Welcome to the land of Pura Vida! Costa Rica was the first country I ever trekked across in Central America, and I loved every moment of it. The people are rad, the waves are great, and it’s cheap. I have a surfer buddy who moved to Costa Rica the day after we graduated high school. He said he didn’t want to live the kook lifestyle in the U.S. and wanted to live a simpler life. He moved to Jaco, taught at a surf camp for two years, saved his money and then opened up his own beachfront bar in Esterillos Oeste, a small surf town 20 minutes south of Jaco. It took me 13 years to finally take him up on his offer to come visit him, but by this point, he had just sold his bar to his partner and moved back to the states to raise his daughter. Lucky for me, he just happened to be traveling back to Costa Rica for the last leg of my trip. From that point, I could just ride his coattails.
My Costa Rican story starts just like most Costa Rican stories. I caught a flight into the capital of Costa Rica, San Jose. From the moment I walked out the doors to the taxi area, I was quickly mobbed by numerous cabbies all trying to charge me gringo prices for a short trip. However, I organized with my hostel for a cheap airport pickup. Most hostels will offer either free or discounted travel to or from the airport; I suggest this method. After arriving at my hostel, Hostel Pangea, I checked in, drop my bag off on my bunkbed in my four-bed room and then headed back to the lobby where they offered tours throughout Costa Rica. This is a great way of getting around the country. You negotiate where you want to go and what you want to do along the way, and they usually provide lunch as well as food stops along the way. All this while getting a history and cultural lesson!
I managed to book a tour to my first destination in Costa Rica—La Fortuna. La Fortuna is a small city located near the famous Arenal Volcano. The tour I booked included transportation, cultural lesson, a big authentic Costa Rican lunch, entrance into Baldi Hot Springs, and a big 4-star dinner at Baldi, all for about $50. After booking my tour, I went to the rooftop bar that doubles as an internet cafe and provides an awesome view of the city at night. I made some friends at the bar, and we decided to go bar hopping to get a little San Jose culture before we split our separate ways with our tours in the morning. In the morning, I gathered my pack, joined my group, and headed to Baldi Hot Springs.
Baldi Hot Springs is upscale and located at the base of Arenal Volcano. There are 13 separate ascending hot springs that get hotter the higher you go up. I could only make it to level 6 or 7, just long enough for a quick picture. I could never imagine going to the top. The ground level at the resort is a beautiful, naturally heated swim-up bar.
After a relaxing dinner at Baldi, I caught a cab with some new friends to Arenal Backpackers Resort. My new friends and I agreed to check into our rooms, shower, and then like every other backpacker, meet at the hostel bar to socialize. The bar at this hostel closed a little earlier than other s that I’ve been to, so my friends and I went and got a couple bottles of Guaro and Fanta. When we returned to the hostel, there was a big group of Germans that had the same idea. So we drank until the bar closed and then proceeded to indulge in our own spirits. I noticed that we were running low on supplies and the mood was dropping, I looked across the street and saw a full-fledged open-air nightclub that was dead as a doornail. I told everyone in the bar in English, Spanish, and German, “Don’t go anywhere, I have an idea.” So I walked across the street and negotiated with the bartender and bar owner that if they lined up a row of free shots, that I would bring the entire hostel over. I went back to grab the group, we all took shots, the DJ cranked the music, and that place exploded with fun! While the party I started was in full effect, I got invited by a friend of the owner to go hang out with him and some of his friends.
While I was hanging with my new friends and practicing my Spanish, one of the guys said, “You’re a really cool guy. Do you want to come with us to our secret hot springs?” This is one of those moments when I really like traveling alone. If I was to tell a travel partner that I was going to leave with some strangers into the jungle in the middle of the night, they would probably think I was bananas. But I didn’t need to consult anybody, so I quickly agreed. I told them I just wanted to say goodbye to the party that I started. I ran out to the dance floor and told everybody that it was a blast, but I’m off on an adventure. They all got my Facebook info, I grabbed a bottle of Guaro from the owner, and then I was on my way to the unknown.
After we drove for 45 minutes through the jungle and a couple cocktails later, we pulled over to the side of the road in the middle of nowhere. And I mean nowhere. All jungle, no street lights, and only a creepy rendition of a place that looked like the Eagles’ Hotel California. I asked my new friends, “Why have we stopped?” They told me that we had arrived at their secret spot. All three car loads of people jumped out, grabbed their booze, and started handing out torches. We all lit our torches, and then they told me to lead the group down a narrow, slippery, mud trail. Next thing you know, I’m walking through a rainforest with a bottle of booze in one hand, a primitive torch in the other, and I was barefoot in boardshorts. After about a ten minute trek the path opened up to reveal a lagoon and a waterfall. We swam around to the back of the waterfall where there was a cave that went on for about 40 or 50 meters and then reopened into the jungle again. But this time there were 30 to 35 people all with torches staked into the ground and having a blast. This is a lagoon that had the perfect warmth of water and that had a floor of thousands of large, smooth stones. Everyone made small chairs of stones in the water and just hung out and socialized. It was so peaceful that we all drank until we fell asleep.
I woke up the next morning in a lagoon, in a rainforest, and was using a root as a pillow. This was actually one of the best night’s sleep I have ever had. But, as my eyes opened up to the sight of parrots flying over us, it quickly dawned on me that I had another transport bus planned to pick me up from my hostel in less than an hour to take me to another part of the country, Playas del Coco. I quickly woke my friends and we rally raced through the jungle to try to get me back in time. Just as we came pulling up, so did my transport van. I said i just needed to grab my bag and we could be on our way. I moved like lightning, said goodbye to my jungle buddies, and was on my way to the beach. A couple of hours later I was finally standing on a beach in Costa Rica.
