Holy (Cow!) Week Traveling

In Costa Rica, Holy week is the spring break equivalent to the United States and Costa Ricans travel like crazy. It’s nearly the end of the dry season and Thursday and Friday are public holidays (thank you non-separation of church/state) so many look to get in that final rain free getaway. In my 10+ years living in Costa Rica I’ve only made the sin of trying to travel this week twice, and the second time was just complacency of forgetting how horrible the first experience was having been so long ago. 

If you attempt to travel the first or second weekends of Holy week you need to be very strategic. One hour trips turn into 4 hour trips and 4 hour trips just aren’t worth taking at reasonable hours. Last year, I had a ferry ticket for 12:30pm and left my house at 9am for the typical hour and a half drive, a little earlier than normal as I was expecting more traffic. I didn’t make it to the ferry till 4pm and by then the only ferry that had space wasn’t leaving till 8pm. 

It was absolutely nuts. We hit traffic just outside our city limits and at first we assumed there had been an accident. Traffic snailed along and we thought at each corner we’d see the wreck and traffic would open up. After a couple hours of this we realized it was just bumper-to-bumper for miles and miles. We ended up pulling off the road for the sake of our mental health. Even though I’m more of an “it’s more about the journey than the destination” type of person, this was over the top. 

parking in San Ramon
These are actual parked cars. Our situation was no different.

I struggle more in these situations as I’m accustomed to well-built highway systems, and just can’t believe how the roads here have not kept pace with the amount of cars that are on the road. That is my first stage of “road grief”. The second stage is when I start scolding myself for getting in this position in the first place. I seriously considered turning around and going home and had it not been for the more accustomed Costa Ricans I’m sure I would have.  

Fast forward a year and I was not making the same mistake twice. In a perfect world I’d just vacation on a different week, however our travel is limited due to school and jobs so I had to really plan for our trip. First off, never travel the entire week. We made plans to travel Saturday (gulp) and return on Wednesday to avoid the even larger crush of traffic Thursday to Sunday. Three months before, I secured our accommodations and a month before I bought ferry tickets. Thankfully, the ferry system sells some tickets online so you can arrive knowing you have a spot reserved. However, getting there on time is key. The earliest ferry departed at 5:30am and we were on the road by 2:30am.

There was very little traffic and my plan was going perfectly, so perfect I almost wanted to kick myself for not waiting till 3am to get a little extra rest. The only shock was pulling up to the ferry and seeing a massive line of cars. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one with this idea. Cars with their roofs packed with luggage, tents, canoes, bicycles etc. I think I even saw some people tailgating. The one big difference between me and them though was that I already had my spot reserved. These people were waiting in line in hopes that there would be enough space for them to get on the ferry. If not, they’d have to wait till 9am for the next one.

My heart briefly skipped a beat seeing the line, however we were able to drive to the front and were one of the first ones on the ferry. I was traveling with my 2 dogs and therefore I was able to stay in the vehicle with them. At 5:30am the weather was comfortable and refreshing and I had the best 1.5hr nap, windows down, fresh sea breeze, and the light waves lulled me right to sleep. It was actually the heat that awoke me from my slumber as the inferno starts almost as soon as sunrise is complete. 

From there everything was bearable. Roads from the ferry to our destination were still horribly inept to handle Holy week traffic. There was a bridge that collapsed over a dry creek bed and their solution was to close the bridge and just have everyone off-road through the creek bed.     

We were at our destination by 9am and pretty much zonked out all morning. That was the plan though. I’d much rather crash poolside in a hammock than be stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic fully conscious. 

I was proud of myself for this careful calculation and outcome.  Every time a friend would message about the traffic they were in or the news would report on the miles long traffic jams, I’d just take a deep breath and try to sink deeper into the recliner or sofa, so glad to be able to enjoy a peak vacation period without all the traffic. We didn’t leave our destination till we returned home. All we did those days was pool, beach, food, nap, repeat. That’s all I’m willing to put myself up to for Holy week vacations. 

Most years, Holy week and spring break weeks aren’t the same, but traveler beware if they ever coincide. That’ll be the year I charter a helicopter from my backyard.

