Never had anything like it.
I’ve learned my lesson. Last year around this time was the coldest I’ve ever been in my entire life yet! “There’s no way I’m staying in Michigan next winter” I would always think to myself. Thankfully, I held true to the idea and have been experiencing one of the hottest, funnest, craziest, and best winters of my life! I usually leave home in the summers but it just makes more sense to get the heck outta there during the stupid cold months. Snow? What snow?
Dani came and picked me up from the mall and we headed directly to her university, The University of Costa Rica. She had a dance class to attend to while I found the opportunity to blog. It’s a lot harder to blog when I’m in backpacker mode rather than when I’m in one place for a long time, like when I’m in volunteer mode. Anyways, after her class was complete, she took me around campus where I met her brother Julian and her mother. Julian is a young professor at the college as well as her mother. We went back to their home where Dani had my own room and towel prepped for me. Later on I met her other sister Vivian. Now, I’ve officially met all the Gutierrez siblings and all of them were completely receptive of my arrival!
Maria Jose, her husband David, and Dani all had the day off and wanted to show me some more of Costa Rica. They took me to a secluded beach in Punta Leona called Playa Blanca that’s relatively hard to get to, filled with palm trees, coconuts, parrots, and some of the warmest ocean water I’ve felt in a while. The breeze was always gentle and there weren’t too many people there. The sun was shiny and the temperature was decorous. David supplied the Imperial beers, one of the most popular local beers of Costa Rica. It was the life.
We found a contorted coconut tree, extending out to the ocean that was perfect for climbing.
After sometime, Maria treated everyone to Pops ice cream which is commonplace in Central America. I’ve never seen one back home. Ice cream is ALWAYS a good thing to have. Next, we drove to yet another beach in Hermosa. This one was different though. The waves were monstrous and the sand here was dark and hot, similar to Monterrico beach in Guatemala. We ate here and chilled the day out underneath a tent. The beach here was meant for surfers. Anyone else attempting to swim would risk getting caught in its current.
After a full day at two different beaches, we called it a night and ate dinner back at the house. All the meals I’ve had at the Gutierrez residence has been the best. Here, a typical Costa Rican breakfast consists mainly of gallo pinto, which is rice with beans mixed with something that turns the rice into a darker color. I don’t know. I never asked. All that mattered to me was that it was effin delicioso! Especially when you mix in some salsa lizano. If only I could explain what lizano is to you non Ticos. It’s better than everything. I’m bringing some back home, courtesy of Dani’s nicer than nice mom who bought me a bottle for the road. Muchas gracias Senorita Gutierrez
The next day, Dani took me to a town called Cartago and up to a volcano called Volcan Irazu.
It was a windy day and there wasn’t too much to see but thought it was the perfect opportunity to play around with photos while we were up there.
That same night we met up with Julian and Vivi’s fiancé Mike at a bar nearby where I tried my first Costa craft beer. Dani mentioned that there was a river about an hour or two away that not many people knew about that you could actually swim in. I was game for it and so we went along with two of Dani’s amigas. Dani’s tiny little dog Nano came with us also. She was right, the bed of the river was secluded and there was no one in sight. We went up the river climbing rocks, big boulders, and smaller passages as little Nano hopped and slid all over the place, when eventually we reached the deep, jade colored pool. It was vanilla and clear enough to see through. And cold, but refreshingly so.
Just like any natural pool, I could have played in that thing all day long. There was a giant slide and also cliffs to jump from. Plus, the pool was deep enough to dive at the bottom and explore what was below. We went down to another pool that was a little lower beyond the river and took a few pictures there too.
Back at the house, Dani and I would play a few intense rounds of tri-ominoes where she was able to best me each time. As we played I planned out my route back north towards Mexico. My plans changed where I wasn’t able to leave Costa Rica the next day but instead leave a couple of days later the following Sunday. I didn’t want to leave on Saturday because no one wants to spend to their birthday on a bus for more than 24 hours.
“Oh it’s your birthday?!” exclaimed an excited Dani.
“Yeah it’s on Saturday.”
“Perfect because it’s my uncles birthday Saturday too and we’re having a big party!”
Open bar. Sounds like a great plan!
