The flight seemed long and I was antsy to just get out of airports. My friend was tired and she was ready to retire for the night at the Air BnB we had booked. Once we stepped out of the airport we were greeted by the warm tropical air and a herd of taxi drivers. I chose the third man that talked to us. Always choose the third. The cab driver was a little reluctant to take us a mile down the road to our destination. I figured it was because there wasn’t much money in our short ride.
He kept saying, “Alli no hay nada! ‘There’s nothing there!’”
It’s getting late, about 11:30pm, and our driver pulls over on a dark street that’s only lit by the cars’ headlights passing by, honking at us every time they have to drive around the parked cab. We type the code into a lockbox, as instructed, to receive our key. It doesn’t work. I look over at the taxi driver and he looks as if he might be a little nervous. We try the code multiple times to no avail. My friend tries the phone number to contact the owner. I look around and notice that not a single house within site has a light on and every last window and door on all of the houses had thick bars covering them. I see a couple of guys walk past us…twice, staring at our luggage.
I’m now so focused on our valuables that I’m startled when the driver yells, “You can’t be here, this place is extremely dangerous at night! One of these guys will jump you!”
Now, there aren’t many experiences I’ve had that strike fear into me. I have a higher tolerance for precarious situations. I’ve spent time in Peshawar, Pakistan with Taliban roaming the streets where I snuck past my body guard and driver and paid off our guards at the gate to let me walk out at night by myself just for a late night tryst. In hindsight, not the smartest thing I’ve ever done. But as a friend once told me “Should have had hindsight”. What useful and profound advice! The reality was that I had to look after another human being, a white girl who had never been to a developing country before, and the driver’s tone wasn’t helping calm me.
“Fuck this! Let’s go to a hostel,” I urged.
This is how my Costa Rica vacation began. I knew, right off the bat, this trip would not be a reflection of my childhood memories growing up in the town of Escazú near San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica. And if I wanted to get into any kind of trouble, I would need to discover it on my own.
The following morning, after eating the famous gallo pinto breakfast in Alajuela (that cost us about $3), we loosely mapped out our destinations for the following week and I rented a Suzuki Jimny. I’m not a big fan of scheduling every minute of travel. I just like to eat and drink my way through. We bought some cigars, food for wraps, fruit, and some road beers. Don’t judge, it was a six hour drive and it’s semi-legal.
Driving through on your own can be the best decision you make if you’re smart. You can go at your own pace, don’t have to worry about the crowded discomfort of busses, nor have to time your restroom breaks. Plus, did I mention the convenience of a cooler full of food and road beers?
The beauty of a country like Costa Rica is the access to its rich biodiversity. So, you could be in a mountainous, volcanic region and in a few short hours at the beach. You may want to park and jump in the subtropical waters, hop back in your vehicle and keep going a few more hours to reach your destination in the jungle by night. Tiny fruit stands are scattered on the side of highways where you will want to stop and purchase fresh mangoes, bananas, jocotes, or other fruit. At least, for myself, having a loose outline of what I’m doing is way better than a rigorous schedule. I want to take it all in. Experience the culture. Taste the wine. Meet the locals. Listen to the music. That is what I like to do. But my friend had other plans.
Having a fellow nomadic buddy is the dream for many people. Sharing these exotic places and experiences with another friend can be rewarding, plus you always have someone to watch your back since you are out of your comfort zone. You’ll be willing to make more of your journey. Especially if you are not real experienced. Now, you may think you are a travel wizard because you have booked several flights and handled the subsequent logistics involved, but traveling to Western Europe or staying at higher end hotels and resorts in Cancun won’t prepare you for a developing country. However, I believe Costa Rica is comparatively easy to navigate through in terms of developing countries to visit.
The first night when I checked us into the hostel, I felt safe and comfortable. It was in a crowded part of Alajuela, they had a nice kitchen and lounge area, and I got us a private room. For a hostel, having your own room is a luxury.
Upon walking into the room, my friend blurts out, “This place is ghetto!”
“This is nice,” I assured her.
