...) to the north & east, and even-numbered avenues & streets (2,4,6,...) to the south & west. There are no numbers on houses or buildings, so mail must be delivered by location descriptions written on the letters or packages.

The city guide glowed with pride when he cited the fact that Intel's largest factory outside the United States is in Costa Rica. He said that Intel recognized that Costa Ricans are intelligent, industrious and well-educated. He said that the average Costa Rican enjoys a monthly income of $800 (a banana plantation worker makes about $300).

The next day I took the nature-tour. When flying-in to Costa Rica I had been struck by the greenness of the mountains, in contrast to the bare rock I see in temperate climates. You don't see many brown tree-trunks because the trees are heavily laden with parasitic plants. There is growth everywhere — especially in rainforests, which accounts for 7% of the earth's land area, 70% of the species and the highest carbon dioxide fixation/oxygen production of any land area.

Costa Rica has long been a favorite vacation spot for northerners who want to escape winter, but prefer exploring nature to lying on the beach. "Ecotourism" is very popular. (See www.tourism-costarica.com, www.ecoscapetours.com and www.canopytour.com) Our tour guide was a very Spanish-looking nature-lover who had graduated from university with a concentration in biology & business.

During brunch at the coffee plantation I sat next to a couple of older men who were in Costa Rica to teach Christian doctrine in a San Jose College. As they explained what they were teaching, I was overcome with the sense of them being absolutely crazy. One of them seemed like a moron. When the "smarter" one asked me about my religious background, I tactfully said that I haven't paid much attention to religion. I was thinking he would be insulted, but instead my remark seemed to ignite a missionary zeal — and it was all I could do to avoid him for the rest of the tour. (He managed to shove some religious literature into my hand at the end of the tour when I was rushing to get out of the bus.) I question that I could ever be a successful politician, even if I wanted to.

Most of the people on the tour were graduate students from Wright State University in Ohio. The tour was a prelude to various scientific investigations they were conducting in Costa Rica. Listening to the conversation of these young enthusiastic scientists was a refreshing pleasure. They were so full of interesting facts, opinions and observations. I particularly enjoyed the company of a woman named Terry, who was completing her Master's Degree in molecular biology. She specialized in "junk DNA", which does not contain genes, but which is highly conserved and is theorized to have some essential structural purpose. Terry's ambition in life was to become a museum curator. In retrospect, I wish I had spoken to her about cryonics.

The tour took us to Paos Volcano, which has a water-filled crater (Lake Paos) a mile in diameter, possibly the world's largest volcanic crater. The lake water is hot & acid (pH=1), emitting thick clouds of water vapor ("cloud-making"). The sight was spectacular and cannot be captured in any photograph.

We had a chance to see some hummingbirds up close. They use 5,000 calories per day (more than most humans!), and must have incredible antioxidant capabilities. They fly by wing rotation, rather than flapping, which allows them to feed where there is no place to perch since they have a helicopter's capability of hovering and can instantly accelerate in any direction. We also got the opportunity to allow a tarantula to walk across our hand. Unfortunately, my tarantula took a liking to my yellow coat and started walking up my arm. Fortunately, one of the students was able to coax it onto her hand. (The reckless things an adventurous life-extensionist can do in trying to experience life to the fullest!)

I was paranoid about being bitten by a mosquito in Costa Rica, so I donned a mosquito netting jacket for the boat-ride down the river in the rainforest — to the amusement of the natives. It wasn't called a rainforest for nothing — rain flooded from the sky for most of the boat ride. Such heavy rains make life inhospitable for flying insects. I only saw one mosquito during my entire stay in the country. Despite the torrents, we did get to see some howler monkeys & iguanas. Iguanas taste like chicken, and cultivating iguanas in rainforests rather than cattle on pastures would be a boon to world ecology, if it can be made feasible.

Back in San Jose I was able to locate an Internet Cafe near the National Theatre. There I learned that I could connect to my Toronto-based ISP through www.MailStart.com. MailStart was horrendously slow, and I opened a Hotmail account to see if I could reduce dependence on my Toronto ISP during my travels. As it turned-out, my MailStart connections with my Toronto ISP were much better in Australia & New Zealand than in Costa Rica — and I didn't have to deal with the problem of using a new e-mail address.

