When I first came to Costa Rica, all I could distinguish was that it was hot and sunny all the time and everyone spoke Spanish. This was going to be the most vanilla experience ever, so I thought.
Of course anytime you go somewhere new everything is a blur getting settled in, but once established, you begin to pick up on the nuances. It’s like peeling an onion where each layer reveals more of the core than the previous.
For instance, it’s not usually a tossup as to if it will rain, but looking closer you’ll realize there is a dry and rainy season and even a “transition” season. Spanish is spoken, but as you get used to it you realize that it is adapted to the country and has plenty of its own regionalisms.
Recently, I peeled back the onion and did a deeper dive into the rural Costa Rican coast.
Normally, I take a ferry over to the rural beaches and that has served as a clear transition from bustling city life to the laid back island time culture, however for this journey it would be all over land and therefore the changes would come more subtle. Leaving San Ramon, you first notice the temperature change.
Coming down out of the mountains the heat hits you in waves, each one getting hotter until all you can do is keep the velocity up with the windows down, or give in and put the A/C on. Once you get accustomed to the new temperature setting the journey becomes rural with fewer and fewer cars and the occasional town to drive through.
Just when you feel you’re about to hit the ocean you turn off the paved road, onto a gravel, sometimes dirt, road and after 586 potholes and a few river crossings you’ve pretty much peeled through to the core of the onion. It’s quite the effort just to travel to Ostional, but this is what makes these places special and is the main reason I’ve only been there a few times.
When you get to Ostional, you have to pause and reflect back on where you were just a few hours prior. Ostional is inside a national park and you can’t just go check into a resort hotel. When the sun sets, the lights go out and the only form of entertainment comes from a star filled sky, a thunderstorm, or sea turtles nesting. If you’re not into those things it can be rough, but if immersion is your thing, there is lots to take advantage of.
My first experience in Costa Rica, while not a rural beach, was still rural and allowed me to see a more crude, uncut side of Costa Rica. It’s a side similar to Ostional where you butcher your own pig or milk your own cow rather than go to the grocery store.
A side where you are time rich and can enjoy the 30min bike ride or hour walk into town. A side where the afternoon siesta + coffee break becomes so anticipated that it genuinely disappoints you when something prevents you from having it.
Something I was reminded of during my visit was how the laid back culture is prime for language immersion. Some of my earliest Spanish “teachers” did their best to “corrupt” my young mind with countless expressions and phrases that you’d never pick up in a classroom and I was made well aware of their effectiveness based on the reaction of my host mom every time I’d try them out on her.
So when I got to Ostional I met up with some of the park rangers I’d gotten to know over the years. I was a bit outdated with their use of slang terms, but I recognized most words and on more than one occasion I asked for clarification just to make sure that I had heard the word correctly and that it made sense to me in its context.
There was nothing jaw dropping about word choice until a young North American woman came over to join the conversation. She had been volunteering with them for about six months and phrases I raised my eyebrows to a few minutes ago, were now causing my jaw to hit the floor.
She was speaking just like they were, same word choice, but I was taken aback. This was me 15 years ago. I was the one that got to be inquisitive, I was the one providing the entertainment as I’d bumble my way through the use of a new expression. I was the one having all the firsts. T
his was like watching mini-me, except now I was the host mom reacting to the unexpected. Part of me wanted to chastise the “teachers” and part of me wanted to check with her to make sure she knew exactly what she was saying and just how off the cuff she was being.
That brought back good memories and just maybe a tinge of jealousy, but was a great reminder of how deep you can go in cultural immersion.
The next day, feeling humbled, I traversed the 590 potholes (4 formed overnight) crossed the rivers, found pavement and sped up the mountain to city life. What a refreshing experience and great to see the younger generation at it.
Not that my time has completely come and gone but I questioned myself if I was losing my attention to detail? Or did I just lack opportunity?
Any thoughts of confusion quickly subsided when I got back to San Ramon, sensed a slight increase in the humidity, and accurately predicted a thunderstorm later that day. Still got it.