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I came to La Fortuna, near the magnificent Volcano Arenal, to visit my friend Zulay for a few days. It happened that I arrived just in time to see a number of documentaries featured on the last day of what is hopefully the first annual CRiterio Environmental Film Festival. On my first full day of gorgeous, dry sun after a week of heavy rain and Monteverde coolness, with that big ol’ constipated mountain of lava rumbling behind us, we watched four diverse documentaries covering a range of issues.

The first was La Sirena y el Buzo (The Mermaid and the Diver), a Mexican/Spanish production telling a fable of the Miskito people on the Atlantic coast of Nicaragua. It’s a bittersweet look at the lives of poor Miskito communities, one riverside, the other dependent on the sea which can be both generous and brutally unkind. Although the story of the film was somewhat confusing, there was great power in the images of turtles being slaughtered, women giving birth, the bewildered faces of poverty and the unforgiving strength of nature. Although light on levity, the scene of a female shaman bouncing, slapping and chanting the bad spirits from a very robust, yet sickly, baby, was welcome comedic relief.

The film that I enjoyed the most was from the Cities on Speed series from Denmark and called Bogota – Change!  It looks at the renaissance of the Columbian city of Bogota in the 1990s. It was known as an urban center of high crime, corruption and unemployment, until two interesting characters were elected as independent mayors – Antanas Mockus in 1995 and a couple of years later, Enrique Peñalosa. Our first experience of Mockus is when, as chancellor of the university, he drops his pants and moons the perpetually angry and frustrated audience – “a display of both extreme violence and extreme submission,” he explains. He is fired from his academic post but soon elected as mayor of Bogota.

 His major influence is his Lithuanian mother who is a well-known sculptor and more outspoken than he. She insists that “if you don’t have honesty, you can’t accomplish anything”. And so Mockus is known for being controversial but having great integrity. He deals with the dysfunctional city like a sociological experiment and makes changes through such creative, yet unheard of, solutions as “a vaccine against crime”, professional mimes teaching drivers how to behave properly on the busy roadways, and insisting that “la vida es valor” – life has more value than objects in response to people’s greater concern about theft than the murder epidemic at the time. In his first term as mayor, the murder rate dropped by 50%, water usage dropped by 40%, and numerous other statistics demonstrated that his unorthodox and often puzzling methods were working. A side-note to this is, after googling Mockus, I found that he was the presidential candidate for the Columbian Green party in 2010 and lost, but also announced that he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in April of this year – a sad update.

art on another dirty city - puntarenas -wall

After Mockus’ term, Peñalosa came in and worked on the infrastructure of the city, adding hundreds of miles of bike lanes, a modern public transit system, limits on vehicles in the urban core, and taking out slums and derelict areas and replacing them with parks, public spaces, and libraries. Although there seems a moment when the populous didn’t understand “public spaces”, he managed to push through much of his agenda in a short time. In Bogota, the mayor can only serve one consecutive term, (Mockus returned for a second), but either of these men may have made an even bigger impact if allowed more time. It is amazing what they accomplished in their brief 2 year terms, despite the great opposition to their extreme platforms. The film is both amusing and inspiring. From what I can tell, Bogota is now a model city on many scales, even while Columbia struggles on – and it has just moved its way up my gotta-go-see list.

On the printed agenda for the filmfest was something called “Film Sorpresa” (Surprise film). We were curious as to what that would be. What came on the screen was a documentary I am already familiar with called Cracking the Golden Egg, a critical look at corporate tourism on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica. It was created by an organization for responsible tourism based in Washington D.C. The president, Martha Honey, was a journalist here in Costa Rica for years. I wrote about her back in April when I saw this documentary for the first time and she chaired a panel in Monteverde. She was back again in August holding a workshop and I happened to run into one of her co-workers. He told me that the half hour doc had been banned from distribution in Costa Rica, as both the government and the tourism industry didn’t like the idea that people would see its negative evaluation of large corporate hotels versus local development and community well-being. So it made sense that the festival organizers hadn’t advertised its name on their agenda but still took the opportunity to show it. You can go to the link:  and maybe access the video. I tried to post it but was unsuccessful. I especially recommend it for people thinking of traveling to Costa Rica.

The film that the festival organizers gave the top prize to is called Vienen por el oro; vienen por todo – “They came for the gold; They came for it all”.  It was a very well-done (yet poorly sub-titled) film about the town of Esqual in Argentina which, in 2003, managed to stop a large Canadian mining company (New Meridian) from developing an open pit gold mine. The use of explosives, cyanide and other chemicals would have devastated the beautiful mountainous area, its pure water, and the health of the inhabitants. In an area of extreme unemployment and hardship, the citizenry still decided, by something like 80 % in a referendum, not to allow the mine to develop. 

