Sunday, September 16, 2012

In case you're curious: An informative post on Costa Rica

And I swear this will be the last post on Costa Rica..for a bit.

People ask us all sorts of questions relating to Costa Rica and what it's like to travel there. So many people have it on their bucket list, and it should be, so I figured I'd help you all out and give you some insight into what it's all about, aside from the gorgeous sunsets.

If you've been there, you can pretty much stop reading this now, unless you've only been to some fancy resort and think that's all there is to this amazing culture. In that case, or in case you are curious about the lifestyle, then keep reading.

This trip, I decided to make it a mission to take some pictures of the culture and not just the beauty. Sure, there is raw, natural beauty within their culture, but it is an Under Developed county (I don't care for the term "Third World Country". I think that term is a bit outdated) and there is a lot of poverty, especially in the rural areas where we visit most. It wasn't my objective to capture poverty, per se, but just the lifestyle, in general.

We have been privileged to travel all throughout the country, with the exception of the eastern coast. We have been to Arenal to Tamarindo, to Mal Pais, to Punterenas, to Manuel Antonio, to Uvita, to Osa and San Jose. We have seen it all, mountain towns to bigger cities and tourist traps. What's most amazing to me about Costa Rica, everywhere, is their people. They are humble, they are gracious, and they are thankful for tourists. Tourism is a $2.2 billion dollar a year industry. It is the most visited country of Latin America, which says so much about this place. Yes, there is an upper class there, especially in their capital of San Jose and some of the surrounding suburbs. You can find plenty of million dollar mansions and shopping malls bigger than we have here in Florida in San Jose. We have even encountered snotty, snobby attitudes to accompany some of these upper-class Ticos (as the locals are called), but for the most part, they are wonderful, hospitable people.

 A view into their world, all taken from small towns on the Pacific coast...
A typical Tico house is very, very small. one or two rooms, maximum, fitting an entire family.
 {A family home off of a dirt road near Parrita. This would most likely be considered middle class.}
{Apartment-style living near Playa Hermosa}
As I've mentioned a bunch of times, they are laid back people, never in much of a rush. They are proud people, always taking extremely good care of what is theirs, whether it's a shack, a bike, or a business. They love their country, which is why we love going there in September. Their Independence day is September 15th so their flags are flying everywhere the whole entire month.
{A school near Parrita, decorated for Independence Day. They still use pay phones throughout the country.}

 {A bus stop at the foot of a mountain.}
{A graveyard near Parrita.}
 {The front yard of a small house near Playa Hermosa. Chickens included.}
{Off of the main highway near Playa Hermosa.}
{Palm fields. They use palm oil for everything. This is a typical road made of rocks and dirt.}

They love, love, love babies and children. Ticas are meant to be mamas. All of them. And Ticos are great daddies, from what I've seen.
{A Tico on Playa Hermosa with his baby girl, about 10 months old, showing her the waves. She had beautiful curly hair, like Lily, and the sweetest face. These two live in a 10x10 shack just off of the beach.}
They love their soccer. There are soccer fields everywhere.
 {A school yard near Parrita.}
{A soccer field near Playa Hermosa with a school in the distance.}

So, if you're still curious and want to travel there someday, here are some of the questions we get most often:

Q: Is it expensive to travel there?
A: It depends on how you like to travel. We usually spend an average of $100/night on lodging but you can certainly find hostels and cabinas for $30-$50/night or you can find luxury hotels over $300-$400/night.  We prefer the boutique style hotels that are small and still have a Costa Rican feel, as opposed to big Americanized resorts, but have all of the amenities such as A/C, TV, etc. (That's how I like to travel. Dustin would stay in a tent.)

Food can be expensive if you don't know where to eat. If you're in a tourist area, an average dinner costs about the same as the States, around $50 per couple. We love the Sodas, which are small, locally owned restaurants with typical Costa Rica food for around $2-4 a plate. The food is delicious.
Car rentals are about $500/week in low season but public transportation is super inexpensive. Flights from Florida are usually around $250-$300 per person.

Q: Is it safe?
A: It's just like anywhere else. It's safe and it's dangerous. Most crimes in Costa Rica are non-violent. They want your American stuff, specifically electronics because there is a huge black market for those items there. They will take your stuff if you're not smart. You don't go walking on the beach at night or leaving your iPhone on your rental car seat. Be smart and you won't have an issue. In eight years, we have never had an incident.
The murder rate is lower than Washington DC, Baltimore, Newark, Detroit, and many other U.S. cities.

