After a sunny, delicious pit stop in Alajuela, myself and the other attendees of the Jungle Goddess Retreat (a week of uber-feminine 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. Literally. I had to let go of my freaking adorable pink passport holder.
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 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 the world is ending. Maybe it’s just me. I’m anxiety prone.
My first morning in Puerto Viejo, I was thrilled to wake up in this adorable room (until I remembered my passport, hahaha—okay fine. I’ll stop mentioning it until it’s relevant again).
Another think about waking up? You rise when the howler monkeys 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 with a head the size of our house descending on the roof and biting it off. Then 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.
So anyway, finding out they were cute little monkeys was a relief!
My bed was this twin sized bed on the left. It basically felt like cardboard, but after 6AM yoga and a full day hiking, exploring, bike riding and other fun stuff, 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 one of my favorite experiences.
The outdoor kitchen made me feel like preparing food and dining should definitely be an outdoor experience more often! Why are we always inside?
(File this under “realizations I had about how stifling modern life in the first world really is”.)
Over the span of a week, we ate all of our meals at this long communal table.
Phones, snapping photos, and techy things, in general, were 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, was so stunning I couldn’t believe it. I was basically twitching with my urge to document…
Here’s a simple example of one of our breakfasts. Our menu was different each day. All the food was locally-sourced, organic and deliciously prepared by a talented chef. Many agreed that this experience alone was worth the price of the retreat.
The path from the back patio went directly through the jungle and to a private beach. I mean… does it get any better?
The only issue was that a few locals and some tourists wandered up the path occasionally, unaware it was private property. After reading about this house online, apparently that happens a lot. But it was also funny! They just apologized and scurried back toward the beach.
Inside was a cozy, soothing space to unwind as well. This little house had 5 bedrooms in total and plenty of space to relax. Some nights we had little dance parties or played with hula hoops or just laid 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, but have an insane backdrop of lush jungle.
It 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.
To be fair, that was a complex case, because local businesses were feeding funds into the local economy, and this area has historically struggled with poverty. It was eventually resolved, but it shows how robustly Costa Rica’s laws protect the land.
This area is perfect because you get the sea, the sun, and the shade of enormous palm trees.
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 gross nail polish. One day walking through the jungle and you can kiss your mani/pedi g’bye.
A super cool local family made us a traditional Caribbean stew, which we gobbled up after a long day of playing in the sand. He also 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.
I was there for a week, so I won’t take you through the play-by-play, but here are some of the highlights!
The Bribri waterfall is a spectacular sight to see. It’s on the Bribri Indian Reservation and you have to do some ever-so-slightly adventurous hiking through the Talamancan montane forests to get there in one piece.
The waterfall feeds into a beautiful pool surrounded by jungle on all sides. We saw some local kids playing at the top, which made is incredibly nervous (lol, mom-mode), but apparently, they enjoy blocking off the flow of water for a few seconds with rocks and limbs and then letting it burst out and cascade down into the pool.
Here’s our open-air yoga studio, which we biked to every morning at 6AM, and again at 6PM.
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 beginner ass.
This was our little frog friend, who stayed in the shower the entire week. Once in a while he’d hop down and go into the drain, but he always resumed his post within an hour or so.
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. I love this idea!
On a free day, I am somewhat ashamed to admit I made a mad dash for the nearest bar. It was definitely good to have a few days sans-alcohol! And don’t get me wrong, I always feel 100% better at 6AM yoga when all I had before dinner was a young coconut and a bottle of water. But I was feeling that beach town vibe pretty hard, and I was craving an ice cold fizzy can of Imperial.
I met some of the other girls and we hopped around to a couple of bars to eat and have a couple drinks before we separated to explore.
These two were my partners in crime for our “free” day!
We went to a few little shops along Playa Negra to browse clothes and accessories. I bought a silk sarong, some beaded jewelry, and a bunch of gifts to bring home to my family and friends.
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.
Also, my obsession with the insane plant life grew with each passing day, and hiking up to Paul’s house revealed some amazing botanical eruptions.
Pure cacao shots! These will give you a unique, natural buzz unlike anything else. 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?
And to switch things up, here’s a massive bruise I got during one of our adventures! It was accompanied by a gash in my shin which bled profusely. I took a photo of that too, but you probably don’t want to see it.
A few more shots of a beach day we had (almost every day was a beach day, at some point).
Okay… STORY TIME!
Remember my lost passport? Well, they don’t let you into the good ol’ USA without documentation, so I was concerned about getting home. Stranded in Costa Rica didn’t sound so bad, but on a much more realistic level, I was in “oh shit” mode in my mind.
Thankfully, I got an international phone plan before landing and was able to call the Embassy one day while everyone else was frolicking on the beach (most of the retreat’s attendees didn’t have Wi-Fi on their phones and went without communication to the outside world for 24+ hours at a time).
