Last week I returned from 8 days traveling throughout Costa Rica for the first time. Over the next several days I’m going to share my adventures, the things I saw, what I ate, and where I explored…Starting with Day 1!
Flying to Costa Rica is pretty quick from Austin. Ryan and I boarded our plane to Houston at 7am and flew to Houston then down over Mexico and the Gulf, over beautiful islands over Belize, then right into Juan Santamaria Airport in Alajuela/San Jose at 11:30am. Flying in we passed the landmark I anticipated the most – the Arenal Volcano – sitting above the low clouds and poking out distinctly from the surrounding tropical forests and hills. The rainy season had just begun and the clouds were thick and forming fast but the turbulence were light and we arrived well-rested and excited about the adventure that lay ahead of us.
We passed through the customs lines in 45 minutes and walked out onto the sidewalk and into a wave of humidity and shouting drivers. Our rental car shuttle found us first (I was consciously trying to ignore anyone with a sign or anyone trying to sell me something) and whisked us down the tiny, jam-packed, fully under-construction road to the rental car office. We argued with the salesman about the final price of our SUV but eventually decided to give in to an expensive, undocumented “mandatory” tax and get on the road.
Navigating solely with the aid of a road map I purchased in the states and a touristy cartoon map, we headed out of San Jose toward San Ramon, with the goal of reaching Arenal by 6pm. Within minutes we were our of the bustling city and heading straight into the mountains and the afternoon rains, which we soon learned are an everyday occurrence during the monsoon months.
An hour into the adventure and the tiny roads were getting tinier – suddenly we were zigzagging up and down the sides of cliffs, being passed on the right by whizzing motorcycles and on the left by trucks carrying produce and furniture. One side of the road would drop off a thousand foot cliff of foresty green while the other side squeezed right up under falling rocks and mudslides. Even charter busses were braving these roads, which was terrifying to see but simultaneously comforting that they were probably going to the same place as us. I was determined to continue but too weak to pass up lunch when Ryan whipped the car around and drove back down a hill and stopped at a lonely looking roadside cantina. On the saddle of a ridge, overlooking the foothills of the rain forests while the sun poked out of the multiplying clouds, we sat on the patio of this little slice of heaven and finally got some lunch. And our first of many Imperials.
Platos Typicos, or Typical Plates/Food, was the basis of what we ate every day. For lunch we had our one and only taste of pinto beans (instead of the more common black), with fries (very very tasty fries), grilled chicken breast, fried plantains and a delicious snapper and shrimp ceviche. The food was simple and tasty and just what I needed to ease my way into vacation.
Before we sat down we were still worried that we might be heading in the wrong direction but when Ryan asked our server, in excellent spanish, “which way to–” he immediately finished his sentence with, “La Fortuna! Si!” and we knew we were well on our way.
We drove up and up, Ryan as the Driver and me as the Navigator, following the obscure maps, my gut instinct, and hoping to see any semblance of a road sign that could reassure we’re headed in the right direction. The first day we learned that Costa Rica doesn’t operate on the basis of street names and signs, but instead the Ticos navigate town-by-town. All my pre-trip Google Mapping proved to be totally useless and my map reading skills were put to the test. We did find road signs in major intersections but my favorite were the hand-painted signs advertising mostly eco-tourism projects like gardens and jungle tours. The most surprising thing I saw on the road this first day were the fence posts made of living trees. Or maybe they were just sticks that, when put in the ground and exposed to lots of rain, just grew new branches and plant life?
From the dry flatlands that surround Austin, the very heat and dustiness that we had just come from that morning, the lush green hills of the Valle Central were a perfect cleansing breath – a bath of cool clean life. The drastic shift in scenery was somewhat alarming but also totally necessary in that moment. I opened my arms to the country as I opened up the Spanish phrasebook and tried to remember a few words that I’d used once before. With nothing but our silly car, our maps and guidebooks, a few bags full of camping gear and layers and too many shoes, we had embarked on our first Central American adventure together, and it felt good.