Polar Vortex Provides Unexpected Surprise for Winter Exchange

“Yo brah, is your flight canceled?” read the text message from my cousin Tuesday morning.  Like any typical teenager, most of what they say is either false, or intentionally false just to see your reaction.  I wasn’t buying. Planes can fly at -50 degrees, so take off at -30 on polar vortex Wednesday shouldn’t be an issue. Besides, we’d just dodged yesterday’s snow day which would have been a bigger concern.  But then he sent me the image from the airline’s website – CANCELLED. Upon reading that, my heart skipped a beat and I may have blacked out for a second.

It’s one thing to get your flight cancelled, but when you are responsible for a group of 80 Costa Rican high school exchange students, now stranded indefinitely in literally the coldest place on earth, you might need an ambulance upon receiving news like this.  This was an event so uprooting that I would later refer to things as before the cancellation and after the cancellation. This exchange was already one for the record books. With so many weather days I was basically making a new itinerary every single day. I was rolling with the punches, snow day here, cold day there, kind of like the Avengers going against Thanos.  You dealt with things as long as the SNAP didn’t happen, until it did.

winter skiers ready
Before the cancellation

I put the phone down, cleared my head, and assessed the situation.  Two of my six schools had already said good-bye to their host families as they were planning on going to the airport after concluding the day’s activities.  I was an hour and a half away from home visiting a high school and I had over half the group at a museum. I needed a command center ASAP and the best I could do was pace the high school hallway and leverage my phone for every last multi-tasking capability it had in order to keep the fire at bay.

First step, get dad on the phone with airline to find out rebooking options while I figure out a place for everyone to live.  I always tell host families that they are what makes the exchange magical and with that in mind I rubbed my magic genie bottle and asked for my first wish.  Luckily, this wish was a softball as families were more than willing to keep them, especially the ones that had just said goodbye. They had barely dried their tears of sorrow when tears of happiness would arrive with the surprise return of their exchange student.  Let’s just say you’d never get that reaction from a Holiday Inn.

Having resolved housing for the time being, I checked in with my dad on rebooking status.  Not. Good. At. All. Turns out, I needed to wait two weeks before I could get all 80 rebooked on the same flight.  With that news I left the high school and departed on the long, cold, windy drive back home through rural Wisconsin. The wind blew the snow across the fields, making it look like an arctic desert.  It was barren, and besides the passing vehicle, there were no signs of human or animal activity. When this story gets made into a movie this drive will have a montage reflecting back on all the fond memories of the exchange before the cancellation.  The music would be set to a ballad, probably from Adele, and the actor playing me will probably be crying, or at least have that glazed over look on their face like they are trying to come to terms with a recent death.

By the time I got home the pity party was over and it was time to get to work.  Armed with a thermos of coffee, I got on the phone with the airline only to promptly get shot down.  No flights with any reasonable space for at least a week(!). After talking up and down the chain of command and pleading my case I was essentially cut loose.  My only option was to take a fraction of a refund and rebook on different airlines. It was too late at night to begin that search and at that moment I looked my wife in the eye and told her surely this is just a bad dream and I will wake up soon.  This can’t be really happening, can it? It was like I was waiting for the director to yell “cut!” or Ashton Kutcher to appear and tell me I’d been punked.

I wanted to fall asleep and just dream for days.  Find some alternate universe and just stay there, ala “Inception”.  Even if I wanted to sleep it was darn near impossible with all the adrenaline surging through me.  I don’t think I slept more than 30 minutes the whole night.

The next day I managed to sneak 15 out on a later flight and slowly began rebooking the rest.  The weather may have been frigid but the phone lines we’re boiling. At one point I had a Skype call going with my trip coordinator, a cell phone connected to the airline and borrowing a second cell phone to take individual inquiries.  First I’d find the flight, check space/price, then call my trip coordinator to see who would take those spaces, then forward all the info to the airline and then work incessantly to convince the Costa Rican parents to agree to the change.

at work
After the cancellation

Convincing was not as simple as it sounds.  With 80 sets of parents it was a challenge to find consensus, with some anxious to get their children out quick as the weather could get even worse, all the way to the other extreme where they wanted to wait longer for the weather to pass.  The literal icing on the cake was that the teacher-chaperones had to be back to start school Monday and some even had meetings Friday. I felt like I was standing in the middle of a circle of people and they were all chucking snowballs at me to get my attention and listen to them.

