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Published: April 10th 2019
You can't get any more Pura Vida than this!
Oh Dread. Here comes that overwhelming feeling of doom. It can only mean one thing. My travels through Central America are coming to an end.
I’ll have to return to my reality in chilly Canada, and I don't like it one bit.
Further pressure comes from my Parental Units who are in Mexico at the moment and want me to stop by to have a Feliz Navidad with them. Ok. So that leaves me with only 10 more days in Central America, and three countries more to visit. Like that’s going to happen.
If I were to follow my exact trip of Central America 30 years ago, Nicaragua would be the next in line. But my friend from Guatemala I call my “Pair of Brown Eyes” isn’t keen. Nicaragua currently has some gangs looking for foreigners just like me near the borders. Too risky. I have to begrudgingly trust his judgement. Besides he also won the Rock Paper Scissors
. So, Costa Rica it is! I booked a cheap flight with Volaris Air out of San Salvador into San Jose.
It was our first time flying together, usually one of us is left behind on the tarmac watching
the other fly away. Not this time. I first met my “Pair of Brown Eyes” over 20 years ago. Since then, we’ve had this weird odyssey of friendship we can’t quite explain. We are bonded by an intimate understanding of one another. Some would say it transcends over lifetimes. Facebook would say, “it’s complicated.”
Hey, I’d tell our entire relationship journey from end to end, but he prides his privacy & anonymity. He also hates social media. I can respect that.
During our flight, I mapped out a quick itinerary taking into account our highest priority to see/do. We could easily get from San Jose to Jaco, then up to Monteverde, over to La Fortuna, and then back to San Jose. In a week. I elbow him awake. He sleepily concurs.
Boots on ground, I forgot to factor in the traffic insanity that plagues the city of San Jose.
Our red taxi did everything but drive over other cars to get us to the bus terminal only to discover our trip to Jaco was severely delayed. Gah
. We now have five hours to burn. With two big backpacks, spontaneity is severely hindered. I blurt out, “What
La Fortuna’s scary beast just waiting to blow. Hell of a hike too
about the nearby multiplex cinemas?” I'd be willing to watch a matinee in Spanish just to get out of this blistering heat. My Pair of Brown Eyes reluctantly shrugs. He suggests we go chill in the local park instead, play some frisbee, have a picnic. That sounds wonderful. He wins
. No Rock Paper Scissors necessary.
We flag down another red taxi, because rumour is Uber is super sketchy dangerous in Costa Rica at the minute. The gigantic park is right in the middle of the city, we spend the heat of the day relaxing under a shady rainbow eucalyptus while school kids play all around us. We had a little nap in the grass, got harassed by police, ate snacks, played cards...and I discovered something new.
In Costa Rica, public washrooms are also the unofficial homes for homeless people. They actually live in them...ours lives with his seven stray dogs. I gotta go something fierce, so I give the squatter some coins, and he hands me a few squares of TP. It was actually super clean and he eyeballed me to make sure I washed my hands afterwards. Honestly, I’ve been in Central America long enough now
Some of the best sunsets I've ever seen are in Costa Rica
to not even find this exchange weird.
Back at the bus station, we finally board our air-conditioned coach to Jaco. My attempt to get a hostel online finds everything extremely overpriced, or booked up. Feeling stranded in Jaco, maybe we’ll have better luck in Manuel Antonio? There's a city bus departing for Quepos, so we run like big backpacking turtles to catch it, arriving on Espadilla beach at sunset.
It's right about now when that golden shadow casts over the sprawling golden sand. Happy Hour.
Much to my horror, this once spectacular beach that I knew 30 years ago has been ruined by madness and popularity.
The strip is lined by shacks for fried seafood and 2 x 1 happy hours, all with competing house music, blaring. On the plus we blend right in with our local backpacker couture. Hiding in plain sight, prostitutes going about their hustle while unsavory drug dealers loiter, bored. Sticky brown sand, foam, trash, throw up. Various monkeys utilize the highway mishmash of electrical wiring overhead to scope out their own potential tourist ambushes. Foreigners wearing ill-fitting swim costumes prance about, wasted on cheap rum drinks, seadoo'ing, and getting harnessed into parasailing
I’m very thrilled by the amount of vegan restaurants in Costa Rica!
contraptions to be hoisted way out to sea. Local families huddle under dirty white tents eating their picnics while horses gallop through the maze of rainbow plastic beach gear paraphernalia. In other words, Thailand.
