In praise of ‘non-towns’

Ordering a second coffee, I sit back and survey San Vito’s high street, striking only in its lack of anything striking. There is a steady stream of teatime traffic, schoolchildren, and coffee trucks. The atmosphere is busy and conspicuously boring as people go about ordinary lives doing ordinary things.

As I watch, I realise how washing up at ‘non-towns’, towns without obvious tourist attractions, has become a bit of a theme on my travels, either due to mixing journalism with travel, or an unnecessarily strong adherence to getting off the beaten track.

Only a few weeks earlier, we ventured four hours west of Panama City to the small town of Pedasí, only to find there absolutely nothing there. What appears to be the last taxi in town takes us a further 20 minutes into the countryside to what looks like the last hacienda on the road. La Rosa de Los Vientos is so peaceful, with its swishy white linen curtains and tranquil garden, and lack of other guests, I wonder if it isn’t more suited to someone suffering with severe stress problems. A quick google reveals it to be quite literally about 20 metres from the end of the road, leading to a huge wilderness beach and the expansive Pacific. Freedom! But so, so quiet.

Heading to Heredia, a small university town and suburb of San Jose on the fringes of the lush Central Valle, a familiar feeling dawns when the bus driver asks twice, just to be sure, that this is definitely where these two white gringos want to go. We head for the clean-sounding Hotel Las Flores, which turns out to be a corridor of motel-style rooms, behind whose doors we wonder who exactly is staying there, and why?

For dinner, the red steps of a basic-looking restaurant up the road entice us through the door. Baffled, we are served ‘camarones con arroz’, drenched in what my northern roots immediately recognise as thick, Bisto-style gravy. Salsa, the girl had said, and even my tired Spanish had thought there was no mistaking that. In the background, the enthusiastic chico manning the fryer manages to successfully imitate the sound of metal dustbin lids crashing together at high speed. We slurp our salty gravy, and sit there thinking thoughts in praise of non-towns, where not even Lonely Planet dares to go.

But it’s not all bad. Wandering round Heredia at dusk is a quiet delight, very different from San Jose’s frantic traffic and poverty. I love the majestic old church, the square full of couples, old men and families on stone benches, and the palm trees framed against a red sky. We eat ceviche at a counter hidden among residential streets, and find a French-style cafe that wouldn’t be out of place on Clapham High Street and serves the most delicious brownies and coffee.

Due to work trips, we end up at Las Flores for three nights, ironically one of the longest stays of anywhere in my three-month trip. On leaving, the señora hands us a souvenir keyring in recognition of our position as long-term residents, perhaps, or just a prize for sticking it out.

Back in San Vito, I am as yet oblivious to how rare this chance to observe ordinary Tico life is in the rest of the country. The shops are full of normal things for normal people, and noticeable only in hindsight is the distinct lack of ‘Pura Vida’ slogans or toucan statues that are present everywhere else in Costa Rica. Spanish is the only language I can hear, always a sign you’ve struck gold.

The height and fine features of the women in particular reveal the Italian heritage of this tiny town. San Vito, up in the hills of Costa Rica’s southern coffee province, was chosen by Italian agricultural colonisers back in the 1950s, and they left their mark both in the people and the taste of the coffee.

I wander around the small centre, happily noting the lack of sights. There is a church, a bank, a pharmacy, a high street and a square. My hotel is the functional mid-ranger Hotel El Ceibo, breakfast is full of Costa Ricans chowing down on the national breakfast staple gallo pinto.

San Vito does in fact have some claim to fame in the nearby Wilson Botanical Gardens, but with no car I am confined to the town and neighbouring village of Sabalito, where I attend a coffee workshop the following day.

Perhaps that’s why non-towns appeal so much – so much of travelling is full of awe and breath-taking views that you run out of superlatives and adrenaline highs become the norm. Being in a non-town feels like putting on a pair of old slippers and making a nice cup of tea, a welcome slice of home on the other side of the world.

In praise of other non-towns:

  • Pérez Zeledón, central Costa Rica, for sushi, rock music and sleeping in shipping containers.
  • Puerto Jimènez, Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica. Rent a bike and have the bumpy roads to yourself apart from the odd sunbathing iguana, and count scarlet macaws as if they were sparrows.
  • David, Panama. Worth a mention for the delectable Bambu Hostel, complete with tropical pool and resident coati (cat-sized mammal with a raccoon-esque face).

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