Travel Diary: Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica
After a sunny, delicious pit stop in Alajuela, myself and the other attendees of the Jungle Goddess Retreat (a week of tropical bliss designed by Camille of This American Girl), headed south for about 4.5 hours as the sun set over Costa Rica. We arrived in Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, a vibrant surf town and home of Costa Rica’s most epic wave, pretty much exhausted.
As I mentioned in my last post, as soon as I dropped my bags and stretched out a sooo-happy-to-be-here yawn at our little house in Playa Chiquita, I realized I’d left my passport in the airport.
This turned me into a raging stress ball at the start of what was supposed to be a peaceful, blissed-out journey through the jungle. It soured my first few days in paradise, but in the end, it was a lesson in letting go.
When Camille learned about my dilemma, she smiled and said “pura vida!”, which I would be saying to myself over and over for the next few days in an attempt to chill out and go with the flow.
Looking back at my photos, I realize how incredibly strong the mind is. Even if you’re in the most beautiful place in the world, if something is unsettled in your life, you feel like your world is caving in. Especially if you’re anxiety prone.
On my first morning in Puerto Viejo, I learned that one rises with nature’s alarm clock: Howler monkeys. There’s no sleeping in when these guys start howling in the trees.
I don’t know how to describe this sound to you. It is so. f**king. loud. When I first heard it, I imagined a dinosaur descending on the roof of our house and biting it off. Then, listening more closely, I thought it was an eighteen-wheeler barreling toward us.
You can listen to howler monkeys on youtube via the link above, but to get a sense of just how insanely loud they are, you have to hear it in person. Finding out that this barbaric sound was coming from cute little monkeys was a relief!
I slept in this twin-sized bed on the left. It wasn’t exactly cushy, but after 6 AM yoga and a full day of hiking, exploring, bike riding, etc, I would have slept on the floor without a single complaint.
Our house was a gorgeous indoor-outdoor sanctuary with endless places to lounge, reflect, and chill before and after our various adventures. Eating breakfast outside is one of my favorite things to do, so this open dining area with views of the jungle was a treat.
The outdoor kitchen made me feel like preparing food and dining should definitely be an outdoor experience more often! Having an outdoor cooking and entertaining space is definitely high on my goals list for the future.
Over the span of a week, we ate all of our meals at this long communal table.
Phones, photos, and tech, in general, was discouraged during meals and gatherings, which is why there aren’t too many photos of people in this post. But the tablescapes, when our chef put our plates out, were so stunning I couldn’t believe it. I was twitching with my innate urge to document (and proud of myself for staying present). Still, I wish I had more photos of mealtime to remember it by.
Here’s a simple example of one of our breakfasts. Our menu was different each day. All the food was locally-sourced, organic, and expertly prepared by a talented chef. Many agreed that the food alone was worth the price of the retreat.
The path from the back patio went directly through the jungle and to a private beach.
The only issue we had? Some tourists wandered up the path occasionally, unaware it was private property. Apparently it was a common problem for guests staying in the house, but it was also kind of funny. Everyone who emerged from the jungle quickly apologized and scurried back toward the beach path.
Inside was a cozy, soothing space to unwind as well. This house had five bedrooms in total and plenty of space to relax. Some nights we had dance parties or played with hula hoops or just laid together around on the cool wood floor.
On our first day, we took our bikes to Punta Uva, one of the stunning postcard-worthy beaches in the Limón province. The beaches here are not very wide from jungle to water, but they come with a stunning backdrop of lush jungle.
This was considered high season, but there was barely a person in sight. We’d occasionally see kids chasing a dog, some tourists strolling in the shallow water, or people riding by on bikes, but I was blown away that such an unspoiled, tranquil place even exists.
I believe this is because Puerto Viejo’s coasts are protected against development by strict zoning laws that prevent homes or businesses from being built within 50 meters of the sea’s high-tide line. There’s a wild scenario that unfolded between 2012-2014 that involved the planned eviction and demolition of homes and businesses that were built too close to the shore.
This area is perfect because you get the sea, the sun, and the shade of enormous palm trees. Paradise is about more than visual beauty. In this case, it’s a place to experience a handful of mother nature’s spectacular elements in one place. The jungle and beaches are life-sustaining.
Once I realized I was working on a pretty solid sunburn, I crawled under the palms and busted out my little notebook to write about life.
Don’t mind my nail polish. One day walking through the jungle and across the sand and you can kiss your mani-pedi goodbye.
During a particularly special moment, a local family made us a traditional Caribbean stew, which we gobbled up after a long day of playing in the sand. They talked to us about the history of Puerto Viejo, from its origin to its recent development.
Toward the evening, we hiked through the jungle up to a famous cliff with an epic view of the sea.
Here are some of the additional highlights of the trip:
The Bribri waterfall is a spectacular sight to see. It’s on the Bribri Indian Reservation and you have to do some adventurous hiking through the Talamancan montane forests to get there.
