During the month-long trip, I planned on spending half the week teaching English in the capital through the local organization Maximo Nivel, and the rest of the time ambling with a backpack through the country’s vacation getaways.
But in my third week, as I walked along the coast of Manuel Antonio, a small beach town on the country’s Pacific coast, I felt miles away from any sort of Pura Vida calm.
I was sweating. I was complaining. And the air reeked of cow dung.
I tried to focus on something else and looked down at the soggy path, hoping that mud was the only brown matter coating the road. Finally, my destination popped into view —a narrow beach sandwiched between giant rocks and cliffs.
I looked around. The shore was too rocky for walking and the waves were too rough for swimming. But both were at least tourist-free. The lumpy, lonely beach would have to do. Within a few minutes, I felt my eyelids sink down heavily.
Suddenly, the low-pitched “moo” of a cow stirred me awake. I lifted open my eyes as a herd of cattle trotted straight toward my small party.
I blinked, nudged the others awake, and cleverly declared, “There are cows on the beach.”
Charlie, a Dutch university student I had met at my hostel, responded, “Welcome to Costa Rica,” before sinking back onto the sand.
Some welcome, I thought grimly.
The episode reflected one of Costa Rica’s inconvenient qualities: There is usually a trade-off between the scenic, tourist-filled vacation hot spots and the country’s sometimes unattractive local scene.
For enough money, places like Manuel Antonio will provide visitors with lovely hotel getaways. They will hear mostly English as they order sushi in expensive Japanese restaurants —of which there are surprisingly many— or set off on a guided rainforest tour. In fact, the country’s tourism industry is so effective at making travelers feel comfortable that it is probably fairly easy for them to forget they are in Latin America at all— that is, until they have to pay the US$25 departure tax at the airport (now only applicable to some airlines).
The capital of Costa Rica, San Jose, and its nearby suburbs do a better job at revealing the more un-touristy version of the country. Yet the city weighed down by traffic, is usually no place to linger. In surrounding slums, such as Tibas —home to more than a thousand Nicaraguan immigrants— shacks line crumbling, trash-filled roads.
The challenge, then, is finding something between the tourist havens and the no-go zones. Eager to come across this middle ground, before Manuel Antonio I had explored Puerto Viejo, another beach town, though on the Caribbean coast.
Old Caribbean Port
A Rastafarian influence hangs heavy in this area, home to the famously good hostel, Rocking J’s. For US$8, guests can rock to sleep in one of the supersized hammocks packed together in a big, open-air dorm room.
Still, Puerto Viejo, for all its beach views and surf spots, did not quite fit my image of the perfect un-touristy spot —too much division between the locals and the tourists.
During my stay, a group of locals jumped two backpackers walking back to Rocking J’s from a bar. The duo sprinted away with their money intact, but one, a junior from the University of Colorado, returned with a deep gash on his cheek and scratches along his sides.
La Fortuna’s biggest attraction is the Arenal volcano. Dinner-included tours compete to offer the best views, while the popular day resort, Baldi, boasts hot spring pools heated naturally by Arenal’s geothermal power.
During the day, the volcano, draped airily in smoke, presents an elegant sight, but the most impressive view supposedly comes at night —of course, I would not know.
As I tiptoed on a bridge facing Arenal during my only night in town, a cluster of clouds killed my hope of glimpsing what was once the glowing red lava.
And in Monteverde, my luck wasn’t any better. Somehow I landed on a tour of the Monteverde Queso factory watching a slideshow on the history of cheese — for which my only consolation was a free sample of cheddar.
Once again, I had failed to escape the tourist bubble. And after the cow beach in Manuel Antonio, I was beginning to feel discouraged. I had already been to three of the country’s best vacation offerings and still, the local flavor eluded me.
Jumping the Border
And so, with only a week left, I took a desperate step. I went to Panama.
My destination was Bocas del Toro, a backpackers’ mecca located just beyond the border that promised cheap food, another passport stamp, and a grittier experience than the pristine places I had seen in Costa Rica.
True to backpacker form, the decision was impulsive. I proposed the idea to 3 other volunteers from my worksite as we sat in a bar one night. The next morning, without any reservations, we caught the early bus to the border town of Sixaola and prepared for an 8-hour journey.
With only enough time for a brief trip, we sought out the hostel Mondo Taitu, a well-known party hub among young travelers. In the morning, Mondo’s guests brush shoulders in the kitchen making pancakes —the batter is provided free by the hostel— and in the evening, the bar offers 2 hours of discounted beers and cocktails, drawing a big crowd.
Surrounded by snippets of German, Hebrew, and English, we soon befriended the bartender, Olmedo. A devout Rastafarian, Olmedo split his time between work and surfing. As he deftly mixed drinks, we chatted, trading off between English and Spanish.
The next day, we joined Olmedo’s friends at Isla Bastimentos, one of the more postcard-worthy beaches in the area and reachable only by a US$1 taxi-boat ride. Here, surfing, snorkeling, and scuba diving are all cheap —a reprieve from Costa Rica’s gringo-adjusted prices.
Later Olmedo cooked an authentic Panamanian vegetarian dinner for our tiny party. As we ate, Olmedo told us stories about some of the drunken tourists he encountered while bartending and about his childhood in Panama City.
By evening, I longed to stay another day but needed to return to San Jose to catch my plane home.
A Backpacker’s Reflections
I thought about the Manuel Antonio cow beach. I was remiss in trying to find a tourist-free spot by myself and, as a result, had ended up with a beach that was less like a Corona commercial and more like a dairy farm. For too much of my trip, I had been trying to find the local culture without the local.
As I realized my mistake, I felt relieved. I felt at ease.
“Pura Vida,” I declared to Olmedo, smirking a little, as we sat outside the hostel. It was my last night in Bocas.
“What, you are ‘tica’ now?” he asked in Spanish. Tica was the name for a Costa Rican local. “Sí,” I replied. Yes.