Q: Where is a good first location to travel?
A: Take a whole week and split it between Arenal and Manuel Antonio. These are very popular tourist areas. They are easy to travel to, with paved roads, and there is so much to do in both locations.
Arenal boasts a beautiful active volcano and you should zip line and hike here, go to the hot springs at night. Manuel Antonio is on the coast and you should white water raft, paddle board, and hike the National Park.
You will want to come back after your first trip and visit Mal Pais, Samara, Osa, Uvita...and the rest of the country. There is so much to see.

Q: Where do you usually stay or where have you gone back to?
A: We usually stay in Playa Hermosa, outside of Jaco, at the Hermosa Beach Bungalows. This location is awesome because it's only 1.5 hours from the airport, it's one of the best surf breaks in the country, and it's close to Jaco for shopping and restaurants (we do not recommend staying in Jaco). There is plenty to do in this area for first timers, too.

Other hotels we recommend:
Hotel Silencio Del Campo in Arenal
Hotel Cantarana in Playa Grande
Hotel Cristal Ballena in Uvita
Hotel Pura Vida in San Jose Alejuala
Bosque Del Cabo Resort in Osa (this is an eco-friendly, all-inclusive UNIQUE resort. It is considered luxury camping and is not for Marriott type travelers!)
Hotel La Mansion Inn in Manuel Antonio
Buena Vista Villas in Manuel Antonio (very pricey but perfect for a honeymoon or splurge)
Villas Nicolas in Manuel Anotnio

Q: Do I have to know how to speak Spanish?
A: You should. But I don't and we get along ok. I try to speak and learn the language when I'm there and the locals appreciate that.

Q: Can we drink the water?
A: No. I wouldn't in most locations. Try to stick with bottled water. We've never had a problem but nothing ruins a vacation faster than having the shits for days.

Q: Is driving safe?
A: Nope. But it's fun.

Q: Where wouldn't you travel back to?
A: Probably Tamarindo/Playa Grande because it's too Americanized. It's beautiful there but we like the southern and mid-Pacific better than northern. And we did not LOVE Mal Pais as much as we wanted to. It's beautiful, too, there but it's difficult to get to and we didn't love where we stayed.

We're going back in November, actually 7 weeks from today, on a 4 night trip to Blue Osa, an eco-friendly resort in a remote area. I'll keep you all posted on my thoughts of that place.

That's it. That's my sales pitch for CR. I should figure out a way to get paid for this advice, right??

If you have any other questions, leave me a comment!

Monday, September 10, 2012

Vacation Journal #4: The Last Days

I will admit that I got teary eyed this morning thinking that at this time on Wednesday we'll be driving back to San Jose, headed home.
It's been an eventful trip, good, bad and ugly, but it has also been the best out of the eight. That's actually not really true. Every trip has been special for different reasons but just because of the mere fact that we've been here for so long this time has made it SO great.

I will miss our lazy days here, which go like this...
5-6am- Wake up at the crack of dawn, little feet running into our room, wanting to snuggle...or play with her iPad.
7-9am- Dustin goes surfing. I wash dishes, sweep, clean up, make a little breakfast, maybe go down to the beach with Lily to watch Dustin surf. Lily plays:

9-11am- Get some work emails done, while Dustin plays with Lily, with this as my view:

{The Pacific is in the distance in that second picture}
11-12ish- Go to the pool with Lily, playing with the other kids in the neighborhood.
12:30-3ish- Lunch, errands in Jaco, more work emails, naps.
Late afternoon and evening- Beach again, maybe pool again, cook dinner or get some to-go.
8-9ish- Bed. For all of us.
This has been the majority of our days. So peaceful. It's the kind of boring that I long for everyday back in the States. Nothing rushed, nothing stressful, not spending a lot of money. It's been exactly what I imagined it to be and more.

