In Costa Rica, there’s a saying called “pura vida” which literally translates to “pure life,” and it’s unavoidable: you find it on signs, clothing, storefronts and on the lips of locals. It rolls off the tongue everywhere you go, but it isn’t just a touristy phrase: it truly embodies a way of life unlike any I’ve ever known.
This little marvel of a country rests in Central America below Nicaragua and above Panama, and it’s sandwiched between the Pacific Ocean to the west and the Caribbean Sea to the east. When I was initially deciding where to go in Latin America, everything about this place seemed pretty attractive to me: its main exports are coffee and bananas (two of my favorite things!), it has rainforests but also beaches, and it contains 5% of Earth’s biodiversity. What’s not to love about that?
But if I thought I knew what this country would give me, I was wrong.
I’ve long wanted to do some international solo traveling, but I wanted to do it in a way that felt authentic and would allow me to meet as many people and see as much of the country as possible. Enter Contiki. You could pretty much rename it “the Millennial Travel Company,” as it’s for 18-35 year olds like myself who want to get away. Here’s why it’s perfect: Contiki essentially plans excursions in countries all over the world, and you pick your length of trip and the style of travel you prefer (adventure-seeker, in-depth explorer, volunteer, etc.), pay ahead of time, find your own flights, and then you’re off! The only costs you’re responsible for after you reach your destination are a few meals, alcohol and add-on adventures, which are optional, but usually most of the group participates in them because they’re awesome (think white water rafting and cruising on a catamaran).
In the planning stages of this trip, everything sounded like a dream to me, and while I was a bit nervous about traveling with an entire group of people I didn’t know, I was more excited to be in a new place and to have people to explore it with. Travel is way more fun when you share it, and I knew the adventures I’d have here would be unlike anything I’ve ever done before.
Arriving on my own in San José was an exhilarating feeling. I was 100% alone in a country where I don’t speak the native language and had to find my own way to our meeting point at a hotel downtown. My first task in the airport was to get some local cash. When I travel I always prefer to use ATMs to do this rather than exchange money, because it’s hard to find a currency exchange agency that has a fair rate (airports NEVER EVER DO don’t do it) and I’d also read that because tourism is such an integral contributor to Costa Rica’s economy, American dollars are accepted pretty much everywhere. Even the locals use them, which is really strange to watch!
Figuring out how many colones to take out of my bank account was quite the experience. I kept using my phone to do conversions because I realized I had no idea what they equated to in dollars, and eventually I reluctantly typed “50,000” into the machine, double- and triple-checking that I’d selected “colones.” (It amounts to about $88.) I’m happy I did things this way, because vendors in Costa Rica dispense change in colones even if you give them dollars, so I was never really lacking for local currency during my stay.
My nerves were kicking in at this point, and I was eager to find my way into town and get this adventurous show on the road! When I arrived at the hotel, I waited at the front desk next to a blonde woman who looked to be about my age and seemed like she might also be on a trip that tours the country with a bunch of strangers. As I was checking in, the concierge told me I was rooming with someone named Lindsay, and the blonde woman spoke up and introduced herself as Lindsay and just like that, a friendship was born.
Lindsay deserves a full-on shoutout on this blog; she will go down in history as my first-ever Contiki roommate, though I was far from hers, as this trip was her sixth (!!) with the company. She’s been to twice as many countries as I have (#30before30), but what’s truly cool about her is that by day she’s a nurse in the NICU (babies!) at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, which tells you straight away how big her heart is.
Lindsay was my Contiki ride-or-die. From the moment we met, I felt our personalities gel as they only do with great friends, and our interaction as roommates was only ever awkward for the first ten minutes or so when we were getting to know each other. After that, we were bonded for life. Throughout the trip she looked out for me and I her, and she was just lovely and encouraging and fun, and our senses of humor are one and the same. I felt privileged to be adventuring with a seasoned traveler and genuine person. Linz, I love ya, and I can’t wait for more travel adventures with you!
