Quepolandia logo

50 MARVELOUS YEARS IN COSTA RICA

Jack and Diane

On December 13, 1970 when my wife Diane, our 4-year-old daughter Natalie, and I, accompanied on our flight by 37 head of cattle, arrived at El Coco International Airport (SJO) on a DC 6 four-engine propeller plane, we thought that we would be staying for four months, the duration of my work contract. We never dreamed that on December 13, 2020 we would be celebrating 50 years in Costa Rica.
The country where we had landed had a population of less than two million and was considered to be part of the Third World. The Central Bank had reserves of less than one million dollars. The exchange rate was ¢6.63 colones per $1.00 dollar. Not knowing anything about the money, or anything else, I went to a bakery to buy a loaf of bread and paid with a ¢50 colon bill, but they didn’t have change for a huge bill like that. The price of the bread was 50 centimos. To make a call from a public phone, you had to put a peseta, a 25 centimo coin, in the slot, dial your number, wait for the peseta to drop, and start talking.

Hacienda Baru

My job was to take care of the cattle, purebred cows and bulls of several different breeds, until my boss got them all sold and delivered. During those four months, I got to know Guanacaste and San Carlos. After that I went to work for a meat exporter managing a big ranch on the Caribbean side of the country. Traveling back and forth each week on the train between the farm and the family in San Jose was always an adventure: derailments, landslides, broken tracks, and other delays were quite common. When our son, John Christopher, was born, I arrived late, due to a problem with the train, and Diane had to drive herself to the Clinica Santa Rita. Fortunately she arrived in time.

My first visit to Hacienda Barú was in 1972. My employer had leased the property for fattening cattle, and its management was assigned to me, in addition to management of the large ranch in the Atlantic, which occupied most of my time. I visited Hacienda Barú a couple of times each month to check on the cattle and pay the workers. From the beginning I was enchanted by the property, the area, the people, the beach, and most of all the jungle.

One afternoon when I was at “La Casona”, the big old hacienda house, a Land Rover turned off of the road and drove down the lane to the house. I walked outside to see who had arrived, and couldn’t believe my eyes when the man I knew to be three times president of Costa Rica, leader of the forces than won the 1948 revolution, and who later abolished the armed forces, Don Pepe Figueres, stepped out of the car. He said he was working on a reforestation project nearby, and wanted to meet the neighbors. We had a very nice visit over coffee and cookies. Later I came to learn that most presidents of Costa Rica get out and visit the people in every corner of the country. After that memorable afternoon I had the great honor of shaking hands with nine more presidents and one ex-president. Costa Rica was a small country and everyone knew everyone else. Everyone in our family also met and dined with the former dictator of Panama, General Manuel Noriega. On a different occasion Diane’s flight to the USA was diverted to Managua, Nicaragua where Violeta Chamorro, the duly elected president of the country, boarded the plane. As they were closing the doors, there was a commotion outside. They opened the doors, and Daniel Ortega, former dictator of the country boarded. The social atmosphere on the plane was very tense, but Doña Violeta visited all of the passengers and told them not to worry, just to remain calm. Diane had the great pleasure of meeting her and chatting briefly.

The owners of Hacienda Barú were a group of investors from Tennessee, and in the year 1976 they made me an excellent offer, a full time job at Hacienda Barú, a big increase in salary, and participation in their company. I accepted the offer, and the following year Diane, Natalie, and Chris moved from San Jose to Hacienda Barú. It was a big change and was very difficult for them, but once they adapted to life in the jungle they all came to treasure the experience.

It was in the month of October 1988 when the torrential rains that accompanied hurricane Joan left Dominical and other nearby communities isolated from Quepos and San Isidro. I was out the country at the time, and Diane was all alone. She was a ham radio operator and managed to contact the National Emergency Commission. They put her in charge of dealing with the emergency for entire area. She did an admirable job of organizing the communities and confronting all of the challenges Joan could throw at them. Rain poured for six days and six nights leaving more than a meter and a half of precipitation.

For me the best part of Hacienda Barú was the tropical nature. I loved to walk in the rainforest and the mangrove where I saw many species of wildlife and came to think of myself as an environmentalist. In 1987 Diane and I were among about 20 founding members of the local environmental group the Amigos de la Naturaleza, (ASANA) which later created the Path of the Tapir Biological Corridor.

The transformation of Hacienda Barú from a cattle ranch to a nature reserve began in 1979, and the regeneration of natural ecosystems has continued until this day. At the beginning of the 1990s Steve Stroud bought out my former partners, and the enhancement of nature at Hacienda Barú began in earnest. We sold all of the cattle, and managed to acquire the designation of National Wildlife Refuge for the reserve. We were on our way to becoming a world known ecological tourism destination.

Long awaited development of the zone began in 1982 with the commencement of work on the coastal highway from Dominical to Puerto Cortés. Later came the construction of the bridge over the Barú River, the arrival of electricity to the area, construction of nine bridges between Dominical and Quepos, and the inauguration of the first gas station, Bomba el Ceibo. In 1996 we welcomed telephone service, and in 2010 President Oscar Arias inaugurated the long awaited coastal highway.

Today name of the airport is Juan Santa María International Airport (SJO). Costa Rica is no longer a third world country, rather it is a developing country with a population of more than five million. The central bank has reserves of more than seven billion dollars, the exchange rate is around ¢600 colones to the dollar. A loaf of bread costs more than ¢1000 colones, and to make a phone call you no longer need a peseta. Simply reach in your pocket, pull out your smartphone and you have access to the whole world.

In the last month of the year 2020 we celebrated 50 years in this marvelous country and have never regretted our decision to stay.

Congratulations


Leave a Comment

If your comment is a support question, please send us an email.