Traveling Through Costa Rica: Then and Now

Originally published in Houstonian Magazine, June 2019

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I SPENT 2003 BACKPACKING AROUND COSTA RICA. At the time I was a 26-year-old newspaper reporter wanting a break from my life to “figure things out.” I thought spending a year in Central America would be a great way to decide on my next career path, and as a bonus I would learn Spanish along the way.

To travel for such a long period of time required a constant evaluation of how much money I was spending. Hotels charging more than $10 a night for a room were not even a consideration, local buses and hitchhiking were the only means of transportation, and more than one meal a week consisted entirely of saltine crackers.

Along the way I made friends who stuck to the same budget restrictions. We would walk into hostels to evaluate their seediness versus cost.

“Well this one doesn’t have any towels or mirror,” we’d say. “But it’s only $3 a night. We’ll take it.” 

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We split meals, booked overnight buses to avoid spending money on accommodations, and spent our days enjoying free activities. Lying on beaches was a popular activity.  Fast forward 16 years. I have since returned to my native home of Texas. After dabbling in a number of careers I am now a travel writer. Despite my constant travel schedule, I have been reluctant to return to Costa Rica. Part of it is my snobby, better-than-thou travel attitude that Costa Rica has become mainstream and therefore not a worthy travel destination. Part of it, however, is that I was scared that I had outgrown Costa Rica.

In my 20s I wanted nothing more than cheap rooms, two-for-one drink specials, fun bars and late nights. In my 40s I want a vacation that would bore my younger self to death. Wellness travel has replaced budget travel as my preferred method—nowadays I want early mornings, a ton of outdoor activities, yoga classes, green drinks, and if at all possible, an amazing spa.

Cala Luna has the world’s largest meditation labyrinth.

Cala Luna has the world’s largest meditation labyrinth.

A few months ago I decided it was time to revisit Costa Rica. When I found Cala Luna, a boutique hotel 20 miles south of where I used to live, had everything on my wellness wish list, plus a semi private beach with hammocks comfortable enough to relax in all day, I booked it immediately.

Upon checking into the hotel a nice young man brought me a watermelon-based “welcome drink” while the receptionist sat me down on a comfy couch in the open-air reception area to go over the activities offered during the weekend. 

“Tomorrow there is yoga at 7:30 in the morning, followed by a kayak tour in the afternoon and at night there is a Sound Healing at the labyrinth,” he explained. “We have the world’s largest meditation labyrinth, just off the property. Would you like me to book you a transport over there this weekend to check it out?”

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Yes, yes, and yes. Immediately my hesitation of out-growing Costa Rica washed away. During my stay I visited the sustainable organic farm that grows the hotel’s vegetables, walked the almost two-mile long labyrinth, received a sound bath, biked into town, had semi-intelligible conversations in Spanish at the local farmers market, saw the sun set over the ocean every night and read a whole book in that hammock on the beach.  

Maybe it was the labyrinth’s promise of self-discovery, but throughout the weekend I found myself questioning why I left the country in the first place, why it took me so long to come back, and how my travels have changed over the last two decades.

During my year in Costa Rica I hiked volcanos, bathed in thermal hot springs, learned Spanish, woke up to howler monkeys, laid on countless beaches, perfected the art of tying a sarong into a dress, began salsa dancing, drank countless number of Imperials (the national beer of Costa Rica), suffered through endless cold showers, found scorpions in my bed, itched a thousand mosquito bites, learned how to sleep in hot rooms without air-conditioning, and failed miserably at surfing. And I remember loving every minute of it.

Since becoming a travel writer I have become accustomed to detailed itineraries, five-star hotels, fancy tubs, ridiculously expensive bite-sized food, and over-hyped features like a bedside margarita button that summons a bartender to your room with limes and tequila in hand. After reconnecting with my younger self who first fell in love with travel, I realized none of that makes travel any more exciting.

Even during my days as a backpacker while stuffing myself into public buses for a seven-hour ride that should have only taken three, checking into an accommodation that may or may not have required guests to bring their own toilet paper, and picking bugs out of my food before continuing to eat, I was having the time of my life. If you have the travel bug, as I do, you love (almost) all of it.  You love the thrill of seeing what the people are like at the next destination, how they are different than you and, more importantly, how they are the same. You want to know what the air smells like and what the trees look like and how the flowers grow. You are excited to talk to people about their politics, and art, and love lives.

It is not about how luxurious the destination is, it is about seeing what life is like on the other side of the next bend in the road. Even the bumps along the way, the bus breakdowns, the missed connections, the stolen credit cards, the less-than-appetizing food, the boredom, it is all a part of a traveler’s life. There is a baseline of excitement for all of us with the travel bug that not even the most luxurious of  five-star wellness resorts can break above.

That said, as the massage therapist leaned over to whisper, “Think of what you are grateful for and hold it in your heart” and my hour-long healing massage got underway in an open-air hut surrounded by the jungle sounds, I thought, “I am thankful I’m no longer a backpacker.”  

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