Everything about this trip feels like fate. Beginning with the moment I bought the flights on a whim – my coworker forwarded me an email with discounted flights to Costa Rica in November, and I immediately texted Leah, “Hey, wanna go to Costa Rica for Thanksgiving?” Of course, she was in.
As the trip approached, some things had come up that made the timing of the trip a bit complicated, not to mention the fact that we had both been traveling for what felt like nonstop over the past few months. We’ve never second guessed going on a trip before, but we had a serious conversation where we debated canceling the trip. I even remember the day before feeling anxious about going, which is unusual. And the morning we were flying out, Leah was clearly in a funk after having a really rough night at work. I just remember thinking, “I hope this works out…”
Oh yeah, I forgot to mention the catch about the cheap flights – they included overnight layovers both ways. We left Denver at 2:30 p.m., had an hour layover in Dallas, and landed in Miami at 10:30 p.m. While getting a drink at our hostel in Miami, we were chatting with a group of guys and one of them was from Costa Rica. He told us Monteverde was where we needed to stay the entire trip, and even insisted on messaging his buddy who runs a hostel there to ask him to reserve a room for us. In the moment, I was totally convinced, although Leah wasn’t.
The next morning, we somehow caught our 8 a.m. flight, sat on the runway for two hours while we were delayed, and were in San Jose, Costa Rica by noon. In the line at customs, Leah and I decided to stick to our original itinerary and head to Manuel Antonio.
The drive there was crazy… We were supposed to take turns driving, but of course, Leah falls asleep immediately and I take one for the team. The road transitioned from a busy, multi-lane city freeway, to a two-lane winding road. The city lights disappeared behind us, and everything turned green, green, green. The darker it became, the deeper we drove into the jungle. After what felt like 12 hours, we arrived at our hostel. When we checked in, the cute girl with wild, curly hair told us, “You came on the perfect weekend – we’re celebrating our one year anniversary, and we’re throwing parties all weekend!” Leah and I smiled and gave each other the look: “Oh yeah, this is going to be good.”
Once we got settled in, we cleaned ourselves up and ordered some food at the bar. I felt totally wiped after making that drive on what was probably 3 hours of sleep. I assumed this would be an early night for us. Nope, I was wrong.
We watched as more and more people started pouring in and a live band was setting up. It turned into a party, and of course, Leah and I ended up right in the middle of it. One of my favorite memories always of staying in hostels is the diverse blend of cultures that come together – all barriers are gone, it’s a fluid exchange.
Selina’s was a multi-layer maze of a jungle fun house, and Leah and I were all over that place, meeting fellow travelers and mingling with locals, as we do. This is the environment where we thrive. At the end of the night, we ended up going down to the beach with a few locals. It felt like we had landed on another planet. We hadn’t seen the beach yet and had no idea what to expect. By night, the jungle beach was psychedelic.
Our room at Selina's.
View of the jungle from the roof of Selina's.
The next day, we walked to the restaurant across the street for lunch. Again, we hadn’t seen anything in the daylight yet, so we were completely awestruck by the view. The restaurant stretched out over the top of the jungle, the ocean not far in the distance. Over lunch, Leah decided to Facebook message one of the local the boys, Bastian, she had met last night. He offered to come pick us up to show us around for the day. He took us to the beach, but it started raining as soon as we got there, so we got back in the car and he gave us a tour of Manuel Antonio.
Bastian needed to go home and run some errands before the party started again at Selina’s, so he dropped us off at a local favorite spot, Sancho’s. We walked in and already recognized people we had met, including the bartender who was working at Selina’s the night before. We ordered some tacos and beer and were having a great time entertaining ourselves as we always do, when a group of middle aged white men who had gathered at the bar approached us. They were retired expats, and clearly liked to party. They insisted we join them at one of their mansions to pre-game for the night, but we told them we had plans to go to Selina’s later and were waiting on our friend to come back and pick us up.
When Bastian walked in, they all exclaimed with amusement, “Bastian! THIS is your friend you were talking about? He’s our neighbor!” It was becoming increasingly evident that this place is very small.
This night at Selina’s was expected to be even busier than the last night. There was going to be a DJ and everyone in town knew about the party. We danced until they shut the party down, and then Bastian brought us to his friend’s “after-party.”