Her look of confusion reminded me of why I avoid resort style “travel” but instead prefer cultural travel. This must be why Westerners get culture shock when they arrive in a sacred land like India. You couldn’t possibly know what to expect or how to prepare for the effects of differing socioeconomic factors on everyday life. This became a recurring subject throughout the entire trip. The beautiful bungalow in the jungle setting of Coronado right off the Puntarenas beaches, where we could pick our own fruit in the mornings and the AirBnb host had a full bar and would feed us food and drink for free every night– “not comfortable enough.” Restaurants were “unsanitary.” The language barrier (which was no problem for me) made exploring the nightlife scenes or meeting locals impossible; Although many people speak English and everyone is super hospitable and friendly.
It wasn’t all bad, but my friend’s favorite part of the trip was going to see Territorio de Zaguates (the rescued dog sanctuary made popular on Facebook a couple years ago) and staying at a high-end bed and breakfast with all the amenities, including Wi-Fi, A/C, and an American host in the wealthiest part of San Jose. I hear there are some nice dog shelters within close proximity to extravagant bed and breakfasts in Virginia where only the vineyard workers speak Spanish. Could save the time and hassle for a lot of folks.
Growing up as a child in Escazú we had neighbors that became family friends. One of the kids was named Marco. He was a couple years older so, naturally, he picked on me a lot. I loved and hated him. I made a vow to myself that one day when I was older I would kick his ass. Problem is, Marco (present day) has become Costa Rica’s #1 natural bodybuilder.
Thanks to Facebook, Marco and I had been in contact before my trip. I was eager to see the family, see my preschool, and make the walk from the town of San Antonio, Escazú down to my childhood home. (Read childhood post here). It was all so nostalgic yet different from how I had remembered. After visiting the family friends, Marco took us out to Costa Rica’s Craft Brewing Co. and later to a local sports bar so we could watch futbol. My travel companion, annoyed by all of the Spanish speaking in Costa Rica, cut the night short. How dare these Central Americans speak their native tongue? Luckily, there was still one last trip we were making to the cloud forests of Monteverde.
The entire trip, I wanted to see a sloth. I asked around, pulled over on the sides of streets for a possible siting, and took my time through the cloud forest hike, but still didn’t see one. It was my final night in Monteverde and after being disappointed in the whole sloth dilemma I decided it was the best time to be social and have some fucking fun. I had to take matters into my own hands.
Once again, I had befriended the Airbnb host. When you’re in any Latin American country, offering to share a nice bottle of tequila with anyone will immediately make you a popular guest. Thirty minutes, two orange colored limes, and five shots later, the host, his maintenance worker and myself were playing guitar and singing as if we were long, lost friends. They wanted to return the favor by taking me out on the town. A Monday night in the middle of a mountain town. What the hell could possibly be going on? Before we went to a bar, the host needed to stop at the electric company to pay a bill. It seemed a bit late to be paying bills but, then again, the sun sets around 5pm in Costa Rica. The most unexpected thing happened that change the course of events for the night. While the maintenance worker and I waited in the car, another car almost immediately pulled up next to us. Apparently, the maintenance worker knew them and got out to do a friendly greet. When he returned a few seconds later he asked if I cared if he got high. I said I didn’t care and that weed was slowly becoming legal in the United States. He interjected, “Oh, no. It’s not weed.”
Costa Rica is situated just North of Panama in the strip of Central America that connects South America with its Northern Continent. I was informed that in order for product to get from Colombia to the United States, it would obviously have to be transported through Costa Rica. My Airbnb host drove from bar to bar, seemingly knowing all the staff. My two chaperons liberally ordered drinks and then turned to me to pay when it was time to leave. This is not an uncommon practice in many developing countries with tourist-driven economies.
It was getting late. When we got tired, we refueled. At the end of the night we ended up at a night club. For a brief moment in time, I had nearly forgotten where I was. It seemed as if somebody had dropped us in a European discotheque. I reveled in the music, letting it envelop my body, causing me to dance freely alongside strangers and new acquaintances.
See, it’s the people I want to engage with. I want to experience how the locals live. Walk where they walk. Absorb the differing landscapes. Taste exquisite, exotic foods and spices. Savor the drink. Relish in native music and appreciate the beauty of spoken tongue with the nuances of body language. I want to participate in it all. This is why we should travel. So that we break barriers and find ourselves in others. So that we feel a little more whole when we return. And when we do return home, we have a little piece of something new to share with the people around us.