Sunny tropical beach
The lengths I’ll go to for this…

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.

Tiptoeing through the trap of a tourist mecca….

We all have a fairy-tale fantasy of vacationing on an exotic beach.

Sipping juice from coconuts with the cute little cocktail straws as we watch the waves wash over the white sands. Relaxing in the harmony of finally getting away from it all.

That is until your paradise is interrupted by a scream. And then another, and another.

I was living that fairy-tale fantasy, and while the screams fortunately were neither a shark attack nor a coming tsunami, it was just the start of a strange day in which I got a firsthand look at a bad combination of nature and tourism.

After the first few screams, I could see tree branches waving wildly back and forth despite the otherwise calmness of the day, so I decided to check it out. And I wasn’t alone. By the time I got to where the commotion was, the whole beach had congregated in the area to watch the show.

A group of monkeys had climbed down from the trees and had stolen a backpack from one of the tourists on the beach. They were up in the trees going through everything. Watches, cell phones, books and panties all fell from the tree as the monkeys carefully examined everything, eventually discarding anything that wasn’t edible.

For a first-time visitor to Manuel Antonio National Park, this was quite entertaining. However, this ended up going on all day – screams coming from up and down the beach, large gatherings, followed by photos and laughter. It was like we were in the middle of a circus run by monkeys.

By the end of the day nobody could leave anything unattended on the beach.

It might sound fun, but it is having a damaging effect on the beach’s monkeys. Monkeys are not accustomed to chips and crackers, and they have lost all fear of humans, making them aggressive and unpredictable at times.

It’s a delicate situation, as this national park depends on the revenue from the visitors to protect not only this park, but other less visited parks in Costa Rica. As a result, it has catered to the tourists by building changing rooms and providing picnic tables for people to have lunch. And that has led to the animals becoming accustomed to a different diet, one that is harming their health.

Don’t get me wrong; it’s great tourists can come and see animals in the wild, but it’s too bad money-making opportunities are preventing better measures from being taken to not damage that very same environment.

With the massive tourism to the 5.5-acre park – about 150,000 visitors a year – money talks in the beach towns around it, as well. The day before our visit to the park (which charges $3 for Costa Ricans but $16 for foreigners), my wife and I had gotten an exhausting introduction to that, starting with a Spanish man pleading desperately with us.

“Just give me one opportunity, one opportunity! Come on man, one opportunity!” he said, hands up in the air.

Trying to get the two of us into his restaurant for dinner, he had eyed me up pretty quickly and had the sales pitch prepared.

He began to speak to us in English, highlighting that his restaurant was the only one in town that included all taxes in their prices. Then, after showing us the menu, he began to make remarks in Spanish to my wife – who he apparently thought was my tour guide or escort suggesting that if she got me to eat there, he would give her a free drink.

His patience quickly grew thin, though, and he yanked the menu out of my hands to give to a bigger group of tourists walking down the street.

Unfortunately, this became the theme of the weekend. Everyone we talked to was working for some kind of commission and was ready to tell us anything to get us to buy at exorbitant prices. Even when checking into the hotel, they had to walk us through their tour packages before they would give us our keys to our room.

It was hard to even walk down the beach without being hassled. If I looked too long at a surfboard, they’d come after me. If we stopped under a beach umbrella to fix a sandal, we were frowned upon. Even sitting underneath a tree, beach chairs were placed strategically to tempt people to take a load off and start the meter.

The only conversation we had with a local that didn’t end in a sales pitch was with one who happened to be from the same town as my wife. Had that not been the case, I’m sure he would have been all over us to rent a beach chair.

As we departed the park area to head back to San Ramon we passed by many luxury hotels, condos, and restaurants, all touting the beauty of being one of the most beautiful beaches and national parks in the world.

I’m not going to say I didn’t enjoy my weekend – despite all the less desirable aspects of a tourism buildup the park is still quite beautiful. However, I think will take my coco juice and sippy straws on to the next beach, where hopefully, I’ll feel like an outside observer instead of the center of attention.

I don’t think this is the right beach for me…

Escorting students brings me a guilt trip

Note: This post was originally written in January 2015 for a local newspaper in Verona, WI.

