A lone traveler’s adventure in Costa Rica
“Pura Vida”. The literal translation from Spanish to English is “Pure Life”. In Costa Rica it is used as a greeting, a farewell and to express pleasure. I wouldn’t really understand the true meaning and power of these words until I could fully process my adventure in Costa Rica. Five days in a foreign country and alone; how much trouble could I get into?
My trip was all about soul searching. Having never travelled alone for pleasure I was certainly leaving my comfort zone. I am rarely alone. I work 8 hours a day in a treatment center with 50 patients and more than 30 employees. I live with a roommate I actually spend time with. I socialize with friends on average four nights per week. Could I really stand being by myself for five days? Would loneliness, fear, uncertainty and boredom overcome me? I was about to find out.
Day one found me boarding a flight from Fort Lauderdale to the Capitol City of San Jose where I would spend my first night in Costa Rica. I had researched the world famous Hotel Del Rey in the heart of the city and thought this would be the perfect place to begin. In typical Latin fashion the haggling and negotiating began as soon as I walked out of the airport and looked for a taxi. Committing the cardinal sin which I had been warned about in the numerous travel books I read prior to my trip, I hired an unofficial, unregulated, unlicensed “pirata” taxi to drive me the 30 minutes to my hotel. While the ride was fine and went without incident, I was here to experience new things and I honestly felt like somewhat of a rebellious adventurer doing the exact opposite of what I had been told to do.
Upon entering the Del Rey, I was astounded at the numerous women patiently waiting in the lobby for a “date”. Was this a hotel or a brothel? Arriving at 3pm on a Sunday I was amazed at all the gorgeous young ladies, dressed in their “Sunday Best” waiting to meet a generous gentleman. Understand, prostitution in Costa Rica is perfectly legal, accepted and readily available at The Hotel Del Rey….enough said.
The real adventure of my trip would involve travelling three hours out of the city to the small town of La Fortuna de San Carlos, population 1,500 and home to Arenal Volcano, the most active volcano in Costa Rica and according to some, the third most active in the world. Wanting to save time I opted to take a local airline from San Jose to La Fortuna. Nature Air would prove to be an adventure within itself. Arriving at a regional airport on the outskirts of San Jose I boarded a single engine twelve seater plane for the 30 minute flight.
Sitting just behind the pilots I was afforded an amazing view out the front window and a glimpse as to what it takes to keep an airplane in the air. Almost a full flight, it seemed as though I was the only one enjoying the experience based on my fellow passengers’ comments. Ironically, I was also the only passenger travelling alone. One of my favorites was once we landed the lady sitting diagonally from me telling her husband with great conviction, “We’re driving back”. Priceless!
Landing in La Fortuna was certainly primitive at best. A gravel runway carved in between corn fields made for an interesting landing. The only employee at the airport had many responsibilities including ground crew, baggage handler, bartender to the small bar within the airport, airport tax collector and taxi coordinator. The airport was located on private land owned by a local who charged $7.00 per person for landing rights on his farm payable as soon as you walked away from the airplane. You were told you would be charged another $7.00 for take-off rights once it was time to fly back to San Jose. You have to love Latin America!
A 20 minute taxi ride to my hotel would give me the first glimpse of La Fortuna where I would be exploring, living, and looking for this “Pura Vida” thing for the next 3 days. With a lot of agricultural land on the outskirts of town, the center of this small and humble city is concentrated around the only church and community park. Clearly this was a town built and surviving on tourism as the majority of businesses and shops catered to just that. Numerous souvenir shops and tourism companies made up “downtown” complete with a Burger King which appeared ridiculously out of place.
La Fortuna offers accommodations for every desire and budget. A few weeks prior to my trip Will Smith and an entire LA film crew stayed at The Springs Resort while shooting scenes for a movie. A luxurious hotel/resort costing approximately $500.00 per night, these accommodations were certainly not in my budget nor part of the experience I wanted to have. I chose the much more bare-bones location of the Miradas Arenal Hotel. Among the selling points on their website is the fact that their showers have hot water. I knew I was in for some very rustic accommodations and exactly what I wanted this leg of my trip to be all about. Their website boasted of magnificent views of Volcano Arenal and I was not disappointed.
Owned by a family who live on-site in a modern family residence, the hotel consists of bungalows or cottages built throughout this fairly large property that also functions as an agricultural farm. Modest, simple and fairly secluded accommodations made for a very relaxed and low key stay. This would be my “base camp” for the next three days and looking down directly at me while I laid in bed looking out the open terrace was the majestic Arenal Volcano whose peak disappeared into the clouds in the sky above.
