A year ago this past weekend, I was feeling the weight of the winter blues and did something kinda crazy. The long weekend had snuck up, and I realized rather last minute I had extra time off. I’d been feeling increasingly sluggish and low, in total hibernation mode, chalking it up to the winter and the crazy year I’d just had. My health had been decidedly uncooperative, but I was not yet at the point of total system breakdown. My body was literally craving sunshine, and I figured all I needed was a quick escape to heal my lungs, boost my mood and help me feel better.
Only half conscious of what I was doing, that Friday morning I opened up a new window on my computer screen and casually started checking flights while I sat slumped over my coffee. I randomly saw a flight to San Jose, thinking I was looking at a flight to Puerto Rico – this is how foggy my brain was. It was enticingly cheap and it was leaving in 6 hours. Doable.
I looked up hotels and things to do in San Jose. Oh right – San Jose is in the middle of Costa Rica. And you actually you have to travel to the coast to get beach and proper sunshine. Well, even better, my mind rationalized – Costa Rica has always been top of my travel bucket list, and I further rationalized that 6 hours gave me plenty of time to pack, find a hotel near the airport for that night since I’d be arriving late, and sort out transportation to the Pacific coast the next morning. It would turn out fine. Knowing literally nothing about the country, I clicked book, pulled out my passport, and was suddenly on a mission.
Six hours later I was boarding the plane and just before I stepped up to scan my boarding pass received a phone call confirming my shuttle for the morning. Done and done. By midday the next day, I was soaking up the sun on the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica.
But let me back up. As I mentioned, I had no clue what I was doing after I arrived on the west coast. Before departure, I had somewhat haphazardly chosen a destination based on proximity to San Jose, on random traveler reviews, and on where the shuttle would take me. Fortunately, it was all smooth sailing when I arrived. The hotel room was close and clean, and the front desk ensured all was in order for pickup the next morning.
I woke up to warm sunshine and a tropical continental breakfast with Costa Rican coffee and knew I had made the right decision. The driver was prompt enough, and soon I was settled in for the journey to the west coast. There wasn’t much to see on the first part of the journey, but blue skies and palm trees surrounded me and soon enough the road curved south and we were driving adjacent to the coast, glimpses of white peaks rolling into the shore emerging through the palm trees.
The road was lined by endless palms. We would stop at a couple destinations before mine – I was going the furthest. It seemed an interminable ride between the first stop and the second; the palm-lined road seemed to stretch forever, and once we finally reached the town, we drove right through and up a winding hill. I remember thinking to myself, Where on earth am I going? Which in hindsight holds a much deeper significance than I could have possibly imagined.
We finally reached the top of the hill and suddenly, between two hotels, views of the aquamarine sea hundreds of feet below stretched out before us. As we drove on, it was suddenly gone. We stopped at two more hotels and I was told I would have to transfer to another bus before continuing on to my final destination. I stood there, feeling the sun on my skin and seeing the ocean below, and knew I had arrived. I wouldn’t need to catch that connection (which sounded rather unappealing anyway). This was my destination.
I asked the driver Where exactly are we? Manuel Antonio. I told the driver there was a change in plans and I would stay. This caused him great consternation – where would he take me? The hotel we were at was booked. What would he tell the operator? What would I do? I asked him to take me to the nearest place with wifi and lunch, ideally with a view of the water. With a hesitant nod and nothing promised, he drove down the hill and I had a moment of anxiety – we were leaving that view behind. What would I do with my luggage if he left? Would I be able to find a taxi? We drove along the beach and he turned down one of the few roads, turning around in the first driveway. He turned back onto the beachside road, drove 10 feet, and stopped right in front of the open air restaurant facing the water. He had obliged my request most exquisitely.
Pulling my luggage along, I sat down at a table on the beach-casual covered porch facing the water, pulling out my iPad. The waiter came over with the menu and provided the wifi password. I ordered a fresh salad with grilled fish and a mango smoothie, and filled my lungs with the salt-scented air, luxuriating in the warm breeze caressing my skin. It was perfect.
As I filled up on fresh nourishment, I searched, and quickly realized the flaw in my plan: I had neglected to consider that hotel availability might be limited due to the holiday weekend. But I found my unicorn: there was a small apartment available just down the road at the quiet end of the beach: simple but adequate, a two-minute walk from the beach, and best of all, the owner would be available to pick me up an hour later. Done, booked, sorted. I literally couldn’t believe my luck. I sat back and relaxed as I finished my lunch, then asked if I could store my luggage in the restaurant for 45 minutes while I strolled on the beach. I changed into the bikini I had packed in my handbag and crossed the street to soak up some proper Vitamin D.
I returned to pick up my bag and my ride arrived a few minutes later, bringing me to my simple haven. Monkeys swung through the trees right outside the balcony. I settled in and walked down the hibiscus-lined path through the jungle to our quiet end of the beach. I settled in with my book and a girl sitting nearby struck up a conversation and she invited me to join her the next day to go to the national park nearby. We chilled and connected over yoga and travel and watched the sunset. A horse galloped by at the edge of the surf.
Another solo guest at the apartments was home from his diving certification when I returned to shower, and we agreed to venture into town to get dinner together. A native of Minneapolis, he told me about his diving ambitions and his boyfriend and we swapped tales of travel adventures. Dinner was delicious and the day felt complete. My first few hours proved to be pure magic.
The next day began with breakfast next door with a view of the beach. I made my way to the beach and then off we went to the national park, walking along the beach and through the rest of the colorful town. Our group of four – all of us wearing flip flops – was intent on making the rounds of the park to take full advantage of the gorgeous vistas of turquoise waters and the jungle animals in the trees: the sloths were my favorite. We found little coves and I even struck a few yoga poses.
Hours of walking later, I was exhausted yet felt accomplished with my day. We ordered delicious smoothies and returned to our corner of the beach. I arranged for a surfing lesson the following morning, did a little yoga, grabbed my nice camera, and settled in to watch sunset once again with whomever was around that evening. Dinner again was with my apartment companion, who regaled me with his diving excursion and alerted me to the option of returning to San Jose by flight, which apparently made for a shorter, more comfortable journey – as long as you’re comfortable in a tiny plane. I booked the flight and another hotel in San Jose close to the airport, and prepared for my final day.
My morning found me learning to surf: the waves were gentle, my beginner board kept me steady, and my yoga training served me well. I stood up on my first try and on my second I managed to ride the wave all the way in. I spent an hour riding wave after gentle wave, and by the end I was wiped out but on my feet, filled with sunshine and surf. I loved it.
As I soaked up my last moments of sunshine and breathed in the salty air, I kept thinking about how my solo trip filled up with companions, and how my unplanned adventure had fallen into place more perfectly than I could ever have planned.
After grabbing some cocoa and coffee, I made my way to the tiny airport. Our little plane took off as the sun was setting over the ocean and as it dipped below the horizon we turned inland over a sea of palms. The sunshine had bronzed my skin and filled my soul.
My spontaneous adventure in Costa Rica rejuvenated my body, refreshed my mind, nourished my soul, and most importantly lifted my spirits. Little did I know that things would get much worse before they got better, but I left with a sense that hope was on the horizon.