We haven't done anything too adventurous this trip because it isn't easy to do with a three year old, but we did do a hike to a big waterfall called Tres Piscinas (three pools), where you can jump into the pools from the tops of the falls.
It was about a 30 minute hike up the river, literally, and it was gorgeous. Thankfully we remembered to bring the hiking backpack to put Lily in that we bought for our trip 2 years ago. She's about 15lbs heavier now, so Dustin's back was a little pissed off, but she couldn't have hiked it. She loved the adventure.
We brought a picnic, sat and listened to the rainforest sounds, watched Dustin jump like a 10 year old kid over and over into the pools, saw dart frogs, and relaxed.

While Dustin and I were in Manuel Antonio, we did hike the National Park for about three hours, walking for miles (read:getting a bit lost and walking in circles around one specific trail). It was so beautiful but I'm afraid all of the recent construction down there has scared a lot of the wildlife away, which was sad. Manuel Antonio was gorgeous, though, as always. It will always be my MOST favorite place on earth. For any newcomers to Costa Rica, we always suggest this area. It's more than amazing.

Our last two days will be spent doing more of the same, just relaxing and taking mental notes on how much we love life here.

Here's hoping that time will stop sometime in the next 48 hours...

{I haven't been adding many pictures because I forgot my plug-in to upload them from my camera. I will do a picture-full post when I get home.}

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Vacation Journal #3: Planning for Someday...

I cannot believe we only have three days left here. It never seems like enough time. I can't figure out if I feel that way because it's vacation, and, let's face it, who wants to NOT be on vacation? Or, if it's because I want to live here and adopt this lifestyle.

We talk seriously about moving here every time we visit. We have discussed this since our second trip in 2007. Dustin could definitely live here, no question. He is simple and could be content, happy with surfing everyday. He wouldn't mind if he never saw another store again, or any other American convenience for that matter. Me, on the other hand, I haven't figured out quite how I feel about making such a huge move to another country.

The longest amount of time we've ever spent here was 12 nights which was out wedding/honeymoon trip. At the end of that trip I was ready to go home, mostly because our last three nights were spent without electricity (purposefully) at an eco-resort, plus I was just exhausted from the excitement. As soon as we got home, however, I couldn't wait to go back, missing everything about it.

I thought 17 nights would be a good indicator of how I would feel here a little bit more long term. Not that I'm comparing 17 nights to 365 days a year but I thought the vacation-y feeling would subside after about 7-10 days, Lily would get bored and I would start missing everyday U.S. staples.

But. No.

All that I'm missing are my family and friends.

We'll never really know if it's right for us until we just do it. Or at least make a plan to live here part-time...somehow.

We have spent a lot of time this trip talking to other Americans that made the huge commitment of moving here. We drilled our bungalow neighbors, Laura and Brian, asking them what they miss about the States, how they worked out the logistics of moving here, what its like for their two young children, what do they do when they get bored, and on and on. They've lived here for almost three years, moving away from the high end living of Orange County, California, and they have no regrets.

I asked another young, 30-something, expat that has lived here for seven years, "Ryan, do you ever regret leaving the states?". After he finished laughing for a good 10-15 seconds, he said "HELL no!! I sat on my porch everyday for a YEAR, drinking Costa Rican coffee, laughing my ass off, knowing I achieved my dream. That newness wore off a bit, but no, I love everyday here".

They all gave us sound advice but at the end of the day, all it takes is money.

Could we make it work financially? Hmmm, maybe. It would be a sacrifice, selling everything in the states except for our rental property, that we would keep for when we come home, and Dustin's truck, since it's paid off, but we could do it.

The problem? What would we do for income?

Foreigners are not welcome to work in Costa Rica, unless they're on a work Visa which is very, very difficult to obtain, and expensive. Many Americans own businesses here, which is risky, of course, and you must hire locals to work for you. Costa Ricans believe in generating employment for THEIR people. A novel concept. All other Americans that live here either have gobs of money and are retired, or have an American business that they can run efficiently from over here, online.

I'm not even sure of the point of all of this rambling. Perhaps it's my way of beginning to develop a longterm plan of some sort.

Ideally, we would love to make some sacrifices in Florida and invest in a bungalow down here, renting it out for the majority of the year but being able to come here as we please (or as we can afford!). That's a very real possibility over the next couple of years: saving, planning and researching.

If you want something bad enough...

Friday, September 7, 2012

Vacation Journal #2: Vacationing is Dangerous

So, I droned on and on in my last post about some traveling challenges we've faced since arriving in Costa Rica two weeks ago. Sure, we experienced the worst thunderstorm that they have had here in over 2 years, losing power, therefore having to move accommodations...yada, yada, yada.

