Despite the first impressions at a party hostel in La Fortuna, I liked Costa Rica a lot more than I thought I would. I was prepared for something like Cancun or Cabo – American playground, expensive, less raw and real experiences with locals. To some degree Costa Rica is all those things. But more expensive also means its citizens generally enjoy a higher standard of living – especially contrasted to the basket case Nicaragua that I just left. While maybe not ideal for a traveler from a price point of view – it’s nice to visit a country where poverty is low and people seem generally upbeat about their futures.
In 1948 Costa Rica abolished their military, established a democracy and instead put the money into education and infrastructure. The gamble seems to have paid off mightily. Costa Rica and Belize seem to be the only two Central American countries largely spared from American adventurism in the last 100 years. I’m sure the history is more complex and less ideal. I’m just saying that based on the vibe I got from all the Central American countries I’ve been to – I get the strongest sense of optimism from the average citizen here.
End of All Roads Returns – with Riders!
While I was decompressing at Finca Escalante, the End of All Roads crew showed up across town in San Jose. For this leg they also had passengers. Bob brought his girlfriend Nami, Justin brought his wife Lara, and Dan brought his college-age daughter Allaira. Loading up was twice the fun!
I met them at the Intercontinental Hotel and was immediately presented with a load of stuff that they apparently could have carried, but chose not to since the car was available and offered. Note that in one of their earlier blogs, Dan had taken issue with someone who assumed they had a “support vehicle”. He made it clear this vehicle (piloted by Dan’s uncle Glen) was definitely not a support vehicle – but a completely superfluous guest driver. Just like me. As you can see:
Bill Hicks marketing rant seems in order here
Baldi Hot Springs
We made our way to La Fortuna – but not back to the party hostel fortunately. Instead we went to a sprawling hot springs resort just past town that was probably the nicest place I’ve stayed the whole trip – a bit of a contrast to the $11 hostel I stayed it in Tortuguero a few nights prior. One thing meeting up with others has done for my trip – add a lot of variety to the type of vacation I’m having. Which I think is a blast, but not the cheapest.
This was actually the gentle slide and it was still the fastest water slide I’ve ever been on. Also pitch black inside when we did it at night. You come out at the bottom into a big bowl – gotta be going 40 mph at least – then you spin around the sides of the bowl until you slowly lose speed and finally drop out of a hole in the bottom into a pool below. The whole thing is insane. Allaira went around the bowl 2-3 times. Dan and I went 4-5 due to the extra weight.
But the other slides were even crazier. Instead of pitch black, these had little pin-holes – which made it even freakier. I whacked my head against the side, hard – and decided one was enough. Both Dan and I spun around so much we came out upside down – literally riding the top of the enclosed slide to violently splash down in the pool.
Allaira came out on one side, about a second after the guy watching the pool told Dan to move back. She would have drilled him at 30 mph. On the other slide Dan went right behind Allaira. Which turned out fine. But when Justin’s wife Lara went ,she got stuck and had to scoot down. I shudder to think if that had happened to Allaira. Dan would have hit her going full force.
Waterslides kids – do your own safety assessments – at least in Central America and Kansas. Also if you weigh 250 lbs get ready for the ride of your life.
The next day we headed to the beach town Tamarindo – which took us on a scenic ride all around the picturesque Volcan Arenal.
Tamarindo is a nice beach town. Kinda warm for me, but they all are. We had a ton of fun frolicking the pool or our hotel and generally drinking two nights away. I got my 4th or 5th haircut of the trip. The expat owner of the hotel got a big kick out of our entourage and the bikes – which is a common theme. My car gets mild interest every now and then. The bikes get interest almost every time they stop. Along the road almost every guy turns around and watches them. Maybe half the women too. When the girls were riding on back they took lots of go pro video and generally waved at everyone who looked at the bikes.
We had some fun rides in the rain and dirt roads. Luckily we happened to be parked for most of the really torrential stuff.
A couple days later, the crew decided to head into the cloud forest for a few days instead of more beaches. Monte Verde is probably the most visited cloud forest town in CR – and where the ubiquitous zip-lining was invented. Some think it’s too touristy, and it probably is. But when you only have a few days you might as well hit the highlights imo. Personally I loved it, and the cool weather of course. We stayed at Jaguarundi – a lodge right in town that was very cheap – $29/night. I was worried it might be a bit too “rustic”. But it was lovely.
