5 Lessons I Learned While Traveling in Costa Rica
Before going to Costa Rica, my friend and I spent an evening mapping out and planning the entire two weeks. We made reservations, looked into bus schedules, and bought Spanish language books.
Once the plane tickets were bought, it all became real.
I had high expectations. High nervousness. High excitement.
But, as “prepared” as I felt before boarding that plane, I was quickly thrown into cold water. In many ways my expectations were met and exceeded. Some were let down. I learned things I never imagined encountering.
Was it an amazing, fulfilling, and beautiful experience? Of course. But not all lessons are learned the easy way.
Here are the 5 lessons I learned in Costa Rica…
1. Being lost in translation is an annoying, difficult, wonderful thing
I had never taken any Spanish lessons before my trip to Costa Rica. Instead, I downloaded a cheesy app to learn common Spanish phrases, scribbled some notes in a journal, and listened to a CD for about 20 minutes.
Naively, I imagined that most of the people in Costa Rica would speak enough English for me to hold a conversation with them. I assumed this because of the high amount of tourism in the area, and also just my own American ego.
What I encountered was that many (maybe even most) people did speak some English… but not everyone. By “most” one may think that these are pretty good odds. But while trying to figure out what bus to take from a person who only speaks Spanish, those stats don’t seem to matter as much.
I had to adapt quickly. I couldn’t ignorantly expect local people to cater to the fact that I did not speak their language. So I had to learn Spanish. Which is not possible in two weeks. So, I had to learn ENOUGH Spanish. I was so thankful for our Spanish phrase books, as I tried to memorize common questions, answers, directions, and more. I said “lo siento” a lot. I said “gracias” even more.
By the grace of some higher power, getting lost in translation did not lead to any major mix ups and our safety was never compromised in that regard. But I quickly developed a new found appreciation for language. And my ego was knocked down a few rungs.
It was pivotal for me to see that me being a visitor to another country in no way made me entitled to their understanding. It was difficult for me to navigate, but it was a necessary labor. To be an ethical traveler, I needed to recognize myself as the foreigner. It was uncomfortable for sure, but incredibly humbling. However, language is a part of culture, and cultures vary across the globe.
This is one lesson I am sure I will have to learn over and over again.
2. I feel most beautiful when I’m not thinking about how I look
I didn’t bring any makeup with me to Costa Rica. No flat iron, brush, or shampoo. I did this partially as a challenge to simply see if I could go without these *necessities*, and because I didn’t want to carry all that shit around with me in my pack. What I had was one travel-sized bottle of Dr. Bronner’s soap, a crystal stick of deodorant that did not work, and a toothbrush.
But, spending so much time in the humidity and in the ocean turned my usually wavy hair into kinks, which were stubborn against my partner’s conditioner.
So I let it be. I could not tame the wild.
Yes, there were unforeseen times when we were out in public when a swipe of mascara could have woken my face from the dead. Times where a regular bra would have come in handy….
But sitting on the beach by myself in the scorching sun… hair in a mess and skin toasted brown, I didn’t really care about those things. I felt so free. I didn’t compare myself to anyone that looked my way.
I was the person that could trek through the jungle in a sundress and New Balance running shoes. I was the person who could dance with a stranger on a boat while wearing a bikini and a sarong. I didn’t feel that I had to look a certain way. I didn’t feel like anyone else cared how I looked either.
If anything, I wanted to get more dirty. Run barefoot across the sand. Paint my face with mud. Get salsa verde on my dress. Being comfortable in this way allowed me to enjoy my surroundings much more. I less time I spent getting ready in the morning, the more time I had to boogie board in the ocean. Bike riding through Puerto Viejo. Swimming in the hostel pool.
I felt beautiful. I experienced more. I let go.
3. Money is an object
Costa Rica is not a cheap place to travel in. Especially in December. My travel partner and I set a $50 per day budget for ourselves (each), and it was tight. Several days were spent in the home of a family that my grandparents had a connection with, which saved us money. We are so grateful for their assistance and hospitality. No doubt they saved us even more in the long run by making sure we got on the right bus and found the best deals.