My first day in my new surroundings was spent simply in reflection and thought. I couldn’t believe I was actually here. The craziness of the Del Rey and the two charming sisters I had met, hardly gave me any time of solitude but here in La Fortuna the rain forest air, gentle breezes and nature’s tranquility were conducive to introspective reflection. I spent hours sitting on the back terrace looking at the volcano, the trees and listening to the sounds of animals I couldn’t recognize. I thought about the family that lived on this property and wondered if they enjoyed and appreciated the beauty that surrounded them as much as I was currently doing. If you ever doubted the existence of a Higher Power, this place would surely convince you otherwise. As far as the eye could see, everything was just ridiculously perfect, in complete balance and ultimate harmony. There was absolutely no denying the presence and power of God in this spectacular place. This truly was part of a Spiritual Experience and I believe I was starting to understand “Pura Vida”.
To know me, is to know that I have absolutely no problem sleeping. I am famous or perhaps notorious for my daily naps. No emergency can occur between 5 – 7 pm as this is when I am in my deepest slumber. My friends and family know better than to count on me during this two hour period. My naps are part of my daily routine in very much the same way that brushing my teeth and eating a meal is as well. With that said, my first night sleeping in my tiny bungalow in the middle of the rain forest was some of the best sleep I had experienced in years. Amazing what some fresh mountain air can do.
Day two would take me to SkyTrek Adventures for an incredible adventure of Zip Lining through the rain forest. After a 45 minute bus ride through dirt and gravel roads up the mountain, the final ascend to the top would be in an open air gondola where the views of the rain forest, the volcano and Lake Arenal were purely spectacular. Nearly a 25 minute gondola ride to the top, my fellow zip liners and I clearly questioned what we were getting into. In full safety gear including helmet, gloves, and harness we resembled cave explorers more so than zip lining amateurs. Upon reaching the top platform we were given a brief safety lecture and instructed on the proper techniques that we would use on the nearly two mile, eight line trek downward. Several platforms along the way would give us a necessary break and the opportunity to talk to our fellow adventurers about the experience thus far. Again, I was the only lone traveler amongst a group of about 17 yet found the camaraderie we shared unique. In dramatic fashion, you could say that we were all cheating death. We were survivors! At every platform we would discuss the previous zip and marvel at the distance, speed and scenery we had just experienced.
I am not a fan of heights. Frankly, I’m downright scared. I have learned that in reality I am not scared of heights, but rather of falling. The incredible thing about my Zip Lining adventure is that I felt completely relaxed, safe and at ease. At nearly 3,000 feet above sea level you would think that fear would take over but this was exactly why I had come to Costa Rica; for the adventure. With the scenery surrounding me, the only sound being that of the pulley screaming down the zip line, and a complete sense of a spiritual existence, I didn’t want this experience to end. This was indeed the closest I had ever come to flying free like a bird and truly an indescribable feeling. Flying through the air, attached to a single wire above your head in the middle of the Costa Rican Rain Forest is the most freeing thing I have ever done. Without a doubt, this was Pura Vida.
By the time we went through all eight zip lines and reached the bottom I was exhausted. While there had been casual conversation with my other adventurers, I remained mostly to myself trying to absorb the whole experience. I didn’t want to be distracted by idle chatter or frivolous attempts at carrying on conversations. I had a huge desire to take everything in, focus on the experience and allow the feelings that would come naturally to surface without interference. Luckily I was able to do just that and concentrate on nature’s majestic beauty which engulfed me.
Returning to my small bungalow I was drained both physically and emotionally. At approximately 5pm I laid my head down for one of my famous naps not to awaken again until the following morning. This truly had been a once in a lifetime experience.
My third and last full day in La Fortuna would find me white water rafting on the Balsa San Carlos River. I honestly did not expect to enjoy this adventure as much as I did, but then again when you are surrounded with such spectacular scenery, tranquil ambience and amazing peace it is hard not to. There were those exhilarating ra
pids where it seemed we were paddling for our survival, but the spots in which the gentle currents allowed us to gingerly flow down the river where absolutely amazing. While I was on a raft with 5 other people plus our fearless guide, hardly a word was spoken amongst us.
There was too much to absorb, too much to see, too much to take in. Nature’s “voice” consisting of the sounds of the flowing river, the gentle breeze passing through the trees and the animal inhabitants made for some of the most peaceful and serene music I have ever heard.
Halfway through our trip we stopped along the river bank where our guides and the other rafts in our group convened giving us the opportunity to enjoy some dry time on land to rest and partake in some freshly sliced fruit prepared by our hosts. Our guides, native Costa Rican’s were incredibly proud of their country, truly seemed to enjoy their job as river guides and were more than willing to share with us some history and interesting facts about Costa Rica and the picturesque scene that surrounded us. They shared what life was like in their beautiful country; a peaceful, quite and simple existence based on family, faith, hard work, and humility with Pura Vida at its central core! Yes, I learned that to Tican’s enjoying the simple life was of utmost importance. I was fascinated as I listened to their detail of a different way of life. I had travelled to escape from the pressures of my own job and life, to spend some time resting and relaxing, enjoying nature and the simpler things. These men lived it on a daily basis. To a certain degree I was envious of this simpler way of life and momentarily considered staying in Costa Rica and becoming a river guide. Yes, a boy can dream.
