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

What a difference Guatemala makes Part 3

This blog typically is directed at all things Costa Rica however I had the unique opportunity to spend a week in Guatemala (a neighboring Central American country to the north of Costa Rica).  This is the final part of a series of posts that will cover my week long trip. You can read part one here and part two here.

It was about 9:30pm and I was just about to doze off in my hotel room.  The next day we had to depart at 6:30am in order to get to our village visits so I was looking for one of those “early to bed, early to rise” nights.  With the TV on low and my consciousness slowly fading into dreamworld I was promptly started by the sudden ringing of the room phone.

“Hi Dustin, please come meet the group in the lobby.  There has been a change in plans.”  Well this had interesting written all over it.  Living in Central America you become used to things that would never be a concern in the US.  As a University Construction Management student I remember reading through construction contracts and chuckling about acceptable reasons for finishing a project past its due date.  Hurricanes, war, strikes, political protests.  Yeah, like those things were ever going to happen so much that it would disrupt a construction project.  Well those things are very real here.

Most places only have one route to get there.  If there are detours they are a good 3-4 hours.  So any of these things could quickly throw a monkey wrench into everything.  Sure enough there was going to be a strike the next day that planned to block all the highways leaving Guatemala city.  Why were they blocking the streets?  Who were the culprits?  You might be a little surprised to hear that the government hasn’t been paying their doctors since July.

This might seem unheard of that a government would not pay their employees.  Actually last year in Costa Rica teachers went on strike for one month because some of the teachers were not getting paid.  Some.  They interrupted the school year for one whole month before the government got their act together.  And there were various days when roads were blocked in protest.  In the end all everyone got paid, even for the month they were on strike and there was no reduction in vacation time or extension of the school year due to the strike.  Everyone won except the senior students who had one less month to learn and prepare for the national exam that they needed to pass in order to graduate, but I digress.

Who knows how the Guatemala doctors will fare but I was not the least bit surprised by the situation so when our departure time got pushed up to 2:30am in order to avoid the blockade I thought well at least we would avoid the morning rush hour.  I have to say though it could have been worse.

That same night on the news we heard of some schools that weren’t being allowed to teach because some neighborhood gangs were threatening them that there would be violence if they didn’t pay them 15 thousand dollars.  I never figured out why they wanted that money but it probably wasn’t a very good reason.  Nevertheless I’m very content that the most I’ve had to deal with in Costa Rica are peaceful marches and roadblocks.

Throughout the course of these posts a lot of things have swung in Costa Rica’s favor however one obvious advantage Guatemala has over Costa Rica is its transit system.  The main highway that runs through Costa Rica connecting Nicaragua and Panama is primarily a two lane road, one lane for each direction.  If you’re lucky you might have a passing lane on some of the steep uphill climbs but keep your guard up because those lanes are closed in random spots from mudslides that happened years ago that the government has never repaired and doesn’t plan to repair them.  Not so in Guatemala.

All the main highways going in and out of the city are 4-6 lanes and there are always additional passing lanes for the uphill sections.  Mudslides are just as common as in Costa Rica but when they happen the government is there to clean it up quickly and re-open the lanes.  They still have too many cars in the city but what big city doesn’t have traffic issues?  My only concern was feeling sick from inhaling all the fumes sitting in idling traffic.  Besides that the only other issue I had with the roads were the number of speed bumps.  This is really the only way to control speeding in Central America but it was a little over-exaggerated here.  Usually when you get to a school zone you have one bump at the beginning of the school and one at the end however in Guatemala they would have like four.  And for the manual car drivers, they were spaced just far enough apart so you would have to shift from first to second gear just for a second before arriving to the next bump.


Both weather patterns are quite similar with a rainy season and a dry season at pretty much the same time of year.  Guatemala is in the hurricane zone whereas Costa Rica is

Cooler climate, but excellent look out points
Cooler climate, but excellent look out points in Guatemala

not.  From what I saw the majority of Guatemala is drier than Costa Rica (similar to the Guanacaste region).  They have higher elevations and are situated further to the north so it can get colder than in Costa Rica.  When I was there the last week of January there were some places that got below freezing at night.  That never happens in Costa Rica.  Due to this it wasn’t surprising to not hear much talk about beaches.  One of the crown jewels of Costa Rica, however if you ask a Guatemalan about beaches they’re likely to tell you about the beach trip they took…. to neighboring country El Salvador!


In the short time I spent in Guatemala I would have to say tourism and agriculture are a big part of the economy, which is quite similar to Costa Rica.  Both countries grow lots of coffee too.  One thing I noticed in Guatemala is there are not a lot of industrial coffee processing.  A lot of the coffee is sun dried whereas in Costa Rica they have mechanical ovens that can dry the coffee quickly in addition to sun dried.  The sun dried process takes a few days but the quality is better.  In this sense Guatemala might be a little more of a “I’ll get to it mañana” country than Costa Rica.  Other than that you will see a lot of corn being grown in Guatemala.  We planted fruit trees in some of the rural villages we visited to help diversify their diets because everything they were eating was corn based.  You’ll see corn in Costa Rica too, but sugar cane, bananas, pineapple, etc all have their growing zones as well.

To conclude my little Costa Rica-Guatemala series I’d like to talk about the culture.  My wife is Costa Rican and her and her parents joined me on this trip.  It was very interesting to see how they interacted with the locals and to hear their opinions about the culture.  They shared some of the same reactions as to why they would live so remote but were very curious to learn about how they lived.  My in-laws grew up on farms and were able to teach the Guatemalans about farming.  Some of them knew so little that they weren’t even sure how to plant trees or seed a garden properly (not that I knew any of that either, but at least I know I have the resources if I ever plant my own garden).

I have to say both cultures pride themselves on their friendliness.  The Guatemalan accent is very sweet and inviting and even though the Costa Rican accent is distinct it is filled with “honeys, sweeties, and cuties”.  There seemed to be an ongoing battle between who could be the most polite and sweet.

One astonishing thing that is echoed throughout many Central and South American

Traditional dress
Traditional dress

countries is the cleanliness of their formal dress.  Living in mud huts in dry and/or rainy conditions it is beyond belief how they maintain their traditional dress spotless.  We visited villages on a Sunday and everyone had on their sparkling Sunday best.

This concludes thoughts and reactions after a week in Guatemala and how it compares to living in Costa Rica.  Despite its flaws I’d still choose Costa Rica over Guatemala however the experience traveling there was refreshing and exciting.  It makes you thankful for what you’ve got too.  Costa Rica is a step above the rest.  What I saw in Guatemala compares to Nicaragua and Panama living conditions.  I’ve never been to Honduras or El Salvador but I would assume they are similar to Guatemala too.

As for getting back to sleep after resetting my alarm for 2am it didn’t really happen.  The adrenaline switch was on and shortly I would be on my journey.

UPDATE: The Fire Volcano (volcan del fuego) located just 45km from Guatemala city began erupting heavily today.  They closed the international airport this afternoon so we just lucked out having flown back on the third.




Harvesting coffee in Costa Rica

Ever wonder what it’s like to pick coffee? I decided to go one day for the experience and… if your good at repetitive tasks, can work fast, and can withstand bugs, plants and getting lost, then you would be good at this. Plus great for hearing the outdoors, and guys this might be the closest experience to being pregnant that you could have.

Picking coffee is kind of a lost art, what was once a lucrative job is now relegated to immigrants and older Costa Ricans who grew up with it.