In Praise of the Familiar

We travel for many reasons—adventure, broadening horizons and having new cultural experiences, relaxing, socializing—to name a few. That often means exploring new places, traveling to new countries or new regions in countries already visited. But once in awhile it’s really great to go back to some place you’ve been to several times. That’s why we’re back in Potrero, Costa Rica.

Potrero Bay

There isn’t really much to do in Potrero—other than enjoying the gorgeous beaches. There are no mega resorts, only a few “fancy” restaurants. The area is mix of locals (Ticos) and ex-pats/tourists—largely Canadians. No zip lines, no white water kayaking, no extreme mountain biking. We have seen a few ATV tours. Playa Flamingo nearby has a few more amenities, a couple of resorts, snorkel and dive options, sunset catamaran and deep sea fishing tours. A brand new marina complex will add more options. And now there is a super fancy huge development about five miles away, Las Catalinas, modeled on an Italian Cinque Terre village. If you want the full tourist and surfing dude experience, Tamarindo is 40 minutes away.

Tamarindo on the left and Los Catalinas on the right — worlds apart

We’ve visited this area now for the third time. For us, it’s been an alternative to Hawaii—relatively easy to get to, cheaper, and just as beautiful. Each time we come here we make new discoveries, find new “secret” places. But we also have the comfort of knowing where to find the best fruit stands, the fish market, locals’ grocery stores and the ones stocked to North American tastes. We know the best “sodas” (family run Tico restaurants) and there are still a couple we have yet to try. And where the ATM’s are located — always a good thing.

Twice we’ve had minor medical issues and we found an excellent local clinic (fluent English spoken). By the way, last year, one exam, two follow-up visits and a course of antibiotics—$80. Probably less the insurance copays at home. This year’s trip cost just slightly more for doctor visit, lab work and prescription.

We knew this year to watch for the annual Madri Gras parade — a purely local extravaganza that lasts 15 minutes. There are no signs posted to alert you of this funky event. We found out about it from repeat visitors who clued us in last year. So this year we passed along the information to other newbies. The kids loved the candy that was thrown.

Mardi Gras Parade
The Mardi Gras pirate

And we’ve found some very helpful resources here—our local “fixer” Jennifer and an outstanding local guide, Graven—resources that we use again and again. Jennifer runs a great taco bar restaurant Playa Flamingo, rents golf carts, and has local contacts among guides and tourist services

We e-mailed her a few weeks before our trip and she lined up a birding trip on the Tempisque River with Graven that we had done before and loved. This year’s tour was just as much fun as we remembered, and because we were dealing with unpredictable nature, we saw more monkeys this year and different birds. Next time we may try one of Graven’s hikes or other tours.

We’ve also learned to let our mood and the weather determine which beaches we walk in the mornings and where to go to catch the sunset in the evening.

Playa Flamingo is the most touristed beach with two of the largest hotel complexes, a long whiteish sand crescent with hawkers selling tents and chairs for a couple twenty dollar bills (all negotiable). At midday the beach can be crowded. When the tides are right Ticos are out with fishing poles or even just fishing line, catching tuna and jack fish in the surf. At sunset, we sat among locals and no gringos within sight.

Locals fishing from the beach at Playa Flamingo

To escape the wind (which was wild this year), we walk Prieta Beach, a short white sand beach, often all by ourselves. It’s located north of town, down a steep and somewhat intimidating dirt road. No signs, almost impossible to find. We were lucky to stumble on it last year and it is now our favorite. It’s seems almost like our own private paradise. On the weekend, the beach attracts a few locals. Snorkeling is marginal there, but Prieta is still a spectacular place to swim and play in the waves. A short walk connects to another lovely, slightly more crowded beach, Penca (and a sign warning of crocodiles in the lagoon behind the beach).

Looking for a beachside restaurant? We go to Playa Potrero. The bay itself is less inviting here—darker sand, a little muddy—but it’s a great beach to walk and watch the sunset. Several small places offer decent margaritas and basic food. These places attract mainly tourists, but our attitude when we eat there is, hey — we’re tourists! Las Brisas, at the far end of the bay, has become our traditional first night in Potrero dinner! The evening dinner is often punctuated with Howler monkeys howling behind the restaurant.

Of course, when we go back to a place several times, we can’t help but make comparisons. The roads seem in better shape this year — fewer potholes. But as a consequence, more traffic, more wild Tico drivers, and fewer golf carts (which are street legal here). Some of our favorite restaurants have closed. New ones have opened. Prices are higher, but still low for what we’re getting. The pandemic has disrupted the local economy here as much as back home—marginal businesses struggled. But recovery seems to be in full swing. Lots of construction and we worry that bit by bit Potrero may go the way of some of our former favorite places.

Another big change is the presence of mega yachts — Howard Schultz of Starbucks 100+ foot yacht was here, plus Arthur Blank (one of Home Depot’s founders — the liberal, not the current right-wing owner) even bigger yacht, and another yacht that charters for $325,000 a day plus expenses. Strange, because as we said, there’s not much here to attract that crowd. We never saw those big boats the first two times we were here. Sign of today’s economy?

Upper boat is registered to Arthur Blank of Home Depot fame and the other is available for charter at $325,000 a week plus expenses.

Yes, there is something very comforting about the familiar. It takes a while to know a place and each return visit adds new layer of understanding and new finds. We hope to return again next year to escape the northern hemisphere cold and make some new discoveries.