GOLFITO, Puntarenas — You could call Golfito the Rodney Dangerfield of Costa Rica: It gets no respect.
“Gritty,” “seedy” and even “sordid” are some the adjectives commonly used to describe this town.
“Unless you count this (duty-free) shopping center, Golfito has no attractions whatsoever,” says LonelyPlanet.com. “And as charmless as it is by day, by night the place is home to surly ex-military men, boozy yachters, prostitutes and shady characters.”
Are these travel writers talking about the same Golfito I’m in, on the mainland side of the Golfo Dulce in southwest Costa Rica? The sheltered bay is beautiful, with a lush green island and peninsula across the bay, and the protected mountains behind town are a lovely expanse of uninterrupted green.
There are impressive yachts moored in the little marinas, and sportfishing opportunities abound. You can go ziplining, you can kayak across the bay, you can drive up the one-lane road to the top of the mountain for a stunning view of the Golfo Dulce.
But Golfito is best known as a jumping-off point to somewhere else, notably the surfing beaches of Zancudo and Pavones. You can take a ferry to Puerto Jiménez on your way to Corcovado National Park, and you can catch a bus or even a plane to San José.
I took a leisurely walk through Golfito, admiring the yellow, blue and green pastels that hark back to the United Fruit Company days. Someone had told me Golfito is a “sewer,” but the strongest thing I smelled was fresh fish. The town did not look dirty, at least no dirtier than any other town in Costa Rica, and seemed to have a certain civic pride, with builders building and painters painting.
As I walked around, people gave me a curious glance and an occasional “Buenas.” Nobody said “Hey, buddy, you wanna get high?” like they asked me in Tamarindo and Puerto Viejo. No hookers made eyes at me. One weinie dog barked at me, like it could tell I didn’t belong here.
What I didn’t see on my long walk was one other person who looked like a foreigner.
Maybe they’ve all read the guidebooks.
“This is really a beautiful, beautiful place, a great harbor,” said Katie Duncan, 55, a Californian who has lived here since 1994 and runs a property management, real estate and vacation rental company called Tierra Mar, or Land Sea Services. “The hills are all protected, and all the wildlife reserve, it’s prohibited to build. There’s a few titled properties up there that were titled before they declared all of this a reserve, so those people have certain rights, but it’s all wilderness and there’s no electricity up there.”
Pretty soon Katie dropped the S-word: seedy.
“It’s really bizarre that Golfito isn’t totally maxed out with luxury boats,” she said, “that people don’t know about Golfito, and it’s such a down-in-the-heels, seedy little thing.”
I asked her about Golfito’s reputation for being seedy.
“Most people who end up staying here and love it, love it for exactly that. That’s what people want. They don’t want a tourist town, they love this.”
She called it the kind of place Jimmy Buffett sings about.
“If you’re not looking for the Hilton, if you’re the anti-Hilton traveler, if you’re looking for a couple of small boutique hotels, or economical little rental houses where you can drag your kayak out and just paddle around … if you’re looking to just sit back and watch great sunsets over the cut most every night with a cold beer and no hustle, no bustle, no major souvenir shops,” she said … then you’ll probably like Golfito.
Another person told me about some of the slogans people joke about putting on T-shirts here: “The quaint little drinking town with a fishing problem,” “Sunny place for shady people” and “We make simple hard.”
Shane Acton, a now-deceased Golfito resident known for circumnavigating the globe in a little 18-foot boat named Shrimpy, wrote a blues song in which one line says, “If you get to Golfito, you’ve gone too far.”
Quite a statement for someone who’s sailed around the entire world.
The history: Spaniards and bananas
Columbus landed on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica in 1502, but it wasn’t until 1519 that the Spanish explorers Hernán Ponce de León and Juan de Castañeda discovered the tranquil, sheltered bay in Golfo Dulce where Golfito is located today. Here they found the Boruca indigenous people, though they didn’t find the gold they were looking for.