We went on a guided night hike and saw lots of little critters.
This is apparently the smaller, not-as-painful cloud forest version of the bullet ant – which by all accounts has the most painful sting in the insect world
Here’s a fun first-hand demonstration of what it’s like to be stung by a bullet ant. Costa rica has a few nasty insects and a lot of deadly snakes.
This place became our favorite night spot. I really liked the DJ and his salsa mixes. No I didn’t attempt to salsa dance. But this guy sure got into it when his jam came on:
The big highlight around Monte Verde is Selvatura Adventure Park. They have zip-lining, jungle walkways and a bunch of animal exhibits. We hit almost everything. Zip-lining was a blast. First time I’ve ever done it.
I wish I had more time for the walkways though. I really got into looking at the jungle and all the amazing natural struggles going on. Basically the whole game seems to be to grab height however you can. Life as a tree here seems pretty brutal – as about 100 different organisms seem to be hanging off you or trying to eat you.
The next day we drove to Liberia so the girls could fly out. Apparently these are the only pictures I took in Liberia – which would make one think it’s some kind of fortress town. It’s actually a normal gritty town.
The girls took an early flight out in the morning, and we headed for the Panamanian border.
We spent the night in Piedras Blancas – which seemed to be more of a roadside collection of restaurants and stores. We found a hotel just outside of town with a very interesting expat proprietor who was from Cuba but had lived in Russia and Canada before finally settling on the steamy Costa Rica coast. He made us a pretty good dinner of Cuban food.
While I was dealing with car issues at the Nicaragua and Costa Rica borders – I told my two fellow escapees to find us some place in Costa Rica within an hour or two to crash. My brain was scrambled and I didn’t even want to try to think about figuring out a cool place or finding lodging. Luckily for us, La Fortuna – a very popular tourist spot was nearby. They booked themselves a dorm bed at La Sirena – a hostel they knew about. I figured I’d just get a room when I got there – as I had no internet in Costa Rica anyway (one disadvantage of using an unlocked phone with new chips in each country – you have to scramble to find service after each border crossing).
We pulled up and the place looked nice enough. I parked in the back. Immediately though I was shocked at all the American accents around me coming from young fresh-faced people – as I imagine my companions were too. It was at the desk that I realized my passport was missing (another thing you rarely get asked for outside of tourist hotspots – they just want your cash). I searched my car thoroughly, but I pretty much knew my passport was gone when it wasn’t in the plastic baggie with my other documents. Naturally realizing I had (hopefully) left my passport at the Costa Rica border put a little damper on my otherwise euphoric mood and desire to drink heavily in celebration of our great exodus.
Despite my down mood about my passport, I managed to persevere and get pretty drunk. One thing that quickly pushed me into inebriation was the instant immersion of the party hostel we had landed at. My companions and I had just spent a week on the Nicaraguan Caribbean side – where gringo tourists, much less extremely loud Americans, are almost non-existent. Now we were surrounded by loud bros who definitely seemed to be amped up a bit.
The bartender was pushing us to give positive trip advisor reviews and asking for a credit card to “start a tab”. Wtf is a tab? At almost every destination on this trip so far – service workers aggressively will not take your money until you’re completely done and satisfied. We sat there and just looked at each other in total culture shock.
I chugged beer even faster than my usual torrential pace. This was everything I had heard about Costa Rica – expensive, American playground, “you shoulda been here back in the day…” – basically Cabo or Cancun. Also why I originally planned to blow through the country pretty fast.
However, there was one HUGE saving grace – the best damn cheeseburger I’d had in months. Blurry means you know it’s good.
Later I met some new friends at the bar and we went out on the town. My 20-ish-year old friends crashed early. LOL. I got in about midnight and got up at 6:30 for the 1.5 hour hungover drive to the border. Finding my passport in the Aduana (car immigration basically) copy machine almost lifted me out of my hangover, but not quite. It’s probably a good thing that I had something holding me back the night before – as I was ready to let loose after a week of high stress and a day of off the charts stress getting out of Nicaragua.
