The Costa Rica Experience
I had mixed feelings about Costa Rica. A week prior, our schedule was relatively free and all we knew is we needed to be in Panama City by the end of April. This gave us nearly a month to take our time to explore Costa Rica and Panama. It likely meant we would spend only a week or two in Costa Rica because of the relatively high cost (relatively to our budget) of things there, and then a bit longer in Panama.
This didn’t happen. Instead we spent nearly three weeks living in a small house/office on the beach (almost) in the middle of the jungle. It was all possible because of a service called workaway. It’s used by mostly smaller businesses/non-profits/NGOs to obtain part-time “work” and by travelers/volunteers/anyone really to have a place to stay and food to eat in exchange for about 20-25 hours of work per week. You create a profile and say where and when you are interested, then start looking for a place to apply. Pretty straightforward. It’s a great way to learn something new, help someone out and excellent for your budget (a lot of workawayers are younger, backpacker types).
I don't know which one of my friend called it a dating app for workers/volunteers ; I like the analogy! Small business needs help, You want to help in some kind of way the people of the countries you are traveling in. Find your match and go for it!!
We had been planning to do a workaway thing in South America for some time, but Max and Marta had been doing workaway in Paradiso for a few weeks and it looked quite a bit better than we expected. So Clo decided to see if it was possible for Costa Rica, because otherwise we probably won’t spend much time in the country. I was not really for it, because I wanted to wait until Columbia, but why not? I didn’t have much hope we’d be able to find something with only a week or two notice, since most nice-looking places were usually full for a couple months in advance. Costa Rica is a popular place for workaway specifically because of how (again, relatively) expensive it is to travel in otherwise.
Surprise surprise! A couple of days after we had created our profile, someone messaged us to ask if we were available. That was quite unexpected. After chatting with the owner a bit and finding dates that worked for both of us, we agreed to work there for almost three weeks. This meant we had to rush a bit through Costa Rica to make it to our destination on time, but that wasn’t too bad for us after lounging at Paradiso for a couple of weeks.
That was really unexpected to found a place to work at so fast!! I was really excited because on a budget perspective, we spent way to much this past month in Nicaragua (wedding, eye injection, awesome burgers in different places, and so many beers. And the Mango Daiquiri... hum sweet sweet memories..!!) Haha, anyways, I was really happy to go somewhere with no expenses! It was the main goal for me. And the fact to do something helpful for a local business.
The place we would be staying was a small (about 15 beds) eco hotel in the tiny village of Drake Bay on the Osa Peninsula. I hadn’t heard of this place before we were contacted, but soon found out this area of Costa Rica is a spectacularly rich area for wildlife. According to National Geographic it’s the most bio-diverse region in the world, while also relatively hard to reach and not that busy. We were lucky to go in the middle of high season, otherwise we wouldn’t be able to drive there (95% of people still arrived by boat even while were there) at all.
After we entered the country we had five nights to spend before we’d arrive at our workaway. We decided to try a few things away from where most tourists go and more importantly, things that were free or cheap (almost every single park in Costa Rica charges a significant fee to enter and most don’t allow camping). I was completely blown away by how amazing it turned out.
It is obvious how much attention this country pays to their nature and wildlife. Wow. The first night we spent in a (free) public park on the beach. We were completely alone and woke up to hundreds of scarlet macaws playing, eating and talking (holy crap they are loud!) in the trees all around the bay. Are we in a pirate movie or something? Wow.
The next afternoon we drove to the top of a volcano. If the weather is nice you can see both the Pacific and Caribbean from the peak of Irazu, but this happens only a few times a year. It was relatively average weather but I did not expect this average in the middle of Costa Rica… 4c (40f) at night and 9c (50f) in the daytime. It was so wonderful after being hot and sweaty for weeks and weeks!
The few nights we had on that mountain range were pretty awesome. It had been a while we didn't have cold weather, and taking the sleeping bags out felt great!!
