Author: Danielle Toland
Date of Trip: August 2016
My trip to Costa Rica
By writing about a travel experience, a person can gain a lot of insight. During this writing, I hope to further my own knowledge about the place that I visited and to explore more deeply the things that I learned in another country. Reflecting back on what the local people learned from me can teach me how to be a better, more considerate tourist by taking into account the feelings and reactions of the locals to the things I did or things we saw. Reflecting back on all my experiences will help me get an overall better understanding as to how I behave and how I should change my actions and the next steps I should take to become a better tourist.
In August of 2016 I took a vacation with my mother to Costa Rica. My mother, Jennifer, chose this as the destination. She was celebrating getting a new job. We booked our vacation through an online travel agency that designs custom itineraries. We went to the volcanic area of Arenal, the mountainous forest of Monteverde, and the beach and jungle Manuel Antonio. We were in Costa Rica for about a week. We didn’t research the country much before going, but we knew there were a few things we wanted to do; see a volcano, sloths, rainforests, and ziplining. We just told the people at the tour agency our requests and they chose the places. We went by plane from Miami to San Jose (the capital of Costa Rica), and once there we took pre-hired cars and taxis.
First we went to Monteverde, high altitude area. We were picked up from the airport in the evening by a hired car to drive for three hours on what the tour company promised would be a “scenic ride”. Perhaps it would have been scenic if it were daytime, not pouring rain, and we had a driver who wasn’t racing to our destination like a bat out of hell. At first when we started driving up the winding mountain path, we thought he was playing some joke on us because there was no possible way a car could go up there. But it got worse when we got higher up and we could see over the edges of the mountain sides on which we were driving that the drop down grew significantly larger. And there was no guardrail either, so if we went of the side, the car wouldn’t just roll over a few times, it would plummet a long, long ways down. The rain also didn’t help as we passed signs that read “warning, landslides” and I eyed the steep piles of dirt that I imagined were eroding from the rain at that very moment. Also, we had some close calls with other vehicles on this road when we had to make was for tour buses unexpectedly coming around the blind corners or vehicles coming from behind us that also probably contained other tourists who were anxious as heck because their drivers would also pass our car going fifty miles per hour (I’d guess), or at least way too fast for a mountain road. The ride there was overall very precarious and made me sick at the thought of having to go back down that path.
The biggest thing that I learned about Costa Ricans from my experiences was that they really love having tourists there. They really show that they love their tourists. Every Costa Rican we met seemed genuinely eager to show or teach us something. For example, one taxi driver of ours pointed out every school we passed during our six hour drive and told us the name of every town we went through. Even though he spoke no English, he tried to be as hospitable as possible. He stopped to show us a bridge with hundreds of huge crocodiles under it, which turns out to be a famous site, the “croc bridge” on the Tarcoles River. While we were stopped there, we visited a fruit stand nearby and the guy that worked there told English jokes, practiced my Spanish with me, gave us free fruit, and taught us about new fruits that we had never seen before. I learned just how big tourism is in Costa Rica; it seems like everyone’s lives are touched by tourism in some way. For example, I remember this trio of young boys, about eight or ten years old, who met our bus down by the lake to help transport the tourists’ suitcases from the bus to a boat. They had probably skipped school that day because they knew the tour bus schedule and knew that they can make money there. The boys arrived and went up to the tour bus driver and tour director and greeted them and shook hands. I was amused by how they acted like little businessmen. My mother gave them five dollars and they were so happy. Even they, at their young age, are involved in tourism and use it as a way to make money. All the Costa Ricans kept reiterating to us that they were so happy to have us tourists there and that they love their tourists. It really showed because I cannot remember a single bad experience involving the natives.
The Costa Rican saying is “Pura Vida” which means pure life. They embody this motto by being happy with their lives, being gracious for what they have, and living slowly and relaxed. I learned to be a little more gracious from them. I saw the way other tourists treated the local people, and that the Costa Ricans are so happy even though they don’t have a lot. The Costa Ricans treat the environment there with much care because it is their biggest commodity. All the people were excellent at spotting animals. They would stop the car to show us a sloth.
I believe that local people may have learned a bit about false stereotypes from me. They were shocked by the fact that I am near fluent in Spanish because I don’t look like someone who would be. They had probably rarely (if ever) encountered a little sixteen year old, blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl that knew Spanish. Often when we met a new native person, they tried to scare us a little by pretending like no one at the resort or restaurant spoke English. They gave a speech in Spanish telling us this, then I would reply back in Spanish that it was okay because I spoke Spanish. Also, in a few restaurants, the servers were delighted that I spoke Spanish. I remember in the restaurant of the Springs Resort and Spa in Arenal that was exclusively full of white people, a server brought us bread and held the basket out for us to choose one. I pointed to one kind and asked, “que es esto?” and he looked surprised by gave a long speech about what kind of bread it was. After he gave us our bread, he went over to his other server friends and must have told them that I knew Spanish, because one-by-one, all the waiters in the restaurant came over to me and questioned me in Spanish about my life. Since this hotel was an expensive, five star hotel that was filled with white people, I figured these waiters didn’t get much opportunity to speak Spanish with their customers. Many people were not very gracious to the Costa Ricans and didn’t bother learning any of their language. At one restaurant, the hostess greeted the people waiting in front of us with “buenas noches” which the Americans either didn’t understand or just ignored. One of them replied by holding up two fingers and saying “two” as is the hostess had asked for how many people.
