I spent 10 days in Costa Rica with a group on a Service-Adventure trip through Buck-I-SERV at OSU. This ended up being mostly an adventure trip. We started off by hiking seven miles into the rainforest where we spent five days staying with homestays, helping out with daily tasks, and maintaining trails. Along the way, we went caving, waterfall rappelling, tree climbing, and whitewater rafting, along with a LOT of hiking. We ended the trip by going to Uvita National Park where we learned how to surf and cleaned up the beach. This was the essence of our itinerary.
Why was this the best time I have spent anywhere in my life? Mainly because of the views. From day one, this country provided my eyes awesome vistas to feast on, and it kept getting better everyday. The mountains, the clouds, the greenery, the rainforests, the rivers, the ocean, the beach, the flora and the fauna, everything was gorgeous and made me question if I had died and gone to heaven. Seriously, there was not a single point during my trip that I didn’t look around and marvel at this beautiful country and wonder what I had done to be so lucky.
The people were even better. The nicest most loving people who invited us into their homes, answered all our questions, fed us generously without wasting anything and made this trip that much better for it. Every single person we met was nicer than the last. At one point, when one of our group members became sick and went to the hospital with our tour guide, our surfing instructor helped us get groceries and cook dinner where we would have been lost by ourselves. Beautiful country and beautiful people.
I have a huge interest toward sustainable living. Costa Rica is the most sustainable country on Earth, with 80% of their energy coming from renewable sources. Seeing this sustainable culture evident in the way people live was pretty awesome. They fed our group of 12 three times a day for 5 days, and at the end of every meal, everyone was full and nothing was wasted. I marvel at their skill for portioning. The conserved everything, recycled everything, and wasted nothing. It was an awesome experience watching this new way of life.
We arrived at Port Columbus Airport bright and early at 4am and learned that our flight to Houston was severely delayed, which would make us miss our connection to San Jose, Costa Rica. Our trip leader Hailey arranged new flights for us via Newark, but this meant a significant delay in getting to Costa Rica. We encountered problems again in Newark when the desk agent told us that there wasn’t enough space on the plane and some of us might have to get to Costa Rica indirectly via Panama.
Eventually, all of us piled on the plane and departed for San Jose, arriving late at midnight. All in all, we spent 20 hours in airports uncomfortably catching up on sleep, eating airport food and playing games to get to know the group better. Our guide Carlos picked us up from the airport in San Jose and took us to the Hostel Pangea where we spent four hours sleeping after a quick dinner of Hamburgers and Iced Tea.
Day 2 started at 5am when we packed into a bus to drive to Carlos’s office HQ in San Isidro del General stopping for a breakfast buffet of plantains, pancakes, eggs, fried cheese, and rice and beans. Upon arriving at Carlos’s office, we lightened our packs and dropped off some non-essential items and drove another hour through winding mountain roads to the second highest point in Costa Rica. Carlos’s son Ernesto was accompanying us and he was trying to learn English. So I made a pact with him that I will talk to him in Spanish and he has to reply in English. He agreed and we both worked on our languages the rest of the trip.
The views on this drive enthralled us all, where at one point we were driving on a ridge with deep lush green valleys on both sides and mountains as far as the eye could say and the Pacific Ocean glittering on the horizon. We arrived in the town of Brujo, unloaded our packs from the bus, loaded them on to our shoulders and set off into the rainforest for a 7 mile hike to Carlos’s brother’s house. On the way we had to climb a relentless 1km uphill mountain that seemed like it went on forever. The painful ascent was worth it, because the views just kept getting better every meter we climbed. Dear reader, accept this, no matter how much flowering language I use or how many pictures I show you, I will never be able to truly capture the beauty of Costa Rica for you.
We arrived at Hernan’s house in the mountains around 5pm. Hernan has been living here for 30 years and has built everything himself. The house was gorgeous and equipped with a kitchen, living area, and guest rooms for travelers like us. Hernan had built two showers and toilets just outside, and a living cabin for the main family as well. After washing up in the refreshing river and showers, we had dinner of rice and beans, plantains and fried cheese with some guava juice. The sun had set at 5:30pm and tired from our long day of hiking, we all retired to our beds soon after dinner and a group reflection.
