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(506) 223-1327            Published Thursday, Jan. 18, 2007, in Vol. 7, No. 13             E-mail us    
Jo Stuart
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Color us blue!

Costa Rican weather complaints will not impress North Americans struggling out of snows and killer ice storms. But the chilly north winds have reached even to here.

San José saw winds gusting to 45 kms. (27 miles) Wednesday, and the temperature chilled to 17 C. (62 F.). This was enough to make San José nippy and have some who lounged around the Plaza de la Cultura to adopt emergency measures, a blanket.

Of course, the beaches were still comfortable with 29 C. (84 F.) on the Caribbean and 32 C. (90 F.) along the Pacific.

A.M. Costa Rica/Saray Ramírez Vindas

Salad firm launches $2 million effort to protect against E. coli
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Representatives of Fresh Express, a company with holdings in Costa Rica, announced a plan to spend $2 million on the research of a specific Escherichia coli strand that affects fresh produce, and to develop a health-safety study that the company plans to share with competing fresh-cut producers.

Fresh Express produces pre-packaged salads and is a subsidiary of Chiquita Brands International, Inc.  A company release said that rigorous and multidisciplinary research to help the fresh-cut produce industry prevent contamination by the Escherichia coli 0157:H7 pathogen has been planned.  This specific strain of E. coli has caused numerous outbreaks over the past decade, including the recent occurrence related to fresh spinach in the United States, said the company release.

An independent scientific advisory panel comprised of six nationally recognized food safety experts has been meeting on a voluntary basis since May 2006 to develop the most productive research priorities related to the source, mode of action and life cycle of E. coli 0157:H7, specifically the pathogenic
contamination of lettuce and leafy greens, the release said.

The $2 million is to be used to support the group of doctors that have been working on the study of the E.coli strain.    
"We are hopeful that this research will yield new knowledge, practices and technologies that the entire fresh-cut produce industry can use to provide consumers with ready-to-eat produce that is
consistently safe and healthy," said Tanios Viviani, president of Fresh Express.

The research has the following objectives:

-Determine the potential for Escherichia coli O157:H7 to contaminate lettuce or spinach.

-Identify new mitigation strategies and technologies to reduce the potential for E. coli O157:H7 to contaminate leafy green produce.

-Conduct field studies to identify sources, vehicles and factors that affect the degree of contamination or extent of contamination of leafy green produce by E. coli O157:H7.

-Determine the ability of E. coli O157:H7 to multiply in the presence of normal background flora following the harvest of lettuce or spinach.

-Determine the ability of E. coli O157:H7 to survive composting.

The funding is available immediately, and all proposals will be reviewed against guidelines established independently by this scientific advisory panel, said the company release.

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Costa Rica
Second newspage

Real estate
About us
San José, Costa Rica, Thursday, Jan. 18, 2007, Vol. 7, No. 13

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Arias will visit location
of Limón chemical fire

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

President Óscar Arias Sánchez will get a tour today of the burned out chemical storage facility that caused an environmental crisis near Limón.

The visit will be part of a trip to the Provincia de Limón where Arias also will inaugurate the Bay Side promenade that was built to welcome cruise ship passengers to the port of Limón.

The Químicos Holanda Costa Rica S.A. facility went up Dec. 13, and towering dark clouds marked the location. The blaze is being called the worst in years.

In addition to the fire, toxic chemicals seeped into the ground. Arias, who was out of the country at the time of the fire, will be accompanied by Lidieth Carballo, vice minister of Salud, Ricardo Sancho, executive president of the Instituto Costarricense de Acueductos y Alcantarillados and members of the local emergency commission, said Casa Presidencial.

The chemicals polluted a groundwater source that left hundreds of residents without water for a time.

After the 10 a.m. tour, Arias will inaugurate the Bay Side project, which is a series of sun shades to protect visitors as they walk from their cruise ship to Limón center. The area also will be used for small-scale merchants promoting mostly tourism items.

Afterwards, Arias will visit a cruise ship that has tied up at the local dock..

INbio chief will present
views on biological treaty

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Government officials are hosting Rodrigo Gámez Lobo of the Instituto Nacional de Biodiversidad today as part of a decision-making process concerning intellectual property rights in Costa Rica.

