Guaro in Costa Rica
It’s 10:30 a.m. on a Sunday and the 89-year-old man is threatening to open another bottle of guaro.
I look over at a mutual friend who shrugs his shoulders just before the old man pops open the cork. The humid morning soon plunges into a daze here on Napoleón “Don Polo” Arias’ front porch in Sámara, a beach town on Costa Rica’s Pacific coast.
As a sort of living legend in the area, the universally adored Don Polo is known for two things: singing folk songs and drinking Costa Rican moonshine, known here as guaro. Don Polo, who says he has somewhere around 22 children, 85 grandchildren, 40 great-grandchildren, and four “of whatever comes next,” credits his old age and long-reaching family tree to drinking guaro every day.
“All this time and I’ve never had so much as a cold,” Don Polo says before taking another shot.
Essentially Costa Rica’s national drink, guaro is a clear-colored liquor made from sugar cane, produced by a state-owned company with a legal monopoly over the product. This technically makes any homemade production of the drink illegal, although it seems most authorities look the other way. Even the cops in Sámara come to Don Polo’s porch to take shots of el contrabando. He keeps it in gas jugs delivered to him regularly by his grandson. Don Polo then mixes in honey when he puts the guaro into bottles, giving the bland-tasting booze a sweeter kick.
With a taste like cheap vodka and an alcohol volume usually hovering around 30 percent, guaro is notorious for sneaking up on gringos who underestimate its strength. The contraband stuff is invariably stronger and makes me worry about where the rest of the day may lead. The anxiety subsides as more shots go down the hatch and Don Polo regales us with stories of his long, mischief-filled life.
Our friend Nago de Nicoya, a fellow folk singer, tells a story about how he came to Don Polo’s house years ago to play some music. When he walked towards the house he could see disco lights piercing through the open windows. A shirtless Don Polo opened the door and two naked women were behind him dancing. “Good ole’ Don Polo,” Nago says laughing.
As the hazy morning trudges on, Don Polo and one of his sons sing and play guitar together. I think about whether or not Don Polo was right: if his homemade concoction of illicit guaro and honey really was what had been keeping him alive all these years. If the fountain of youth really does exist, who’s to say it can’t be found in a recycled gas jug on an old man’s front porch?