This is Part 2 of a double post describing my trip to Costa Rica, April 17–28, 2012. Part 1 centers on San José, where I was working for a few days. This post focuses on the off-on-my-own, terrifying-crazy-awesome-fun time when I stayed in hostels on the Caribbean Sea.
I tried to get someone to come with me. But time and money, they don’t come easy. I didn’t think for a second just to skip it, yellerbelly not set forth on my own. This was Opportunity, handed right to me. It would be a waste to work a few days then go home.
But I would not have done this independently of already being in the country. I am not a particularly seasoned traveler. I “lived abroad” but uhhhh it was Canada. The last time I’d truly been far from familiarity was when I went to Germany and China as a teen—with herds of other tourists and adults doing the thinking.
All of this to say, somewhere along the way my wanderlust got rusty. In theory, ADVENTURE! In practice I don’t put my passport where my mouth is.
Throughout my time in San José, I was nervous—a good scared, but scared, grinning and crapping my pants knowing that soon I would be on my own. The work buffer was great to help me acculturate, learn the currency and collect bearings, but when I headed for the bus station across the city (for which I had no verifiable official name or actual address, to catch a bus I couldn’t book in advance, to be dropped off at another non-address oh lord) what was I thinking.
That everything would be fine.
For months I’d studied travel books and the advice of my siblings, trying to decide where to go. I ended up mostly following in their footsteps, which at first I wanted to avoid, like an ornery kid sister who wants her own story. Pshhh. They choose well, and I was wise to follow after: to Limón Province on the Caribbean Sea. They stayed in Puerto Viejo—I opted for Punta Uva a few kilometers away for three nights, which was more secluded with nicer beach, then in Puerto Viejo another two, closer to the action (restaurants, shops, reggae nonstop).
The next several shots I took from the bus, a trip of about 5 hours.
It was a Sunday and hot, the rivers filled with families.
We had a short break in Puerto Limón, next to a fantastic graveyard. Photos = necessary. A guy on the street laughed at me. I know the Spanish word for cemetery—I tried to read a bit of El Libro del Cementerio—but I didn’t know how to say Death Reference Librarian, or dark tourism, or taphophilia, so I smiled and shrugged, which made him laugh more.
Arrived at last!
After checking into my hostel, I raced to the beach 5 minutes away to see the sea before the sun set. Being so close to the equator, here night falls at about 6pm.
Walaba Hostel oozed charm.
Terrific communal space…
Nooks to relax…
More metal roofs tickling mah fancy…
My bunk room was relatively open to the unholy grumbles of the howler monkeys raging against the nightly storms. They sounded like dinosaurs or rabid dogs, and I wanted to see one, badly. Other people claimed to see them while lying in bed, looking out the window, or lounging in a hammock, or heck just walking down the street.
But I didn’t. See. A single monkey in the wild. Squirrels masquerading as monkeys? Yes. Monkey-shaped shadows and leaves? Plenty. Monkey monkeys? No. Muy disappointing.
At $6 a day, these cruisers were the bomb.
Despite being sunny every day in San José, when I got to the coast, it poured daily.
But if I let wet stop me, I wouldn’t have done anything.
I grabbed a bike and rode to Manzanillo, a quiet town a few kilometers away.
I know this one!
For a while I biked into what I think was a park, but honestly I don’t know am I supposed to be here?
While great to meet people and tour about with others, exploring on my own was amazing. The sound of the sea, not a soul in sight… so peaceful, picture perfect.
Dogs were everywhere. Stray dogs, community dogs, jerk dogs like this one who ran me off the beach,
and chill-ass cool dogs. You’d see a dog in the afternoon inspecting a stream,
and the same dog in a club later that night, passed out in a corner.
This dog settled next to me as I read on the beach then, a few hours later, weaved among the revelers on the dance floor.
And birds. The birds! I heard way more than I saw, and it was fascinating to hear a sound and not know if it was an insect or a bird or some demented mammal.
A shout-out here to Amy who suggested I get Tevas. I was mucking through rain, fording rivers, falling in and out of the ocean and giant mud puddles, while also hiking and biking and dancing and in a couple questionable shower stalls. They were essential.
Want to play?
Playa perritos. Muy tipico.
When planning my trip, I planned on there being another young woman somewhere in the world also planning a trip to Costa Rica. She might be Canadian, or German. I planned for us to meet, and we would have adventures.
She was German. Her name was Astrid. We ziplined through the canopy in the sheeting rain.