Lawmakers in the Comisión Permanente Especial de Relaciones Internacionales y Comercio Exterior are considering a ratification of a microorganism patenting treaty known as the Budapest Treaty. The treaty is part of the package of laws that the Asamblea Legislativa is passing to comply with obligations under the still-pending free trade treaty with the United States.

Gámez is an internationally respected scientist. He also is known as a visionary. The institute, known as INbio is a private educational institution run for a public purpose.

According to the World Intellectual Property Organization, a U.N. department that is responsible for overseeing the treaty, the Budapest Treaty was first drafted in 1977, amended in 1980 and currently has 66 contracting countries.

Normally, a written description is needed for the disclosure of an invention as a requirement for the grant of patents. Where an invention involves a microorganism or the use of a microorganism, disclosure is not possible in writing but can only be effected by the deposit of a sample of the microorganism, said the U.N. organization.

In practice, the term “microorganism” is interpreted in a broad sense, but is important in terms of biological material, in particular regarding inventions relating to the food and pharmaceutical fields, said the U.N. organization.

Intellectual property rights is a major component of the free trade treaty.

Warm weather in U.S.
lowers fuel prices here

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Costa Rican motorists are profiting from an unusually warm winter in the East coast of the United States. Although current conditions are frosty, the weather in the eastern U.S. has been balmy enough to cause a reduction in the world price of oil.

Many homes in the eastern United States have oil-fired heating systems.

The Costa Rican price regulating agency said that gasoline will be reduced 22 colons a liter and that diesel will go down 17 colons.

The Autoridad Reguladora de los Servicios Públicos said that a liter of gasoline would go from 475 a liter to 453. diesel is going from 349 colons a liter to 335. Other cuts are in kerosene and jet fuel. A U.S. dollar is about 518 colons.

The new prices go into effect when published in the La Gaceta official newspaper.

Tests for sixth graders
will be shelved this year

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Education officials are dumping the mandatory tests at the end of the Costa Rican sixth grade. Nearly everyone passes the exams, but many students run into trouble in the seventh year.

Instead education officials will administer the test to a sampling of grade six students as a diagnostic tool. This was reported Wednesday by Leonardo Garnier, minister of Educación Pública.

Costa Rican schools have been faced with a large number of dropouts, and some educators blame sixth grade teachers who teach to the standardized test. They say this is why many students run into trouble with seventh grade material even though they scored high on the sixth grade test.

Nearly a quarter of the nation's students have to repeat seventh grade but only a tiny percentage repeat sixth grade.
In the past, the sixth grade test represented 60 percent of the final grade for the school year.
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San José, Costa Rica, Thursday, Jan. 18, 2007, Vol. 7, No. 13

Instituto Panameño de Turismo photo
An abundances of skyscrapers dominate the city shoreline
Our reader's opinion
The good and the bad about living in neighboring Panamá

By Casey Halloran
Special to A.M. Costa Rica

PANAMÁ CITY, Panamá -- In the late 1990s, I first began hearing about Panamá while living in Costa Rica.  There was a groundswell movement of expats who felt that the cost of living in Costa Rica was too high and sought greener pastures, quite literally.  They found their lower cost lifestyle a few hundred miles south in Panama’s highlands.

The words Chiriqui and Boquete were a total mystery back then. But over the past years these towns have emerged clearly as affordable living options to many foreign retirees.  Houses for $60,000?  Farm land for under $900 an acre?  “Impossible!” I thought.  At the very least, I was skeptical about how good life could be at those costs.  Numbers and stats weren’t enough for me, so after some investigation, I became pleasantly surprised by both the charming mountain town of Boquete and the cosmopolitan flair of Panamá City.  That was 2001.  I fell in love with Panamá instantly and began to spend as much time down there as I could.

Six years later, the contrarians who sang Panama’s praises are no longer a muted, limited chorus.  They are a marching band.  Thousands of retirees now call Panamá home.  Multinational businesses have opened shop here.  The $5 billion expansion of the canal was recently approved, and opportunists are rushing to lap up the drippings.  Dozens of cranes dot the Panamá City skyline, a harbinger of the “new Panamá” that is being re-created at a Dubai-esqe pace.  The once-quaint town of Boquete that I remember is now bustling; new restaurants and small hotels seem to open monthly.

