Where in the World is….Costa Rica
I decided that once a month I would add a travel post about a different country…until I run out! So please enjoy my first travel entry.
Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness.
People always ask me about the places I’ve been…what my favorite country was…what the most beautiful thing I’ve seen is…where was the best food…who had the nicest people??? I’ve been to a lot of countries and seen a lot of things, but I’m not naive enough to think I’ve seen it all, there is so much more out there that I haven’t even come close to experiencing. But I certainly can share my experiences to date, let you know what I thought, how I felt and if I would ever go back. I don’t doubt your experience might be different than my own, it is what you make it and want it to be. That is the beauty of traveling, people can all go to the same place and have a different experience than the next person. So let the pictures do a lot of the talking, and see what you want to see. I hope you enjoy looking at this as much as I enjoy reliving it.
Costa Rica was my first trip outside of Canada/US/all-inclusive stay in the Caribbean. It was a big deal. I was 20 years old, on limited funds, no spanish to speak of and traveling alone. Some of you might think that doesn’t sound like too much fun. But I must say, this trip, changed my outlook on the world, my values and what was important in life. It opened my eyes to a world I knew nothing about and put me in a position where I was the odd man out – in a big way.
I flew into Costa Rica on February 10th, 2005. Flying out of Calgary, I had a layover in Houston and was on my way. San Jose left a lot to be desired for me…it was certainly not where the charm of Costa Rica resided. It was however the only city I encountered on my trip there…and the only real sign of infrastructure and development. I wasn’t too much into history back then, so I wasn’t drawn to that aspect of the city, but I think if I were to ever return my experience would be much different.
After spending just 1 day in San Jose, I took a bus to the North Western corner of the country. Transferring through Liberia, I stayed in Playa del Coco. This was a tiny village (like every other place on my trip) where the sand was nearly black. You could bury your feet in the sand and they would come out black…with gold glitters. It was a gorgeous place…and like most places in the country, you could have the majority of the beach to yourself…you just might have to share it with a few others (and I mean “a few” quite literally). Not much to do here though, other than lay on the beach, read a book and enjoy the food while monkeys play in the trees overhead. I didn’t mind at all- I had just left Calgary in the middle of a Canadian winter – it sounded perfect to me! Not to mention, the guesthouse owner had a pet parrot…
After a couple of days though, I packed up my backpack and started my move down the Pacific Coast. I came across a small town called Playa Flamingo, the sand was brown and the beach not all that exciting given there were fishing boats about. What was wonderful though, was that you could walk in either direction north or south and find more beaches. Playa Conchal was likely one of the most beautiful I found in Costa Rica, and definitely the most unique. Rather than sand, it was made up of crushed sea shells that had been made so incredibly smooth by the passing tide, you wouldn’t believe it. Every shell reflecting the sun like no sand ever could. Excuse my poor quality pictures, this was three cameras back for me, and I wish I had invested in something better before going.
Brasilito just down the road, had a fair, this included a rodeo and old carnival rides I am quite certain Canada banned several years earlier. But nevertheless I enjoyed my time and risked my life on the “Swing”, it seemed like a good idea at the time, not to mention the least likely to result in broken limbs. I learned from the locals that the fair travels around the small villages every year and is always a huge hit. People come from all over to take part in the activities, eat some cotton candy, go on rides and watch the rodeo.
After enjoying the local fair, I made my way to Tamarindo – one of the larger centers in the area. It was still small, with only one paved road, but I tell you – this place was bustling. It seemed like every young tourist migrated to this area and half of the stores and businesses were owned by early retired Americans who chose paradise over the hustle and bustle of city living. The main tourism draws being the amazing waves and surf schools coupled with the highest rated Spanish school in the country – Wayra. I enrolled for a one week semi-intensive program and arranged a home stay where I lived with a family outside of town that didn’t speak English. My teacher at school was from Bolivia and didn’t speak any English either, so it was sink or swim. It was time to learn some of the language and this was the best way to do it. If I had more time and wasn’t so hell bent on seeing more of the country, I would’ve spent the rest of my trip here. It was one of the things I would go back and experience again in a heart beat. My host family was amazing – kind, warm, helpful, genuine. I woke up every morning to the sound of Howler monkeys eating the mangos in the back yard and had to get used to brushing my teeth out back with a garden hose…I tell ya, I could get used to that!