Our day ended by stopping at a roadside restaurant for lunch where I enjoyed some of the best home cooked chicken and rice I have ever had. It was the perfect ending to an amazing day out on the river. It was time to head back to the sanctuary and silence of my bungalow where my solitude, would once again allow me to reflect on the day’s activities and the reasons why I had embarked on this trek.
Having purposely travelled light and with minimal necessities my last night was hardly spent packing for my flight back to San Jose. My luggage consisted of a carry-on bag with a shoulder strap, containing mini versions of shampoo and toothpaste supplying me with just enough for five days. My clothing, although exactly what I needed to be in the rain forest, was bare minimum and my only luxuries were my camera, IPod and headphones. I was packed and ready to leave the next morning in under 5 minutes. The last few hours of daylight in my bungalow were spent out on the porch looking up at my incredible volcano making a promise to return again soon. As darkness approached the volcano and the rain forest that surrounded it disappeared into the night leaving me with only the sounds of critters going about their nocturnal activities. The magnitude of stars in the sky were something like I had never seen before and while their light wasn’t significant enough to be bothersome, they clearly made a presence and let me know how truly infinite our universe really is. The temperature cooled, as it normally did during the evening hours, and I was ready to sleep in this tranquil peace of paradise for one last time.
The following morning after eating a home cooked breakfast prepared by my hosts and served in their poolside cabana I was ready to head to the landing strip and my brief flight back to San Jose. I had some extra time before having to leave and used the opportunity to walk around the property I had called home for the past three days. I wanted to absorb this place one last time. I wanted to make mental notes of everything, make sure I missed nothing and spend my last hours in reflection and thought. I had done a lot of that in the last three days and wasn’t ready for it to end. Almost as if he knew I was leaving, the family dog, clearly a mixed breed mutt and usually shy and reclusive, followed me on my walk. I really didn’t want to leave this peace and tranquility, but as they say all good things must come to an end.
I arrived back at the rustic landing strip with 30 minutes prior to departure. Other than the caretaker of the air field who readily collected my $7.00 I was the only other person at the airport thus far. Starting a conversation with the only other soul in this barren airfield, my new friend Miguel offered me some food he had cooked up in the small kitchen behind the airport bar. Rice and black beans, fried plantains and a delicious chicken certainly hit the spot as I waited for the plane to arrive. Growing concerned that I was still the only passenger present I asked my new friend if the flight was on time. He informed me that it was, and that I was the only passenger on this leg of the trip. Yes, I would be flying alone. You can’t make this stuff up. I had my own private plane for my flight back to San Jose. I most definitely felt like a rock star! Miguel informed me that the airline had waited to see if I showed up at the airport before sending the plane from San Jose and it was currently on the way. This was just awesome!
Arriving back in San Jose I took a scenic ride back to my hotel where I would spend my last evening in Costa Rica. Wanting to experience as much as I could, I opted to stay at a different hotel than my previous visit to the Del Rey. La Amistad would be my pit-stop prior to returning to the US the following morning. Certainly different from the Del Rey, this place billed as a “Boutique Hotel” was anything but. Located next to a railroad track the city noise and lack of serenity were certainly a drastic change from my last three days. Having had enough solitude in my mountain bungalow I ventured down to the hotel lobby where I met a fellow traveler from Australia. A research scientist who had recently sold his business for a hefty profit, he had come to Costa Rica to spend a small fortune celebrating his financial success. His research and wealth had been conducted in the area of drug addiction and we spent several hours in fascinating conversation on the subject matter. He would give me the scientific side, while I discussed the psychological and treatment side. This was truly the last thing I expected to do in the middle of a hotel lobby in Costa Rica and found the whole experience somewhat surreal. After several hours of conversation our male instincts kicked in and we took a cab ride to the Del Rey to enjoy a change of scenery and continue with stimulation of another kind.
My trip had finally come to an end and it was time to head home. I was fortunate enough to be the lucky bastard to be sitting next to the only crying infant on the plane headed back to The States, and I have never praised Steve Jobs as much as I did during that flight. Drowning out the screams of the two year old next to me, my IPod became my best friend. Setting my playlist at “Meditation” I lost myself in the sounds coming through my headphones, my thoughts and my tranquility. Had I found what “Pura Vida” really meant? I had met a simple, humble people who exuded happiness and a joy for life. I had been treated not as a guest in a foreign country, but as a long time friend. I was taught that sometimes the simplest things in life are the best. I learned how to disconnect from modern technology and pay attention to the world around me. I realized that spending quiet time with me is actually a reward within itself. I laughed, I learned, I lived…..I indeed experienced Pura Vida.
**To view more images from my trip, click the following link**