The BAD news?
  Panama isn’t a dirt cheap place to retire anymore.  And Panama real estate isn’t for bargain hunters either.  For those hoping to snatch up a former military house in the former Canal Zone for $50,000 . . . Apologies, that ship has sailed.  Adam’s Smith’s “invisible hand” is in
full play, with prices rising to meet the exponential increase in demand for real estate in Panamá.

The Europeans and Canadians who were the pioneers of Panamá retirement are now being outpaced by the next wave of investors: Americans.  Acting in line with the common assumption that all U.S. citizens inherit a money tree, local developers are building homes, condos and apartments that reflect Gringo tastes and budgets. 

That means that finding a $50,000 house, dirt cheap ocean view lot or inexpensive luxury city apartment is becoming increasingly difficult.  If the shroud of secrecy over Panamá wasn’t already lifted, Hollywood power couple Brad and Angelina’s highly publicized New Year’s visit officially let the cat out of the bag.

The GOOD news?  Some things are still VERY cheap in Panama.  In general, the cost of living is very affordable.  Health care is extremely reasonable, and the quality of service is excellent.  For example, at the fanciest new hospital in town (associated with Johns Hopkins) a thorough “executive health screening” will run you around $880.  An entrée at a nice restaurant in Panamá City ranges from $8 to $15. 

A beer in a countryside watering hole can be found as cheap as 50 U.S. cents.  And unlike other offshore retirement destinations, Panamá boasts great selections and prices on imported electronics, furnishings and other consumables thanks to low taxes and The Canal.

No doubt those same expats who were grumbling about life in Costa Rica nearly a decade ago are now in a local cantina somewhere in Panamá voicing similar concerns.  Sadly, a secret this good doesn’t stay a secret very long.

Casey Halloran is co-owner of a travel and real estate company in Costa Rica and in Panamá.

Latin economies to feel stress of nationalization, experts say
Special to A.M. Costa Rica

Attempts to roll back market reforms in some Latin American countries bode ill for those economies and are not the answer to Latin American problems, according to U.S. experts.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez announced plans to nationalize the country’s telecommunications and electric energy sectors Jan. 8. The day after the announcement, the value of the Caracas Stock Exchange general index fell a record 19 percent and by Jan. 16 had fallen by nearly 30 percent, said the U.S. State Department .

The two largest utility companies in the targeted industries are the CA Nacional Telefonos de Venezuela that is 28.5 percent owned by the U.S.-based Verizon Communications,  and the CA Electricidad de Caracas, owned and operated by AES Corp., another U.S. company.  Both experienced sharp drops in value after the nationalization announcement, and trading in their stocks had to be suspended temporarily. The value of Electricidad de Caracas shares plunged 15 percent Jan. 16 to a 10-month low only a day after the government announced detailed nationalization plans for the utility, said the report.

In 2006, energy markets in Latin America were shaken by plans for de facto nationalization in Bolivia's natural gas industries. The government announced plans to increase state taxes and royalties on gas production from 50 percent to 82 percent, forcing a series of complex negotiations with Bolivia’s neighbors. The most affected countries were Brazil and Argentina, both with large holdings in Bolivia’s energy sector and both heavily dependent on Bolivian gas supplies.  Argentina is now paying much higher prices for Bolivian gas, and Brazil may soon do so.

“Nationalization has a long and inglorious history of failure around the world,” said White House press secretary Tony Snow. “We support the Venezuelan people and think this is an unhappy day for them.” State Department spokesman Sean McCormack called nationalization “a well-worn path that history has shown doesn’t usually benefit the population.”

The report said that private sector experts agree that even the best-executed nationalization plans carry risks. Lowell R. Fleischer of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington said that Chávez is trying to score political points by promoting his “socialism for the 21st century” agenda. Fleischer said that in the long run the move will have mostly negative consequences for Venezuela, which, despite its huge oil revenues, needs foreign investment to maintain and develop its oil sector.  He also said that nationalization scares off foreign investment, which the report said has diminished during Chávez's rule. 

