I just recently returned from one of my favourite countries in the world. That’s not saying much as I’ve only travelled in 10… but regardless, I’m telling you, Costa Rica is perhaps my most favourite destination of all. This was my second visit, and a completely different experience. It has mountains, volcanoes, beaches, rainforests. It’s just a stunning place to spend time away. The people are also very very kind and helpful and the food is fresh and fantastic. I could write and write about all the crazy and fun adventures that my cousin Elaine and I had, but instead I’m going to write out a list of the 8 things I learned in the 8 days I spent there.
- Sometimes you just need to go through things. On our first whole day in the country, we set off from Grecia (the mountains) to the beach town of Santa Teresa. We drove in our rental car on roads that were basically dirt paths, filled with potholes bigger than I’d ever seen. Following our GPS, (which by the way, isn’t always accurate in this country) we were many hours into our trip when we came upon our first washed out road that was completely covered by what looked like a small lake. I wish I would’ve taken pictures of this, but I was too focused on how the re-routing process would add another hour or so to our journey. We sat at the edge of where the road used to be, and where the river now took over. We pulled around, drove back up the road and decided we’d just have to endure the extra time in the loop around. As we were stopped on the side of the road, a man pulled up in a truck and asked us if we were OK. He spoke very little English and as we told him the water was too high and we couldn’t drive through, he laughed, shrugged and said in broken, yet totally clear English: “You just have to go through it.” This was a shock to us Canadians… I mean really, our school buses get cancelled if it’s too cold. In this country, driving through a river on a dirt bike is absolutely everyday life. He drove off and we waited, just to see if maybe when he got there he’d realize that it was in fact too deep to drive through and turn around. After 10 minutes, and several more cars and dirt bikes passing us without returning, we decided we’d better go back and have another look. Maybe he was right. We just had to drive through it like everyone else. This is one incident that I wish I had recorded on my phone. I was in full panic mode thinking of all the terrible things that could/would happen. We’d get stuck of course, and I’d get out and get pulled into quicksand and drown… or maybe flesh eating amoeba would find its way to my brain and I’d die a slow and painful death in the surrounding woods. Maybe the car would sink, or stop working and I’d have to buy a new car for the rental company. The lucky thing is that none of those things happened. We made it right through, and cheered on the other side when we realized the car still worked and we weren’t going to die in the middle of nowhere in a developing country. Success! So, I guess that man was right. You just need to go through it. If you don’t, you take a massive detour and risk never ever getting to where you want to be. Wait, maybe that’s a good metaphor for life too. Just go through it and get to the other side or risk being stranded forever.
- It’s best to travel with someone who understands your irrational anxiety issues. Elaine and I have been friends since birth. We are cousins. Born hours apart, in the same hospital. Our moms are sisters and we’ve grown up together. I actually don’t remember a time in my life without her, which seems really weird, and yet, TOTALLY natural. We have a connection that really can’t be described and with that comes this innate understanding of each other’s odd quirks. We both have weird anxiety issues, but the thing with us is, that when one of us is freaking out, the other is calm. We take turns being sane and rational in situations. After the “river runs through it” incident, we came to our next roadblock. The “road” we were supposed to take was actually private property. It had a gate and a lock and no other roads nearby seemed to go in the same direction. We drove up the road and asked a construction worker, who told us that the only way around was back the way we came and all the way around. So, back through the river? ALL THE WAY AROUND??? Elaine wasn’t having it. We drove up to the gate just as a lady hopped out of a truck and unlocked it and drove through. Elaine got her attention and asked her if she knew how to get to Santa Teresa. The kind lady explained in very broken english that the roads were closed and that we’d have to