The next day we left the volcano and stopped in the middle of the cloud forest in the mountains near the Parque Nacional Los Quetzales. There was a very small hostel there who allowed us to sleep in their parking lot and use their common area and trails (we didn’t hike though, it was raining almost the whole time) for a few dollars. We spent a lot of time talking to the owner, a guy about our age who ran the place (most of their business was treks for bird watchers) for his parents, whom had owned it for nearly 50 years. It was fascinating to learn about the area and the wildlife. We also spoke a lot about politics, the current election in Costa Rica and issues with immigration and refugees (many of the small business owners we spoke to have hired Venezuelan refugees under the table to help them survive).
This was one of my favorite place we stayed at. Even if we didn't do much due to the weather, the place was very comfy. All wooden furniture, being warm inside, the cold outside; I love the mix of having somewhere to hang out (with wifi) and still go back home to Wilbur to sleep. Wilbur is so comfortable. No hotel room can compete!! And talking with the owner was really interesting and it's good for us to have some down to earth talks once in a while. Yes we are doing an amazing trip and most of it is super fun, but you cannot be blind to what happens in the countries you are travelling through (socially, politically etc.,.). And I think this was just a preface of working with locals in Drake Bay.
We continued to another wonderful and free beach campsite, seeing a boatload of crocodiles from a bridge over one of the rivers we crossed. Not a place to go swimming. In fact, most of the beaches on the Pacific side have the risk of saltwater crocodiles whenever there is a river nearby (crocs live along the banks of the rivers). We spent a few hours in one of the most touristy beach areas of Costa Rica and finally one more night along the Golfo Dulce.
Our little camp spot for the night. So pretty.
The day of arrival to our new home was not without some excitement. As I mentioned earlier, during most of the year it is not possible to drive to Drake Bay because the many river crossings that are engorged with rainwater and impassible (only one of the six has a bridge). Thankfully it was the dry season and no heavy rain recently so none of the crossings were supposed to be problematic. It was a fun few hour drive! Rivers, steep up and downs (pretty good road though) and beautiful scenery. Oh, and of course Wilbur’s fantastic air conditioning.
This definitely isn't the worse river to cross, but there was a few of them, and it was pretty fun!!
I specifically mention air conditioning because the place we would be staying (and what an amazing place it was!) had no air conditioning. Anywhere. For three weeks would be in a hot, humid (I never thought I’d find a place more humid than Singapore…) place with no respite. For me, weather usually plays a big part of my comfort level and general overall feelings. Sun makes me happy, humidity makes me grumpy, being dirty makes me… well, dirty, and using q-tips in my ears is almost as good as a foot massage.
So being without air conditioning in a very humid and hot place for three weeks made me a bit worried. Surprisingly this didn’t turn out to be much of an issue at all. The little house we were staying in had a wonderful sort of outdoor/indoor shower space where you could take a shower with fresh water and look out over the small river flowing into the ocean and enjoy a little breeze. The humidity and the breeze in the evenings even made it cool enough where we could have a sheet over us for at least most of the nights and not be too hot. I was surprised how quickly I acclimated to the conditions and didn’t even think too much about it.
I think being clean is the main thing for me. I don’t mind sweating as long as I’m not covered in salt from hours upon hours of it. I don’t mind being dirty as long as I don’t get my living area/space too dirty. Clothes can be filthy on the outside as long as they are clean on the inside. It’s interesting how living in different places has changed my preferences of this over time. Had I not lived in Singapore before taking this trip, the humidity and sweating would have been a problem for me to deal with.
The dirt and grime that comes with being outdoors and traveling a lot is something I’ve been comfortable with for quite some time. I think this is because of how I grew up; for the first ~10 years of my life, we lived literally in the middle of nowhere. The nearest town (a whopping ~250 people) was 10km away, and the nearest big city (ten thousand people!) was an hour away. Besides sleeping and winter time (and often times not even snow/rain/cold/etc would keep me indoors), I was usually outside playing and getting dirty. A great life for any child, I think.
But back to Costa Rica. It was awesome to really be surrounded by wild nature; and it was nature like I’ve rarely seen before. Without moving more than a few meters from the house we were living in or the grounds of the hotel a few hundred meters away, we saw innumerable pairs of scarlet macaws (or “ara” as they are called in Spanish), 100’s (yes, 100’s) of species of birds eating and chilling, even a toucan! About 10 different species of lizards, a few different types of monkeys and at night there were lots of enormous frogs/toads/etc.
