Greetings from 26-degree Chicago! Just a week and a half ago I was enjoying mid-80-degree temperatures in Central America. Now I’m blaming the sub-freezing temperatures for the demise of my decent tan.
In 2014, I planned out my vacation days so that I could enjoy the summer in Chicago (while the weather is nice) and save my vacation to avoid the dreary, windy, frozen days in northeast Illinois. In early October, I started to look around at potential destinations for vacation. My friend Robyn, who is from western Kansas but also lives in Chicago, was also looking for a getaway around the same time. We joined forces on a brisk Sunday afternoon at a coffee shop and looked online for a good deal. After a couple hours of browsing, we were set on a Costa Rican getaway, which included airfare, hotels and breakfast. My old college roommate is half-Costa Rican and his mother is originally from there, so I knew a little about the country. We booked the trip from November 6-13, a nice time away from the office and the hurried life of the city.
November 6, 2013:
After a long night of packing bizarre items for November (swimming trunks, short sleeve shirts, bug spray, sunscreen, tank-tops), I was able to grab a couple hours of sleep before getting up around 2:30 a.m. to prepare for a 5:30 a.m. departure at Chicago O’Hare airport. We arrived at the airport even before Spirit Airline personnel, but made damn sure we weren’t going to miss our chance to escape! Our first flight connected to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., enough time to get a couple naps in on the plane. I sat next to a pregnant woman on the plane, pregnancy being one of the things that makes me queasy.
Fort Lauderdale – we made it. I remember visiting the city in 2004 with family, but forgot how awful the airport is. We had a short layover before departing to San José, Costa Rica, around 10:45 a.m. The flight to Central America was about the same in time as the first flight, giving me more time to rest. We filled out the blue cards for customs, where I used my passport for the first time since London 2011. Our luggage had arrived (thank God), and we changed some of our money to Costa Rican colones – which, by the way, is beautiful money (bright colors with rainforest animals adorning one of the sides). Upon exiting the airport, a crowd of people greeted us yelling, “TAXI TAXI TAXI.” I felt like Brad Pitt on the red carpet. We found our car rental company, who shuttled us to a nearby location to pick up our rental car. We named her Cher. Don’t know why, but it needed a name. If we were going to make it through this trip unscathed, it needed a name. To decide who drove first, we flipped one of our new money coins.
It was me. I was scheduled to drive a car for just the third time in 2013. I don’t even drive or have a car in the United States. How was I supposed to drive eight days in a foreign country? Luckily Costa Ricans drive on the same side of the road, but what about their signs? Their roads? Their aggressive driving style? We had no idea. I put Cher in drive and embarked on the best adventure of my life.
Getting out of the rental car area was a bit of mess. A small road merged onto a main highway; once I made an aggressive move to get on the highway, I breathed a sigh of relief knowing that I had just passed the first real test. Our Garmin helped us along the way; it was mainly highway for some time. Robyn and I looked in awe at the views of the country – a mountainous rainforest with a third-world feel. The Garmin only really messed us up a couple times (telling me to go left, when it was a one-way going right).
We were on our way to the Arenal volcano region, which was about three-ish hours away. The somewhat normal highway then turned into almost three hours of curvy roads up and down mountains. I felt like I was in an arcade, slipping a coin into the game slot, and going for a curvy ride around the race track. Thankfully Robyn kept her lunch down; also trusting me not to drive off a cliff. The roads have no shoulders, so there was no slacking off. I remember going through countless “angostos,” which are one-lane bridges where you have to watch for oncoming traffic, as only one car can cross at once. People and stray animals also walked on the highway. I can’t remember being that attentive to the road since driving the pot hole-stricken road to my parent’s house back in rural Kansas.
We stopped for lunch at a bar and grill-like restaurant within the hills. I ordered a fajita-like dish with a Pepsi (pronounced Pec-si). When we left, some of the natives looked at us like “WHY THE HELL ARE THESE GRINGOS DRIVING IN OUR COUNTRY?!” We continued on our long journey to Arenal. La Fortuna was the city closest to the hotel we were staying: “Lomas del Volcán,” which is literally at the foot of Arenal volcano. We checked in at sunset, then made our way to our awesome cabin. SO beautiful; the view of the volcano and plants was unreal. Due to darkness coming early, we ate dinner at our hotel restaurant (with a couple drinks, of course). It was time for bed after accomplishing a couple firsts: 1) Driving in a foreign country 2) stepping foot in Central America.
