Living the life in Costa Rica . . . 1970s style

For almost five years, from April 1976 until the end of November 1980, Steph and I had the great good fortune to live in Costa Rica in Central America (it’s that small country with Nicaragua to the north and Panamá to the south). I was working for the Peru-based International Potato Center (CIP) in its regional program for Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean. How the years have flown by since then.

We lived in Turrialba, a small town around 70 km east of Costa Rica’s capital, San José, on the campus of The Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center (known by its Spanish acronym as CATIE). Although many features of CATIE’s 900 ha campus have changed since our time there, this recent official video simply highlights its beauty. Surrounded by lush tropical forest, with the Reventazón River snaking around the campus on the east side, it is a haven for the most incredible wildlife (particularly birds), and made it a special place to raise our elder daughter Hannah who was born there in April 1978.

We occupied a single storey, two bedroom residence on the south side of the campus, next door to the International School. Since our time, the school has been expanded, and our house is now part of the school.

Water apples in a San Jose market

Our garden was full of fruit trees, some of which (like lemons and papayas) we planted ourselves. Just beside the house entrance there was a mature and very tall water apple tree (manzana de agua, Syzygium malaccense, Myrtaceae) that produced abundant fruit each year. Loved by the locals, I never really did acquire a taste for them. If taste is the right word. I just found them bland and watery.

Common animal visitors to our garden included white-nosed coatimundis (known locally as pizotes), skunks, the marsupial opossums (which often made themselves noisily at home in the roof of our house), and armadillos. Snakes were also quite common, and fierce; Costa Rica is home to many different snake species. In fact one of the world’s most venomous snakes, the fer-de-lance (terciopelo in Spanish), was quite common on the CATIE campus. Poisonous coral snakes sometimes found their way inside the house and we had to call someone in to rescue them. Not something I was ever up for!

The bird life in Costa Rica is extraordinary. Something to write home about! One year, I took part in the annual Christmas Bird Count (number of different species, and their abundance) organized by the National Audubon Society. We set off in pairs, counting all the birds we observed over a six hour period, in our assigned area of the Turrialba valley. Altogether the spotters observed more than 100 species.

And around our house, on the edges of the Reventazón ravine, and behind my office we saw so many different species. The sunbirds and hummingbirds were always amazing. As were the motmots with their swinging pendulum-like tails, and several migrant species that stopped off in Turrialba on their travels between North and South America. Like the summer tanager (Piranga rubra) below, one of the brightest birds that showed up each year in the garden.

However, two of the most flamboyant—and vocal—birds, seen in abundance high up the trees around the campus were the keel-billed toucan (Ramphastos sulfuratus) and Montezuma’s oropendola (Psarocolius montezuma) [1].

My work took me away frequently from Turrialba, to meetings every couple of weeks or so at the University of Costa Rica or the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock in San José, to the potato-growing areas on the slopes of the Irazú Volcano, or outside the country to work with colleagues in government potato programs in the region.

Potatoes at Llano Grande, Cartago Province, on the slopes of the Irazu Volcano.

In the 1970s (until just a year or so before we left) the road between Turrialba and Cartago (about half the way to San José) was unpaved, and rather tricky to navigate. Steph and I didn’t travel around the country much, exploring the Caribbean coast for instance near the port city of Limón just once.


On our first visit to Costa Rica in April 1975 (on our way back to the UK from Lima) we drove to the summit of the Irazú Volcano (at over 3400 m or 11,200 ft), looking down into the deep turquoise lake that fills the crater. Since potatoes are grown on the slopes very close to the summit, I would often take visitors to the summit while in the field.

On another occasion, a CATIE entomologist colleague and his wife, Andrew and Heather King, and I ascended to the summit of the Turrialba Volcano.

The Turrialba Volcano from CATIE’s experimental field plots.

It was quiet in those days, just some steaming vents around the large crater into which you could descend.

Inside the Turrialba crater.

Occasionally we felt an earth tremor that was probably associated with rumblings inside the volcano. But Turrialba started to show signs of activity in 2001, and became explosively active after 2014 (video), although it’s quiet again now.


For the first three years, we traveled around in our white VW Brasilia, even taking it south to Boquete, a small town in the heart of the potato-growing region of north Panamá, just south of the border with Costa Rica. The Inter-American Highway heading south crosses the Talamanca Range of mountains. Its highest point, Cerro de la Muerte (Summit of Death) is notorious for catching out careless drivers who pay the ultimate price. The road is winding, and often covered in cloud. [2]


We enjoyed short breaks on the northwest coast in the province of Guanacaste at Playa Tamarindo, more than 350 km from Turrialba, and a journey of more than eight hours. There was a gorgeous stretch of beach, and on both occasions (in March 1977 and 1979) we were the only residents at our chosen hotel. During our second time there, Hannah was a toddler, her first time at the beach. It’s much more developed now, and I’m sure the highway between Liberia (where there’s now an international airport to accommodate all the ‘snowbirds’ from the USA) and Tamarindo beach (almost 80 km) is now paved. Back in the day, it was a haven of tranquillity.