It’s my Pair of Brown Eyes first time in Costa Rica. His eyes sparkle with that wonderment and wisdom of someone who grew up hard. To him, this is like Disneyland. He is all about gratitude. He makes me want to be a better person. He exudes positiveness and humility. I like that he never casts judgement upon anyone. I like that he subconsciously picks up litter anytime we are strolling the streets. I like that he always gives his leftovers to the downtrodden. I like that he fully engages in conversation, thoughtfully and receptively. I like how he, as Rihanna says,
makes me feel like I'm the only girl in the world.
For many years I’ve always said Costa Rican sunsets are the best in the world, and tonight I was gloriously validated. We find refuge up on the open deck of El Avion and watch the sea. Then, a final trek up the main roadway towards our hostel, we stop to
catch our breath at this weird nightclub teeming with twenty-somethings, Latin techno beckons us in. Very hedonistic, but tolerable for a quick nightcap. My mind whirls with memories of Costa Rica circa 1988.
I might be just travel weary, but so far, I'm not all that keen on the Costa Rica of 2018. But, I also realize no one can make a proper judgement after only being in a country one day. What is evident though, is Costa Rica has become very Americanized. All businesses cater to a retiree and dirty expat clientele with fast food joints and shopping malls, billboards printed in English, medical clinics offering cheap pharmaceuticals, and café menus that reflect an American palate...and If one more person says "Pura Vida" to me, I'll probably self harm.
Silver lining though. All these hippy expats have brought a culture of eco-awareness that may have rubbed off on the Costa Ricans, who are now influencers for the rest of the Latin Americas. They appears to be leading the way with clean streets, recycling, conservation, and proper pet welfare practices. And good luck finding a plastic straw for your drink anywhere.
Even the local McDonalds won't sell you
Playa at Manuel Antonio
Luckily a few beaches are pristine like 30 years ago because they’ve been protected from the hazards of tourism.
a plastic straw. Which is impressive. The downside however, is my wallet is having a bit of a culture shock. Cheese on a cracker, it's stupid expensive here
. To save money, we keep an eye out for farmers markets so we can cook our own food in the hostel kitchen rather than eat out. Besides, my friend, the Pair of Brown Eyes is on some kind of fasting trail-running diet, and he only eats after 7 pm. He has food issues. He also drinks espresso coffee like the world is going to run out at any minute. It’s hard not to roll my eyes at him when he gets hangry.
Since we had no day plan for Manuel Antonio, we decide to explore the National Park reserve early in the morning and then have an afternoon beach lie out. But quickly we discover the touristy “hiking trails” aren’t even slightly challenging. It is all terribly boring for my Pair of Brown Eyes, and he's irritated. At least we spotted sloths and howler monkeys up in the trees, and the odd thing running away from us on the boardwalks. I managed to talk him into a $10 espresso at the
My POBE called them cappuccino monkeys, and so it stuck
park snack shop, we argue ridiculously on whether the monkeys are called Cappuccino or Capuchin. A quick Google finally clears that up. A nice local dude named Juan, who is scoping the park for clients to guide, gets chatting with us and next thing I know he agrees to take my friend on a trek high up into the thick jungle mountains for the rest of the day. I’m like, I’ll be on the beach if you need me.
. I follow the signs and drop down from the jade hue of the jungle onto the most pristine, blue lagoon. I hear that Moby song in my head. You know the one. Now this is how I remember Costa Rica!
Heaven! I will not be vacating this little slice of paradise until they kick me out, at sundown, when the park closes. I find a spot to lay out my beach towel, but as soon as I put my bag down to dive into the crystal sea, a gang of "cappuccino" monkeys descend out of the trees with the intent of robbing me blind. I leave the ocean and stomp across the sand, I'm mad because there isn't any
Don’t Go Chasing Waterfalls
Fantastic thundering waterfall in la Fortuna
food in my pack, so I shouldn't be getting a shakedown. I approach aggressively as the big alpha male is going through my stuff meticulously, like a Colombian Customs Officer.
I hear some American lady over my shoulder say, "Ooooh I wouldn't do that if I were you." She apparently doesn't know my sordid history with monkeys.
