Arriving at San Jose airport is what you might expect after hearing about half your Facebook friends trips to Costa Rica to surf, track down rare rainforest frogs, or retire. With only two days allotted for our trip in Costa Rica, it was hard to get off the beaten path, especially since it has become so well worn by Californians and Connecticutans alike. Here’s the thing, though: perhaps this is the best way to see the country. At least the first time. This entire trip, I was eager to speak Spanish, eager to try the food, and eager to try to assimilate. In Costa Rica, a nation of expats, this is easy. Blonde-haired, even blue-eyed Spanish speakers abound, and Americans are equally commonplace. It may not look it, but maybe this is the most authentic Costa Rica. Besides, I was certainly not about to ignore the fine volcanic beaches in favor of my own intrepid explorer fantasies, so I aimed to reduce my stress levels and just relax, man. I could live La Vida Local in the next country; Costa Rica, I told myself, was for chilling. And I’ll be honest, it was a lovely country, and in fact the one where I felt most at home on this excursion. Naturally, I would generally be opposed to flying thousands of miles to feel at home, but it was a nice change of pace from my usual fixation on getting lost and seeking out cultures that were the most unlike the one I grew up in.
Joaquin, our Uber driver from the airport, had the aforementioned blueish eyes and blondish hair, and spoke in a Spanglish everyone in the car could understand. We asked how to spend our time in San Jose, before we departed on a bus the next day, and he gave several recommendations. The most Costa Rican dish, he mentioned, was asort of tortilla and potato meal, and the place to go for it was Barrio Escalante. The least Costa Rican dish, he laughed, could be found at any one of the dozens of Taco Bells in town. That’s right, those who drive from the airport downtown will be surprised to hear that Taco Bell not only exists in Costa Rica, but is actually quite popular. The ride took us to our hotel in downtown, where we stepped out in the seemingly quotidian drizzle (the country is shrouded in rainforests, after all), checked inyo our hotel with a team of five receptionists-in-training, and eventually made it to our two-story room. On the bottom floor, a pull out couch and a kitchen was bestowed upon me, its sole inhabitant. On the floor above, my parents claimed a shower, bathroom, and king-sized bed. We tried not to get too comfortable, since we had a city to conquer that evening. My mother had booked a tour for the late afternoon, and we were determined to find the bus station before the tour started to make our early morning bus to the coast that much easier.
We succeeded in locating the Tracopa bus terminal, and we booked our tickets and confirmed the time of the 6 am bus to Uvita. This town, which I had chosen randomly off a map for its perfect halfway-ness between San Jose and the border, was essential to the trip. This would be the only full day we would have outside the capital cities, so I made sure we chose a coastal town several hours down the road so that we could take in the rich coast. But more on that later.
The tour on which we spent the evening thoroughly introduced us to some of the city’s tourist highlights and included a chef-prepared local meal with wine included. We started in the town’s indoor Central Market, where we stopped at a stand that exclusively sold natural medicinal herbs and roots. Our guide talked about some of the more popular homeopathic remedies, and quizzed us on some of the medicinal uses. As we stood packed in a narrow passage, shoppers regularly would pass by with a “con permiso” (excuse me), to which our guide would say “propio,” which I assumed was a way of responding ‘your good.’ Across the way were several “sodas,” the local word for casual cafe-style restaurant (like a fonda), where the guide explained the menu. Casado, which means ‘marriage’ or ‘married’ in Spanish, is also a Costa Rican dish whose name originated from when single workers would eat only beans and rice for lunch, while married ones had a full plate of meats and vegetables. Thus, the dish became known as “casado,” for its association with the married man who was lucky enough to have a wife to make him lunch. After, we stopped at a “Sorbeteria,” which had purportedly been selling just one flavor of sorbet (a yellow eggnoggy custard with nutmeg, allspice, vanilla, cinnamon, and cloves) for over a century. It did not disappoint. Next, we stopped by a florist, a butcher, a produce stall, and the market’s first bar, which was cordoned off behind rubber strips to keep the drunks out of the public eye. Outside of the market, we saw the national theater, San Jose’s small financial district, and a collection of local sculptures celebrating Costa Rica’s agricultural past and present.