The roosters woke me up at 4:30am and after using the bathroom, I took a walk around the compound discovering the chickens, the cows, the banana farm and then went down to the river to take a cold morning plunge. Watching the world wake up around me, the beauty of this country grew even more in my eyes. We had breakfast which contained more rice and beans along with eggs, fresh pineapple, coffee and hot chocolate. Every meal included gallo pinto, a traditional dish of rice and beans.
Today was our service day, and we split up into two groups and my group went back to restore the trail we had used yesterday. Overgrowth had narrowed the trail and rains had deposited lots of rocks which had made our trek yesterday quite difficult and dangerous. Widening the trail and clearing it was grueling work, but I kept at it because I realized that even if it had been difficult for me to hike this trail, at least it would make someone’s hike in the future a lot easier. Every time I got tired, I stopped and looked around for a few seconds at the beautiful mountains and wondered how I got so lucky. Then I went right back to work.
We came back to the house at lunch time, swam in the river and napped in the afternoon. In the evening, we went out to Hernan’s banana farm and in addition to learning how banana’s grow, we got to harvest a few bunches by using machetes. Hernan also had a small sugarcane farm and grew various fruits on his property like pineapples, oranges, guavas, and cocoa beans. We tasted samples of each refreshing tropical fruit and then went back inside to help make some banana bread and home made cheese. After dinner, we talked with Hernan about his life in the mountains and learned more about the culture of the Ticos (Costa Ricans).
Costa Rica is the most sustainable country on Earth, with 80% of their energy coming from renewable sources. This sustainable culture is evident in the way the Ticos live, they waste nothing and conserve everything. After days of living with homestays, they were able to portion every single meal so that everyone was full and nothing was wasted. Any food trash went to the animals. It was a truly remarkable way that they lived. The sun set every day around 5:30, but the Costa Rican government had provided subsidized solar cells that charged a 12 volt battery in the house that powered a few light bulbs and the occasional washing machine when necessary.
I woke up a little earlier than the usual 4:30 am in order to catch Hernan before he went to milk the cows. In my broken Spanish, I asked him if I could come along and we went looking for the four cows that were out in the pasture. I also planted my GoPro out in the pasture to capture a timelapse of the sun lighting up the mountains. We gathered the cows and herded them into the barn, where we tied up their legs and tail in order to avoid being kicked in the face and I proceeded to milk my first cow. It was quite an experience.
After breakfast, we said goodbye to Hernan and his family and hiked another 45 minutes to our next homestay with Lupe (6) and Diego (9) and their mother. This house was a little small, so we had to leave all our stuff on the porch, but the views were just as glorious. After a quick break, we grabbed our water bottles and headlamps and climbed another tall mountain to reach a 900 foot deep cave. Lupe and Diego came along with us and darted ahead of everyone. This wasn’t my first caving experience, so I went with Diego, Lupe, and the dog Capitan and we explored the cave while the others had formed a train of clutched shirts and shoulders and were carefully navigating the muddy floor cursing at the cave’s wildlife. There were spiders and crickets the size of my hand everywhere and bats (murcielagos) that kept flying at us. I didn’t learn until reflection later that day, but apparently the cave was not everyone’s best experience. Anyway, I had a blast. At the end of the cave was a column of stalactites and stalagmites which was beautiful. We turned off our headlamps and experienced total darkness, during which the dog Capitan brushed up against a girl’s leg and caused much chaos. We returned from the cave and had a swim session in the river and also washed off the clay from our shoes and clothes.
Lunch was more rice and beans and we took some naps on the porch afterwards and played some cards. In the evening, we went over to a field nearby and met up with a group from Ohio University that was in the same program as us, but a day ahead. OSU played soccer against OU and lost, mostly due to the many Ticos that played on the OU side. Exhausted after the game, we freshened up and helped Lupe and Diego’s mom cook dinner. After some post-dinner games, popcorn, and daily reflection, we retired to the porch for the night.
I slept like a rock, but apparently no one else did. After breakfast, we grabbed our GoPros and hiked 30 minutes to a waterfall and rappelled down it. Have I mentioned how beautiful the views in this country are? Well, they kept getting better. We rappelled down in groups of fours, with Carlos backup belaying us from the top of the waterfall. Rappelling is when you tie a rope to your harness and then basically slide down the rope. Doing this next to a waterfall is that much magical. I was the last one to go, so naturally I asked Carlos if I could rappel down face first. He agreed, and I had the best time walking down a waterfall. How many people can say they’ve done that?