The city of Playas del Coco in a perfectly sized beach town for tourists. It’s quaint enough to not take out the feeling of Pura Vida that Costa Rica gives you, but it’s not too small to limit the activities and nightlife. The town has great SCUBA diving, fishing, and is only a little more an hour away from the famous surf spot, Witch’s Rock. I checked into my hostel and then went to arrange my dive trip for the next day. There are two main dive sites in Playas del Coco—Monkey Head Island and Bat Island. I choose the Monkey over the Bat. I spent the rest of the day rotating between eating awesome local cuisine and sleeping in the hammock at the hostel.
The next day, I headed out out in the morning to go on a great dive trip that consisted of clear skies and clear waters full of different aquatic life. After I got back that afternoon, I tried to book another tour/transport bus to Jaco where I was going to meet with me buddy from high school. Funny thing was that there was no cheap buses going to Jaco for two days. So I went to go book another room at the hostel I was staying at, and they said that there was a Danish travel group that had rented out the rest of the hostel for the week. Just as I hear that I’m homeless for the night, I hear thunder and rain. The front desk guy was super cool and said, “Hey, I got buddy who owns a hotel directly on the beach. I’ll call him up and tell him I’m sending you. I’ll also loan you my bike so you don’t have to walk in the rain.” I’m thinking to myself either I just lucked out or this is gonna be some shithole because the owner didn’t want to advertise online. So the front desk guy takes out a Sharpie and draws a map to his buddy’s hotel, about 1.5 miles aways. He handed me his Frankensteined BMX, and off I went.
Five minutes later, I’m riding one-handed in the rain next to passing traffic while it’s raining in the jungle at night time—all while I’m trying to read a map on my hand that was quickly running down my arm. However, another five or ten minutes later and I arrived. It wasn’t the Four Seasons, but it looked pretty great for only $20 a night. The hostel that I was staying at was $25 a night with no air conditioning, and i shared the room with six other people. This new place had a queen-size bed, air conditioning, and I had my own private bathroom. Plus, it was a stone’s throw away from the two main nightclubs in town. It just goes to show that not all the best hotels have to advertise to stay in business. After I paid for two nights and the rain stopped, I headed back to my former hostel to collect my things. I told the guy that I really appreciated the gesture and offered to buy him a couple drinks. He graciously accepted. So after I changed hotels and showered, I met my new friend for a couple beers. We got a buzz at a local popular pub, made some more friends, and then I retired for the night.
The next day consisted purely of beach fútbol (soccer), eating, and lounging in my personal hammock at my hotel. Sometimes you need to take a vacation from your vacation. The night before, my friend from the night before said I should rest up because there was going to be a big party the next day. Around dinner time, I walked to a local beach pub for some grub. While watching fútbol on TV, an American and his three friends asked if the seats next to me where open. I said, “Help yourself.” After a couple shots of Guaro, I came to find out that he moved to Costa Rica to start his own crossfit gym. At that time, crossfit was not yet popular. After a couple more rounds he says, “Come with me and my friends to Lizard Lounge. I’m friends with the owner, and tonight’s a big party.” I said, “Let’s go!” Ten minutes later, I was in the VIP section of one of the two coolest nightclubs in Playas del Coco and salsaing late into the night.
The following day, I hopped on a chicken bus and headed to Jaco to meet my buddy. I had only been in town 15 minutes before he called. I told him that I was looking for a hostel, and he said,”Screw that! I’ve got everything taken care of from here!”
It is not a bad thing to have someone in a foreign country take you around and alleviate the guesswork and confusion. Five minutes later, my homie Thomas comes flying around the corner and picks me up so we can stay at his buddy’s place. His buddy was a traveling tattoo artist who lived to surf. In his house, I counted 36 surfboards of all shapes and sizes for every type of wave.
That night, we went bar hopping at every surf bar between Esterillos and Jaco. Every single place we went to the whole bar came to a stand still, and everyone would welcome Thomas back. I was definitely riding his coattails. So while the band stopped to bullshit with my buddy, I decided to grab a beer. While at the bar I look over at this attractive girl who was straddling some guy. I didn’t think anything of it, but then I looked back and she was staring at me. I went back to my beer and then looked over again at her staring at me. I politely said, “What’s up?” She said, “I know you!” I said, “There’s no way in hell you know me.” She insisted twice more that she did. So I replied, “OK, I’ll bite. Where do you know me from?” And she exclaims, “You’re that guy that threw that kickass party at that nightclub in Arenal about a week ago!” I almost dropped my beer; I was so in shock. I told her she was welcome for the fiesta, and then Thomas and I went home to crash because we were having an early morning surf session.
The next morning, we loaded a surf van that looks like it came straight out of a Sublime music video and headed down the beach to see where the waves were breaking the best. After picking the right surf spot, we paddled out. After about 20 minutes of clean glassy breaks, I caught one of the best rides of my life. I was pumping this wave that seemed to go on forever, and to my left side was a beautiful jungle-covered mountain that was just starting to see daybreak creep over its top. It was one of the most serene moments of my life. I quickly paddled in so I could crack open some coconuts to replenish my electrolytes and then surf for a couple more hours. The remainder of the day consisted of gorging on food and chillaxing before we went to the casino that night. That night, I earned a quarter of my trip money back in winnings at the blackjack table. I know to walk away when I’m ahead. We had a couple more Cuba Libres and then headed back to the house because my flight was the next day. On my last morning, we ate a lot of food for little money (again) and then headed back to San Jose. When we got to the airport, I told my friends, “Pura Vida,” threw around some high-fives and hugs, and then was headed back to Los Estados Unidos.