One day we took a walk for a few hours along the water and we saw troupes of all four different species of monkeys, thousands (yup) of birds, a mommy sloth with her baby moving (very slowly) through the trees, three types of lemurs, wild boars and other things I can’t remember. We did a snorkeling trip for a few hours and saw whales, turtles, bunch of different fish (honestly not great fish compared to some places I’ve been in SEAsia) and a huge group (there are a total of about 5,000 of them off the coast of Osa peninsula) of dolphins who swam around our boat for a while.
The wild life there is amazing. For me just seeing the Macaws in the tree 1 meter away from our house in the morning is just incredible. And the boat trip where we saw the dolphins was memorable. So many of them, Nature is beautiful.
It was very special. We were very lucky to be here. I am, of course, mainly mentioning the things I found neat about this place. We did have work to do while we were here, too. My job was mainly to build a business proposal for the owners (they wanted to sell), which was actually quite interesting. Lots of digging into the financials of the business, as well as understanding how property was sold in this part of the world. I helped out sometimes with the arriving or departing guests too, but this was much less frequent than what Clo was doing.
The main job for me was to welcome the tourists on the beach (because most of them were french) and take them to the hostel. There were 2 boats a day. And when I say boats.. i mean small boats, usually 4 guest were the max to arrive at the same time!! I had fun working on he reservations tho, always fun to be on the other side of the screen. And see how all this works. All in one this would keep us busy a good part of the day. The rest of the time we would go walk the dog, swim for me, run for Matt and chill on the terrasse of the house.
I’ve never really been around Clo when she is working. Of course I’ve been with her to Cannes for her month of crazy work and hung out on one or two photography shoots, but never actually in the same room while she was working for hours. It’s interesting to see the different side of her. She is extraordinarily focused and detail oriented about things she cares about, but I don’t think she’s had the combination of learning something totally new and a “boss” supervising her so closely for quite a long time. It made for some stress at the beginning of our time there, but I think it helped we were there together and she had someone with whom to vent.
I think being a bit of a perfectionist it was hard at times to not do everything right the first time. But all went well, it was fun to have Matt with me and being able to "complain" about our work conditions (that were great) together. Never happened to us before!! Being colleagues was really nice!! And wearing the same work outfit was so cute!
The closeness of the two of us for our time here was also interesting to me. We are together almost all the time anyway, but even though we still spent most of our time together here it seemed quite different. I think it was a combination of having some work to distract/occupy/etc us with something that didn’t involve each other, and the fact we had different rooms to go in. I often hung out on the desk area on the porch to do my work, so even though we were a meter or two away, we were still separated and doing our own thing.
For sure not having the same tasks was a plus. We didn't interfere in each other's work and it was great. On my part I really liked having to interact with the other workers of the Finca. Mercedes and Esteban mainly. You have different conversations than if you were just a tourist. You understand more of the working "standards" of the country, the social security problems, the limit of immigration in this part of the world, the lack of security in your job. Being a employee like them helped getting closer faster. And again and as always everywhere in the world: being women: there is something there where often you understand each other in the blink of an eye. For sure it was the case here with Mercedes. Smiles and laughers, and a bit of spanish, and we felt like friends already!
The three weeks went by surprisingly fast. I would have enjoyed spending more time in this area purely for the nature, but I was also happy to leave and continue our journey. Oh, and I was rather excited simply to be inside our lovely Wilbur with the air conditioning on. We left and headed towards Panama City; I wouldn’t say we sped, but we drove rather quickly there as we had planned to spend a few days in an air conditioned room with no one around to tell us what to do.
We also had a few things to organize, such as leaving Wilbur in bonded storage (and all the paperwork that went along with it) and finding a shipping partner for when we went to Columbia. We were doing this now since we were about to leave Central America for almost two months, first to go to a friend’s wedding in Boracay and then for Clo to work at Cannes. We would also see family and friends and eat and drink and enjoy cooler weather and warmer showers.
We really are very lucky to have this life we have. Yes we are.
PS: a special mention to Rasta, our dog companion in Drake Bay!