Before I embarked on this extraordinary trip around the world, I promised myself I would not conclude my travels until I spent a few months in Latin America. For those of you who don’t actually know me, I used to be highly proficient (near fluency) in Spanish- I even lived in Santiago, Chile, for a semester while in college. Unfortunately, for a number of years prior to this international adventure, I barely used the language; the saying is true- if you don’t use it, you lose it. Immersion is the best way to learn anything, and since my goal is to get as close to fluency in Spanish as possible, here I am! Plus, apart from a few trips to Mexico, this marks the first time I have been in Latin America since leaving Chile 18 years ago. So thrilled to have the opportunity to spend lots of quality time in the region!
Why start in Costa Rica? Why not! Actually, my choice was not totally random. Two years ago I purchased a plane ticket to Costa Rica to visit a former colleague and friend of many years, Jose Pablo (a lawyer in San Jose). But after I purchased that ticket, I decided I to move to LA, so had to cancel the trip to Costa Rica. So two years later, almost to the exact day, I am making up for the cancelled trip. Also, I learned about a retreat in Nosara (I won’t bore everyone with the details and chain of events that led me to this retreat, I’ll just say if you’re paying attention, the universe will show you what you need in your life), so figured that was as good a way as any to begin my time in Latin America (LatAm). Though Nosara wasn’t my introduction to Costa Rica. The retreat offered complimentary transportation from a couple of airports, including Liberia, and as luck would have it Southwest Airlines flies into Liberia! (Thanks to points, even after paying an extra $30 for early bird boarding on both legs of my flight, I paid only $50 to travel from St. Louis, MO, to Costa Rica!) So I decided to arrive one week early and jump start my immersion and learning experience by attending a local language school (Instituto Estelar Bilingue) and doing a homestay with a Tican family.
But before I dive into my experiences in Liberia, Nosara, and San Jose, let me just say that Costa Rica might be the best place to move if you’re looking to head abroad and you have dogs. Especially pibbles! There are virtually no restrictions, definitely no breed restrictions. I saw and cuddled so many sweet pibbles in Costa Rica, it made my heart sing. Plus, Costa Rica is home to a really spectacular no kill rescue, Territorio de Zaguates, which cares for over 1,300 dogs!!! Yes, you read that correctly. You can learn more about this amazing rescue here: https://donate.territoriodezaguates.com
Right off the bat I’m gonna start with the thing that hit me in the face EVERY.SINGLE.DAY: it was hot AF in Liberia, and air conditioning is super rare. By super rare, I mean, the only time I was exposed to A/C was in the taxi upon my arrival and departure, and one afternoon when I finally headed to a café and Walmart for a break from the heat. (Pro tip: Walmart has the coldest A/C in Liberia. I’ve never loved Walmart so much in my life.) And when I say hot AF, we’re talking temperatures around 38-40°C/100°F outside, not counting the humidity (which was significant). During the day, “my” Tican home averaged at least 34°C/93°F. So even with lights off in the house and two fans directed (full power) on me at all times, it was definitely a 2-3+ cold shower/day kind of place. I mention this not to discourage anyone from coming (far from it, continue reading and you’ll get a sense of why I loved my visit here), but so you can be prepared for what you’ll face- or so you can take this into account when finding accommodations (I presume there are hotels with A/C). Also, because I learned after arriving that March and April are the hottest months of the year! I didn’t know there was any place in the world where hottest months fell during this time of the year; learn something new every day!
I wanted to kick off my time in LatAm by diving into Spanish lessons right away, so signed up for a week of classes at Instituto Estelar Bilingüe. It was slow season for the language institute, so apart from a couple of days when a guy from Scotland (working at the institute as an English teacher) joined, I had private Spanish lessons for 4 hours/day.