But, have I mentioned that Lily almost drown on the first day in the Pacific ocean, that I broke a bone in my big toe on the 6th day, and OH, there was a 7.6 magnitude earthquake here on our 10th day (the 2nd largest that this country has ever had)? If you're a friend of mine on Facebook then I know you heard about the last two. I failed to brag about my questionable parenting skills when Lily almost drowned.

Vacationing is dangerous.
I will go in sequential order...

On our first full day, I took Lily to run around on the beach.
First, for those of you who have never been to Costa Rica and don't know anything about surfing, Playa Hermosa is one of the most famous surf breaks in the world. In 2010 they even hosted the World Surfing Championship here. This is AWESOME if you're like my husband and surfing takes president over most things in life but if you're just an average beach goer, Hermosa is not for you. Think 10-12 foot walls of water with deadly rip currents, even in the shallow portion. It's a crazy amount of energy.
Gorgeous beach, but not for swimmers.

So. Lily was LOVING running around in the white water, splashing around as the waves finished crashing on shore. She was in no deeper than ankle high water. She was getting more and more comfortable and I was letting her see how strong the water felt on her feet as it pulled back into the ocean. I started chasing her, letting her get a little more independent and further away from me, as she was running through all of the seemingly harmless white water when all of the sudden a bigger wave came, probably up to just under her knees, and as the wave pulled back, it took Lily under with her, causing her to fall backwards.

I was only about two steps behind her but it seemed like ten minutes before I was able to get a hold of her. The force and weight of this water is so unbelievable that it took all of my strength to hold onto her and pick her up. She was 100% submerged at one point, as I tried to lift her up. It was as if the ocean was hungry for a redheaded three year old, trying to suck her out to sea. It's so powerful.

When the water was safely back in the ocean and I was able to see her face...I cannot even explain the look. She was really just...surprised. She whined a bit because she had a TON of sand in her mouth, which she immediately started crunching on, not able to figure out what really just happened, but overall she was pretty brave. She was black, from head to toe, with the volcanic sand of Hermosa. It was in every orifice. Her ear canals were full, it was embedded in her was actually a pretty great kodak moment but I was too busy shaking from the mom-of-the-year experience to snap a picture, although I'm pretty sure my mom took one soon after which I will post here soon.
The good news is that Lily is not scarred by this and continues to LOVE playing in the surf. Me, on the other hand, scarred.

Toe story...
Not much to it: I'm clumsy and tripped up the stairs at our hotel. I wish there was a better story, like the alligator sized iguana that we saw in Manuel Antonio National Park stepped on it or bit it, but no, I'm just clumsy. Had a difficult time walking for a couple of days when the toe was double it's normal size, but the swelling has gone down some and I have gained some mobility back, able to walk somewhat normally again. Classic me.
I might have a little Post Traumatic (funny that my computer auto-corrected this word to "Dramatic", which is very fitting, I'm sure) Stress Disorder from this one.
I live in Florida. We have hurricanes. I know nothing about earthquakes and tsunamis, apparently. We have DAYS to prepare for a hurricane, at least 5 days. Earthquakes just happen, as do tsunamis that follow earthquakes.
Dustin went out surfing around 7-7:30am on Wednesday morning. I was cleaning up the bunglow, doing some laundry, and playing with Lily. Around 8:40ish, Lily was sitting on the couch watching Scooby Doo and I was about 4 foot away from her, sitting at the kitchen table taking off toe nail polish. The bungalow started to sway, which isn't unusual since it's on stilts and even running up the stairs or the dryer makes the place sway. I thought to myself that Dustin must be home from surfing, running up the stairs.

But within seconds the severe shaking added to the swaying and it felt like the whole place was going to collapse from under us. I ran over to the couch, hugged Lily tight, smiled and said, "We're having an earthquake, baby!!", as happy and calm as I could muster. She wasn't afraid. She seemed confused and was just looking around at everything falling off of the walls and the shelves.

It lasted all of a minute but it felt like 10.

The first thing Lily said? "Mom, you need to clean up this mess!". Wonder whose daughter she is?

