San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Beach Towns Unveil New Image

QUEPOS – The street vendors who once choked the entrance to ManuelAntonioNational Park are gone, and the narrow, wooden-decked, one-lane bridges that once formed a series of dangerous bottlenecks on the way to central Pacific coast tourist destinations have been replaced by new multilane bridges. And the extravagant 300-slip marina here, just a few miles from Manuel Antonio proper, is nearing completion.

This is the new Manuel Antonio. It is the community Mayor Oscar Monge envisioned when he stepped into office in 2007, and it is the home Harry Bodaan has been working to help build since he arrived in the area almost 15 years ago.

Not always the sunny paradise pitched on resort photos or on inserts of guidebooks, the beaches of Manuel Antonio – along with this port town – have suffered for years from high crime rates, as unsuspecting tourists often shared the beaches with drug dealers and users and were the victims of pickpockets.

“The question became: do we want to sell this place as a drug location or a family destination?” said local hotel owner Harry Bodaan, standing on a newly designed boulevard in front of Playa Espadilla, which leads to the entrance of the world-famous Manuel Antonio National Park. Waving his hand over the empty sidewalk in front of him, he said, “From 20 years ago to four months ago, this place was flooded with street vendors” selling everything from beaded necklaces to drugs. “It became a real problem for emergency vehicles trying to get in here,” Bodaan said.

“Traffic didn’t move.”

Not only did the redesign of the area free up traffic flow, but Monge has seen a dramatic drop in crime.

Standing just a few feet away from Bodaan as the sun set on a recent Monday evening, Monge added, “We cleared out all the street vendors here, and now, instead of four or five assaults a day, we haven’t had an assault in four months.”

A cleaner path into the park isn’t the only change Monge is celebrating.

The five-foot-tall, 62-year-old mayor glowed with pride as he showed off a local park in Quepos – known as Nahomi – to visiting diplomats and journalists. The park was once part of the Zona Americana, the enclave of top managers of the United Fruit Company’s operations here, and it was off limits to area residents. When the banana exporting giant left the country, the area was taken over by teenagers and used as a hang-out.

“It was a center for corruption,” said Monge, a novelist-turned-politician, explaining that many drugs passed from hand to hand here daily. Today, the local park plays host to Sunday picnics, casual dips in the turquoise bay and occasional volleyball games.

On the drive to Nahomi, it’s hard to miss the construction of the 55-acre marina, the first stage of which is set to open in February.

Bodaan said estimates are the marina will bring 2,000 more jobs to this area and have an overall economic impact of nearly $100 million a year.

“This marina is not being built by foreigners with the aim of putting money in to get the most money out. We expect it to help turn the area around,” Bodaan said, pointing to the positive impact the marina at the Los Sueños Marriot Ocean and Golf Resort in Herradura is having on the nearby central Pacific beach town of Jacó. “I only see the marina as benefiting the people of Quepos …the schools, the infrastructure, the safety.”

To accommodate the increased traffic  and a high-end clientele, local leadersare pushing to get other infrastructure in place.

At one point the only way to access Manuel Antonio from the north was over a series of rotting one-lane bridges that creaked as tourist-heavy buses rolled across. However, in mid-October – around the time  of the Turrubares bridge collapse that killed five people – the last of the new bridges was opened. The highway and bridge improvements have cut the driving time from San José to the Pacific beach communities by as much as an hour.

And that’s not the only improvement drivers will notice.

The Municipality of Aguirre is converting an empty lot in front of the bus station in Quepos to a paid-parking lot to raise money for local projects.

Monge knows the changes require a community with the professional skills to respond to a projected increase in tourist traffic and income.

He has prepared his local police force by adding more officers and by taking advantage of a training exchange program with the police department of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in the United States.

“Before, we didn’t have local leaders with the energy to control crime,” Monge said. “But we’ve gradually been able to grow (the capacity).”

Monge has fired several staff members accused of corruption and has increased salaries in efforts to improve the quality of municipal workers. Also, he is working on plans to better equip road crews, construct a new municipal building, create a training center and develop affordable housing.

“We are working towards a ‘nuevo Manuel Antonio’,” said Bodaan, Monge’s link to the business community and among his biggest local boosters. “We started by clearing out the old cemetery … and we are building to a safer, more family-friendly destination.”

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