But I was hyper aware of money while I was in Costa Rica.
I knew what 1000 colones could buy me. I had to decide when we could afford a taxi versus when we had to walk for an hour to reach a waterfall in La Fortuna. We ate empanadas at bus stops versus buying full meals at restaurants. We made our own meals at the hostels most nights.
This is not to say that one can’t travel to Costa Rica on much less. Or that money alone should prevent someone from going on such an adventure.
But I was appreciative of what money I had. I was aware of the immense privilege I had in being able to afford a plane ticket abroad. I was so thankful to simply have the opportunity.
For some people, money is no object. But for many, it very much is. As our bus wound through the city and country, we saw tiny tin houses not much bigger than my bedroom at home. Houses that homed entire families. The value of money seemed so relative then.
It has inspired to be more appreciative of my belongings. Of my financial situation. To spend my money more wisely. To see that I can have a fun time without spending a fortune.
Some of the best times I had in Costa Rica were free.
So while I yearn to continue traveling abroad, I am constantly looking for adventure wherever I am. Money is an object. It is a thing. But it doesn’t have to be everything.
4. You can feel lonely no matter where you are
I assumed that travelling would break my fear of loneliness. At home in Seattle, I often find myself incredibly lonely, feeling the need to go out, be social, and do something. I figured that being in another country, I would be overwhelmed with people and things to do and would want some solitude. This was hardly the case. Most evenings, once the day had settled down and I prepared to go to sleep, I got homesick. I missed having people to text every night. I missed the comfort of people checking on me. It was just me and my own thoughts.
I hardly slept.
Relatively soon into the trip I came face-to-face with my anxiety and insecurity. I felt so far away from home. In some places, we were a 5 hour bus ride away from any major city. No one besides my friend knew me.
When my friend went back home early, I was really on my own. I chose to go to Puerto Viejo for two nights. Solo. I laid awake in my hammock in tears, on the phone with my mom. I felt immobile and scared. Once I got off the phone, I lay in silence.
Then the girl next to me turned over.
“I get lonely when I travel solo, too. You’re not alone”.
I realized that maybe feeling lonely wasn’t such a bad thing. That it was natural even. That I shouldn’t feel ashamed of being scared.
The woman and I talked for a while. We discussed the best ways to meet new people. Or when we should take some personal time.
The illusion of all these brave, fearless independent travelers was shattered. I am sure those people exist, but it is okay to feel lonely sometimes. Or a lot. It may be a fear I will overcome. I may not.But I will not let it hinder my desire for adventure, and I won’t let it break my spirit.
5. Not everything will go according to plan
I didn’t know that my travel partner was going to fly home early on Christmas morning…
Hadn’t planned on my flight being cancelled and not being able to catch another until 15 hours later…
I didn’t expect to get to Puerto Viejo and find all the hostels to be completely booked.
But I did roll with the punches.
When my partner left, I took a 7 hour bus ride to the opposite coast on my own.
When there was three-day wait on all flights to Seattle, I was patient. I visited over 6 different airlines and with some determination and luck was able o find a flight home the next morning.
And in Puerto Viejo, I lay awake in my dingy hammock, with bats chirping overhead, and I was thankful for a place to rest.
All of those situations were pretty shitty. Actually, really shitty. Tears were shed. I was exhausted a points.
But it all worked out. The outcomes were less than ideal, but I was safe. I was alive. And I was in an amazing, beautiful country.
I wasn’t able to plan every part of my trip. Life doesn’t work like that. But I still had an enriching time. I learned a ton, about myself and travel in general.
One thing I would say to all travelers is be adaptable. Many of these lessons I had to learn the hard way, but they were invaluable to my experience. I felt a wide range of emotions and took risks. I recognize that every trip will be different. But life is like that.