¡Pura vida! This blog details my time and experiences in the beautiful pura vida country that is Costa Rica, complete with journal entries, photos and a 30 minute movie. Enjoy.
To see more photos click here: http://danielbalister.wixsite.com/dannybalister
Click here to view the movie: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1v281hHwJIM
Jan. 02. 18.
The time is precisely 2:00am. I’m awake and ready to catch the bus to O’Hare International Airport in Chicago. The temperature is a brisk -7 degrees Fahrenheit in Whitewater, Wisconsin. I walk to the bus wearing simply a sweatshirt (can’t be bothered bringing multiple layers to a country that MAYBE only gets down in the 60s overnight). Remarkably, I don’t feel too bothered by the cold (maybe I’m half asleep or maybe my body’s too numb for feeling). Anyways I catch up on some well needed shut eye on the bus ride, a few Gregory Alan Isakov tunes lull me into a gentle sleep. Pretty standard airport procedures once we arrive… nothing special to note here. Our flight to a layover in Panama City takes an interesting turn as we circle the skies waiting for weather to clear up for a proper landing. In turn, our group ends up running through the airport in order to catch our flight for Costa Rica. Fun times.
A short flight from Panama brings us to the San Jose International Airport in the capital of Costa Rica. We’re greeted by some traditional style dancers and music. Upon bussing from the airport to our first location (just a normal hotel) we’re graced with a gorgeous sunset. Later in the night I experience a small section the city with some good friends. FRESH BEAUTIFUL food & drink. A few things etched in my memory of this place are the extremely hospitable folks & easy-going lifestyle.
Jan. 03. 18.
Let’s talk about breakfast. I love breakfast. It’s my favorite meal of the day and I could eat it ALL OF THE TIME. Every day in Costa Rica the breakfast is incredible. Every single day. Instead of babbling on about it in each day’s section I’ll just mention that now. Along with the freshest juices/fruits I’ve ever had, I indulged in papayas and fried plantains almost every day. Don’t think I’d forget the coffee. Coffee is my absolute favorite drink. And the best coffee I’ve ever had in my life was in Costa Rica. We’ll talk more about that later.
After chowing down we flee over to the capital city of San Jose. In San Jose our first stop is the market. The market is a grand hub of shops and vendors selling food, clothing, and almost any other daily item you can conceive. The pungent aroma of fish swirls through atmosphere and lush green planets fill the maze like halls. It’s an environment unlike any other I’ve experienced, naturally I have to stop, take it in, and take some photos. Not the smartest decision when part of a fast moving group. After a period of circling the market, I find my way down the road towards the national theater where the group is heading.
Upon meeting up with the group we head into the theater, this place has to most beautiful architecture I’ve ever seen in my life. We’re talking gorgeous golden designs, ceiling murals, and marble statues. Our next stop is the gold museum where we take in some culture and history. My favorite part is learning about the rich indigenous cultures of the area, etched in my mind are the miniature sculptures that they forged (these things are smaller than pennies). The 2nd floor of the museum contains an abstract art museum which I enjoy massively.
Lunch happens at a stellar blued walled, painting and plant filled restaurant. Mango juice, pasta, fresh vegetables, and no complaints. Surprisingly, the best part of the meal was a conversation with one of our Global Experience coordinators, Dan Colleran. He details his background of photography/fine art and backpacking through Europe, we learn about a plethora of common interests that we have and share some good laughs.
After lunch we all explore the city for a while and make friends with a local bar owner. More laughs and smiles. As dinner time approaches the group buses to a bit of a fancier restaurant in San Jose. The highlight of this dinner for me is trying OCTOPUS for the first time. I’m not talking about something doctored up either, I mean just a plain old octopus, body, legs, tentacles and all. Interesting texture to say the least, also notable is how long it takes one to chew each piece of the octopus. It doesn’t taste awful, but I wouldn’t lock it in as something I’d gravitate towards again either.
It was a good day today. This day is a reminder that building relationships (especially in a new place/culture) will cultivate happiness.
Jan. 04. 18.
5:45am wake up time today & I couldn’t be happier. The more time I’m awake and present in this beautiful place, the better. I’m typically only this happy to be awake at this hour when I know I’m shooting photos of the sunrise. Anyway, Sarapiqui, Costa Rica is the destination for the day. It’s just a 2.5 hour bus ride away from San Jose & I’m wired up on some of that high quality Costa Rican coffee & fresh breakfast. The ride is a breeze as I could stare out at that luscious green landscape patched with mountains, rivers, and waterfalls forever before feeling any effects of boredom. After exiting the city through a tunnel we emerge in the largest rain forest in Costa Rica. Most of the area is covered in fog (so much so I’m floored by the raw talent of the bus driver named Hera). A mid-trip stop to a fresh fruit stand/small market makes the trip even more pleasant. I try out one of the sweetest (and stickiest) exotic fruits I’ve ever had.
