Welcome to Gran Hotel Costa Rica

For the first two nights of our trip we stay in the Gran Hotel Costa Rica, an old haunt of ours in downtown San José.

This place is full of nostalgia for us; it is where I took Menna straight after she landed in September 2005. I had already been in country for three months at this point; wisely using that time not only to tour the land and find us a house to live in, but also to shave off all my hair, turn brown, lose ten kilos, lose my shoes, lose my manners, start wearing vests with local beer slogans and generally go native. Menna found it difficult to recognise me as I stood grinning at her in Arrivals, she later told me. She felt uneasy and lost. She imagined she had been kidnapped by a Mexican refugee.

¡Hola muchacha! Hey, you real pretty… Wanna ride in my car?

It was also here where we spent our last night in Costa Rica – happily restored by this point to a state of harmony and mutual recognition – and where we returned one set of good quality cotton sheets, now slightly frayed, which we had borrowed a year before and used in most of the cheap hostels throughout Central America.

The Gran Hotel Costa Rica has now been taken over by the Hilton chain and is recently refurbished. There is a slick new cocktail bar on the top floor now, but I’m sure it is the same tired old pianist who sits in the background, coaxing out another mournful rendition of Yesterday. The hotel is a lot smarter but I feel it has lost something of its ramshackle colonial charm along the way. I wonder if this is a sign of things to come, whether the fifteen years since we had last been here may have brought a kind of progress to Costa Rica that we might not find entirely welcome.

I look out of the window of our hotel room as the sun sets. At this moment the city is painted in a soft, forgiving light. The mosaic floor of the Plaza de la Cultura stretches out in front of us, then an ornate church, the Teatro Nacionál, a concrete tower block. I look past the shop lights and neon, beyond a sea of corrugated iron roofs, through barbed wire and electric cables and away to the cloud-topped mountains that surround the city.

I know the forests out there are teeming with nature in all its many forms. I can imagine the shifting, slithering, scuttling aliveness of it all. There will be furtive movements in the shadows, swinging shapes in the canopy, sudden bird calls, huge strangler figs silhouetted against the sky. Exotic bacteria are fizzing in the waters; snakes, frogs, sloths and howler monkeys hide among the leaves; jaguars slip through moonlit clearings; leeches wait to suck out our blood. It will be humid. There will be ancient layers of fungus and mud and leaf silt underfoot. All the sludge and the glory of the tropics is just there, outside our window, on the horizon.

After a couple of days in the city we all feel that it is time to head into the wild. Artie straps his new bush knife to his belt. We pick up a hire car, buy a map, pack up our room and check out. Wanting to set a good example for the children we do not borrow any sheets this time.

The jungle looked back at them with a vastness, a breathing moss-and-leaf silence, with a billion diamond and emerald insect eyes.

Ray Bradbury

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