Pura Vida!

Pura Vida!

Costa Rica is a surprisingly beautiful country, where by surprising I mean that on every occasion, on every corner and most likely when one least expects it, nice things happen and beautiful places show their inner beauty too. I somehow think there is hardly a need to get a guide to enjoy the beauty of this country, as really it is available to all. One just needs to take the public boat to go to Tortuguero in order to spot monkeys, perezosos, crocodiles and baby crocodiles, tucans and what not. And a simple walk through the dirt roads in the village will reveal poisonous snakes, jaguar prints and sleepy frogs waiting to wake up at night.

costa rica countryside

The gorgeous nature of Costa Rica

However, what is most striking about this country is its people. It must mean something if the national saying is “pura vida“, which means “pure life” and is used as a greeting, and casually said even to tourists and people walking by in the street. People are friendly, helpful, polite. I just need to get in a local bar, have a cerveza (here it would have to be Imperial!), and within minutes I am chatting with a local girl who is curious to know about my travels and enthusiastic to tell me about her pregnancy. Or, if I get off the bus at the wrong stop, a guy who was also on the bus would warn me that the area is not too safe, and stop a taxi so that I get safely to my hostel. Costa Rica is definitely more expensive than the rest of Central America, but I can see why: it works efficiently; and the fact that it is so much more efficient makes it also way more pleasant for travellers, so that eventually I am somehow ok to be paying more, since I am also getting a much better service (I was starting to get tired of those crazy crowded chicken buses!).

Since things are so easy here, Costa Rica is a great place to meditate and look at your inner self. So… take the chance and PURA VIDA!

 

To WWOOF Or Not To WWOOF

To WWOOF Or Not To WWOOF

I have abruptly terminated my first try at WWOOFing in Costa Rica after only three days, as it was close to a total disappointment for me. And apparently I am not the only one who had a bad experience. I literally fled the place after having a bad argument with the owner. There was nothing organic there except the dirt. The owner portrayed the farm as a natural, organic place where she’d grow coffee, fruits and vegetables and take care of animals. It was nothing like this: she had the animals, and she may want to grow her own things eventually, but so far, she has nothing. And again, the cockroaches, only this time not the small ones, but the large ones, and I am not supposed to dislike them or try to kill them, but I am supposed to politely ask them to leave. SERIOUSLY.

Coffee Costa Rica

A coffee farm in Costa Rica

I went there ready to do my share of work, but my understanding was that I would not be the only one having to work. It appears to me that the owner here does her own thing (who knows what? To me it seems like she did nothing and since the minute I walked in the property she would be on vacation, I would be working while she spoke nonsense to me) while I had to clean, scrub, feed the pigs, the horse, the dogs and the cat – who, by the way, are absolutely adorable and loving. So there I arrived, understanding that in exchange of my work I would be given 3 meals per day and a place to stay. I was getting a nice place to stay, indeed, but no real meals. Indeed, I was pretty much starving.

The owner is an obsessed and obsessive vegan who does not allow the consumption of any animal products there (no dairy, no eggs), and of course no alcohol. This would have been ok if she was not trying to swiftly but firmly impose her way of life on me. So, the reality was that she doesn’t really eat, and she won’t let others eat either. One thing is to be vegan, one thing is to starve! I was only given coffee and fruits in the morning, then no real lunch or dinner. I was preparing my own meals in the cafeteria that she had me working on so that – I am guessing – she can open it again.

WWOOF

My only memory of WWOOFing is the cockroaches

Everything was ruined, rusty, rotten, dirty and cockroaches are all around. The only working fridge was in her house, and I had no access to it. In order to have a working fridge, I had spent my days washing a huge professional fridge sitting unused in the cafeteria, which was completely rotten inside (and I was doing this using a mixture of vinegar, water, baking soda and salt) and still needed to be painted on the outside. Same thing with the oven and the rest of the oppressive, dark, dusty and rotten cafeteria.