It is with immense guilt that I admit this.

I am an enabler.

I open doors for people, allow them to walk through and then get out of the way. Even though I can’t control what happens after that, I still feel a responsibility for setting off that chain of events that has an irreversible effect on one’s life.

The most recent incident happened with a group of 14 University of Minnesota construction management students who spent two weeks in Costa Rica.

Bear in mind, my role was purely logistical. I put a roof over their heads, meals on the table and made sure they experienced what Costa Rica had to offer. Costa Rica did the rest.

But still I feel guilty.

They experienced the beaches and rainforests. They culturally immersed themselves so much that in two weeks they could not only tell you where coffee comes from but how to ask locals for help finding a bathroom. To top it off, they completed a capstone course to put the finishing touches on their collegiate careers.

But then they had to go home.

I recall my first visit to Costa Rica, how painful and heartbreaking it was to leave after six months. I can’t imagine how it would have felt after only two weeks.

This particular trip had gotten off to a rough start. Within 20 minutes of arrival we were forced into a local shopping mall to wait for some students who arrived on a different flight at the same time but were stranded on the tarmac. (Apparently there weren’t enough gates; who would have thought you could land 15 planes in an hour at an airport that serves a country the size of West Virginia?)

As a result, my Costa Rican chocolates melted in the shuttle bus and our highly entertaining Costa Rica trivia game garnered only an emergency contact card as a prize. In an unrelated note, it was also uncovered how old I am, as only half the group knew who Scottie Pippen was.

We cruised through the Costa Rican countryside and came within view of San Ramon just as the sun began its descent behind the mountains surrounding the town. The anticipation was building as only moments separated the group from their first “real” steps into this foreign land.

Could we drink the water? How do we greet the locals? Will we eat with our hands?

In order to calm their nerves, I had strategically devised a pizza delivery combined with an NFL playoff game to avert a full-on culture overload. However, come Day 2, we were back to immersion.

We began with both the most majestic and erie canopy tour I had ever witnessed. Imagine

That might be a monkey...
That might be a monkey…

a foggy, old abandoned ghost town, but instead of buildings you have trees and branches that appear at a moment’s notice as you’re flying through the rainforest canopy suspended by a cable.

For a first-time rainforest experience, this couldn’t be beaten. From there, we lunched at a local family’s home and toured their farm. Many were impressed that this family could produce almost all the food they needed just from their plot of land.

After lunch, I scheduled an orphanage visit to show the students what a typical Costa Rican orphanage looks like, knowing that they would later design an addition for another one. Despite the intent of our visit, our focus would be deterred shortly after meeting the children.

“Gringos! Gringos!” they greeted us excitedly. Since I had expected this to happen, I somehow assumed the students were expert balloon animal makers. But it turned out only two students could make them and a few others had the actual lung capacity to inflate the narrow suckers.

We weathered the chaos and the bigger takeaway had to be brightening the children’s day.

These experiences provided many conversation-starters as we wound down the day at the hot springs fed by the Arenal Volcano. With plenty of mental and physical exertion, I knew this group would be craving for more.

And so it would continue. I couldn’t do enough to satisfy the group’s appetite.

¡Qué pasión!
¡Qué pasión!

We visited the impoverished community of Bajo Tejares, where the students would prepare a construction proposal for a women’s empowerment group, then went to the orphanage site where we finally achieved  a cultural breakthrough with the children via the construction of some highly technical paper airplanes.

Salsa lessons, taste testing coffee batches at the local processing plant, cultural museum visits, and even a weekend excursion to the beach were wholly chewed and swallowed. As was lunch and dinner at Soda Xinia’s (Soda means a small restaurant that serves local foods, and in this case, it was the patio at the home of Xinia, a housewife by day, master chef at a moment’s notice).

All of this concluded with the successful presentation of two construction proposals to help

The university crew
The university crew

our local partners – Mujeres de Cambio women’s empowerment group and the orphanage – advance their missions and serve the community.

Wow! Getting that all down on paper does make me feel a lot better.

I should have felt proud for all the experiences they had. But I feel guilty I was only able to hold that door open for two weeks. And that only 14 students had a chance to walk through that door.

