LIBERIA, Costa Rica – A young woman traveling alone draws quizzical looks and a variety of reactions, ranging from horror to admiration, but almost always tinged with pity.
My friends thought my five-day solo trip to Costa Rica sounded cool but couldn’t hide their concern that I planned the escape because I didn’t have a man to whisk me away.
My parents were convinced that smugglers would hide drugs, weapons, cash and microfilm in my luggage and that I’d be arrested and imprisoned for life in a bamboo cage in the middle of the rain forest.
The plump middle-aged Chicago woman in the seat next to me on the plane, heading to Costa Rica to celebrate her 25th wedding anniversary, clucked sympathetically when I admitted under questioning that I was spending the next five days by myself.
“Well, good for you,” she said, as if I were acknowledging an addiction and vowing to seek help.
The truth is, I’m used to doing things by myself – I live alone in New York City, cook for myself, often go solo to see live music.
And before the week was over, I would watch surfers on the beach, drink cold Costa Rican beer as the sun set, ride horseback at the foot of a volcano, hike into the rain forest, listen to frogs and howler monkeys at night and enjoy steaming cafe con leche in the morning – all on my own.
Still feel sorry for me?
Last winter, I made a resolution to start traveling alone, before I start acquiring the strings that make such a luxury impossible. The advantages are endless: Go where you want, do what you want, spend very little money doing it.
For my first trip, I wanted to lie on a beach somewhere in a country where I could practice Spanish and get by on a budget. I also wanted an adventure; I wasn’t looking for a spring-break-type resort where I’d be hanging out with people just like me.
Costa Rica was perfect. The stable Central American country boasts beautiful beaches, exotic jungles and a great climate and still retains an identity somewhat undisturbed by tourism overdevelopment.
To save money, I booked a trip that included airfare, hotel and meals. If I did this again, however, I wouldn’t include meals, since I could probably eat for less than $10 a day in Costa Rica.
I researched online and browsed a few travel guides before I decided to head to the Guanacaste region, on the Pacific side in the north. Its beaches are renowned for surfing and snorkeling, with some spots known for annual visits from sea turtles laying their eggs. The guidebooks also said the rain forest was close enough for a day trip.
I discovered quickly that traveling alone created opportunities to meet interesting people, which usually led to unique experiences I wouldn’t have had otherwise.
Upon my arrival at the hotel, I met the concierge, who quickly became my friend, sometimes joining me for meals and long chats. He wanted to practice his English, and I wanted to speak Spanish, so our conversations were a hybrid.
The next day he arranged for a driver to take me to Playa Tamarindo, one of the area’s most popular surfing beaches. It’s also bordered by a funky little town of artists, surfers and young people. If I went back to Costa Rica, I’d want to stay in Tamarindo.
Most resorts can provide a rental car for guests, but I decided to hire a guide – both for navigation help and for security. And at just $40 for the day, it was a great deal.
Not only did he show me around, he also became my friend – purely platonic, of course. On that day and the following ones, we spent hours together in the car, on the beach, in the rain forest and throughout Costa Rica. He also knew when to back off and let me explore on my own.
An added bonus: Luis, who was my age and lived in a nearby town, didn’t speak English, so my Spanish improved dramatically.
As he drove me to Tamarindo that day, we talked about our families and where we grew up. Later, we sipped cold bottles of Imperial, a Costa Rican beer, as we sat on the beach and watched the surfers and their dogs play in the water.
The next day, we drove for hours over crumbling and windy roads to the rain forest, discussing politics, the Iraq war and music. Luis insisted that I translate lyrics of songs on the radio.
But we fell silent, dazzled by the view, as the car emerged over a hilltop above Lake Arenal, a majestic body of water at the foot of the Arenal Volcano. The spectacular scenery only grew more beautiful as we made our way to the town of La Fortuna, where my concierge friend had arranged for me to meet up with a rain forest guide.
The landscape had changed from the dry brush of Guanacaste to the lush tropics of central Costa Rica, where the famed Monteverde Cloud Forest is located. Hundreds of tourism companies in this region offer activities like volcano tours, raft trips, cave explorations, horseback rides, bike trips, bird-watching and relaxing in the hot springs.
The concierge put me in touch with a company offering rain forest tours that began on horseback and included a high-ropes course through the tropical treetops. He had also arranged for me to have my own personal tour, rather than in a group.
So that afternoon, after Luis and I ate grilled fish, rice and beans at a roadside cafe in La Fortuna, my guides and I trotted horseback through a meadow of monarch butterflies, stopping to admire orchids and pick guava fruit.
Then we tied our horses and hiked through the rain forest to the first of a series of platforms in the trees. One guide would traverse to the next platform while the other hooked my harness to the zip line and pushed me off.
We swooshed along, stopping at each platform to climb a little higher, admire the view or stand still and absorb the rain forest sounds. One of my guides was going to school for horticulture and could tell me anything about the flora and fauna – in Spanish, of course.
Suddenly, he noted quietly that the wildlife around us was eerily hushed, which he said could be a sign that a panther was near. The black cats, according to him, are particularly attracted to women, especially if women are alone. (Apparently even wild animals find this intriguing!)
Fortunately, we did not encounter any growling panthers and galloped back to the stable just before a foggy evening rainstorm.
I decided to spend my last full day in Costa Rica relaxing at the pool, sunning myself alongside the occasional iguana. When I was too warm, I retreated to the shade of the mango trees, where hotel workers would stop by and chat as they cut down fruit for the next morning’s breakfast.
When I first arrived there, the workers were surprised I was by myself, but they quickly befriended me.
“You’re not alone,” one woman insisted in Spanish. “You have us.”
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