November 7, 2013:
That was the best sleep I had had in a long time. Maybe it was the bed. Maybe it was the idea that work didn’t greet me for the next 12 days. Regardless, I was energized for our first full day in Costa Rica. Our first adventure included a guided walk up the side of Arenal volcano. The shuttle drove us 25 minutes away to the other side of the volcano, which is the active side. It was just Robyn and me, along with two nerdy New Yorkers and tour guide Edwin, on the walk. The walk followed a blazed dirt trail surrounded and covered by pampas, flora, large trees and random flowers. From time to time, we’d see bright-colored lizards and birds. The large ficus trees we saw reminded me of Jumanji; fun fact: the trees in Costa Rica don’t have rings because there are no seasons. Edwin taught us a lot about Arenal. The volcano erupted violently in 1968, destroying the small town of Tabacón below it. It has had a few explosions since, with some emissions as late as 2010. Nothing has been seen since, but three years isn’t long in volcano years.
We eventually made it to this lookout (a pile of large lava rocks) where we could see Arenal and a large lake on the opposite side. Due to its height, Arenal’s top is sometimes hard to see because of cloud cover. Arenal Lake was beautiful though, with reflections of nearby green mountains.
The trip back down the trail was the same. The two New York nerds started holding hands (I assume this was a honeymoon) while I focused on snapping some photos and looking for wildlife. Our shuttle took us back to La Fortuna for lunch, where Edwin suggested Soda Hormiga, a local place for lunch. Lunch was pretty basic, including rice, beans, chicken and some fresh fruit juice. Random dogs and cats walked through the “restaurant.” Everything was pretty much open – not many places had true doors or closure. After lunch we walked around La Fortuna, which is a small town. Kids hung around during the school day, in what seemed to be lunch hour. A small, open church is at the center of the town, creating a beautiful backdrop against the volcano. For Robyn and me, it seemed similar to our hometowns, small and quaint where everyone knows everyone’s business. The people were very welcoming.
The second half of our day included a safari boat tour down Río Peñas Blancas. Our tour guide José was a middle-aged man who was very eager to get on the river, as he loved doing his job. The shuttle took us to the river, where it was just Robyn, José and me in the raft on the quiet river. Soon after we got on the water, we spotted an alligator! According to José, it was a pretty rare find. We also saw Jesus Christ lizards skip across the water (they get their name because they can walk on water). Water fowl was also common, as blue herons speared fish with their beaks and other bright birds sang in the trees above. The water was so peaceful. This wasn’t what I envisioned at all. It was just us three on the river looking out for wildlife. There were points where we’d be quiet for minutes, waiting to hear something. The quiet was a nice divergence from the city.
The quiet had paid off. We heard a group of howler monkeys in the trees, so we helped José paddle to grab onto a stick so we could watch them. They are pretty lazy monkeys, but they make a lot of noise regardless. Next, we saw a group of white-faced monkeys, which are the swinging from branch-to-branch type. They’d stop and stare down at us, trying to figure out what we were doing in their habitat. We pulled off to the side of the river, where Robyn keenly saw a tropical rat snake in the tree. José was so excited because he said he encounters one on a boat tour probably 2% of the time! Both being scared of snakes, Robyn and I were fine to move on… At the end of the trip, José brought the boat up to land, and in the meantime, we saw these huge iguanas in the trees, both bright orange and lime green in color.
The last part of the boat tour included a trip to a family’s home that was nearby. The family is self-sufficient for the most part, raising a variety of livestock (horses, cows, goats, chickens). It was a ranch-style home with a young father and mother and two adorable identical twin boys. The 3-year-old boys were mischievous, knocking over stools and plants and wrestling with the cat. The family fed us some fried plantains and cheese and a yucca plant dessert, which was actually quite tasty.