San Jose has changed a lot since I was here eight years ago. The streets are a little cleaner and there are even more American companies taking over every corner. The cities and towns I’ve been to in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua were similar and felt like they blended together but San Jose actually felt like I was in a different country for the first time in awhile. Luke and Deb agreed. Speaking of them, Costa Rica would be our last country together backpacking. I’ve been with Luke since our teaching gig in Guatemala and once we traveled down to León, Nicaragua, Deb joined us for the long haul. I told them about my friends who lived here around San Jose who I would be staying with. I told them about Monica. Do you remember her?
I met Monica in June of 2012 in Cape Town, South Africa. We were on the same flight from Amsterdam to Cape Town making her one of the first volunteers I met for that trip. Monica and I were pretty close and I told her one day I’d visit her. Well three years later, here I am! Monica and I have kept in contact over the years up to my arrival. I asked her to meet us at a restaurant called La Sospecha later that evening. The restaurant was Dani’s idea, another Costa Rican friend of mine. She and her sister Maria Jose would also meet us up there.
As for Dani and Maria, I also met them in South Africa but during my second visit there while I lived in Kayamandi. I didn’t see them as much as Monica but I remember them both being so cool and very down to earth. Tonight would be one sweet reunion!
Luke, Deb, and I took a taxi to the restaurant and waited while the others arrived. I was curious to see how much my Costa friends have changed over the years. When I wasn’t paying attention, I felt a hand on my shoulder and a familiar voice saying “Dan!”. It was Monica! My face let up a giant grin. She was there along with her boyfriend David. One of the first things I noticed what different about her was that her accent changed. Whatever Euro/Latina accent she had before was gone for the most part. Her English was always great but it was even better now than I remembered and now her accent is more of a streamlined, straightforward English with the slightest hint of Latin flare. She still looked exactly the same though! I introduced her to Luke and Deb.
Monica has been extremely busy since I last saw her. She’s an entrepreneur now and has been a hand at organizing local events with special accordance to San Jose and for the locals to “take back” their city. She even played a part in hosting a wildly popular TED event here. Sounds like a lot of her effort has paid off. Soon, Dani and Maria walked in to join our group. Even though Monica and the sisters have both stayed at my old house in South Africa, this is the first time they met each other.
After we left the restaurant I stayed at the Golden Frog Hostel one more time with Luke and Deb. The next morning I said my farewells to my two traveling companions and wished them luck on their flights out of the country. Luke was going to spend a couple of days in freezing cold New York while Deb was continuing her trip in Colombia. It was really great traveling with people who are very easy going.
Monica picked me up from the hostel and took us to Davids house where he prepared lunch for all of us.
“We’re on this healthy kick”, he apologized as he served my plate.
No apologies necessary. Especially when they went out of their way to make me lunch. The food was great!
Monica planned for the three of us to visit the beaches of a place called Manuel Antonio. It was a few hours drive to the west. I wasn’t sure if Monica remembered how sensitive I was with motion sickness so I warned her that after one Dramamine that I would probably be out cold for the majority of the car ride. Real anti-social. When we drove off, I fell asleep and when I woke up we had just arrived to Manuel Antonio. We met up with some of their friends and had a nice dinner before we searched for a place to stay for the evening. Since it was Valentine’s Day, most places were booked. After a few tries, we finally found a hotel that cost quite a bit but it was the place that had any vacancy, so we took it. Good news was that this hotel was within a short walking distance to one of the beaches.
We woke up the next morning and walked down to the beach. Monica was smart to bring a sheet from our room for us to lay on underneath one of the beach umbrellas.
The water was salty, the waves were oncoming, and there were para-sailors in the air. I love beaches when I get to play in the water! I had all the intentions of burying myself in the sand as well but the sand would have burned me alive. It was too hot! Graciously, Monica and David bought me a coconut to chill off with. I usually don’t like coconuts, especially the water inside, but this particular one was pretty alright! And it was cold! Props to the seller for refrigerating these bad boys.
I remembered in the nick of time to collect sand from the beach here. Really, my bag can’t possibly fit anything else into it. It’s already heavier than a muther, but I HAD to get some.
The drive back to San Jose was a long one because we hit the prime of traffic jams. Seems everyone wanted to get their beach fix in for Valentine’s Day. On the way, we pulled aside and walked over to a natural reserve where I counted 25 gargantuan wild crocodiles underneath the bridge we were on.