Once logged-in, I learned that Charles Platt had resigned as President of CryoCare. I tried e-mailing Vice-President Brian Wowk, but I made a mistake in his e-mail address.


The next day I took a taxi to Hotel Herradura (www.costasol.co.cr/) where the ISIL conference was being held. Costa Rica is one of the few countries in the world with a libertarian party congressman. The Movimiento Libertario (www.libertario.org) was founded by 3 dynamic men: Raul Costales (originally from Cuba), Rigoberto Stewart (a black advocate of Limon autonomy) and Otto Guevara (currently the only libertarian among Costa Rica's 57 congressmen). Using cartoon fliers, bumper stickers and taking advantage of the proportional representation system, Otto was elected on the basis of a campaign that stressed long lines & poor service at government offices & hospitals. It was Rigoberto who organized the ISIL conference.

Ironically, Miguel Rodriguez, the President of Costa Rica, attended the opening ceremony of this conference of 200 libertarians. Rodriguez is an erstwhile classical liberal economist who had written a book on Hayek, but once in office supported a state fuel monopoly.

Principle themes at the conference were environmental issues, immigration and Latin American problems. Of the Latin American speakers, I was particularly impressed by Venezuelan Jose Cordeiro who advocated a "dollar" standard as an alternative to the inflationary currencies of so many Latin American countries. As a practical matter, 70% of the currency actually used in commerce in Peru & Bolivia is dollars. Russia has more dollars in circulation than any country outside the United States. Panama & Liberia use US dollars as their national currency (as of January, 2000, so does Ecuador). Cordeiro wore a tie covered with American greenback illustrations.

Ramon Diaz, former central bank governor of Uruguay, gave a biographical sketch of the Austrian-school economist Friedrich Hayek. In 1947 Hayek founded the academic, pro-free-market Mont Pelerin Society in the town of the same name near Geneva, Switzerland. Thirty-nine academics from around the world attended the first annual meeting. Diaz is the current President.

I won't attempt to discuss any of the other presentations except that of Christian Michel, who lives in Switzerland and works as a consultant for people seeking advice on offshore money havens. His presentation was for me the most intellectually stimulating of the conference.

Michel defined work as changing the world to meet desire. Workaholics are value-creation addicts. He described bureaucrats as being aristocrats who regard work as demeaning. Capitalists are visionaries who see how values can be created from prosaic starting materials. Money is an abstraction — which makes it spiritual rather than material. Entrepreneurs value life & creation, whereas politicians & bureaucrats have a warrior mentality — believing that values can only come from fighting for them (stealing from the creators). Warriors risk death for glory, whereas producers fear death, valuing life above all else.

Later I told Christian how much I respect his mind — and he apparently came to like & respect me in the course of our discussions. But when I raised the subject of life-extension I was astonished at his negative attitudes. He saw no point in extending life. He denied that wisdom comes (or can come) with the passage of time, despite my arguments concerning a growing body of experiences. (Months later, by e-mail, he indicated that he is in favor of extended youth, but simply does not favor extending old age. I thought that I had explained that by life-extension I meant reduction of aging.) He has a website at www.liberalia.com containing essays which demonstrate his capacity for creative, imaginative, yet rational analysis.

Aside from having half the lecture-time, I was a bit queasy about sharing my Y2K presentation with Jarret Wollstein. He was selling both a high-priced Y2K survival book and a Y2K investment book at the conference. Although he had done some good research, was supportive of me and was enterprising to see profit potential in addressing a problem, I felt he seemed a bit like a huckster in his alarmism.

I got very little response from the audience in the question period following my lecture, although one guy said it is "fun" using flashlights during power failures. I would have thought it would not be necessary to stress the impact of a protracted power failure on the economy.

Afterward, I got a lot of interesting feedback speaking individually to people. One fellow said he had left the room because he didn't want to hear "gloom & doom". A man who had worked most of his life in the power industry told me that if the power grid goes down, individual plants can switch to manual control and restart independently of the grid. Another fellow said I had been "disingenuous" to imply the US Defense department was to blame for the Y2K bug by imposing on the US National Bureau of Standards to adopt a two-digit date standard.

Quite a few people gave me a lot of appreciation, respect & support. I wonder how they feel now after the Y2K rollover was so non-eventful? I grimace at the thought of these people making expensive & time-consuming preparations on the basis of my warnings (I take responsibility for the waste of all my own time & money). And I hate the thought of having lost so much credibility.