After my border run, I also had the good fortune to meet fellow overlanders Marcus and Julie Tuck, and tour their amazing converted Iveco Daily driver. I’ve been following their adventures off and on for a while. Seeing the truck felt like meeting a celebrity. I was also able to give them some advice about trying to traverse Nicaragua. Based on my story getting out, they decided to hold off. But then they got lucky when the government and protestors declared a three-day truce. They were able to scoot across the country in a day – headed north. Since then, the situation seems to get worse every day – more deaths between protestors and cops, more roadblocks, more tension. Some adventurous travelers are still able to get across. But it takes a couple days and some heavy 4x4ing some times. The Tucks timed it well.
The next day Lasse and Stefan wanted to head to Tortuguero – a national park and small settlement on the Caribbean coast – accessibly only by boat. Apparently at the right time of the year scores of sea turtles bury their eggs on the beach here. I pretty much had my fill of La Fortuna – and no real agenda until the End of All Roads guys planned to show up in a few days – so I decided to drive and go check it out.
We were a little nervous we wouldn’t make it in time for the last boat at 4:30 – but we got there with 15 minutes to spare. And like most things in Latin America – there seemed to be boats waiting around for stragglers. Other than government functions, here seem to be few hard deadlines down here.
Our ferry captain was from Bluefields with lots of family still there – so he was keen to hear my first hand account of how things were going. I told him no one seemed too stressed out there, and I didn’t see any runs on supplies. He also enjoyed the Toña beers I passed out – the last of my potential bribe material.
The two guys in the middle are fellow overlanders. But we didn’t really share much – as the only people less likely to speak Spanish than Americans are the French. And if that’s the case they usually don’t speak English either.
Tortuguero is an interesting mix of a Central American mainland Caribbean town and a jungle village – nestled on a long thing strip of land between an inland channel called Laguna Penitenica (jail lake?) – and the Caribbean. Like many of the other Caribbean towns in Central America so far – plenty of people showed African ancestry and spoke English. It was a little muggy but not unbearable. Very laid back.
The next day I decided to head out. My night of sleep was pretty warm and I was eager to see more of Costa Rica. Since my motorcycles buddies seemed more interested in beach towns I figured I’d check out the cloud forest on my own. I said goodbye to Stefan and Lasse. Some travelers you meet, have fun, and forget about a while later. I know none of us will ever forget this adventure.
The ride back to the dock where my car was parked took about 3 times as long – as it was against the current – and the boat was much more full, so the captain had to constantly kill the engine and coast over the bottom and submerged logs.
This was the fast part of the ride.
As we got off I saw a young British guy who had been on the boat and looked like he was waiting for a bus. I offered him a ride, which he declined at first. But then we started talking and I told him my Nicaragua story. I guess at that point he decided I wasn’t a serial killer and took me up on the offer. He also did a smart thing – asked me where I was going before saying where he was going. Kids take note. It’s tougher on a scammer if they have to commit first. And if they immediately change their destination upon hearing yours, that’s called a gigantic red flag. Just use your wits and listen to your Spidey sense is what I’m saying.
I decided to spend one night in Costa Rica’s capital – San Jose – rather than head straight to the cloud forest. There was no easy drive from Tortuguero to either destination I was looking at – and San Jose was centrally located. Turns out the British kid was 19, but I swear he knew more American history than 90% of Americans of any age. We had some great conversations about his generation vs. millennials vs. mine. Do I remember his name? Nope. Let’s call him William. That might have been it.
His big take is that his generation is the first one who knows they’re fucked pretty much from the time they exited childhood. As opposed to millennials – who may not have fully realized the lifetime of student loan debt and diminishing economic opportunities that awaited them. To be honest it reminds me a little more of my generation. From the 70s to the early 90s – the US was in recession far more often than it wasn’t. When I graduated from college, no one I knew got jobs – except for super concrete skills like electrical engineer or accountant. Most of my friends and I waited tables. At my first restaurant job my manager had a masters degree. Of course college was also cheap back then. So yeah that makes a huge difference.