“Further down the line, I think it means a deteriorating economic situation," Fleischer added. "Inflation is going to continue to rise and I think the first people to be hit by that will be the poorest people in Venezuela, the ones that are the backbone of Chávez’ support now.”
Jeffrey J. Schott, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Peterson Institute of International Economics, said the risks of nationalization are higher today than in the past, adding:  

“In the past there wasn’t the level of integration in the global economy that is so important for these countries in terms of access to markets for trade in goods and services and probably equally, if not more importantly, for investment.”

Latin American leaders like Chávez and Bolivia’s Evo Morales say they are responding to the failure of 1990s neoliberal market reforms. Experts admit in some cases the reforms failed to address Latin America’s most persistent problems: poverty, income disparity, unemployment and corruption.

However, the experts said that it is wrong to put all the blame on the Washington Consensus, which is the package of reforms for struggling economies promoted in the 1990s by the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the U.S. Treasury Department. Those reforms stressed fiscal discipline, austerity, lower taxes, deregulation and privatization of state-owned enterprises.

Analysts say the consensus also promoted increased investment in education, health and infrastructure, as well as transparency and strict rule of law. In these areas, they say, reforms often were lagging and incomplete. “The Washington Consensus . . . was a foundation of macroeconomic stability in which other policies needed to be included,” said Schott.

Jerry Haar, a professor of international business at Florida International University, said that in several Latin American countries, local elites gave market reforms a bad name by using privatization as a cover for corrupt crony capitalism.

“There is nothing in democratic capitalism that says you cannot have social safety nets. There is nothing that says you cannot have sound bankruptcy laws, flexible labor rules, competent tax systems, good public sector, transparent and honest courts,” said Haar.

Experts also point out only a few Latin American countries seem to have moved away from the market model.

“The extent of the drift in Latin America has been exaggerated,” said Schott. Speaking of the Brazilian president, he said  "Lula da Silva had essentially followed the economic policies of his predecessor, Fernando Enrique Cardoso. In Uruguay, you have a leftist leader who has been pushing for a free-trade agreement with the United States.”

Haar also pointed to economic progress and institutional development in Chile, Costa Rica and Panama. “The cure is not marxism,” he said. “The cure is not socialism. It is democratic capitalism . . . . The key element here is leadership. If people who run for office are honest, committed,” he said.

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fourth news page

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San José, Costa Rica, Thursday, Jan. 18, 2007, Vol. 7, No. 13

Stagnation in growth of democracy cited by Freedom House
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

A new report from the independent Freedom House says a global stagnation has developed over the past decade, and warns that a series of worrisome trends have emerged that could threaten political and civil liberties across the globe.

Freedom House's annual survey found that the percentage of countries designated as free has failed to increase since 1994. The report surveyed 193 countries, rating them on a variety of criteria. Some 90 nations were judged to be free, while 58 qualified as partly free and 45 were rated not free. About one-half of the people in the world living in not free conditions live in China.

One of the most troubling developments the group points to is what it calls a growing push back against organizations, movements and media that monitor human rights or promote democratic freedoms.

Arch Puddington, Freedom House's director of research, said that during 2006 Asia suffered the most setbacks. The most significant was the military coup in Thailand that ousted the country's democratically elected president. "But Thailand is not the only country that moved in a backward direction. East Timor had a ratings decline. The Philippines declined. Taiwan had a very modest decline because of the presidential level of corruption. Malaysia moved in the wrong direction. Fiji had a coup, the Solomon Islands also moved in the wrong direction because of bad elections," he said.
In sub-Saharan Africa, after years of steady gains, the group says there were modest reversals. Peter Lewis, a professor at Johns Hopkins University says media rights are under threat, the status of religious and ethnic miniorities is threatened and a weak security environment have contributed to these declines.

"And indeed there is troubling evidence that many of Africa's electoral democracies are eroding in the quality of civil liberties and the everyday freedoms that citizens enjoy," he said.

Russia also fared poorly in the Freedom House report. Modest declines were noted for Moscow's crackdown on non-governmental organizations and for its support of regimes in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

Latin America, however, received some positive marks for elections last year in a dozen countries. But high rates of violent crime, corruption and economic instablity held the region back.

