by Gaia Zol
I looked around: no one in sight. I quickly undressed, hiding my clothes behind a branch. I jumped in the cold water, the rocks smooth below my feet and the noise of the waterfall muting the world. I closed my eyes under the powerful stream. The water hit my shoulders and my mind, freeing it from every worry. I stood on the other side of the waterfall, looking at the world disappear with every drop. When the falling temperature gave me goose bumps, I headed to the hot springs in Rio Fortuna. Darkness fell and the lanterns turned on, the fireflies brightened the forest. The world and my thoughts quieted. It was perfect. It was pura vida.
A few weeks ago I filled my blue backpack with my swimsuit, the once-upon a time white flip flops, and the oily sunscreen. I made sure to pick up my travel buddy (my journal) and the address of the Hostel Casa del Parque in San José. I didn’t know why I chose to go to Costa Rica -it wasn’t on my bucket list. Only during my trip I would understand that I didn’t choose anything: Costa Rica chose me.
I left Chicago, exhausted from life, and I arrived in Costa Rica with heavy bags under my eyes. The five hour bus ride from Terminal 7-10 to La Fortuna de San Carlos only added dust on my shoulders.
“Miss, do you have a reservation?.”
I turned to face a sweaty young boy holding a plastic folder. I followed him to the Arenal Backpackers Resort, hoping he wouldn’t try to sell me an expensive tour while I was melting from the heat, but David turned out to more than a tour guide: he became a friend.
He barely gave me the time to splash my face with cold water before he drove me around his home city. On my bus ride I had only brought avena cookies and a banana, so I was hungry. I was introduced to the tico’s delicacy: casado. A plate of white rice, frijoles, plantains, boiled vegetables, and a choice of meat. Perhaps a tomato sauce, if you were lucky. David confirmed what the San José taxi driver had told me: ticos ate casados from breakfast to dinner, always punctual - unlike the buses. And the national Imperial beer, make it two for the road.
To digest the fried plantains that stuck to my palate, we moved on. David showed me the life of the pueblo of La Lucha de La Tigre, where his mother Lucrezia raised him and his older brother in a house with a sheet roof and a blue and red couch in the yard.
Villages were indistinguishable in Costa Rica. Every low house was painted in fading colors and each had a worn couch or armchair in the yard, a touch of humble elegance. The yards themselves were covered in the chaos of life: drying clothes, rowdy dogs (always in pairs), and dusty cars, which were scratched, with missing handles and broken windows covered in tape. Dust covered everything (me included), since paved roads are one of the many mysteries of the country. We would be comfortably driving on asphalt when all of a sudden the carretera became a country road.
“Someone put the money in the pockets,” David told me, “two kilometers is 100 million colones.”
In Lucha de La Tigre, we drove through a silent landscape where people sat at windows waiting for time to pass. David’s 80-years old grandfather sat shirtless on a wooden bench outside his house, asking visitors about the coconuts and teaching his nephews about plants and about life under the sun -the type of life that gave his skin the color of coal. Music came out of the supermercados and sporadic engines moved the quiet air. Otherwise, it was the triumph of nature.
In La Fortuna, nature’s masterpiece was Volcano Arenal. Another country road led to the 5,358 ft peak surrounded by the rain forest. The inactive volcano (after it killed 87 people in 1968) was visible from every path of the National Park and I could feel the breeze on the top, but I had no intention to climb it. For the cool air, I went to Monteverde.
The bus ride to Santa Elena would take nine hours and a boat ride would cost $30. For a small fee, David offered to drive me and another couple of wanderers. It took us the whole day, only because we first went to the river of Rio Celeste with its thick blue depths, like the color of a painter’s palette. The 65 years-old guide Guillermo had his own theory:
“When God made the sky, a piece of it broke and fell into the water. And now they are reflections.” If I wanted the scientific explanation, I should google it, he said smiling.
From the blue of the river we drove to the blue of the Lago Arenal, skirting its shores until we reached the hills of cattle, horses, and of fincas (farms). Up and down the windy roads, we stopped to watch the sunset and to eat the juicy mango we had bought in the morning and which I had been gazing at for hours-never cut a mango like you would cut an apple, unless you want a tiko to yell at you. In Monteverde, I did the tourist thing, and enjoyed a canopy tour, with the longest cable in South America (2,525 feet) and the Tarzan Swing, a drop into gravity of 148 feet. I did it while yelling “Estais locos” to the friendly employees - but they did push me, after all.
The day after, another drop awaited me. From the mountains, I descended to the Pacific Ocean in a slow but steady stream of sweat. In Puntarenas, I took the ferry to Palenque and from Palenque I reached Cabuya, a small pueblo near Montezuma. David had recommended me to rent a house for few days with Señora Rosalba, so I asked about her in the supermercado. The Chinese owner sent me to a woman with white hair, wearing a blue dress and with a pile of bananas on her table. She showed me the wooden house, literally few steps from the beach and with the complimentary company of howling monkeys. I spent my days swimming in the warm and deep ocean, sleeping, drinking batidos a Las Palmeras restaurant, and eating mega empanadas -I had enough casados. When morning arrived, a rooster would announce it. When darkness fell, the world brightened with the moon. And the howling monkeys quieted, leaving the nocturnal karaoke to the geckos.
Sometimes I forget about the beauty of the world. I am all caught up in my daily life of to-do-lists that I forget about the fresh air of the mountains. So I travel. I swing on hammocks under the stars, I clumsily dance salsa on the ferry, and I eat termites. I arrived in Costa Rica with heavy bags under my eyes, but I left with a light heart. And few mosquito bites.
Gaia Zol is an Italian reporter who lives in the United States, from the rain of Venice to the ice of Chicago. She is a traveler and a wannabe ballet dancer. As every typical Italian, Gaia loves pasta (especially carbonara) and complains about everything... but she can't sing opera nor cook decently.
Follow her on Twitter @GaiaZol