José was a really wise man. He was so prideful of his country’s decision to invest in ecotourism. A while back, they were deciding to cut down the forest to make money for the province. But they decided, if you cut down the forest, sure, you’ll get money, but the tourists will no longer come. If you leave the forest, the tourists will continue to come for years on end. He’s right – and I thought to myself, “This concept can be applied to life and work.” The more time we spend investing in the future, the brighter the future will be. We made our way back to our hotel, and the skies opened with a huge thunderstorm. It probably dropped five inches of rain, but how lucky we were to do all of the activities in one day without rain! After the storm, we got ready for dinner. I had a nice steak with garlic sauce – and piña coladas galore!
November 8, 2013
After waking in the morning, we had our first breakfast at the hotel, which included fresh fruit, omelets and again, the ever-so-common fried plantains. It was a very humid morning, my shirt half wet just from perspiration. The tour on this day included zip-lining within the forested hills of Arenal. We were the only two from our hotel that went, but we picked up an older man named Doug from a nearby hotel. Doug jumped in the shuttle and began telling us his life story of living part-time in the Philippines, working for Chevron and leaving his wife at home during his travels. He mentioned he had zip-lined before in the Philippines (his skill later proved contrary). We arrived at the zip-lining lodge, where we went through a quick practice zip-line. We walked up to the first canopy, the shortest line of the tour. While I’m not scared of heights, I had never zip-lined before and didn’t have a chance to evaluate the security of the ropes.
Flying down the lines across a forest, legs dangling below, was a feeling I had never felt before. It was a feeling of thrill mixed with carefree. We made our way halfway through the course (Doug surprisingly did, as he wasn’t properly braking when approaching the tree canopy, giving us and the tour guides quite the chuckle.) The halfway point meant we were ready for the Tarzan Swing. From atop a canopy, you get hooked up to a rope and swing freely back and forth over the forest. Robyn’s shriek after being released is classic (I’m thinking about making it into a ringtone). I was most nervous for this, and my long legs almost hit the top of a neighboring tree. The last half of the tour included the longest zip-lines with the most amazing views.
The high adrenaline morning built up quite an appetite, so we went back to La Fortuna and ate at a place called Nene’s. By then, it had gotten really hot and humid, but we decided to walk from the town back uphill to our hotel (probably 2km away). Struggling to the top, we were ready to jump in the pool with some poolside drinks! The cloud cover had cleared and the cone top of Arenal was clear as day.
Since it was Friday night, we wanted to go out on the town. We asked our hotel receptionist if it was safe to walk in the dark to the town, and he said, “Oh yeah, it’s lit the whole way.” WRONG. Robyn and I walked downhill through the dark, counting the steps until the next light pole. Robyn followed in my path so that I would clear way of snakes. We made it to a restaurant, grabbed a snack, and moved on. We then stopped at a hippie-like souvenir shop right before it downpoured; across the road we saw a bunch of women enjoying themselves, practicing some moves on x-rated objects in the yard for a bachelorette party.
A few people had written down some bars to check out in the town. We couldn’t find one, so Robyn asked a boy where it was. He walked us to it and then asked for 5,000 colones ($10 USD) – we weren’t THAT stupid, so we said no and walked on. The bar El Mango was quiet; very few people out enjoying beverages. The bar was showing Animal Planet on TV; a couple of the town drunks were already three drinks in. Another bar Lava Lounge looked more entertaining, but still no one was out. (We later found out that people go out on Saturday night instead). We waited for a taxi while walking in the direction of our hotel. No taxi was going our way. Remember, there are no shoulders or sidewalks, so we are literally walking on the highway like hitchhikers trying to flag a cab. We made it about halfway to our hotel and see a man smoking outside of his hotel, talking to a hotel worker. I knew it was Doug. I could tell by his smoker voice. Trying to avoid him, he flagged us down, and you wouldn’t doubt that he TOLD US HIS PHILIPPINES STORY AGAIN. Maybe Doug was our good karma: A taxi pulled up and dropped people out, and we quickly jumped in – cutting Doug off from telling another repeated tale of his past. We made it home alive – the last night at Arenal.
