Bajos del Toro, Costa Rica
Every Costa Rican town – even the smallest and most remote – has the holy trinity, it’s explained to me. They each have a church, a soccer field and a bar. With these three things, the people are happy.
It doesn’t take me long to see all three of them in the small town of Bajos del Toro, high in the mountains of central Costa Rica. There are only 200 residents here and it feels that way. The main street doubles as a highway and is home to all the limited commerce in town. A few sidestreets lead to some more houses beyond the main road but walking any further than that takes you into the jungle.
Bajos del Toro has a school but only 35 students go there. It also has a medical clinic but an actual doctor only visits once a month – the rest of the time it’s open just for basic treatments. Everyone knows everyone.
“I was born here in this town and I grew up here,” 50 year-old Doña Olga tells me. “I will stay here for the rest of my life.”
Doña Olga runs the local grocery store. She was born in a house across the river, close enough to point to, but moved to this house when she got married to her husband Don Carlos. They fell in love when they were just 18 years old and were exchanging rings in the church just up the road a year and a half later. Now, as they prepare to celebrate their 32nd wedding anniversary, they have just welcomed a grandchild into Bajos del Toro.
The story of Doña Olga is typical for a small town here in Costa Rica. Some people will move to bigger cities in search of work but strong families and a greater affluence than other South American countries means many local communities are thriving. It’s a traditional existence, though.
“I wake up in the morning, about 5:30 and I prepare the breakfast for my husband and my son,” Doña Olga explains.
“Then I open the store and while I’m working at the store, I start to prepare the food and the products to sell in the store. At the same time, I’m cleaning the house and about 11 I start to prepare lunch for my family.”
“In the afternoon, around noon, I prepare all the products I sell at the grocery store, like the bread and the cajetas (traditional candies), tortillas and I spend most of the day in the kitchen and every day doing something. I can’t stop and do nothing.”
To that end, Doña Olga has also started hosting occasional cooking classes in the back of her shop in the afternoons. Tourists from the nearby El Silencio ecolodge are invited to learn how to make traditional tortillas with her. I try my hand at it and discover that it’s actually fairly easy to mix the starch, white corn and water to make the tortilla mixture but it’s a little trickier to get the flattening technique just right. We cook up some homemade cheese and sausages to go with the tortillas and it’s a delicious and filling afternoon snack.
“I love take people from other countries in my house and teach them to make tortillas,” she says.
“It’s interesting that people who come to El Silencio that they have money but everyone is really nice people and I love to meet people from other cultures.”
It works both ways. After afternoon tea, I go for a walk through the town and am fascinated by what I learn about the people of Bajos del Toro.
There’s Martin the gardener who has turned the land around his house into an enchanted forest. He collects tropical plants that are under threat and gives them a sanctuary in his garden. There are more than 400 types of orchids here and he’s built tunnels of leaves and colourful collections. He’s also happy for visitors to pop in and have a look for themselves.
And then there’s the middle-aged couple who run the local bar. Of course, as a foreign guest, I was offered a glass of tequila as a welcome gift when I first sat down. The true present was later in the evening when they decided to get dressed up and sing some karaoke for the remaining patrons drinking beer and eating deep-fried chicken.
Like most countries, there’s a rural hospitality away from the big cities and typical tourist haunts. The people in these small towns are just living their lives and enjoying what – and who – they have. It may be a new granddaughter, a lifelong partner or a collection of orchids. Whatever it is, they’re happy and they’re happy to meet you.
Time Travel Turtle was a guest of Visit Costa Rica but the opinions, over-written descriptions and bad jokes are his own.