Costa Rica Moments

It’s the little things that make a difference.

When you start out planning a trip, you fixate on the itinerary making sure you get to see all of the things you want and potentially tick off ‘bucket list’ items. However, when I take a trip, I find that the bucket list items fade quickly, and instead I remember the little, unplanned things the most.

We never remember days, only moments.
Cesare Pavese

This is what keeps bouncing around in my mind as I recount my recent Costa Rica trip. Many people go to Costa Rica for the wildlife – and I understand why – Costa Rica is full of diversity of amazing wildlife, flora, and fauna. I loved kayaking through Tortuguero National Park, seeing monkeys swing from trees, lizards scurry off logs, birds dry their wings, and hearing howler monkey pack’s haunting growls.

However, it was the little unplanned moments and personalities that were never listed in the itinerary that had the most lasting impressions on me.

Some moments are nice, some are nicer, some are even worth writing about.
Charles Bukowski

A Local Expert and Icon

Cloid paddled an old, traditional canoe with a heavy wooden paddle maneuvering it like a Ferrari, turning on a dime. Most people would have had a hard time just picking up the heavy paddle, but Cloid had been traversing the canals of Tortuguero National Park in this fashion his whole life; this was second nature to him.  He was a character, a slight man with a welcoming smile who finished every sentence with the words “Pura Vida”.  He – like most of the native people – started as a hunter and trapper of the animals he has now learned to protect.

He told us stories of growing up in the area as we followed him in our kayaks. He had certainly seen a lot of change in this region during his lifetime. But one thing he didn’t change (in addition to his old wooden canoe) was the little round mirror he used as a spotlight to show us where the animals were hidden in the dense brush and trees.  I marveled at his skill using the sun and the mirror. In this modern world of infrared pointers, he did it the old-fashioned way.  Kayaking in the park with Cloid was my favorite activity we did on the trip. It’s his stories and smile that is burned in my brain when I think of Costa Rica.

Leading us to the Animals

“Whomever can spot a sloth on their own gets a beer!” Edgar said. I suddenly perked up. I realized I had become aloof when it came to animal spotting because our guide, Edgar, was a pro at it. We’d walk only 15 feet and he had spotted 3 different animals! He pointed them out, set up his scope and we’d all ooohed and ahhhed. But now with this challenge he threw out, things got real; I was going to have to do this myself. Suddenly the forest changed to me, I slowed down, I paid attention to colors and movement – I wanted that beer!

Edgar was super at pushing us to learn more and testing our knowledge. He taught us slang phrases every day, and not just your normal “Where is the bathroom” phrases. Instead he told us local stories and legends, and taught us useful slang! He had a way with teaching and his enthusiasm for a subject was infectious. I’ve been on a lot of tours in my travels, and Edgar reminded me how important it is to have a great tour leader; they are part teacher, part parent leading you around, and part salesperson. They make the itinerary memorable.

Travel Unscripted

Even though we had an extensive itinerary and experiences planned, I loved that we had time to ourselves to make our own script and explore the culture more deeply.

Can We Stop?

“Can we stop…” – this was my favorite thing to ask Edgar as we drove through Costa Rica from La Fortuna to Tortuguero National Park, and to Puerto Viejo. I would stare out my window at the banana fields or living fences until my curiosity got the better of me and I asked if we could stop. Edgar was excited to have us stop and get a closer look at things, so he would always oblige.

Bananas and Song

We stopped at a Banana packing plant and watched as the local workers brought big bunches of green bananas in from the field to be cleaned, weighed, and packed. It was fascinating to watch them work so fast and throw around the bananas. The overall mood at the plant was jovial, they had big smiles from the workers and they even serenaded us for a little while!

Living Fences

In addition to the green bananas, the green fences also caught my eye. In the rural areas to mark off property lines and livestock areas, you’ll find “trees” planted along the perimeter of the fields, connected to one another by barbed wire. These aren’t big trees, instead they normally have small trunks which look somewhat like fenceposts. These fences aren’t simply beautiful, they are great for the environment too. They take less maintenance, no painting, provide a home for more mosses and leaves, provide shade for the livestock, and decrease erosion. And they are free!

Edgar explained how they were started and maintained and of course I also asked to stop and look at the fences too so that I could photograph this unique and beautiful concept.

Soda Café

As we traveled from one location to the other, we had a number of lunches that were unplanned, giving us the freedom to decide where to go. Edgar took a lot of pride in bringing us to places where locals eat. My favorite stop was at a ‘soda shop’ (very local outdoor cheap/fast cafes). There wasn’t another tourist in site as we sat at the little bar seats in the outdoor setting. I had the Casado (a plate made up of many different dishes) with fresh carrot juice for pennies! Part truck stop, part café and juice bar – it was delicious!

Grocery Safari

We had free time to explore La Fortuna on our own and I chose to head into a local grocery store. Going to food markets is one of my favorite things to do to get a deeper glimpse into the local culture – and local snack food! As I walked down the aisles, I got a feel for different food, and what locals cook with. In addition, I learned about the price of items; something you can’t tell from eating at a restaurant. It was there that I learned if you want to take coffee back with you as a gift then buy it in the grocery store. It’s half the price of what they sell in tourist shops! In addition to coffee, I picked up a couple of great new chip styles I had never heard of before to try!

It was these unplanned glimpses into local life that I enjoyed the most from my Costa Rica trip; they taught me the most about the daily culture. It’s important that you have the freedom to go off the itinerary occasionally and make your own discoveries, and meet interesting people. It’s the moments that matter the most.


Sherry Ott is a long-term traveler, blogger, and photographer with one goal in mind – to make you wish you were somewhere else. In her 12 years of living nomadically and traveling solo, she’s circled the globe multiple times visiting all 7 continents. She shares her epic adventures to intriguing places on in order to inspire people to overcome their fears and reap the benefits of travel.