I disappeared for a little bit and that's because I was on vacation in Costa Rica! I went with two dear friends that I've grown up with to celebrate this year being the year we all turn 30. It was a very beautiful and refreshing vacation, and such a fun way to celebrate our birthdays. It feels so scary how fast time flies by, and how fast 30 comes (I'll officially turn 30 in September), but all of that seems more manageable when surrounded by friends who are on the same journey as you.
This was my first time traveling to Central America. In the past I've traveled mostly around Europe and once went to China. I really am in love with Costa Rica now though, and I would love to go back. It felt so wonderful to be surrounded by so much nature. From what we saw, Costa Rica is super environmentally-conscious. I loved being in a place that appreciates nature and understands how important it is to protect it. Random tidbit, in most places in Costa Rica, you aren't supposed to flush toilet paper down the toilet. It goes in the waste basket instead because the septic systems are so eco-friendly that they can't handle it. It's a little weird at first, but was easier to get used to than I expected. Noticing things like this in other parts of the world makes me feel a little spoiled when I think of how we live at home. It seems like most things in our country are based on convenience, not necessarily whether it is good for the environment or not.
I think my favorite part of our trip were all of the animals. We were actually really lucky with how many different kinds we saw! We saw three types of monkeys (howler, spider, white-faced), lots of iguanas and lizards, a caiman, turtles, birds, macaws, frogs, two types of sloths and toucans. We also heard a group of howler monkeys a few times (the video below is from our early morning boat ride in Tortuguero), which is just so spooky and cool I think.
After a few days there it started feeling normal to see monkeys in trees and big iguanas walking around. It was like how we see squirrels and chipmunks here.
Our trip was 10 days long, and we flew into Liberia airport from Syracuse. It was cheaper and easier to fly there, and then once we arrived we took a bus to San Jose for one night. The first main stop on our trip was Tortuguero, but because it's a secluded town surrounded by canals, you can only get to it by boat or plane. Most of the hotels there are booked as a package that includes transportation from San Jose, so that's why we headed there on our very first night after flying in. The next morning, we met our tour guide, Ana Maria, in San Jose on a big charter bus that took us and a few other people to as close as we could get to Tortuguero by roads. That was about a 3 or 4 hour journey. It dropped us off at a dock called La Pavona, which seemed to be the main crossroads for this type of journey. We then boarded a boat that took us through the windy canals to Tortuguero, which was another hour or so trip.
Tortuguero is located on the Caribbean side, in the upper right near Nicaragua. It felt super tropical there. It was SO hot and humid too. Like the most humid I've ever felt. We almost immediately jumped in the pool after we arrived, and then I don't think my hair dried the entire time we were there. The hotel didn't have air conditioning because it would distract from hearing all of the amazing jungle sounds surrounding you. I totally get that and that part was nice. The feeling of being super sweaty, even immediately after taking a cold shower or while sleeping was uncomfortable though, but that's because I'm used to fairly cool and mild weather in Upstate NY. My blood's not used to too much heat! It was such a fascinating place to be though, so it was okay for it to be so dang hot. The rooms at Mawamba Lodge were little cabins with screens for windows (because there is no way you could survive without constant airflow), right next to the beach. You really felt immersed in the jungle there.
Tortuguero was where we saw most of the animals. We went on two safari boat rides through the jungle (one was at 5:30 in the morning!), and saw lots of monkeys and birds in the trees. Also while in Tortuguero, we saw many flocks of macaws flying overhead. That was so amazing to see. At first, when I heard loud birds flying, my first reaction was to look up and see geese flying just like at home. But in Costa Rica, you see macaws. How cool?! We also saw a couple basilisk lizards, also known as the Jesus Christ lizard because they can run on water. Our guide said we were lucky to see a couple of those, let alone one! We also saw a caiman, some turtles, some small toucans in the trees, and two two-toed sloths!
We got to practice some Spanish on this trip, which I didn't expect (or at least believe I would be able to do). I studied Spanish for 5 years in high school, and then about a year in college. After that, I didn't really have many chances to practice, and eventually I moved to Germany where German became the main language I was focusing on. When I first arrived in Germany though, lots of Spanish words came out by accident. When my brain needed to find the foreign word, it would automatically switch to Spanish first. Eventually, I learned more German and I assumed it was replacing most of the Spanish I knew. I was really surprised by how much came back when we were in Costa Rica. I think it's because we had such a solid education in learning vocabulary and grammar. In high school, almost all of our Spanish classes were taught entirely in Spanish, and we were only allowed to speak and write in Spanish as well. By the end, we were at a really good conversational level I think. It must be still floating around in my brain, which makes me happy. A few German words came out by accident while we were in Costa Rica while my brain was adjusting, but a lot more Spanish came back to me. I could definitely feel that I was rusty, but the more we practiced, the more that came back. It's hard to continue practicing at home when there isn't a need for it right around me, but I would really like to try. It feels like a good life skill to work at.