Unbeknownst to them, it was right across the Golfo Dulce in the Osa Peninsula, where gold was found in abundance centuries later.
At the turn of the 20th century, Costa Rica became the first “banana republic” after an American named Minor Keith built a railroad from San José to Limón and planted bananas along the way to feed his workers and try to generate revenue to support his costly railroad.
Bananas took off like a rocket, surpassing coffee as Costa Rica’s biggest export. But a banana blight decimated the Caribbean banana industry, and the United Fruit Company (later known as United Brands and finally as Chiquita), moved its headquarters to Golfito in the mid-1930s.
“Originally, this was seriously almost pre-Columbian until somewhere in the 1900s,” said Katie. “Nobody lived here except barefoot Indian types. Playa Cacao was one of the only communities, but the jungle dropped all the way into the water here (in Golfito).”
A scholarly paper titled “Impacts of the United Fruit Company in southwest Costa Rica,” by Clyde Stephens, says, “When the United Fruit Company arrived in Southwest Costa Rica in 1937, the region was a primeval wilderness with almost no human habitation.”
Robert Beatham, 77, of Maine is something of a local legend who came here in 1959, when he was 21, and worked for the United Fruit Company until it closed in 1985. Today he offers tours of his finca, the Paradise Tropical Garden, and sells bags of an exotic, tasty type of lychee called mamón chino at the town park in Golfito, where I caught up with him Saturday.
So what was it like when he came here?
“A lot different,” he said in a pronounced New England accent, undiminished by decades of living in Costa Rica. “There was no cars, no buses, a few taxis.”
I asked whether this main road we were standing next to, where buses, trucks, cars and motorcycles constantly blasted past us at alarming speeds, didn’t used to be a railroad.
“The railroad was here,” he said, gesturing toward the street in front of us. “The main line went right through here.” He said there was a little dirt road beside it. He pointed out the old locomotive parked behind us, a relic of a former area, and he said it was fenced off because local people were living in it.
The powerful United Fruit Company made a sweetheart deal with the Costa Rican government that gave it near-total control of this coast for a period of 50 years, from 1938 to 1988, to build a port, a railroad and anything else it wanted, with very low taxes.
Here the United Fruit Company built a thriving town from scratch.
“It did everything for the municipality,” Robert said. “If they needed a bridge, they called the company. It was a company town. The company made it.”
The banana company built homes, schools, stores, roads, bridges, a hospital, basically everything. The company brought in water, electricity, telephones.
Looking out over the “seedy” part of Golfito, Robert said this is not the best part of town.
“Pueblo Civil is what this place is called here, where people lived who didn’t work in the company,” he said, looking up at the street lined with bars that parallels the main street., south of the old banana town. “Wasn’t that many. Once in a while a little boat, but not like today. Everything was centered on the bananas.”
Golfito thrived for decades. So what happened to kill the banana business?
“Three things,” Robert said, though he ended up naming four things.
No. 1, there was a banana glut in the mid-1980s. The banana companies planted bananas in more places than needed as a hedge against natural disasters like “blow-downs” that decimated banana crops. But this didn’t happen in the mid-1980s, so there were too many bananas on the market. The banana companies took to dumping bananas to keep prices stable.
No. 2, the labor strife. An activist Communist Party riled up the workers to strike for higher wages. The strike lasted months, and now nobody was making any money.
No. 3, the governments of Central America imposed prohibitive new export taxes on bananas. Suddenly it became more costly to export bananas than to grow them.
And No. 4, there was new, younger management at the United Fruit Company, which looked at the balance sheet and decided this business no longer made sense.
According to Stephens’ paper, banana workers went on strike in 1984 out of sympathy with palm oil strikers.
“Unfortunately, this backfired because banana operations were shut down in Palmar,” Stephens wrote. “This also caused the port of Golfito to become dead and silent. Suddenly, thousands of workers in the banana farms and in the port were out of work and left in a state of shock. Within a year, the plantations and the railroad rapidly grew back into jungle. Thus ended a great era of banana production and banana railroading in Southwest Costa Rica.”
