San José, Costa Rica: August 30 – September 9, 2016
Costa Rica was never part of our original itinerary. Well, at least not in the first six months. We had no intention of venturing through Central and South America until we already had made the decision to work our way back home to the States after our time in Asia. That was supposed to be next year. But after a few months of researching options for a minor elective medical procedure, my wife decided that a doctor and place of respite in Costa Rica were her best options. So at the god-awful hour of 3:30 AM on Tuesday, Aug 30th we awoke to get ready for our 6 AM flight from Montreal to San José, Costa Rica via Toronto.
The most surprising thing about our flight to Costa Rica was just how relatively close it is to the eastern part of the United States. In my mental map, Central and South America are pretty much directly south of California but that couldn’t be further from reality. Our flight time down to Costa Rica consisted of just a quick 1-hour hop to Toronto plus a fairly short 5-hour and 20-minute flight down to San José. That’s practically the same flight time from Montreal back to San Francisco. It’s amazing how close the Latin America is to the Eastern United States (though more seemingly distanced politically and socially at this time…but that’s not for this blog).
Similar to our trip to Croatia, I didn’t have much in my mind about what to expect in Costa Rica. Sure, I’d been to Mexico many times and we’d both been to Panama and Colombia a couple years back, but this time to Costa Rica, my wife did all the planning. And I must say, she did well!
Definitely Tropical But Not Paradise for All
Perhaps because I wasn’t so worked up about the trip and perhaps because we were working off so little sleep the night before, I was fairly relaxed linguistically as soon as we stepped off the plane. Similar to our time in Italy, my Spanish came back so naturally to me, such that I pretty much never had any issues during our time in Costa Rica. I immediately stirred all conversations directed at me into Spanish and it felt just as comfortable as speaking English. Little did I know that many of my interactions would be in the Spanish of other Latin American countries and not in the one in which I was actually visiting.
After all of my years of travel, the most important aspect for me to experience is that of the people in the country that I’m visiting. This is much easier to do in countries where I speak the language but even more insightful when you’re interacting with locals on their terms and in less formal ways. Most pleasure tourists, it seems, fly into San José and immediately head towards the coastal resorts or beach towns. They may completely by-pass the true city of San José, only seeing the American and Canadian ex-pats enclaves of Escazu and Santa Ana on their drives out to the coast.
Driving past these expensive, high-end stores and multi-million dollar hillside homes doesn’t begin to give you a sense of the daily life in this country. It only further sows the false seed that this Central American treasure is a playground for its northern, richer neighbors. In our case, we instead, were driven through downtown San José towards the mountains north of the city. In our first 45 minutes in the town, we immediately saw a different side of life in tropical paradise. Though it may be tropical, it is certainly not paradise for all. More on this later.
The Angel’s Whisper
One of the many reasons my wife chose to come to Costa Rica was because of the relationships she built online with a community of ladies who had visited CheTica Ranch north of San José. For someone who is typically a planner, I honestly had not idea what to expect. I left this entire trip up to my wife and, boy was I pleasantly surprised. It had only been two weeks prior that I began my re-entry into the blogosphere and the ambience and scenery at CheTica were exactly what I needed to unearth many of the stories hibernating in my head.
While I thought I’d get cabin fever after few days being held up on a ranch in the middle of a mountain enclave, I’m surprised at how relaxing and re-energizing the experience was during our 11 days there. Though I’d leave the ranch briefly a couple of times with my wife for doctor visits, most of my time in the first 9 days was spent waking up in the cabin (generally as soon as the sun came up at 5:30 AM), eagerly awaiting our morning breakfast at 7 AM and then walking up to my now favorite spot in Costa Rica with a cup of Britt coffee and my daily podcasts playing in my ear.
I lived for my daily hour from the vista point of “Angel’s Whisper” at CheTica, and every morning I wondered if I’d be able to see the full backdrop of the mountains or if the clouds would “cloud out” my daily wish. From that spot and our cabin in Costa Rica, I summoned the energy to catch up on quite a few blog writings, including travel recaps of our time in Spain, Portugal, Croatia, Italy, as well as launched my most personal blogging series – Behind the Pen: Life Experiences Through a Poetic Lens, featuring my most in-depth and personal post – Thirsty – My Tongue’s Eternal Battle with a Knife.
Perhaps the most important reason for my resurgence in writing during this time was the inspiration I gained from hearing the story about how CheTica Ranch came about. As my wife and I listened the story, told from the perspectives of the husband and wife owners, respectively, we both found ourselves captivated by what they have achieved in the span of two decades.
Apparently, it all started nearly 25 years ago when they visited the wife’s (Lorena’s) family in Costa Rica. Ruben (originally from Argentina – hence the “Che” in CheTica) was enchanted by the scenery and relaxedness of the Pura Vida. After years of owning a business in Los Angeles, he was ready to escape the rat race and traffic of the city of angels and create a more familial and relaxed life for his newly formed family. So on a whim, he bought some land in the mountains north of San José and shortly thereafter, began to turn his vision of a getaway spot into a passion project that would affect the lives of hundreds, if not thousands, of people over the next 20 years.
Each of the cabins at CheTica Ranch is built around a theme. For instance, we stayed in Big Bear, inspired by and built like a cabin near Big Bear Lake in southern California. Some of the other cabins on the ranch are named, Ketchikan (Alaska), Taos (New Mexico), Aspen (Colorado), Sevilla (Spain), Mykonos and Santorini (Greece), Bourbon Street (New Orleans), Tuscany (Italy), just to name a few. Each is built in the style of the location it represents and is decorated as if you are enjoying respite in that beloved destination. But while that’s amazing by itself, the backstory simply blew our minds and touched our hearts.
