A Travellerspoint blog

Costa Rica

Can a Backpacker Keep His Dignity in Costa Rica?

New Musings from an Old Backpacker



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…


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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 Comments (2)

Who's Vago?

New Musings from an Old Backpacker



Arriving at a new destination, even if you’ve arrived at hundreds of new destinations, is still a humbling experience. As I’ve gotten my chops as a traveler, I’ve learned to research a little before getting somewhere. I’ll know what animals are around, places I might like to see, if a nice restaurant for vegan food exists (less and less a rarity)…but, even so, ultimately, at some point, I’ll be left feeling as if I don’t know squat.

Our latest stop was Puerto Viejo, the popular spot on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica. We’d set up a work-exchange at a nearby organic farm—Vago’s Place—where we’d pay a reduced flat rate for room and board and provide a little labor. Amanda, the farm’s Dutch matron, was nice enough to time her weekly shopping trip with our arrival in town to give us a ride to the farm. Amanda’s baby in tow, the back bumper swinging precariously below the tailgate of her truck, and a co-volunteer (Sangeet) in the passenger seat—we’d set off south and quickly cleared the restaurants and cabana bars.

The farm was a healthy ride away from anything resembling a town, just as we’d hoped it would be. That night, Memo, the farm’s Costa Rican paterfamilias, whipped up some noodles and vegetables for dinner, and as we digested, we sat around chatting. An obvious question, especially considering we’d met everyone and yet still not the farm’s namesake, finally surfaced: Who’s Vago? Everywhere has a story that guidebooks and the Internet reviews just don’t tell, something that makes places personal.


Vago’s Place

Vago’s Place technically is about five kilometers (three miles) away from Puerto Viejo, near a village called Cocles, where the beaches are a little less infringed upon but still not devoid of sunbathers and body surfers. Anyway, at some point, you turn off the costal highway, drive two kilometers away from the sea, along a gravel road that cuts into the jungle. Development dissipates the deeper you get, and eventually, you get to Vago’s Place, not quite at the end but with not much beyond it.

Amanda and Memo have been working on Vago’s Place for two years now, as of December 2013, and they are trying to create the ever-illusive sustainable farm. They have a small herd of goats that provide milk and cheese. They grow a scrappy collection of crops, including (amongst others) Brazilian spinach, assorted herbs, papaya, and okra, a favorite I’ve not often found outside of Louisiana. Amanda, a wealth of local flora knowledge, also scavenges a lot from the property’s naturally occurring plants, with which she makes medicinal teas and other products.

The two have built themselves a comfortable dwelling, two floors high with two enclosed sleeping areas currently used for volunteers, one-and-a-half baths with a collected rainwater/onsite well water source, as well as roomy open-air spaces for a kitchen, living room and work station. Next-door are a small stable for the goats and an unfinished kitchen for handling the milk. The garden beds are minimally manicured (aka left weedy), the greenhouse is hodge-podge but productive, and the property is steeped in fruit trees. Bamboo grows in nooks and crannies everywhere, and bamboo construction is a big part of what is happening there.

While the farm is productive—we ate lots of spinach and okra, had delicious ginger-lime tea, and gathered wild gooseberries from a little patch of grass—like most others we know of, it’s still a few hectares off sustainable. On Saturday’s, Amanda participates in an artisanal/organic market in Puerto Viejo, where she sells her products: a huge variety of medicinal teas, kombucha, pesto sauce (made from her own basil), soaps, toothpaste, cheese, and various other handmade items she conjures up from what’s available. This provides the income necessary to supplement the farm’s food needs.


Our Experience

For us, Vago’s Place was a quick and high-impact (at least on our backs and hands) experience. The days start at 6:15, with volunteers meeting at Amanda and Memo’s kitchen for breakfast. All meals are prepared together, the tasks haphazardly portioned out: Someone cuts vegetables while someone prepares a drink while someone watches Kian, the very adventurous and mobile baby, while someone cooks things up. Usually, by 8:00, we were setting off for work.

Daily chores more or less revolve around the goats. The working part (as opposed to breakfast preparation) of the workday starts with milking them, something I attempted with mediocre success—Amanda came in after I’d finished and acquired twice as much as I’d gotten. Then, there is the precarious task of moving them from one field to another for daytime grazing, and usually that involves chasing down rogue goats who’ve stopped for leafy snacks along the way, often in the most difficult areas to reach. At the end of the day, we’d have to do the same thing in reverse.

Other tasks we took on while on the farm: Day one and two were laborious to say the least. Memo and Amanda had dug a massive hole, imagine a small swimming pool, to start curing their bamboo in larger loads (soaking bamboo in salt water helps with bugs) and we had to expand it quite a bit. It was hour upon hour of digging and lifting large buckets of earth to get everything out of the hole. In the end, the hole was bigger. The plan is to seal it with concrete, fill it with salt water, and start producing large batches of construction grade bamboo.

After the hole, we attempted to battle the mud on a shortcut/path between Vago’s Place and Amanda’s parents’ home, where she and Memo are currently living. The mission consisted of collecting trimmed branches from around the property, raking up a dry season worth of fallen leaves, and mixing them with the mud so that it would harden into something roughly walk-able. Somewhat successful, we went on with our Christmas Eve, using the evening to make the traditional Costa Rican feast of tamales (of course, in a very untraditional, vegan way).

Next, we took on making an outdoor cooking area, a space centered around a small stove that is used to create charcoal, a key ingredient in Amanda’s toothpaste and a good component to fertilizing the clay/soil for crops. Using the clay/soil, we’d dug out of the bamboo pool, we created a stand for the little oven, as well as multi-leveled floor, one level for the cook and another for a table. For us, the project also included building a found-wood frame for the ceiling, creating a stone drainage system, and creating paths leading to it. It would be our last project at the farm.


Who’s Vago, then?

So, vago, then, was a completely new term to Emma and me, and it means something along the lines of a lazy vagabond, unwilling to get a real job—basically Emma and me. When Amanda and Memo announced to Memo’s family they’d decided to be organic farmers, not career-oriented highflyers, the family had shown disdain by calling them vagos, as farming was no way to go through life. Unexpectedly, they took a shine to the term and named the farm as such. However, after spending a week there, I can assure you that it is no place for vagos. The days start early, the work is hot and hard, and there is always something more to do.

Sunday morning, one week after we’d arrived, we limped onto the gravel road to head back towards Puerto Viejo, and amazingly, as if he were driving a fairy tale chariot, a man in a truck came rumbling down the road and gave us a lift.

Cool Things We Learned or Learned More About:

How to cure bamboo and that you’d better do so
Green bananas make wicked vegan burgers
Charcoal makes teeth white, which turned into inspiration for starting to make our own toothpaste, as well as shampoo, conditioner, and deodorant
How to milk a goat
How to make tamales
Ways to earn an income while living the “sustainable” lifestyle
How good it is to be interconnected with other farmers—Amanda got loads of free mangoes that she dried and let us snack on, as well as avocadoes
The importance of knowing the local and wild plants around because they can be put to good use—not everything has to be in a garden!
The truth about what some vagos do

Posted by jonathonengels 12:38 Archived in Costa Rica Tagged animals travel farm backpacking environment expat Comments (0)

(Entries 1 - 2 of 2) Page [1]