I headed inland for a short while wanting to hit some major sites. Mainly Volcano Arenal and the Monteverde Cloud Forest. Costa Rica is home to 7 active volcanoes and another 60 dormant/extinct ones…and Arenal is 7,000 years old and has been quite active since July 1968. At night the smoke billowing out would glow orange and the town at the base (La Fortuna) of this volcano had a very distinct way of parking. Absolutely every single person backed into their parking spot – at any given time, people are prepared to hop in and drive the opposite direction! It made for gorgeous pictures, an incredibly informative hike around the base and a lovely visit to the natural hot springs. La Fortuna also had my favorite hostel (Gringo Pete’s) in the country. It was only $3 a night for an 8 person mixed dorm with shared bathroom. It was clean, extremely well located and filled with fun like-minded travelers.
A charming secret about La Fortuna is the waterhole located just outside the town – about a 20 minute walk. The locals and tourists mingle here and enjoy this little paradise off the beaten track. They also had a number of white water rafting tours you could chose from. I went on a class III-IV and it was one of the most invigorating experiences of my life. I don’t think my heart stopped racing the entire time. Unfortunately though, no pictures.
After La Fortuna, I had one more stop inland and headed for the Monteverde Cloud Forest. The trip between La Fortuna and Santa Elena was incredible. First a boat ride across Lago Arenal followed by a short bus ride through the rolling hills. And what would a rest stop be if you couldn’t play with the local pet parrot??
Santa Elena was a tourist hot spot and had a lot of things to keep you busy. You could arrange tours of the forest that included canopy walks across bridges as well as ziplining. I did both. Not to mention the Serpentarium in town if you can stomach snakes!
After some time inland, I started missing the ocean, so I made my way back to the Pacific. Montezuma was next on the list. It was more of a traditional paradise…gorgeous deserted beaches and waterfalls for showering – you know…that sort of thing. Most importantly though, here is where I met Jens and Esther, a young married couple from Germany that I have stayed in touch with until this day. (I even went to visit them in Germany a few years ago). Rather than feeling like a third wheel, it felt like we’d known each other for ages and not just days. We ended up traveling and rooming together for over a week and I will always remember their impact on my Costa Rican experience fondly.
Days ticked past quickly and we moved onto Manuel Antonio – a tourist hot spot and a must see for most people visiting Costa Rica. This national park has wildlife I didn’t dream of seeing. But dream of it or not, it was real, and in your face. And I mean…monkey’s stealing your apple cores in your face! For the love of God, please respect that they are wild animals and not meant to be pet, have their tail pulled or have a camera flash in their face. Turn off your flash and respect their space.
Heading further south, you slowly move further away from the crowds that are drawn by the Manuel Antonio National Park. Dominical and Uvita offer a much more laid back experience, with people that are spending a fair amount of time backpacking and exploring – not just a 1-2 week visit in the country.
With only a week left before my flight home, I took off even further south. The only tourist on the bus, I certainly stood out like a sore thumb. I spent only half a day in Golfito, just long enough to catch the ferry across to Puerto Jimenez.
Puerto Jimenez is the gateway to Corcovado National Park. You can book a number of tours here and they have all the amenities required for a short stay. You can even go on a caiman feeding tour to get a look. Not a place you want to go for a swim….
I embarked on a hike with 6 locals and another tourist across a mountain. The 8 hour hike was exhausting but beautiful. We even stopped at a friend of theirs that lived in the mountain and survived solely on panning for gold. The 8 hours ended at a lovely beach where we made dinner and slept on the sand for the night. Waking up to the sound of red macaws overhead was the best wake-up call I’ll likely ever have. Too bad they move too fast for pictures!
I made my way back to San Jose and stocked up on my favorite chili sauces, sunflower seed breakfast bars and as many dried plantain chips that I had room for. I meandered back to Calgary, flying through LAX, arriving home March 23rd, 2005. Coming back a different person, officially addicted to the excitement of experiencing a new place, culture and way of life for the first time.
One of the most wonderful things about traveling alone, is that you are never alone. Or rather, you are only alone if you choose to be. I met so many wonderful people on this trip that I never would’ve gotten to know if I had been traveling with friends or family. I’m so thankful to have had the experience there that I did. Coming back to Calgary ended up being extreme culture shock for me though. After six weeks away from technology and the city life, I had very little appreciation for the way we do things. The sound of alarm clocks, horns honking, the endless drone of TV’s and radios…all of it, just made me sad. I left a country where people would be considered quite poor compared to our Canadian standards and I can tell you, with all of my heart, that the locals I met there are happier than the majority of people I know. They had “nothing” on the scale of material things and they woke up every day, thankful to be alive, and happy that the sun was shining for another day. That is something beautiful and a mentality more people should do their best to adopt. The Ticos live by one saying – “Pura Vida”. Pure Life.