Inspiration Found in the Dreams of Others
After an unfortunate personal event soon after their life began in Costa Rica, Lorena (the “Tica” in CheTica) received the sign from above that she was yearning for to plot her next path in life. That event was the seed that began to grow into what is now CheTica Ranch, a place of healing for those that visit Costa Rica for medical tourism. Over the years, they have slowly built each of the cabins at the ranch – all of which are inspired by a place that they have visited together throughout their lives.
As my wife and I walked the grounds knowing this story, we became so inspired by and connected to their story. We are still fairly young and figuring out our path in life. Yet, perhaps this unexpected trip down to CheTica Ranch is a seed that will grow in us over time and help us identify how to make our contribution to the world in the years to come.
We could not have had a better experience during our time at the ranch. The package included access to an on-site nurse, 3 meals a day, and complimentary transportation to and from doctor’s appointments and the airport. Every day we awoke, we couldn’t wait to see what we’d be served for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. And I’m not exaggerating when I say that every meal was purely amazing. It truly felt like staying at someone’s home with their extended family.
The staff (almost all from Nicaragua) were very welcoming and always made us feel like we were at home – not our home but their home and that was a very gracious experience. I’m certain that if we had visited Costa Rica in another fashion, we would have never enjoyed the home-cooked culinary delights of Central American food, exchanged interesting life stories with folks from Argentina, Uruguay, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua, and been touched in such a personal and meaningful way.
Venturing Out From the Ranch
On my 9th day at the ranch, I decided to venture out for a day to see the Costa Rica that most tourists see. Along with a couple from New Jersey (originally from Uruguay and also staying at the ranch), we departed the ranch with our humorous and insightful guide – Eduardo. Born and raised in Costa Rica, yet having lived in the New York area, Eduardo had an interesting perspective on life in the States and in Costa Rica.
It was Eduardo that pointed out the various ex-pat enclaves mentioned previously and was able to provide a unique perspective on the difference between life in those areas versus other parts of town. Though we left at 7:45 AM from the ranch, the first 1.5 hours of the 3-hour drive were spent frustratingly navigating morning rush hour traffic for only 14 miles to reach the other side of town before making our way to the coast. But in these 14 miles, we were able to venture through neighborhoods, industrial areas, and central areas – visually capturing how daily life begins in this Central American capital city.
A Survey Seemingly Different from Reality
A few days earlier, I sat in the doctor’s office with my wife and noticed a brief news clip on the office’s television that highlighted a recent Insider survey of 14,000 ex-pats across the world. It ranked Costa Rica as the third friendliest country in the world. For whatever reason, that fact stuck with me. As I drove around the country, I constantly found myself perplexed by this ranking. This isn’t to say that the people I interacted with in Costa Rica weren’t friendly. Everyone was. However, as you drive through the city and the outside towns, you immediately notice how practically every single house and business establishment is protected by gates and barred windows.
On many occasions, I saw kids playing with each other through their opposite side of connecting grates – old men and women sitting on their porches behind grates enjoying their papers or morning coffee, or people interacting with their neighbors, kindly, yet behind a gated door. I kept wondering how a country so friendly could also give the impression that everyone lives in their own prison. According to the people I spoke with about this style of life, it’s simply the norm in much of Central and Latin America. I guess it’s not surprising that ex-pats spending ex-pat money find Costa Rica the 3rd most welcoming country in the world of their dollars. Perhaps, Insider might actually survey the people of the country to validate the strength of their findings.
The Language Trifecta
After stopping for quick coffee in the mountains and then a seemingly random bridge to overlook a crocodile habitat, we arrived at Herradura for our first stop on the Pacific Coast. From the moment we left the bridge to the moment we arrived in Herradura, I had to participate on a conference call with a client back in California. So here I was in the car, having spoken and listened to Spanish for the last hour, now participating on a call in English, all the while trying to parse out the continuing Spanish conversation in car, in case I was asked a question. Then moments before we arrived in Herradura, I received a shocking text message from a friend back in Italy that caught my attention. So there I sat, listening to both English and Spanish and typing away in Italian as we reached Los Sueños Resort for a momentary visual stop. There aren’t many times in my life when all three of my favorite languages come together, but when they do, it’s a lasting moment.
Following a brief stop on the beach in Jacó, lunch at a local spot in town, and a quick drive to the other side of town to take photos of the entire beach area, we began our 2.5 hours drive back to the ranch. At this point, my mind was exhausted. As I mentioned in a previous post, true language immersion will beat you up. However, in the end it makes you stronger. That day, I spent much of the time interacting in Spanish, spoken by folks from Uruguay and Costa Rica. I was surprised at how comfortable I felt conversing but after 5-6 hours, my brain was ready for a break. As soon as I arrived back to the ranch that afternoon, I immediately laid down for a couple hours to rest my mind before our always eagerly awaited third meal of the day.
Experiencing the “Pura Vida”
The day my wife and I arrived in Montreal late July, we had no thoughts of taking an 11-day trip down to Costa Rica during our seven weeks in the French Canadian metropolis. Nor had I even thought about tapping my creative juices to begin sharing my stories online again. Yet, in these last several weeks, we’ve followed our hearts and whispering angels to connect with people that have touched us so deeply and whose stories have enriched our lives. Costa Rica, and especially CheTica Ranch, will always hold a special place in our hearts. It was surely the best experience we could have had as our first in the land of Pura Vida.
Read more Tales from the Nomadic Adventure and find out where we’ll be in the coming months.