After millions of pictures, we came back to the house, packed up everything and said goodbye to Lupe and Diego and hiked about 15 minutes to our next homestay, which was the house of Carlos’s in-laws. This was a pretty sweet house, open to air and built around rocks. There was a giant rock protruding out of the middle of the living room which gave the room a lot of character. Another rock at the back of the house created a huge Pride Rock platform that opened to a large field and mountains in the distance. Lion King could have been shot here. Carlos’s wife had 17 siblings, so his mother-in-law was used to feeding a lot of people. There were also a few other foreigners staying here. Zach and Chloe had arrived with a group from Appalachian State and had decided to stay. Madonna stopped by while hiking through. She had been a college professor who decided she needed more adventure in her life at age 49 and came down to Costa Rica where Carlos trained her to be a wilderness guide. Now she was taking her own groups around the beautiful country.
Carlos’s father-in-law had a big sugarcane farm, so we helped to make sugar. We started by hand cranking a machine that squeezed sugarcane juice, then ran the husks through a motorized juicer that got even more juice out and boiled the juice for a few hours using the dried up sugarcane husks. The water evaporated and left the sugar, which was poured into cup molds and Carlos mixed some sugar with Peanut Butter and powdered milk and made candy for us. We relaxed a bit more, and talked a lot among the group and got to know each other much more.
After breakfast, we started our hike back the way we had come and after about two hours and a cable car trip across the river, we arrived at the Rainforest Center, another homestay for groups like ours. We deposited our stuff at a cabin which had a beautiful view of the river and gathered in the main dining area for lunch. We were greeted with pancakes and guava jelly for desert after some fresh salad and fruits along with rice and beans.
Post Lunch, we went to climb a very large and tall tree in the compound, with Carlos belaying us. This activity was not in the original itinerary, and came as a welcome surprise to the enthusiastic climbers in our group, including me. After the tree climbing, we went to the sauna. The sauna was built by Albino, the resident medicine man and head of the household. It was a small stone room by the side of the river, with a drum converted into a furnace and an exhaust port. An ancient tradition suggested the use of the sauna to clean your body and mind. We all took a dip in the river and spent ten minutes in the sauna. This was repeated three times, first time to cleanse the body, second time to cleanse the mind, and the third time to cleanse the spirit. The whole procedure was done in complete silence. It was quite a peaceful experience, and I was thankful to Carlos for including it because I was starting to develop a headache and the sauna eradicated it.
Upon our return from the Sauna, Albino took us around the compound and gave us a tour of all the plants that could be used as medicines here in this remote part of the rainforest where medical supplies were hard to come by. At dinner, we were greeted with another surprise: Pasta! We had been craving carbs the whole trip and now it was a dream come true. For desert, we fried dried up cocoa beans, ground them, and mixed them with sugar and powdered milk to make our very own chocolate which we savored with more pancakes. There wasn’t much to do tonight, so after a few card games, we called it an early night at 9pm.
Today was rafting day! After a breakfast of rice and beans and pancakes with pineapple jelly, we started our hike back to where we had started on Day 2. The three hours went by very fast, with all of us singing songs and chattering away. We ended the hike with a group rendition of Carmen Ohio and then covered ourselves with sunscreen for the four hour rafting trip ahead. Two more guides, Jesus and Geraldo, had arrived with the rafts and a safety kayak. After a safety briefing, we jumped in the rafts and Carlos, Ernesto and Jesus took us out on the water. The rapids were only class 3, so not too bad. But the views from the river kept getting better and better.
After about two hours, we stopped for lunch on the river side. Carlos had told us we would be having sandwiches, and I had assumed PB&J’s or cold cuts wrapped on foil. But Carlos flipped a raft over to use as a table and started pulling out a feast from the barrels. FRESH BREAD! Turkey, ham, lettuce, chips and cookies. The guides sliced up fresh tomatoes, pickles, and pineapples, while our trip leader Hailey mad fresh guacamole. We literally had a feast. Sitting on the side of the river, looking up at the most beautiful view of the clouds and the mountains and enjoying the most delicious food, this is the best lunch I have ever had. Forget five star expensive restaurants, I could do this every day.
