Time to cross our first border… Welcome to Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica! This isn’t the first time that I’ve visited this beautiful country – I volunteered over here a few years ago before I was even legally an adult. Now, I’m 22 (still 16 mentally) and ready to experience it all again…
It all began with an early morning wake up call in Bocas del Toro – we never made an effort to snap out of our jetlag, so these are still super easy for us! Even though we could have got a boat, 3 buses and a taxi to Puerto Viejo, we managed to find a shuttle company called ‘Caribe Shuttle’ that would take us directly to our hostel and help us cross the border – for just $10 extra each! Bargain.
We caught a boat from the dock at Bocas over to Almirante where we were greeted by a Caribe Shuttle worker who carried our bags to the van – we knew instantly that we were in for a treat! The whole van was empty so, of course, we spread out and claimed a row each. We listened to music, slept soundly and Abbie didn’t throw up… success or what?!
We arrived at the Sixaola border about 10 minutes before it opened and a local guy called Luis told us where to get our passports stamped and pay the border tax. It’s actually not as straightforward as we expected it to be and we’d heard stories before about people being ripped off or getting into confusion about which counter to go to. All 3 of us speak pretty good Spanish, so I’m sure we would have managed just fine but it was nice to have Luis point out exactly who to give our money to and which forms to sign. It cost us $4 to leave Panama and absolutely nothing to enter Costa Rica – if you find yourself paying any more than that then you’ve been spotted as a ‘vulnerable tourist’ and people are taking advantage.
As soon as we were done and legally allowed to enter Costa Rica we were greeted to, yet another, Caribe Shuttle driver and guided towards, yet another, private van! We all fell asleep again but were woken up just an hour later with news that we’d reached our hostel. We looked at the time and it was only 8am – sure, Costa Rica is an hour behind Panama – but even so, it was the quickest, most efficient journey we’ve had so far. If you’re not on a super strict budget and fancy a taste of the lux life when backpacking then Caribe Shuttle is the way to go!
The hostel was called La Ruka Hostel – a hippy, surf hostel just on the outskirts of town by the beach. You can’t book it online so this was our first experience of just rocking up and hoping for the best. They weren’t too sure if they’d have beds available but said we were welcome to leave our bags and come back at 2pm once people had checked out. Sunlight was flooding through the windows and it looked like it was going to be a great day – considering we’d seen enough rain and grey in Bocas we grabbed our bikinis and went straight to the beach.
Although we were buzzing about the weather, we were soon informed that Puerto Viejo and Bocas tend to be the same and we shouldn’t expect the sunshine to last much longer than a day. We hoped for the best anyway, but they were right – we only had 1 sunny day out of 3 but we made the most of it!
We got breakfast at this super cool reggae bar – there were hammocks, swings and a stage for live bands. Vegan options were abundant, in fact, this whole town is filled with signs saying ‘vegan food’ ‘veggie menu’ and ‘vegfriendly’, so it got an instant thumbs up from me and Alice.
Just like Bocas, Puerto Viejo is a surf town with carribbean influences and the vibe is so relaxed and carefree. The Costa Ricans (Ticos) say ‘Pura Vida’ for everything which literally translates to ‘Pure Life’, which is a perfect phrase for this country. I can imagine myself living somewhere like Puerto Viejo. It’s so easy to get jobs with tourist companies, hostels and surf schools – that’s if the well-paid office job just doesn’t do it for you… I’m not quite sure what route I want to go down yet – sometimes I just want a chilled out life by the beach and other times I want to do something big and creative in business. If I can find a way to combine the two then we’ll have a winner. Until then…
After a few hours of tan time or -in Alice’s case – burn time, we decided to seek shade and get some smoothies. I chose banana and coconut milk and the girls had passionfruit juice. In England, you’d pay a fortune for these kinds of ‘health foods’ but here they’re so affordable and completely au-natural – 10 points to Central America.
