From the print edition
For the vast majority of Costa Rica’s two million annual visitors there is no reason to visit Palmar.
The sleepy Southern Zone transit town is not known for its hotels or restaurants, it does not have any museums, and the seemingly omnipresent tour companies that litter the rest of the country appear to have passed over the area entirely.
Even Lonely Planet’s Costa Rica guidebook says, “Quite simply it’s a hot, dusty and an altogether uneventful place.”
It was these facts, paired with the billboards urging me to continue on to the more popular tourist sites in the Osa Peninsula, that made me question Palmar as my final destination as a participant in the peninsula’s new homestay program, Osa Amigos.
The brainchild of Puntarenas Municipality Vice Mayor Yanina Chaverri, Osa Amigos is a potential solution to the area’s hotel woes. The program is necessary now more than ever because, despite its boring reputation, Palmar is home to one of Costa Rica’s greatest mysteries, the enigmatic esferas de piedra that may just put this small town on the map.
The esferas de piedra are perfectly round, stone spheres scattered throughout the northern part of the Osa Peninsula, the highest concentration falling in Palmar. To date, no one has been able to pinpoint their purpose.
Until recently the spheres have only attracted interest from museums and archeologists, but in an effort to bring development and tourism to the peninsula a new project, Proyecto Esferas, will be hosting its first-ever festival in October with an expected draw of 3,000-5,000 people from around the world.
Imagine, 5,000 people in a town with one hotel listed on TripAdvisor.
Upon realizing their housing predicament, the municipal government decided putting tourists with families was a potential option.
So, when I stepped off the bus in Palmar, I tried to look past its unremarkable grayness and instead tried to see the mystery beneath.
The home where I was staying belonged to María Gómez and her husband, José Angeles. María is the teacher for one of the farm schools in Palmar Sur, and she and her husband live in the teacher’s residence for Finca 12.
María and José rushed out of the house to greet me upon my arrival, and immediately began a tour of their simple farmhouse. The house was typical of the region. No unnecessary frills, but clean and welcoming.
It may not have been much, but the welcome I received from María and José could not have been kinder. I arrived in the middle of breakfast and was immediately sat down with a plate of gallo pinto and some of the best juice I have ever had in my life.
The couple then began excitedly questioning me about what I thought of Costa Rica in slow, patient Spanish, which María pointed out, “not everyone is understanding enough to do.”
Families who participate in the program get their homes painted by the municipality, but families like that of María and José are much more interested in the cultural exchange associated with hosting foreign guests.
“We just enjoy the opportunity to share our culture with people,” María said. “We like to hear what people have to say about our country.”
María and José spent the whole day showing me around the area, seeming to want nothing more than for me to walk away with a positive impression. Our first stop was Finca 6, a banana plantation and home of one of the area’s largest collection of spheres.
The spheres themselves are not particularly impressive, in fact they just look like giant rocks, but collectively they exude a mystical air. The spheres are clustered in different areas throughout the farm, and something about their placement will make anyone with a shred of curiosity wonder about their purpose. Some spheres are half-buried, while others sit ceremoniously on top of man-made mounds. Still more are arranged in perfect triangles.
At one point, María reached down near the base of a sphere and pulled out shards of pottery. She handed them to me and said, “a pre-Colombian souvenir.”
I must have looked shocked, because she hastily began explaining that, even now, there is very little in place for preservation of the spheres. There is a long-standing tradition of people taking things from the area, a contributing factor as to why the spheres are just now beginning to get serious international attention.
Following the visit to the spheres, we took a bus into Sierpe, where we got coffee along the river. In typical small-town fashion, María and José waved to everyone and seemed to know every person we came across by name. We did not linger, instead heading to a gift shop with shelves full of more pre-Colombian artifacts.
“Those could have been pulled out of some of the spheres sites,” she said. “It’s really common to find things like this all over the area.”
After heading back to the house, José promised that he would be cooking a special dinner in honor of my visit. The meal was amazing: pork slow-cooked over an open flame, accompanied by the traditional Costa Rican rice-and-beans. It was a meal, José assured me, that he usually reserved for family.
I left early the next morning, with a feeling of contentment. It was not an overly luxurious visit, or even a particularly eventful one, but the kindness of my host family and the chance for a real taste of pura vida small-town living had me looking at Palmar with new eyes.
So as I watched out the bus window at María, waving as she receded with gray and dusty buildings of Palmar, I decided that at least one traveler has found a reason to come back.