After it was over, I ran outside where I saw the cute family next door from California (now Costa Rican residents) loading up their kids in their car, telling me that we had to leave I was slightly confused. I was not thinking about tsunamis. I failed middle school science.

California family educated me, quickly, on the tsunami warning that was in effect and that going to higher ground was necessary. My mind flashed back to that horrible tsunami a few years ago in Sumatra and the devastation it left behind.

I really started to panic at this point because Dustin was still surfing. I asked Laura from California to watch Lily for just a minute so I could run out on the beach to find Dustin. Of course, on this day, the surf was PERFECT so there were about 40 guys in the water. Not one clue which one was Dustin. Not only were there too many, they were spread out over about 600 yards. Another surfing widowed wife and I tried diligently to wave no avail. Those surfers had no idea what just happened and that they might be riding the biggest wave of their lives any minute.

I ran back to the bungalow, cute California family takes off, and everyone else was in a panic. A couple of the other American residents thought that the threat of a tsunami was ridiculous, but they are also burned out, single hippie men that probably are not even sure of the day...or year.

The property manager, Twinka (yes, that's right), came racing up in her pick-up screaming, "VANESSA, YOU NEED TO LEAVE RIGHT.NOW. DO NOT WAIT FOR DUSTIN! GET TO THE TOP OF THE MOUNTAIN NOW!". She begged for me to just jump in her truck with Lily but I could not convince myself to leave Dustin...yet.

I was now completely shaking, realizing the severity of what was going on but I had to be calm for Lily. I went back into the bungalow and calmly collected a couple of things and told Lily we needed to go for a ride. I made the decision to leave my husband behind. The "what ifs" running through my mind were unreal. Anxiety sufferers will understand. Shit, even if you're not an anxiety sufferer, you would be in this situation.

Just as I put our Suzuki in reverse, my husband came running down the road. And I started to cry a little. I was so overwhelmed.
I pulled it together quickly and we drove to the top of the cliff where about ten other bungalow residents and renters were parked. We just sat up there, recounting our experiences, and feverishly trying to get a cell phone to work to see about this tsunami warning. After about 15 minutes, someone said, "Tsunami warning has been lifted!!", which was complete bullshit but we wanted to believe it, so we went back to the bungalows. CNN told us that the tsunami warning was indeed still in effect. So we left again, complete with a picnic this time.

We returned an hour later, sans tsunami warning.
There was very little damage to this immediate area. A few broken water pipes, cracked tiles, shifted door frames, broken drinking glasses, but nothing major. Closer to the epicenter, about 90 miles north of Hermosa, there was some more significant damage but nothing what a 7.6 could really do. Apparently, the earthquake originated 25 miles deep, which is what spared Costa Rica this time. This was the second largest quake to hit, the highest was a 7.9 in 1991 in which the result was 160 billion dollars in damage. We were all lucky this time.

It was a very surreal, crazy experience. We felt a few aftershocks that night which got my heart racing a bit.

A vacation to be remembered, for sure!

And yes, I still want to move here.

Cookies for anyone that read this. It's a novel. I just had to capture these memories before I forget.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Vacation Journal, Costa Rica 2012

This year is such a different trip for us. 
We obviously come here every year which began in 2006. What began as a simple trip of surfing and curiosity, a birthday present to Dustin, turned into a wanderlust for Costa Rica. We wanted to see it ALL and we certainly have come close. To date, we have spent approximately two months vacationing here since our first trip. This trip is our longest at 18 days.

We had originally planned to stay for 3 months over the summer of 2013, which we started planning for in late 2011, but logistically with work, a child, and overall responsibilities, we couldn't see how this was going to work. We then turned it into planning for a month for this trip. I did my thing and researched where we would stay, car rentals, etc., and of course, the best laid plans fall through as things with my job changed and a month off of work wasn't possible. We settled on 15 nights. We saved every penny in the past year to make this work. Bonus: Thanks to living in Florida, we had the threat of a hurricane so we got to leave two days early, making it 17 nights.

I had intended on writing everyday, or almost everyday, capturing everything I can about our days. Well, tomorrow we will already be here for a week. So much for that.

I cannot explain how I feel when I'm here. I want to freeze time. I want to bottle up the scent of the fresh air. I want to capture the non-anxious, non-hustle-and-bustle lifestyle. I want to memorize every waking second because it truly is that tranquil for me here. I know that this is what vacation is all about but it goes beyond that for me. I wish I could elaborate more but words will not transpose well enough.

