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Ticos and tourists cope with disaster

POASITO, Alajuela – While Costa Ricans who evacuated their homes after Thursday´s magnitude 6.2 earthquake were doing their best to cope, some tourists were shaken up after spending the night in parking lots and buses with no idea of when help was coming – and paying out of their own pockets when it did.

Walter Holmes, of the U.S. state of Virginia , was in the restaurant of the La Paz Waterfall Gardens Hotel, located in Vara Blanca, the closest town to the quake´s epicenter, eating lunch when the quake hit Thursday at 1:15 p.m. CST. “The restaurant simply exploded,” he said, “I didn´t even have time to get scared.”

Holmes and his wife were among 300 tourists trapped overnight in the luxury eco-resort at the base of the scenic Poás Volcano when landslides cut off roads in and out of the luxury eco-resort. The couple spent the night in a bus in the hotel´s parking lot, where they scoured the hotel´s ruins for supplies before they were evacuated in a helicopter the next day.

“We scrounged up enough chips and food for the night,” said Holmes in a phone interview from the Herradura Hotel in San José after being evacuated. Holmes, 66, had visited Costa Rica as part of a cruise tour.

Howard and Cathy Moore, from Orange County , California , were on a sightseeing day trip to the Poás Volcano when the earthquake hit. They, too, found themselves stranded with the hotel guests and little idea of what was happening.

“All we heard was lies, lies, lies,” said Mr. Moore. “(The hotel staff) told us we would get some food at 3 p.m., and then there was no food. … They told us we would get blankets when it got dark, then there were no blankets. … Then they told us the army was coming to pick us up in the morning, and all we had were news stations and photographers.”

Costa Rica has no army, however, since the military was abolished in 1949.

The Moores spent the 24 hours after the earthquake outside with almost nothing to eat and little water, they said, while helicopters swirled above, landed and apparently gave government officials tours of the disaster´s aftermath, but didn´t pick them up. In the end, they ended up being charged $300 each by a private helicopter company to fly out to a nearby relief camp in the community of Poasito.

Nazario Llinarez, a Spanish tourist from the town of Alta , said he and companion Vicenta Ferrandiz found shelter on a tour bus during the night. The two had been walking near one of the water falls when “everything started to come down around us.”

Ferrandiz said at least 200 tourists were stranded along with them, including families with children.

“We had no type of information, not from anybody,” Llinarez said.

Roberthe Margarithe, a visitor from southern France , said he spent the night on the highway near the hotel under a plastic trash bag to keep off the rain, and only a banana to eat.

Carlos Benavides, director of the Costa Rican Tourism Board, said that all the La Paz Waterfall Garden Hotel´s guests were accounted for and without any serious injuries.

The large Poasito camp, 10 kilometers from the volcano, was one of many refuges set up in open fields by small towns in the affected areas in the Bosques de Fraijanes and Poás region, northwest of San José .

Ticos and other stranded tourists did their best in the situation at the Poasito camp, making fires to keep warm and using tarps to ward off the rain. There were also tents, an improvised helicopter landing area and temporary shelters. Newly rescued Ticos and tourists arrived by all-terrain vehicles and helicopter and were greeted by two medical teams, of the six teams working throughout affected areas.

Regional Health Director of Poás, Gilberth Arias who oversees the half dozen medical squads, had been there since 6 a.m., when workers reportedly had 73 injured on the premises. Helicopters and ATVs have made the search for missing people more efficient, but operations are far from running smoothly.

“I know there are still people trapped, and we need to get them out of there as soon as possible,” said Arias, as a helicopter landed behind him.

Lorena Morales sat at another camp in Dulce Nombre de San Isidro in her makeshift home, made of tarps and string, watching her son play soccer with other boys. Despite being forced from their homes and living outside, the atmosphere was not one of misery.

“We had to get out of the house because it was too dangerous, and there was no point after the earthquake in going back in – no electricity, no water, and everything we own in ruins,” said Morales, recounting the previous day´s events. “So we´ve been here, and everyone I know is fine, thank God.”

Water was distributed to families in the area Friday afternoon. Most people had gone without water since the earthquake.

Luis Arce was one of the many distributors making their way through the area. Despite his own losses – broken television, motorcycle, lights and plates – he was trying to help out the people in his area.

“It´s been really hard … but all we can do is make the best of it, right?”

Tico Times reporters Blake Schmidt and Leland-Baxter Neal contributed reporting to this story.

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