go all the way around, just like the construction man told us. Then this lady told Elaine that she’d let us through the private property and at the end of it, we’d be connected to the road that would take us where we wanted to go. When Elaine got back in the car and told me we were going to follow a truck into the middle of nowhere in hopes that we’d somehow make it to our destination quicker, I was absolutely against the idea. I mean really, who the hell does that? Cue panic attack #500 in 2 days. In my head I thought that this was the end. This is what happens in movies. Two women following a man and woman in a truck through fields and gates, deeper and deeper into the middle of nowhere… We were about to be robbed and hacked into a million pieces. In my head, it was happening. Elaine was calm and kept telling me to stop being irrational. I don’t feel like I was being irrational and to this day, I think maybe that could’ve gone really really bad… But, it didn’t. In the end, the man pulled the truck over to the side of the path and the lady got out and told us to keep going and we’d be there in no time. She was kind and warm and her husband in the truck, who looked like a Costa Rican Burt Reynolds, smiled and waved. I offered the lady money and she was downright offended that I’d do that. She was just being nice and helpful. It really was amazing. In all of our days of driving, I had several panic attacks and Elaine would just look at me and tell me I was just losing my confidence, and that in the moment we were in, everything was fine. She’d calm me and then we’d figure it out. There were many times when she also lost her confidence and I had to take the reins and keep her from losing it. Throughout the years, we’ve learned that only one of us can be losing it at a time. If we both start to freak out, everything goes bad. This is very handy when you’re travelling. Everyone needs that person who can keep them from falling to pieces under pressure.
- Canadians are so loved & people love talking to us. This one is short and sweet. Everywhere we went, we were immediately welcomed when we said we were Canadian. People often guessed it right off, and would say that they knew because of how friendly we were. As much as I hate Canadian winters, I’d never ever wish myself to be any other nationality.
- Never underestimate the steepness of a mountain. This one is huge. Pun totally intended. In our travels we found ourselves climbing many mountains. This is where Elaine would have panic attacks and I’d remind her that there was no point in crying, because tears weren’t going to make it easier. For real though, we climbed one mountain in complete darkness. It was absolutely terrifying, but we made it. On another occasion we found ourselves climbing a curvy mountain road in 40 degree weather. There were times I was sure that maybe we’d just fall over and die, but we didn’t. We just kept moving and cursing. There was a lot of cursing and a few tears. We definitely earned our beer. So, from now on I will never say things like, “It doesn’t look that bad” or “Let’s just walk it.”
- Don’t let people tell you that you can’t do something & You can be afraid of life or you can live it. This was the theme of our trip. There was a lot of talk about how we shouldn’t be driving through the country alone. Except from my sister, who basically said it best when she said, “You are two smart women. You don’t need men to travel. You’ll be just fine.” Preach it, girl! She was right. I was hesitant though, and completely fearful of the whole thing. Nothing bad happened though. We didn’t really go out at night and were sure to use our common sense and not get ourselves involved with shady people. We didn’t get robbed or raped and we’re still here today. Nothing bad happened to us at all, and if we had believed those people who told us that we should be afraid of travelling alone, we never would’ve had the chance to make such amazing memories together. We didn’t let fear stop us from going and I’m so glad. What a shame to miss out on something truly amazing all because everyone told us it wouldn’t work out well. Sometimes you just have to live your life and forget what everyone else thinks. My favourite moment of our whole trip was when a waiter in a restaurant told Elaine that she’d never be able to find certain waterfalls. That they were hidden and for locals, not tourists. The look on her face. It was priceless. She basically told him to fuck off with her expression and I knew that without a doubt, we’d be playing in those waterfalls the next day. Guess what? We found them and they were amazing!
