San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

The Times They Were A-Changing in C.R.

When The Tico Times resumed publication on Feb. 4, 1972 after a 12-year hiatus, its mission was the same, but its scope was suddenly much bigger. Costa Rica had begun inviting the world in, then wondered whether it was ready for the world.

The tumultuous decade was marked by growing pains as the country grappled with change, most of it imported. From the invasion of North American pensionados and U.S. fugitive financier Robert Vesco in the early 70s to the fallout from Nicaragua s Sandinista revolution in 1978-79, Costa Rica found itself at the center of dramas created elsewhere but played out here.

Changes Huge & Tiny

For longtime expat residents as well as Ticos, the times they were a-changin in ways big and small: the U.S. Embassy announced the end of its mail-holding service for visitors, and the ambassador s residence moved from the Monticello-style mansion it had occupied for decades in the western suburb of Escazú to modern new digs down the road, leaving behind lots of termites and at least one ghost.

The 70s brought the Inter-American Human Rights Court; the University for Peace; the nation s first private university; the National Youth Symphony; the American Chamber of Commerce of Costa Rica (AmCham); the National Stock Market; the pista linking San José and the western suburb of Escazú; river rafting (introduced by Costa Rica Expeditions Michael Kaye); the Río Azul Landfill; Lake Arenal; the country s first homegrown grapes (harvested by the Vidor family from Italy) and apples (grown by self-made U.S. farmer Edward Owen, aka apple Eddie ); La Sabana Park; the Museum of Costa Rican Art; direct-dial phone service outside the country; the first jumbo jet, welcomed to Juan Santamaría International Airport by ecstatic mobs; English muffins (concocted by retired U.S. product designer Jim Watson) and bagels (created by longtime U.S. resident Angie Theologos); the Braulio Carrillo Highway to the Caribbean port of Limón; the first hotel for the Quaker mountain town of Monteverde; Costa Rica s first video club, for Betamax owners (started by longtime U.S. resident Jim Fendell); the pedestrian walkway on San José s Ave. Central (after a few false starts); and the Culture Plaza (which started out life as the Culture Hole and then the Culture Pool, when it filled with rainwater).

There were losses, some mourned, some not: a $2 billion project to mine bauxite and refine aluminum in southern Costa Rica was called off following violent protests by student and political groups, and ALCOA s announcement that falling aluminum prices made the project which was to have included a hydroelectric dam, new highways and a new port unfeasible. La Gloria, the nation s oldest department store and a generations-old landmark in San José, burned down, but later rebuilt; the Chorotega Tower Hotel, another capital landmark, closed; and the historic Tala Inn became a parking lot. Poás Volcano lost its claim to fame as the world s largest crater after a TT reader disputed the fondly held and widely repeated local belief. (The title rightfully belongs to Hawaii s Kilauea Volcano. You read it here first.)

Good PEN, Bad PEN

The influx of foreign retirees eager to take advantage of the incentives offered by Costa Rica s 1968 Pensionado Law brought an unexpected downside: fugitives, scamsters and other bad apples . Caught in the decade-long backlash against the Ugly Gringos were well-meaning pensionados who wanted only to live here in peace and felt unfairly targeted and unwelcome.

A Tico Times investigation in 1972 revealed abuses by Canadian developer George Howarth, who had been trying to turn Playa Flamingo in the northern province of Guanacaste into an exclusive enclave for the rich and famous by prohibiting access to the beach and terrorizing his neighbors in nearby small fishing villages.

The TT story was picked up by the daily La Nación, sparking national outrage and eventually, passage of the Maritime Zone Law.

Concern that Costa Rica was losing its land to foreigners prompted Tilarán Bishop Msgr. Román Arrieta later Archbishop of San José and President Daniel Oduber to call for restrictions on the sale of agricultural land in Guanacaste of foreigners. Official overreactions against the foreign invasion included an attack on English-language publications by the Tourism Institute, accusing them of denigrating Costa Rica; the jailing overnight of bewildered tourists by overzealous cops because the visitors weren t carrying their passports; and a move greeted with hilarity by Ticos and foreigners alike requiring all company names to be in Spanish. Los Tiempos Ticos reported these stories and more.

Not a Dull Decade!

The 70s saw the nation gripped by power rationing during the worst drought in recent history. The killer quake that destroyed Managua on Dec. 23, 1972 cast a pall over Christmas here; a quake in northern Costa Rica claimed 22 lives in Tilarán, and three years later, Ticos rallied to aid Guatemala, where a devastating quake left 22,000 dead.

In 1975, Steve Stout, a 17-year-old U.S. adventurer, set out to hike 400 miles across the Talamanca mountains from the Pacific to the Atlantic coasts, but was bitten by a coral snake his first day out and made it back to civilization just in time. Two years later, U.S. furniture-maker J.Morrison and three fellow explorers followed an ancient Indian trail and made it across.

