San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Flamingo, Potrero: ‘Odd Couple,’ Plenty in Common

HISTORICALLY, they’re CostaRica’s odd couple.One is traditionally a community ofspacious estates and condos; the other,more modest dwellings. One sports awhite-sand beach; the other, gray-sand.One showcases glitzy hotels; the other,típico cabinas.There once even existed a time-honoredinternational divide between onecommunity’s U.S. and the other’s Canadianexpatriate communities.THE distinctions between PlayasFlamingo and Potrero, two of Costa Rica’spremier beaches on the north Pacific Coastin the province of Guanacaste, have fadedthrough the years. Most notably, upscaledevelopment, once the exclusive realm ofFlamingo, now heads north to Potrero andthe beaches beyond (Playas La Penca, Prietaand Pan de Azúcar). These days, the hilly,wooded peninsula that separates the twocommunities on opposite sides of PotreroBay is merely a natural divide, and no longerthe psychological boundary it once was.But one big similarity existed decadesago: Flamingo and Potrero each owes thebeginnings of growth to its own colorful,lively, eccentric real-estate developer.Canadian entrepreneur GeorgeHowarth staked out the ridge overlookingthe 2-km. strand of Flamingo Beach in the1950s. Though locals knew the area as“Playa Blanca” (White Beach), he christenedit a more jazzy-sounding “Flamingo,”having mistaken the area’s roseatespoonbills for flamingos. (The officialtourist map handed out by the Costa RicanTourism Institute still lists the beach as“Playa Blanca” with “Flamingo” addedparenthetically.)“Howarth had his rules, and you abidedby them,” reminisces Jo Mega, who hascalled the area home since 1972.YEARS Howarth spent in what hecalled the “chaos” of Mexico led him toseek to impose order on his development. Ifthat meant terrorizing his Tico neighbors,fencing off the beach or throwing intrudersout – a pair of Tico Times reporters experiencedexactly that in 1972 – so it was.More benignly, Howarth decreed thathouses could have tile or thatched roofsonly. Each resident was permitted one dogand cat. His generator served all nine houseshere at the time, Mega explains, so eachgot by with only a refrigerator and a fewlight bulbs.“George would turn the generator off at9 p.m. and go to bed,” Mega remembers –the switch was in his bedroom – leavingeveryone else in the dark.No electricity meant no water, and anyattempt to plug in something as energy hungryas a hair dryer always shut the systemdown.MEGA surmises that Howarth envisionedhis Flamingo as a sleepy little fishingvillage. But he began to sell to peoplewho had more money than he, who weren’tabout to follow such rules, she says. That,along with run-ins with the authorities overimpeding beach access, eventually contributedto his downfall.Mega discounts the oft-repeated storiesof Flamingo as playground of the rich andfamous during that era. The area’s most celebratedfaux-resident was none other thanactress Elizabeth Taylor, who, with husbandRichard Burton, allegedly lived in the southridge’s prominent Point House. But Megalived in the house during those years.“Unless I was Elizabeth Taylor …,”she muses. “But my eyes are plain brown,”a reference to the actress’s famously violeteyes. She says a pair of disgruntled localswhom Howarth threw off the land startedthe Taylor-Burton rumor.IF Flamingo had George Howarth,Potrero had Bonner Bailey, flamboyantpilot and self-styled real-estate magnate.Unlike Flamingo, Potrero already had along history as an existing Tico town whenBailey arrived in 1968.That history intrigued him, accordingto local resident Kelly Harden. Potrero hadbeen a land-grant beach owned directly bythe Spanish crown during colonial times.Bailey’s interpretation was that this supersededCosta Rica’s maritime-zone laws,and would allow him to sell land directlyup to the shoreline.“What he told you, and what was writtendown were often two different things,”Harden says.THE development of small lots andsingle-family homes known as SurfsideEstates, just south of Potrero village, wasborn. Laws at the time did not permitBailey to advertise the properties in hisnative Washington State. He crossed theborder into Canada and began promotingthe area there. Thus began Potrero’s traditionalred-and-white maple-leaf imprint.Pearl Moore, known for her my-way or-the-highway approach to umpiringSunday-afternoon softball games, and proprietorof La Perla, Potrero’s consummateCanadian hangout, was the first to comedown. Vancouver natives June and AlHeesaker followed soon after.“Nothing but a pile of coconuts,” June Heesaker remembers of their arrival in1978.The early days were tough, she says,with just two phones and little to do in thecommunity. The big social event was adrive to the Hotel Diriá in Tamarindo totake in the sunset over dinner, Heesakerremembers.Those days seem like an eternity ago.The December 2002 launch of scheduledinternational flights to Daniel OduberAirport, 45 minutes away outside ofLiberia, gives Flamingo and Potrero fairlyinstant access to North America and pointsbeyond. It’s a far cry from the early 1970s,a time when longtime residents rememberthe 10 to 12 hours it would take just todrive to Guanacaste’s capital during therainy season.TOURISM and availability of goodsand services have boomed. Real estate, todayorderly and on the up-and-up, is growingexponentially too. All are expansions fueledby the airport andease of access.(Guanacaste’s legendarilywarm,dry climate hasn’thurt matters either.)Transportation issues still exist for bothcommunities. The status of the long-operatingFlamingo Marina remains uncertainat this writing. And the long-awaitedpaving of the road to and through Potreroremains just that, with everything from“Any day” to “I’ll believe it when I see it”given in reply to the question “When?”Community associations on both sidesof the bay work diligently (and eventogether) for the betterment of the area andits beaches.THEY’RE open to all these days, bythe way.

Comments are closed.