Great way to jump back into learning! The Institute also had loads of activities for students, many of which are free; some of the pay-for trips were cancelled due to the a lack of other students (I didn’t want to pay the extra cost for a solo trip), but that didn’t bother me at all. After traveling for so many months, I cherish down time. One thing that sets this Institute apart from most other language schools (anywhere in the world, as far as I can tell) is that it offers loads of volunteer opportunities you can participate in no matter how short the duration of your enrollment at the Institute. Other language institutes I’ve looked at (across Spain and LatAm) either do not have volunteer activities, or require you to be enrolled for a minimum of X# weeks (the norm seems to be 3+). Also, volunteering with the Institute won’t cost you a thing- unlike other language schools that treat volunteer opportunities like another program for which you need to pay to participate. (Note: I am not criticizing the pay-to-volunteer option. In most countries in the world with significant poverty, individuals and organizations barely have a sufficient budget or resources to function. They cannot absorb the cost of someone arriving to volunteer who will need food, accommodations, etc. Also, in many places, the fee from volunteers contributes substantially to the organization’s budget and ability to continue the work it does. So, while I am not at all criticizing schools that have such requirements to volunteer, I do appreciate so much that the Institute in Liberia has opportunities without such limitations.) I had the good fortune of participating in an afterschool program for children living in Martina Bustos. This is a “neighborhood” (in quotes because the reality is that all of the families living there, which total ~3,500 people, are squatters) where most (all?) of the adult residents immigrated from Nicaragua, and live in homes made from scraps of sheet metal and wood, which lack running water (but at least do have electricity). It is also home to lots of incredibly cute and bright children who I had the pleasure of playing with one afternoon.
The experience reminded me so much of the afterschool project I volunteered with in a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of Santiago 18 years ago. And how much I have missed volunteering; this was my first volunteer activity since my day at Elephant Nature Park in Thailand (back in mid-February)! A very good reminder of the importance of sharing some of this wonderful gift I have (more free time and flexibility than I have ever before known in my life) with the communities who graciously take me in and permit me to call them “home” for however long I am visiting.
I also had a wonderful experience with my homestay. My host family included spouses Dinorah and Alejandro, in a home located only three blocks from the Institute and in the same neighborhood where Dinorah grew up. The family also has a ranch in the Tican countryside, full of cows, horses, dogs, and vegetables/fruits to attend to, which is where Alejandro spends most of his time. I was fortunate to get to spend so much time each day with Dinorah, an incredibly kind and generous woman who, luckily for me, is super chatty. We spent hours each day talking, which is exactly the kind of practice I needed! So, although the weather outside (and even in the home) was uncomfortably hot, I truly loved my time in the home so much I never once even considered finding a hotel (or alternate accommodation) with A/C. Another huge benefit of staying in my Tican home, and with a family that has a farm- SO MUCH FRESH FRUIT! I was introduced to several types of local fruits I had never seen/eaten, including: Caimito (by far my favorite, this fruit has a dark purple skin, and soft flesh that is so sweet it literally tastes like someone turned ice cream into fruit form), Manzana de Agua (water apple, which has more flavor and sweetness than regular apples!), and Guanabana (soursop). And plantains every day! (Anyone who knows me really well probably knows that plantains make my “If you could only eat 5 foods for the rest of your life” list.) The most exciting part of that was learning about so many different ways to prepare both mature and green plantains. YAAASSSS! And the cherry on top was that Dinorah’s family still lives in this neighborhood so I also had the pleasure of getting to know, and enjoying daily chats with, her sister Carmen.
There are numerous beaches within 1-1.5 hours of Liberia that you can easily access by public buses (at a cost of less than $3 round trip). I certainly had time to visit more than I did, but due to the really hot weather and fact that most buses don’t have A/C either, I lacked the stamina to make the trip outside of Liberia more than once. (My motivation was also lower knowing that I was going to have beach/ocean time when in Nosara.) I did make the trip to Playa Coco one afternoon. Pros: only 1 hour (each way) by bus; buses are much more frequent to Coco than other beaches; there are plenty of bars and restaurants if you want to have lunch or dinner while at the beach. Cons: super touristy. In Liberia, I barely heard English. You feel like you’re in Costa Rica. In Playa Coco, I barely heard Spanish. English-speaking tourists have inundated the area so even shopkeepers and restaurateurs approach anyone walking by in English. (I realize this may actually be a “pro” for the non-Spanish speakers reading this. Same goes for Nosara, below.) Also, the water itself wasn’t nearly as blue or clear as I’ve experienced in beautiful beaches around the world. Bottom line: it was convenient and I did enjoy cooling off and escaping the blazing city heat, but just an “ok” beach.
Liberia was a great start to my trip in Costa Rica, and I genuinely feel like I have a Tican family I can come back and visit in the future!
