Costa Rica, Tourism, Prostitution, and Lucy’s Money

LUCY’S MONEY, the fourth book in the series, starts on a plane en route from New York City to San Jose, the capitol city of Costa Rica. I decided to write a Costa Rica-based Lucy story because I used to know Costa Rica pretty well, having written and/or updated a couple of guidebooks to that country several years back.

How I landed this fun if not very lucrative job is written into the story: a guidebook editor friend called and asked me if I was interested in doing a new edition of a guidebook to Colombia, which was at the time the major cocaine supplier for the United States and most of Europe. The country was a battlefield, with cocaine cartels from all points on the political spectrum fighting it out for control of an impossibly vast and lucrative drug trade. Does the name Pablo Escobar ring any bells?

Eventually the cartels lost out and the Colombian drug kingpins got killed, jailed, or disappeared. And I never went to Colombia, not wanting to chance walking into a stray bullet or a kidnapping opportunity for some revolutionary desperadoes. Instead, I passed, and sure enough not too many weeks later this same editor friend called back with a much better offer: updating a guidebook to Costa Rica.

Now we all know at least a little about Costa Rica’s sterling reputation as a safe and friendly environmentally-correct destination for tourists, overflowing with natural wonders including plentiful wildlife, especially birds and monkeys, along with active volcanoes, great beaches, excellent surfing waves, jungles, mountain ranges, cloud forests, etc., etc. All very user-friendly. Not a place to be afraid to visit. I signed up on the spot.

So, I did a couple of years of annual monthlong trips to Costa Rica, revising and editing two different guidebooks—once you’ve done one for one company you’ve got credibility, and you can do one for another company if they aren’t competitive. In my case, the first was an American guidebook—Fodor’s, which I did for two or three editions—while the second was an English guidebook, written for the Automobile Association, the British version of the AAA, which had some sort of cross-promotional relationship with Fodor’s but was not competing with them.

Although I was not in-country for more than three or four weeks at a time over the course of a five-year stretch, while researching and updating these guidebooks I got to know the country well enough to use it as a location for a Lucy Ripken mystery. At the time, of course, that was the last thing on my mind as I raced in slow motion (very bad roads!) on buses and in rental cars, “getting the story” of Costa Rica. Or, in the case of guidebook writing, doing the grunt work: confirming the cost of hotel rooms, surfboard rentals, fishing trips, and other such mundane information. This is not a glamorous job, believe me. There is a little creative writing, doing guidebook updates, but mostly there is a lot of walking into hotels and other tourist destinations and taking fast photos and fact-checking conditions and prices. Still, it got my partner and I out of New York and down to Costa Rica in the middle of a cold, dark  winter on that first trip. For a couple of years after that I went down alone, my partner being entirely underwhelmed by Costa Rica.

Understandably underwhelmed. People seeking the kind of cultural history and artistic expression that makes Mexico (and much of Latin America) such an utterly fascinating place to visit are inevitably disappointed in Costa Rica for its lack of cultural and/or indigenous history. What few native peoples there were in Costa Rica were pretty much wiped out by Christopher Columbus and his cronies, who beached a few ships on the Caribbean side on one of his voyages, and proceeded to wreak death and destruction on the locals in the usual European pursuit of gold and other shiny rocks. Although a small indigenous crafts trade has sprung in recent years in response to the burgeoning tourism industry, most of the crafts sold in Costa Rica are imported.

What Costa Rica does offer is an amazing wealth of natural wonders, as I mentioned. This is Mecca for birdwatchers, white water rafters, volcano lovers, jungle trekkers, and surfers!

Unfortunately, it is also Mecca for dirty old men, with prostitution legal and many prostitutes scarcely of age. Or so it looked to me when I was there a few years back. And from what I hear, the influx of Colombians in the past decade has made the problem worse.

I first heard about this dark side of Costa Rica while riding back to San Jose from Bocas del Toro, a lost little town/island on the Caribbean side of Panama, which I was adding to the Costa Rica guidebook as a side trip for those tourists intent on visiting the Caribbean side of Central America. Bocas del Toro is a great spot if you don’t mind taking a couple of buses and a boat to get there from the Costa Rican border, and once there waiting out the incessant rain, the mosquitoes, and the sleazoid types who mingle with the good hearted eco-tourists and adventure travelers who are drawn to the area mostly because it is, or was, very much off the map a few years back. The town was whacked by a big earthquake some years ago, which has left many of its buildings twisted like corkscrews. You walk into town and feel like you’r entering a deranged funhouse of some sort. Or did. I haven’t been there in a while so things might have changed. But the tennis court was under a foot of water out in the harbor. Very strange.

As for the sleazoid I met—he was a crusty, grubby middle-aged American man in cheap clothes who cornered me on the bus back to San Jose and told me all about his friend who ran this crappy little hotel in San Jose and always, always when this guy came to town his hotelier friend would have a girl waiting for him. “A really young girl,” he said with an evil smirk. Why did he think I needed this information? But he did tell me as well about this investment company that guaranteed a forty per cent return on your dollars, and this became the basis for a certain business that Lucy gets tangled up in.

But I’m getting ahead of myself here. Let’s get back to Lucy’s Money…

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