Archive | Solo Travel

Costa Rica Baby! The Journey Begins….

Sorry for the random early morning Wednesday posting, but writer’s block got in my way and I finally managed to beat it down last night.


No idea why this title jumped into my head, but it did, so I decided to just go with it. Perhaps it’s a sudden renewed enthusiasm given the country’s performance thus far in the World Cup. I mean, fair’s fair: group D winner beating both Uruguay and Italy!!

So why now? Why choose this moment to write about Costa Rica?

As part of a daily (well, almost daily) self-appointed writing exercise, I’ve been going through my travels chronologically and it’s led me to reflect a lot on traveling solo and on which locales I’ve done by myself and how/if those experiences have significantly differed from when I travel with others.

And thus, my meandering mind eventually led me back to my time in Costa Rica.

Trees near the Nauyaca Waterfalls

In December 2012, I was looking for a place that had these attributes:

  • No significant time zone difference from Toronto as I would be working while away
  • Relatively short flying time
  • Internet access
  • Warm temperatures
  • Proximity to water
  • Good value accommodation with a nice view/setting
I had negotiated into my contract a two-week period during which I could work from abroad allowing me to get my travel fix. It was a particularly touch-and-go time for my client so I needed to find a place that was in the same time zone or very close to it. 
When you get to pick up for two weeks and work from elsewhere, though, it’s hard to find a companion. First, that person has to enjoy a fair amount of alone time as I would clearly need to dedicate time to the job. Second, he/she also can’t mind staying in one place for two weeks, another tough sell when you consider that most people in Canada get a maximum of 4 weeks paid vacation per year. Or else, this individual has to have flexibility regarding how and where work is completed. 
So, solo trip it was. 
I started off by looking for a country and then whittled it down from there. Based on the above list, I felt like the Caribbean, Central America and possibly South America regions offered the best options. I ruled out the first because it tends to be more expensive and the third because I didn’t know enough about the countries there – or speak any passable Spanish – to feel like I could make it around comfortably and safely on my own. 
Once I’d settled on Central America, Costa Rica quickly popped to the top of the list as friends who’d been there before enjoyed their time there and came back with fun stories.

Now, let me tell you about how I conducted my search for a place to live (in this case). Price was clearly a factor but after that it was about surroundings, rather than location. I didn’t want to be in a city: I wanted to feel about as far away from Toronto, traffic and crowds as I could. 
A quick search on one of my favourite vacation rental sites ( followed and I quickly found a more than suitable property: Casa Selva, a little studio that looked like it was built into the jungle, surrounded by trees, and about midway to two-thirds up a mountain.

Casa Selva Porch

It was at this point, after I fell in love with it, that I realized I still needed to learn WHERE this place was. I crossed my fingers that it was a decent driving distance from one of the two international airports. Casa Selva was located in… Dominical. Huh. Where was that? A trusty Google maps search  and… 4 hours driving from Juan Santamaria International Airport. Score! A small surf town… up a mountain dirt road…. 4 x 4 required. I was in. 

Surfers Finishing Their Day – Dominicalito, the Smaller Beach in Dominical

Upon arrival at the airport, the first thing I took care of was purchasing a SIM card. Not as easy as it sounds. Juan Santamaria airport is not very big and it turned out there was only one mobile phone stall before exiting the customs area. Because I’d be driving straight to Dominical, this was my best chance, especially, as I would need to conduct the transaction in English.

Unluckily for me, the name on the booth’s signage wasn’t a company I recognized and so, I walked right by it and into a gaggle of people, passengers, taxi drivers, and guards. It looked like the exit but there were no signs or doors, just a couple of luggage scanners and security guards standing by. Did I need to scan my luggage again? I wasn’t sure, but no one waved me over either so I kept walking and  landed immediately at the car rental desk. Oh crap.. I’ve ‘officially’ left the airport now?

Shoot. The SIM card. I asked the gentleman at the desk and he indicated that the stall back in the airport was the only supplier available. He got up, walked me back to the security area, spoke with one of the guards and I was allowed back in to return to the cell phone company. Thank goodness for the more relaxed atmosphere of Costa Rica! The cell phone would come in so very handy later that day….

I picked up my rental car, a Suzuki Jimmy (4 x 4 with manual transmission), including GPS. TIP: if you’re driving yourself through Costa Rica, a GPS is a MUST, as roads wind unpredictably and often don’t have signs. Also, if you need to do any uphill driving as well, I recommend a more powerful engine. I had some interesting moments trying to match gears with degree of incline.

In order to get to the highway, the genteel female GPS voice led me through city streets, turning this way and that, down residential streets, veering off to merge with local traffic. The instructions didn’t work all that well – for example, directions were given in miles… I don’t have a clue how far a mile is… I’m Canadian! – and in minutes I was lost. A few U-turns and some serious nervous sweating later, I managed to get back on track and on the road. The main road that would take me to Dominical had been paved in the last 5 years or so which made the drive much more pleasurable: earlier accounts from visitors and ex-pats usually included details of bone-jarring ruts and bumps that went on for hours!!!

Inevitably, traffic jams would appear on random stretches of the road, no surprise really when much of the journey provided only for one lane traffic each way. Stray dogs were everywhere and I was terrified that I would hit one who had cluelessly wandered onto the road.

I was running late. The plan had been to get there relatively early, preferably before it got dark, but I failed to realize that in Costa Rica, unlike in Toronto, even in summer the sun sets early, around 5:30pm. Then, it started to rain, heavy, steady drops. Things were getting more complicated and I could feel my body stiffening with tension. The drops turned into a downpour and as night began to fall, the downpour turned into a torrent of rain covering the car so rapidly and violently that my windshield wipers were rendered useless, shooting back and forth so rapidly that I feared they might fly off at any moment. The sky turned pitch black and there were no lights to ease my way; while I knew the safest course of action would be to pull over, I couldn’t see anything and had no idea where I could pull over, lest I end up, best case, in a ditch, worse case, off the side of a cliff.

On top of these, let’s call them adverse conditions, the directions involved spotting landmarks that while easy (or easier) to see during daylight, were next to impossible at night. Paraphrasing slightly: once you enter Dominical, you’ll drive over a bridge (more of a gut feel than a confirmed sighting at night time in the pouring rain) and past a police shack on your left (hmmm… that concrete structure seems like a good possibility); just past the 150 km route marker (say what?!?!) you’ll see a salmon-coloured bus-stop on your right (one: bus-stops don’t look the same in Dominical as in Toronto; two: what does salmon-coloured look like in the dark??); turn left onto the dirt road leading up the mountainside across from the bus-stop. Riiiight…. The directions only got murkier once I started the uphill dirt road climb.

And during all of this, with the threat of a stray dog hit-and-run incident, little to no electricity, a pitch black wall of night sky, a deluge of water, and no clear idea of where I’m going, the one thought running through my mind is: please don’t let anything happen because I do not want to explain to my father how I got into this situation. I’m not concerned so much about the possibility of damage to the car, injury to myself, or being completely lost in a foreign country – I am shit terrified of having to explain this to my father if I live.

Clearly I made it. More on that, what I learned during my stay and how the domestic SIM card was a very advantageous item to have on hand in the next post.

Sunset at Dominicalito

Do you have a story like this to tell too? What place were you unprepared for and why?

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