From there, our group of about 8 people hopped onto a local bus toward our dinner destination. Our guide informed us that, since the restaurant we were supposed to go to closed on Mondays, the meal would be served at the chef’s house. We were excited by this opportunity to have a meal at a local’s house, and I was grinning at how well this trip was working out. Not only did I not have to sleep in bedbug-ridden hostels, the hotels we were staying in were really quite nice, and we were really getting the top-tier local experience on this tour. And, I didn’t have to pay for it! On the bus, the guide talked about the many types of tourism that Costa Rica offered: ecotourism, medical tourism, conventional beach-tourism, something called “business tourism” where companies would fund retreats for the staff, and of course sex tourism.
“Sex tourism?” my father asked.
I could not tell if his disbelief was serious or not. Was he just pretending to be surprised because his wife and son were present, or was he genuinely not aware that any country has sex tourism, if the tourist is wealthy, desperate, and/ or brave enough?
Our guide concluded his list with something he called “mental health tourism.” While miniscule in comparison to the others, he explained that this was one of the most interesting to him. Apparently, suicidal teens from super-rich backgrounds, who are given companies on birthdays and have never had to work for anything, are sent to Costa Rica to learn how to farm, how to put seeds into the ground and nurture them. They learn how to take pride in making things with their hands, and to find new meaning in life. Adrenaline-inducing activities like surfing, ziplining, and rock climbing are introduced to their daily schedules. This, I imagine, creates a new ambition to live. The story reminded me of Benjamin Percy’s story “Suicide Woods,” wherein a group of terminally depressed young people is led by a counselor who tries his best to get everyone to want to live again.
Over dinner, our small group of three American couples (plus the tour guide and me) enjoyed a sort of local meatloaf with a orange tomato-based sauce with a dessert of banana bread and guava ice cream. Conversation pertained, as it often does in a multigenerational environment of couples, on the universal thing of family. I, despite having a family, felt like this was not my conversation to have, as these older people had their familial romanticisms that I (thank God) have not picked up yet. If you see me cooing over the steps of an infant, or marveling about any cliche of parenthood, you, dear reader, have my express permission to shoot me. I sipped my wine instead of participating in the evening’s banalities.
At six the following morning, we caught the first bus to Uvita whose name, from what I learned in high school Spanish, means “Little Grape” for some reason. I suspected a beach, and some expats, and perhaps a nice place to sip rum, and I yearned for this part of the trip dedicated to coastal Costa Rica. We booked a room at the Hotel Samsara, about a mile and a half from the curb where we were dropped of, the lone riders who stayed on the bus the entire trek from San Jose. The hotel had a pool, an extensive tract of undeveloped rainforest the stretched to the ocean, and Cuban restaurant called La Habana Vieja which opened nightly by the hotel owner. Raul, the owner, is an originally Cuban, then Canadian, now Costa Rican expat who runs the hotel in his semi-retirement. In his restaurant, where we ate dinner, Raul makes good Cuban cuisine, paying homage to his first homeland, and makes drinks that are not too strong but pleasant. The regular bouts of thunder and rain make the covered outdoor restaurant a fine place to feel as if you are one with nature, without having to be soaked in it. That day, we went to a slightly more upscale open-air place for lunch and ate ceviche, fajitas, and fish, an unremarkable meal, apart from the ceviche appetizer, which was so heavily doused in citrus that it doubled as a beverage. According to Raul, the beyond burgeoning tourist scene has made fresh seafood a bit more challenging to come by in Costa Rica. According to him, most of the fishermen converted their boats to skiffs with which to shuffle around tourists in the rainforest. Shrimp, he said, seems to be the only seafood that remains more profitable, and thus the ceviche is always fresh.
The following morning, my father and I strolled along the side of the busy road to the beach. It was perhaps only half-mile, and when we got to the gate we found that foreigners had to pay a 6 dollar entry fee. I wanted to get some shots of the beach so we paid the fee, though I swam the day before for free by entering the park through the path on our hotel’s property. I had been bitten a few times by mosquitoes on that rainforest trek, and was not eager to do it again.