That was Wednesday.  What followed then were some of the most anxious days of my life.  Now, that I had everything reconfigured I was on edge waiting for the next issue to pop up.  It didn’t take long. When going to verify the bus shuttle schedule to Chicago I was met with a notice that they wouldn’t be sending out buses that night due to the cold.  The last bus would depart in… 30 minutes. I was at least 20 minutes away and had no idea if the students would make it in time. I frantically sent out text after text, call after call all the while en route to the bus stop.  I was rehearsing how I would sweet talk the driver into waiting a bit, or preparing a chase team to track the bus to the next stop. Nobody could miss this bus.  In a sign that the universe wasn’t against me, everyone managed to make it in time.  That was the win I needed. If you’re keeping track, that was my second wish granted.

Fast forward through overnight bus rides, and waiting at airports all the way to Sunday at 10:45pm.  At that moment, I exited the airport in Costa Rica as traveler number 81 and let out such a big sigh I think it registered on the Richter scale.  There’s no greater relief finishing an exchange and returning everyone’s children back to them. On this occasion it couldn’t have been truer.

After an experience like this, some people might swear off doing that ever again.  However, if you ask me, I’d go through it all over again. The experience is too great and all the problems to solve only makes you stronger, right?  Plus, having gone through it once, I’ll be much more prepared for the next polar vortex.  And besides that, I still have one wish left 😉

 

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Capital City Tour not Worth Your Time Unless You Have the Time

Did you ever think you could spend 2.5 hours on a walking tour that only covers a few blocks?   Of all the places in Costa Rica, the capital city of San José is the last place I’d imagine doing this.

If you look up things to do in Costa Rica, touring San José is probably outside the top 30.  A lot of visitors don’t realize that in comparison to other Latin American capitals, this one really doesn’t have anything that competes with alternate activities such as the beaches or the rainforests.  Or so I thought.

I dread San José.  Traffic, pollution, crime etc. Everything that happens there is so exhausting.  When I go, it’s usually for paperwork, which just involves more standing around, waiting in line, and trying not to get sunburned or rained on.  I had been on tours of San José before, however when I heard about a free walking tour with round trip transportation from San Ramon I decided to give it a try.  At least I’d learn something while walking and standing around in San José.

SJO vive.  Translation: San José lives.  That is the slogan designed to bring the city back to life.  I have no doubt it “lives”, however I’m sure there are many ways to interpret that.  They could be referring to a bar/restaurant district, a theater and arts area, or maybe the rat and cockroach population?San José slogan

After enduring the traffic we arrived outside the national theater, where the tour would begin.  The national theater I think exists as merely a meet up point. Without addresses, people rely on landmarks to get around and this building sure sticks out.  Whether due to its elegance or the enormity of pigeon droppings, people know the place. It has never been a big conversation starter on any tours I’d been on and my eyes glazed over for most of this explanation, except when the guide told us if we go inside to the cafeteria, order something and then ask to use the bathroom, they’ll let you into the theater as that is the only way to access the bathrooms!

From there we walked across the street to “Chinatown”.  The only thing chinese about the area was an oriental arch to mark the entrance of the plaza.  There we’d see a Catholic church, a statue of John Lennon, and our guide told us he would give $50 to anyone who saw a chinese person.  The only thing newsworthy about this plaza was apparently when they put it in they eliminated a city street which sparked criticism as it added further to the city’s congestion issues.

It was interesting to hear the guide put the focus on the oddities, or failures of the city,

weird park sculpture
This isn’t odd?

which might give more context to why it’s not touristy.  We went outside the National Assembly building where lawmakers allowed graffiti artists to paint the walls, but then got upset when they drew a former president to look like a monkey.  We went into an enclosed, glass dome with a stone sphere in the middle that had some sort of healing or meditation purpose, but I couldn’t hear the whole explanation as the smell of urine forced me to exit early.  We visited a Jade museum that is normally $18 to get in, however they have one free exhibition room which of course is where we went and got plenty of information.

Granted, this was a free, gratuity only tour so I didn’t have huge expectations, however I was more drawn to these outlier stories than the straight up, traditional tours I’d gone on in the past.

At the end of the tour I was shocked that we hadn’t gone into any museums or visited any markets, but I still felt like I got a lot of value out of it.  To walk so little in so much time says a lot about the guide, as there isn’t a lot to work with. I remember doing a night tour of the rainforest and the guide took us about 200 feet in two hours.  That was impressive, however I thought this guide got even more creative.

Still, unless you are spending more than a week in Costa Rica, don’t prioritize the city.  As much fun as it is to observe the endangered bicycle rider using the bike lane you’re still better off at the beach or rainforest.

angel wing girl
San José gives you wings!

Exchange Brings Novelty, Nostalgia to Thanksgiving

It was darnn chilly getting off that bus. Chillier than I expected or remembered for this time of year.  