After that, the next place we visited was La Fortuna/Arenal Volcano. We stayed in a lovely hotel called Casa Luna. It was fancier than the Tortuguero cabins, and we felt particularly grateful for the air conditioning. There was a spa at the hotel, which we visited twice. The first night, I got a massage, and it's probably the best massage I might ever have because of the atmosphere. The spa is open air with a roof, so the room is facing the forest, and because it was already dark by my appointment time, the room was dimly lit with candles and the nighttime insects and animals sounds filled the room. It was kind of like what other spas try to recreate with sound machines, only everything here was authentic. I went back to get a chocolate facial another night because it was such a wonderful experience.
While in Arenal, we spent a day at Tabacón Hot Springs Spa, which was so luxurious and relaxing. There is a hot river that runs off from the volcano, and Tabacón is a spa that was built right on it. There are little hot springs throughout the resort that you can sit in, and everything is very lush and green around you. The water is pretty hot in certain parts, but it was relaxing. There was also a cute pool bar at the bottom of the resort that you could swim up to. There were even stools right in the water so you could sit and relax without actually getting out. I felt like a mermaid.
You could also see the volcano from most places at the spa. It was so big and beautiful.
The next day, we booked a full day of activities that started with a morning safari float tour down a river. We saw a opossum, another Jesus Christ Lizard, and two tayras. Our guide was so friendly and enthusiastic. Almost everyone we met on this trip was extremely kind and welcoming. It possibly helped that we were always willing to speak as much as possible in Spanish when we could (not demanding English seems to help in most foreign places actually), but everyone seemed so friendly and open anyways.
After the safari float, we stopped at a local farm for some homemade snacks and coffee from a family that our tour guide knew. That was one of my favorite things I ate on the whole trip because it was somebody's home cooking. We had little yuca cakes, fried plantains, and fresh farmer's cheese. There was a very sweet dog hanging around too. We saw a ton of dogs while in Costa Rica in general. Some are stray, but most are not, although they all run around freely. They seem very well-behaved for not running off and away from their owners.
We then went to La Fortuna Waterfall, which was beautiful but a little crowded with tourists, followed by a guided hike near the volcano and through the jungle. We had an amazing view during the volcano hike. You could see Nicaragua in the distance in one direction, and Monteverde in the other direction. We were on El Silencio Trail, and it was very silent. It was actually weird at first because we were used to hearing so many insects and animals. It was a beautiful silence though because it was so peaceful. We then hiked through the jungle, and shortly after it began to rain. We packed ponchos though, and surprisingly this was the first time we had to use them on the trip. We were actually visiting Costa Rica during its rainy season, which saved a lot of money and avoided many crowds, but it was still pretty nice the entire trip. We had some rain, but it wasn't even as much as we get here in Upstate NY. Maybe we got lucky. Anyways, the jungle hike was pretty cool. It was neat to be hiking through the rain forest in the rain (This poncho was super light and kept me and all of my belongings dry the whole time). At the end of the hike, we saw a three-toed sloth sleeping in a tree, and two toucans! Both were really close to us. It was incredibly exciting to see them. Our guide had a spotting scope, so he put my camera up to the lens to get better pictures.
The next day we took a taxi boat and then a shuttle to Monteverde. Each of the places we visited on this trip felt like a different type of climate. Tortuguero was tropical, hot and humid, Arenal was rainy and lush, Monteverde was misty and cooler, and Playa Hermosa was dry and hot. Monteverde and Tortuguero are at a tie for my favorite places we saw. Tortuguero was full of exotic, tropical things, and Monteverde was this charming little town in the cloud forest up high in steep, green mountains. I could easily go back to Costa Rica and spend my entire time in Monteverde and be content. The town is quaint and friendly, and there are many things to do in nature all around.
I LOVED our hotel in Monteverde. We stayed at Cala Lodge, which is one of the most idyllic places I've ever stayed at I think. It was tucked away in the cloud forest, not too far away from town but enough so that all you could hear were the sounds of the forest. On our second night there, we heard howler monkeys again, and the happiest sounding chirping bird. Our hotel was a little suite, with a separate bedroom, a kitchen, and a lovely little balcony where you could watch the mist roll by. I want to go back and hang out there for weeks at a time.
The first afternoon in Monteverde, we went to a local coffee plantation to go on a tour and learn about coffee, chocolate and sugar cane production. It was super interesting, mostly because I love coffee, chocolate and sugar! Random fact- did you know that light roast coffee has more caffeine compared to dark roast? I did not know that. I assumed the opposite actually, but it's because the beans lose caffeine the longer they are roasted. Fascinating! That part of the tour smelled delicious by the way.
The next part was about cacao and chocolate production. We got to taste freshly ground cacao that our guide mixed with cane sugar and vanilla extract. It tasted soo good. Next, we learned about sugar cane and as a team got to push a stalk through a grinder machine to press out the juice, which we then tasted freshly squeezed. It was very sweet and also delicious. Apparently it's a popular street food type of drink, and is often referred to as Agua de Sapo, which literally translates to toad juice.
