I stepped out from the San Jose International Airport into the blazing sun and an incredible chorus of cab drivers vying for attention. My first time in a foreign country, my first time exiting an airport on my own. Yeah, sure, a cab sounds great. Twenty minutes later I’d checked into my hotel and was once again stepping out under the sun with the sole intent on finding the nearest pharmacia and the sunscreen I couldn’t bring along in my carry-on. Because keeping America safe is always priority number one.
I’ve always been bad with directions, though I’ll never admit it. The little map of San Jose that the front desk had given me was quickly lost to my pocket as I strolled absent-mindedly in whichever vague direction I’d been pointed. My first lesson in Costa Rica? Watch where you’re walking. The streets of San Jose are lined with culverts, and uncovered manholes abound. I’ve used many-a breath to preach about walking with your head up, taking in the world around you, and it’s a genuine pet peeve of mine to see people walking with their heads bowed to their feet. For fear of spending the next week with broken ankles, I had to break my own rule.
Not far from the hotel, I started to hear a thundering from the distance and, against every the-world-is-out-to-get-you lecture from my mother, followed the sound to find an enormous drum circle in a large rotunda at the center of a park filled with people enjoying life more visibly than I think I’ve ever witnessed. I’d been in Costa Rica for thirty minutes – I took a seat in front of an open drum and hammered out my soul until my palms bruised.
I hope it’s not too forward to say that the eight days that I spent in Costa Rica have changed my life. I stepped off an airplane, fell in love with a country, and came home with a refreshed soul. It’s true what they say about pura vida: it’s contagious and addicting. I’m not sure I have enough adjectives in my vocabulary to accurately describe my week-long tour of La Fortuna and Montezuma, book-ended by two short days in San Jose. I traveled with the G Adventures tour company — a great experience that made my first trip abroad open and independent, yet stress-free.
So what is there to say about Costa Rica? It’s beautiful; places and people. Mountain vistas, endless rainforest; friendly locals, easygoing culture. The places we visited were undeniably catered to tourists, but despite that, it’s still possible to get a sense of the community and laissez-faire Tico culture. I’ve seen others refer to the whole experience as having a calming-down effect, and I’d be inclined to agree. Que sera, sera abounds.
We traveled simply. Public buses, basic hotels, local meals. I was glad for all of that not only because it made things a lot easier on the wallet, but because all of those things were enjoyable. I’m not sure I set foot in any air-conditioned room for the duration, and I certainly got my fill of rice and beans. In fact, I came to look forward to casados at dinner time – the typical fare served at local sodas (cheap restaurants) and consisting of beans and rice (or rice and beans; your choice), simple salad, fried plantains, and your choice of protein. Throw a can or two of Imperial, the local beer, into the mix and you get absolute satisfaction from your $10 dinner bill.
Perhaps I’d feel differently if I’d just come from neighboring Nicaragua, but compared to Canada, my bank account loved Costa Rica. The rough conversion from local colones to US dollars is around 540:1, but it’s common practice to scratch the math and call it 500:1. You lose about ten cents on the conversion this way, but who’s really counting? I subsisted almost entirely on casados and Imperial, though I also tagged-in agua every so often to abate the ever-present dehydration. Though I never had a single issue with drinking the tap water, a giant 2L bottle runs no more than $2 each – a far cry from the astronomical prices we pay for the, in my opinion, bitter bottled water we buy up here.
We stayed at Hotel Rincon de San Jose, Hotel Las Colinas in La Forunta, and La Cascada Hotel in Montezuma — I wholeheartedly recommend all three. Each were simple, open, and friendly. If not for my intense desire to live a hostel existence, I’d return in a heartbeat. Transit between these home bases was sweaty, slow, and at times nauseating. The winding roads around cliffside bends and over mountain ranges mean even the shortest of distances can only be covered at a seemingly snail’s pace. I blamed my sickness on the roads, but truth be told, it probably had more to do with all those cervazas the night before. The drives might have been long and uncomfortable, but at least the scenery never got boring.
Over the course of my time in Costa Rica, activities abounded. And yes, I’m including all of those hours spent clocking “hammock time” at the hotel as an activity. It was a week full of adventure: white water rafting, spelunking, snorkeling, surfing, waterfall jumping, and jungle treking. I swam in the ocean for the very first time. I played reggae on the guitar around the bonfire with new friends and a crew of locals looking to do little more than vibe and chill.
Pura vida forever, man. Good vibes, yo.