If you were to tell my kid self I'd be spending an entire summer in Costa Rica, working half the time guiding high school students, and the next month or so traipsing through the country with next-to-no plans or money, I probably wouldn't have believed it. Costa Rica's expensive, right? It's for honeymooners and surfers...and I wasn't dedicating much time towards becoming either.
But at the ripe old age of 25, with a few years of facilitating other people's adventures (i.e., wilderness guiding in California and hosting Couchsurfers in New Orleans), I've changed my views of travels' accessibility: Travel is easy if you let it be.
The most enriching experiences, for me, are relatively unplanned and inexpensive. It's just a matter of crashing past personal boundaries and turning the ruts (flat tires, pillowside tarantulas, language barriers, dangerously-cheap government booze) into adventures. Getting in uncomfortable situations is how you get to be comfortable in those situations later.
In 2008, two million travelers came to Costa Rica and spent 2.2 billion dollars in the country making tourism account for more of the GDP than bananas, pineapple and coffee combined. As towns adapt to accommodate tourists, 40 percent of whom are American, it becomes harder to get off the beaten path in a short trip. I was lucky enough to have a couple of months and an "in" with a local community.
The first part of my job was in the serene, lush and brilliantly-green cloud forest of Monteverde at University of Georgia's off campus research facility teaching high school students photography and environmental science for National Geographic Student Expeditions.
Monteverde's gotten a lot of attention in the last couple of decades because of its extensive biodiversity due to its unique ecosystem—essentially a tropical rainforest in the clouds.
The elusive bell bird with its unique 'bonk' call has attracted birders from across the globe. Monteverde is home to uncountable species of birds, frogs (cuties like the three-toed sloth), howler monkeys, and tons of impressive dinosaur-size plants, vines, orchids, and strangler figs that thrive on the afternoon cloud cover that rolls in without fail in the rainy season.
The mountain is now home to a mixed population of locals, researchers, volunteers, yoga retreaters, Spanish-language students, seasonal tourists and the businesses that cater to them.
In high-profile places like Monteverde, Arenal and Manual Antonio, naturalist tourists are directed toward pricy zip-line, horseback, rafting and walking tours to enjoy the environment. Of course, these activities are fun—who doesn't want to be propelled at 25 mph through rainforest canopy 200 feet off the ground—but if nature is what you seek, the best places are the ones a little off the radar.
My second group of students, who were in Costa Rica to work with locals on community service projects, ended up spotting more wildlife than the first. While in the tiny town of Pozo Azul, just 30 km down the mountain from Monteverde, we made friends who showed us around throughout the week. Local boys Andres and Diego hiked everyone up to their favorite spot in the river, pointing out wildlife along the way. They took the group where there were no trail tolls, no kitchy souvenier shops, just farmland and rainforest active with howler monkeys, sloths, Blue Morpho butterflies, exotic fruit and a symphony of calling birds.
The theme of finding the authentic, just next door to the overexploited, was constant throughout my travels. It's the Bourbon/Frenchmen scenario. Every novice NOLA tourist starts off on Bourbon Street. Some of them never leave the Quarter and will go home sharing all about crazy New Orleans—Hurricanes, beads and loud 80s music. What they don't realize, is just blocks away, Frenchmen Street is alive with a much more local experience. So towns like Tamarindo, Jaco, Monteverde and the city of San Jose, all on the tourist trek, were much less interesting than their neighboring towns.
After a month of guiding, I dropped the crew off at the airport and realized it was the first day of the rest of my life. I was free! I decided to head back to Pozo Azul to try to get to know the people and way of life on my own. Plus I really wanted to learn how to make arroz con pollo, arepas and chorreadas (traditional Costa Rican corn pancakes). Well, I got what was looking for…from at least half the kitchens in town. I had the entire process down from the picking of the corn to grinding it by hand and eventually slathering the chorreada with sour cream.
It's unbelievable how accommodating the people of Pozo Azul were. I had offers to stay at about ten houses to the point where I felt guilty having to choose. I finally just went with the one who 'had already made the bed up.' A sweet family of four with 16-year-old Dayana who wants to be a veterinarian and 18-year-old Charlie who plays drums and sings in a kumbia band. The first night I was there, the family took me (or rather I drove their car since no one had a license to drive) to watch Charlie play down in Mirimar. Dayanna tried her best to teach me how to dance Kumbia
Every day was an adventure I'd wake up, wander around, and get invited into someone's plans—fishing, going to the swimming hole, picking fruit, sledgehammering a new door in a cement wall, planting corn, playing fútbol... One day I went out to kick a ball around with Charlie and ended up loading hay with my own personal pitchfork branch freshly macheted from a tree. By the end of the day, I was drinking fresh coffee and eating arepas and practicing English with the farmer's wife and kids. That's when I got the invite to the castración de toros.
There's nothing quite like a language barrier to surprise you into an unforgettable experience. My Spanish was getting better but I was still squinting thorugh every conversation—as though that would help the words be clear.
The farmer rolled up in his truck when I was on a walk with Dayana and he told us to get in. With no clue as to what we were doing, I jumped in. When we arrived at the farm, my hay-chucking partners were in the corall, all three in full-fledged tug-of-war with a rope tied to a bull's back feet. His horns had already been lassoed and tied to a post and he was struggling--probably because he knew what was coming to him… or rather going from him.
One-by-one they lassoed and wrestled twelve bulls to the ground, and after a couple cuts and some antibiotics, the animals were a little lighter than before-- and I was responsible for a pair of them.
Not everyone has time to hang out long enough to make friends with an entire community but it doesn't mean there's not an authentic experience to be found. Sometimes it's just a matter of one conversation. A chat with the taxi driver about how things have changed, the bartender's favorite food, a tip-off from the zip-line guy as to the best local dance spot, for example.
As my trip neared its end my best friend from college rerouted her vacation get-a-way plans in my direction, which meant my third trek to Volcun Arenal. Not complaining (Arenal is an active volcano, very cool). This also meant hot springs, morning jogs, fruit plates and pillow chocolates—basically the opposite of the Pozo Azul experience. Still not complaining. It was the perfect end to a couple months of getting dirty.
But when I realized it was my last Saturday night in Latin America and therefore my last chance to refine my salsa, merengue and kumbia skills and the closest club was a $20 taxi ride, I had to think fast. I got lucky. The conscierge was going to the same club. And when I got there, I ran into some new friends from the zip line tour and danced the night away.