The report found the most free nations to be the United States and in Western Europe, however, the United States was criticized for its counter-terrorism efforts, which have raised concerns about the protection of civil liberties.

The report says the trend over the past decade is disturbing, with a lack of significant breakthroughs and the emergence of authoritarian regimes that are aggressively hostile to democracy.

Two ex-U.S. Border Patrol agents off to prison for shooting illegal immigrant
By A.M. Costa Rica wire services

In El Paso, Texas, two former U.S. Border Patrol agents began serving prison sentences Wednesday for shooting an unarmed suspect in the back as he ran across the border into Mexico. 

Former Border Patrol agents Ignacio Ramos and José Alonso Compean voluntarily turned themselves over to federal prison authorities in El Paso.  A federal judge denied a motion for the two to remain free on bond pending an appeal of their conviction. Ramos was sentenced to 11 years and Compean to 12 years after a jury convicted them in March.

The wounded suspect, Osvaldo Aldrete Davila, who had allegedly been involved in drug smuggling, was given immunity from prosecution in exchange for his testimony against the law officers. The case has become a lightning rod for groups demanding better security on the border.  Aldrete Davila is now suing the US government for $5 million.

Several U.S. congressmen and leaders of groups advocating stricter border enforcement have taken up the cause of the two former Border Patrol officers and asked President George Bush to pardon them. The White House says it has received petitions with more than 225,000 signatures calling on the president to pardon the two men, but President Bush has not addressed the issue, the report said.

Andy Ramirez, chairman of Friends of the Border Patrol, said his group raised more than $45,000 in donations for the legal defense of the two men. He said he has become
close with the family of José Alonso Compean and understands the frustration they feel. "How do you comfort Mrs. Compean? How do you comfort their children and his parents and his brothers and sisters? How do you comfort all of them, knowing that José did not do anything wrong? He did his job and because of that he is going to prison because of these absurd policies that allow narcotraffickers to have more credible word than law enforcement officers doing their job?" he said.

The head of the El Paso office of the League of United Latin American Citizens, Elvia Hernández, said her organization did not view the two agents as innocent because they had violated procedures and fired at an unarmed man. Mrs. Hernández said her organization did not support the harsh sentence and favored their remaining free while awaiting appeal.

Hernández says the federal court wanted to make an example of the two men to discourage other Border Patrol agents from violating the law, but she fears it may have the effect of discouraging agents from using force when it is justified and necessary.

Johnny Sutton, the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Texas, said the agents shot someone who they knew to be unarmed and running away. He also said they destroyed evidence, covered up a crime scene and then filed false reports about what happened.

The U.S. attorney rejected the notion that Ramos and Compean were simply doing their job. Sutton said law enforcement officers who break the law must face the consequences just as anyone else would.

Mexican government lodges protest about another shooting incident at border
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

The Mexican government has lodged an official protest with the United States after a U.S. Border Patrol agent shot dead an illegal migrant last week.

The man was killed during a confrontation with the Border Patrol agent after he and six other migrants were caught illegally crossing into the southern U.S. state of Arizona, officials said.
Mexican officials sent a diplomatic note to Washington that said they are seriously concerned by such incidents. The note also called on the United States to conduct a thorough investigation of the shooting and to punish those responsible.

The U.S. government has tightened security along its border with Mexico by deploying National Guard troops as back up for the Border Patrol units. Last October, President Bush signed a bill authorizing a new border fence.

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San José, Costa Rica, Thursday, Jan. 18, 2007, Vol. 7, No. 13  

Drag racers will be the highlight Monday nights in Guacima
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Nighttime drag racing is making a full throttle comeback with new competitors and events every Monday night at the racetrack in La Guácima.

Races begin at 7:30 p.m. on the 340-meter, two-car track, and will be accompanied by other presentations such as drifting and skid control competitions and model car displays.
Organizers are offering free entrance to the second event for the first 50 people to sign up for races.  They also said that the sport is created to keep the cars from racing on busy streets, and to provide a safe track for racers to test out the speed of their machine.

This coming Monday, Club Autos Hachi Roku will be hosting a raffle, car models, and music. Entrance to the show is 1,000 colons (about $2), parking 1,000 colons, and pit access is 2,000 colons (about $4).

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