Traveling is more for me than just seeking out fun. Sometimes the feelings are great – the awesomeness of a new mountain range, the beauty of a new city, trying new cuisine – these all make us feel happy and excited. The best part, though, is that it makes me feel alive. It makes me feel connected to the world.
My Costa Rica trip achieved that for me in ways I think I was looking for, yet didn’t anticipate or realize it ahead of time. Of course, it was beautiful, and I had a blast. Trees, flowers, jungle, animals, unspoiled beaches, and small coastal towns were just a few of the things I experienced. But it wasn’t aesthetic beauty or the novelty of the things I saw, heard, and did (even though being as close as you can get to two groups of howler monkeys may have been the coolest auditory experience of my life) that made this trip feel so satisfying. It was the genuine nature of the trip and the people, from day 1. Yes, there are touristy areas and resorts in Costa Rica. But outside of those, the country is very authentic. It doesn’t wrap itself in fancy paper and a big bow. Costa Rica says “welcome, pura vida, we are who we are, and you are our family” as soon as you arrive.
I started the trip by finding Enterprise and renting a car to drive to the Arenal Volcano area. I was immediately put at ease by someone who helped me find the Enterprise van, the driver himself, and the workers at the car place. They were friendly and welcoming in a way that you don’t find in our culture most of the time.
The 3-hour drive north was more mountainous than I expected – which was silly of me, because Costa Rica is a land of constantly changing elevation. I got to my hotel, which was my splurge for the trip, and it was gorgeous. I was lucky enough on hotels.com to get a room with a private hot tub, with natural hot springs water, the back of my room.
This was an area with many activities. I went on a tour in the rainforest, went ziplining (which I LOVED), hiked to views of the volcano, and went to some other natural hot springs. I met up with a friend from Couchsurfing, Daniel, and enjoyed some of this with him. I also met four women in the room next to me at the hotel, and had the chance to talk with them some. They were great, and it was just the beginning of how easy I would find it to make friends throughout this trip. Daniel quickly helped me learn truly was Pura Vida was all about: relax, stop worrying. Life is good if you look around you, and it’s short, so just enjoy it.
After Arenal, I took a tiny plane down to a town called Puerto Jimenez which is on the Osa Peninsula, in the southwest corner of the country. I had gotten a lot of recommendations on TripAdvisor to go to this part of the country for its lush, remote rainforest and to get away from touristy spots.
I found my way around Puerto Jimenez, dragging my suitcase on gravel roads, as there is maybe one paved road in this tiny town. My goal for this day was to go to a chocolate farm, Finca Kobo, that I read great things about. I was spoiled in Arenal because Daniel translated and because everyone at the activities and accommodations spoke English. This was my first day figuring it out on my own!
I had to ask around to find the bus station, and use my extraordinarily poor and sparse Spanish skills to find out if the bus would take me there. I still had my suitcase. I got dropped off, walked to the chocolate farm and it was CLOSED. There still should have been one more tour that day. I should have booked in advance.
There is literally one road going out of Puerto Jimenez on which I was dropped off, so luckily, all I had to do was wait for the bus going back. My plan after was to get a taxi to my next destination, Bolita Hostel. I didn’t know how long until the next bus, had no cell service to call a taxi, and was alone on a main road on Costa Rica.
The bus came. There was a girl who came to the stop wearing a Boston Red Sox hat. Turns out she was from Greenfield MA, about 45 minutes from where I am from. She was studying abroad and staying at the accommodations at Finca Kobo. I went from alone on the side of a road in a foreign country, to talking to someone from my backyard. Life is interesting.
I got food for the next couple days and took a taxi to the hostel. Going to stay and hike there was another recommendation from someone online, and it sounded too interesting to pass up. I met up with the owner, locked up my suitcase and started the 30 minute hike up to the hostel itself. He calls it a “walk” but it’s one of the steepest parts of the trail network.
I chose to stay there because it’s set just off this TINY – and I’m talking TINY – town of Dos Brazos and it’s in very remote rainforest with lots of hiking trails around it. The owner actually designed the trail network around the hostel himself. He was a fascinating guy, from Canada, who just happened to fall in love with Costa Rica and decided to make this his life for a while. He even said himself he is not sure how much longer he will do it, maybe he will make something else happen. I’d imagine he was in his mid to late 40s.
When I got there around 4pm or so, some of the other hostelers were there hanging out. People from Germany, US, Spain, Australia, and Canada. Once everyone was in for the night, some people cooked dinner and we all sat around a table family-style. Talking, sharing travel stories and experiences, and just getting to know each other. There was very little, if any, talk of work that night. It was one of the most genuine and authentic travel experiences I’ve ever had. I couldn’t care less where my phone was. It felt fantastic.
The guy from the US was also traveling alone and we decided to get up early (4:30am) for the sunrise the next morning. We hiked to the lookout and then down a river. It was quite an adventure hike; it was a heavy flowing river that got deep at times. It was long, a 7 hour day, but we loved it.
That evening my initial plan was to head back to Puerto Jimenez and stay 2 nights. After hiking, I hung out with my new friends and was not only tired but was enjoying their company so much that I stayed an extra night at Bolita. We hiked down the next morning to get the van back to Puerto Jimenez. My German friends got dropped off on the main road to hitchhike to Panama!! I still miss them. I hope to visit them in Europe some day.
I really liked the next hotel too – La Chosa del Manglar. I had a tiny closet-sized room with a toilet and sink but shared shower in the building. I didn’t mind it one bit especially for the price, and the property was gorgeous. The owner was another guy from Canada. After I got settled I walked around, found the tour company I was looking for and booked a kayak tour in the Mangroves.