I went to buy bread, and the owner pointed out that bread is processed and she expected I would want to eat all natural food. I told her I was starving, and she said we could bake our own bread. I replied that yes, we could, but not till I fixed and cleaned the (obviously) rotten, greasy, dirty oven, and meantime I needed to eat as fruit was not enough to fill me up. She was almost shocked. I am sorry, but having just fruit is not going to keep me going 4 hours, but 1 at most!

costa rica countryside

The gorgeous nature of Costa Rica

Another thing she did, which I think was crazy. I was expected to only consume coffee in the cafeteria. I like having my coffee by myself in the morning, it is my introvert moment, and I very much needed to recharge and prepare myself in order to be sociable. So I went in the filthy cafeteria in the morning and made myself coffee which I brought back to my room. She told me she was really disappointed, and she was shocked when she went to the cafeteria and could not find her “precious” French cafetiere. So, it looks I am only allowed to drink coffee in the cafeteria, which I do not want to as it is dark, mouldy, dirty and not cozy at all in there. I want some light, fresh air, and a clean place to relax while I have my morning coffee! What could be so wrong about it? Having noticed that she has several Italian coffee pots she did not use, I asked if I could use that instead, and if it was ok to take that to my room, and warned her that in order to use that I would have to run the coffee in the pot at least once in order for it to be drinkable (I know how Italian coffee pots work, you know!).

She said she doesn’t get the whole point, she said she knows a whole lot about coffee and the French press is, in any case, much better to make coffee (what does she care how I like my coffee?), and when I eventually asked her if I can buy the pot from her, she said no. 5 minutes later, she gave me some cheaper quality coffee, gave me the Italian pot, and put the coffee she normally uses in a bag which she took away to her place, as if I would “steal” it otherwise. She then justified herself the morning after, saying that she did it because, since we were not having coffee together in the morning, she’d also want to have it at her place. Yeah, and I am so fool I would believe it (most of all, as she barely drank coffee!). As if I had not been the only one working on her knees to clean scrub etc while she just stands there talking nonsense about organic, vegan etc (oh, btw, when we got out for a snack, she actually had mayonnaise on her tortilla, which is NOT vegan and is so processed that there is nothing natural about it!).

The best part was when at the market, while I was picking toothpaste, she “suggested” I should be making my own with baking soda and salt (btw, that is BAD for the teeth, it scratches them badly) as the one over the counter would have chemicals in it (this is the same person who is using regular detergent for her clothes and dishes, not organic one!). What when I asked her if she has an extra pair of gloves that I could use for cleaning, and she said she doesn’t as she never uses them. I guess, what she should have said is she never cleans, but demands her volunteers to do so.

Sloths in Costa Rica

A sloth in Costa Rica

The last drop was when, yesterday morning, my toilet leaked – it leaked everything (poo etc: she never fixes broken things!) so I ran to ask for a mop and other stuff to clean the bathroom. She gave me stuff (I then realise the mop was no real mop, but a rag!) and spent over an hour to wash away the poo, clean the bathroom and disinfect it till it would be fixed. I was obviously late for breakfast (yeah, she calls that breakfast), and when she eventually walked in and told me “this is not our schedule, so that you know!” I did not even attempt to reply, I just told her “I am leaving tomorrow” (remember, it was 1st of January, many things would be closed!), she said I would then have to pay the extra night, so I told her I was leaving the same day, and she said ok. I went back to my room, and packed, and after 5 minutes she was there, knocking at the door, saying I would have to pay the previous night. I told her she could forget it, as I worked so hard the last few days to get nothing in exchange, not even real food, and she started screaming, saying that she had been trying to make me more comfortable (how so? Putting me on my knees to scrub a rotten fridge?). I told her that her overall attitude is ridiculous, like with the coffee issue, and that I am not a child anymore, but I am a 38 year old who holds a PhD and she can’t bully me around. I then shut the door in her face and told her to leave me alone. She kept talking from outside, and said she was going to call the police (what for?). She then started carrying staff to my room, ie coffee, the left over fruits, etc, saying I should take them with me (I guess she thinks I am a miserable broke?).

I ended up leaving while she was crying (what for? I should be the one crying), saying “Please talk to me, I am sorry!” and I was just so infuriated that I ignored her. I hitchhiked to the main village (a police officer stopped!), then got information on a bus to Cartago, which would then connect me to San Jose. While waiting, she drove by – she had gone look for me – and again told me to go back, she asked me to talk to her (ie wanted to force me to do that), that I could leave tomorrow, when the buses would be running. I suppose she wanted me to stay longer (of course, when would she ever get other people to work for free and so well?), but I left. I am sorry, but I have to think about myself and my health first, especially my mental health!

Anyways, my take is that she wanted to open up a business, like a café-restaurant of sort, but she has no real money to do so, so she calls in volunteers which have to live by her absurd rules (ie starve) and do jobs which she would otherwise have to pay for. I eventually told her that, if she has no money to invest in a business, she would just have to give up, without having to treat people like thieves and slaves which she would try to indoctrinate.