At this moment in Costa Rica, a Canadian mining company with a local subsidiary by the name of Infinito Gold is trying to open an open pit gold mine, in the small community of Las Crucitas, just north of where I am presently staying here in the San Carlos. They began their attempt in 1993 but have been held back by numerous legal actions against them. The new president, Laura Chinchilla, put a moratorium on any movement when she came into office in May of this year until the highest court could rule on the legality of the mine. Her predecessor, the once revered but now ethically-questionable Oscar Arias, felt it was a project that favored Costa Rica economically.

 The environmental community has managed to hold off this massive assault on the area. Their main concerns are for the 190 hectares of tropical dry forest that will be destroyed (along with the residential flora and fauna) and the use of cyanide and other chemicals that will poison the watershed of the area, including the mighty Rio San Juan that forms the northern border of Costa Rica with Nicaragua. Supposedly a decision is going to be made in the following days. This film we watched last night was a powerful message for those involved in the struggle – with community co-ordination and commitment, David can beat Goliath. As Esqual’s doctor, Flavio, declared, concerning what is right versus what is wrong: “It’s for the people, you asshole, not for the millionaires”.

The worldwide struggle continues with the helplessness of poverty versus the golden dream of jobs; the difficulty of empowering the disenfranchised and arming them with knowledge and hope when television generally encourages us down the path of least resistance and seduces us with the promise of comforts and convenience through consumerism and cooperation. These struggles continue everywhere, always – and writers, journalists, bloggers, poets, musicians and film-makers have the opportunity to educate, enlighten, and encourage collective empowerment. Bravo to the organizers of CRiterio and to the many who created these powerful cine-images that maybe, just maybe, will play a big part in moving us one step closer to sanity.


You have to love a country where you can go from cool cloud forest to hot tropical beach to the base of an active volcano in a matter of hours.  The San Carlos region of Costa Rica, north of the central valley where the capital city San José lies, has always been one of my favorite places to be.  A big part of that is the family I’ve known since I first came here in 1990:  Zulay Martinez and her sister Vilma, Vilma´s husband Horacio and their four children, Marilyn, Jason, Andrey and Keíla Horiana.  Andrey is in Walking with Wolf as he was one of the participants on the hike that makes up the last chapter, Across the Wrinkled Ridges. 

  Jason, Andrey, Zulay, Keíla, Horacio sharing the wealth

I came over to volunteer in the small pueblo of San José de La Tigra in my third month in Costa Rica, when I spoke basically no Spanish, and lived for a month with a poor campesino family, the Morales.  Zulay and her ex-husband Vicente, along with Vilma, Horacio, Marilyn and Jason, who was just a baby, lived down in the village, while the Morales lived in a small farmhouse straight up the mountain 800 metres.  I was getting very weak from the yet-undiagnosed cancer, and that hike up the mountain just about killed me.  So I started staying at Zulay’s, as Vicente was so often away and she liked the company. She became one of my first Spanish teachers.  In her patient manner, she pronounciated words as we discussed ideas, she taught me how to cook Tica-style, and we discovered that we were sisters of a soul-sort.  When she split with Vicente, who has since died from cancer, she went to work in Canada for the Bair family, friends who I’d met in Monteverde.  She met Keith Maves in Pembroke, Ontario and married him about eleven years ago. They returned to San Carlos, bought a beautiful piece of property which they have been planting with every type of tree, bush, flower and fruit that you can imagine.  Down here, you can push a dead stick into the ground and as often as not, it will be a bush within a year.  Even here many things take much more care and time than that, but the rate of growth in the tropics is shocking to a Canadian like myself, who has coddled along shrubs and perennials for years before they finally set well enough to really take off.

          2 kinds of heliconia

Their property has a small pond where I would swim up until the fish stock got too hardy and the pair of ducks moved in – it isn’t as welcoming anymore.  Now there’s a series of cement fish ponds where they are raising bass, an open air rancho where groups of visitors can be fed and entertained, a greenhouse to grow vegetables that don’t stand up to the harsh sun or strong rains without some protection, and a swimming pool is being cemented in as I type.  Next time I come I’ll be swimming again here at the beautiful Jardin Botanico Las Delicias.  San Carlos is much hotter than Monteverde but not as sunny as the beach, receiving a significant amount of year-round rain – and it is a territory with more plant and bird species than you can imagine.  Since the summer has ended and the steady rains have begun, the flowers and fruits are at their peak – there is no end to the vibrant colors that jump out of the green landscape and the twittering sounds that rise from the bushes. 

  The ducks have their pond   Soon we’ll have ours

As a backdrop to all this is that amazing volcano, Arenal.  Back in 1990, you could access the base of it and get close enough to feel the heat in the ground.  The congestion now of hotels, parks, hot springs and private lands has meant that it is hard to get too close without paying money to somebody, but just standing back from any vantage point and gazing on its conical shape against the bright blue sky, waiting for a puff of smoke to escape, is magical.  The first time I came to La Fortuna, the town at the base of the volcano, and stayed with cousins of Zulay, you could go to the now famous and frightfully expensive Tabacon Hot Springs and bathe all day for 100 colones (about a dollar at the time).  I believe it now costs about $45 for any period of the day you want to spend there.  I know that the gardens are beautiful and the resort is well-designed, but I prefer going upstream to where you can wander into the forest and sit in the warm sulphur waters for free, or if I’m with civilized folks, going to one of the half dozen other hotels that offer the same water at a much more reasonable price.

