Off the beaten path – “Pura vida”, Costa Rica!

by Rolands Ratfelders

Read the part I of this off the beaten path adventure story here.


Part 2: Heading off the beaten path

San José

Going off the beaten path starts with the beaten path. Arriving in a new place in the late evening is always a bit daunting. I know that this feeling is misleading. It comes from our deepest fear of the unknown, and most often it has nothing to do with reality. A new place always looks sunnier and much more attractive in the next morning. Especially, if it is sunny and embraced by gorgeous mountains. San José is that kind of place.

San José is the city in the mountains. It is about 1,000 meters above the sea level. It is a place with a wonderful climate. Evenings and nights are warm and recall what we have here in the Nordic summers. While anyone coming from the North cannot wish any better weather as it is in San José during the daytime. It is warm but not hot. There are around 25 degrees Celsius (77 degrees Fahrenheit) during the daytime. A light and a nice breeze is present almost all the time. The city has around 900 thousand inhabitants. Here I will end speaking about San José because we did not spend any more time there. It was not our aim. We focussed our adventure on the “go wild” mode.
How do you pay in Costa Rica?

Payments are in the local currency Colones. You can buy around 570 Colones for 1 US dollar and 675 Colones for 1 Euro. The “World currency” US dollars are also widely accepted not only in a market and streets but also in any shop. You will receive Colones as change though. Colones are a very colorful currency. It is very different from the most of the World’s banknotes. Faces of important people are only on one side. The opposite side of banknotes is full of wildlife elements. This includes hummingbirds, sloths, sharks, monkeys, and others. This points to the main value of Costa Rica – its nature and wildlife.Off the beaten path _ colones

This again very much reminded me of our former Latvian currency Lats. At that time we did not have Euros yet. Many banknotes of Lats included nature elements important for us. Such elements were an oak tree, biggest river Daugava, countryside, and the sea/sailing.Off the beaten path _ Latvian Lats
In the neighboring Panama (which we also visited) the US dollar is an official payment method. US dollar is accepted along with its own national dollar. This part of the World does not accept Euros with big enthusiasm though. Do not go there with large nominal banknotes. It is very difficult to change them.

From the highway to off the beaten path

After breakfast we stuffed the car with our baggage and left for a 7-hour road trip, heading to the wild. This long it takes to get from San José to the remotest place of Costa Rica – Osa peninsula. The first destination is one of the wildest places not only in Costa Rica but also in the World – Drake Bay. It is truly off the beaten path. There are three ways to get there: by plane, by boat and by car. We took the longest one by the car on Pan American highway.

Driving on the highway is not the most interesting part of the journey anywhere. This was not an exception. It seemed like a never-ending story to get to the place called Chacarita. This place is the last one on the way to Drake Bay where you can fuel your car. Trying to understand indices on the old US made filling tank we used this did not miss this last chance.


At Chacarita we turned on the road leading to Drake Bay. The landscape soon changed a lot. For some kilometers, there was still an asphalted road. Yet, we went deeper and deeper off the beaten path. Lush green forest and orange-red bare soil exposures changed each other. Finally, the asphalted road ended and began what had to begin – off-road. This road of around 40 kilometers (25 miles) could be called a kind of gravel road. It was full of potholes where, if you are not cautious enough, even the strongest car could lose all its wheels. That’s why average speed on it did not exceed 10 – 20 km (6-12 miles) per hour. Quite often it dropped to the tempo of a casual walker.

Challenge of the wild rivers

You can reach this off the beaten path place by car only in the dry season. The dry season in Costa Rica lasts from the late November to late April. You have to cross at least five rivers on your way, and you don’t want to drown your car. Note that even the fullest insurance does not cover the car’s drowning there. For sure, they have a bad experience with this. Locals say that during the rainy season these rivers turn into small Amazons. The water level is the highest in October and November.

It was the end of January. Still, we first crossed all these rivers by foot to get an idea, where the shallowest sites are. For this purpose, our Chicago friend Janis with his new “amphibian sandals” was of excellent use.Off the beaten path _ Costa Rica _ Osa penisula

It seemed that I and Edgars should be the ones who should have the hardest time for acclimatization. We came from different time zone with 6 hours difference. Janis came from Chicago that is roughly the same time zone with Costa Rica. In reality, it was right the opposite. For several days our friend from Chicago was almost unusable. He hardly tried to cope with the cultural shock and the unusual feeling that he does not have to run to the work. Actually, we did not have to run anywhere. This is not very common for a “modern city man”. Isn’t it. The fact that he had to share the rooms with two other selfish guys did not help the situation too.