The kayak tour was so peaceful, and it was me along with a German woman named Sabine in addition to the tour guide. We walked back to town together and got to know each other a bit, and enjoyed it enough so that we decided to meet for dinner. She was volunteering at a butterfly farm in the northern part of Costa Rica for a few months after her last job ended, and was really enjoying her time in CR. We talked about life, dating, work, passions. It was so wonderful to meet her – and just like all the previous people I’d met, so effortless. We still keep in touch.
The next morning I took a public bus to the town of La Palma, where another bus connected and traveled every day to the remote coastal town of Drake Bay. When I reached La Palma to make my transfer, I had a few rocky but successful interactions in Spanish, one of which was to find out where the bus would be from some super nice older guys hanging out on the street. The “bus” was a dilapidated, old, dusty, and kind of gross passenger van. Luckily the driver, Diego, saw me standing on the corner with my bags and came up to me to ask if I was going to Drake. Just another example of how the people look out for others.
It was an interesting drive that crossed several rivers, a few of which were not just puddle-deep, and had to go up a muddy hill. I could see now why this place was so difficult to get to.
I got him to drive me to my next hotel, Vista Drake, where I had a fantastic, spacious room with 2 beds and teeny geckos on the walls for $35 a night (booked on hotels dot com). The owner, Emilio, made me feel at home right away. He had built most of the place himself and lives there with his family. The woodwork was beautiful.
It was starting to get really hot in this part of the country. There was no AC, just windows and fans. As I was getting situated, I saw these guys outside my bedroom window. I was so happy! Finally!!
At this point, it was reaching afternoon time and I was exhausted. The trip up to this point was SO busy, I had packed so much in. But, I was there, and of course, exploring until I dropped was required.
Costa Rica is hilly and Drake is no exception. Again, it is all dirt roads. To get to the beach I walked down a steep hill, and there are other hotels and restaurants scattered around. There’s a trail that goes partially along the ocean and partially a little inland, starting at that town beach. It passes by a lot of very expensive and fancy resorts, and many sections of ocean front including some beaches. I only went a part of the way. During this walk, the scenery of the ocean didn’t make my jaw drop or my eyes go wide, but that was okay. I am not sure if I would have been more awe-stricken if I was fresh and hadn’t adventured so hard the first few days. I still enjoyed it, of course, and in a way can appreciate it more now looking at these photos. It was true, unspoiled Costa Rican scenery.
That evening I walked (uphill this time) to get some food for the next couple days. I was just making tuna and avocado sandwiches, but I was THRILLED to get an avocado. That speaks to the lack of variety of the food in general.
The next couple of days were tours I had been so excited about: rainforest tour in Corcovado National Park and snorkeling tour. Corcovado is known for having some of the best wildlife around because it is very remote and protected. The tour was fun; the scenery was the same as I had already seen, but the point was the wildlife. We saw some amazing birds, more monkeys and some super cool land mammals too.
There were some interesting people on this tour as well – from France, Canada, and Belgium. As a result of that they all spoke French, so were conversing in that to be comfortable, but some spoke very good English. Most notably I met two girls from Paris. They made sure to speak to me in English so that I didn’t feel left out and we got to know each other. I went to the beach with them later that afternoon, had dinner with them that night, and also had dinner with them the following night after my snorkeling tour.
See what I mean about not being able to stop meeting people? I still keep in touch with one of the Parisian girls as well.
The snorkeling tour was great – swam near a big school of fish for a while and a sea turtle almost swam into me!
During my Corcovado tour, there was a pile of trash bags in one spot that was somewhat close to the ocean. I was told it was garbage coming in from the sea, and they collect it and take it out by boat. It was the first time that pollution in our oceans was made real to me – and that was literally a drop in the bucket. After seeing those magnificent turtles and land life, it was a slap in the face to see our garbage in their habitat. And – AND – Costa Rica is amazing at recycling. So much better than the US.
After 3 nights in Drake it was time to make my way up to Manuel Antonio for the wedding. It was VERY touristy; worlds different from the places I had just been. They did have beautiful beaches, and the monkeys were abundant and curious. Also, it was HOT. The wedding was fun, resort was gorgeous, it was the best food I had all trip, and I made more friends.
My last day, I took the bus back to San Jose and met up with another couchsurfer Maria. She and her boyfriend picked me up from the station, and while her boyfriend worked she took me around that day. I was beyond exhausted at this point and I could barely do anything. She didn’t even blink an eye. She graciously took me around and we killed time until her boyfriend was ready to have dinner with us. She made me feel at home in her spare room, and they woke up before 5am the next day to take me to the airport. I have met some amazing people, but there have not been many times in my life I have come across that level of kindness and hospitality. I hope I can see you again Maria and Jose!!
Clearly, Costa Rica is a beautiful country with a lot to offer for any traveler. The food was the only thing that was lacking. Minimal variety and way too much fried food. However, the people and the culture, both with the travelers and locals I met, were unparalleled. For a trip that I undertook mostly on my own, I felt more of a sense of community and belonging than I feel in my daily life at home. The US could learn a lot from Costa Rica; mostly, I don’t feel that we take care of each other enough here. We are very self-absorbed and constantly just looking out for ourselves. As a result, I feel a lot of people are very lonely, including myself. When everyone you talk to wants to help you and make you feel welcomed and loved, life is automatically good.