It’s been a few years since I started trekking the world but it was always with friends or going to meet friends. Never alone…until now! To be honest I don’t know why it took me this long to finally go at it alone on my travels.
Nervous was the biggest understatement of the century if I were to be utterly honest. It was always a dream to go at it alone, but life had a spanner or two up its sleeve to throw at me. Bottom line; I was scared to actually go through with it! But the moment you start living life is at the end of your comfort zone.
When it came to picking a place to burst my solo travel cherry, I couldn’t think of a better location than Costa Rica. Big capitol city, lush green rain forest to escape into, the finest sandy beaches that stretch for miles; what more can I ask for? Living La Pura Vida, am I right?!
I treated Costa Rica as a test-run trip for my upcoming 6 month Southeast Asia tour beginning in February. I wanted to learn how I’d handle challenging situations in unfamiliar surroundings. I would be completely out of my element of normality and just taking what the universe throws at me. I was ready for adventure!
SAN JOSE: The Urban Jungle
Cheap flight booked, a short stop in El Salvador, and an Uber ride later; I found myself in the capitol city. My first hostel was located in the more sketchy part of San Jose, go figure right. I’ve been in tricky situations before but to go through them right now when all I wanted was a cold shower and a bed was another. Fear of getting stabbed on them shady streets is real! Bless that abuelita who saved me by telling me to go around the corner and bang on the door to be let in.
TRAVEL TIP: Avoid the taxis and plethora of onlookers trying to swing you a ride when leaving the airport. Hop onto your Uber app and be glad for a much cheaper fare.
After a quick shower from a hot night’s sleep I left my first hostel with open eyes, full of excitement to explore San Jose. What I found was quite contrary to what others whom have been here before me depicted. The streets were littered with trash, buildings with badly done graffiti, pan handlers every which way and an odor I still cannot pinpoint the source of. It was far from the tropical paradise I had played over and over in my head before coming here. To be honest I kind of dug it. Saying the city is raw was one way to put it, real is another.
The infrastructure of the capitol consisted mainly of just buses, taxis and an abundance of Ubers so get yourself familiar with them. Like on many of my previous trips my first day there I spent walking around a lot. Doing this you really get a real feel for the place from the surrounding buildings, the bustling downtown and even the slums if you find yourself strolling through one. Excitement isn’t the main draw of the big city in all honesty. There are a few museums I was able to visit, a farmers market style place aimed toward craft artists, the large central market for the odd souvenir and the park in the middle of the city housing the futbol stadium.
I myself being a sucker for museums highly recommend going to Museo Nacional de Costa Rica. No other place contains so much of the rich Costa Rican history from the indigenous people of the past all the way to early settlers and into modern times. The building itself is quite open with a courtyard in the middle that separates the two halves. You could spend a couple of hours in here learning all you can muster about past and present of this beautiful country. After a couple of walk-throughs I settled for a seat in the courtyard to soak up the warm sun. A much needed a reminder that I am actually there in the flesh doing my solo thing.
Outside of the National Museum you can find both the Gold and Jade museum a stone throw away. Both are great in their own right and you should definitely see to it for a quick visit. I’ll be honest if for anything it would be a great way to get out of the sun after you’ve been walking for such long distances. Boy it can get really warm down in these parts. The museums boast plentiful artifacts in, you guessed it, either gold or jade. The crowds weren’t really too crazy here so you can feel as if you have the place to yourself.
Be careful with so many museums because you can really get burnt out on them rather quickly. There were more to visit that I didn’t have the time nor the capacity to endure anymore. The National Theater was one I was hoping to see but was closed on the day I ventured out. What do you get overcome with is this insatiable desire for hearty food and boy was I in the right country. Casados, gallo pinto, ceviches, arroz con camerones, chifrijo and let us not forget about naturales and their coffee to name a few! My appetite was primed at this point!
Head to the central market and eat away to you heart’s content. This market is a staple and a prominent fixture in the more bustling part of the city. You can not only find all dishes mentioned above but it’s also a great place to seek the souvenir you’ve been asked to bring back. Want to cook your own meal back at the hostel instead? Don’t be surprised to find a full fledge market offering everything one can need to make THE perfect casado. The corridors are narrow but packed to the walls with vendor stalls of all kind. You”ll be taken aback by all the rich colors on display once inside.
I walked around the mercado a few times, circling the perimeter, choosing my prey wisely. When I found the place I wanted to have my first taste of Costa Rican cuisine I planted my behind firmly on the stool and was greeted with nothing but smiles from the other side. “Un casado con carne por favor” I said in my broken Spanish (maybe paying attention in High School doesn’t seem like a bad idea now). Bless her soul for understanding what I meant because minutes later a heavy laden plate filled the heftiest amount of food planked itself before my eyes. Casado is a very basic meal of greens (salad), beans, rice and proteins (usually meat, pork, chicken or fish) but because it’s simple it tasted THAT much better. This stuff literally lined my stomach. Parched from thirst she came back with a glass of freshly blended kiwi juice. FRESHLY BLENDED KIWI JUICE. One sip after each bite was the PERFECT combination. If this was the first introduction into Latin American cuisine sign me right up!
One full and happy stomach later I thought it best to WALK all of what I consumed off. I wanted to get away from the craziness of the downtown area so I ventured towards La Sabana park, their version of Central Park. A swift 20 minute of walking later I found myself in the presence of a something that wasn’t made of concrete or steel. The park houses the futbol stadium for their national team, a children’s museum, nearby lake and a swimming pool to name a few. Oh did I mention there were horses just grazing about?! Spending an hour or two here can really reset your mental state from the sh!t show that can be in the main city.
Venturing away from the any city center you can almost always bet will be better. How did I know? Because I would trek myself miles outside of the hub just to enjoy a craft brew. An Uber would have been wise choice but the walk to the Costa Rica Beer Factory to dabble in a cold one went by . A lager, IPA and stout later, all of which was brewed by them and delicious, satiated my palette indefinitely. Their craft scene is growing for sure but no where near what I am accustomed to back at home. Give it a couple of more years and you’ll more of these craft joints pop up, maybe I’ll even come back for round 2!
The neighborhoods around the location of CRBF got a little bit nicer, houses dressed up in uplifting motifs, the streets were surprisingly cleaner, people more lively and grinning ear to ear. All the while that smell in the air was still lingering and I couldn’t put my finger on it. I couldn’t shake the feeling that maybe the capitol isn’t what it was all cracked up to be. Maybe this time the Google search list of must-dos in Costa Rica I frequented before landing here should omit the capitol?
Was I sold on paradise but fell really short of the grand prize? I felt really bamboozled from my first few days in Latin America. This left a real sense of longing as I lay in my hostel bed pondering the remainder of this trip. Certainly this wasn’t the start to I was hoping for. I’ll have to chance it and see what the next location, La Fortuna, has in store for this would be traveler.