I met Becca in kindergarten. I don’t remember how or where, but we have been best friends ever since. We have 20 nicknames for ourselves as a pair and used to read each other to sleep with children’s poetry. When I went to high school out of our district we wrote each other notes everyday…we’re that kind of close.
Our travel experience ranges from a mission trip to Honduras to a family road trip to Arkansas, so when she called and asked if I wanted to go somewhere during her vacation, I jumped at the nostalgia. We dove into ideas of Australia and New Zealand or Brazil then settled on one of the few destinations that wouldn’t be in winter: Costa Rica.
Both determined to see someplace new we agreed on a beautiful country of mountains, volcanoes, forests, and animals–dead set on seeing some monkeys. We’d pack the bare minimum, ditch make up and hair appliances for a week, and plan as we went, through a few recommended towns with whatever hostels we could find.
After mutual breakups and typical life stresses we were ready for an adventurous week away. The thing is, airlines should have disclaimers as obnoxious as animated pop-up ads that move with your mouse saying, “WARNING: Travel is not a quick fix. You are not going to want to go home.” And perhaps fine print like, “Side effects include an irrational inclination to quit your job, sell your belongings, and hit the road to see the world.”
I guess even that wouldn’t stop me. From the moment we were coerced into an $80 illegitimate cab ride I fell in love with Costa Rica. We wound through endless green mountains and valleys with never-ending rows of coffee, plantains, and sugar cane for four hours asking our driver Rudy about a hundred questions each. We pulled over for the first loudly flowing waterfall then finally pulled up to the monstrous Arenal volcano. At this first stop we would only see it through intermittently concealing clouds, but its presence was almost intimidating.
A night of bathing in hot springs and one urine incident later, we hitched a ride across Lake Arenal to a mini van escort to Monteverde. Here we would stay in Casa Tranquilo, a quaint little hostel with an amazingly helpful host, and eat dinner in a treehouse restaurant.
We chose the most highly recommended zipline experience called Extremo and unexpectedly repelled off a ridiculously tall platform and jumped off another in what they call the Tarzan swing. This day was an absolute rush and gave us an opportunity to laugh hysterically with our guides and see gorgeous valleys from remarkably high and long lines.
The next morning would be another case of inaccurate expectations when we embarked on a three-hour hike through the St. Helena cloud forest in flip flops and shorts. We fortunately rented boots and walked through the eery, almost mystical forest exploring timidly. Instead of monkeys and sloths, we saw caterpillars and spider webs, but we saw amazingly exotic vegetation and felt the sense of adventure along the way.
The halfway point of our trip involved a record-setting amount of transportation modes in one long, tiring day, but after two buses, a taxi, a ferry, and a hitched ride we successfully made it to Montezuma without being kidnapped or robbed. An indescribable sunset redeemed this discouraging experience and I got my fix of star gazing on our ferry to the peninsula.
Montezuma was where we’d planned to finally relax in a hostel on the beach, but it became more importantly where we’d cherish time with locals who became friends. In our longest stay we grew attached to an 80-year-old fisherman who serenaded us in restaurants, brought his own cups of ceviche for sampling, and gifted us hair berets to say goodbye. We enjoyed a live Columbian music performance with impromptu salsa dancing from the crowd and friends returning for the fun. We played pool and partied with other Americans in the local bar even getting a little dancing in on our last night out.
After such an unexpectedly fulfilling stay, we were genuinely sad to leave for our final stop in Manuel Antonio. Waiting for our speedboat on the beach we couldn’t articulate how soothing these new connections with people had been. In an hour zooming back to the mainland in distinctly green water with awe-striking dolphin and turtle sightings, we were able to reflect as exhilarating wind rushed at us and the sun beat down in the perfect proportion.
When we reached land we spent a few hours glimpsing Jaco before taking the bus to Manuel Antonio for our last two days. Here, we finally saw some freakin’ monkeys. Cute, adorable, photogenic monkey friends right on our walk to the beach where we would lay for so long without sunscreen, we wouldn’t be able to move or sleep for two days. Mission accomplished.
As I’ve unwillingly returned to work and life peeling and posting and missing both Becca and Costa Rica, I realize ever so gradually what draws me to travel. I’m addicted to the adventure, the newness, and the discovery. I love the excitement and anticipation, and crave the experience and exploration. I cherish the photos and videos, and get a kick out of crossing more destinations off my all-encompassing wish list.
But in Costa Rica I realized every trip is really about the people, because that’s the source of the culture and food and dancing and recreation that makes each place its own experience. The locals personalize that experience, they give it the flavor and feel that stays with you. They recommend the places you couldn’t look up online before arriving, they introduce you to their favorite spots and neighbors and activities, and they connect with you…if you’ll connect with them.
The truth is, we hiked up a rocky, slippery creek to see a giant, breathtaking waterfall. I swam in its pool, climbed up a giant rock, and jumped in scared to death. But the man who told me that was an option separated that waterfall from all the rest. And the creepy, toothless old man who showed us a hole in the creek where we could drop in and see the limestone deep down…he made that hike unforgettable, and gave us another questionable story to bring home.
And every bit of the journey we owe to the person who pointed us in the right direction — Norm from North Carolina who booked Casa Tranquilo by calling a friend, and Enrique who let us hitch a ride with his buddy, and the receptionist who went to the bus station to get our tickets for the right route, and Herardo who taught us about the lonely monkey on our hike in Cabo Blanco…
We spent too much money, ate way too many nachos, and probably stressed more than necessary about the details, but we had the perfect summer vacation right when we needed it most, because Costa Ricans purely wanted to share their country with us, and we’ll never all we learned.
- a little good here: The main causes you can support in Costa Rica are environmental sustainability, wildlife protection, and local farming. This is a popular destination for eco-tourism and volunteering abroad.
- a long way: Simple ways to get involved and actually enhance your trip by experiencing what makes this a beautiful destination would be buying coffee or goods after touring plantations or farms, donating to wildlife preservation like sea turtle efforts or even volunteering to help register eggs and nesting patterns, and specifically supporting businesses (lodging, restaurants or shops) with the CST label (Certification for Sustainable Tourism).