And also, we stopped at a market where I just had to sneak snap this woman to my friends back home. My eyes.
In San Jose, I said goodbye to David and then went over to Monica’s house where I would stay the night. Monica wanted to watch a horror movie even though she admitted she was a scaredy cat. While she was looking for a good one for us to watch, I found plenty of opportunities to scare the mess out of her multiple times. “Danny Devito!!” she would yell out at me. That was her new nickname for me. It switched from when she used to call me “Danilo” back in South Africa.
The next morning, Monica took me to a nearby park where we would separate and Dani would pick me up from. It was really great seeing Moni again and chatting over everything we experienced in South Africa three years ago. Keep doing what you’re doing because it sounds like you’re going places! And thanks for taking care of this guy over the weekend!
I walked over with my huge bags towards to where Dani told me to meet her. She left me lengthy instructions on which buses to take but I just couldn’t be bothered. I took a taxi to the mall where we would meet. Soon enough I saw Dani where we met to begin the rest of my awesome stay in awesome Costa Rica!
It was the summer of 2008. I was just barely legal to drink in the United States. I’ve flown on a plane once, but it was a domestic flight to Hawaii. I’ve never been to another country before besides Canada, but really if you ask any Michigander, Canada never counts. I finished the winter semester at college and decided now is the best time to go somewhere completely unknown to me; somewhere with a jungle. But I just didn’t want to go and sight-see, I wanted to immerse myself in the culture and I figured the best way to do that right out the starting gate is to volunteer in a community.
For some reason, I had Guatemala on my mind. So I went ahead and booked everything for it. Those first few clicks on the computer were scary, but exciting. I’m actually doing this! A few days later I received a phone call from the volunteer agency telling me there were some problems within Guatemala and that I could switch to either Costa Rica or the Galapagos Island. It was an easy pick: Costa Rica!
My family and friends would ask me why I’m going and I’d just respond casually saying “Just to do something fun. See the world!” or something like that. I did extensive research on Costa Rica because I knew nothing about it. I bought a guide book, new clothes, a new pair of swimming trunks, toiletries, hiking boots, and tons of other items for the trip. Looking back now, I definitely overpacked but at the time I didn’t know any better. I applied for a passport which I remember being relatively cheap at the time. Once I received it in the mail, I opened to find a photo of me smiling (something you’re not supposed to do on passports nowadays) with multiple crisp, clean blank pages waiting to be filled out. Also at the time, I never thought I would actually fill out an entire book. Did that.
Going on a flight by myself was a little scary for me. I really hated to fly and feared it to a degree. My family and friends wished me farewell and to be careful, they didn’t know exactly where I was going in Costa Rica but I made sure to leave my mom my itinerary and was sure to stay in contact the best I could. Nowadays, I don’t have itineraries anymore. I just go with the flow! When I boarded the plane from Detroit to my connection in Miami, I was filled with all sorts of emotions. The hardest part was over; booking everything. Now that this was actually happening, there was no turning back now. I applied to spend a month in Playa San Miguel, a beach on the west coast of Costa Rica lending a hand with the sea turtle rescue project. The aspects of it sounded cool but I couldn’t concentrate properly because my fear of flying was all that was on my mind. Once I get to Costa Rica I can relax. But once I did finally arrive in San Jose, I was hit with culture shock. They guy who picked me up from the airport was nice but spoke no English. The ride to my hotel was a memorable one. I’ve never seen homeless kids on the streets before. I saw one sleeping in ragged clothes on the sidewalk as flies ravaged all around him. Car horns were honking everywhere, strays dogs to the dozens bruised and withered, and there was no sense of uniformity on the streets of San Jose. Daniel, what are you doing here? That was the first and only time I’ve ever experienced culture shock. I practically trapped myself in my hotel room and relaxed for a bit.
The next morning I was scheduled to take a bus from San Jose to my placement in San Miguel. At the hotel, I met two other volunteers, brother and sister Elliott (US) and Abby (US). These two are the very first volunteers I’ve ever encountered amongst the hundreds I’ve met to this day. The three of us rode on a long bumpy public bus to San Miguel where I did get sick. I wasn’t entirely aware of my motion sickness at the time either. I went unprepared.