Our first destination includes a tour/history lesson of a proper Costa Rica chocolate site, including the “Drink of the Gods”, samples, and some classic iguana, howler monkey, and sloth sightings. A quick bus ride later and we drop our belongings off at the place where we are staying the night. Hidden within the jungle are these little lodges connect by wooden pathways. All submerged within gorgeous animal and plant life. This paradise is the most rad location I’ve stayed at in my life. Little do I know that this standard will be continuously shattered during this trip.
After a lunch of staple Costa Rican vegetables, rice and beans, and breads, we’re off for a jungle tour. The jungle tour consists of a multitude of creatures, we’re talking toucans, monkeys, hummingbirds, bats, lizards, frogs, bats, raccoon like animals, and more. A walk over a river on a swinging rope bridge is a highlight for me. I’ve never done anything like that before. The rest of the day includes a few important events. One being locking myself out of my room, luckily my broken Spanish is able to get me out of that one as I find someone who has access to the room. Another being accidentally lounging around in a hammock with a giant frog. I should really check those things before I lay down in them. Finally, I discovered that night that I’m an excellent xylophone player.
Jan. 05. 18.
The sweet sounds of the jungle bring me out of bed at 6:15am this morning as a wave of peace crashes over me. I sit outside and watch the birds be about their way before heading down to breakfast. We embark on a 2.5 hour bus ride to the northern part of Costa Rica for a riverboat wildlife tour. The bus makes one stop on the way so our guide, Eric, can buy us all some of his favorite Costa Rican candy. We love this guy. The wildlife boat tour starts with a bang as we come across various caimans (mini alligators), birds, and iguanas. We stop at the banks of the river to spot a rare orange colored Howler Monkey. Other highlights include spider monkeys and the Jesus Christ Basilisk (lizard that runs on water).
After a lunch of more Costa Rican classics I indulge in some rice pudding which is surprisingly good. Another 2.5 hour drive to our next location: stellar hot springs. I can’t fail to mention the stop on the way for ice cream (coconut my favorite flavor). I note here that I’m beginning to feel more confident speaking to folks in Spanish. After some chilling and swimming in the springs we eat a casual dinner with the Arenal volcano towering in the background.
It’s about time to head to our next destination of bungalow lodges. Seriously, the best way I could describe this one is a bungalow village. We end the night walking around by the pool and happen to stumble across a nice worker named Jorge who shows us around the grounds to where certain creatures hide. He shows us a sloth, a brightly colored tree-frog, and a beautiful butterfly moth. I work on communicating with Jorge in Spanish, it’s a good test. Reflecting at the end of the day I think about how important it is to value people.
Jan. 06. 18.
Favorite day of the trip alert. Man, there’s a lot to unpack regarding this glorious day. I wake up at 6:00am today to ensure myself some time to wander around the space to take photos and video. Still not over the fact that I can see a volcano and mountains right from the window of my room. Wild. The opening destination for today is a sky train. Our actual time in the sky train is only about 10 minutes but it offers unforgettable views. Here’s where things get real interesting. The guide gives us the option to hike back to the entrance or to take the sky train back. We choose to hike- ¡Claro! All said and done this turns out being the best hike of my 20 years of existence. A little while into the trail I notice a sign for a waterfall. We decide to check it out. TOTALLY worth it. My photos will do this better justice than I can. After experiencing the entire debacle in muddy, dumping rain conditions, I understand the true meaning of the term ‘rain forest’. I come out of the jungle drenched to bone but smiling ear to ear. I (and my camera) survive. The rest of my belongings might not ever be dry again.
Upon loading into the bus we hear from panic-ridden guides and advisors that we were meant to be instructed to take the sky train back and not embark on a multiple hour jungle endeavor by ourselves. After filling our bellies with a quick lunch we race over to La Fortuna waterfall, a hallmark of the pristine Costa Rican landscape and one of the tightest things I’ve ever been in the presence of. Words cannot begin to describe the sheer magnitude and scope of this place. Pictures may be my best bet. Swimming under the waterfall was a blissful moment. The water was chilled, but if being from Wisconsin has taught me anything, it’s how to handle the cold. Refreshing. The following walk up hundreds of stairs? Not so refreshing.
At this point I’m simply exhausted, but in the best possible way. And if you thought this joyous day was complete you’d be sorely mistaken. Now we’re on our way to tour a coffee farm. Coffee is one of my favorite things, so as you might guess, I’m unbelievably stoked. Matias, the owner/farmer shows us around his place and details everything that goes into coffee and running/maintaining a successful and credible coffee operation. We learn about the chemicals and other nonsense that goes into cheap corporate coffee and get to down some silky smooth coffee from the farm. I’m more of a dark roast kind of guy.