During the conference I also organized a "spontaneous" seminar called "Life Extensionists Against the State". I placed on display all the life-extension & cryonics books & magazines that I had brought for the Melbourne Science Fiction convention. I gave a brief lecture on the history of the Life Extension Foundation's battle with the FDA (which I have since made into a short essay on my website).

Of the 15 or so people who attended, one was a physician who had been using growth hormone with some of his patients (I found it difficult to talk to him later, because he treated me like a huckster.) Another person said he was trying to decide which cryonics organization to join. Charles Olson, a long-time cryonics fellow traveler (and former CANADIAN CRYONICS NEWS subscriber) attended also. He borrowed my copy of GREAT MAMBO CHICKEN for spare-time reading during the conference & post-conference tour. Charles has a post-conference picture of me at www.charlesOlson.com/TouringCostaRica.htm.

Both at the conference and during the post-conference tour, I met lots of interesting people — too numerous to mention. Surprisingly few of the people I met were Latin Americans, and this was a disappointment because I had hoped to make contacts for future travels in the area. I did, however, meet Barum Mitra from New Delhi, India who is spearheading an India-based Liberty Institute ( www.angelfire.com/mi/libertyinstitute/). He was as surprised as I was to discover that my knowledge of Indian libertarians & libertarian organizations (aside from his own) was both exhaustive & dated. He welcomed me to visit him in New Delhi. It's nice to have like-minded travel contacts, especially in countries that are so foreign.

One of the most notable people I met was Adam Starchild, who happened to be sitting next to me on a busride of conference people. Adam is an extropian expatriate who is an expert on offshore havens (I wrote about him in my essay Offshore Options for Cryonicists.) His last two countries of residence had been Spain & Colombia, and he was currently living in Panama. I peppered him with questions about offshore life & opportunity. He said that he had gotten out of the consulting business because too many of his clients were pressuring him for information about how to avoid US taxes. He recommended that I investigate the "perpetual traveler" option ( www.offshore.com.ai/vince/perpetual-traveler/), which involves having citizenship in one country, living in another and working in a third. I have doubts that I could do this and maintain adequate access to resources — especially for life-extension & cryonics. (See Adam's collection of essays related to offshore tax havens at ( www.cyberhaven.com/offshorelibrary/tablecont.html).

Over dinner one evening I spoke with Adam and Andres, a student entering his last year at Francisco Marroquin University in Guatemala who Adam was "patronizing" (ie, being a patron or sponsor for). Marroquin University is sponsored by the Foundation Francisco Marroquin (www.ffmnet.org). I was astonished to learn that this University is entirely devoted to teaching Austrian Economics, Popper, etc. Nearly all the graduates enter the business world, but Andres wanted to become an academic. I was also surprised to learn that there had been only one atheist among the 400 students in the school (not Andres). Earlier, Raul Costales had told me that atheism is exceedingly rare in Latin American. Over a breakfast with Adam and Mary Ruwart I got into a fascinating discussion over whether slander & libel are crimes (since they do not involve "initiation of physical force") and of the difficulty in determining the extent of a crime such as rape, where psychological impact (a subjective response) counts for so much more than demonstrable physical injury.


About 80 people from the conference went on the post-conference tour to the Province of Limon. One of these was a Canadian woman who had taken early retirement and is now living in Costa Rica. She maintains an address in Canada with a friend (to avoid pension penalties on Canadians living abroad), has her pension electronically deposited to her Canadian bank account, and electronically transfers funds to her account in Costa Rica. Gringos have no Costa Rican tax on foreign-source income, but there are high tariffs on imported goods (100% on automobiles, which can cost 3 times as much as a house). She loved the weather and found Costa Ricans to be warmhearted & easy-going. Nonetheless, she found them to be too easy-going when it came to getting things accomplished. She said that open aggression of any kind is very rare, but that sneak-thievery is common and that the bars & barbed-wire on homes are a necessity.

On the bus I read a copy of TICO TIMES (ttcirc@sol.racsa.co.cr), which listed all the clubs for English-speaking expatriates. There were clubs for Holistic Health, Chess, Reading, Shooting, Badminton, Square Dancing, etc. In a study of tolerance only 19% of Costa Ricans said there is no category of person they dislike, whereas 31% disliked homosexuals, 15% disliked military men, 14% disliked an ethnic group (usually Nicaraguans) and 10% disliked atheists.

