How Costa Rica changed my life

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Travel is a word with so many meanings. Freedom, adventure, life, education, escape, therapy, medicine; it means something different to everyone. People choose to travel at all sorts of times in their lives and for all sorts of reasons, taking from it countless different things. That’s the magic of it, and the reason I will never tire of stepping out into the great unknown in search of all of these things, and more.

When I was 18 I got into a very unhealthy relationship that lasted the best (or worst) part of a decade. When I was 27 we finally broke up and I was faced with the typical post-breakup life evaluation. What did I want to do now that I was free to please myself? I wanted to do something worthy of the woman I knew I was, but had been letting down for such a long time; to do something I would remember and cherish for the rest of my life.

My gift to myself was Costa Rica.

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My Costa Rica inspired tattoo

From the moment I landed in San José I was in love. I was alone in the world for the first time ever, and the trepidation raced through my veins like a drug. I was up, I was down… and for the first time in a long time, I was happy.

It was one of those moments where time stands still. You feel every breath entering and leaving your body and your senses seem heightened. All at once that warm rush of excitement rises through your core… Ah yes, you smile to yourself. This is it. I am exactly where I’m supposed to be.

I can still remember waking up my first morning in my hostel in San José. The energetic chatter of Spanish bounced around the courtyard outside and, though I couldn’t understand what was being said, I could tell the people were happy. It was infectious.

I ate in public alone for the first time in my life. I had been so nervous to do so but as I walked into the dining room I was so warmly welcomed that my hesitancy subsided, and was quickly drowned by my first café con leche and a big slice of pineapple cake.

Unsure of how to spend my first day solo, I booked myself on a tour of the city. As I boarded the bus I found I was the only single traveller; all the other people aboard were couples or groups. I tried to strike up conversation with a few people but had clearly boarded the miserable bus, and they were not in the mood for meeting new people. Luckily the tour guide took pity on me, a wonderful man named Pat, whose face was etched with laughter and the signs of a life well lived.

Pat became my personal guide for the rest of the day. He told me stories of his wife, children and grandchildren, and I felt the love and pride spilling out of him. He showed me a knotted friendship bracelet his granddaughter had made him and chatted animatedly about her, and how he was certain she and I would be friends, were we ever to meet.

It was my first experience of the ‘Tico’ warmth and hospitality, so pure and genuine. I couldn’t have wished for a better first day in Costa Rica.

As we said our goodbyes later that afternoon, Pat told me how impressed he was that I was visiting his country alone. He took off the bracelet his granddaughter had made him and closed my palm around it. “For good luck” he said. It was the most generous gift anyone had ever given me, and though I never did meet his granddaughter, this bracelet has joined us as friends.

This experience sums up perfectly my time in Costa Rica, a country so rich in diversity and joy. From the lush rainforests to the volcanoes and beaches, the landscape there is like nourishment for the soul. Everywhere you go is so beautiful and different. The people march to the beat of their own drum, and all in perfect unison with one another. The mutual pride they feel for their country bursts out of them in shouts of “Pura Vida!” and their beaming smiles communicate their deep lust for life. It is at once utterly compelling and contagious.

I spent four weeks in this amazing country and every day I fell deeper in love with her. No other place on Earth has ever affected me in quite the same way. Costa Rica left an indelible mark on my soul, to such an extent in fact that I felt compelled to honour this with a tattoo. I love it when people notice it on the back of my neck and question its meaning. I feel myself swelling up with pride at the memories of this magical country, as though it were my own, and relish the chance to revisit her in my mind.

Costa Rica taught me so many things. How to be alone, how to speak (very basic) Spanish, how to salsa dance, how to laugh wholly, love freely and enjoy every second of being alive. But most importantly Costa Rica taught me how I wanted to live my life. It was on her soil that I truly fell in love with travel, and since then I have never looked back. Costa Rica taught me how to be.

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{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Ajay December 4, 2011 at 16:50

Wonderful Post! We are going to CR end of this month as well, I am SO looking forward to the visit. Its our first volunteercation and hope to do many more.
Ciao
Ajay

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Hannah December 4, 2011 at 19:46

Thanks Ajay! I really appreciate you stopping by. I volunteered in CR too, doing sea turtle conservation with a charity called ASVO http://www.asvocr.org/ which was amazing. What kind of stuff will you be doing?

