Arriving in Costa Rica, I was filled with the same type of giddiness kids often feel on Christmas Eve. The view from the plane window was lush and green with bright red roofs dotting the countryside, rolling hills, and the airport in San Jose which is new and shiny compared to the older factory/warehouse type buildings surrounding it. The exhaustion of leaving SF at midnight and getting little sleep mainly due to the fact I was ridiculously cold on the plane started to melt away, replaced with an awe that I had finally done it. I had finally left the US and landed in a foreign country full of the unknown. I arrived with hope in my heart and armed with about three Spanish phrases in my arsenal.
The first thing that surprised me, beyond the gorgeous red roofs, was how clean and nice the airport was. There were some ads on the walls but they seemed to be foretelling experiences to come, a far cry from the US ads of buy this or eat that. Customs was a pleasant surprise; even though the Spanish form befuddled me, we made it through easily – much more easily and less invasive than security at SFO. We met a representative from our rental car company and hopped on the shuttle. The roads immediately seemed odd; the exit off the freeway to get to the rental car office was on the left and our driver had to cross traffic heading the opposite direction on the highway. I didn’t see the puny streetlights hanging from wires which made trying to figure out how it worked all the more confusing. Then there were the people carrying groceries trying to cross the road (*ahem* “freeway”), they were risking their lives for a gallon of milk? Already the people are far braver than I am but we made it safely to the rental car office where I came across my first major disappointment in Costa Rica – Denny’s. Really? We’re in this amazing country and someone would choose to eat there?
Getting the rental car was quite the experience. When you arrive, you find out about the mandatory insurance that costs $24 per day and that’s the cheap insurance, you can get an upgraded version for $35 per day which will protect you against pretty much anything that could possibly happen (accident, theft by monkeys, forgetting to fill your tank with gas, getting stung by jellyfish, and birds pooping on your windows) or so they say. Forget about your standard credit card coverage that you get with rental cars, while your credit card will cover you, the agencies will still charge you these fees. They also tried to upsell us on the GPS which we declined since Dave had downloaded a CR map to his phone. And off we went, navigating ourselves across traffic to get on the highway with our very clear directions (turn left at the National Theater and drive towards Limon, you’ll figure it out according to the lady who runs the rental car office). About five miles down the freeway, we realized the stories we’d heard about there being almost no directional signs were true. Back to the rental place we went; we were impressed we made it seeing as there are almost no overpasses and getting back on the freeway going in the other direction is nearly impossible. On the way back, we hit a toll road and gave the guy a US $1; he yelled at us in Spanish and we were relieved to find out when we got to Thrifty that we had overpaid and he was yelling at us to stop for our change. Once we got our GPS (worth EVERY penny!), we were really off and the fun was about to begin!
Winding through the hills on two-lane roads, learning that passing in the on-coming traffic’s lane is normal, and singing along to bad American music (every other radio station!) was amazing. I discovered up close that those super bright, pretty red roofs I’d seen from the air are actually rusted sheet metal – a far cry from the red tile roofs we see here in California. The way people live is so different, there are these homes made of sheet metal with cardboard or sheets instead of windows that look like they’ll blow over in a fierce wind that have new looking satellite dishes on the roof. The juxtaposition was so interesting to me.
Coming into Limon in the dark was scary. Almost terrifying. We had been warned not to drive at night but we had hotel reservations and didn’t have much of a choice, we didn’t stop between the rental car place (visit number 2 of course) and our hotel which took us almost 6 hours to get to. How can I explain Limon other than overwhelming? Imagine a bustling town with almost no streetlights, people riding bikes and walking on the narrow roads because there are no sidewalks or shoulder, every house has a gated patio and driveway and bars on the windows – even the scary looking homes; all the stores have massive security bars on the windows. There is little signage indicating which lanes have the right of way and those signs are all in a language we don’t read. Now magnify it by 100 because you’re exhausted and hungry and overwhelmed.
After heading out of Limon, we still navigated one lane bridges which we didn’t learn how to yield on until we saw how they worked in the daylight the next day and continued on for an hour when we pulled into Cahuita, a town of dusty, bumpy dirt roads and cobblestone streets. Once we arrived and heard the ocean, we knew we were home for the next three days. The charm was already luring me in…