Traveling is a prime way to be rich in what matters. I just returned from eight days in Costa Rica, tired and happy from my first volunteer vacation. Travel can be such a thrill, such a rush, that many blogs are only about travel. I am a generalist, though, writing since 2007 about how the many facets of life come together to create a sparkling, diamond-like whole.
When we travel, I suggest that we not see other countries and cultures as experiences that we consume. They are not just there for our pleasure. Rather, we can give as well as receive when we travel, especially if we follow the lead of the locals. I didn’t make up this idea. I’m just now learning to embrace it :).
Many of the following ten tips apply to most countries you could visit or trips you could take. They may not be what most blogs will suggest you do. But then, the diamond-cut life is not the same as a mainstream life. It is richer in the things that matter most.
1. Do consider a volunteer vacation. Digging in the dirt, side by side with Costa Rican students to build a biodigester may sound like an unusual way to have fun. But for me, spending a vacation this way was . . . SO FUN! I cheerfully called us the Costa Rican Chain Gang, and a fellow volunteer dubbed me the Shah of the Shovel, for my enthused digging. The sun was shining, the wind was blowing, and I was part of something bigger than myself. I wish I’d started doing volunteer vacations years ago. Global Volunteers is the organization I used, and I highly recommend them. My volunteer team was led by Maggie Bjorklund, a smiling, bicultural, Spanish-speaking sparkplug.
2. Don’t expect things to be cheap. Things weren’t cheap in Costa Rica, in my experience. I bought two sacks of groceries last night at a mercado and paid $50 (25,000 colones), the same as I pay for two sacks of groceries in Portland, Oregon. Restaurant meals, ditto. Good coffee was $10/pound, $2 more than at home. I’m not big on souvenirs, so I can’t speak to souvenir prices. I had imagined I’d find low prices, since I’m aware some North Americans relocate to Costa Rica because their dollars go farther there. But I imagine that’s more due to lower real estate and health care costs.
3. Don’t refer to yourself as an American. Costa Ricans are American too, and so are all those born between the North Pole and the southernmost tip of Chile. Those of us from the U.S. are from the Estados Unidos, or just the Estados. Or, we and Canadians can say we are Norteamericanos (Americans from the north) if we want to roll off lots of syllables. Costa Ricans call themselves “ticos”, so it’s fine to call them ticos, as well.
4. Do jump in and use any and all Spanish that you possibly can (or the language of whatever country you are visiting). I had studied Spanish in high school and college, and the ticos warmed right up to me as I earnestly addressed them with sentences worthy of a first-grader. It was alluring, almost hypnotic, to feel my Spanish coming back to me as I was in-country. The barriers come down between us and the culture we are visiting when we are willing to participate in the language. Be brave. Tenga valor!
5. Do visit Costa Rica’s excellent national parks and natural reserves. This country’s biodiversity and commitment to sustainability would be worthy of a whole separate blog post (75% hydropower! Oh, be still my heart!). Main takeaway: Costa Rica is so small that you can see many more national parks in one vacation than you possibly could in the Western U.S., with its enormous size and distances. Costa Rica is an example of small being beautiful.
6. Do be prepared for rain as well as sun and heat. We got two heavy rains during our eight days in Costa Rica – and we visited in the dry season (December through March). Costa Rica is a tad north of the equator and has only two seasons, both of them warm. During the wet season (April to November) the mornings are generally sunny, but every afternoon brings torrential downpours.
Bring sunscreen, hat and warm-weather clothes whenever you go, so you’re ready for both warm weather and rain. To get cooler weather, increase your altitude. However, there is no real cold, relative to the non-equatorial world. My innkeeper in Monteverde, the mountainous region where we stayed and worked (4,700 feet), told me they never get snow.
7. Do adopt the constant Costa Rican courtesies of saying por favor” (please), “gracias” (thank you) and, best of all, “con mucho gusto” (literally, “with great pleasure, to say you’re welcome. This is a polite country that puts people and relationships first. However, that said, see 8.
8. Don’t assume pedestrians have the right of way. As with many other peoples of the world, driving cars does not bring out the most courteous tendencies in Costa Ricans. Drivers are aggressive and often ignore stop signs. Pedestrians have got to be alert, and not expect drivers to stop for them. I walked around plenty, but I walked with much more caution than I do in the U.S.
9. Do use only taxis that have meters. In Costa Rica, the metered official taxis are the red taxis, plus the orange ones from the airport. Meters mean you will be charged fairly. We had to take an unofficial, unmetered taxi to the airport at 5 this morning because it was all that was available. At the end of the eight-minute ride, the driver said, “Quince dolares [fifteen dollars]. “Es demasiado,” I shook my head [“That’s too much). But he insisted on that absurd amount for the short ride. We should have negotiated the price before stepping into his vehicle. This was the single time in Costa Rica that I found myself angry. But I shook it off — my overall experience of Costa Rica was deeply positive.
10. Do expect lots of noise. We could easily expect Costa Rica, a country with much emphasis on nature and the unusual practice of having no army to be a tranquil, quiet place. But no. I’ve never heard such noisy birds and insects in all my born days.
Whoops, screeches, chirrups, cries and catcalls filled the warm air – and I didn’t even come near a jungle, which would have been far noisier, including at night. Noisiness is the nature of the tropics and the abundant life-forms that the tropics support.
Also, in Costa Rica’s cities and small towns, many people ride small motor scooters with two-stroke engines, the noisiest (and unfortunately dirtiest) kind. Costa Rica is a country of constant, cheerful ruckus. If you’re a light sleeper, bring earplugs. If you’re hard of hearing, cool!
Have I mentioned that my volunteer vacation made me richer in what matters? See Global Volunteers for more info on volunteer vacations. (FYI, this blog runs no ads, and only mentions organizations because they share this blog’s values.)
What’s the best trip or vacation you ever took? What made it so valuable to you?
Next Sunday: How To Help A Hoarder (part 2 of a two-part series).