The only downside to the day was that my flip flop broke. I love my £2 Asda flip flops and buy them religiously year after year. However, this is the third time that they’ve snapped in Latin America so I finally decided to take a hint and buy Havaianas. I’m ashamed to admit that I’m a total convert – my new babies are the best things that have ever happened to me. I know, I know – I move on too fast. Forgive me, Asda. I’ll always remember you as my first love.
After the beach, we decided to go back to the hostel and see if we could check in. Luckily we scored 3 beds in an 8-bed dorm and were finally able to unpack and freshen up. La Ruka Hostel is highly recommended online and we decided we liked the hippy vibe of the reception (basically, I saw hoola hoops, surfboards and dreamcatchers and insisted that this was the place for us).
However, the room we stayed in was essentially just a metal shack – the thunder and lightning at night was nothing less than terrifying in there and, as always, the humidity was too much to bear at times. The bunk beds were impossible to climb – there were ropes hanging from the ceiling for us to hold on to but, as you can imagine, we fell… a lot. Talking of falling, a lizard also fell on Alice’s head. I’m aware that this sounds super negative but it was honestly all worth it for 1) the hostel vibe 2) the price and 3) the hot shower we found in the bathroom. After 2 weeks of contorting our bodies around freezing cold trickles of water and occasionally taking a deep breath and scrubbing ourselves frantically, we were finally able to lather up and perform our Taylor Swift shower sets to their full potential.
Clean and fresh, it was time to seek food. The hostel had a kitchen and there was a supermarket close by – time to release our inner chefs! A.k.a. time for me to use these blogs as an excuse not to cook and let the others do the work whilst pretending to type but secretly doing BuzzFeed quizzes instead.
Eventually, the girls nagged me enough to get down to blogging (now you know the story behind why these posts are always 7 years late). Alice even had admin of her own to do, so we set up a workspace in the hostel common area and cracked on whilst Abbie got an early night. It weirdly felt like we were back at university again revising for exams – sitting opposite each other, occasionally getting distracted and then forcing ourselves to concentrate again. It’s quite sad to think we won’t be going back to Bath this September but I think that’s just nostalgia talking – this next chapter of our lives is gonna be just as memorable. I mean, we’ve started it in Central America, what could be better than that?!
Back to Puerto Viejo: we woke up super early on our second day to the sound of heavy rain. The weather never stops us though… La Ruka rent bikes for just $3 a day, which makes getting around super affordable and easy. We cycled straight down the main road, stopping at every beach along the way. We heard the screech of some howler monkeys when we cycled past the forest and Abbie, obviously, thought it was a lion (she thinks that everything is a lion and if we’re in the water, she thinks that everything is a shark) Bringing you this weeks episode of ‘The irrational fears of Abbie Hammond’…
I somehow steered myself into every pothole there was and walked my bike up 2 of the hills because I couldn’t be bothered to pedal but I’d say it was a pretty good rainy day activity. There may have been some questionable driving from the Puerto Viejo locals but, don’t worry Mom, our bikes totally had brakes and we totally wore helmets… 🙄 Look, none of us got run over, okay? That’s enough to classify the day as a success.
On the way back we saw some guys advertising their surf school – they waved to us, we waved back, had a discussion between ourselves about wanting to take a surf lesson, stopped our bikes and went over for a chat. We met Adrian, a dreadlocked surfer dude, who offered us 4 hours board rental and a private lesson for $40 per person. This was definitely one of our more expensive decisions but sometimes you’ve gotta splurge on the good stuff!
The next day we arrived at the surf school for 9.30am sharp. We were introduced to Christian, another local surf instructor, before heading to the beach. We’ve all surfed a few times before but it’s always nice to get some guidance and improve your skills on green waves every once in a while. I have a habit of not lifting my back knee off the board, Abbie doesn’t paddle – she just stands up when the wave arrives and Alice bodyboards straight to shore. So, for anyone thinking we’re pros… think again.