Janis’ new task of checking the rivers seemed to be very useful to help him to acclimatize faster. His opinion was a bit different what made the situation even funnier.

Crossing the first three rivers was an easy task as they were shallow. At the fourth, we finally realized that we are truly off the beaten path. We also started to think if it is worth risking the car. Car insurance covered everything except its drowning. Yet, there were no alternatives and we had to risk. At that time two motorcycles crossed the river. They were partly submerged underwater. Hence I could not get, how their flooded engines could still work, but what do I know about engines.

Two “badass” looking men were sitting on one of the motorcycles. One of them concentrated on steering the vehicle so it does not drown. While the other sat on the back with a huge machete in his hand. A machete is a thing that one hardly needs in his hand while crossing a river. Also, the expression on the man’s face made us hesitate a bit if we should continue our way the same direction. Yet, as we found out later on this trip, such a view is an ordinary one when you go off the beaten path in Costa Rica. These people are farmers and they return from their daily work on the field. Therefore this does not mean anything dangerous or uncommon.

It took a while to get back some courage. Then we jumped in our car and crossed the river in a way that we could call nothing more or less than dedicated. All ended well.

Lost off the beaten path

Only 40 km on a gravel road with some rivers on the way separated us from Drake Bay. Yet, the bad road condition and the speed of a turtle made it feel like a never-ending journey. At that moment it seemed like a journey towards some promised off the beaten path place that, who knows, might not even exist. The evening approached and we got exhausted.

It is known that it gets dark in tropics almost instantly around 6 p.m. Our aim was to reach our Casa Drake Lodge before we do not see anything around us.

We had rented a navigation device along with our car. It was amazingly precise at the Pacific coast during our trip. Yet, it gave up that first day near Drake village. We went through the village, but our lodge was somewhere further on deeper in the jungle. The night approached with big steps and we started to lose the sense of reality. We did not have any clue where we are and how far we are from our lodge. The road now reminded muddy motorcycle race track or a ditch. “Well, we have at least found our own off the beaten path”, I thought.

There was one more river to cross and then a lonely man walking on a road. I summarized all my weak knowledge of Spanish without any big hopes that the man could really help us. Yet, he turned out to be very friendly and bright guy. He looked like Bob Marley or one of his followers. Then the “magic” happened. In the best “one love” tradition he proposed to help us. Furthermore, he assured that he knows the place and our lodge is right “behind the corner”.

Saved in the lodge

We still could not believe that the man understood what we were asking. Yet, somewhere in the deepest unconscious level of mind, we did not want to leave him. He was the one who had at least some clue where we are. Thus, we offered to take our new friend with us. We were truly surprised that after a couple of kilometers or so we stopped at our lodge.

Edgars was driving the entire day, and in the last kilometers, he had lost a lot of his typical optimism and enthusiasm. He could not believe that we have reached our destination. Until I found the host, who confirmed that we are indeed in the right place.

The mission of the first day was accomplished.

Unlike most of other lodges in Drake Bay Casa Drake Lodge does not belong to foreign “gringos”.

A local family runs this place. They were nice and welcomed us warmly. Almost none of them spoke understandable English. Thus they called another family member that was supposed to be an “expert” English. As far as I understood he was the host’s son. This did not improve our communication much. Yet, everything that we needed that evening was a shower, cold beer, dinner, and bed. They understood this without the words.

We could not see much as the tropical night had already descended over the jungle. The lodge has a great terrace though with comfortable hammocks. After a great dinner, we lied in the hammocks and enjoyed the cold beer. I listened to the mysterious night sounds of the jungle that I had read about only in the books when I was a boy. We had found our off the beaten path.

Waking up in a new reality

Due to time zone differences, it was not a problem for us to wake up 4:30 a.m., except for Janis. In the first days of travel, he looked like he has arrived on another planet. In a sense, it was true for him. Thus, he could not get used to the new reality that their friends asked him to wake up in the early morning to “go wild”.
Anyway, waking up in the early morning in a jungle lodge like this was waking up in a new beautiful reality for each of us.