Dinner happens in downtown La Fortuna at a place that our guide Eric recommends called Lava Lounge. Dogs roam around the space freely. My heart almost bursts talking to the owner as he explains that they take in sick dogs and care for them. One in particular that had gone through chemo that day spends the dinner by my side. His tail finally begins to wag after a while and I think he enjoys my company. I know I enjoy his. Before we leave I spot and take in some live reggae music serenading the space. As this day ends I remind myself to live in the here and now more often. (And to take care of myself by eating whole foods as much as I can).
Jan. 07. 18.
Today we begin the adventure with a 6:00am breakfast featuring a volcano backdrop. A little bit of sloth searching before the 3.5 hour drive to Monteverde. This drive was wild. Insane. Up and down mountains, rock filled roads, and over thin curved bridges. My respect for the bus driver, Hera, grows and grows each day. He’s a serious talent. Outside of the window we see some pretty incredible views of Arenal Volcano & lake which eventually turns into glorious rolling hills. Monteverde & La Fortuna are my two favorite towns that I visited in Costa Rica. Monteverde is called the cloud forest, I think that gives one a solid visual of what it is. We’re lucky enough to take a tour through the forest. The high elevation makes this forest different from the other ones that we’ve checked out so far. The tall green vegetation, waterfall, and vivid multi-colored hummingbirds buzzing around still feels like a paradise.
Now we can slide on over to lunch and discover our rooms at the lodge etched in the sides of the mountain where we will spend the night. After soaking up a fresh view we head on down to the city where we explore arts/crafts stores and returning a loose dog safely to its owner.
It’s about time for sunset, where the lodge provides a view for the grandest sunset one could ever imagine. Impossible to even dream of capturing something like this. I think about it a lot. I make a mental note of how important it is to be totally aware of all five senses during a moment like this.
I don’t know how to follow up an experience like that. But dinner seems like a wise decision. This dinner consists of a remarkably tasty raspberry juice and chatting it up with a guy named Matt from Oakland, California. We talked, travel (his favorite place is Japan), careers, life, and more. As the day winds down I gain some much needed time to rest and reflect.
Jan. 08. 18.
Another day rising early (5:30am) and I’ve never felt better. I never seem to tire of papaya in the morning. Today we head out to the beach. One quick pit-stop for smoothies can’t hurt. I stop and take in the glorious sun for a while, coming to Costa Rica in the midst of a Wisconsin winter helps one appreciate the sun like no other. It had been so long since I’d seen the sun like that. This bus ride makes me appreciate the ability of our driver once again.
After arriving at the beach I spend a good while skipping rocks and watching birds. It’s a brown sand beach that’s pretty rocky. Now it’s finally time to jump in the water for a little bit. Swimming in the Pacific Ocean is wild, it’s salty and it feels brilliant. What doesn’t feel so brilliant is getting stung by a jellyfish. I don’t see it at first but after feeling a pin-like sensation across my side, I swat away at it and pain rushes across my hand. The jellyfish attack is confirmed when I exit the water and notice red spots up and down the side of my back. Nevertheless, it’ll be a story. After the ambush I walk around and explore the beach with some friends. Good thing we did, we discover a pristine white sand beach over a hill in the distance. This looks like a stellar spot for sunset later.
Now it’s time for a quick lunch, an intense game of sand volleyball, and another glorious swim. As sunset rolls around it’s clear that my previous suspicions were true. The group heads back to our earlier discovered location and it’s shaping up to be a gem of a sunset. The pastel colors over the water are out of this world, the birds constantly swooping by make me feel overly nostalgic, and the powerful crashing waves are unbelievably calming. It’s nice to take these things in and experience them fully. The rest of the night consists of spending time chatting, laughing, and enjoying the presence of friends underneath the beautiful Costa Rican sky.
Jan. 09. 18.
Up at 6:15am today and in time to eat breakfast with Capuchin monkeys waltzing around the space. Today we spend time at the tropical beach paradise, Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio. Clear blue water, pure white sand, palm trees, and rad rock formations fill the habitat. Before entering the water one of our group leaders (Dan) wards off some pestering raccoons to a great applause. I like to laugh at things like this. The water here is a perfect temperature for comfortable swimming. Laying back as the wave’s crash over me and walking along the beach with the sand in my toes feels all feels too good to be true. We walk around and look at the thousands of hermit crabs in the sand and some monkeys wandering around the beach looking for trouble.