Thankfully, my parents were waiting for me and had brought a winter jacket for me, knowing I wouldn’t fully acclimate for a few days.

I don’t normally come home for extended periods in November, however this time I’d brought an exchange group of high school students with me from Costa Rica. They’d stay with local families, visit schools and experience Wisconsin for a few weeks.

If I was having problems, these kids had to be hopeless. It’s one thing to come from Costa Rica, but their region brings out the extremes.  

Just for them to get to the airport is nearly six hours and they can almost get to Panama City faster. Only a few miles from the border with Panama, this region is low lying, hot, humid, and full of rainforests, farms, and minimal population.  

They were going to get a shock to their system from more than just the weather. They were in for experiences all across the board. And so was I.

After spending the first night with their host families, I was interested to hear their reactions.

There was the usual, “Wow, the family is so friendly.” or “The dog is so funny.” and of course the “IT’S SO COLD,” but there is always something that uniquely draws their attention. The most interesting comments I heard referenced having a lower-door freezer and the astounding dishwasher.

Freezers do exist in Costa Rica, but they are almost always upper door freezers, whereas unless you are upper-upper class, or an expatriate, a dishwasher is a complete luxury. They were amazed at its simplicity and the fact that you “don’t even get your hands wet.”

I silently chuckled to myself hearing those comments as I had never really noticed those differences before.  I then overheard one student saying he had been cold at night. I asked him if he had enough blankets and he said he wasn’t given any.  Hmm, that couldn’t be right.

cheesehead model
On Wisconsin!

I decided to follow up with the family, and they were just as puzzled. They said the bed had various sheets and blankets all tucked in.

All tucked in. All tucked in. That was it. The student had never thought to untuck the comforter and sleep under it.

After I thought about it, it made complete sense.

I know where I live in Costa Rica, I rarely need more than a light sheet to cover up with at night, and that is mostly to keep the mosquitoes off. I also know that bedrooms are more focal points of homes in Costa Rica.  

It’s not uncommon to walk into a home and have a bedroom right off the entrance. Because of this they will put comforters on the bed to dress it up and sleep on top of it with a light sheet.  

That’s exactly what happened and is why the student never bothered to untuck the bed!

Don’t get me wrong, these students were modern.  This was not like the Amish coming to the big city.

I’m sure they dominated their hosts in Snapchats per capita and could overwhelm absolutely anyone at the mall, especially since they happened to be in town for Black Friday.

In addition to that utterly American event, this group also got to experience Thanksgiving, a holiday that has no Costa Rican equivalent.

Due to school schedules, we had never been able to exchange during a holiday, and this is what families (and I) enjoyed the most. Having those extra days off really gave them a chance to get to know their student and was highly emphasized in their feedback.  

one inch snowman
Juuust enough snow…

The opportunity to sleep in, take in sporting events and visit family was an intended consequence families took full advantage of. They shared tons of Thanksgiving photos/videos, Badger football/hockey games, cheesehead modeling and the world’s largest snowman you can make with an inch of snow.

It was also a bit of a homecoming for me.  Thanks to the exchange students and their host families, I was excited to experience Thanksgiving as well.

I honestly can’t remember the last time I was home for Thanksgiving (probably 10+ years), and there were more than a few relatives surprised to see me.  I’m also rarely home for Christmas, so when I do visit, it’s typically not when people get together.

On my mom’s side, we were only missing my sister and cousin, which is probably the closest we’ve gotten in a long time to having everyone together. It’s no small feat when we span states, countries, and continents apart.

In all, I spent almost a month at home, which really only felt like two weeks. I could never quite shake the cold, I made a half-hearted attempt at raking leaves (if there is snow on the ground, that’s just embarrassing) and we narrowly missed a major snowstorm getting out of Chicago.  

Maybe November isn’t what it used to be, or maybe I’ve forgotten what it’s like, but hearing the stories from the families and exchange students brought a lot of novelty to the visit and provoked a lot of nostalgia.  

There might not be as much nostalgia for my next visit in late January, but there is already a winter jacket in my suitcase, and I look forward to the exchange students providing the novelty.   

-Dustin

Dustin is the director and founder of Costa Rica Frika.  Originally from Southern Wisconsin, he specializes in providing immersion experiences to/from Costa Rica via exchanges, volunteering and interning.

Strike Proves It’s not Always Sunny in Paradise

The average visitor books their vacation to Costa Rica and can’t wait to visit the happiest place on earth, explore the rainforest and relax on the beach.

The tourism board will continually pitch that image of Costa Rica, but if you’ve been in the country the last month, you’d notice a sharp departure from that narrative.