Despite my failure to see real monkeys in real trees, I did see several in quasi-captivity at a rescue and release center. I went into this enclosure and they climbed all over me—snuggling in my arms, leaping on my head and wrestling with other monkeys on my back.
Adorable sloth time!
After three nights, I moved to a hostel in Puerto Viejo. The town is an eclectic mix of Ticos (native Costa Ricans), Afro-Caribbeans, expatriates from all over and short- and long-term backpackers.
It’s touristy, for sure, with its hostel and outlying rustic resort infrastructure and guided tour outfits, but it didn’t seem fake and certainly not moneyed. I hesitate to say “unspoiled” or “authentic,” but it definitely had character and vibrancy, with touches of seediness and sleaziness while nonetheless never seeming dangerous.
Along with my stay in Punta Uva, the area was perfect for my comfort zone—pushed out enough I felt challenged and occasionally hopelessly, awkwardly American, but not crushingly alienated or unwelcome.
My dorm at Sunrise Hostel, however, left much to be desired. Some toilets didn’t have seats; others didn’t have lights. They tried to charge me more than double and my Spanish failed me, but I showed them math and prevailed.
Most restaurants dispense with walls.
I had amazing vegetarian food at Veronica’s Place, below. Overall, everywhere, the food was terrific—beans and rice never tasted so flavorful, and the fried plantains and fresh pineapple were to die for.
My last day on the coast, I biked to Cahuita with Astrid, a good 17 kms (10.5 miles) one way.
I went flying through the rainforest dangling from a wire. I crashed in the waves of the Caribbean Sea. Dogs pawed, monkeys crawled all over me. En route back to San JosÃ©, I went whitewater rafting, careening in the rapids of the gorgeous Pacuare River.
But what I loved best was just getting on a bike, leisurely pedaling through the gorgeousness of everything.
The bike rental guy warned us of clever thieves and recommended we lock our bikes outside the police station. Sounds reasonable. Upon finding the station in Cahuita with its telltale blue and white paint, we talked up a couple of cops who came to see what the foxy foreigners want. Oh sure, they’d watch our bikes. We could leave them right there.
But they wouldn’t let us lock them to anything. We questioned their logic. They assuaged with nonsense winks and smiles. We protested. They got mad.
We locked the bikes together and walked off shell-shocked, deciding half a minute later this was beyond strange and felt absurdly wrong. We went back to save our bikes amidst admonishments for not trusting them. We were literally yelled at by cops, but jeez, what were we supposed to do? Just let them get lifted? Find ourselves embroiled in some ridiculous scheme where our bikes are “stolen” but the macho trolls “catch the thieves” then expect to get paid or laid? It felt like a sham, a scam, a terribly naive and stupid idea.
So we left them with some Rasta guy instead.
We went to Cahuita for the pleasant ride but mostly for its national park.
Look! Two sloths!
Saw a hundred of these fellas.
A hundred of these translucent crabs, too, plus hermit crabs and cutter ants and a nonchalant raccoon.
The trip to Cahuita was my one day of sun, and I got burned, both ready for home and sad it came so soon. Early the next morning, I leave for the whitewater rafting tour, and in the evening they drop me off in San José. It was a randomly chosen hostel—I just needed a place to sleep before catching a plane the next morning. Sitting in the bar, devouring mac n cheese with a tall Costa Rican craft brew, I figure bed a foregone conclusion.
Then are you coming with us? comes at me five times in three minutes. Next thing I know, I pile in a car with 50 Cent blaring, a stoned Tico with a Finnish girl on his lap shouting in my ear, “How long you been in San José?” to have finally arrived in the company of gangsters, total strangers, hippies and Midwesterners with good hearts.
“About two hours.”
We clown-car emerge in dance central in a university part of town dense and wild with glitz and swagger, smooth moves, drink, bright lights, Latin grooves, shy grins, nasty beats and anthems. Pulled into the fray, I find and flirt with the rhythm. My companions are mostly American, Australian and Brazilian, impressed and shocked and laughing asses off from my unexpected, unprecedented dance prowess.
I barely know their names but already we are us, comrades, a crew, and when one of us gets stolen by a hottie or a rogue to grind or pantomime being sultry or aloof we squeal and howl and fight back, plucking a Tico or a Tica from the mix while their friends whoop and die of scandal.
I wonder if the Punto Guantecasteco kids are here this is kind of what we’re like, you know? fun and energetic and mostly level-headed, friendly to dogs when they wander in the discos but fearing the ones made of metal.
I scan the swarm for el diablito.