Terra: Alajuela, Costa Rica
I can’t think of a single, monolithic reason to visit Alajuela, yet every time I visit I find something worth the effort.
Alajuela, like so many other Costa Rican cities, resides as an extension of San José, another arm of the urbanization of the Central Valley. In fact, by flying into Juan Santamaría International Airport you’re actually landing in Alajuela before heading off to San José proper. WalMart lies within line-of-sight of the runway. This was my first impression of Costa Rica. However, that image paled quickly in comparison with everything else that the Central Valley had to offer.
Alajuela’s local hero is Juan Santamaría, a local drummer boy in the ragtag militia set on stopping pseudo-American and Nicaraguan paramilitary invaders. By torching the enemies’ weapon caches he cemented his place in history, and subsequently had an airport named after him.
The journey from the tarmac to the city center passes by hotels and casinos. It saddens me that this may be as far as some people may reach into Costa Rica. It takes the short side of 15 minutes to reach the plaza, with requisite cathedral. The city center contains a good sized park, access to the cathedral, and a plethora of markets, shops, banks, food, and drink. McDonalds and Burger King loom over the southern side while the armory, now a museum, stands on the north. It’s easy to spend an afternoon popping in and out of shops, running errands, and taking a nap on the grass. Many do.
Alajuela boasts two markets, indoor and outdoor. The indoor market reminds me of the Mos Eisley Cantina. “Never will you find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.” The aisles are cramped and the smells overwhelming. There are people stacked on top of people, and the labyrinth extends endlessly into dark corners and dirty dead-ends.
Perhaps I exaggerate. Because the food is fresh, the people kind, and the wares plentiful. I just don’t like enclosed spaces. So, for the claustrophobic, a quick trip will suffice.
The outdoor market appears on the weekends, and supplies urbanites with a fresh supply of fruits and vegetables that are trucked down from the nearby mountains. Given that most places in Costa Rica can be reached by car within hours (given ideal traffic conditions), the country can move fresh-picked produce with lightning speed.
There is also an impressive local soccer stadium, bookstores, country clubs, bars, dives, and a plethora of social classes living together in this center of social activity.
These core elements, combined with others that I intend to explore as the days go on, form the heart of Alajulea and the lifeblood of Costa Rican life.
Michael Van Etten
The LEAF Project
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