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Can a Backpacker Keep His Dignity in Costa Rica?

New Musings from an Old Backpacker

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From time to time, a country’s success in tourism ruffles the feathers of intrepid backpackers the world over. Nation’s names are spit out with mild detest, and certain locations are deemed unworthy of true travelers, as if stingy budgets and the stench of vaguely hand-washed laundry is a travel necessity. I’m usually somewhere in this crowd of naysayers, to varying degrees of resentment, but I’m apt to change my ways every now and again.

Costa Rica is a destination I’ve often heard slandered. As a long-term, off-again, on-again resident of Central America, I’ve come to know it as the country most despised, the US’s whipping child, and Cancun reincarnate. It’s expensive (or more so than other C.A. spots), eco-trendy, and enveloped in tourists.

As a reader, the place has gotten a mixed rap. It’s been voted the happiest on earth. It’s full of admirable environmental efforts to maintain rainforests, live sustainably, and protect the seas. Doing so has also been largely financed by a bulging tourism industry, which can be slick and easy for those not well versed in the 20-hour bus ride and eating local fare. For some of us, the overly functional tourism is a flaw because it spikes prices upwards and can drive authenticity downward:

1. A huge portion of the population speaks English.
2. No one is carrying a basket on her head.
3. There are no chicken buses but rather actual coaches.
4. Hotels and restaurants cater to wealthy foreign clients.
5. Supermarkets are well stocked and include international choices.
6. Blah blah blah…

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Second Impressions

Last month, I returned to Costa Rica for the first time in ten years, for the first time as a seasoned traveler, and for the last time doubting its prowess as place to be.

First of all, I arrived from Nicaragua via a little boat—lancha, for those in the know—at a border town with a convenient store for a bus station. I’d taken an overnight ferry across Lake Nicaragua, watched the sunrise, and hopped the first boat (10 am) down the Rio Frio to Los Chiles, Costa Rica. Entering the country this way could not have felt more “authentic”, as we marched in a weird parade through an outdoor customs check, by a guy at a table collecting seventy-five cents for an as of yet undetermined fee, and heading to the one window office for our entry stamps.

The only noticeable difference was that the policeman manning the line into the passport office was under-armed (with only a normal, holstered handgun) and exceedingly nice: When he noticed we’d run out of water, he took our bottle and filled it for us for free; when a drizzle started, he helped orchestrate the line so that folks waiting outside could find a little sheltered; and while we were waiting, he spoke to us jovially. It didn’t exactly make miss the old Guatemala-Mexico crossing.

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A Fortune at La Fortuna

As I mentioned before, Costa Rica no longer deals in chicken buses. Rather, we hopped an air-conditioned public service jobbie with a place for our bags and everything. Sure, the two-hour bus ride cost five dollars as opposed to $1.50 as it might have elsewhere, but it wasn’t without a noticeably different standard of comfort and was still affordable. That day, we traveled a total of three-and-a-half hours on public transportation, which felt completely safe, admittedly unlike the rest of Central America, for less than the shuttle trip from Antigua to Lake Atitlan in Guatemala.

Before leaving Nicaragua, we memorized the name of a cheap hostel—Gringo Pete’s—where we wanted to stay. Our private, en-suite, fan-cooled room cost us $7.00 each a night (cheaper than anywhere else we’d stayed in C.A.) and had free coffee in the morning and a well equipped shared kitchen. The water from the tap was potable, so that wasn’t a concern. In addition to offering several high-priced tours, the staff also voluntarily provided us with insider info on a free swimming spot and a free hot spring.

The first time I’d visited Costa Rica, I went to La Fortuna, and there was one major activity to do there: Visit Tabacon, a ritzy and unbelievable landscaped “natural” volcanic hot spring hotel. It involved resort-type features like a swim-up bar and bountiful buffet. It cost $40 for a day of just visiting, not staying in the hotel or eating Even though La Fortuna now has a dozen or more similar places, the price had risen to $65 in the last ten years. Backpackers to the core, we said, “Nay!” and went the cheap way all the way.

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It turned out to be totally worth it. The free swimming hole was stunning…like, I’d pay a couple bucks to get in here stunning…with rope to swing out on and cool waterfall/diving platform. There were trails to explore the nearby stretch of jungle, and several local boys were performing amazing feats involving somersaults, upside-down rope riding, and precision swan dives. It was obviously there normal swimming hole. How culturally authentic, beautiful, and cheap most a place be.