Public schools have been closed, road blockades happen daily, massive protests occur in the capital, gas shortages affect parts of the country and hospitals are canceling appointments and surgeries. These are just some of the things that have plagued the country the last month – and they’re things the tourism board would just assume not project internationally.

Many governments struggle with debt, and Costa Rica is no exception. To deal with this they are attempting to fast-track a fiscal combo package, but it shifts the load to the working class and basically exempts big business and the super wealthy from any of the cuts.

The plan is so unpopular that a national strike was declared, disrupting many functions of the country. The resistance is quite impressive, and while I don’t agree with everything on the strikers’ agenda, I support them.

What drives me crazy is I see a path to a solution, but there has been a bunch of inaction. And what I’m most disappointed in is our recently elected president, Carlos Alvarado. To me, he is the negotiator, the mediator who should unite the country to agree on a reform that works for everyone.

I’ve looked through the combo and the striker’s proposals, and they were written to be negotiated and compromised on, but the president does not want to engage. Even when they do negotiate, he doesn’t even go to the meetings.

You’d think, he’d be trying to mend things. But he seems to be a coward, hiding behind all his big-business mega-donor buddies and just waiting for the protesters to tire. He even publicly said he was intentionally ignoring the strikers.

What he doesn’t seem to realize is the longer this strike goes, the more blame will get shifted to him.

Maybe his kids go to private school, maybe he attends private hospitals and clinics, maybe he only travels by helicopter. Maybe none of this affects him directly. But what about the generation that might not graduate this December, the people that are on the public system and the road blocks?

It doesn’t seem like he cares.

He was at an event recently where a young girl presented and was politely critical of the fiscal combo. He spoke after her, and the best he could do was say he’s thinking about the Costa Rica 30 years from now and that is why he is carrying out this reform.

But 30 years from now won’t matter if you can’t get today right.

The older I get, the more I can’t help but feel deflated as similar battles go on in the vast majority of countries where the rich try to stick it to the rest and the rest fight for equality.  Unfortunately, it looks like there will be very little compromise and the government will stick it to the common folk.

What’s even sadder is most economists believe this reform will not fix the deficit crisis. Not to oversimplify the problem, but the deficit is running around 8 percent and corruption and tax evasion are an estimated 8 percent of GDP. That’s not touched on much in the combo though.

Obviously, the situation is a lot more complex than what I can explained here, but the point is Costa Rica is not the Central American Switzerland many people think it is.

The international news media still seems to be sugarcoating it the most part – my dad called me after hearing about it and thought the protest was just for a day – but I think things will get worse yet before better.

I don’t think we’ll hit Venezuela or Nicaragua proportions, but we could end up in a Greece-like austerity situation if the president doesn’t govern better than this. He was the Costa Rican “Hillary Clinton” equivalent in the last election that we went for, however, if this keeps up next time we might end up rolling the dice with a “Trump” candidate.

 

Keep Calm and Ride on: The Bus in Rural Costa Rica

I don’t know why I was so panicky.  I had done this many times before with the composure of a tight rope walker over a 50 story building.  The volunteer traveling with me couldn’t be bothered one bit as buses pulled in and out of the station, she kept on reading quietly without a worry in the world.  I was trying to portray the same, but for some reason something was shaking inside me.

I knew we had to get on a bus soon.  Our ticket said 11:50am but it was already 12:15pm.  I wasn’t people at bus stationbothered by that, as we were waiting well before then and anything in writing almost never translates to reality, especially in rural Costa Rica.  This was a throwback trip for me, to my first voyages into Costa Rica as a baby faced recent college grad looking for his place.  Back then, time seemed to go slower and curiosity trumped speed.  

Before I had a vehicle, the bus and my feet were my modes of transportation.  It didn’t bother me one bit if I had to wake up at 5am to take a 2 hour bus out into the countryside, get off at some random point along the road and then walk into the forest another hour before reaching my destination.  It was a cheap way to take an adventure and the cultural insights are so much more interesting when traveling via public transportation.

If you spend anytime at a bus terminal, within minutes you begin to pick up on the culture.  You notice the lady that is there everyday selling newspapers at the entrance, how she greets pretty much anyone that walks by.  She doesn’t greet strangers because nobody is a stranger to her.  She knows the times and routes and which people should be at the terminal at which times to get their bus.

You feel the jolly demeanor coming from the bus drivers as they collect your tickets and store your luggage.  They notice that you are not from around here and pay special attention to make sure your destination is one actually serviced by their route as anything written at a bus station can and is often orally overruled.  Some buses depart 20 minutes late from the listed time, others charge a different price from the listed price, and some may go a completely different route to arrive at their final destination.  Nothing is ever totally accurate but it doesn’t seem to stress anyone out.  After you do it a few times, you know what to expect and you don’t even bother reading the signs on the wall anymore.  

