When I graduated high school, I took a gap year and spent six months working for a Costa Rican nonprofit. As a barely-eighteen-year-old completely new to the world of travel, I pretty much bumbled my way through the most exciting, challenging and eye-opening six months of my life.
I had a number of amazing experiences that I want to share with other people. I also made a lot of silly mistakes that I want to help you avoid. With that in mind, here’s a short list of things I would recommend trying and avoiding on your Costa Rican trip.
My weekend in Monteverde was beautiful, fascinating and unforgettable. Definitely splurge on a ziplining tour. My own tour included a zipline that traversed an entire valley. My trip featured a lot of wonderful sightseeing, but the breathtaking view from that stretch was the most memorable. It was so breathtaking, in fact, that I forgot to hold onto the zipline’s brake and began spinning in my harness. It certainly made the view more, uh, panoramic? I grabbed the brake again and reached the far side of the valley with a modicum of dignity. It was one of the highlights of my trip.
"If I had stopped to think about how crazy it was to travel to a new continent, get a job, and live on my own for six months, I would have turned back at the airport check-in."
If you really want to do something, make sure you prioritize it. It’s tempting to leave your favourite activity to the end of your trip to “cap” the experience, but you never know when you’ll be felled by a bad bout of the flu and spend the last few days of your adventure puking unbuttered toast — hypothetically, of course. Unpredictable weather, closed roads and many other common Costa Rican hazards can fell even the best laid plans. Grab opportunities when they come up or risk spending the rest of your life regretting that you never parasailed over the Costa Rican rainforest. (Sob!)
Ignore those who tell you that tour guides are overpriced or for lazy tourists. Most tour guides are affordable, highly trained and can turn a pleasant hike through the rainforest into an unforgettable exploration of the local flora and fauna. I was amazed by how many species of animals, insects and plants were completely camouflaged to the novice eye. Our guide’s special magnifying camera allowed us to get close-up views. Without him, we would never would have seen the sloths, which would have been an absolute tragedy. (Just look at the little guy!) Guides can also give you a local perspective that a website might overlook.
Feeling so worn down that you cancel plans is never fun, but there’s a special level of guilt involved when you’re passing up the opportunity to hit a tropical beach or something equally special. Working for a nonprofit was worthwhile, but it sometimes left me too drained to go out and take advantage of my new home. You can burn out while travelling even without a job; pressuring yourself to hit every “must-see” attraction or not giving yourself adequate time to recharge can all lead to travel fatigue. Give yourself the gift of rest and relaxation! Spend an afternoon reading on the beach or lounging on a laidback boat tour. You’ll be able enjoy your other activities so much more if you’re rested and your trip will benefit in the long term.
I signed up to work for the nonprofit a few weeks after I was legally old enough. I was a freshly minted high school grad who had never travelled alone, been away from her twin sister for more than a day or two or, heck, even fried an egg. (I ate nothing but peanut butter on toast for the first few days until someone showed me how to make pasta. My supervisors were alarmed.) If I had stopped to think about how crazy it was to travel to a new continent, get a job, and live on my own for six months, I would have turned back at the airport check-in.
Whether you’re taking off on your own for the first time, planning your destination honeymoon or a veteran backpacker, travelling will always be a little intimidating. Everyone has their own tactics for coping, but here’s mine: just do the thing. Don’t get hung up on the roadblocks or fears or the fact that you don’t really know Spanish. (Actually, learning Spanish probably would have been a good idea.) Grit your teeth and do something that scares you. Zipline across a valley. Snap at least a dozen pictures of a sloth. Explore a rainforest. Dive in — literally, the scuba trips are incredible. Parasail at the first opportunity. Get a flu shot. (Definitely get a flu shot.) Grab your opportunity when you can. You won’t regret it.