After filling up, we cleaned up and continued our expedition down river. We came to a beautiful waterfall and stopped to take pictures. Further along, we arrived at a deep pool where my raft turned into pirates and we boarded and sunk our neighboring raft. In the ensuing battle, my GoPro, which had been mounted on my chest harness, came off and fell in the water. I noticed five minutes later, and one of our guides said he could come and look for it later. I told him not to worry about it since my camera was free anyway. We finished the trip and at the end were reunited with our clean clothes that we had left at Carlos’s office.
We piled into a bus and drove an hour to Uvita National Park, where we were to spend our next few days. The cabins we were staying in were only 200 yards away from the beach. We deposited our stuff and walked down to the beach just in time to catch a beautiful sunset over the Pacific Ocean. There was no one to cook for us at the cabins, but we had our own kitchen. I mixed up some delicious cole-slaw and we enjoyed it with hot dogs.
Today was surfing day! After a breakfast of fresh fruits and hot chocolate, we walked down to the beach and met our surfing instructors: another Carlos who was nicknamed Diablo (the devil), Genaro, Christian, and Jorge. A little bit about Uvita National Park. It is also known as Marino Balena National Park. Balena means whale, and from December - March, humpback whales come down to the waters off Uvita Beach to mate. During low tide, the waters recede enough that the rocks and reefs create a formation that looks like the whale’s tail. You can walk a kilometer into the Pacific Ocean during low tide, which we did. These waters are also the safest in Central America to learn how to surf, due to the regular slope and the absence of any rocks on the beach.
After a quick lesson in the basics, we headed into the water and started riding the waves back to the beach. After two practice runs, I was able to stand on the board, but fell off just as quickly. We surfed until lunch with regular breaks to hydrate. There was a point when I got up on the board and looked straight ahead. The coconut trees lined the beach as far as the eye could see, the mountains accented the trees in the background with little houses sprinkled on the slopes, the fluffy clouds sat on the mountains like hats and a slight fog made the entire sight dreamy. I was, quite literally, in paradise. Hands down the best beach I have ever been to. Since it was also a national park, it was largely devoid of people and we had it to ourselves. During low tide, we walked out on the Whale’s Tail and the views just kept getting better. We had sandwiches for lunch and returned to the beach for another bout of surfing.
The Ohio University group was here, and it was there last day. They were drawing up a small soccer field on the beach and getting ready for a match. Ernesto and I joined them, and despite my skin color, I was put on the team of gringos. We didn’t fare bad, tying up the game at 5-5. When I got back for dinner, I discovered that our rafting tour guide had gone back, somehow found my GoPro in that pool, and driven an hour to drop it off with Carlos. So, Jesus found and returned my GoPro. It was truly a miracle. Needless to say, I left a hefty tip for Jesus with Carlos, and made plans to be baptized when I got back to America.
We cleaned up the beach today, but since it was a national park and the cleanest beach I have been to, it took us less than an hour. Afterwards we went into the little town and bought souvenirs and I got my first Costa Rican colones. After more long walks along the beach, we came back and had lunch. The tide was not quite right for surfing yet, so instead some of us went to a local house where Genaro was helping Dave build some cabins. Dave was a former inventor from Canada who had retired to Costa Rica with his wife Susan and bought a piece of land right next to the beach. He added a pool, a volleyball court, a ping pong table, plenty of hammocks and a bombing music system. We relaxed, had a ping pong tourney, and played some v-ball games, all the while listening to Bob Marley and the Wailers. This was the life.
We thanked Dave for the hospitality and headed back to the beach with our boards. The second day of surfing was much more fun. We decided to do party waves, where multiple people would catch the same wave and ride it together. I got some good shots with my GoPro (this time it was triple reinforced to protect against being lost in the ocean). The views were still glorious, and the glee on people’s faces was also beautiful. We were truly having fun. After a few hours, we took our boards back to the cabins and returned for the sunset, which, due to the presence of clouds, was absolutely gorgeous. We cooked ourselves a dinner feast, with a BBQ where we grilled chicken, pork, onions and peppers and accompanied it with chips and guacamole. This was our last full day in Costa Rica, and it truly was an amazing one.
The next morning, after some reluctant goodbyes to Carlos and Ernesto, we piled in the bus which brought us back to San Jose and we flew back to the frigid temperatures of Columbus Ohio after ten days in paradise.