I was anticipating this for my recent journey out to the Pacific coast and was therefore on edge at the terminal, not knowing if I should trust my ticket, what was written on the wall, what other locals were saying, or to even believe the bus driver.  Sure enough my ticket was wrong, the bus’s sign was incorrect, but after consulting with the passengers and bus drivers, I felt pretty confident I’d found the right bus.  God speed.

sacks on bus
The Amazon’s Amazon

This bus was going to one of the more rural parts of the country and I had had experience on buses like this before, but this one reminded me that not everything in Costa Rica is first world and country is country.  One of the first things I noticed about the bus, was that the outside was caked in mud and dirt.  Note to self: we’ll be off roading a bit on this adventure.  Due to this, they were not storing any luggage underneath the bus.  Luggage, you might say?  It’s not really luggage, but rather sacks filled with rice, beans, cooking oil and all the basic staples of the Costa Rican diet.  We lost a few seats on the bus as we had to find a place to put all these bags.

I remember my mother-in-law joking with me when I got married that I’d have to take a sack to the market, fill it with food, and carry it back to the house over my shoulder like a good Costa Rica husband.  That was back some 40-50 years ago before roads and buses existed in most parts of Costa Rica.  I thought that practice was an urban legend until now.  Once the bus was loaded (people and goods) five minutes were set aside for vendors to peruse the aisle one last time to sell soda, snacks, books, umbrellas, newspapers etc.  The lady in the seat next to me wanted a “cono”.  I wasn’t sure what this was but when the vendor jumped off the bus to retrieve it, I was half expecting him to come back with a live chicken or something.  Luckily, she only wanted ice cream.

Finally, we were off and I could relax a bit knowing I was on the right course to my final destination.  Since I am usually driving everywhere, rarely do I have the opportunity to just sit and stare out the window and take everything in.  It had just rained and there was quite a bit of humidity coming off the ground, which in turn made everything greener than normal.  There were also little fog clouds hanging around the rainforest covered mountains, providing my-so-called mystique effect, where I have to pinch myself to make sure I’m not in a Jurassic park movie.   

Sure enough, we entered the rainforest portion of the route and the pavement turned to dirt.  We were going along pretty good, making stops, letting people off, and slowly but surely the bus began to empty out, but we still had these sacks of food with us.  Eventually, we began making stops where nobody got off, but the sacks did.  Usually, it would be at a makeshift crossing, there would be a motorbike waiting to take a sack off on another dirt road that ran into the mountain.  Other times we’d just stop, toss the sack on the side of the road and continue on our way.

You could sense we were getting out of town, as the stops became more leisurely.  Nobody was in a hurry and at every stop there was a pause for discussion amongst the driver and the passenger.  Usually, it was to catch up on the local gossip, or tell an inside joke only community members would know about.  After awhile it seemed like we were traveling on a family vacation and Dad would be telling a story from the driver’s seat.  It didn’t matter that we were crossing some highly questionable bridges, or driving through streams of unknown depths.

Listening to their conversations and observing our surroundings put me into a trance like state, that was abruptly interrupted at one of the stops when the driver shouted “Ostional!”  I looked up and he was looking right at me.  Sure enough, he remembered my request back at the terminal and as anxious as I was, turns out I just had to sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride.

We got off the bus to start our next leg of the journey on foot.  We looked at our surroundings and saw a small path leading towards the beach.  This must be it, I thought.  I felt a wave of anxiety about to fall over me, but I brushed it aside, took a deep breath, and headed down the path, looking forward to the next adventure…

Wild ‘glamping’ Trip Brings Rainforest Back to Life

We were on a rural gravel road going through the rainforest when my aunt and cousin heard what seemed like a dinosaur roar and saw the trees shake.

“Dustin, Dustin! Can you stop and go back?”  I mean, sure why not.  Jurassic Park was only filmed in Costa Rica.  They didn’t really bring dinosaurs back to life, right?  

Howler monkey with mouth open
Howler Monkey

I slowly pulled to the side of the road and we began to crane our necks up toward the rainforest canopy to see what was going on. It turned out we had stumbled upon a pack of howler monkeys that really do sound like a T-rex. 

At first, I didn’t even want to get out of the car, as it was just another pack of monkeys in the trees, but my aunt had never seen monkeys in the wild. Thanks to her literally starting a conversation with them, we learned there was more than one pack, they were much closer to us than we thought and they had babies!

I rarely encounter wildlife this far out from civilization, but when I do it’s special.  With humans roving into all parts of the planet it was really cool to see monkeys that roar at you like they are trying to communicate with aliens. It was so far out, it felt like we were on another planet – or that I was in Jurassic Park, expecting a dinosaur at any moment.