The coffee bonanza of 76- 77 offered welcome respite from the economic woes of the previous three years.

A petroglyph in Guayabo, the pre-Columbian ceremonial center being excavated outside Turrialba on the Atlantic slope, became the subject of controversy when U.S. artist Michael O Reilly suggested that it might be an ancient star map. Some experts agreed, others scoffed. Meanwhile, a spectacular carved piece of jade unearthed at a construction site in the northern San José suburb of Tibás provided evidence that early Costa Ricans had contact with both the Mayas and the Olmecs.

An experiment to introduce Daylight Savings Time to Costa Rica failed much to the disgust of former President José (Pepe) Figueres, its principal proponent, and The Tico Times because Ticos didn t like getting up in the dark.

The Tico Times investigated the drastic rabies-control method used by Ministry of Health since the epidemic of the 50s, which involved poisoning stray dogs and pets unfortunate enough to be caught in the poisoners path with strychnine. With the help of the World Society for Protection of Animals (WSPA) and concerned local vets, the practice finally was phased out. The paper also looked at Costa Rica s other drug problem the unregulated sale of potentially dangerous medicines without prescriptions or warnings.

Visitors of Note Were Noted

VIP visitors included Britain s Prince Philip, U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, U.S. First Lady Rosalynn Carter, West German President Walter Scheel, Israeli President Efrian Ketzir, Spain s King Juan Carlos and a priceless collection of 44 Old Master paintings on loan from museums and private collections in the U.S. Frequent visitors all decade long were Unidentified Flying Objects (OVNIS, in Spanish.)

The Weird & The Wonderful

Readers were warned to beware (or not) the Machaca or Love Bug , whose bite was said to require the victim to make love within hours or die. In 1973, a young U.S. heiress spent two weeks on then-uninhabited Cocos Island, Costa Rica s legendary Treasure Island in the Pacific, before her worried family coaxed her home. Soon after that, a group calling itself The People of Cocos Island issued a handwritten proclamation in English declaring Cocos an independent nation. By the time police got to investigate, the People had gone. Incidents such as these, plus unauthorized visits to the remote possession by treasure hunters, fishing pirates and drug smugglers, finally prompted Costa Rica to declare Cocos a national park in 1978.

A brazen gang bulldozed a trail into a United Fruit Company banana plantation in the southern Pacific zone and stole two of Costa Rica s famous pre-Columbian stone spheres, each weighing an estimated 10 tons, from the spots where they had rested for centuries. The thieves were caught when the overloaded tractor-trailer hauling the booty to San José broke down on the Inter-American Highway.

In 1975, a statue of Christ in San José s Santa Teresita Church started bleeding, causing near-riots as crowds converged on the small church to touch the statue. Two weeks later, the already-jittery nation tried unsuccessfully to laugh off a wild prediction from an unknown source that a huge earthquake would hit the country at exactly 3 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 17, causing it to sink into the bowels of the earth. The only shaking felt was Ticos knees.

Both wonderful and weird was the story of a Mystery Hero captured in a series of dramatic photos on Page 1 of the TT Nov. 29, 1974, as he rescued a young Guatemalan woman from drowning at Manuel Antonio beach. He disappeared from the scene before anyone could get his name.

The following week, after seeing the photos in the paper, the hero came to The Tico Times. In a heartwarming follow-up story, 33-year-old Daniel Weiner said he was a student of pre-Columbian art history touring Latin America on a grant from Sacramento State University. Four years later, Weiner was back in the news charged in California with smuggling pre-Columbian artifacts from Costa Rica.

According to authorities, he had been on the lam from an auto theft charge in the U.S. when he became a hero here.

Perhaps the weirdest story of the decade (apart from almost every story involving Vesco) was the Mystery of the Man Who Wasn t. A local law firm discovered that a pensionado from St. Louis, Mo. named John Edward Dempsey, who had been living a lavish lifestyle here with his wife Reine and their three young children, had been dead for the last seven years. Another man, identity unknown, was using his name (and wife, and family). The bogus Dempsey vanished and Reine returned to the U.S., saying only that the U.S. government had assigned her dead hubby s identity to the mystery man.

Wonderful: TT readers helped make life much happier for the inhabitants of Costa Rica s Parque Bolivar Zoo by donating to The Tico Times Zoo Fund; sent dozens of needy kids to Camp Roblealto through the Camp Fund; helped Santa Claus with gifts to Yehudi Monestel s annual drive to bring Christmas to hundreds of needy children in remote areas of the country; and even gave their blood, donating generously to The Tico Times blood drive.

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