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

Geoff Sowrey via Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0
Geoff Sowrey via Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0 / Geoff Sowrey via Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

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.

Razvan Orendovici via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

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