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The good old days in Costa Rica — a trip back in time for expat retirees

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The good old days in Costa Rica — a trip back in time for expat retirees
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In Spanish there is a saying, “Todo tiempo pasado fue mejor” (things were better in the past). In the case of Costa Rica this quote is partially true. When I moved here in 1980 the country was far less developed than it is now. It was a different world. Life was much simpler in that there was less of an American business influence as there is now. There were hardly any products from the U.S. found in supermarkets, no mega stores like Walmart or PriceSmart (our equivalent of Costco) or giant malls like those that exist today.

Few people owned automobiles, there were no sprawling housing developments or gated communities. San José was center of nightlife. Places like El Pueblo, Los Higuerones and El Gran Parqueo were in their heyday and attracted huge crowds. The last two were gigantic dance halls with live Latin Music almost everyday of the week. The Time Tunnel and Talamanca were a popular discos right in the heart of San José on Avenida Central.

Who can forget the Jungle Train that wound its way from the Central Valley through the mountains and jungles to Puerto Limón on the Caribbean side of the country. The trip was breathtaking.

There were also scores of interesting and colorful characters in those days. The list so long that I cannot possibly mention all of them. The likes of Jimmy Adams (owned and operated a couple of famous nightclubs) , Jessie Matias (a true soldier of fortune and pioneer), Archie Clark (a pioneer in the sports fishing business), Franklin “Tiny” Phelps (opened first sports bar), Pat Dunn (today there is a hotel named after him), John Hall (the famous botanist and artist), Troy Thomas (Troy’s Hotel), and scores more. Plus many soldiers of fortune from the infamous Iran-Contra era dotted the landscape. In a way the country was almost like the wild wild west in those days.

Was the past better? Not necessarily; it was just different.

Expats and retirees living in and foreigners visiting Costa Rica over the past several decades are sure to remember some of the old Costa Rica.

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Here are few of many places that used to exist here. Some of this info. Is courtesy of Rico at QCostaRica.


You could always count on meeting some interesting characters there. Founded in 1929 the likes of Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, John Kennedy, Romulo Betancourt, Alan García and other personalities passed through its doors. Upon the death of its founder, his son and nephew assumed control, but in 1999 they decided to sell it. What a loss! I remember discovering the Soda Palace on my first trip to Costa rica in the 1970s. The food was really good. Sadly, today, it is a KFC. The adjoining building which used to be the Soda Palace movie theater. I remember agonizing on the uncomfortable wooden chairs in the theater while watching many a movies. In those days first run movies took months to come to Costa Rica. I remember waiting a long time to see “Die Hard” in 1988 at the Soda Palace movie theater.


I remember taking my son to this water park when is was a young boy. It was quite a novelty in the late 1990s. It was marketed as a water park in the city that would operate under the membership system that in addition to the attractions of the park, visitors could enjoy the hotels and five more parks that would be built. Neither one nor the other occurred. It remained open to the public until its demise. There are no vestiges of this park left today in Belén. A few miles away is Costa Rica’s original water park, Called “Ojo de Agua,” is still operating and has endured the test of time.


It was owned by a Japanese company. For years certain products, primarily oriental and other imported, could only be purchased at this supermarket. There was also a second store which operated in the Real Cariari shopping center that closed rather abruptly. The Chinese competition and the offer in new marketing channels gave way to their owners decided to sell the remaining store just northeast of the Sabana Metropolitan Park to the More x Less chain. In fact, today it is a Mas x Menos supermarket.


For 42 years this building, which faced the south side of the city’s central park, was the Rex Cinema. In the late 90s it closed as newer movie houses were built in the suburbs. Today, the building is houses a Mc Donald’s and offices. At present all of the downtown movie theaters are gone. Cine Variedades still stands but is closed.

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