United Brands completely shut down its banana business in Golfito, abandoning the town to its fate.
“When the banana company left, everybody was unemployed,” Katie said. “Hookers and bars is pretty much what was left, a bunch of unemployed hookers and barkeeps, and then a bunch of unemployed banana company workers.”
Katie, who came here in 1994, said, “This place was really quite scandalous when we first got here, impoverished like nobody’s business. We bought our first property for $800 overlooking the water. They were giving property away. They would trade you an outboard engine for a piece of land on the waterfront.
“Nobody had any income here; they were trying to eat,” she said. “We needed parts; there were no hardware stores here, no grocery stores, no refrigeration at the butcher shops. I knew when to get the meat because I would see the truck go by with the cow in back. So I would go down in about an hour. They hung him on a thing; they didn’t even know how to butcher him, they were just selling you pieces of meat.”
With Golfito in a state of collapse, in a company town with no company left, the Costa Rica government decided to make Golfito a special economic zone where people could buy goods that were imported “duty-free” — not totally tax-free, but under greatly reduced taxation, with a complicated plan that required buyers to spend the night in Golfito, requesting the merchandise one day and picking it up the next.
The day I arrived in Golfito, knowing next to nothing about this place, I checked into the Hotel Sierra and went for a walk. I was on a one-way, circular road next to what looked like Central America’s largest prison — a huge, circular wall topped with razor wire, though it was completely covered in signs advertising products for sale.
When I came to an entrance to this complex, I walked inside and found myself surrounded by hundreds of people in the strangest shopping mall I’ve ever seen. Dozens of people were standing in long lines for no reason I could discern, and men were hustling around with industrial-size dollies big enough to carry refrigerators.
In an open-air compound the size of the Superdome, prominent signs warned against smoking. Everyone appeared to be Costa Rican, and the hawkers ignored me, in my American T-shirt and flip-flops, as if they knew I wasn’t their type of customer.
One area was filled with big racks with rollers on top, as if to inspect luggage at an airport, but nobody was using it. What the hell is this place? I asked myself. I felt like I had stepped into an alien environment, like Arnold Schwarzenegger on Mars in “Total Recall.”
“What is that place?” I asked the man at the front desk of my hotel when I returned from my walk.
“Es el Depósito Libre,” he said — the duty-free zone. Aha! I looked it up online, where one writer aptly described this place as “surreal.”
The ‘real’ Golfito
I had been hanging out at the marina bars of Banana Bay and Fish Hook, which someone told me wasn’t the “real” Golfito. So at nightfall Saturday, feeling that I wasn’t doing my job, I decided to walk down to the Latitude 8 Bar, one of a string of rundown drinking spots on a street that runs parallel to the main street.
I stashed my wallet, laptop and passport in my room, mindful of what I’d been told about the worsening problem of “confrontational crime” in Golfito, meaning robbery, mugging and home invasions.
Arriving safely at the bar, I ordered an Imperial and watched Jamaica play fútbol with Haiti. Nobody scored in the time it took me to drink a beer, and none of the other five people in the bar said anything to me.
I paid up and walked outside to take a phone call. Then a friendly-looking little man approached me on the street and said in English, “Hi. Where you from?”
“Vivo acá,” I said.
He nodded. “¿Chicas?” he said.
He was offering me girls! Now that is seedy. I acted like I didn’t understand and he said it again: “¿Chicas?”
I shook my head. “Ni chicos ni chicas. Adiós.” I walked on.
There were several shady bars, little holes in the wall, and even a sketchy little casino, but I figured I’d explored enough, plus I’d already been made as an easy mark. I walked home.
OK, OK, so I get it, Golfito is “seedy,” in places, especially at night.
But you can count me in with the Jimmy Buffett fans: I like it for that very reason.
Contact Karl Kahler at [email protected].