I came to Nosara for the Alive+Awake Retreat. The retreat was hosted and led by Lindsay Sukornyk (if you’re on IG, look her up @lindsayalive), a total BossLady who had the courage to walk away from her success in the corporate world when she realized it came at too high of a price. Since that time, Lindsay has spent years as a professional coach and operates Alive+Awake retreats in Nosara twice a year (more info here: http://aliveandawake.com/). My first self-improvement/development retreat was last year; I attended Unleash the Power Within (one of Tony Robbins workshops). After that experience, I decided that another immersive experience focusing on continued self improvement and development was well worth the expense and investment! (But be aware, it is a significant investment: I spent more for 1 week in Nosara than I usually spend over 1-2 months of travel.) Before I provide some thoughts on the retreat, I’ll start with my experience in Nosara. Nosara is a small beach community in Costa Rica that attracts A LOT of foreigners. And by a lot, I mean, this is another part of Costa Rica where you don’t really need to speak Spanish to get by. (In fact, nearly all of the expats I met who now live in Nosara speak at a conversational level, at best.) And by foreigners, I mean, a lot of white, English speakers. The influx of “gringos” has resulted in a very expensive beach town. But I get the appeal! Gorgeous beaches (I spent most of my time at Playa Guiones) with great surfing for all levels, jungles full of life, and dolphins just a short boat ride off the coast! It has a very relaxed, peaceful vibe that feels light years from busy urban centers; that’s why so many go there regularly for vacation, and why many move there. That, and the fact that this is a conscience community; people in Nosara are really into being present and living happy, full lives, including lots of yoga, dancing, energy work, surfing, beach time, and congregating daily on the beach to watch the sunset. In fact, it’s one of only five blue zones (areas where people live the longest) in the world.
However, the large influx of expats also comes with a significant cost, literally. In general, Costa Rica is one of the more expensive countries in Latin America. And Nosara is definitely one of the most expensive places in all of Costa Rica. For example, prices in the shops (at least, the limited few I visited) were higher than that of shops in Manhattan Beach, CA (and Manhattan Beach is one of the richest/most expensive communities in all of Los Angeles). My final thoughts on Nosara: it all depends on what you’re searching for in a vacation (or, new home abroad). If you like to be pushed out of your comfort zone and are heading abroad to grow by learning a new language and a new culture, engaging primarily with people who don’t look and sound like you, and for a lower cost of living, I would not recommend Nosara. But if leaving your existing home is already putting you far outside of your comfort zone, and you enjoy yourself much more when surrounded by people who share a language, culture, and experiences, (plus the benefit of many Western comforts), and budget isn’t as much of a concern for you, then Nosara just might be ideal.
As for my experience with the Alive+Awake Retreat itself, I realized within the first couple of hours that I had to set aside all of the reasons that motivated my decision to attend. You plan, God laughs. Or, as Lindsay told all of us at the beginning of the retreat, you may not get what you wanted or hoped for, but you’ll get what you need. I decided to put my confidence in that, let go of my expectations, and play full out- be present and throw myself into the retreat and see what I could learn about myself. Plus, accommodations (and food! OMG the food!) at Bodhi Tree were pretty fantastic. Plus, after a week of sweating day and night in Liberia, enjoying A/C in my hotel room felt positively lux!
The retreat included various movement practices (from yoga to dancing to more playful exercises that are a bit hard to describe here), surfing, various types of meditation, as well as group and individual coaching sessions.
The wonderful group of people who attended came from the US, Canada, and France (plus two expats who have been living in Nosara for several years). The retreat demanded that we all be totally open and vulnerable, and people were courageous and honest. The group was blessed to have a wonderful family from CA joining us, who not only volunteered their time to teach surfing, but Vanessa gave all of us free energy healing sessions. Girlfriend is gifted! If anyone is curious to learn more about what services she offers and whether this is right for you, go to: http://www.VanessaGibson.info to learn more! (Highly recommend!)
My second favorite activity/experience (my favorite is discussed immediately below) was a sunset boat ride where we had tens (if not hundreds?) of dolphins come to greet us and play in the water all around our boat. The little girl in me who was obsessed with dolphins my entire childhood through teenage years was screaming with joy inside. And adult me was in total awe. (None of the photos below were taken by me. The dolphin shot is from Laura, and the rest are courtesy of Dave & Vanessa!)
