Way back in 2010, a condition known as ‘the travel itch’ took hold of us. Rian just graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University and wanted to celebrate with a trip. We also had just come back from our first vacation as a couple a few months earlier, a cruise to the Caribbean, and wanted more. The goal was to travel outside of the United States, where we could spend more than a few hours exploring what the country had to offer. Back then, we were servers at a national steakhouse chain, so above all the other criteria the trip had to be affordable.
Through word-of-mouth we found out about Caravan Tours, a company that offers all-in-one tour packages. We purchased tickets that would take us around the Central American country of Costa Rica for 10 days, stopping in 7 locations for excursions and overnight stays. This ticket also included all meals, hotels, entry into national parks and a tour guide who rode with us and the other 44 people that would be on our bus. A pricetag of $1,000 for a vacation where no planning was involved was too enticing to pass up.
During our first night in the capital city of San Jose, we met our tour guide, Marta and the rest of our tour group. It was a mix of families, old friends, young friends, couples and solo backpackers, all mixed together to share in the discovery of what it meant to live “Pura Vida”. “Pura Vida” or “Pure Life” is a Costa Rican phrase that represents the feeling of having no worries and loving life, one could argue that it is a synonym for ‘Hakuna matata‘, but it can also be used as a simple ‘hello’ or ‘good-bye’.
Our trek began in a butterfly garden, where we walked among thousands of butterflies and learned about their life-stages. We also stopped by the Dole pineapple plantation to eat the sweetest pineapple that I have ever tasted. I can’t find the words to type that will express how ripe and sweet ALL the Costa Rican fruit was. Having authentic local cuisine was important to us. Rian and I like to get a real feel for where we travel to, so what locals eat helps us build a better understanding of the people and culture. The meals provided by the tour were normally a stewed protein, potatoes or rice, fresh fruit and some bread. We also ate many portions of ceviche and soups featuring local seafood that had been caught off both coasts.
On the third day, we were excited to take a break from our second home, the tour bus, and hurried onto a pontoon boat that would glide us to Tortuguero, a nature preserve that hosts the most sea turtle births of any place on earth. We dug our toes into the black sand while looking for sand dollars and later enjoyed a couple’s massage while the rain tinged and pinged off of the tin roof above us. We were accommodated with our own wooden hut on the grounds of the nature preserve, very cool.
With all the excursions, meals and transportation being shared with the same group of people, it was easy to make friends (many of which we are still in contact with). Around the bar that night about 15 of us talked, laughed and drank fancy green drinks that looked like frogs or some drinks that were on fire before disappearing down someone’s throat. Nope. Almost burning your lips is not for us. We loved hearing about our new friend’s crazy travel stories and suggestions for future vacations. The tour we were on was worth the money on it’s own, but our large group of travelers is what made this trip special.
While the coasts are lined with beaches, much of the interior of the country is made up of jungle and other wooded areas. During the middle of our trip we stayed at a hotel that had a great view of an active Volcano called Mt. Arenal. You could see little sparks coming out of it at night and smoke during the day. Different trails lead to volcanoes, hot springs and hanging bridges that were suspended hundreds of feet above the creeks in the valley below. The bridges were sturdier than I had expected, but it was still stomach-turning to look straight down. Our guide, for the hike through the jungle, was great about pointing out animals and plants that were native to Costa Rica.
For the last two nights of the trip, we stayed on the west coast in a Marriott Hotel in Guanacaste. This was by far our most Americanized shelter... except for one tiny detail. Whether it was in the hallway, near the dining hall or even at the bottom of the pool, there were crabs scuttling about everywhere. It was their mating season, and the hotel was in their path. These crabs were waiting for us outside of our hotel room door and transformed boarding an elevator into an exercise in diversion and quickness. Stay on your toes, so they won’t pinch them.
The next morning, a van pulled up to the front of the hotel to take us to a zip-line course through the jungle. With harnesses and helmets tight, we began to climb the steps that took us up the side of a tree towards the first platform. One at a time we zipped past Howler Monkeys and lizards. The lively staff encouraged us to do the next one upside down. So of course, we listened to them and had an awesome time!
We met for the farewell dinner in San Jose for our final night in the Central American country as old friends, joking about misspoken-spanish incidents and flirting that took place over the last ten days. While the majority of our travel companions decided to stay back and pack for their early flights, a small squad of us decided to go to a local bar for one last hoorah. The ten of us spent several hours drinking Imperial, the national beer, and exchanging contact information. Apparently, we picked the bar that is known to have an older male audience and a much younger lady audience. Rian got a few propositions on the way back from the bathroom at one point. Maybe it was the great conversation that distracted us or maybe it was the Imperial that was making us feel wobbly, but when we arrived back at the hotel we were asked if we ‘felt the earthquake’, we hadn’t.
Rian and I fell in love with Costa Rica and all it’s beauty. We were blown away by the scenery and the way the people think. Costa Rica does not have a military and instead focuses on education. Before leaving we were already trying to make plans on how we could retire in the tropical destination and really embody “Pura Vida”.
This tour showed me the benefit of traveling and seeing more with modest accommodations vs. vacationing and seeing less with more comforts.