Cold War, Cold Beers: How an Abandoned Iran-Contra Plane Ended up a Bar in Costa Rica

Perched in the jungle on the Pacific edge of Costa Rica, a 1954 Fairchild C-123 Provider aircraft originally built for the U.S. Air Force sits looking like it might have crashed into a hill. It’s a cargo plane, the kind often used for covert operations. But it’s not just a historical relic from one of the biggest scandals in U.S. history—it’s also a bar.

A quick rundown of the Iran-Contra Affair for those not familiar: If you’re an American, you may remember the name Oliver North. He’s the man who worked for the National Security Council under President Ronald Reagan in the mid-’80s and was responsible for artificially inflating the prices of arms that the U.S. sold to Iran, a deal they struck with the Iranians in order to win back American hostages in Lebanon. North then scooped up the profits and, with the help of the CIA, used (some of) them to buy a bunch of military planes, spare parts, and munitions, then construct a secret airstrip on a ranch in Costa Rica. North funneled the goods to the anti-communist guerrilla Contra rebels in Nicaragua, who were fighting the Cuba-allied Sandinistas.

Two of the shady planes that North bought for the Contras were Fairchild C-123s. One of them famously got shot down over Nicaragua on October 5, 1986, as it was shuttling Soviet-made AK-47s, ammo, rocket grenades, and more to be dropped off in the waiting arms of the Contras. The pilot, who parachuted out, was apprehended by the Sandinistas. His testimony ultimately caused a huge snowball of cover-ups on the part of the Reagan administration to come to light—and the end of the cargo-smuggling operation.

Stephen Allen

Meanwhile, the other 123-C, our heroine, sat moldering away at Costa Rica’s international airport in San José for the next decade and change.

In 2000, some enterprising locals managed to buy the orphaned plane for just $3000 USD, with the idea of schlepping it out to the rainforest on the Pacific coast as a tourist attraction. They ran into a problem, though, when it turned out that the narrow roads and bridges transversing the area, built over a century earlier in order to transport bananas, were too slender to accommodate a clunky 1950s military plane. They ended up dismantling the aircraft and shipping it to the coast on an ocean ferry, hauling seven pieces up the steep road through the Manuel Antonio hill.

That’s where it sits today, on the edge of a cliff, reincarnated as El Avión (“The Airplane”). While the body of the C-123 itself houses a sweet little bar, adorned by decals and graffiti from visitors, a wall-less wooden roof on stilts has been built around the plane, with tables and chairs beneath it, so that a sprawling open-air restaurant throngs the bar-plane. Guests are pretty much given the run of the aircraft and are allowed to climb into the never-used cockpit.

Stephen Allen

The fare at El Avión—seafood dishes and tropical cocktails—is not excellent, nor is it cheap, and the aesthetic is resort-flavored. But with sloths, scarlet macaws, and golden monkeys frolicking in the jungle about 20 feet from your table and a spectacular view of the Pacific from a few hundred feet up, there are certainly less pleasant places to have yourself a soursop slushie and nerd out on a little bite of Cold War history.


Stephen Allen


You Can Now Rent the Montgomery, Alabama Home of Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald Through Airbnb
Chris Pruitt, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

The former apartment of Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald, perhaps the most famous couple of the Jazz Age, is now available to rent on a nightly basis through Airbnb, The Chicago Tribune reports. While visitors are discouraged from throwing parties in the spirit of Jay Gatsby, they are invited to write, drink, and live there as the authors did.

The early 20th-century house in Montgomery, Alabama was home to the pair from 1931 to 1932. It's where Zelda worked on her only novel Save Me the Waltz and F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote part of Tender Is the Night. The building was also the last home they shared with their daughter Scottie before she moved to boarding school.

In the 1980s, the house was rescued from a planned demolition and turned into a nonprofit. Today, the site is a museum and a spot on the Southern Literary Trail. While the first floor of the Fitzgerald museum, which features first-edition books, letters, original paintings, and other artifacts related to the couple, isn't available to rent, the two-bedroom apartment above it goes for $150 a night. Guests staying there will find a record player and a collection of jazz albums, pillows embroidered with Zelda Fitzgerald quotes, and a balcony with views of the property's magnolia tree. Of the four surviving homes Zelda and F. Scott lived in while traveling the world, this is the only one that's accessible to the public.

Though the Fitzgerald home is the only site on the Southern Literary Trail available to rent through Airbnb, it's just one of the trail's many historic homes. The former residences of Flannery O'Connor, Caroline Miller, and Lillian Smith are all open to the public as museums.

[h/t The Chicago Tribune]

Maynard L. Parker/Courtesy of The Huntington Library in San Marino, California
The Concept of the American 'Backyard' is Newer Than You Think
A home in Long Beach, California, in the 1950s.
A home in Long Beach, California, in the 1950s.
Maynard L. Parker/Courtesy of The Huntington Library in San Marino, California

Backyards are as American as apple pie and baseball. If you live in a suburban or rural area, chances are good that you have a lawn, and maybe a pool, some patio furniture, and a grill to boot.

This wasn’t always the case, though. As Smithsonian Insider reports, it wasn’t until the 1950s that Americans began to consider the backyard an extension of the home, as well as a space for recreation and relaxation. After World War II, Americans started leaving the big cities and moving to suburban homes that came equipped with private backyards. Then, after the 40-hour work week was implemented and wages started to increase, families started spending more money on patios, pools, and well-kept lawns, which became a “symbol of prosperity” in the 1950s, according to a new Smithsonian Institution exhibit.

A man mows his lawn in the 1950s
In this photo from the Smithsonian Institution's exhibit, a man mows his lawn in Long Beach, California, in the 1950s.
Maynard L. Parker/Courtesy of The Huntington
Library in San Marino, California

Entitled "Patios, Pools, & the Invention of the American Back Yard," the exhibition includes photographs, advertisements, and articles about backyards from the 1950s and 1960s. The traveling display is currently on view at the Temple Railroad & Heritage Museum in Temple, Texas, and from there it will head to Hartford, Connecticut, in December.

Prior to the 1950s, outdoor yards were primarily workspaces, reports. Some families may have had a vegetable garden, but most yards were used to store tools, livestock, and other basic necessities.

The rise of the backyard was largely fueled by materials that were already on hand, but hadn’t been accessible to the average American during World War II. As Smithsonian Insider notes, companies that had manufactured aluminum and concrete for wartime efforts later switched to swimming pools, patio furniture, and even grilling utensils.

A family eats at a picnic table in the 1960s
A family in Mendham, New Jersey, in the 1960s
Molly Adams/Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution, Archives of American Gardens, Maida Babson Adams American Garden Collection

At the same time, DIY projects started to come into fashion. According to an exhibit caption of a Popular Mechanics article from the 1950s, “‘Doing-it-yourself’ was advertised as an enjoyable and affordable way for families to individualize their suburban homes.” The magazine wrote at the time that “patios, eating areas, places for play and relaxation are transforming back yards throughout the nation.”

The American backyard continues to grow to this day. As Bloomberg notes, data shows that the average backyard grew three years in a row, from 2015 to 2017. The average home last year had 7048 square feet of outdoor space—plenty of room for a sizable Memorial Day cookout.

[h/t Smithsonian Insider]


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