My senior year at the University of Michigan a few decades ago, I visited a sorority sister, Jen, in Costa Rica, where she had temporarily joined a dance company. It was spring break and I was able to get an inexpensive flight from Detroit, Mich., to San José, the capital of the jewel of Central America. Costa Rica is a democratic and peaceful country, which has not had an army since 1948, unlike neighboring Nicaragua to the north and Panama to the south.
Although Costa Rica only accounts for 0.03 percent of the planet’s surface, it has 5 percent of the world’s biodiversity. A quarter of the country is protected territory, including 29 national parks, 19 wildlife refuges and eight biological reserves, and all of it is a playground for the adventurous. Costa Rica has about 600 beaches from white to black along both the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea, five volcanoes, rainforests, cloud forests, huge waterfalls and rivers with rapids.
With her long, platinum blond hair, Jen was easy to find everywhere in Costa Rica. Combined with tall, blond me, we were unmistakable … for better or for worse. Fortunately, she was fluent in Spanish, which got us both out of and into jams.
One blessing was her sweet-talking the owner of a rental car company into loaning us a car for a weekend, even though she was four years shy of the age requirement (25). It enabled us to drive to the first bungee-jumping site in Costa Rica, which was advertised in the lobby of a Marriott hotel where we used the bathroom. (In San José, we stayed in Jen’s small studio apartment.)
“This company must be okay if the Marriott is advertising it,” I declared confidently, believing the hotel chain would somehow provide life insurance.
We drove to the old Colorado River Bridge in Naranjo, 40 minutes north of San José, under which was a river gorge 265 feet down. Two Germans with a rusty old van offered the traditional head-first jump with verbal affidavits of successful jumps. Unfortunately, no one was going before us to prove the Germans’ words. It was simply 55 U.S. dollars in cash with no waiver of liability. A plank was strapped onto the bridge for jumpers to walk down and swan dive off. (Tropical Bungee has since modernized its equipment and still operates at this location, which is one of the longest jumps in the Americas.)
“I’m not going first,” Jen said. “If you do it, then I will.”
“Well, I trust the Germans,” I replied. “Let’s do it!”
The guys attached what looked like kite strings via pads on my ankles for “safety” and hooked the bungee cord to my chest via a “life jacket.” I walked the plank, legs quivering, and took a giant swan dive off the bridge, free-falling about 200 feet until I reached the end of my rope … thankfully, not literally. I bounced up and down and swung to and fro, thinking I had lost one of my elastic sandals in the rapids below. When I came to an upside down standstill, I was instructed to untwist my lifeline so the Germans could pull me up by it to a small ladder on the bridge.
How did they do so? By driving the van in reverse with the bungee cord attached to it! Had I seen this ramshackle get-up before throwing down my money, I would never have walked the plank. What if the van ran out of gas?! Thankfully, I lived to tell about bungee jumping and so did Jen, who made good on her word and went after me. (I have photo proof of her diving off the bridge.)
While Jen and I managed to get a rental car, we did not have any hotels booked for our spontaneous journey north to Mount Arenal and southwest to the Pacific peninsula city of Puntarenas. So we improvised like Thelma and Louise.
Near the active, lava-streaked volcano, we arrived late at night in the city of Fortuna after hotel receptions closed. As good “fortuna” would have it, we walked around the back of a modest motel and found an empty room open. Out of desperation, we were stowaways. It was as if we were in a Scooby Doo cartoon with our eyes wide open, tip toeing around a man with a rifle sleeping on the porch of a house across the street.
The 33-square-kilometer, perfectly conical volcano has been active since 1968. It has two different landscapes: one covered with lush vegetation that is home to a variety of wildlife like the endangered green macaw, and another the opposite due to constant eruptions and lava flow. Arenal Volcano National Park provides 70 percent of the water within Arenal dam, the country’s main source of hydroelectric energy. It is an excellent place for ziplining, which unfortunately didn’t exist when we were there.