Hands down, my favorite part of the retreat was a few hours we spent giving back to the community. There is a tremendous disparity between the expats visiting/living in Nosara and much of the local population, and it warmed my heart so much to see Lindsay doing her part to use the means of those who have, to give back to locals who don’t. We went as a group to buy groceries for four local families in the community who had a significant need, and the experience gave me ALL THE FEELS. As the only one in our group with a significant command of Spanish, I had the opportunity to talk to the families. The people were so incredibly kind and generous, and they all welcomed a group of strangers into their homes. All of the families live in parts of Nosara that suffer from massive flooding annually, and have to deal with waters encroaching 2′-3′ high into their homes. One family has a 2yo little boy who was only given a week to live when he was born; he is adorable and still fighting, but has tremendous medical issues. Same with another family we visited where one of the five children, a little girl who appeared to be around 8yo, has a tumor (possibly cancer) and needs to have one of her eyes removed. But these families are poor and live far from the hospitals in San Jose and Liberia, so medical care is rather limited. There was also the 73yo great grandmother trying to care for her two great granddaughters (who are around age 10), because their mother is suffering from addiction and isn’t around. I was told she sometimes has to forego eating so that the girls can eat. The stories are heartbreaking, but the families fill your heart. They are full of joy and kindness. That experience will stay with me for a very long time.
My final stop in Costa Rica: San Jose. The primary reason: to catch up with Jose Pablo! Also, I am flying to Motevideo, Uruguay, from here. But I built in several extra days to ensure I would have time to catch up with my friend. San Jose is more affordable than Nosara, but hotels here aren’t cheap. And after breaking the bank to attend Alive+Awake, plus the fact that flights between Latin American countries are expensive AF(!!!), I decided to use some of my remaining SPG/Marriott points to stay for free at the Courtyard Inn Marriott Escazu. Escazu is a fancy neighborhood to the west of San Jose’s city center. No shortage of high end malls, Starbucks, fancy restaurants, and a copious amount of American fast food chain restaurants (this is the first place outside of the US I’ve seen Popeyes in longer than I can remember). It’s also very safe. But primarily, I chose it to maximize points (since, if you haven’t already figured it out, I usually try and avoid locations that remind me of home just transplanted to a different country). Though my priority was catching up with Jose Pablo, I wanted to make sure I learned a bit about, and spent time in, the city itself. (Plus, homeboy has a wife and baby, so I wasn’t expecting him to entertain me for the entire time I was in town.) I found an Airbnb Experience for a walking tour of the city. My guide, Alejandro, was super nice and has a degree in history, and infused his knowledge of architecture, influence of immigrant populations on the city’s design, key figures (and often, their assassinations), while guiding me around important buildings and notable parks and residential neighborhoods. I was thoroughly enjoying the tour and decided to live in the moment, so unfortunately for this blog, don’t have any photos to share. Though, while some of the art deco and neoclassical buildings are picture-worthy, we did not arrive to the most photo-worthy areas/buildings/parks until after dark. Instead, I’ll start and finish my San Jose post with a photo of Jose Pablo and me.
Jose Pablo was kind enough to pick me up from my hotel one day, and we headed out for a day trip to a nearby volcano, Volcan Poas, which is about 1.5 hours from Escazu. When we left San Jose, it was a bright, sunny day. So of course by the time we arrived to the volcano, heavy clouds and rain. (Again: you plan, God laughs. Hahahaha.) So we didn’t quite get the view we had hoped for (if you Google Volcan Poas, it’s rather remarkable); instead, we got what you see above! A whole lotta nothing! (I have no idea why they require visitors to wear hard hats btw.) But the great fun for me was getting to spend much of the day catching up with my friend. Also, Jose Pablo knew exactly where to stop for lunch! There’s an amazing restaurant not far from the volcano, Chubascos (on the left side of the road as you’re heading to the volcano, and on your right as you’re leaving), and it has TONS of vegetarian and vegan options! (And for you meat eaters- this is LatAm so of course that’s the focus of just about every restaurant.) The food was so good, plus huge portions so my meal was enough for two separate meals! Highly recommend. While a “fail” in terms of seeing the volcano/crater, spending time with friends around the world is always a highlight of any trip for me. Our day trip was the perfect way to cap off my Costa Rican vacation.
Final Thoughts: Costa Rica is a lush, beautiful country with jungles, mountains, and access to both the Pacific Ocean and the Carribbean. The people are warm, kind, and generous, and although it is a more expensive destination (compared to most of LatAm, that is), if you avoid the tourist “hot spots” you can enjoy a more authentic experience at a much more reasonable price. I am so glad I started my LatAm adventures with a bit of time in this beautiful country.