The waterfall feeds into a beautiful pool surrounded by jungle on all sides. We saw local kids playing at the top, which made us kind of nervous, but they knew their way around (obviously). They’d block off the flow of water for a few seconds with rocks and then let it burst and cascade down into the pool, laughing all the way.
Here’s our open-air yoga studio, which we biked to every morning at 6 AM, and again at 6 PM. Yoga twice a day was pretty intense, I have to admit. I think if I were to do a retreat like this again, once per day would be sufficient for my (very) beginner level. On the flipside, maybe mentally preparing for it might help me do better next time.
This was our little frog friend, who stayed in the shower all week. Once in a while he’d hop down and go into the drain, but he always resumed his post within an hour.
Learning to shower with this little guy took some time, but by the end of the retreat it was like, “hey little guy, pass me the shampoo!”
These rocks were painted outside a cute cafe to showcase the menu. There were so many special little details everywhere we went.
On a “free” day, where we were able to do our own thing, I admit I made a dash for the nearest bar. It was great to have a mostly alcohol-free retreat (and 6 AM yoga would not have happened without those guidelines) but all of this beach living had me craving an ice cold bottle of Imperial.
These two were my partners in crime for our “free” day!
We visited shops along Playa Negra, a black sand beach, to browse clothes and accessories. I bought a silk sarong, beaded jewelry, and gifts to bring home to my family and friends.
I’ll be honest, having a few drinks and shopping for cute beachy accessories was a lot more in line with my typical traveling habits! But I’m glad I challenged myself with this unique experience overall.
We spent one afternoon getting an intensive history lesson on Costa Rican (and global) cacao from Paul, the founder of Caribeans, and the adjacent cacao farm. After we fueled up with some coffee-and-cacao drinks, We hiked up to his home, toured his cacao processing plant, and had incredible “shots” of pure cacao.
My admiration for local plant life grew with each passing day, and hiking up to Paul’s house revealed some amazing botanical eruptions.
Pure cacao shots (which you sip) will give you a unique, natural buzz. Cacao is used ceremonially and as a medicine in many cultures, most famously the Mayans. It has a lot of benefits, from heightened spiritual senses to antioxidant powers.
The view from the balcony was simply incredible. Can you imagine waking up here each morning and having you cup of tea while you gaze at this?
To switch things up, here’s a bruise I got during one of our adventures. It was so impressive that I had to document it. Hey, nobody said we’d come out of this unscathed!
Here are a few more dreamy shots of various times we went to the beach. Almost every day became a beach day, at some point!
Remember my lost passport? Yup, I had to do something about that if I had any intention of getting back home. Being stranded in Costa Rica didn’t sound so bad, but on a much more realistic level, it was time to sort out my mess.
I called the embassy in San José, who were very helpful and friendly. I made an appointment for the end of the week (knowing I would miss a few days of the retreat since I’d be heading back to the capital). Being the paranoid traveler I am, I had several copies of my ID, copies of my passport, and a copy of my birth certificate on hand to prove my identity. I also had a passport card.
I booked a shuttle ride (I used Caribe Shuttle both ways, which I highly recommend! AC, Wi-Fi, and a smooth ride) and began the 4.5-hour trip north. It was peaceful driving through the mountains and my aching limbs were rejoicing a break from yoga and hiking. I sat in the front with the driver and he was patient while I spoke beginner’s Spanish with him.
At last, we made it to the city and I landed at the drop-off point… which was not my hotel. Oops. Luckily, San José has an abundance of Uber drivers. As I hailed my Uber, I realized I was not dressed for the city in mid-winter. My wardrobe was entirely catered to the tropical climate of Limón. In San José, it was cold and windy.
At long last, I checked into a room at Hotel Isla Verde, just a couple of blocks from the embassy.
Compared to our little jungle house, this was pure luxury. I sank into the mattress and let out an audible sigh.
I’ve never stayed in a hotel room alone—and as those close to me know, I currently have some anxiety issues with being alone—but rather than feel uneasy, I felt like I was finally at peace. I had a chance to breathe, unwind, and process my thoughts. The best part? No howler monkeys. (Just kidding, I love those crazy little guys.)
Since I had nothing much to do until the morning, I did a whole self-care routine in the luxurious bathroom and gave myself credit for traveling alone internationally (especially with my limited Spanish). I also had a moment to process how magical the entire experience was up to that point.
After my shower, I wandered the near-empty hotel.
I was one of the only people in this big dining room. There were moments when it felt like I was the only person in the building, which was quite comical considering how I usually feel unnerved by solitude. It was like the universe was giving me the ultimate test. I think I passed.
Back in my room, I put a Novella on TV and made some tea before passing out on the soft covers of my bed.
I woke up blissed out and rested, early to take advantage of the free continental breakfast buffet. Unfortunately, almost everything available was heavy or oily. After days of light, healthy vegan food in Puerto Viejo, I didn’t want to spoil my progress.