William had a hostel he wanted to stay in San Jose – called Finca Escalante. Having no better ideas on where to stay, I went along. Immediately on driving into the neighborhood, called Barrio Escalante – I fell in love. Maybe it was spending the last couple months in either Nicaragua squalor or jungle conditions elsewhere. But nothing appealed to me more at that moment than the idea of a civilized little neighborhood with walkable streets, good craft beer, plenty of restaurants and coffee shops. I decided I could spend a few days in San Jose.
As luck would have it – the hostel my new friend guided us to was a wonderfully social, friendly place which had a cheap room for me. It used to be the farm house when this area was still farmland. Now it sleeps 50+ people.
Those few days turned into almost a week. I got caught up on my blog and just generally decompressed from Nicaragua. I’ve got a pretty serious plan in the works to move to San Jose and Barrio Escalante in particular in the near future. I just need to square away a bunch of things back in the US. Oh yeah – did I mention it’s 74 degrees all year round? Climate is my #1 dealbreaker. I can’t do hot and humid if I’m going to live somewhere.
If I do end up settling in this neighborhood for a while it’s pretty funny to think I might never have discovered it w/o offering a ride to a fellow traveler.
The next night I hung out with William and a couple of his friends. We got KFC – which wasn’t bad. Then we had a few beers and I went home while they went to the bumpin’ club.
A couple days later I met a nice British woman named Lucy at breakfast. Since it was a gorgeous day we decided to explore San Jose. The more I see of San Jose – the more it reminds me of my hometown Kansas City – but in a cloud forest. It’s about the same size, the neighborhoods feel very similar to me, and walking around the old overgrown old money areas felt very similar.
Also San Jose has tons of amazing street art.
Lucy filmed me trying 100% cacao for the first time
After a day of walking around we enjoyed some nachos and watched the rain pour in. Apparently this was the first big rain of the season – and some of the gutters weren’t up to the challenge.
I found a pet!
Later Mike and Geneva from It’s Not a Slow Car it’s a Fast House blog showed up at the hostel. We’d been communicating off and on – which was initiated because Geneva had a similar foot problem as me. The next day she was supposed to see her surgeon nearby for a follow up. As it turned out he said he’d see both of us, and we basically just went into his office together (try that in the states). Once he heard my symptoms and I said I had tried stretching (which I really haven’t given it a good enough effort) – he ran some tests and determined I should get the same surgery – called gastrocnemius release.
Basically they partially cut your ligament at the back of the knee, which is supposed to release the pressure on the heel. Now why they wouldn’t just shave off the heel spur first seems to be a good question to ask. But from everything I’ve read online – this seems to be the first procedure everyone wants to try. Furthermore there is apparently a 92% rate of returning to your previous level of physical activity – which is by far the most important thing to me. My whole retirement plan is to hike around the world and take pictures. It’s inconceivable to me what I would do if I couldn’t hike.
In fact this doctor said he could operate as soon as the next week. And he wanted to do both legs because according to him it’s just a matter of time before it happens in the other foot. I got a quote later for $4k for the whole procedure. Ok but we gotta slow down doc. I know medical care in Costa Rica is supposed to be very good. But I’m going to need some more opinions before I go under the knife. One concern is that physical therapy in Costa Rica seems more like you’re on your own.
And I want to give stretching a real try. It’s too hard when you’re in a car a lot of the time and traveling around. Which is another issue that I think might be compounding the problem – my left leg is in a curled up position most of the time while I’m driving. It would make sense that this could cause the muscle to contract. Possibly this combined with all the hiking I was doing before my trip caused the muscle/tendon to be torn a little then heal in a shortened position. Can this be fixed by stretching? Dunno.
So that’s one of the big reasons I’m coming back to the states after Panama. My foot has to come first right now. I don’t want to do South America half-assed. Not being able to hike or go on long treks would definitely be half-assed to me. Long hiking trips like the Lost City and Inca Trail and a myriad others are the #1 draw for me to South America. Also my renter is moving out so I need to get that sorted, and it really want to improve at Spanish to enjoy my trip more. And a bunch of other reasons.
I have some plans for how I can become a digital nomad for a while. But first it involves getting my foot and my condo squared away.