I am confident, though, that they have jammed that door open, broke the closer and, some I’m sure, have even removed the hinges and turned that door into a hallway.

One of these days I’ll be rich at the beach

Note: This post was originally written/published in September 2014.
There seem to be countless opportunities in Costa Rica. Everything seems possible whether starting a business, taking a vacation, doing a cultural exchange, or volunteering

Dream come true?
Dream come true?

there is always being talked about.
There isn’t a week where there isn’t something like that to keep me up thinking at night. Most ideas never get much past the sketch on a napkin stage, but nevertheless the possibilities are endless.
Recently I was stuck on the idea that I had to invest at the beach. Something about having nothing but the deep blue ocean in front of you and nothing but a plush rainforest behind you, waking up each day with a walk to the beach and a dip in the pool, pina colada in hand, seemed like paradise to me.
I was certain Costa Rica Frika 2 would open sooner or later at the beach. I just had to make sure this wasn’t a phase like Power Rangers or Pokemon was as a kid growing up. So like all good investors do, I scouted it.
I had been to this particular beach before for two to three days at a time, but I still felt like a tourist every time I arrived there. I just hadn’t been able to find a property that fit what I was looking for.
Until this time. It was a small apartment complex situated on top of a mountain with a direct ocean view a few minutes walking from town.
This was right up my alley, and from the pictures on the Internet and having direct contact with the owner when I made the reservation, I knew this could be potentially a very good visit.
Lucky for me though I was only staying as a guest, and not as an owner. Because it wasn’t anything like what I had expected.
Marketing is really an amazing tool. Done well, you can dress up just about anything to look and sound like the Taj Mahal. Fortunately, this wasn’t my dream Costa Rican vacation, because the only thing I dreamed about during my stay there was how much better this place could be with some substantial investment.
The website didn’t lie; you can definitely see the ocean, and the property borders a private wildlife reserve in which we were able to see howler monkeys playing in the trees the first day we arrived. The pool was even nice and well-kept.
That is about where the pleasantries ended.
Even when lounging at the pool, I couldn’t help but notice the overgrown grass, the plants growing wildly out of control, and dirt caked on the sidewalk, having eroded from the last night’s rainstorm. As I turned to look back at the apartment building, I noticed that some of the units appeared to have been under construction at some point but had been abandoned. I also observed that there had once been three floors to the building and there was now a makeshift roof over the concrete floor on the second.
And the whole place looked like it could use a paint job, as the salt and humidity in the air had had its way with the apartment complex.
I felt blessed to have only prepaid for one night, instead of the three I’d planned on. We arrived to find the advertised wi-fi didn’t work, the water might not work and we couldn’t unlock our room safe after we had locked our valuables inside it.
At least we had the pool while we waited for the locksmith.
I’m sure some people would have turned around and left at this point, and not too long ago I would have done the same myself. This is obviously how all disaster vacations begin, right?
But maybe since I came with an investor’s mindset, the only feeling I could strongly identify with at that point was pity. I felt bad for the owner.
I knew he didn’t intentionally not mow the grass or maintain the garden and that it wouldn’t be cheap to run the must-have wi-fi signal all the way up the hill to the apartments.
And so the longer I sat at the pool the more I felt sorry for this guy. Maybe he had come to Costa Rica with big illusions of developing a great tourism business but for one reason or another things haven’t quite worked out. If I had to guess, he probably underestimated the amount of money it would take to renovate and maintain a place like this.
My wife and I speculated it would cost maybe a half-million dollars to bring this up to dream-level vacation standards. We’re not quite at that level of investment (read: nowhere

Sunsetting on my beach dream :(
Sunsetting on my beach dream 😦

near), but we did spend some time at the pool thinking of what could be done to this place.
In the end we were reminded of a common Costa Rica phrase “Cuando sea grande…” It means “When I’m a grown-up…”
That’s the phrase that’s often used when talking about things that you don’t believe you will ever do. This was a humbling experience for me, as I realized beach ownership isn’t quite what it’s all cracked up to be.
I stayed my few nights, but then I was on my way… on to the next opportunity.