WWOOF was created as a way to connect travelers and farms for a rich cultural exchange. My overall view though? Farms that can’t afford to pay for skilled workers exploit labour of travellers and make profit from it. This is not an exchange and I didn’t learn anything from it. Other than I should stay away from it!

Costa Rica attractions: enjoy Tortuguero at its best

Costa Rica attractions: enjoy Tortuguero at its best

There are many places to visit in Costa Rica, but a trip to this amazing country would not be complete without a visit to Tortuguero. The name of the place is a direct reference to the turtles, which nest in the area between July and August. That’s when the park is at its best, and when the village is fully booked. Nevertheless, it is one of the best places to visit in Costa Rica year round and it is possible to travel cheap if following my advice.

Costa Rica attractions: Tortuguero National Park

Reaching Tortuguero is in and of itself one of the top Costa Rica attractions. The village is completely isolated and can only be reached by boat, via Cariari (which is the most common way) or Moin. There are regular buses connecting San Jose and Cariari. All leave from the Gran Terminal de Caribe, and the trip takes roughly 3 hours. Once in Cariari, go to the estaciòn vieja, where most travellers get a Clic Clic or Coopetraca bus to the dock, and then a boat. A combination of bus and boat should cost around 5$.

The boat trip to reach the village is possibly the best (and cheapest) attraction: imagine lush nature, crocodiles, sloths, monkeys, various species of birds… My recommendation would then be to leave as early as possible from San Jose, in order to catch the boat well early in the day and have full view of the surroundings. Keep the eyes open and camera ready, because this is a “free” visit to the national park and it is possible to see more animals here than on any of the Tortuguero tours.

Tortuguero, Costa Rica

A gorgeous cayman in Tortuguero

Tortuguero:

The village is far off from pretty much anything, there are no cars and no banks in the village, and not many shops will accept credit cards. So, make sure to withdraw cash before getting there. There is one main dirt road and various side streets, all connecting to the beach, which is one of the best beaches in Costa Rica. The main road is home to a number of artesania shops. Tortuguero is surrounded by luxurious nature – think palm trees along the coast, rain forest and thick vegetation, and wildlife is rich. The fact that it is right in the rain forest means that it rains year round. Almost any unbearably hot, humid day will have some downpours.

The 2000 inhabitants are mostly of Jamaican descent, and speak a funny variety of Creole English, mixed with Spanish, that is really lovely to listen to. They are very friendly and relaxed (too relaxed at times, as seen in certain local businesses), but keep in mind that this is a tourist destination, that the village lives off tourism, so the locals will often engage in an open battle with other villagers to offer their services to tourists.

Turtles in Tortuguero

It wouldn’t be Tortuguero without turtles

Costa Rica attractions:

Once in Tortuguero, right on the dock there is the main information office and tourist agency, where it is possible to ask for organised tours of the park. Visiting Tortuguero National Park is one of the best things to do in Costa Rica. Keep in mind that there are many agencies in the village that attract tourists by offering “free” information, as signs hanging outside would say. This is just a way to attract paying customers. There are day or night tours, kayak or boat tours. For extra adventure, there are canopy tours (zip lines).

By all means, the park can be seen independently, without a guide but just paying the entrance fee (10$), which is the best and even the most reasonable option for those travelling to Costa Rica on a budget. Whichever mode one picks to visit the park, make sure to rent rain boots, as the paths are extremely muddy and boots protect in case to be unfortunate enough to be bitten by a snake. Also bring insect repellent. Needless to say, in such humid weather, mosquitoes will attempt to feast on any living creature.

A walking tour of the park with a guide costs around 20$ per person, including the entrance fee. A guide can point out animals and plants, but remember that this doesn’t necessarily mean seeing all (or any!) of them. Some are night creatures – so is the jaguar (of which the guide can point footprints, at most, and which has been spotted 4 times in the last few years) or the various species of frogs that live in the park (which by the way can also be spotted in the village by an expert eye). Sloths and monkeys live high up in the trees and with that thick vegetation they are hard to spot. Snakes hide in the vegetation and sometimes not even guides can recognise them.

The beach can be a pleasant place to cool off in the evening, but keep in mind that it is highly recommended NOT to swim in the sea, although it is considered one of the best beaches in Costa Rica. Shark attacks have been reported and the currents are very strong.

Tortuguero beach Costa Rica

The beach in Tortuguero – nobody swims. It is too dangerous!