The lodge had a terrace with a jungle view. From there we could see how nature was waking up along with us. Colorful parrots (Scarlet macaws) were flying around and croaked at the top of the trees. This was a nice contrast to the grey crows dominating at our home during the wintertime. The air was filled with the voices of other birds, flying around in all the possible colors. The unique morning fragrance of the jungle is something that is hard to describe in words.

Diving and snorkeling

We spent the first day going for diving and snorkeling to the famous Isla del Caño in the Corcovado Bay. There are few diving centers in Drake Bay. However, I will chill the diving fans a bit. There are only some spots in Costa Rica, worth visiting only for diving. The best one is Isla del Coco – a national park without any permanent inhabitants. Unfortunately, it is around 550 km far from the coast in the Pacific Ocean. Thus, it makes this place into a long and very expensive attraction. Some other places are Golfo de Papagayo, Isla Catalina, and Bat Islands. The last two are for experienced divers. You can expect strong currents and choppy waters there.

I traveled with two non-diving friends. Thus, trying all the above-mentioned places was not an option. Feeding them with at least some diving-friendly spots like Isla del Caño and Golfo de Papagayo was already a lot. The diving spots were good. You can see big schools of fish there, Manta Ray, Eagle Ray, sea turtles and if you are lucky, even whales. I was lucky to see a whale’s mom with its cub later in Papagayo Bay although only from the boat.

Those, who are looking for colorful coral gardens, look elsewhere. There are more attractive diving sites not far from Costa Rica in Belize. Or you can go on a separate dive trip to the distant Isla del Coco. At the end of our trip, we also visited a wonderful diving place called Bocas del Torro in Panama. I’ll come back to this later in the next parts of this travel story.

Puerto Jiménez

Drake Bay is a magic place where you immerse yourself in the wilderness. You can feel one with nature and off the beaten path there. Yet, our main aim in Osa Peninsula was two days hike in the remote Corcovado National Park. This is why we had to move from Drake Bay to Puerto Jiménez  – a town on the east coast of Osa Peninsula.

Puerto Jiménez is a great place to spend a couple of relaxing acclimatization days. It is a small town on the Pacific coast with a gorgeous beach stretching for miles. There were few tourists when we were there. Thus, it was almost a paradise on Earth.

Women in Costa Rica

Despite the empty beach, there are some people in Puerto Jiménez itself. Now it’s time to tell you something more about the people of Costa Rica and the women, of course.

One afternoon we were sitting at some cozy bar in the town. I was observing the slow pace of the local mundane life of the local people. Here I came to deeper thoughts about us and them. What makes them look happier? What makes our relationship so fragile these days in the modern world? Why there are so many divorces? Why people can’t find happiness where they are?

First, I noticed that the young women here have a different attitude towards life. They often have several kids already at early ages and they might be quite busy with their family lives. Yet, they look happy!

I’ll risk being unpopular. Could it be because nobody expects any great career achievements from them? They are not fighting for an artificially made position in society side by side with men. This is what the women do in the Western World. Nobody even thinks about such things in Puerto Jiménez. Women do not have to prove that they are equal to men there. They have only one “old fashioned” task there – to be a good mother and wife. For sure, as “modern westerners” we could think that they have deserved much more in their lives. We could even try to convince them about this. Yet, I am pretty sure they would not understand what we want them to do now because they are already happy.

How many happy people do we see here – in World that we call developed? How many people do you know that are truly happy? It is not that rare that a person is very successful in his/her career though. It is not difficult to be successful in a system if you have some talents and strong will. And everybody has talents. But do we really need to be successful in terms defined by the system?

Yet, it is not that easy to be successful and happy. Years pass by but instead of happiness, they bring only disappointment. That said happiness cannot be bought. The expected success does not come together with long-term joy. It may give you some satisfaction, but it is usually a short-term one. Then you continue your race to get something even “better”.

We often forget the fulfillment that a small child can give us with a big smile on his/her face.

Janis agreed on my “pain”. He added that Latvia is only on the way towards this mass craziness that he already sees every day in US. In the consumer society, people are, first, aimed to please their ego’s needs. Often they do not want to hear that life can be different. They run away from anything that speaks against this madness. I do not want to categorize here, but the simple women, simple man and children of Central America made me think about all this on a deeper level. If this makes you think more about what’s our own real purpose in life, I have done something good today.

Read the part III, part IV and part V of this adventure story herehere and here.



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