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Ajay December 6, 2011 at 00:19

Cool. I will check them out. We are planning to work with kids, not sure what we will be assigned yet, but with kids it can never go wrong 🙂 We are doing it through Maximo Nivel. They also cover spanish lessons which we are learning now cuz ultimately we want to start our RTW trip with South America. We have a great tutor helping us now (www.mariaortegagarcia.com) but the more we can learn the better !
Ciao
Ajay

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Hannah December 6, 2011 at 20:41

That sounds great Ajay, you certainly have some wonderful experiences ahead of you. I look forward to reading all about them!

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Gerard ~ GQ trippin December 5, 2011 at 07:17

I loved Costa Rica too. People are so warm and the country’s landscape is so diverse. Props for the tattoo. Pura Vida!

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Hannah December 5, 2011 at 19:22

Thanks Gerard, so glad you stopped by. I love your blog – you guys are a huge inspiration 🙂

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Sarahsomewhere December 9, 2011 at 14:17

Beautiful writing Hannah, I felt like I was there with you! Matters of the heart bring so much pain, but also tend to be a touchstone to growth, and I’m thankful you shared some of your story with me… Keep writing, and keep being you! (I’d love to read your book some day)

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Hannah December 10, 2011 at 11:18

Wow, thank you for your lovely comment Sarah. You are right about that ‘touchstone to growth’, I am grateful for the heartache I have experienced and wouldn’t change it for the world – I am better and stronger for having lived through it. I have many more experiences I hope to share – though I don’t think I have the patience for a book! Thanks for reading xxx

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Anna B October 21, 2012 at 22:08

What a beautiful post Hannah! It makes me cry. I know how you felt because it was such a similar experience for me too. You know, I think about your tattoo a lot and one thing Moss keeps talking about lately is ‘love’ he says everything is great when there is love and all this other cute stuff and I thought a love tattoo on the back of my neck in your pura vida style would be cute….but I’m too chicken! But if i did get it then it would be for Moss, for love and also for Costa Rica 🙂 Can’t wait to see you soon. xxxxx

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Hannah October 23, 2012 at 16:35

Bean, that is such a sweet idea, I love it! Definitely get the tattoo!!! You would totally rock it. Can’t wait to see you either xxx

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Sofie February 4, 2013 at 12:07

The more I read about Costa Rica, the more I want to go.
I think I’ll be heading there next winter, for my birthday, to escape the grey Belgian winters!

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Chloé July 12, 2013 at 16:34

A year ago, the 19th of July 2012, I took a flight to Costa Rica, and went to live in Cartago for a whole year in a host family. I studied in a costarican high school, and visited a lot. I made soooooooo many friends over there, and I grew up, I became more mature, and understood so many things. Costaricans have been so kinds to me, helpfuls, I came back a few days ago, in France my homecountry, I skype a lot with everybody, and I’m going to join associations, as a volunteer, to help people.
After this adventure, I feel like a new me, Costa Rica changed me for complete. It changed my way of seeing things, enjoying life, enjoying the small things I got, and always be positive and happy.
Pura Vida !

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Hannah Loaring July 15, 2013 at 10:13

That is so wonderful to hear Chloe, thank you for sharing your experience. The people of Costa Rica remain some of the most loving and genuine I have come across, and I often think back on my time there. I hope to return in the not too distant future to explore more of the country. Pura Vida!

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Hollie March 11, 2015 at 14:31

I know this post is from years ago, but I feel I need to post.
I also travelled to Costa Rica alone after a turbulent relationship and can truly say that your post sums up my experience exactly. The passion I have to live life the Tico way is still strong 6 years later and I would dearly love to return again.
I have also recently had a tattoo of “Pura Vida” after deliberating for 6 years! I got it to remind me of the way of life there and to stop me in my tracks whenever I feel down or angry at someone. My favourite memory is when I saw two cars crash in Heredia and the drivers both got out, checked they were both okay and gave each other a hug before shrugging and getting back in their cars and driving off.
I hope we all one day get to return to Costa Rica and to experience the beauty of the country and the people all over again.
Pura Vida!

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