We never did see any dinosaurs, of course, but I know have a new favorite Jurassic Park moment, courtesy of my aunt. She showed me new ways to experience the rainforest, only a couple of months after I wrote a column about how it no longer excited me.

Because she and my cousin were visiting me on vacation, we had decided to to find some of the most isolated and pristine beaches in Costa Rica, and that meant pushing the envelope. We took a ferry from the former port town of Puntarenas to the tip of the secluded Nicoya peninsula and hopped on a windy, two-lane road going into the mountains.

Aside from a few small towns or “bumps in the road,” as my dad would say, all we saw along that road were vast expanses of farmland, national reserves and the occasional breathtaking view of the ocean.

Eventually, the road ended and we came to the property. I call it that because we had rented a house, but it was nothing like what I expected. The jungle was amazingly manicured, and the “house” lacked doors and windows.

This place had it all, minus the doors and windows. There were pools, gardens, a pool table, a private beach, and of course, plenty of bat droppings. There was a waterfall a five-minute walk from the property on yet another secluded beach that we would have visited more if we didn’t already have our own private beach to enjoy.  

beach panoramic
Our view and beach below…

I was informed this kind of vacationing was called  “glamping.” and it’s something I would never have chosen on my own had I known what it was.  I’m a sucker for peer pressure though and my aunt, who fears no risk, was in charge. She brought me a hammock with a built-in mosquito net so I could sleep on the balcony overlooking the sea.  

The first night was incredible, as a thunderstorm ended up putting us to sleep. I had envisioned myself dozing off to a music on my phone, but nature was too intense not to take it all in.

Crab in the brush
A crab from our night walk, during the day

One night, we drove to a nearby beach and were truly amazed. We hadn’t realized while walking along the tide line in the darkness, that we were right at the bottom of a cliff. When we started to hear waves coming from the shore we became so puzzled until we turned to see the sound was actually reflecting off the cliff we’d been walking along the base of.  The water reaches the cliff during high tide, so this was really a treat, to see the underside of the sea and the caves and creatures that live there.

On our way back, it started to rain a bit, and when we arrived, the jungle was alive and well. The sounds of the crickets, frogs, and the combination of the tap-tap of the water falling through the canopy made it jungle-spooky.  

It was just quiet enough for one errant sound to provoke sheer fear and… thankfully, no dinosaur sightings. But I had to get out of the car to open the gate, and at that moment I could have sworn I was in the movie.

Looking back, I can’t get out of my head how wild that trip was.

Next weekend, I’m traveling to the beach again and I am disappointed already knowing my lodging has doors and windows. It will be a relaxing, fun timebut it will quickly blur into all the other typical trips I’ve done to the beach.

This one will stay with me, and the stories will probably get better over time. However, unlike that one time I almost caught a humongous fish with my uncle, I have video proof of my aunt talking to monkeys.

It’s hard to be amazed as a jungle connoisseur…

What’s about half the size of a hippo, but not aggressive?

Tapir looking for food
A hippo-anteater hybrid: The tapir!

That would be a tapir, and some people might want to punch me in the face if I said I went to the Corcovado rainforest and this was the only thing I thought worth mentioning.

Corcovado National Park is isolated in the southwest corner of Costa Rica and is one of the most biodiverse places in the world. I had read a lot about the park and finally decided it was time to see it for myself.

To get there, you boat through canals on what could pass for the set of Jurassic Park, then hit the open ocean to make a beach landing on one of the few primary rainforests left in the world.

For most any visitor, this would be the trip of a lifetime and I was hoping for a great experience.  But honestly, I’d be pressed to remember much of this visit because I’d done and seen most of it before.

Our visit started out traversing the ocean, which could be an experience in itself. Though I had never been in that much open water in such a small watercraft, I wanted to avoid seasickness, so I daydreamed, studying the coastline for jagged rock formations, to take my mind off the rolling waves. I’d seen many similar coastlines up and down the pacific side of Costa Rica before and this was nothing special.

There was no dock at the beach, so we had to jump in the water barefoot to get to shore. It was an exotic beach with the rainforest right at the edge, but it was familiar to me as it reminded me of the beaches in Manuel Antonio and Samara.

coati running
This is a coati!

Even when we saw a coati looking for food as we approached the ranger station, I didn’t bother taking my camera out. I’d seen these in La Fortuna many times before.

We started hiking and encountered a beautiful group of red scarlet macaws, each with a mate and a few with children. They were having a lively conversation while eating their lunch in the trees and gave us many photo opportunities.

