San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Hotel Costa Rica: Earthquake, chaos, Pura Vida

From the print edition

 Chapter 8 of 8

“EARTHQUAKE!” I screamed, for lack of a better word. The hotel was shaking like a bowl of Jell-O, the floor heaving like a waterbed. We had been thrown from our bed and now ran in circles screaming. “EARTHQUAKE!”

“Get the kids!” screamed my wife.

We staggered to the kids’ room, like running on the deck of a storm-tossed sailboat, grabbed the shaken offspring, and all of us ran in circles, screaming “EARTHQUAKE!”

Suddenly it was over, and foreboding silence followed. The quake would kill more than 30 Costa Ricans that night.

I noticed the clock: 2 a.m. I hadn’t gotten to bed until midnight. We had advertised an Argentine Grill night up and down the coast, and our new chef had not shown up. My 13-year-old son and I poisoned 45 people.

I finally settled in and calmed down enough to pass back out around 4 a.m.

HONK, HONK! The clock: 6 a.m.

Outside was a tour van half full of groggy tourists, with the driver lying on the horn. “What the hell?” I yelled from the balcony.

“Señor!” called the driver. “You have six girls from Canada who reserved half the spaces on our dive trip today.”

Not the same six girls from Canada who had been screaming in the pool at 1 a.m. They drank three bottles of our worst tequila.

I banged on their door. “YOUR DIVE TRIP IS HERE!” Sweet revenge.

“Tell ’em to F— OFF!” came the reply.

I went back outside to the van. “They said they aren’t going,” I told the driver.

“If they don’t go, they owe us $600. They reserved half the boat!” The driver looked as mad as a Tico can look.

I went back to the girls’ room. “He says you owe him $600 American!” I yelled.

More profanity issued from the room.

I went back to the driver. “Perhaps next time you should take a deposit,” I said, and went back to bed.

HONK, HONK! I looked at the clock: 8 a.m. Outside, the Rottweiler Macho Eatchu was holding a delegation from the municipality hostage in their car. I approached the carload of government suits.

“Senor Church! It seems we have refigured your building permit [which had been stamped and approved three years earlier] and you owe us another $4,000.” They handed me a piece of paper with brilliant stamps all over it, and drove away. Back to bed I went.

“SEÑOR STEVE!” It was 9 a.m., and below the balcony was Nick, the exterminator.

Nick had spent a dozen years working in New Jersey, like many Costa Rican expats, and returned sounding like the Godfather. He was staring at the wall, making notes on a clipboard. “I gotta tell youse, Steve, chew got termites.”

“Well of course I do! I hadn’t even had my coffee yet.”

“But lucky por chew, I’m a gonna make you an offer chew can’t refuse. Only $3,000, today only.”

“Go away, Nick. Let ’em eat the hotel.”

“Chew will be sorry!” He drove away in a fog of fumes.


The maid, Milady, passed me. “The clients in No. 3 took all your new white towels to the black-sand beach. Ruined.”

I plopped down by the pool and took a sip of coffee. The pool water looked just like the coffee. “What the heck’s wrong with the pool?” I yelled at a shocked guest.

“A squeaky, or maybe it is a cootie, jammed in the filter, boss. Just a small one though, I think,” said the gardener.

A “squeaky” is a rodent like a nutria, about 1 1/2 feet at the shoulder, that weighs 20 pounds and when startled jumps six feet in the air and shrieks – hence, “squeaky.”

A coati or coatimundi is a mixture of every creature in the jungle: an anteater’s nose, a monkey’s tail, a raccoon’s body, a weasel’s attitude. Like God had a bunch of spare parts left over and threw this creature together as a lark.

That afternoon, a woman in her 50s rolled into the hotel in a wheelchair and ordered a beer. We started chatting.

“When I was 30 years old, I was paralyzed in a car wreck. I was a mother with four kids and a husband. For the next 20 years, I took care of my family. Then suddenly I said to myself, ‘I’ve never been anywhere, never been out of northern Ontario.’ So I packed my bag and came to Costa Rica.”

“Alone?” I asked.

“My family wanted to come with me, but I said I needed a break, had to find me, you know?”

“Right on, sister,” I said.

Suddenly, on the horizon, a humpback whale came shooting into the air like a Titan missile, crashing slowly back to the sea.

“DID YOU SEE THAT?” screamed the happy hour crew.

I joined a friend for a margarita as the sun lit the sky afire. A flock of green parrots flew by, all in pairs, all chattering away. It went on for 10 minutes. There must have been 5,000 birds in the flock, in pairs for life.

“You know why I like Costa Rica?” said my buddy. “It’s because the rate of incidence is so much higher here.”

Pura vida!

Find previous chapters at U.S. writer and former humor columnist Steve Church owns El Castillo hotel and villa on Costa Rica’s southern Pacific coast (

Comments are closed.