It was a beautiful Saturday morning and I was at the pub near home partaking in a bottomless mimosa brunch with a few of my Chicago friends. A couple mimosas in, I was sufficiently buzzed. Thoughts of travel and exploration flashed through my mind. I knew my friend Leah was heading to Costa Rica in a few days and that was when a brilliant (or reckless) idea came to me. Venmo Leah money to buy a plane ticket so you can’t back out and have to go meet her in Central America.
So I did.
Two days later, I had a one-way to Costa Rica booked. I was to leave two weeks later.
A few days before my flight, my nerves kicked in. I had a vague plan to meet up with Leah and two of her friends who she was traveling with, but I had no actual arrangements. It was just me and my little backpack of bathing suits.
I’ve gotten pretty used to traveling and even solo traveling, so my nerves surprised me. As soon as I landed though, I knew I would be fine. Taking things one step at a time, I found a commuter flight from San Jose to Tambor on the Western peninsula and bought the last available ticket. The tiny rickety plane fit only about 10 of us and was admittedly a little bit scary, but we had a beautiful view of the country and the ocean. The man next to me, Juan Elias, chatted my ear off about his home town of Santa Teresa (which is where I was headed) and told me all about what to do during my stay in Costa Rica. He even offered me a ride from the airport, which I was extremely grateful for, considering the airport was really just a dirt lot bordering on the jungle. Still not sure what I’d have done if it hadn’t been for him. Forty-five minutes of bumpy road later, Juan Elias dropped me off at the Costa Riki apartments where Leah, Lauren, and Sara were waiting.
The first couple of days in Costa Rica were especially exciting and blissful. I was thrilled to be by the sea, surrounded by palm trees and chill people. I was happy to hear handsome tan men speaking Spanish while I stuffed my face with gallo pinto and plantains. I was elated to dance to reggaeton, sip Imperial beer, and just be surrounded by friends in such a beautiful foreign place.
After two nights in Santa Teresa, we voyaged away from the peninsula to Manuel Antonio, a touristy town on the coast that is home to some beautiful beaches and a national park. Although we left at 7 a.m. and were all decently hungover after a fun night spent at a house party with new friends, the six hour trip between towns was an exciting adventure in itself.
Right on schedule a shuttle picked us up from our apartment and drove us the 45 minutes to Montezuma. After scarfing down a quick breakfast, we boarded a boat, which took us across the bay. During the two hour boat ride we were lucky enough to see whales, as well as a stingray that kept showing off by doing flips in the air. It was SO cool. Upon arrival on shore, we boarded another shuttle, only to get stuck in the middle of a strike. Throughout our entire time in Costa Rica, we encountered peaceful government protestors blocking the roads to gain attention. It did delay our trip by a little bit but it was kind of cool to see. We got off the shuttle, grabbed our bags, walked through the tents of people sitting together drinking beer, and met a new shuttle on the other side. When we did finally make it to Manuel Antonio, we were very happy to be done traveling for the day.
During our time here, we stayed at the Selina hostel. I had never heard of this Israeli-owned chain but I have to say I like it. Selina hostels are all over Central and South America, and in addition to being affordable, they all have a beautiful aesthetic and super friendly staff. I understand why some people are not fans of Selina (it’s definitely a corporate chain) but each hostel has a very boutiquey feel and a good atmosphere.
Our days in Manuel Antonio were mellow. We spent a lot of time at the beach and by the pool, reading and swimming and chatting with fellow travelers. I have to say, one thing that I love about staying in hostels over hotels or AirBnb’s is that meeting cool people is easy. I didn’t meet a single person that I didn’t like, and am still in touch with a handful of them.
After two nights, Lauren and Sara left us for the states, and Leah and I had to decide what to do next. After much deliberation and googling, we decided we would stay one last night in Manuel Antonio and then head to Panama City. Leah and I transferred from our private 4-person room to a 10-person dorm for our last night at Selina Manuel Antonio, which was entirely filled up by 4 p.m. It was a Saturday and initially we talked about going to bed early to prepare for a full travel day, but we quickly decided we’d get no sleep anyways so might as well party with our dormies. It turned out to be one of the best nights of the trip, and ended with us making pasta in the closed hostel kitchen (which we bribed the bartender to let us into) and being kicked out by security.
The next day was rainy and dreary but we had a great day at the beach with some of our dorm roommates. So great of a day, in fact, that they asked us to come back to their home in San Jose and stay a night with them. Our response to this invitation was an unwavering yes.
Let me just quickly say that San Jose isn’t a place I’d recommend visiting. It’s not that I would say don’t go there so much as that I’d just personally choose to be by the ocean or near a jungle instead of spending time in Costa Rica’s not-so-pretty urban capital. BUT this one night in San Jose turned out to be quite magical.
First of all, our new friends lived in a building called Casa Mundo, which houses up to 15 people at any given time. Most of the people who live in Casa Mundo are students of some kind, but there doesn’t seem to be any specific requirement to live there. We met residents from all over the world, including Mexico, El Salvador, Germany, France, and the Netherlands. We sat around their picnic table drinking beer while a girl gently strummed a guitar and people chimed in here or there to sing a few notes. Cool air blew through the house, cancelling out the smell of burnt cigarette coming from the ashtray. Around the room conversation ebbed and flowed in English, French, and Spanish. So many people from such different places simply enjoying the simple pleasures of the evening…
I gotta tell you, I couldn’t have planned a better last night in Costa Rica if I’d tried to. It was an evening I’ll never forget. It also reminded me to appreciate just how special the mindset of a traveler is. I kind of doubt that if I’d been in Chicago and a random kind-faced stranger invited me over for a beer I would have said anything other than “please leave me alone.” Since being back in the states, I’ve tried to maintain the openness I had while I was adventuring. I’ve struck up conversations with people I don’t know, I let a guy in a cafe sketch me, I had lunch with an old man at an airport in Orlando…it has been a really powerful realization.
Come back soon to hear about part 2 of the adventure: Panama!