November 9, 2013
Breakfast was again delicious that last morning near the volcano. We packed up our things, loaded Cher, this time ready for Robyn’s driving experience. The drive from Arenal again included winding roads – the storm, in places, had displaced some debris and mud on the highway. For the first 30-45 minutes, the road went around the perimeter of Arenal Lake. Our destination was Playa Carrillo in Guanacaste, the Pacific side of the country. The terrain started to change slightly into more grasses than trees. The roads eventually became pretty straight; the homes in this region were more ranch-style, most likely because of the graze-friendly land for livestock. At one point, the Garmin wanted us to off-road on this dirt road with no end in sight. We made the decision to continue on the highway, even if it took longer.
Not many towns came along, but we eventually made it to Nicoya, a bustling town with a lot of street traffic. We drove partway through the town, until a couple of police officers detoured us around, which was fine. We turned as requested, only to see the streets filled with people, officers on horses (that walked like donkeys), cows hooked up to chariots and a few cars trying to make their way through (including us). We made our way to the end of the town, trying to find back roads to get to the highway we needed. We got around most all of the commotion, until we met a parade of strange-looking horses and cows pulling chariots making their way out of the city. Was this some kind of ceremony? The chariots carried old women wearing prom-like sashes. The cows had ribbon bows on their heads. It reminded me of old Central American movies where they are on their way to the temple for sacrifice. I tried looking up current events in Nicoya, but nothing came up. Oh well – quite a sight! (Robyn did awesome maneuvering through the car, livestock and foot traffic).
After hours of driving, we finally saw a glimpse of blue over a hill. It was darker than the sky, so we knew we were close. Overcoming the hill, we both gasped as we saw the sunset on the Pacific. Rows of palm trees lined the beach; much like computer desktop wallpaper options. We needed to get to our hotel, which was about 4km inland. Hotel Leyenda was nicely tucked away; a very quiet location in the hills with a backdrop of green mountains. We had yet to eat so we went back to a beach town called Sámara to grab some food. We found a spot right by the beach and ordered some tacos while it downpoured for probably 30 minutes. Stray dogs walked through the restaurant, waiting for any food to slip through my hands.
Pre-planning our upcoming days, we went to the “supermarket” to purchase some snacks and drinks for the beach. Of course we purchased some rum and coke, to make our beach time a little more exciting. Rum translates to “ron” in Spanish, so we soon treated “Ron” as an actual person. Ron, like Cher, was one our companions that made the trip great. I drove back to the beach, where we enjoyed a sunset evening, scavenging the shore for our shell collection. It was the first time I had touched the Pacific; the sand had a silicon-like texture, almost like sand mixed with oil. After the sun went down, we returned to the hotel. We had eaten a late lunch so we relaxed with our iPads on our beds for a bit.
I was then staring at Robyn. Our beds had shook a foot each way, the wall hangings rattled above us and we sat up, looking for answers. The plexiglass windows had warped during the shake. What was it? Were people working on the building below? Was it over? We concluded that we had just experienced an earthquake and had a plan of attack if it continued. Robyn did some research on a Costa Rican seismic activity website and found out we had just survived a 4.3 magnitude earthquake, with our hotel close to the epicenter. Another first for my trip! Nothing was damaged, but it sure shook our minds for an instant. Later at dinner we asked our waiter if it was common, and he said somewhat, but they hadn’t experienced that large of a shake in about four months.
November 10, 2013
It was finally beach day! A traditional breakfast started us off. The sun was beaming, and we were ready to bring back a nice tan to the States. Robyn and I drove the beach, lathered up with sunscreen and soaked up some rays. At early afternoon some cloud cover came in, appearing to be a storm, but it never rained. There were very few people at the beach; Robyn had found online that Playa Carrillo is one of the top deserted/secret beaches in the world! When bored, we played some games, one which included thinking up Spanish words that begin with the last letter from the previous said word. The beach was decently small; we collected a lot of cone shells and spotted a lot of snails and crabs in certain areas. After a long day of exhausting the sun, we drove back to the hotel and pretty much passed out from tiredness.
