A Practice Run

Like so many people, for the last two years we hunkered down, stayed in our bubble and only ventured out for short, regional car trips. All that changed when we boarded the plane nearly a month ago for Costa Rica.

Playa Potrero

We had traveled to CR five years ago and spent a couple weeks before hopping on an adventure cruise —a few days in San Jose, then some time near Monteverde and finally a week in Potrero on the Nicoya Penensula. Definitely whetted our appetite for more Pura Vida. So back we came.

While it was a return trip, it was also a chance to exercise our flabby travel muscles. In two years we had forgotten a lot and some of those automatic responses to travel challenges had faded.

What did we re-learn?

We tend to be independent travelers, charting our own route, picking our own accommodations (generally various vacation rentals online), driving our own car and making our own discoveries — both good and not-so-good. Nonetheless, there are times to turn to the experts. A good reminder.

Talk to the locals and the local ex-pats. From them we learned the best day trips, a reliable fish vendor, and where we could hire a boat and guide for kayaking. They tipped us off to good restaurants, beaches for body surfing or walking.

Talk to your fellow travelers. We had forgotten how much you can learn from them. As our trip wore on, we remembered the value of asking them questions about what they’ve done and seen and where they were going next? Next to locals, ex-pats and or a concierge, they can be sources of great information. Who knows! You may end up making new friends. So bring some business cards so you can share them and stay in touch. We forgot that, much to our regret after we met some great people.

Sure guidebooks often have some of this info, but they are always at least a year or two out of date. Case in point: a guidebook published three months before our trip said to never under any circumstances drive the short cut over the Monkey Trail from Liberia to Potrero. Forging a river and 11 kilometers of a rutted dirt rollercoaster road with steep cliffs was not advisable, the guidebook said. We heeded that warning and took the “safe” 90 minute drive. When we asked an ex-pat about that, he laughed. Maybe during the rainy season you might want to avoid the road, but not during the dry winter months. Maybe if you had a low-slung fancy sports car. We drove it. It was now paved.

Entirely paved. At time rather steep, frequently marked with potholes and narrow, but also scenic and cut the drive to Liberia in half. That river? Hardly a trickle.

Ex-pats and locals know their neighborhoods!

We did run into a small herd of cattle and their sabanero (cowboy) at the end of the trip, but by the end of our month driving around cows on the roadway felt pretty ho-hum.

Find a concierge or local fixer. Many of the vacation rentals are managed by a local person or a company who can provide services well beyond fixing broken showers. Someone who acts as a concierge can help you avoid mistakes and connect you with the right people for what you want to do. This trip our “concierge” ended up being an ex-pat who rented us our golf cart (http://rentagolfcartcostarica.com/). She became our go-to person when we wanted to go kayaking, needed a guide for birding as well as a list of good restaurants, and explained the process for getting the required COVID tests to return to the USA. And when we needed a medical clinic, she was there to guide us (that’s a story for another day).

In Costa Rica, the guides are trained (minimally a two year college program) and speak excellent English. Our guide, Gravin, was a jewel. He took us on two birding trips — one up the Tempisque River estuary and to a private nature preserve, Bijagua Ranas, between the Miravallas and Tenorio Volcanoes. Both were stunning trips made even better by his connection to the uber-local guides he regularly worked with.

The Bijagua Rangas volunteer guide, Ishmael, on the far left and our regular guide, Gravin on the far right
While we are pretty casual birders, we have to admit we probably wouldn’t have seen most of the fifty different species of birds we saw in Costa Rica without our guides. They are worth what they charge plus a generous tip!

Those packing lists? Revise them. Add masks. And hand sanitizer. In Costa Rica you are expected to wear a mask indoors and everyone does. You are asked to wash your hands or use sanitizer before entering a store or restaurant and most people do. Not a bad idea where ever we are traveling these days.

Even the hardware store had hand sanitizers!

Remember the stores back home aren’t the only ones experiencing shortages. And some items are much harder to find outside of the US. We packed back-up batteries and memory cards for our cameras, but forgot about the flashlight and other little electronics that might need new batteries during a month long trip. AA and AAA batteries were available in grocery stores, but that was about it in Costa Rica. We never did find one battery we needed.

And pack less. Be brutal, particularly if you are staying in vacation rentals with washing machines. We will be returning with a couple things we never wore. We had forgotten how few things you actually need and how great it is to travel light. And depending upon where you are going, plan on buying some common things locally. Going to a hot, sunny and heavily touristed area, we chose to buy most of our sun block there. (We’ve gone through two good sized bottles in a month.). Beside, shopping for the mundane is exotic in a different country and part of the fun.

We’re heading home shortly, but ready and better prepared for our next adventure now that the pandemic seems to be a bit under control or at least manageable with some common sense precautions.