The head monkey and I wrestle with my day pack, he tries to intimidate me by screeching and bearing his fangs. I do the same back, only more animated. Rule is, you can't flinch, not even once. He looks baffled, concedes, and skittles off.
"Ha! Take that!" I declare smugly and strut by the gawking onlookers. My leisurely beach day commences. I couldn’t have asked for better. Sunny and hot. There was a smattering of other tourists, all trying to find tree shade and being continuously accosted by raccoons and monkeys. The green ocean was the same temperature as my body. I snorkeled and sunned myself unabashedly. Hit the snack shack for a beer and sangy. I may have even made angels in the sand in this euphoric state.
Maybe it is Pura Vida
here after all.
Back in my
Napping in the Park
My Pair of Brown Eyes is comfortable sleeping anywhere
surfing days, I never left this pacific coast. I surfed from Tamarindo to Pavones, exacting my craft on some pretty amazing left point breaks. Linda and I camped on beaches just like this, with not another soul around. Besides surfing, I’ll always remember one of the biggest thrills for me was witnessing Olive Ridley turtles on mass, laying eggs to the north in Ostional, hauling themselves laboriously out onto darkened sands. The Aribada.
Back then, locals were known to commerce the eggs and turtle meat, and by doing so, they almost killed off the entire species. But now it’s managed professionally by those same locals, and thankfully the turtles have recuperated significantly. Sad for me, it’s the wrong time of year and I am also way too far south. But I will always remember that beautiful spectacle in my mind’s eye. If you ever get a chance to see The Aribada
Back at the hostel, I met a friendly German with the same name as mine, so I re-brand him “Aleman.” He is full of life and responds appropriately when I bark Aleman!
in his direction. Because I’m a vegetarian, I put him in charge of charring meat.
Ah The Rich Coast
Still stunning, just as it was 35 years ago.
He happily accepts. I tell him the only word I know in German is ‘Waschlappen”. He barrel laughs himself silly.
My Pair of Brown Eyes returns and collapses. He's been trail running for the past six hours, exhilarated and covered in scrapes and bruises. He and his new friend Juan tell about being chased by a Puma, or rather, a large black dog that looks like a Puma? They weren't about to slow down to find out. Turns out, Manuel Antonio was an awesome last minute choice, and with a hostel full of travelers we have no problem finding dinner guests. Yesterday, a few young Spaniards and Aussies were hanging out in the communal lounge, so we gave them a dinner time of 7 pm and send them out on a food scavenger hunt. Everyone proudly arrives back with items in hand. Someone provides the music, another provides the cards. We all make drinks and douse ourselves with bug spray. A fun night is had by all.
After an early morning trek, and a refreshing dip in the hostel's freezing pool, it was time to move on. We board a city bus heading up the coast towards El
We are hiking up where?!
Oh no, another volcano hike. Hoping the gods don't mind.
Roble. It makes scheduled stops along the way to pick up passengers with cargo so big, they need to wrestle it aboard. Hours in, our 3rd
bus of the day starts inland, and around and around into the clouds we go on a dirt track. The balmy heat of the lowlands is quickly replaced by a chilly, fresh air. I noticed everyone slamming windows shut and putting on their jackets. I too rummage through my day bag hoping for a hoodie. No luck. The lady I'm sitting with pulls out a shawl and we share it. Stuck between the rows are kitchen appliances, including a full-sized oven and a fridge, blocking the exit. My Pair of Brown Eyes is swaying in the aisle, having given up his seat long ago to a pregnant lady, I marvel that he is able to sleep standing up. Actually, he can sleep anywhere, at any time. This is a luxury afforded to someone who has faced the devil head on, and won. Why didn't I come to Monteverde before?
Certainly I knew of it, but had never ventured this far inland. Suddenly I'm in the alpines of Bavaria, our hostel looks like
Balvaria or Monteverde
Very German vibe in Monteverde including the chalet style hostel
an old Austrian ski lodge tucked in a black forest. The winds howl upwards ferociously through the village. It is so weird to be freezing cold in Costa Rica
. We warm up with amazing Italian dinner with a proper wine list at a local eatery. Our stroll around town was interrupted by an electrical storm, forcing our hasty retreat. Although there is an assortment of adventure activities offered in Monteverde, hiking in the famous cloud forest is my only priority. Again, the National Park Reserve was not as expected. It is designed more for tourists, not trekkers. We Rock Paper Scissors, and I win.