After we got settled in, Lindsay walked with me to the Central Mercado, where my senses were suddenly overwhelmed with choice! There was fresh meat, all sorts of fruit, handmade goods and mostly local cuisine. I didn’t know what local cuisine consisted of yet, so I opted for some kind of pastry with beans and cheese resembling an empanada (it was delicious). I learned that my new roommate can speak a bit of Spanish because she’s traveled extensively in Latin and South America, and this was super helpful, especially on my first day when I was just getting used to hearing the language all around me.
San José is a scenic, lively city. As Costa Rica’s capital, the streets are busy and filled with cars and people, but everyone we met was kind and everywhere we went was interesting. This is one of my favorite scenes from the streets.
The architecture here is something special, as it doesn’t adhere to one specific theme. The Teatro Nacional was completed in 1897 and initially stood as a cultural symbol of the country during a time when coffee exports were the main source of economic success. Now, in addition to producing high-end theatre, it’s home to the National Symphony Orchestra and is a tourist attraction.
I’m happy our time in San José was limited, because in truth I didn’t come to Costa Rica to spend much time in a bustling city. I came to explore nature and find animals and make new friends.
Fortunately, that evening the group got acquainted in the hotel bar. We made hasty introductions and then went to a restaurant called Aqui es! (“Here it is!”) for our first meal together. All in all our group numbered about 17, with a few others joining us in a couple of days due to flight delays. Seventeen sounds like an absurd amount of people to travel with, but here’s my honest take on it: We were thrown into this experience so quickly, and I’m a firm believer that sharing meals together is a genuine way to get to know someone. Throughout the trip, it truly never felt like we were too many people to get to know, and it meant I could sit next to or eat with someone new each day to change things up. It also ensured there was always someone or a small group to hang out with even when others went off to do something else.
Our Contiki Tour Manager was Erick, a San José native with the most gorgeous eyelashes I’ve ever seen on a man in my life. He’s also one of the kindest and most genuine people I’ve ever met, and as the trip progressed and we all got to know each other better I learned a lot about him. Erick clearly enjoys his job, and because he was our age, it was easy for us to connect with him during our free time in the evenings. He was responsible, knowledgeable and overall an incredible guide for us.
After dinner, despite the travel fatigue most of us were feeling, several of us went to a bar down the street from our hotel that served shit tequila they were trying to pass off as Cuervo. Either way, it was nice to get to know everyone a little better. I realized how truly varied our group was, from nurses to dentists to marketers to weather forecasters to law students to teachers. Our personalities were all over the map, but as I’d learn over the next few days, spending all of your time with the same group of people for over a week forces you to seek out the good in them, and because a passion for travel was everyone’s common denominator, it made the hurdle of “becoming friends” easy to get over.
The next morning we were due out of San José at 6am: our heading was Tortuguero, in the heart of Costa Rica’s rainforests. We all woke bright and early and boarded our colorful little Contiki bus and met our darling driver, Felix, who speaks little English but has a hearty laugh and a radiant soul to match. He soon became a favorite part of the trip for everyone.
The drive was really our first glimpse into native Costa Rican culture. We rode through banana plantations and local villages, men selling pineapples on street corners, and houses with front doors wide open, which I took to mean the country was inviting us in. I felt my soul level itself with this new culture, and I couldn’t wait to get off the bus and experience it for myself.
Arriving in Tortuguero is truly an experience like I’ve never had before. We were scheduled to stay inside the national park, which is of course protected land due to the vast species of wildlife that inhabit the area. Because of its remote location, it’s only accessible by boat or small aircraft. So, all of us piled into a speedboat, luggage and all, and began our hour-long ride into the depths of the forest.
Talk about a view. Riding in on the river, it’s impossible not to be awed by the sheer complexity of the vegetation here, which seems to grow on top of each other in bold variations of green and with leaves larger than my head. I understand the meaning of the word “canopy” now, as the trees tower over all of us, human and animal and river alike. It’s breathtaking.