The next morning, we got up early to make a quick and quiet getaway, mindful of our armed neighbor. We drove to a roadside coffee stand serving one of Costa Rica’s greatest commodities. Then we soaked in a hotspring near the volcano to blow off some steam so to speak. We drove southwest to the beach resort town of Puntarenas, where we again attempted to book a hotel. Nothing we could afford had a room available so we parked our car on the beach and slept in it. We put beach towels on the windows to block the moon and onlookers. The next morning, we added sunglasses to continue sleeping until …
Bam, bam, bam! Two policemen knocked on our car windows.
“Girls, you cannot sleep here,” they kindly said in Spanish. “Please move your car.”
We made better use of our beach towels along the coast of the Puntarenas peninsula. (While we didn’t have time to go, the nearby Golfo Dulce is supposed to be worth visiting as well.) Late afternoon, we did a wildlife hike in Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve. We saw all kinds of monkeys, some up close, and birds that sounded like a chaotic symphony. (Costa Rica is home to almost 900 species of birds – more than all of North America – and through which an estimated 5 million birds migrate every year, mostly at night.) We drove back to San José to return our illegally rented car after an illicit weekend.
During the work week, we hung out in San José as Jen had dance rehearsals and I had to write a paper for class. At night, we went salsa dancing, sometimes not intentionally. It was always the same story: Costa Rican men would chat her up and I would smile with limited comprehension, then we would get whisked off to salsa until Jen could kindly get us out of venues alone. Her Tang and vodka-loving neighbor, Kemo, always made sure we got home safely.
On Friday eve, we took a bus to the easterly town of Límon on the Caribbean Sea. Locals at the bus station offered cheap rooms for rent, often in their own homes. We accepted an offer to stay cheaply in a family’s spare room. The tap water was undrinkable then (not anymore) so we brushed our teeth with bottled water.
The next morning, we took a bus from Límon north to Tortuguero village, sitting on the floor due to an overflow of people and animals. (I recall someone with a small cage of chickens.) We treated ourselves upon arrival at a shack of a restaurant with delicious coffee, red beans and rice. Then we made our way to the edge of Tortuguero National Park, a giant sandbar with freshwater canals filled with crocodiles, rainforest sheltering monkeys and jaguars, and beaches where green sea turtles nest. (Five of the seven species of the world’s sea turtles lay their eggs on Costa Rica’s beaches.) This park can only be explored by water so we hired a small boat owner to take us through canals to a beach with a hostel, where we stayed overnight with a “gringo” (a male foreigner, in this case, American) and Costa Rican family.
En route, we saw a 15-foot-long crocodile sunbathing and a smaller one swimming. Our boat man carefully grabbed a floating coconut out of the water and chopped it open for us. He took us to a shack in the middle of nowhere for coffee and freshly picked bananas as howler monkeys loudly made us aware of their presence.
In contrast, we were met with warm hospitality at our hostel. We went out other guests that night for dancing at a shack of a nightclub playing the latest American hits. Jen laughed like crazy seeing me being spun around like a helicopter by the gringo and howling like a monkey. Eventually, she and I escaped to the shoreline in search of green sea turtles, who lay their eggs at night, but it was not the season so we watched the bright full moon and star scape instead.
The next day, we hitchhiked from the mainland along the coastline to a quaint beach town near Barra del Colorado National Wildlife Refuge, enjoying our last full day in nature’s paradise. (In those days, it was common to hitchhike from village to village as many people did not have cars. But I wouldn’t recommend it now!) The area is known for rainforest, coral reefs and multi-colored sand beaches (black, yellow and grey). We hiked through more wildlife and watched a spectacular sunset on a beach, drinking guaro (local moonshine made from sugar cane) and eating tropical fruits. Somehow we managed to find accommodation again.
In the morning, we stuck out our thumbs to hitchhike back down the coastline to Límon, from where we could catch a bus to San José. As good luck would have it again, a kind, wealthy businessman pulled over and offered to drive us all the way back to the capital, where he lived. He even took us out for lunch! He had children around our ages and said he hoped they would be similarly well received when traveling in other countries.
While some of our tales from Costa Rica were not well received by our parents, Jen and I made history as the craziest blond gringas when tourism was in its infancy. I look forward to returning to stay in proper hotels and fly via zipline through rainforest as opposed to fall through it.
* All photos above were sourced from Unsplash.com as I cannot access my own archives at this time!