On the way to the Carribean coast we stopped at EARTH university (an environment/ecology-conscious agricultural school for Latin Americans) and a banana plantation. From the city of Limon we could see the small island where Christopher Columbus had anchored on 18-October-1502.

We crowded around one of the trees in a park when someone saw a sloth on a branch. The movements of the sloth are exceedingly slow because they have so little muscle tissue. Our tour guide told us that there are three types of sloths in Costa Rica: the 2-toed sloths which feed on spiders & lizards, the 3-toed sloths which feed on leaves & moss, and the 5-toed sloths which work for the government. The last group play a game which has only one rule — if you move, you lose.

We drove down the Carribean coast to a hotel at Punta Mona where we had a beach barbecue. I fulfilled a fantasy of mine by climbing a coconut tree and extracting a coconut. But the ones on the tree were too green for eating. The edible coconuts could be found lying on the ground. I became engrossed in a project of trying to find the best way to remove the thick fibrous husk and then breaking into the nut — with & without a knife.

Rigoberto Stewart gathered us in the dining area to discuss his ideas about an autonomous Limon. In his view Limon has the same ethnic make-up as the Cayman Islands and could as easily become a tax-haven & magnet for foreign capital by implementation of free-market principles. When I questioned him about a referendum, he said he was against referendums. When I asked about a transition government for privatization, he was against that too. Despite my doubts about his program, I pledged $100 to his cause in the belief that his educational efforts might be of some benefit.

The next day I got a chance to spend two hours snorkeling. There were some beautiful blue schools of fish that seemed not to mind when I swam along with them. I felt like I was part of the school. Coral was close to the surface, and the unwary among us cut themselves on it. I was unwary in another way — nearly two hours with my back to the sky was enough to get a painful sunburn.

At Rio Sixaola, the Indians charge a small fee for ferrying people across the river to a store in Panama run by Palestinians. The store sells clothing & electronic equipment to Costa Ricans wanting to avoid the high import tariffs. Since this part of the river adjoins an Indian reservation, there is no border patrol. Naturally, like good libertarians, we illegally took the canoe ride, bought some goods and smuggled them back.

That evening we attended a small carnival in the local town. Being the systematic tourist that I am, I decided to go from one end of the town to the other. I struck out on my own, heading for the southernmost building on my map.

As I got toward the south end of the town, I suddenly turned to find a black teenager (14 or 15 years old, I'd guess) crowding-up against me. He said, "What hotel are you looking for?" I did not like this invasion of my space and I told him to get away from me. I rapidly continued walking south, but then he yelled, "Don't move!"

It seemed like an odd thing to say, but I stopped and turned-around. He was about 30 feet from me, standing under a lamp on the side of a building. The phrase "don't move" is associated with a threat, but I didn't see a weapon. When he started walking toward me, it occurred to me to run. But I could only run south — away from the carnival & the people — since he was to the northeast of me. In any case, he could probably run faster than I could.

As he got closer, I could see his handgun quite clearly. It was not small. It had a sturdy metallic appearance — not a toy.

He said, "Give me a hundred dollars."

What a silly demand! If I had more than a hundred dollars, surely he would want it all. He would want whatever I had in any case.

"I don't have a hundred dollars," I told him.

"You do!", he shouted.

What a bitter irony I felt. Having devoted so much time, thought & energy to survival & life-extension, I stood helplessly with my life in the hands of this not very bright teenager who — for all I knew — regarded his gun & my life with all the seriousness of a video-game. I was utterly trapped.

My left pocket had about US$40 and my right pocket had about $15 worth of Costa Rican currency. I reached into my left pocket and held the small wad in the palm of my hand. A twenty dollar bill was clearly visible in the wad.

"Here is my money," I said, extending my hand.

He grabbed the money, backed-off and said, "Stay there."

I didn't much like the order, because I hated being where I was. I was worried that he would come back with a gang. He walked, then ran, north into the carnival, and then west between a couple of the stalls. I walked north, slowly at first, then faster & faster.