Upon arriving at the beach, we met our coordinators Stephanie and Claudia. We were some of the first volunteers there and at that moment, I was excited for what was in store. Our new home was amazing! I had my own little cabana just a football field away from the beach. I’ve never seen so many waves before. The beach was lined with tall tropical trees, shrubs, and in the distance you could see a large structure which I dubbed “The Rock” which I knew as soon as I saw it that I had to climb it! I was happy with my decision to come to Costa Rica.
A few more volunteers arrived that week but I bonded best with Elliott and Abby. Every night we would walk a couple of kilometers on the beach searching for sea turtles but we always came up short. Most nights were fun but then others were miserable. It was the rainy season so sometimes I’d get soaked, almost to the point of hypothermia. Even though I came here overpacked I was still underprepared. I waited for the night when we’d see our first turtle.
One day, I convinced Elliott and Abby to come with me to The Rock. It looked easy; just follow the shore all the way there. Though the further we progressed the more dangerous the trek became. We came to a point where we decided to stop and turn around. I’d try again another day during low tide.
Elliott and Abby only stuck around for two weeks and on their last night as they waited for their bus to pick them up, I finally saw my first turtle crawl up shore. As I helped to collect the turtle eggs, I paused to run to say farewell to them and then ran back to the turtle eggs. Literally, 40 eggs about the size of a golfball plopped out of the turtle into our bags. We’d take the eggs and put them into our own hatchery to protect from poachers and wild dogs.
Upon their exit, a few more volunteers arrived. Stacey (Canada), Taylor (US), Tia (US), Thom (US), and Sarah and her mom (US) among others. One night, Stacey, Taylor and I ventured along the beach and met a group of surfers who rented out a house near the coast. We hung out with them for a couple of days and they even drove us around near the beach after nights of sharing their spirits with us. I’ve seen one of the guys before everyday on the beach but we never spoke to each other because he assumed I was a local. When he found out I spoke English he was thoroughly surprised.
Now that another group was here, I thought I’d attempt to go to The Rock again. We trekked out during low tide this time and made it a little further than before. But the further we went, one by one volunteers began to feel uneasy and stayed behind to wait. There were just a few of us remaining when we reached a cliff with ferocious waves crashing within it. On the other side of the cliffs was the path straight to The Rock. My stupid naive self thought that if I jumped into the water and stayed near the wall, the waves would just push my against it not hurting me at all. Boy was I WRONG! Thom suggested I shouldn’t do it but I assured him it would work. This was how oblivious I was to danger.
I jumped in the water and immediately was sucked out from the wall and grabbed by an oncoming wave. That wave picked me up and slammed me into the wall behind me. THANKFULLY I had a giant backpack full of gear and supplies to absorb most of the impact. I uncontrollably slammed against the wall two or three times before professional climber Thom reached out, somehow grabbed my bag and pulled me back to safety. He literally saved my life. Lets turn around! Since then I never attempted The Rock again. The others were scared for my life, as was I but everything was okay in the end. We were now trapped from high tide and had to climb or way back to the beach.
The coordinators were concerned and gave me a talking to afterwards. “Don’t do dangerous things!” they would say. “You’re putting everyone at risk!” I got lucky that day. Of course these days I still linger on the side of danger but I’m a lot smarter about it now!
My time in Costa Rica consisted of beautiful waterfalls, hikes, beaches, turtles, and simply an amazing experience.
At the time, blogging never crossed my mind. In fact, I wouldn’t have even considered it if it was an option. Heck, I didn’t even have a Facebook yet either. It was those first volunteers I met who convinced me to get one so I could stay in touch with them and it’s amazing that I can still see what some of them have been doing to this day! Hi guys!
I left Costa Rica a new man and with the travel bug. I’ve been at it ever since! Costa Rica was the start of the growing process into the adventurous beast I am today. But I wasn’t sure as to when I would ever return there…
I was anxious to get back to San Jose but the road there was going to be long. Luke, Deb, and I took a ferry back to the mainland of Nicaragua, took a cab to the border, walked through immigration and then hopped on a bus to San Jose. It wasn’t nearly as long as I expected it to take. We then found a shabby hotel near the city center that we settled into. I was in San Jose for one reason and one reason only: to visit a few friends that I’ve met over the years that I haven’t seen in a very long time. 🙂