My Pair of Brown Eyes agrees to accompany me on these well trodden paths to view all of Costa Rica’s diverse flora and fauna. It turned out to be a lovely walk. Dry. Which is blissful. I hate slippery mud. There were nicely groomed trails with suspension bridges and lookouts. All equally scenic. No critters about due to mobs of chatty tourists we’d encounter. I spotted a gunnera manicata
in its natural habitat. It's a gigantic rhubarb-looking shrub, for those without the Hortie gene. I have one in my front yard in Canada, and people
Gangster Beach Monkey
Impossible to bring anything to the beach without getting it snatched
go crazy taking pictures of it. There was also a hummingbird sanctuary at the park entrance where a rainbow of tiny Kamikazes dogfight over the feeders. We stay for a while because its a bit mesmerizing.
Back in town, we stumble upon a hip Mexican joint with yummy fried avocado tacos. My Pair of Brown Eyes won't eat any, he's back on his weird fast. He decides to take off for a brisk run through Santa Elena mountain's 12 kms of trails. Should take him a few hours. I get a smoothie and check out the orchid garden and then a butterfly garden before I do a little trinket shopping. I even had time for a nap and some laundry. Up here the air is crisp and fresh, and everything is so lush. A fellow Canadian and I chat it up, he's been here over a year doing his thesis. He shows me a map of extreme trekking in the Children’s Eternal Forest Reserve. Gah! We should have done that! I
decide not to tell my Pair of Brown Eyes about it to avoid his probable FOMO and subsequent tantrum.
WhatsApp chimes in from my Pair of Brown
Park Po Po
We got some light heckling from a couple policias on horseback
Eyes, and we agree to meet in the center of town. I have to laugh. There’s a pack of stray dogs following him like a pied piper because it’s 7 pm and he has a ginormous takeout container filled with some kind of BBQ’d meat. We find a cozy vegan place for me that serves the best falafel I've ever had. Disappointingly, the night scene of Monteverde is sleepy. Even the restaurant owner who talked it up seems embarrassed. We turn in early for the night, and the next day I hire seats in a microvan for our foray to La Fortuna.
We are packed in with an assortment of 20's on their gap year. I always enjoy meeting new people this way, it’s sort of a friendly hostage situation. Some of the Aussie girls insist we stop for Insta photos by the wind farms. I even get excited watching the gigantic blades slice through the air with a whirl. Our van drops down into rolling pastures of green, where we can catch a water taxi over to the headland of lake Arenal, a hydro dam. The lake was seasonally choppy, soaking us on the crossing. Still beautiful. If
Thick Green Canopy of Jungle
Even in the dry season there is a bit of water trickling in the forests. Lots of hummingbirds and critters all coming in for a drink
you are a photo nut, this is your jam. This has been a very photographic whirlwind tour of Costa Rica.
La Fortuna de San Carlos is somewhat charming with the famous Arenal cone volcano looming in the backdrop.
Obviously though, this place is solely built on tourism, touts from tour companies prowl the streets looking for tourists to buy their adventure packages. I peruse the lists of activities indifferently. None of this stuff really appeals. You can’t actually hike up Arenal because its active, but there is an old extinct crater lake next to it called Cerro Chata. We’re going up there. The hostel I booked us was called Sylvia's, but we both wearily looked at one another after being dropped off out front of it. It's trying too hard to be THE place to be. I hate that.
We get a room at the cheap hotel across the street and after a good night’s sleep, I’m ready to trek. My Pair of Brown Eyes has already been out for an early morning jog and comes back with some bad news. Cerro Chata is closed!! We go anyways. My Pair of Brown Eyes sneakily pays off the
A feast for all
At the hostel its nice to break bread with your fellow travelers
guard at the entranceway gate and in we go. The hike was grueling, well for me
, but we were rewarded with some great vistas of the emerald green lake. The fog clouds cleared long enough to get a fabulous view of Arenal too, well worth the strenuous trek.