The walk to lunch is an extremely sweaty one, but we find a restaurant with plenty of fans and delectable food. The bus drives the group three hours back to the capital city where our trip began, San Jose. On the ride we see the croc bridge where countless American crocodiles soak up the sun. We also see more stunning mountain views that won’t get old in a million years. By the time we get back it’s pretty late and after dinner at a nearby restaurant (the waiter only speaks Spanish and probably thinks we’re all chumps) we have a chill evening playing cards.
Jan. 10. 18.
First time I slept in this trip – (until 7:30am). These last few days are focused on business. It is a travel study called ‘Doing Business in Costa Rica’, so I suppose there has to be some more of that. Today we visit VMware, a computer software company that offers a pretty sweet work space with open collaboration areas, a business park, snacks, modern design, and a gym. At the end we spoke with executives there and learned more about the company and the future of the industry. After lunch we hear a presentation about Ernst & Young. This one was pretty forgettable, but at the same time I’m not really into that stuff.
There’s some time to rest for a bit before dinner. The group heads down to a hole-in-the-wall restaurant/bar for the rest of the night. This place offers a stellar atmosphere along with solid food and drinks. It’s a low-key spot hidden from the touristy areas and seems like a joint that locals typically inhabit. These are the best places to look out for. We may have lost our way a little bit on the way back but get back to the hotel just fine to end out the night. Take things slow… life goes way too fast.
Jan. 11. 18.
Rooster crows at 7:30am this morning for our final full day in Costa Rica. After breakfast which is (surprise) sensational, the group makes our way to the final business presentation which is Mondelez. They make a boatload of tasty snacks- which they so gracious provided us with. This alone makes for a pretty good presentation if you ask me. So many laughs (like usual) at lunch today. Afterwards I use the sliver of free time we have to take a dip in the pool and edit photos.
Now it’s time to head on the bus for dinner in the mountains. Not kidding, this is a real treat and I’m pretty sure our driver (Hera) saved my life again with these complicated mountain driving maneuvers he pulls off. When dinner ends we’re treated to some gorgeous traditional style dancing and get to soak up the view of the city during the night from the mountaintop. Truly awe-inspiring stuff.
Upon arriving back, I go down to the hotel bar to buy Hera (bus driver) a drink and we have a beautiful conversation for a good while. Hera has a lot to say about his experiences driving and his daughter in medical school, he works all the time to help pay for her. So glad we had the chance to talk.
Afterwards it seems to be time to head out for one last night in the city. We walk down to our favorite place that we’ve visited a few times before called Tito’s bar/restaurant. The owner Miguel- who at this point we’ve gotten to know pretty well is in the hospital tonight having a planned operation. We send him some photos and receive one of him in the hospital bed giving us the thumbs up. The employees hardly speak English but it’s a blast for me speaking to them en español.
Jan. 12. 18.
FINAL DAY. Travel day back to the states. This also marks my final Costa Rican coffee. (Well not really- I’m bringing some home without a doubt). After this we pack our bags and pack the bus to cruise down to the airport. Eric & Hera give out their closing remarks and I hug them both farewell as we enter the airport.
Customs and security is a breeze, at the airport I can work on photo editing. (Puts me back in my happy place). There’s also time at the airport to have another awesome conversation with our coordinator Dan , he’s got so many sensational travel stories that I just love to hear about. We spend awhile gabbing about Southeast Asia and Thailand while he shows me photos of the breathtaking landscapes and sneaky monkeys. Thinking maybe I should work with him next school year if I can at the office. How cool would it be to have the chance to inspire folks to travel & help them do it, all while being able to create content, sounds like a pretty good gig to me. (Spoiler- this is exactly what’s happening now).
The plane ride to Panama for our connecting flight is easy- the Panama City skyline just about knocks my socks clean off. I edit photos and play cards with friends during the layover. The flight back home to Chicago wasn’t too bad either, I edited some and slept some. Seeing the city at night overhead was something else (and we got to see it twice since our first landing didn’t quite go as planned and we had to go up again and come back down). I think about all the lights and all the people living their own separate lives down there. It all just puts things into perspective and is a therapeutic thought process. Customs was a breeze as we touched down at the wee hours of the morning. Stepping outside was intense, the Wisconsin cold hit me like a freight train. (0 degrees Fahrenheit for crying out loud).
I ride the bus back to Whitewater as Bon Iver’s 22 (OVER S∞∞N) creeps out through my headphones. Goodbyes are deflating but I don’t feel bad- it’s that feeling after a monumental experience that you just can’t put into words. It was real.
Things I’ll miss about Costa Rica:
- The People
- Pastel Houses
- Easy-going Lifestyle
This about wraps things up – so yeah – venture out of your comfort zone, talk to new people, experience new cultures, all that cliché motivational stuff, you really should consider it. Pura vida.
Epilogue (some phone photos)