On the heels of the year’s holiday season opener, something else comes this way: winter. It’s icy claws are already sinking in across the Northern United States. I can’t help but to begin considering how to escape the White Walkers to Latin America, and NOW. The bad news is, parts of LATAM have become more dangerous this past year, rather than less. Unfortunately, Nicaragua — a country I was entranced by during a visit there earlier this year — is a shining example of a downward-sliding trend.
Mexico is still inviting and ever-welcoming, though one must exercise increased caution as the security situation in some regions has worsened. Also, many of us have already visited several times. South America has its pockets of relative stability, but travel times are much longer. Let’s face it, it’s a bit far for a getaway.
Which brings me to Costa Rica, a country that is somehow keeping it all together in spite of its neighbors, a bastion of positive vibes, a beacon of demilitarization and peace, a place where getting there won’t kill you.
Amanda Trejos of USA Today summed it up nicely when she wrote,
Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador are plagued by chronic poverty and violence that have sent a flood of refugees fleeing to the United States. Panama has gained the unwanted title as a world capital for money laundering and corruption. And all of them, plus Nicaragua, face recurrent political upheaval.
Yet amid this chaos, one Central American neighbor remains an island of political stability, economic prosperity and contentment: Costa Rica.
Located near the end of the isthmus connecting North with South America, it boasts coastal access to two seas (the Pacific Ocean to the west, the Caribbean to the east), jungle, islands, wildlife, cities, a developed and safe tourism industry, really anything you might be seeking. I enjoyed my time in Costa Rica thoroughly, and what follows is my take on my favorite activity there.
After returning from a trip, or even during one, I’ll often be asked what experience has been my favorite overall. Thing is — just being the person I am — that’s a difficult question for me to answer. I find it challenging to distill things down to a “favorite”, calling out only one experience that I can heap all my enthusiasm on. People who know me personally know this well, and they know it pervades most aspects of my life.
On the rare occasion that something hits me right away, it usually means that other things weren’t impressive enough to make the list. Thus, having a real issue picking a favorite thing is also a sign of having a great travel experience, if you ask me.
So it has been with many visits to amazing places, I’m fortunate enough to say. And so it was with Costa Rica. I was fairly sure I could pick my top three or five easily, but settling on one alone evaded me, as per usual.
That is until I gave myself more time following my return home to contemplate it and sift through photos. Indeed, sometimes I can answer the question, though it may take me a bit. Some weeks after leaving that beautiful country, I realized I was as certain as somebody like me can be that my favorite moments were had on the ferry crossing from Playa Naranjo to Puntarenas via the Gulf of Nicoya, and it’s clear in my mind as to why.
One of the main reasons I enjoyed the crossing so is that it was entirely unexpected, from how I learned about it to what it was ultimately like. I’m grateful to say I just got thrown into it and, pointing my rental car in the direction of Playa Naranjo, hauled ass from the coast on a Sunday in order to arrive on time for the 4:30pm departure, not having any clue as to what I’d find.
Beyond that, the trip smacked of authenticity, from the mode of transportation; to the condition that the ferry called San Lucas was in; to the folks drinking at the top deck bar; to the music being blasted there. There was no fancy billing, no luxury class, no tourist section. In short, it wasn’t a boat tour. Passengers included foreign tourists like me, sure, but we didn’t dominate the scene in any way whatsoever.
There were only a handful of us mixed in with everyday citizens simply going about their lives utilizing a type of transit to get from point C to point R, including cattle transporters. Being one of the last aboard, I ended up parking next to the truck and stepping in fresh cow shit, only to be stared at by the poor beasts from their mobile cage, the drivers already relaxing elsewhere on the boat.
To round it out, the setting was suffocatingly (to hell with breathtakingly) gorgeous and peaceful. The ferry plied the waters of the Gulf of Nicoya past inviting islands in all directions. Birds were constantly at play around the ship, while an astounding sunset served as the backdrop. What’s more, perhaps because it was a Sunday, there was no other sea traffic out there. Consequently, we were treated to postcard-surpassing scenery.
Indeed, there was nothing out there between us on the boat and the magnificent beauty that surrounded us, and it seemed that nobody was immune to it. For the duration of the journey, I was transfixed.
Making it happen
If you arrive by rental car, you’ll be greeted by a security guard and/or ferry personnel and directed to park the vehicle outside the dock’s gate. You’ll see the ticket office to your left. Enter and pay the required fees to carry the automobile, driver, and any passengers.
Be aware that only cash is accepted. Earlier this year, I paid ₡9,000 for the car and ₡1,005 for myself (under $17 USD total given the exchange rate at publication). However, be sure to check the latest fare information.
Passengers board on foot while the driver loads the car. The lower level of the ferry itself houses the cafe and some indoor seating. The restaurant also accepts cash only and offers things like fried food and soda.
The upper deck has a full bar and some bench seating, a dance area, and the best views. Yes, I wrote dance area. The company, COONATRAMAR R.L. actually uses the word “discoteca”. And that’s an affirmative: they BLAST latin rhythms. Have a shot or five and get your freak on, if you’re so inclined.
The bow of the top deck has forward-facing bench seating. At the ship’s mid-level on both port and starboard sides, one is afforded stellar views as well, and you might find space on a couple of benches waiting for you to relax on.
Count on a trip length of about 1.5 hours or slightly shorter. Safety-wise, the car and its contents made it through just fine, but practice common sense — don’t leave any bags with valuables in plain sight on the passenger seat, or something similar.
Once you arrive in Puntarenas, be prepared for some gnarly, heavily-trafficked, close-quarters driving, as you need to escape the spit-like strip of earth you’ve just landed on in order to continue on your way to San José (or wherever else it is that you may be heading next).