I fell a couple times on the muddy steep trails, my knees a bit gashed. Clinging to roots and tree branches I’m cursing myself out. As I just met 50, I’m not the spry hiker I once was, and I’ve become a bit top heavy too, like a camel on roller skates. But my Pair of Brown Eyes finds me highly entertaining, and helps me upright. If it’s anything, it’s another page for our conjoined book of memories. This friendship of ours was always a fluke. We met on the set of a movie that was being filmed in Los Cabos. He was an aspiring film student on his first paid gig, I was a hired extra. Our worlds utterly stopped when we collided that day. But, as it often happens, the timing was bad. I find it strange how drastically different our lives are, yet we look at life through
National Park of Costa Rica
Such a pristine beach left thanks to being saved on a land reserve.
the same lens. Because of him, I am reminded how privileged my life as a Canadian is. But I’d never tell him that. He admires my toughness and independent spirit, and how I never conformed to what a woman was expected to be. We are two peas. Soulmates, if you believe in that kind of thing.
He catches me smiling at him. He winks.
At sometime this afternoon, our bus departs for San Jose. I decide during breakfast to go and quickly check out the local waterfall. There are about 500 steps down to the bottom base, but I’m assured it's well worth it. Worth it, it was!
The icy water thunders down into a pool. But I can't get a decent picture because everyone is doing ridiculous poses for their Instas. So I just sit on a bench and take it all in. As I make the 500 stair climb back up, my knees remind me of our volcano hike from yesterday. My WhatsApp chimes every few minutes from my Pair of Brown Eyes who's yelling at me that the bus just arrived at the depot. Thankfully, I am just in time to catch it.
Some of the hiking trails in Monteverde had wonderful vistas
don’t know about you, but I love travel by bus, I never sleep because I like to peer out the windows to see the passing countryside. The breadbasket farms and tiny Pueblas whiz by, it offers a glimpse into the actual reality for most Costa Ricans. Poor, rural, hard, humble. Five hours later we summit the last corkscrew hill and drop down into the city of San Jose for traffic gridlock of about three hours during their evening commute. I have to pee so bad, I can taste it.
Downtown San Jose is pretty manic. Lots of strange characters and things going on along Avenida central. Christmas shoppers are out in full force. We walk around to take it in, find espresso, you know the usual. Then I go off on my own to check out some museums. The Jade and Gold museums both well worth the visit. I won't got into detail, you go and see yourself.
We meet up for dinner at a typical BBQ called Nuestra Tierra. I tried to get something vegetarian, the waiter noticeably winced. Pasta with a meat sauce arrived, I had to send it back twice. Exploring the grungier side of
Did you pack this bag yourself, Miss?
Monkey bastard goes through my things more thoroughly than a customs officer
San Jose at night is an option and way more fun with my Pair of Brown Eyes. We both have an affinity for punk music, and here, there is a bit of a scene. We crawl along the techno nightclubs that popularize the area which are heavily fortified and after several aggressive pat downs and ID scrutinizations, we decide to settle in at a tavern with a more mature clientele so we can hear ourselves talk. We make plans, but they are futile.
Both our flights leave after midnight, so we take a leisurely stroll back to our hostel, in perhaps a more sketchier part of town. We both know better but let down our guard, and some Nicaraguan assholes tried to rob us. As soon as I saw the gun, my ears started to buzz, my nose tingled. We were in big trouble.
Neither of us had any money or flashy things on, and my cards were safely tucked between my boobs. My Pair of Brown Eyes forces me to stand behind him while he calmly reasons with the three men. There were threatening undertones in Spanish words I couldn't understand, but I can see from their body
The Windy Hills of Costa Rica
A road trip is definitely the way to go in the northern region, so many beautiful vistas.
language they are all high AF, and uncomfortable. Finally, they walk away and we both calmly rush back to get our backpacks from the hostel lobby.
No sense in getting all freaked out or calling the cops. And the irony isn't lost on me that we avoided Nicaragua for this very reason.
At the airport, we sat side by side in silence. This was the hardest part. The Goodbye.
Last time, we had no idea it would be three years before we reconnected. Just knowing it could be that long again, agonizing. Even with all the instant connect-ability of today's world, it's just not the same. I wish he could come to Canada. But he can't. We are from two completely different worlds, he and I, but our friendship has endured. He is such a great man and a wonderful friend. I will miss him terribly.
My Pair of Brown Eyes looks ridiculous as he clings to the Bob the Builder stuffy he won in El Salvador for his nephew.
The last boarding call finally separates us, but…
We Only Said Goodbye With Words
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