Costa Rica: Part One
We had always viewed the Costa Rican border as the end of a chapter. Crossing triggered a multitude of emotions, some polar opposites of each other. We had anticipated feeling some relief. No longer would we be traveling through countries with political instability, high levels of poverty, minimal infrastructure, or some combination of the three. Throughout most of Costa Rica and Panama, infrastructure is similar to that of the United States, and in some instances better. About 99% of their electricity comes from renewable energy sources. Tourism is huge in these countries and all of the amenities that go along with that are present. You could get by with almost no Spanish, something we planned to avoid. We didn’t want to throw away months of progress. Costa Rica does everything they can to make things easy for travelers and to make sure they keep coming back. There is a reason why this is the only Central America most tourists ever know, and it’s not because of a lack of nature or culture in the other countries.
On the other hand, Costa Rica also had us feeling a bit overwhelmed. You could spend months in this small country and still not see everything. Sure, it’s only the size of the sum of New Hampshire and Vermont, but 25% of the land is part of national parks, and it contains 5% of the world’s biodiversity. We had a little less than 3 weeks to spend in Costa Rica and were hoping we could see some of the countries highlights, knowing full well before stepping foot in the country that a return visit would be in our future.
The overwhelming feelings also mixed a bit with worry. Costa Rica is one of, if not the most, expensive countries in Central America. Belize is probably its only real challenger. We had just overspent in Nicaragua, and we needed to make sure we stretched our dwindling budget another month to our flight date. We also didn’t want to be spending our last week eating instant noodles and sharing a dorm bed in Panama City.
Upon crossing the border into Costa Rica, we bought tickets for a bus ($10/person) headed to the capital of San Jose. With WiFi, AC, and reclining seats, it was luxury compared to the chicken buses we had been riding.
After a beautiful, scenic ride through the northwestern portion of Costa Rica, we arrived at San Jose that evening. Our stop in San Jose was mostly for convenience. From just about anywhere in the country it is easy to get to the capital city, and we needed a day to figure out our plan for this daunting natural wonderland. San Jose doesn’t have much going on, and it basically serves only as a central jumping off point for the destinations around the country. We spent a day walking around the city, not realizing it was the last Saturday before Christmas. While dodging the herds of last minute shoppers, we came to the conclusion that had you translated the signs in many of the areas of the city, you could easily believe you’re in a random American city.
Though San Jose is essentially just another city, that was something we figured we could take advantage of. Since Mexico City, we had not visited such a diverse, metropolitan hub. Throughout the city are restaurants serving food of nearly every nationality. Since Felicia had gone the longest stretch of her existence without Vietnamese food, we found the closest Vietnamese restaurant and visited for dinner each of our two nights in San Jose.
With a rough plan for our next couple weeks and something other than Central American food or pizza in our stomachs, we decided our next destination would be the town of La Fortuna. We booked two beds in a hostel ($96 for 6 nights), about a twenty minute walk outside of the town, and boarded a public bus ($8.87 total) heading four hours north. No AC or Wifi, but still grandeur compared to a chicken bus.
La Fortuna is a small town, but there are countless things to see and do. With the amount of tourists that flock to the town, and the number of tour companies that line every street, it has the feeling of a large amusement park. It’s easy to assume that no one actually lives in the town. There isn’t anything necessarily wrong with that, it’s just starkly different from the countries to the north.
Our first full day in La Fortuna, we decided to visit the hot springs at the foot of the Arenal volcano. Surrounding the town are dozens of hot spring resorts, where guests can spend entire days sipping daiquiris, bathing in pools fed by the geothermal water. For non-guests, a daily pass to the resorts costs around $80/person. Obviously, that was not even remotely possible with our budget. Hell, we wouldn’t even pay that if we had endless funds. Rather than spend ten meals worth of money to lounge in a pool that looks like it belongs in the nearest Ritz-Carlton, we went to the spot where the locals hang. It took fifteen minutes by taxi ($13.33) to arrive at the hot spring-fed creek. We spent the afternoon laying in the warm creek, surrounded by jungle and picnicking families.
We were already feeling fairly confident in our abilities to experience Costa Rica on a budget. On our way back to town, we were picked up by a taxi driver who had previously lived and worked in the Philadelphia area. Small world. We spent the fifteen minute ride talking Wawa, Amish construction, and all things southeastern PA, even getting the chance to pull over to spot a mother and baby sloth hanging in a tree on the side of the road.