…so I just grabbed some juice and coffee.
After breakfast, I power-walked to the embassy, eager to get my new passport. I was expecting a long wait, lots of paperwork, and a generally stressful experience…
Instead, I was met with a seamless experience and had my temporary passport within 45 minutes. Thanks to this efficiency, I had time to stop at a cafe for lunch before I went back to the hotel to check out.
The best part? When I mentioned to the embassy staff that I’m supposed to travel again soon, they graciously extended this usually short-lived temporary passport for an additional six months. That means I don’t need to get an emergency passport in New York before I fly to Mexico!
What was cool about this experience was that a lost passport became an opportunity to step out of my comfort zone and solve a problem. I got to travel alone for the first time, practice speaking Spanish, and sort of enjoy a mini retreat-within-a-retreat.
After checking out of the hotel, I went back to the pick-up point for the shuttle (another hotel) and ordered a snack at their poolside restaurant. I had a few hours before I was due to travel south once more and meet up with my retreat family. At this point, I was starting to miss them, and was really looking forward to reuniting.
Heart of palm, by the way, is my actual favorite food ever!
My drive back down to Limón was relaxing. I sat up front (again) and put in my headphones. I felt like I’d really gotten to know the major highway since I traveled a length of it four times.
It was partially rainy and then cleared up just as we drove into Puerto Viejo. Since Camille and the others were already gathered at a restaurant for our “girls’ night out”, I had the van drop me off there, and did a quick wardrobe change in the bathroom before joining them at the table.
They gave me such a warm welcome that I felt emotional. My quick separation from the group made me appreciate them (and our experience) more. By the end of the night, we were a sappy hug-fest.
I didn’t take many photos for the rest of the trip, even though there were some wild experiences packed into those last two days. I was exhausted, but also, I had found my focus. I was more comfortable being present in the moment and enjoying the company of the other women. By the time we packed up to leave, it was impossible not to feel “changed” by the whole experience.
I saved this photo for last because I took it on my last morning in Puerto Viejo. Our sweet little house, which took care of us so well, looks right out of a tropical faerie tale. I don’t think I realized, while I was in Costa Rica, just how lucky I was to be there.
But that’s a pretty good excuse to go back, right?
Other amazing things that I didn’t photograph:
- An incredibly delicious dinner at Stashus con Fusion
- A relaxing, reinvigorating Thai massage by Julie
- A wild night out at an outdoor beachside reggae club (more my style than going to bed early after yoga, but I had to keep reminding myself of the difference between a nurturing, purposeful retreat and vacation!)
- A cocoa ceremony (again, out of my comfort zone, but I had cool meditative experience after drinking pure cacao that I think was a high-conscious kind of thing? I’m not as spiritually tuned in as some of the other participants were, who seemed more sure of how to interpret what they felt/saw/thought)
- A bonding experience with the retreat members back in San José as we waited in a hotel room to depart on different flights. We were also able to have a final dinner together before leaving.
If you’re interested in this retreat, visit Camille’s page: This American Girl. She is an incredible source of love and light and she’ll help you assess whether this experience is right for you.
On a more personal note…
I was hesitant to admit this, but in the spirit of full disclosure, I had a lot of self-doubt during this trip about my lack of yogi vibes and the fact that I knew nothing about crystals or oracle cards.
I felt like I’d gotten myself into something I wasn’t quite ready for, and as the days passed, I started thinking maybe I wasn’t spiritual enough or in touch with the universe enough to benefit from it the way the organizer, Camille, hoped we would.
I had a hard time being present. My mind returned to stressful things back in New York. I felt ridiculous trying to indulge in magical moments when there is so much going on in my “real” life. But that’s the essence of life, right? If we never slow down and enjoy it, it just passes us by. It’s never going to be in some perfect state where we have nothing to worry about. There will always be something negative to shift our focus to if we choose that.
Maybe I wasn’t ready to go from grumpy New York writer to cacao ceremony goddess in one plane ride. Maybe I need a lot more time to build up that tuned-in, trusting, authentic part of myself and figure out what actually works for me. But in that sense, I’m so glad I went, even if I fumbled through some of the experience. It was my introduction to being more in touch with myself.
And Camille, who I have always admired from a distance on her blog, turned out to be one of the most radiant and warm humans I’ve ever met. She opened my eyes to the idea of being a work in progress, being imperfect and still worthy of good things.
I aspire to be as fearless and open as she is!
For now, this was a good start.
Thank you for experiencing this trip with me through the blog. In just a few days I’m off to Mexico, so stay tuned for more beachy photos (and probably a lot more tequila).
P.S. Need a little inspiration to kick off the new year? Get the Hey Mishka Coffee Break. It’s my semi-weekly newsletter curated to perk you up with good news, inspiration, and bright ideas: heymishkanewsletter.com