That evening, we went to a free volcanic hot spring just beside Tabacon. There were no lights, no sculpted gardens, but plenty of warm water rushing through natural pools. Costa Ricans had come with ice chests of beer, and we all sat soaking as the darkness fell over us. Then, we were in a hot spring, in the pitch-black jungle, looking up at the stars. We even managed to get a free ride to and from our hostel.

The Old Port Revisited

Emma and I had set up of work-stay deal just outside of Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, on the Caribbean coast. I had been telling her about a hostel there, Rockin’ J’s, since the first month we met. I remembered it as a sort adult paradise, with free-flowing pot, gigantic hammocks for rent (instead of dorm beds), and funky mosaics and art. I didn’t actually stay there on my first trip to Costa Rica but had always regretted that. This time I was meant to right that situation. Unfortunately, we found out that all the local hostels and hotels had jacked up prices for the Christmas/New Year holiday. It was $23 to sleep in a tent.

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I was nervous about going back to Puerto Viejo. It had been a lazy beach town with few restaurants, only a handful of places to stay, and lots of tucked away stretches of secluded sand. The guidebooks I’d been reading this time took a more negative spin, citing the onslaught of tourism and resort kitsch that had noodled in over the last decade. I was expecting high-rises, Applebee’s, and a gigantic indoor mall for rainy days. The thought of it had me worried, disappointed even before arriving, ready to scrutinize and scoff and recount the beauty that was.

Truth be told, I think Puerto Viejo is still pretty rockin’. I might have skipped out on those gigantic hammocks yet again, but I thoroughly enjoyed the town, every bit as much if not more than the first time around. It had been built up a little—the business had expanded south, fancy restaurants and boutiques interspersed with more local sling-‘em eateries and reggae-blasting stereo systems. There were three supermarkets as opposed to the half-stocked convenient store I’d known. Lots of local coffee shops, book exchanges, and a little beachside market. All in all, it was still humble enough to not even echo what the Yucatan has become.

Puerto Viejo was just right. I expect my beach towns to have some tat. I like to have some cheap eats around (we went to the bakery every morning for two coffees and giant baguette--$3.00). I like WiFi when I need it. I like coconut trees and Rastafarians milling around my beaches. At Puerto Viejo, I enjoyed having the option of a white sand or black sand beach, having the trees provide a little shade in the sand (or not, if you prefer), and having the ability walk everywhere, including other nearby costal villages with hardly a baking backpacker to behold.

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After ten day or so days of sun and surf, we took a morning bus down to the Panamanian border, where we had to stand outside in an impressively long, slow-moving line that was completely free of shade. To leave Costa Rica, we had to walk across a rickety wooden bridge with slightly harrowing views of the river rapids below. It was a far cry from being unworthy of backpacking glory. I’d have to say it was one of the more interesting crossing I’ve done, right up there with the Nicaragua-Costa Rica entrance I’d started with.

Learning from the Road

It occurs to me that at our two stops in Costa Rica—La Fortuna and Puerto Viejo—there were a myriad of travel-friendly choices for people. It was possible to stay in chocolate-on-the-pillow type places with breakfast buffets and cosmetic rather than natural beauty. It was possible to eat sushi, drink single malt, and buy forty-dollar souvenirs pants (found for $5 elsewhere). It was possible, then, to be charged far too much, to never interact with locals or attempt a word of Spanglish, and to complete miss out “authenticity”.

That said, it was not a requirement to be so hemmed in. There was still plenty of adventuring to be undertaken, there was a comforting lack of US fast food chains and Walmart Supercenters, and the place is just jaw-droppingly stunning. It’s fully stocked with wildlife—we saw monkeys and sloths when just out for a walk—and incredibly varied in terrain, from volcanoes to swamps to beaches to jungle to cloud forest to fertile farming hills. It’s no wonder people want to visit.

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Can a backpacker keep his dignity in Costa Rica? We had no problem traveling through without staying in one resort, without eating in one chain restaurant, and without breaking our budget. I’d say my traveler’s virtue is still intact. In fact, I’m pretty certain I’ll be going back before long.

Posted by jonathonengels 11:06 Archived in Costa Rica Tagged travel backpacking expat

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Comments

Sounds amazing! Love the idea of a place that has some of the conveniences of "first world" without succumbing to typical touristy travesties. Might be a perfect place for your mom & Will to check out at some point. Thanks for the info and tour.

by maggiebingham

Can't wait for the next adventure, as I follow along.

by maggiebingham

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