My first visit to Tabacon was on a rainy evening and at times it was a hard deluge falling on us as we floated about in the naturally-heated pool.  It had been nighttime dark for awhile, as well as completely overcast, and I had basically forgotten that a huge volcano was looming in the background, only kilometers from where we were soaking.  At one point, the rains let up for a few minutes, the dense cloud cover broke into pockets of fluff, and suddenly a loud rumble started from the belly of the earth until it boomed somewhere up above.  From my watery lounge-chair, I turned in time to see the orange, yellow and red fireworks escape the volcano in a pyro-technical explosion, the red lava then dropping down the sides of the cone until the perfect shape of the pyramid was defined.  I probably would have drowned awestruck if the water had been deeper. As quickly as it appeared, the clouds moved back in and wiped out any mention of the eruption. I will never forget the power, intensity and sheer drama of those few moments spent bathing in the shadow of the volcano.

  The beautiful Arenal volcano

Arenal is quite active but one must have luck to see it as much of the time the clouds sit low and you have no idea that a volcano is hovering nearby.  The dammed Arenal River, now Arenal Lake, is at its base and that is, in itself, a beauty to behold.  This area of Costa Rica is as unique as any other, perhaps more so, and has become a prime tourist destination, for where else can you go and get all these landscapes at once, along with the possibility of witnessing a volcanic eruption.  However, many people come here for one or two days or more, and never see anything beyond the dense grey clouds and the dark green forest at the bottom of the cone – I guess they go home and watch videos to get a better idea of what they missed.  Others who have luck, as I did on that first night, get the full floor show without even thinking about it.  Life is sometimes like that.

  Zulay and Vilma Martinez with Arenal volcano

Today Zulay, Vilma and I head up to the Arenal Observatory Lodge, on the southwest side of the cone, which is where Wolf’s Tapir Trail arrives after twisting its way from Monteverde along the forested ridgebacks heading northeast to Arenal.  I’m distributing books (this is a business trip after all) and waiting for the light cloud cover to clear so that I can hopefully see smokey puffs escaping, the sign of a small eruption – it’s a “be careful what you wish for” scenario, as one should never wish for a grand eruption. Zulay and Vilma remember being young teenagers when the big eruption on July 29, 1968 sent rocks, ash, cinders and gases throughout the area and killed over eighty people. They told me that about a week before there had been an earthquake at 8 in the morning and their mother thought it could have been caused by the volcano. Through the week there were several smaller eruptions, including one that killed some people close to the volcano, poisoned by the toxic gases. The morning of July 29 dawned very clear and perfectly beautiful, like the last moment of life before death, the calm before the storm. It then got very dark as when a horrible disturbance is coming. Around 2 in the afternoon, while the kids were in school, the volcano erupted in a grand manner, sending a huge cloud of rock and hot ash over the countryside, including where the Martinez family was, perhaps thirty kilometers away.  As the cloud of certain death blew over them, they all ran for shelter, as far and as fast as they could go.  If you went in the wrong direction, as a neighbor’s horse did, you could be hit by a flying hot rock. Zulay watched the horse go down, shot by nature’s artillery. The people who died were mostly close to the volcano, killed by the gases or directly hit by rocks or burned and smothered by hot ash. As Vilma told me, not knowing where to run and how to escape left her quaking with fear in her bed for weeks. It remains a very scary experience for her and even living this close, now about twenty kilometers away from the base, is close enough to Arenal’s regal beauty for her.  Recently the volcano has been very active, spewing rocks so much that last week they closed the National Park that sits at its base.  Better safe than sorry.  The most recent deaths that have occurred on this volcano have come from explorers venturing too close – a plane crashed a few years ago while taking sightseers on a fatal tour, and another man died on the side of the volcano, hit by hot lava rocks, a volcanic bowling fiasco.

  Gerardo and Jimmy Morales selling their produce

We stopped by the farmers’ market held in la Fortuna yesterday, and I ran into Gerardo and Jimmy Morales, the people I had originally stayed with up the mountain in San José de La Tigra eighteen years ago.  They sell their produce there.  It was a great reunion, poor Gerardo being thrown off by my sudden appearance.  Jimmy’s wife Carmen, who is usually there selling tamales, is at home with their three children who, along with a half dozen other neighbors, have dengue.  Not a good scenario.  Somehow the nasty mosquitos responsible have made their way inland to this little town in the mountains only 10 kilometers from here.  I guess we won’t be visiting anybody there too soon. Instead I will stay on the farm until I have to go to San José on Sunday.

  Horacio offering up breadfruit

July 2020