Our next day in Monteverde was full of adventure at Selvatura Park, where we went zip lining through the cloud forest and walked on suspension bridges through the treetops. The zip lining was exhilarating. I rented a helmet camera to record the whole thing, which you can see below. There were 13 zip lines throughout the park, so it took about 2 hours to get through. Some went through trees, and others went way up high over the tops of the forest through the misty clouds. I also decided to try the Tarzan Swing, which is optional, but it's where you jump off a high platform and swing out into the trees. That was definitely an adrenaline rush :)
Later that night, we went on a night hike through the nearby park, Children's Eternal Forest. We got up close and personal with a black and orange tarantula. Our guide said she was friendly, but I didn't need to get too close to believe him. We also saw a type of bioluminescent beetle that glows. It's a little different from fireflies that we know because instead of flashing, it's continuously glowing so it looks like a tiny little lantern floating in the night.
Our tour ended up getting cut short because a bad storm started up rather quickly. There were quite a lot of storms, mostly in the afternoons and evenings while we were in Costa Rica. They didn't last too long, but there was a lot of lightning and booming thunder. I did notice that there wasn't much wind with the storms, which is very different from here. They just had heavy rain. Most locals were not at all bothered by it, probably because it's normal. Our guide on this tour though was actually a little nervous about us being in the forest with that bad of lightning, so he hurried us out pretty quickly. Even though it did get cut short, I thought it was still a very special experience to walk through the rain forest at night and see creepy little animals while a spooky storm was happening in the background. It all fit the mood perfectly :).
The next and last place we visited on our trip was Playa Hermosa Guancaste. It's a beach/small town on the northern Pacific side (we did quite a big loop on our trip) that was near Liberia airport, which we would be flying out of in a few days. It's not a very crowded place because it's fairly small, but I really love places like that. I also really liked that we picked a beach town to end our trip because it was a nice way to wind down from all the exciting adventures we had. Our hotel we stayed at was Bosque del Mar.
We saw a lot of animals at this place too. There was even a family of howler monkeys that hung around the hotel daily. We went swimming in the ocean the first day we were there. The water was so warm and soothing. We went swimming the next day too, but unfortunately got stung a little by jellyfish. We later found out that because it was a little windy that day, jellyfish come in closer. We later also noticed that no locals were in the water when we were that morning (should have picked up on that!), but later in the afternoon it seemed to be okay again. Maybe it's a time of day thing too, I'm not sure.
While there, I tried some pineapple sprinkled with salt. Have you ever tasted that combination before? Oh my goodness. The pineapple becomes intensely sweeter. It was delicious. My mouth is watering just thinking about it.
We booked our trip through a travel agency called Anywhere, which I had never heard of before we started planning our trip, and it was fantastic. I highly recommend booking a trip with them. As soon as I got home, I started looking into their other destinations to dream about where I'd like to visit next. Typically when I travel, I piece together the itineraries myself and book all of the transportation and lodging separately. It's always felt like the cheapest way to do things, especially because I love to plan trips and don't mind spending time reading lots of reviews to find the right options. I was a little weary of using a travel agency for this trip, but Anywhere made everything so simple. We basically reached out to an agent with some ideas for the type of trip we wanted to have, the places we were thinking of visiting, how many days we could go, and how much money we wanted to spend. They came back with an itinerary that we could edit as many times as necessary (which we definitely did a lot) until it was exactly what we wanted. We added a bunch of tours for each place we visited as well. We probably got a little too excited with that feature and could have done with a few less to have more days to relax, but I still wouldn't go back and change what we did at all. The activities were SO fun and so memorable.
One thing about our trip I kept noticing and loving was that our tour guides were extremely knowledgeable and enthusiastic. They knew so much about plants, animals, the environment, and were happy to answer any questions we had. They seemed excited about the subjects way beyond just giving a tour. In Tortuguero, our guide was a biologist by day, and a guide at the hotel on the side. It was so fascinating to hear everything she shared during our tours. I felt like a sponge and was so hungry to learn everything I could while there. Our local guide during the Arenal/Jungle Hike was so knowledgable too. His name was William, and he said he's been giving tours for 25 years or so. Apparently Lonely Planet shadowed him for awhile while they were writing a Costa Rica guidebook, and he was a guide for Will Smith and his family while they visited and scouted out a filming location for his After Earth movie.
For me, traveling resets a lot of things in my body. My problems and fears feel smaller, things that matter become clearer, and I feel more authentic to myself again. Traveling makes my heart feel full, like it's a medicine that has healed my body. I feel overwhelmed by how much I want to keep traveling for the rest of my life. Life is so short, but the world is so big!
Do you experience similar feelings when you travel?
I had an incredible time in Costa Rica and I hope to go back someday. The vibrant colors, the nature, the delicious food, and the people all made it unique and fascinating. The plants and flowers especially were gorgeous and sometimes bizarre looking! It kind of made me feel like I was in Jumanji :) I can't wait to incorporate these into my illustration work!