We drove up a steep, steep hill to a beautiful house on a cliff with a pool and giant patio overlooking Quepos. We walked in and the girl who lived there was one of our friends we had met on the dancefloor, and a couple of our other friends were there too. It felt just like hanging out at a friend’s house back home. We listened to music and talked and laughed into the early morning.
This was our last day. Our flight departed at 7 a.m. the next morning, and since the airport was 3 hours away, we were going to have to leave in the middle of the night to make it in time. We slept late again, and stuck to our routine of walking across the street for brunch. Afterwards, we decided to drive down to the main beach Bastian had taken us the day before.
We were struck by the wildness of it all – there were no rules here. We walked along the sidewalk by the beach, but we kept getting harassed by dirty men so we crossed the street and sat down in a bar with a view of the ocean just as it started raining. The rain had a hypnotizing affect while we drank mojitos and watched the local boys load up their surf school gear off the beach.
One of the men at the table in front of us turned around and said, “I saw you girls with my cousin the other night.” We just laughed. At this point, we weren’t surprised anymore. We knew everyone knew Basitan – and apparently everyone was also watching us.
Sipping mojitos, watching the rain come down, surrounded by local beach bums – we were totally entranced. We couldn’t leave. So, right there in the bar, we decided to extend our trip and booked our return flights for Wednesday.
Bastian met up with us, and by this time, some of the boys at the bar had started flirting pretty aggressively so we were glad to have Bastian by our side again. In an effort to get rid of one particularly persistent dude, I went over to one of the boys who had been working on the beach and said, “Hola.” He introduced himself as Erick, but everyone called him Palito (which he later told me roughly translates to "little tree"). He had dark caramel skin, sun bleached dreads, kind eyes and a wide white smile. I knew he had been watching me, so he was pleased when I approached him. He was polite and endearingly shy, and his nose crinkled when he laughed.
We all decided it was time to leave this bar, so we left for another spot where Bastian’s friends worked. It was a small bar behind a restaurant, bordered by the jungle. When we walked up, a young woman at the bar exclaimed to me and Leah, “What, are you following me now?” We said together, “Ah, Maria! Sister!” She was another friend we had met at the party at Selina’s, and she was the manager at this bar. We were the only ones there when we first arrived.
The spot (during the day).
Soon, a few more locals, including Bastian’s “cousin” and the bartender from the previous bar, showed up and joined us at our table. As they all conversed in Spanish, I tried to pick up words I recognized here and there and piece together what they were talking about. Palito was by my side, Leah and Bastian were sitting across from us – we were all totally relaxed, blissful. Sitting back, surrounded by a thunderstorm in the jungle, new friends that felt like family, I thought, “This is home.”
That night, we parted ways with our friends and Bastian and Palito dropped us off at our hostel, promising to see us again tomorrow. We ran back to our room in the downpour, soaked. Another night in the jungle. We were getting used to this life.
After our first night of decent sleep, we sat in the bakery next door and came up with a plan for the day. We filled Bastian and Palito in on our plans, and then met Bastian at his friend’s house. We had some time to kill before we picked up Palito, so Bastian took us down to their favorite nearby surf spot. Before we left, he asked, “Your car is 4WD, right?” We said, “Yes, why?” And he told us that the road down to the beach is so rocky and steep that only 4WD is allowed to take it past a certain point. Leah and I looked at each, “Oh, right. Cool.”
After somehow successfully making it down to the beach, the view proved to be every bit worth the risk. It had just started raining by the time we parked, but we could see blue sky in the distance so we waited for it to clear. After a peaceful walk down the beach, we left to pick up Palito. The rocky path back up felt even riskier than the way down, but Bastian handled it like it was nothing. He kept laughing, "The roads in Costa Rica are really good, huh, girls?"
We stopped at a lookout point on the way up, and Bastian told us, “This is the postcard view of Manuel Antonio.” And we agreed.
Tour Guide Bastian showing us the postcard view of Manuel Antonio.
After scooping Palito at the PALI market, we all four set out for a drive south down the coast to Dominical. On the way down, we passed by a few large farms and the boys told us how these were foreign corporations that were taking advantage of their workers and abusing the land. It's clear that Ticos are very connected with and reverent of the nature they live in.
