Novelist | Singer
Hola! That’s the basic greeting from the lovely people of Costa Rica, lyrically called “Ticos.” We were recently in that beautiful country in Central America sandwiched between Nicaragua and Panama. My husband and I are travel junkies, though we’ve never had to spend a lot of money on our adventures, partly because we don’t have a lot of money to spend. One item of extravagance we allowed ourselves was a canopy tour (a must when visiting Costa Rica) at the Osa Mountain Village Eco Resort on the Osa Pennisula. At just over one hundred dollars, the tour was pricey for our tastes, but we had heard it was the best one around, and I believe it. The tour was two and a half hours, the guides were great, the zip-lining felt safe and it was big, big fun. The only other people on the tour were a recently retired Arizona couple. During our waits on the platforms, we chatted about our experiences here, and she mentioned that the resort (where they were staying) was too “Americanized.”
Mixed feelings clouded my thoughts at that point of the conversation. But of course, I want to say. Look around, yes, it does look Americanized, but then it probably looked that way on the computer screen when you booked, right? I feel bad for people who invest in a trip to a foreign country and then find out that the only thing that is different from home is the temperature, the humidity and of course, the view. But that is exactly how many, many Americans choose to travel. Sure, it’s nice, it’s warm, they serve excellent cerviche, and they have Imperial beer. That hardly qualifies as a cultural experience.
We, on the other hand, had a cultural immersion carpet ride. We ate at local Sodas along the roadside, stopped at local bars, visited our friends’ neighbors and drove the challenging 4 wheel drive roads that lace through the mountain landscape. True, it was to our advantage that we were visiting friends who own a farm there, but we don’t always have that advantage. We just travel locally (no resorts), and usually without a plan.
I find that many Americans are afraid to travel without plans. They schedule their entire vacation, the activities, the hotels, the side trips, etc. so that there is no opportunity to change their minds once they arrive at their destination. If you want a real cultural experience, do yourself a favor, although it might sound a little crazy and irresponsible. Here’s my “travel hit list” for a real cultural experience, even when traveling domestically.
• Read before you go. You should not go blind to a foreign country for many obvious reasons. You should know the value of the money, no explanation required. You should know the basic geography of the country, and if you are driving, you should have looked at the roads you might drive on Google Earth before your plane touches down. You should have an idea as to what you want to see and where you want to go. The Lonely Planet Series come to mind. Lots of great advice at various prices.
• Always travel off-season if you can, or at the extreme end of the high season. Though this may mean that the weather is not “ideal,” your vacation will be cheaper, tourists will be fewer – which makes the next step of my strategy possible.
• Make only minimal plans. We never, never make plans, beyond purchasing our airline tickets there and possibly booking a rental vehicle. When we have planned, we always regret it. We always wish instead of the hotel that we booked, we would have had the chance to stay at the funky place at the end of the road. If you are a bit uncomfortable with no plans, book a hotel for one night, or two at the very outside, then jump out into the culture.
• Use the money you have saved on your off-season ticket and resort to rent a car. This gives you the ultimate freedom to go anywhere you want whenever you want. I have a feeling those tourists from Arizona were trapped at the resort, so their view of Costa Rica will be entirely from the resort, not from the roads or in the neighborhoods.
• Ask local people where to eat, and yes, take a chance and teach yourself just basic phrases in the language before you go. Don’t expect to understand the answer, but communication is comprised of more than words. If you can get your point across, they will be able to show you where to stay, where to eat, etc. Speaking a foreign language is like being a child. You WILL make mistake after mistake, but don’t worry, they can tell you don’t speak their language and will help you. Of course, be careful and – be smart.
• Travel in rural locations whenever possible. Local people will find it amusing and complimentary that you have found their neighborhood. The best part is that it is safe, generally. The places you have to worry about theft and mugging are the same places you have to worry about it at home – in places tourists frequent, and in cities.
• Stay in local hotels where nationals would stay. That way you are almost guaranteed local food, language immersion, local attractions. Go ahead and visit the tourist places during the day if you wish, but stay locally, not in the big, fancy hotels. Sure, they’re pretty, but you’ll feel like you are in the States. If that is your preference, why travel abroad? Just go to a fancy hotel in the States!
• Ask local ex-pats about attractions in the area. What would they see? You will get the opinion of a person who lives in the country, would know places that perhaps tourist books don’t, and they will be able to tell you in detail about it, the way a national couldn’t. I lived in Japan for six years, and find it’s amusing that often foreigners avoid foreigners overseas. Maybe it’s because those people are ruining their cultural experience. Whatever it is, try to get over it. Watch the foreigners and pick out those who live there – you’ll be able to do it, just watch for a while. You can bet, however, that you won’t see ex-pats at resorts and fancy hotels, just more tourists, like you.
Be careful, be respectful and remember, although this exotic place looks like Disneyland to you, to the nationals, it is home. Respect the culture and the environment. Spend money locally as much as you can. Not only will you save money, you’ll have a much better experience.
Get lost a couple of times. That’s the best. If you’re lost, you have to ask for help. People love to help lost people. You might get into a real adventure and see some things you would never see if you had planned every move and did everything safely. Be careful – be smart. Have fun!