As we entered the gate, I had only snapped a few misty photographs before a white pitbull came from the forest and started walking next to my father and me. He didn’t seem to be vicious, but we walked almost the entire northern stretch of the beach, and he kept on our tail. The dog had a tagless collar, and was fairly well-groomed, but I avoided touching him or petting him entirely. If I showed affection, he might stick with us longer, and I really did not want that to happen. What can I say? I am a cat person. As I snapped a few pictures on my iPhone of the waves and the misty rocks in the distance, the dog kept following, only occasionally leaving for a few moments to play with a rotting coconut or to bark at another dog. We walked back, past the entrance, and toward the inlet that formed the border between the beach’s property and the hotel’s. On the way, we came across a an impressive sand mandala, with the surf inching closer and closer as the tide rose. I took a couple pictures, and we were about to continue walking when a small, older woman began waving her hands and running toward us from the inlet.
“Thank you! Hello! Thank you for taking a picture of my mandala!” she called as she approached.
She had the most sincere, serene smile on her face. She wore a pink cotton tank top with a printed proclamation of piece emblazoned upon it in faux-Devanagari script. She spoke in an Eastern European accent and was as thin as some of the more slender pieces of driftwood nearby. She talked about how much she loved Costa Rica, where she moved recently from her native Croatia. We let her know we were going to Croatia together in January, and she told us about a “sea organ” that we had to check out. It worked by having air pumped into it using the high and low tides, forming notes derived completely from nature. We were talking a while, when she asked what happened on my dad’s arm, which was covered in a small cast. He told her about how he had gotten cancer in his leg over the summer, and how they had to take a skin graft from his wrist. This woman, Adriana was her name, asked if she could do a quick healing for him, as she had been “hanging out with some shamans recently.” My dad, naturally, accepted and stood in the sand with his legs straight and eyes closed as Adriana spoke calmly behind him, pulling her hands down his arms and shoulders as she pensively affirmed his healing. It felt like a sort of hypnosis, but rather than trick the mind, she was trying to convince the body to become whole again. As she was doing this, the dog got bored and began kicking sand all over the three of us, as I stood awkwardly, not sure if it would be more distracting for me to stop the dog than to let him resume, so I waited in silence as the pitbull messily dug a hole in which to bury an old coconut he had found.
After, we had to go and catch our bus to the border, so we bid Adriana adieu and went to the wade through the inlet to get the most direct route to our hotel. My now-healed dad (who is not supposed to allow his open leg-wound to get wet) quickly took his shoes off and walked through the ocean water. I insisted that he lean on my shoulder, but he said he was fine. Perhaps he was being stubborn; perhaps he was healed. We made it to the other shore and were still being followed by the dog. We hiked over rickety rope bridges and across fire-ant thoroughfares and could not lose him. We finally made it back to the hotel room, and closed the door behind us. When we emerged, the dog was laying in a corner being patted by Raul.
“Where did you find this dog?”
“He followed us all the way from the beach,” my dad replied.
“He is an expensive dog. He must belong to one of the foreigners camping near the beach. No local would have such a dog.”
We packed our bags, apologized for bringing back an non-paying guest, and caught a ride into town with the maid. She smiled, and spoke in a simplified Spanish, which I happily translated for my parents as she bid us farewell and asked about our further travel plans. When we arrived at the terminal we waited for an hour for the bus, which was running late from somewhere in the north. However, the bus stations in Central America offer lots of amazing food, and so we sat planning the next leg of the journey over fried chicken and enyucado, a deep-fried yuca patty filled with spicy pulled chicken. Eventually, a green bus with ‘DAVID’ displayed on the destination screen pulled into the last stop, waited for the driver and passengers’ ten-minute break, and we paid the driver 39,000 Colones ($65 or about $22 each) for three tickets.
Victor Bernabei is just another millenial travel blogger. But here's the twist: He isn't a millenial! His goal is to see as many countries as he can, and spread the message that the world is not as scary as the news wants you to believe, and that there is beauty in all people, places and things.