Naturally, from the outset we had a certain idea about Costa Rica as a country rich in wildlife, a site for ecotourism. We were about to learn it is more than that. The next day, Sunday, we had a buffet breakfast – which included rice and beans – and then met for an 8 AM lecture on Costa Rican history by Sherman Thomas Jackson, a chemist born in San José. He was for a long time on the faculty at the University of Costa Rica, serving in a number of offices in the administration. He also ran for political office. But he was mostly proud of his family of ten children! He advocated the proposition to accept no excuses for failing to try to achieve one’s desires in life. His was an inspiring talk, and helped us to realize what an unique country we were visiting.
We then moved on to the Gold Museum, which we learned was constructed as an inverted pyramid, with its base (the top really) only about one story above ground. We had a local guide for this tour, who spoke excellent English in showing the numerous exhibits. The tour turned out to be much more than a view of gold artifacts. It was a broad exposition of the ancient history of the country, up to and including the time of the European explorers arriving in the early 16th century.
An interesting example is the metate, a three-legged curved platform that was used for grinding grain. These were decorated with symbols associated with women, who did this job. The three-legged feature makes for stability, which a four-legged item would lack on anything but a perfectly flat surface.
Another intriguing artifact is this flat limestone with a rim around the edge. It was used as a mirror. Filled with water, the flat surface enabled people to see their reflection easily.
Of course there were many examples of gold artifacts, as shown here.
A most curious story emerged about some mysterious perfectly smooth stones, roughly the size of bowling balls, that the natives made. They seemed to function as markers, and one was found above a treasure trove about the size of a grave, which contained another such spherical stone and numerous artifacts, but no human body. Nobody knows for sure the reason for making these stones, which date from as long ago as the year 600.
We then boarded a bus and our driver Carlos brought us to lunch in a nearby suburban town. This was in a private home owned by a former Road Scholar guide named Maria. She and her family were providing home-cooked lunch for Road Scholar tours. We were the eighth such tour. She served an excellent vegetable soup, fruit juice, coffee prepared in the traditional Costa Rican style, with a chorreador, and several main course items including the staple rice with beans that seemed part of every meal in Costa Rica, and dessert. Her house was decorated with original oil paintings from Cuba, and surrounded by a masonry wall, crowned with … coiled barbed wire! – a leftover from an era of burglaries some years before. This mixture of the modern, electrified world, with aspects of frontier culture, would strike us time after time throughout our tour.
We then took a long bus ride through a national park to Selva Verde Lodge in Sarapiqui, northeast of San José. Here we had an excellent lecture by a young biologist named José Peseda(?) on the Biological Corridors project. Sarapiqui is part of the project. The idea is to connect all the national parks in Central America so that animals can migrate freely among them. He showed data indicating that Costa Rica is the most species- dense country worldwide, and in response to a question pointed out studies showing that jaguars in the different park areas were genetically the same. This suggests that the corridors have already achieved their goal as far as jaguars are concerned. We then had dinner at a very nice cafeteria, surrounded by the vegetation of a tropical rain forest. Our first full day in the country had been full of surprises. We knew we were in for an extraordinary treat in the days to come.