To my surprise, the embassy was insanely helpful and booked me in for an appointment to get a temporary passport. Being the paranoid traveler I am, I had several copies of my ID’s, copies of my passport, and a copy of my birth certificate on hand to prove my identity. I also had a passport card. Still, I was skeptical. It’s easy enough to get into trouble with super important documents like that in a foreign country. I had no idea what was going to happen!
Since the embassy was back in San Juan, I had to book my own shuttle ride (I used Caribe Shuttle both ways, which I highly recommend! AC, Wi-Fi, and a smooth ride) to make that 4.5-hour trip north. It was actually peaceful driving through the mountains and past insane landscapes, and my aching limbs were rejoicing a break from yoga and hiking. I sat up front with the driver and he was patient while I spoke beginner’s Spanish with him—something I always appreciate!
After a loooong ride, we made it to the city and I landed at the drop off point… which was not my hotel. Oops. San Jose is literally crawling with Uber drivers, though, and since it automatically sends the driver your destination, there’s no chance of screwing up the directions.
I hopped in an Uber and quickly realized two things:
First, I was dressed for the beach (and the hot, tropical weather of Limón). It was cold and incredibly windy.
Second, my Uber driver was going to do everything virtually possible to secure that 5-star rating. He opened and closed the door for me, passed me a handful of candy, and then tried to make friendly conversation (my Spanish was too limited, but the poor guy tried to help me). Even though I wanted to fall asleep from exhaustion and I was dressed to stick out like a sore thumb, this dude made me feel so welcome to be arriving in the city. Yes, I gave him 5-stars.
When I finally got to my hotel, I checked into a room at Hotel Isla Verde, just a couple 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 have some anxiety issues with being alone—but rather than feel uneasy, it was amazing! I felt like 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 took a lot of happy selfies. I was feeling proud of myself for traveling alone for the first time in another country—or maybe it was sinking in, just how amazing the whole trip was.
Check out that not-so-cute sunburn on my forehead.
That evening I took a ridiculously long shower and wandered around the nearly-empty hotel.
See what I mean about not being dressed for the city? Ha!
I was one of the only people in this big dining room. Hotels can be so weird like that.
I put on a novella and made some tea before passing out on my cushy temporary bed.
The next morning, I was up early to take advantage of the free continental breakfast buffet… but almost everything available was heavy and/or oily. It left me longing for our locally-sourced-organic-artisanal meals in Puerto Viejo!
…so I just grabbed some juice and coffee.
After breakfast, I hauled ass to the embassy.
I was expecting a long wait, lots of paperwork, and a generally stressful experience.
Instead, I was met with an almost suspiciously polite staff, a couple of forms, and a temporary passport within 45 minutes. I literally walked out of the embassy with my temporary passport in less than an hour and had time to grab some lunch before I went back to the hotel to check out.
Even more amazing? When I mentioned to the man helping me that I was due to travel again in a couple weeks, he extended this usually short-lived document for an additional six months and gave me a receipt so I won’t have to pay when I reapply for a regular passport.
I guess was struck me as cool about this experience was that my lost passport afforded me a completely unexpected experience. I got to travel alone for the first time, practice tons of Spanish, and basically, enjoy a mini retreat-within-a-retreat.
Pura vida indeed.
After checking out of the hotel, I went back to the hotel I’d been dropped off at and ordered a snack. I had a few hours to kill 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. Mmmm.
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 renegade wardrobe change in the bathroom before joining them at the table.
They gave me such a warm welcome that it made me kind of emotional! It was as if we’d been separated for days on end. I think my little separation from the group made me appreciate them more, and by the end of the night, we were a sappy, tipsy hug-fest. (And then we danced…)
I didn’t take many photos for the rest of the trip, even though there were some amazing experiences packed into those last two days. I was exhausted, but also more focused on enjoying the last of the experience and spending time talking to the others.
By the time we packed up and shipped off, 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? *wink wink*
Other amazing things that I didn’t photograph:
- An incredibly delicious dinner at Stashus con Fusion
- A relaxing, reinvigorating Thai massage by Julie (in her home)
- 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, pretty far out of my comfort zone, but I had crazy visual meditation after drinking pure cacao that made me feel awesome)
- A total bonding experience with the girls when we all got back to San Juan and hung out in a hotel room since we were all leaving on different flights
- 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 brilliant organizer, Camille, hoped we would.
I had a hard time being present. My mind constantly returned to stressful things back in New York. I felt ridiculous trying to indulge in these magical things when there is so much going on in my life. But that’s life, right? If we never slow down and enjoy it, it just passes us by.
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. In that sense, I’m so glad I went, even if I fumbled through some of the experience.
And Camille, who I have always admired from a distance on her blog, turned out to be one of the most awesomely genuine humans I have 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.
In just a few days I’m off to Mexico, so stay tuned for more travel photo diary action!