Tico Train Teams with Ranching School PDF Print E-mail
A crowd has gathered inside the Pacific train station in downtown San Jos� on a beautiful Saturday morning. Eager faces on young and old alike give a clue to what's in store. Suddenly, a rousing song harkening back to the 1940s begins to play over the station's loudspeakers, and those who previously had been seated now jump to their feet. "Yip!"s and "Ay!" is fill the air; the excitement is palpable.

Railbike Costa RicaI want to dance, but am content, for now, to board the train headed for Balsa de Atenas on America Travel's new one-day train and rodeo tour. The Tren y Faenas a la Tica (Tica-style Train and Rodeos) heads out every Saturday and Sunday morning for the Central American School of Animal Husbandry (ECAG). Juan Paniagua, the enthusiastic general manager of America Travel, says, "With this tour to Balsa, we are able to take advantage of the agro-ecotourism activities currently offered by the school, and help them by bringing more visitors." So far, response has been excellent. On only the second tour (the one we took), four passenger cars carried a full complement of 275 people, and 400 had reservations for the following day.

The train departs the station at 7:00 a.m., passing through the western suburbs of San Jos�, on to Alajuela and Atenas, to finally arrive in Balsa around 9:00. Breakfast snacks and juice boxes are included on board, with coffee and soft drinks available for purchase. A strolling guitar player makes his way through the passenger cars, singing traditional Costa Rican songs as he goes, much to the delight of the passengers. During a brief stop in R�o Grande de Atenas, local women board the train to hawk their homemade chicken- filled gallos and cheese tortillas.

The nostalgia of riding in the 70-year-old passenger cars is matched only by gazing out of the wood-framed windows at the passing scenery. From inner-city shanty towns to rolling, verdant hills, I can't help but be drawn outside, to a world largely unseen by most visitors to Costa Rica. Upon our arrival in Balsa, a bus ferries the elderly and those with small children to the ECAG fairgrounds; others take a 700-meter walk. First stop on the tour: the rodeo. The highlight of this day trip, the ECAG rodeo is run by faculty and showcases the skills of the young cowboys and cowgirls who attend the school.

Events such as calf roping and "musical tires entertain visitors, though I think my favorite is the carrera de cintas, in which a rider on horseback attempts to spear a very small ring with a stick the size of a drinking straw. It must be as difficult as it looks, as very few are able to manage the feat; when they do, and the masses erupt in cheers and applause. After the rodeo, we make our way to the dining area for a typical casado (01,000) and some homemade corn tortillas topped with the school's own sour cream or cheese (250) they are huge and delicious! A stand is located next to the dining area where guests can purchase cheese, sour cream, milk and yogurt, all made at the school.

Train Costa RicaLater, we work off the generous portions by exploring some of the school's 527 hectares on foot via the many walking trails; visitors may also opt to take one of the tractor oxcart, or horseback tours ((500 colons each tour). One of the day's must see stops is the school's crocodile farm. From babies in the "Coco Kinder" (Croc Kindergarten) to a massive, seven-plus-foot-long male in the crocodile pond, it's a great chance to get close up and personal with these ancient reptiles. An ECAG docent relayed the story of a small male croc that had the misfortune to be put in the pond with the very large dominant male; half of the poor fellow's tail was on the losing end of the deal. My husband, Marco, is thrilled when the docent offers him the chance to hold a baby crocodile; I, on the other hand, am not quite as enthusiastic. As if to allay my fears, the docent lets the baby bite his finger while I give the tiny croc a pat.

After a full day, we head back to board the train at 3:00. It seems as though the conductor has some sort of pact with the heavens, as the rain starts only seconds after most of the passengers are on board. Children (and many adults) fall asleep to the gentle sway of the train. But the fun isn't oven quite yet � just before arriving at the San Antonio de Bel�n station, the train's staff, dressed in wigs and tropical shirts, takes to the aisles for a rather silly "carnival," encouraging travelers to dance and sing along with them as they pass.

As we near San Jos� once more, a sort of melancholy comes over me, as I realize our trip to the past will soon end and I will be thrown back into the present-day world of e-mail and cell phones. For the moment, though, my gaze falls again to the window and with my sleeping baby on my lap, I imagine, if only for a short time, what it must have been like when rail travel was in its heyday. I am certain 1 would have loved it then as much then as I do now.
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