November 11, 2013
Yet again it had to be a beach day. It was almost a mirror image of the previous day, except it was cloudy. We made our way out into the ocean, diving under waves before they broke. We felt the places where we missed sunscreen the day before, and proactively covered ourselves with an overpriced bottle of sunscreen that a nearby convenience shop sold behind the counter. Ron accompanied us again. We returned to the hotel and swam at the outdoor pool – throwing a Disney princess inflated ball back and forth, swigs of Ron in-between. Robyn was too “borracha” for dinner, so I ate alone, pigging out on a nice steak.
November 12, 2013
Our time at the beach had ended. We checked out, and it was again my turn to drive. Our final destination was San José, the capital of the country, about 3.5 hours away. I drove a similar route that Robyn did back east. Following long stretches of highway, the pavement suddenly ended around a curve. It was then just dirt with patches of gravel. I put our poor Toyota Yaris in a lower gear so that she could get up the steep hills. There were a few points I was unsure we would make it. There also was no way to know how long this would last. After about 12km of cursing and sore hands of gripping the wheel, pavement arrived. To add more anxiety to the stretch, we were on our last “notch” of gasoline.
A town appeared and we stopped to fill up, which was enough to make it to the capital. Traffic and toll roads eventually became more prevalent. Roads became more complicated; we came within a few blocks or so of the hotel, but due to one-ways, it was hard to make it there. Robyn helped navigate until we made it to the hotel, where we’d spend one final night.
Again, hungry, we took a cab downtown in heavy traffic to Mercado Central. The streets were filled with people. Merchants were yelling from side to side, trying to sell the most random things. One guy was trying to sell toothbrushes. My thought, “How much profit is he really making on something people buy maybe every six months?!” Several vendors were trying to sell TV remote controls. I mean, we all misplace the remote, but how often does it go completely missing?! Anyway, I digress.
People would just stare. Blatantly stare. Maybe it was because we were both tall, Caucasian and foreign. I’m not sure. None of the other places we went were this eery. People would stop in their tracks to take a glance at us; even some people got out their phones to take photos. At first it was somewhat flattering, but then it turned creepy and intrusive. – Pretty much a snapshot of Britney Spears’ career.
After walking around the market, we became pretty uninterested. We finally found a sit-down place to eat (Chinese, go figure), which was sub-par food for our big appetite. Near the Post Office, this drunk guy approached us and chatted us up. He then tried to give me an unwelcomed hug, patting down my back side. He shook Robyn’s hand, trying to see if he could snatch a wallet, but we weren’t that naive. I had my wallet in front and Robyn had her wallet attached around her wrist like a bracelet. We walked around some more and saw Teatro Nacional (The National Theatre), which was quite beautiful from the outside. The architecture had a Spanish feel and there were a lot of plaza-like areas for people to loiter.
It got a bit chilly after sundown, so we went for a coffee. McDonalds was buzzing, so we went in for a cup of joe. (The McDonalds there was like a high-end restaurant and much nicer than in the U.S., might I add!) Both Robyn and I agreed there wasn’t much else to do in the city, so we took a cab to our hotel, rested a bit, then went to Denny’s (yes, Denny’s) for dinner. It was attached to our hotel, so it was super convenient. Our waiter had worked at Denny’s for 15 years. Note: Costa Ricans love their jobs, regardless of what it is. Take note, Americans!
November 13, 2013
The final day of the trip had arrived, but I didn’t have the empty gut feeling I typically do when I leave a place I grow to love. I think it was because I fulfilled everything I wanted in this adventure, made a lot of memories, and came back to the U.S. with another perspective of the world.
We drove Cher back to the car rental place, said goodbye, and rode the shuttle back to the airport. Ironically, the pregnant lady from our first flight, was also on the flight returning, but at least I didn’t have to sit by her. We ate in the airport, boarded, then off to Ft. Lauderdale we went.
We had a decently-long layover in Florida before returning to Chicago. Robyn and I caught up on our missed communications, and within time, we were on a flight back home. Exiting the plane, I could feel the cold air chilling the tarmac. Thankfully our luggage arrived with us. We took a cab back to our neighborhood in north Chicago, and realized that the wet leaves on the ground were no longer palms.
I know I’m only typing this, but I’m out of breath. Until the next adventure…