We checked into Hacienda Baru, the national wildlife refuge and lodge where we had booked a couple rooms. It felt so peaceful, like a quiet oasis tucked away in the jungle. My soul was beaming to be surrounded by such lush nature.
We grabbed some beers, barefoot of course, and took them down to the beach. The boys told us about the massive music festival that takes place on this beach every year. They described the intricate structures that were built right into the jungle, and we tried to imagine the spectacular scene.
We caught a cloudy sunset and went back to Hacienda to take a dip in the swimming pool. I looked up, and I could see the constellations hanging above our heads.
After our swim, we went back downtown and had dinner at Palito’s friend’s place where we ate authentic meals of arroz y camarones (rice and shrimp).
The next morning, we woke up to a beautiful sunny day. We packed our things and headed out to breakfast at a place called Café Mono Congo, an organic, plant based resraurant right off the river.
We took off to find a waterfall nearby. We parked and climbed down mossy, muddy stairs to the roaring falls. On the way down, a guy asked us “Are you going to try the slide?” Leah and I laughed at the same time, “Uh, slide??”
When we got down there, we saw no slide. That’s because he was talking about the actual waterfall. Apparently, you can “slide” down the waterfall. We weren’t even there 30 seconds before Palito climbed up the rocks and attempted the “slide.” He ended up diving off head first after bumping his bum on a rock on the way down. We all got a good laugh, and he luckily wasn’t hurt.
We scrambled across the rocks to the swimming hole. It was paradise. We lounged on the rocks in the water, soaking up the Costa Rican sun. Everything around us was alive, breathing. I could feel the pulse of the jungle. I told Palito, “Did you know that trees talk to each other?” He smiled, and said “Si.” And then he taught me the word “tree” in Spanish (I already knew this, but I loved when he shared Spanish with me).
I could feel myself changing. I was completely spellbound by the energy of this place.
We took a drive down to Playa Hermosa. We drove along the coast with the windows down. I was in the best company I could have ever imagined myself in, with my sister and Bastian and Palito by my side. We had zero distractions. We were surrounded by magic.
We walked along Play Hermosa, and I admired how Palito is naturally keen to finding beauty in nature. I was intrigued by his knowledge of the natural world.
He said, “You have to try a fresh coconut!” I jokingly said, “Yes, get me a coconut!” And then he scurried up a palm tree, threw down a bunch of coconuts, slid down and threw his headful of dreads back with a huge, triumphant smile, just like a scene out of The Jungle Book. He and Bastian cracked them open on a rock, peeling them to their core with their bare hands. Palito handed me a picture-perfect coconut, open, ready to drink. I took a sip, and it was the purest, most delicious coconut water of my dreams. “Muy Bueno!”
Being covered in sticky coconut, I looked out to the ocean. “Can we get in the water?” I asked. “Of course,” they said. “Vamos!”
I felt my body longing for the salt water, and I ran straight to the waves. I dipped my dirty, sweaty, sticky, bug-bitten body into the warm water. I could feel it healing me.
We went down to Matapalo next, a small, laid-back beach town. This was where Palito grew up, and he told us that even though it's beautiful, there's a lot of drug addiction in the area. When we got there, a young boy came up to us and was talking to them. I just assumed it was someone else they knew, but he told me later that he was a crackhead. I was glad for Palito that he escaped the bad influence here.
The four of us walked along the beach, where the waves met the sand, and watched as the sun melted into the water.
It was getting dark now, so we went back to Manuel Antonio to Casa Linda, a hotel/AirBnb Palito’s friend owns. We cleaned the day off of us, and then went down to Sancho’s one last time for tacos y cerveza.
We came back and sat on the patio upstairs, overlooking the ocean. This was what Ticos call "pura vida," the simple life. Here in Costa Rica, it is more than just a saying—it is a way of life.
Pura Vida is the way Ticos live. It's the way I want to live.
The next morning, we were saying our goodbyes when Palito paused and asked, “Did you hear the toucan just now?” And I thought to myself, "How am I supposed to leave this place? The jungle is home."