Even when we're faced with several traveling challenges, I still love it...

We rented a privately owned home this time, which I knew was going to be a gamble. Thanks to the internet, I am a wiz at researching, planning and generally making awesome decisions when it comes to vacation lodging. This time, I may have missed the mark a bit. 
We arrived to the house, which I had come to memorize because I looked at the pictures online so.many.times. over that last 10 months, and as soon as we pulled up I just knew it wasn't exactly what I had lusted after in those pictures. It was close and had a lot of similarities, but it was far from perfect. I could tell by looking at Dustin's and my dad's face that they weren't too stoked on it either.

It was secluded, which sounds like a lovely term but in a 3rd world just never know what seclusion can bring. We were met by the grounds keeper, Victor, a charming Tico who did not speak one single word of English. No problem. We're used to that here. But the house just seemed...big...and stark...and not homey or welcoming. It was lacking any kind of wow factor, aside from the amaing views of the beach. The first thing I actually hated were the amount of stairs. Sounds silly but I knew it would be a problem for Lily. The private pool was gorgeous, and what I was most excited about, especially having Lily with us, but it was not so clean. Neither was a lot of the rest of the house. 
Ok. I can deal with that. We are on the beach, literally, so saltwater damage happens. But I could still tell that the rest of the family was iffy. Dustin was the first to actually admit it.

But. We were going to make it work. Until our 4th night when we lost power. for 24 hours. It was one of the worst storms we have ever experienced in Costa Rica. Power outages are common here but not for 24 hours. That was a long, long night. Lily couldn't sleep because she was so hot and the rest of us couldn't sleep because we were scared shitless. Being without power, secluded in a remote-ish part of a foreign country...hmmm. No power = no alarm system, no phone, no nothing. Unsettled is the best term I can muster to describe the four of us adults. Especially at 3am when the policia were flocked on the beach right in front of the house, flashlights a blazed. Still not exactly sure what was going on there.

The next day, still without power, into about the 13th hour, I was getting pissed. It's hot, this is our vacation which was starting a little more like torture because of the heat and the inability to even use the pool because of how stagnant the water was getting, and oh, by the way, why the HELL does the community right down the street have power?? Why did it appear that EVERYONE had power except our secluded house after only 3-4 hours after it had gone out? We were all pretty miserable at that point.

Long story long, we decided to make other arrangements for the following night, fearing power wouldn't be restored and we would be forced to have another night sweating our asses off and trying to grin and bare it. Fuck that. We're on vacation. So, we called the owner, told him our plan, told him to call us when power was restored, and we headed down to our old stand by accommodations, The Bungalows. 
As soon as we checked in, I felt like I was at home, being that we had stayed there 4 times prior. I immediately kind of dreaded going back to the other house and {not so} quietly hoped that it would not be restored...but it was. Within 2 hours of checking into the bungalows, that mother-effing power came back on. Such is life.

The following morning I called the owner and basically told him we didn't want to go back so his eerie, large, unwelcoming really nice words. He argued with me, which I knew he would, saying he can't give us our money back, so we regretfully agreed to return. 
Low and behold, he then shows up to the bungalows an hour later with our money back, hands it to Dustin and tells us to go get our stuff. He must have decided that losing the money was better than listening to us bitch again, should the power go out. Smart man.

The bungalows it is. And we love it. And so does Princess Lily.

Speaking of Lily, she has melded right into this lifestyle. Granted, she has plenty of technology to remind her of home, but she still has done amazingly well. She's loving the pool and the beach, chasing bop-bop around in the white water. I love watching these memories being made.

Dustin and I are on a two day mini trip down to Manuel Antonio, where we got married, and soaking in my most favorite place in the universe. The perfect combination of rainforest and beach, this place is amazing. The views are, well, more amazing. 

Aside from the scary house, a flat tire, and a jammed toe from tripping up the stairs (classic me), this trip could not be any better so far.

My parents leave on Tuesday, so it will just be the three of us for the last 8 nights. I'm already dreading leaving, which sounds so odd but it is just that amazing here. 

If anyone actually read this...kudos to you. You deserve a cookie. 

I will add pictures to this post soon to make it way more entertaining.