The entire day we had to keep reminding each other it was Christmas Eve, but we went to bed that night hoping Santa would bring the only two things on our Christmas List:
- A strong enough WiFi connection to call home
- One more month free of food poisoning and sunburn
This was our first Christmas away from home, and it was strange. Without family and friends, it’s really just another day. It was a pretty mellow day, or at least it started out as one. After lunch, we visited the nearby (free) waterfall. We spent about an hour sitting in the creek, watching the testosterone-fueled rope swinging competition of a group of teenage boys. We headed back to the hostel to find we were granted our first Christmas wish: spending our evening messaging and calling the greatest people in the world. That is when the mellow aspect of our Christmas ended. The short version of the rest of night went something like this: a few bottles of rum, multiple glasses of spiked rompope (a local eggnog-like drink), hours of laughing with our latest batch of 48-hour friends, and a broom hockey game in the hostel’s living room.
Spending Christmas with such amazing, unforgettable people definitely helped ease the homesickness. The next day, however, homesickness was not the ailment of concern. Instead, the day was spent recuperating from the excesses of the previous night. Bet you can’t guess which of us spent the entire day laying in a hammock with sunglasses on.
Fully recovered and eager to do something, we walked into town to get a quick lunch, before heading to the Bogarin Trail ($10/person). The trail meanders throughout a section of jungle that is known to house thirty-five sloths and a variety of other animals. It took us three trips around the network of trails until we spotted our first, and only, sloth of the day high up in a tree. Luckily, we happened to spot her right as a family with a guide was passing by, so we were able to use the guide’s telescope to get a closer view. Though, we only caught one sloth, we were still able to see birds of nearly every color and shape imaginable, toucans, an agouti, a few striped basilisks, and the perfect view of the Arenal Volcano. It’s also worth noting that during a short walk into town we would often spot dozens of different types of birds. Just when you think you’ve seen every color combination or feather structure, another bird that you’ve never seen before appears.
(The photo on the bottom right is a magnified image of the sloth we found)
Since we did nothing but laundry the prior day, we decided to pack two activities into one day and visit the La Fortuna Waterfall. We left the hostel, hoping to swim at the base of the waterfall for about an hour until sunset. Instead of paying the $3 taxi to the entrance of the falls, we decided to walk the nearly two, mostly uphill, miles, only to find out the waterfall would be closing ten minutes after our arrival. In all honesty, it was probably for the best. Staring up at a waterfall is not a remedy for necks fatigued from hours of gazing skyward in search of sloths. Nonetheless, we left defeated, walked back to the hostel and ordered pizza delivery, the proper remedy for disappointment.
The next day, we sought out to make up for the previous day’s mistake and reserved the majority of the day for the waterfall. However, this time we split a taxi ($6.66 total) with some friends from town to the entrance. Visiting the waterfall was a strange experience. Not because of the waterfall itself, but everything around it. When we arrived it was pretty packed, mostly with international tourists, ushered in as part of tour groups. There were well-maintained paths and signs, in both Spanish and English, directing you everywhere you could possibly need to go. The entire reserve area was reminiscent of the best natural parks found back home. This was nothing like any of the sites we had visited in all of the previous countries. It was nice to know that the area was receiving proper preservation, but the $15 entrance and the Animal Kingdom-style handrails were a bit much.
The waterfall itself was well worth the visit and the two attempts it took us to get there. We took in some views of the cascade from above, before jumping into the freezing water. If the water of the hot springs, a few days prior, was at one end of the temperature spectrum of our swimming experiences, the water at the base of the La Fortuna waterfall was the furthest from it. Despite feeling like an ice bath, it might have been one of the most refreshing swims we’ve had. The signs around the base of waterfall warned not to get too close to the crashing water, but that proved to be nearly impossible. Even when swimming your hardest, you are, at best, staying in the same position. Trust us, Andy tried...multiple times.
Our day at the waterfall was our last in La Fortuna. During our six days in the town, we made many great friends and began to understand the allure of Costa Rica. We were also beginning to feel much more confident in our ability to see the country on a budget. As we packed our bags to move on, we felt, despite our budget, we had not missed out on a thing. We even felt that the free activities we had sought out due to our limitations rivaled those with higher costs. Though it did require more effort to keep costs low, Costa Rica made many other aspects of our journey much easier. The large amount of English, drinkable tap water, and pale faces ensured that our reintroduction to familiarity would be gradual and would begin now. The map still said we were in Central America, but it felt like we were in a radically different place.