Of course, these things fly all around Jaco and the Carara National Park, all places I’ve been.  This would be the equivalent of taking a picture of a squirrel.

That’s when it hit me. In a way, I’d seen it all. That’s why this trip been so ho-hum despite all the adventure it had taken to get to this point.

I recalled going to other national parks and being intrigued by everything, but Corcovado just couldn’t turn the switch for me. We’d go on to see a spider monkey, sloth, herron and some capuchin monkeys, but it was so “been there, done that” for me.

howler monkey hanging out
No big deal, it’s just a monkey..

I was actually disappointed we didn’t see all four types of monkeys that are in the park. It felt no different from Tortuguero, a national park in northeast Costa Rica I visited two years ago.

The most drama on the trip was me forgetting things and Mother Nature making me pay, like getting sunburned and drenched (only in Costa Rica can you get that combo that quickly) on a 1.5hr hike without a change of clothes.

I’ve been dumb before, and I’ll be dumb again so thank goodness I saw the tapir to have more than just a funny story to laugh about in the future. But even at that, the reality is watching the tapir was as about as exciting as watching a cow graze.

All this is not to say Corcovado isn’t a great place to visit. I just have higher expectations for my forests now that I’ve been living in Costa Rica since 2013.  I can’t believe the non-effect it had on me. A first-time rainforest visitor would fill an entire scrapbook.

I’ve really been spoiled by rainforests though, and they really have to work hard to amaze me. I still have a few parks on my list left to visit, and I hope one of them will spark some excitement.

I now know what guides and rangers must feel like. Our guide spent over an hour tracking the tapir and was noticeably excited when he spotted it.  At least now, he’ll have something to want to talk about at dinner.

Benefits of Being an Early Riser in Costa Rica

If there is one thing I could do in my sleep, it would probably be driving to the airport.  I don’t do much driving, but when I do it’s usually the 45min trip into the airport to drop someone off or pick them up.  I’ll do it anytime, but in particular I prefer to go early in the morning, the 5am or even 4am departures. I never imagined I’d willing type those words and stand by them, but a lot of things in Costa Rica actually facilitate and benefit the early riser.

One of things I dreaded most about growing up in Wisconsin was waking up in sub zero temperatures in the pitch dark.  I’ll never forget working construction over winter break in college, wearing four layers of clothes and working the first hour of the day in darkness before the sun would even rise.  How could someone will themselves out of their toasty bed at that time? That just goes against human nature. I don’t think any amount of coffee should convince scientists that early rising helps your health under those conditions.

Based on that trauma growing up, I never imagined I would embrace it in Costa Rica.  However, if you remove the temperature variable and give me a little bit of dawn to work with, I’ll make it the most productive moments of my day.  

Honestly, to really get anything done in Costa Rica efficiently, you should really complete it before 8am.  I learned this one day going to solicit internet service. I arrived at 11am and was directed to take a number and waited almost 45 minutes just to talk to someone.  Unfortunately, I was missing a document and was instructed to return the next day. The agent, seeing the look on my face as I glanced over to the line that would surely await me the next day, said the following: “If you can get here before 8am, there is almost no line and we can help you right away.”  Sure enough, the next day I was in and out in less than 10 minutes. I was hooked.

Speedy service was one thing, but there are other enhanced features rising early in Costa Rica.  For one, we can get some amazing sunrises over the mountains and the birds are so pleasant. Even in the city where I live, if you’re up early before the transit soundtrack starts, you’ll hear sweet melodies from a variety of birds in the area.  I have this beautiful yellow breasted bird that arrives every morning on the power line outside my office window just a chirpin’ away. If you live in the country or forest you’re in for a real experience with exposure to crickets, frogs, and infinite birds.  My favorite bird sighting was that of a red scarlet macaw that I saw at 6am.

Daylight is a precious commodity in Costa Rica.  Situated near the equator we only get about 12 hours of daylight and sunrise happens usually by 5:30am.  Even if you sleep in till 8am you feel like you’ve wasted an important part of your day. Especially in the raining season where it might start raining at 2pm and be dreary and cloudy the rest of the day.  Visitors are a little shocked to find out schools start at 7am, but it’s really a good idea to not waste daylight.

Crab in forest
                         Another early riser

I think the best part about getting up early though are the adventures you can have.  When I go on vacation, the best part is being in the habit of getting up early. Just recently I had the opportunity to sleep in a hammock just steps from the beach.  Every morning I had a chance to explore the beach and the nearby forest at its calmest. I paid attention to the crabs scouring the rocks for food. I spotted a squirrel high up in a tree that normally I wouldn’t have been able to spot and I heard the howls from the monkeys off in the distance.  It’s also a huge benefit as the weather is cool and fresh. By 8am you can feel the sun bearing down on you and the humidity begins to suck the energy out of you.