I passed a man whom I had seen observing the whole thing — although I only really noticed him toward the end. His eyes were cast downward and he had a bemused expression on his face. When I told my story to others and mentioned this man, people suggested to me that he was an accomplice. But to me the whole event had seemed spontaneous. I imagined that I had been rude to the boy, he pulled a gun and a passerby witnessed the amusing spectacle of a rich gringo being robbed. It may well have been more pre-meditated than this — by the mere fact that the boy carried a gun (although this may not be unusual).

I walked as rapidly as I could until I found a restaurant containing the largest possible number of people in my tour-group. I told them what had happened and asked to stay in their midst. For the rest of the evening I had no desire to strike-out on my own and I wanted to be surrounded by as many of my comrades as possible at all times. I was very shaken.

The physician who used growth-hormone treatments took it upon himself to get a couple of the local police. Aside from the fact that the police barely spoke English, I was too shaken by the threat to my life to have any interest in spending time trying to catch the robber or regain my $40. I could not have made a positive identification of the boy even if I was staring him in the face, much less give a useful description. I said that I did not want to pursue the matter. I'm sure this left the police with the impression that I hadn't cared that I was robbed.

Later, as we walked through the carnival, I spotted a gang of about six teenagers and I had the impression that the one in the centre was my assailant. The striped shirt, baggy pants, his size & overall appearance seemed to match, although I would have not felt confident of positive identification. I pointed him out to Henrik, a Swedish libertarian who had been describing to me his experiences of being robbed. Henrik thought the boy gave me a "knowing look". Then the gang went into one of the buildings.

In a few minutes the boy had made more money than a hard day's labor in a banana plantation would bring him. He had commanded attention & "respect" from a gringo who was otherwise inclined to ignore him. He may have even gotten admiration from his peers. And there was no punishment. His behavior was rewarded — incentive to repeat it — as well as incentive to for others to emulate it.

Although I didn't discuss the subject with anyone, I had an odd uncomfortable feeling about the fact that my testimony was the only evidence anyone might have for the fact that the incident occurred at all. Someone could have easily have thought that I had made-up the whole story and I would have been helpless to provide verification. But I saw no evidence of anyone who questioned my description. I can only imagine the plight of a rape-victim whose victimizer denies the allegations.

The next day was mostly one long busride back to San Jose. My seat companion was a woman who had taken the original courses in Objectivism from Ayn Rand & the Brandens in New York City (the students mostly regarded the instructors as being aloof robots). Our tour group had lunch in Rigoberto's father's restaurant where I chatted with an American ex-patriot engineer who had spent much of his life running a factory in Ecuador manufacturing women's undergarments. We stopped briefly in Cartago, the first capitol of Costa Rica, to see some of Costa Rica's most historic edifices & icons.

On my last night in Costa Rica, my main interest was to get to the Internet Cafe in San Jose and catch-up on my e-mail. I shared a cab with one of the libertarian guys who was heading for a strip bar called "Club Hollywood", so I briefly joined him. These places always make me paranoid about money. My companion had brought lots of money and was having fun sticking it in the undergarments of the girls, etc., but I had not brought much money and was not qualified to play the game of giving tips in exchange for risque "favors". It almost broke my heart to refuse a cute & nice Costa Rican lady who asked me to buy her a drink for 5,000 Colons.

Feeling like a cheap, sexless nerd, I took a cab to the Internet Cafe. I was there long enough to discover that Brian Wowk, as acting CryoCarePresident, had sent an announcement to CryoCare members urging all members to sign-up with other cryonics organizations and wrapping-up CryoCare. Nonetheless, Bob Krueger and others were trying to keep CryoCare alive — and searching for someone to be President.

CryoCare Treasurer Kevin Brown had suggested me as President. I felt willing to be President if the organization could be salvaged, but that I did not feel I could make a proper assessment until I returned to North America from New Zealand in mid-September. I did not want to encourage false hopes or waste my own time & energy on a lost cause.

The next day I flew to Los Angeles on my way to Australia. ISIL Director Ken Schooland was on the same plane and we discussed a Swedish libertarian named Mats with whom we were mutually acquainted. I had a very high opinion of Mats, but I had heard that Mats had been sent to jail, first for advocating (& practicing) drunk driving and second for trying to blow-up a statue. Ken defended Mats saying that the bomb was only symbolic and would not have hurt anyone.

Thus completed the first half of my adventures of mind & body — I hardly knew what to expect from "down under" in Australia & New Zealand.