Adrian and Christian were the best surf instructors I’ve ever had – they were so quick to correct our errors and they put a lot of effort into keeping us safe and happy. We were all loving life and in agreement that it was one of the best days we’d had. The wipe outs were worth it when we were all catching wave after wave and, in the words of Adrian, we learnt that ‘CONFIANZA es la palabra magica – Confidence is the magic word‘.
At the end of the lesson Adrian and Christian were quick to congratulate us on our progress. Usually my mixed race genes help me achieve at least some degree of coolness but I somehow managed to hi-5 a fist bump, not once but twice. We prepared to say goodbye and go and find some lunch when Adrian proposed that we all ate together at his house. I know what you’re thinking, stranger danger blah blah blah but we said yes because after spending a few hours with them we knew that they were harmless. We’re 3 sensible, intelligent gals – have faith in us.
Adrian has the coolest house that he designed and built himself. He also has a gazillion dogs/puppies (5 to be precise) who greeted us playfully when we arrived. We fussed over them, whilst Adrian and Christian prepared some snacks. We had homemade guacamole, pico de gallo and mango salsa to dip our tortilla chips in. I non-stop, Pacman munched my way through the whole thing and, I can honestly say, they were the best nachos I’ve ever had in my life – definitely going to be giving those dip recipes a try when I’m home. When the snacks were gone we were given a lesson about how to correctly drink a rum shot. Apparently the key is to sip slowly. I hate the taste of every alcohol in the history of existence so good luck convincing me that this experience should be prolonged. Yuck.
The next thing that happened was a bit strange. Adrian whipped out his… dominoes. Hahahahahaha, sorry, I know that’s a really terrible joke but I also know you’re all waiting for something creepy to happen and I want to tell you now that it doesn’t. People told us that foreign guys only want one thing from female travellers but they failed to tell us that this ‘one thing’ is to play old-fashioned tabletop games together…
They even invited another one of their friends (who happened to be a drug dealer) round to play. What’s that? I can’t just put the words ‘drug dealer’ in brackets and expect to brush over it? Ok. So, he works on a medical marijuana farm in the US, smuggles weed back into Nicaragua and earns $500 a day. Great. We’ve not only learnt how to surf and drink rum but now we know how to get drugs past airport security and become millionaires. I’m kidding – his technique is majorly flawed. This is coming from someone who has watched too much ‘Nothing to Declare’ for their own good – I think the three of us will stick to earning money the legal way…
Drug dealer friends aside – we had such a fun evening. Adrian and Christian kept emphasising that they wished tourists would talk to the locals more and make an effort to hang out with them. I admit that Westerners are sometimes caught up in the mindset that Latin America is a dangerous place and therefore avoid interaction with locals but at the same time I’d like to know how keen Adrian and Christian would be to talk to 3 older men instead of us, for instance. I think it’s a bit bold to say that tourists need to make more of an effort with them when we were clearly favoured for being attractive, young, English girls… More effort is needed from both sides, I say!
When we left at 7pm it was dark outside and the bike ride home was both a stressful and wonderful thing all in one. I mean, half of my brain was concentrating on not dying and the other half was looking around at the moon and starlit streets, listening to the crash of the waves and thinking how great it was to be gallavanting around Costa Rica, making memories with two awesome people and not having a care in the world. What’s the point in stressing, holding grudges and worrying about things that haven’t even happened yet when life is THIS good?! Or should I say when life is this gnarly, dude cause I’m a surfer chick now? No? Ok, cool, got it.
So, to round up Puerto Viejo – It’s a surf town with vegan options and plenty of land for sale to design and build my own eco-mansion. Is this too good to be true? Absolutely yes. Peanut butter is £7 a jar here. The search for my perfect home continues…
And now on to Tortuguero (via another not-at-all backpackery private shuttle). It’s turtle egg-laying season so I think we’re in for a treat. Stay tuned.