- Fearless people exist and they are everywhere! One of my favourite parts of travelling is meeting people who inspire me to push beyond what I believe is possible for myself. I’m always amazed at how people live and how differently they think about things. When you travel, especially when you aren’t staying on a resort, you meet other people who are doing the exact same thing you are. We met two women who were also travelling through the country alone. They told us of the rivers they drove through, the roads they survived and their past travels where they faced things as crazy as tsunami warnings. I heard stories of unknowingly diving with a great white shark, really questionable lodging, food poisoning… These are the stories I live for. Stories of experience. I love meeting people who aren’t afraid, not because I’m fearless, oh no…quite the opposite. I love meeting them and hearing their stories as a source of inspiration. I’m a bit of a scaredy-cat, but through their stories, I feel brave too. That doesn’t mean I am cured of my intense anxieties about a lot of things. The day after the shark story I had a panic attack in the middle of the ocean while snorkelling. That’s always going to happen, I’m sure of it. The good news is that the more stories I hear, the more experience I seek, and that is always a good thing. I’m learning to step out of my comfort zone more and more. All of the fearless travellers, the people living in different countries, doing things completely different than me, they are what drives me to continue to travel. To collect experiences and memories and not things. For me, Costa Rica was another reminder that the most beautiful and important things in the world have absolutely nothing to do with material goods or convention.
- The best vacations in life don’t require a tour bus. I’m a rule follower, and I love order and attention to detail. A well planned trip is really a blessing. Just ask my sister who meticulously plans and organizes every single detail of our European destination trips. She has mad skills and I LOVE HER FOR THAT!! But that planning is sometimes unnecessary. OK, maybe just in this one particular instance. If you don’t plan for Europe, you miss EVERYTHING! But I digress… When winter comes, most people book an all-inclusive trip and head to a resort to relax by the pool and on guarded beaches that are surrounded by barbed wire for safety. I’ve done a million all-inclusive vacations and they are ALL THE SAME!! It doesn’t matter if you go to Dominican or Costa Rica. It’s all the same. Same food, same tourists on your resort. Same, same, same. For years, this was what I did and I thoroughly enjoyed myself. I like when I know what to expect. We’d go to the same entertainment shows at night (Will they ever retire the Michael Jackson show? I mean really…) The excursions are all cookie-cutter as well. They take you on “authentic” experiences that let me tell you, are not at all authentic. Everyone does them. I’ve done them all. four wheeling, scooters, zip-lining, catamarans, white-water rafting, hot baths, horseback riding on the beach… Oh I can go on… The thing is, when you go to a resort and sign up for these tours you also pay a zillion times more for the same experience you can get if you just go out and find a small local company that does it. Elaine and I went to Curu and for $30 we went snorkelling and got to spend the afternoon on Tortuga Island (the not so touristy part). We went in a tiny boat, we were the only English people, and on the way home we were pretty sure the boat was going to sink, but we did it and it was so much fun. If you do your research beforehand, you can do all sorts of really cool things for way cheaper and have a TON of fun. This trip taught me that I don’t need to take a tour bus to a waterfall. I can find my own way there. Pay a few bucks to park and spend the afternoon with local Costa Rican kids who will happily smoke joints while eating canned cheese at one of the most beautiful waterfalls I’ve ever seen. I’d much rather go to the local grocery store and buy their fresh meat and produce than to be served buffet resort food. If I go out for dinner I want it to be an experience like my first whole red snapper that I had for dinner one night. I ate it while sitting at a picnic table in what seemed like someone’s backyard. Seriously, I’m pretty sure it was someone’s house. For me, this Costa Rica trip taught me that I will never ever be able to go back to an all-inclusive again. Well, that’s a lie. I’d take my kids. They love endless milkshakes and pee-filled pools. Ha! Costa Rica this time around taught me that I actually need a little adventure in my life even if it gives me intense anxiety.
- If you’ve been to Costa Rica and didn’t like it, we can’t be friends. It’s really that simple. I’ve been to an all-inclusive in the Liberia area, and even as an all-inclusive, I’d still say it was amazing. This time confirmed for me that Costa Rica is really the only place I can think of that I’d like to go to every single winter. I loved Panama too, but Costa Rica… It just doesn’t get any better. Mountains! Volcanoes! Beaches! The Rainforest! MONKEYS!! MONKEYS!! MONKEYS!! Who doesn’t love monkeys? All jokes aside, I’d have a hard time talking to someone who could complain about such a beautiful country. From the people to the scenery. You can’t beat it. I’m already planning my return! Pura Vida!