During my time there, I had some memorable interactions with local people. I remember the Taxi driver, Davίd, who was the one white guy there and the only person I met who didn’t speak English. All the Costa Ricans really tried to help me with my Spanish. One waiter at the hotel restaurant that we went to about three times we got to know very well. When we had to tell him our room number so they could bill us, he wouldn’t accept my answer in English and pretended like he couldn’t understand English so it would force me to speak Spanish. The people even remembered our names. When ziplining, there were about fifteen young men who secured our lines for us. I was surprised when one young man said, “are you having fun, Daniela?” to me because I sure hadn’t remembered his name or even his face, but he remembered both my and my mother’s names.
Even the housekeepers were admirable. My mother, a florist, really liked the flower arrangements that were set up in the rooms at Arenal. They changed the arrangement every day. When we were walking down a corridor at the resort, we saw one of the housekeepers in a room making the flower arrangements. My mother went up to her to try to praise the woman’s work; however, my mother did not speak Spanish and the woman didn’t speak English, but I knew the housekeeper understood and appreciated the gesture.
On the critical side, I quickly learned that some aspects of tourism in other countries aren’t up to my American standards. The hotel at Monteverde didn’t speak much english, and all hotels were in inconvenient locations. Since Costa Rica is a mountainous region, a lot of the hotels are built at the tops of hills. Even though there isn’t much violent crime in Costa Rica, there are warning posters around all the hotels about robbery and pickpocketing. For this reason, all of the hotels were secluded and had fences around them. These defenses make it hard to interact with people outside of the resort. The staff of the resort even discourages the guests from leaving if it is not with a guided tour. From all the hotels, we couldn’t walk to any attractions because everything was too far away. For this reason, we were only able to eat at the hotel restaurants. When we wanted to go shopping in Manuel Antonio, we had to tell the hotel manager who called a taxi and told us where to go and when to be back. At the same time, it is a positive that shows how much they care for our safety. It was even hard to walk around the resorts because they were so huge and hilly. All the resorts had hotel shuttle, which we once (foolishly) decide to forgo and ended up walking for maybe thirty minutes just from the restaurant to our room. The monopoly that the hotels created on their restaurants forces the visitors to have a dependence on the restaurant. This was a problem because the food was expensive and sometimes the restaurants closed down unexpectedly for no reason. There were also no drink machines or water bottles in the mini fridges so we could only drink tap water or drinks from the restaurant.
In Manuel Antonio, the town had scheduled to shut off the tap water for two days while we were there. The employees knew about this but told none of the guests. There was nothing to drink at the hotel, no towels at the pool, and no clean dishes at the restaurant either. My mother complained to the manager but all he could do was to take the one bottle of water that was in our mini fridge that we had drank and make it free. This same hotel also had a review book in our room that previous guests had written in. The workers must not read all the reviews in there because the first day we got there, the book was completely full of totally negative reviews. It was odd to me because online this was a four star hotel, so I suppose the negative people weren’t motivated enough to post reviews online. The hotel was also the most tropical of the three destinations. This meant that there were cicadas the size of my fist and lizards galore. This posed a slight problem because the door to our cabana room had bid slats on all sides. Luckily, no bugs got into the room but I remember seeing a small lizard running around on the ceiling. In the early mornings, I was awakened by the howler monkeys, who sounded like crazed gorillas off in the distant jungle. It was rather scary and sounded like it was coming from King Kong right outside our room. Manuel Antonio is on the Pacific side of the country, and a big reason we went there was because my mother had never been to the Pacific ocean. The ocean at Manuel Antonio was very rough. The first day I went in up to my knees and within two minutes I was knocked all around and before I knew it I had sand in my hair, up my nose, in my teeth, ears, down my bathing suit, and everywhere else. It did not help that there was no water so I had to wash off in the pool. Also, the shuttle drivers who shuttle passengers from the cabanas to the beach and back refused to drive us because we were still wet from the beach and I’m thinking, “well isn’t that your job? It’s not like this is your personal vehicle and the seats aren’t leather or anything”.
The best hotel that I ever stayed at was The Springs in Arenal. Every room had a perfect view of the volcano, which produced abundant mineral springs in the area. This was a luxury five star hotel. There was a full spa where we got massages and three restaurants on the resort. There were about three chlorine pools, one with a swim up bar, and four mineral hot springs. The hotel offered ziplining, river rafting, and there was even an animal rehabilitation center for large cats, sloths, toucans, and more. The hotel was so nice that we canceled all our other excursions to stay there and partake in their activities.
The Costa Rican saying is “Pura Vida” which means pure life. They embody this motto by being happy with their lives, being gracious for what they have, and living slowly and relaxed. I learned to be a little more gracious from them. I saw the way other tourists treated the local people, and that the Costa Ricans are so happy even though they don’t have a lot. The Costa Ricans treat the environment there with much care because it is their biggest commodity. All the people were excellent at spotting animals and stopped the cars a few times to show us animals like sloths.
I faintly remember something about the politics there at the time. A week or so before going to Costa Rica, I saw a news article about some sort of rebel or contra-government group that was active there. When I got out into the city parts of Costa Rica in a taxi, I saw spray painting and small groups of men that were all dressed the same. The taxi driver explained that this was the aforementioned rebel group. He explained that they were protesting for a place in government, or something along those lines. Even though there was some sort of protest going on, I did not feel threatened. I never once saw any violence or even any officers with large guns, as I have seen at most other tourist destinations around the world.
During this trip, I learned that I have more personal strengths than I thought. I am good at communicating. I can also be very self sufficient and I am helpful at communicating for others. Usually it is the opposite for me: I usually let others speak for me and keep myself quiet. When I am put in a situation where only I can do something and others are relying on me, I can really step up to the plate. While writing about this experience, I have only just realized these things about myself.