Our accommodations in Tortuguero National Park were at the Pachira Lodge, a charming little rainforest resort that feels like staying at the Animal Kingdom Lodge in Walt Disney World, only more real. There are animals EVERYWHERE. As Lindsay and I headed off to our room to freshen up, we found howler monkeys on the roof of our lodge. And not a couple of them. SIX of them, an entire family, including a sweet little baby. It is amazing to never have spent much time around monkeys and then to suddenly be sharing space with them so freely. We also came across crabs (huge, lively white ones unlike the small blue ones I’m used to from living in Maryland), teeny but vibrant lizards and my personal favorite, the Blue Morpho butterfly. I knew that Blue Morphos existed in South America, particularly in Brazil and the Amazon region, but I had no idea I’d encounter them here. They are so stunning to see up close, and gigantic. This hotel happened to be full of them and I was grateful for the chance to witness them in a natural habitat. I’m sure I was in awe of this place until I left it.
Late that afternoon we took a boat down the river to the small village of Tortuguero, from the Spanish “tortuga” for “turtle” and so named for the sea turtles that come to nest on the beaches here each summer. It was a bit too early in the year for us to see any (sad face) but still nice to know they visit frequently! We stopped by a Sea Turtle Conservancy, which researches the natural behaviors of the turtles who come ashore to nest, and that of their offspring as well, who always return to nest on the beach where they were born. (What a cool job these people have.) One thing I’ve found to be true about Costa Rica is that often you go somewhere for one purpose and wind up discovering something completely unexpected. This, my friends, was my first encounter with leaf-cutter ants!! For such tiny insects, they are both terrifying and awe-inspiring to watch in action. From far off, they appear to be one little trail of green specks in motion low to the ground. Up close, they number by the thousands and are small but mighty, essentially comprised of one long trail of ants, each carrying sections of leaves they’ve chomped away from trees themselves. I read that leaf-cutter ants can destroy an ENTIRE TREE in ONE DAY (!!) and they bring the sections of leaves back to their colony to feed their queen. It truly is a woman’s world, y’all.
The town of Tortuguero is actually a tiny village on the edge of the rainforest’s shore, and it’s a true embodiment of the “pura vida” way of life. The people are open and warm, and everything is colorful and simple. Children run barefoot through the muddy paths, shop owners greet people happily, and vendors sell “coco loco,” a coconut filled with rum and who knows what else. (Of course I had one. On the beach. For Instagram.)
I had to stop here and appreciate my surroundings for a moment. Here I am, on one of the first full days of this trip, with 16 strangers I’d met just a day and a half ago, drinking on the beach in a national park in the middle of a rainforest. What is my life??
Our meals were mostly provided by the lodge during our stay, and it was some of the best food I’ve ever had. Everything tastes so fresh. Lots of rice and beans, plantains, fish, and always fresh pineapple and papaya and good, strong coffee. I DESPERATELY miss Costa Rican coffee (sorry, New York, but yours can’t compare).
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO: This was the only area on our trip where the water wasn’t safe to drink out of the tap, but the resort has water coolers filled with filtered water, so no worries as long as you’ve brought a bottle with you. Also, the humidity.
OH FOR THE LOVE OF GOD THE HUMIDITY.
I thought I knew what humidity was, having grown up in the Northeast and lived in Central Florida for a summer. As it turns out, I did NOT. I have never in my entire life been to a more humid place than Costa Rica. My clothes would. Not. Dry. For three days, they remained at a certain level of moist that is altogether unpleasant for someone who’s essentially backpacking across a country for nine straight days. But as uncomfortable and strange as this was, it was probably my only worry through the entire trip.
Friends, I have to tell you, although this had already been an incredible day, the most unbelievable and 100% most memorable part is falling asleep in the rainforest during a thunderstorm with the animals in their natural habitat making their native sounds. I leave you with this thought as I reread this post 100 times, trying to recapture all Costa Rica gave me in such a short amount of time.
And I’m just getting started.
Pura vida xx