Apart from one evening that is, in March 1979. We’d enjoyed dinner, and getting Hannah ready for bed. We had chosen a suite with two rooms, so Hannah could sleep alone. I was reading her a story, when my foot accidentally tipped over an open bottle of Coca Cola. It was ice cold. I don’t know whether it was the temperature, or how the bottle made contact with the tile floor. The bottle simply exploded, and we found ourselves covered not only in frothing Coca Cola but shattered glass fragments. Everywhere! Hannah’s bed was full of glass. And soaking wet. There was no alternative but to ask the hotel management to quickly change our suite for another.


Besides the Irazú and Turrialba volcanoes, there’s another, Poás, northwest of San José. In 1978/79 when we visited, it was at least a four hour road trip from Turrialba to the summit, even though it was only 116 km or so. Poás has one of the largest craters (in diameter) in the world. When we arrived there it was smothered in cloud and we didn’t see anything!

Steph and Hannah on the summit of Poas.


Closer to Turrialba is the archaeological site of Guayabo, just 20 km north of CATIE but, in the 1970s, the road was completely unpaved, deep mud in places. I have written about our visit to that national monument here.

Exploring Guayabo.


Perhaps the most spectacular (if that’s the right word)—and saddest—trip was the one we made to the Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve in the northwest of Costa Rica, in April 1980. Spectacular, because of the location and wildlife. Saddest, because we heard from home that my father had passed away from a heart attack the very day (29 April) we went into the Reserve. Hannah had just celebrated her second birthday five days earlier.

We hired horses to take us from our guesthouse into the reserve; it was several kilometers, and too far a two-year old to walk.

Although Hannah did decide, once we were in the forest, to explore on foot or ride on Dad’s back as well.

Why is Monteverde so special?

  • Monteverde houses 2.5% of worldwide biodiversity;
  • 10% of its flora is endemic; and
  • 50% of flora and fauna of Costa Rica is in this paradise.

Monteverde is home to some large mammals like jaguar and tapir. We didn’t see them.

We actually went in search of the Resplendent Quetzal (Pharomachrus mocinno). It’s the national bird of Guatemala and also the name of its currency.

But there’s a larger population of quetzals apparently in Costa Rica. And Monteverde is a quetzal hotspot. And did we find it? You bet we did!

If you are lucky to come across a quetzal, as we did, it’s not hard to identify with its brilliant emerald green plumage, bright red breast, and tail streamers (on the males) as long as 26 in (65 cm). This is the best image I could take. But at least we saw this magnificent bird.

Another bird that is heard more than it’s seen in the dense forest is the three-wattled bellbird. Its call is unmistakable. We did however see it flying among the trees. Its plumage is quite distinctive.

Because of my father’s death, we had to cut short our visit to Monteverde and head back to Turrialba the next day, a journey of more than 200 km, and over six hours in those days.


Among its neighbors Costa Rica was a peaceful haven. While these countries had insurgencies (Guatemala) or civil war (Nicaragua), Costa Rica was not affected until the end of the 1970s, when refugees from the Nicaraguan civil war started to spill south over the border. This put pressure on the civil and social authorities, especially in San José, and there were reports that crime was increasing there. We saw, for the first time, armed police on the streets. Costa Rica suffered a civil war in 1948 that lasted just 44 days. In the aftermath, its armed forces were abolished. Investment in social welfare programs and education became the norm in the country, making Costa Rica an enlightened outlier among its neighbors. When we first arrived in Costa Rica traffic police were ‘armed’ with screwdrivers, to remove the licence plates from any vehicle infringing traffic regulations.

Clinica Santa Rita

Being a small town, Turrialba did not have access to many of the extended commercial and health facilities available in San José. I guess we took time off every fortnight or so to do a big shop there, and fit in any other appointments as necessary. Hannah was born in the Hospital Clínica Santa Rita in San José.

While I had a badly sprained ankle attended to and put in a cast at the hospital in Turrialba, I checked myself into a clinic in San José when I had a tonsillectomy (just a few weeks before Hannah was born).

So, on reflection, these were five good years, in a beautiful country. After all, there can’t be much wrong with a country that dedicates 25% of its land area to 29 national parks. Although, back in the day, it was definitely a slower pace of life. In 1976, the population of San José was around 456,000. Today, it’s closer to 1.4 million. One sign of that slower pace were the typical ox-carts used on farms all over the country. I wonder how many are used today on a regular basis?

I’ve been back to Costa Rica just once since we left, in 1997, when I joined a group of scientists from the University of Costa Rica and the National Biodiversity Institute (INBio) to collect wild rices in the Palo Verde National Park in Guanacaste.

Collecting seeds of Oryza latifolia with Alejandro Zamora.

Will I go back to Costa Rica? Perhaps. It would be great to see my old CIP team with whom I’m still in contact. But since there are so many other places I would like explore (Covid-19 permitting), it may be just a pipe dream. So many good memories.


[1] This YouTube video was actually filmed in Guatemala. However, it’s the same species as in Costa Rica, and I chose this particular video because it shows to perfection the display and call of Montezuma’s oropendola.

[2] Just one species of wild potatoes is found in Costa Rica: Solanum oxycarpum Schiede. We came across this species on the Cerro de la Muerte.