Early rising is much more enhanced in Costa Rica.  I could early rise in other countries, but I wouldn’t be very happy about it.  Here though I can’t seem to lose setting an early alarm. I’ve always wondered why Costa Rica wouldn’t just shift their clocks one hour ahead.  Wouldn’t it be amazing to have daylight till 7pm? When I take Costa Ricans to the United States during the summer, they have all kinds of problems where they don’t eat dinner till 10pm because they are accustomed to eating dinner after the sun sets.  

Needless to say, I don’t drive to the airport in my sleep, despite the early trips.  Our guests are often embarrassed to have us drive them at odd hours, but it’s really preferred.  Whether avoiding traffic, lines, weather or taking advantage of the calmness, wildlife, and sunrises the early riser always wins.  This doesn’t even include the coffee and gallo pinto that are also best enjoyed in the early morning.

turtles coming onshore
                     Rarely seen after 7am

7 Things I Wish I Knew Before Going to Costa Rica

Like always, all good things must come to an end, and alas that is happening now with my time in Costa Rica. Before coming here, I was extremely nervous because I was worried that two months was going to be too long of a time to live here, but now it seems like that time was too short. I was also nervous beforehand because all I knew about San Ramon was that the weather app thinks it rains there 24/7, and that one retiree thought others should not live there because it had “strange weather”. After spending almost two months here, I debunked both of those stories and found out many retirees live here, to the point that they have their own nonprofit organization, and that the weather app is a liar. These are just two examples of things that I found out to be different once I arrived here, but there were many more. Therefore, I would like to share with everyone a couple of things I wish I knew before coming to Costa Rica.

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Volcano hike in the pouring rain, so worth it.
  1. Even though it is the rainy season, that doesn’t mean it rains 24/7.

As I said earlier, my weather app made me think that I would not be able to leave the house any day. So, I bought new rainboots, a backpack cover, and rain pants. Once I got here, I only ended up using the rainboots once. I found out that if it does rain, its only for a short period of the day. I also realized that the rain is refreshing and not to be afraid of it. If you have the chance, go for a swim when it’s raining, I loved doing that here.

  1. Timing is difficult

If you’ve heard of island time, a similar thing exists in Costa Rica. It makes it a little difficult to make plans because people will either show up 15 minutes early, on time, or an hour late, and you don’t know which one it will be. The view of time in Costa Rica becomes especially tricky when traveling by bus, because there is no exact time that the bus comes at every time. So, I found the best way to deal with this difference is to always be early.

  1. Getting around by bus is quite time consuming even though the country is so small

As I mentioned before, there is no exact bus schedule which is one of the reasons traveling in Costa Rica is a little difficult. The other reason is that there are barely any direct busses, and this can make a trip that would take 4 hours in a car be 7 hours in a bus. This is mainly because of transfers and stops. Therefore, I wouldn’t say to avoid the busses, but to take into account that it can take you a full day to travel across Costa Rica.

P.S. If you are considering renting a car, it does bring the time down, but it costs around $80-100 a day.

  1. Get ready to eat a lot of rice.IMG_2116

Rice is a staple in the Costa Rican diet, so get ready to eat it in some kind of form for breakfast, lunch, dinner, or dessert.

  1. San Jose is not somewhere you want to spend a lot of time

Unlike most capitals of countries, San Jose is not one that has many tourist attractions. The main places to visit there are museums and the soccer stadium, which even then, that can be done in a day.

  1. Ask locals for recommendations

Locals are the best tour guides! They will be able to tell you where the best places are, how much they cost, and even recommendations for places that tourists don’t go. I got the chance to visit many viewpoints and waterfalls near San Ramon because of this. Best part was that all of these attractions were free, and had no tourists.

  1. Solo traveling is not that scary.

    IMG_2641
    Old and new friends 

As I mentioned at the beginning I was really scared about moving to San Ramon for two months without ever meeting anyone there. I am from a big city (Chicago), so I was convinced that I would be miserable in such a small town. But, I found out that the size of the town helped me make more friends, and ended up being an advantage.
I was also nervous about making friends while here. But, I ended up learning that to make friends I had to put myself out there and when I would travel over the weekend to stay in hostels. I met some of the coolest people while in hostels, and from all over the world.

Overall, I learned a lot during my time here, but the most important thing that I was reminded of while here is that life is short, so we don’t have time to stress too much, we have to enjoy what we have while we do.  I am not too surprised that I learned this here since this is the country of ‘pura vida. ’

Hasta Luego Costa Rica!