Where to stay and where to eat:

The village offers many options to sleep and eat, for almost any budget. The average price for a double room with a private bathroom is 15$ per person, but take some time to walk around the village to be able to find similar options for as little as 9$ per person. Arriving early is a good way to have sufficient daylight time to walk around and the cheapest accommodation. The most convenient places to eat are called “sodas”, basic eateries that tend to close quite earlier than most restaurants. Local specialties include seafood. Try the local “gallo pinto” – rice and beans – a national staple and accompaniment to any meal, that in Tortuguero is made with coconut milk/oil. Freshly made juices and fruit are abundant and delicious.

For more information on places to visit in Costa Rica, click here!

Costa Rica, Tortuguero sunset

A beautiful sunset in Tortuguero

 

Costa Rica attractions: Puerto Viejo, the extreme laidback side of the country

Costa Rica attractions: Puerto Viejo, the extreme laidback side of the country

Puerto Viejo is the perfect place to be a beach bum or to practice one’s surfing abilities in the pristine Caribbean waters of Costa Rica. It has some of the best beaches in Costa Rica. The lush nature around town, its dusty streets, artesania shops, good bars and seafood restaurants and its relaxed rastafarian community (be prepared to listen to reggae music all day long, see the typical colours of rastafarians all around town and being served by a waitress who will laughingly admit to having smoked marjiuana) make this place charming and therefore one of Costa Rica attractions. The good news is that there are plenty of cheap accommodation, eating options and activities not to blow anyone’s travel budget.

Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica

Waves and wildlife are among Costa Rica attractions

Things to do in Costa Rica:

Surf and snorkel

Salsa Brava is thought to have the best waves of the country and is among the best beaches of Costa Rica for surfing. The coral reef almost emerges from the waters, so make sure to catch that wave unless willing to crash on the reef: in other words, it is only good for experts. Playa Cocles, about 2 km east of Puerto Viejo, has great but less dangerous waves, usually in the first hours of day. To catch the best ones, go between December and March. Not a surfer but willing to give it a try? Enroll in one of the surf camps.

Playa Negra is a great beach for swimming and body board. Snorkelling is best enjoyed in the areas between Cahuita and Manzanillo – for better visibility go when there are no waves. For scuba diving, there are over 20 good sites in the area where it is possible admire various species of fish. For information, the best option is Reef Runner Divers – it is even possible dive with a temporary permission for those who do not have a patent.

Puerto Viejo

Sand, coral reef and forest in one of the best beaches in Costa Rica

Hike and bike

Puerto Viejo is a great starting point for other things to do in Costa Rica, such as a hike in the rain forest, kayaking, walking. And then go back to town to enjoy a delicious rondon soup (a traditional fish soup with vegetables and spices typical of the area). There are organised tours of the parks, but it is easy to hike around (and for free) independently in the Parque Nacional Cahuita and in the Refugio Nacional de Vida Silvestre Gandoca-Manzanillo where toucans and sloths can be spotted. South-east of town the jungle meets the sea, contoured by palm trees and inhabited by toucans, sloths and monkeys: it all gives this a special aura. Carry lunch and plenty of water.

Be lazy

For those who want to be extra lazy, the best option is to just walk around, browse the artesania shops, enjoy the relaxed atmosphere and mingle with the local artists.

Puerto Viejo biking

Biking around? One of the many things to do in Costa Rica

Where to stay and eat:

Backpackers looking for cheap accommodation in Puerto Viejo will find Hostel Pagalù a great quality option: comfortable beds (dorms are 12 US dollars), rooms and bathrooms are spotless, there is a cozy common area with books, wifi and computers, a well equipped kitchen to prepare meals. No reservations are accepted but those lucky enough to find a bed, will never be kicked out unless they decide to leave!

There are good supermarkets to buy and prepare meals. Those too lazy to cook who would rather eat out shoudl go to Soda Mirna, in the main street, as it is the best budget option with its set meals and large portions. Bread and Chocolate is perfect for a very filling breakfast, and everything is organic and prepared from scratch, not to mention delicious.

Various bars have live music at night.

Getting to Puerto Viejo and away:

It is possible to get here by catching a bus from the Gran Terminal de Caribe in San Jose. From Tortuguero, catch a bus from Cariari to Guapiles and then hop on another bus to Puerto Viejo.

To reach Panama get a direct bus to Sixaola (they leave several times a day) and then cross the border in Guabito.

For more things to do in Costa Rica click here.