When I think of Costa Rica, it’s hard not to be engulfed by the idea of warm, sandy beaches, lingering sunsets and all of the frozen margaritas you can possibly drink in a day by the pool. I opened my eyes to the computer screen in front of me and began thumbing through the Internet in search of the perfect getaway for my girlfriend and me. Quick glances around the office told me my boss was too sidetracked with shuffling papers and organizing orders to come check up on the work I was supposed to be doing.
Besides, I would only look for a few minutes.
When my best friend brought up the idea of a group trip, I jumped at the chance to visit Costa Rica. It was never on my list to begin with but when the opportunity presents itself, I am always looking to add another pin to the world map that hangs above my bed. The little red knobs poke through the Styrofoam perfectly with a little crunch, a sound I am constantly chasing. She and her boyfriend had a friend that would be staying in Tamarindo to do some surfing and they decided they wanted to make a little vacation out of it but when they realized they had their dates mixed up, it seemed as though the trip would be cancelled.
“Why don’t we go anyway?” I asked my girlfriend.
We had already gone to Europe twice but we stayed with friends or family each time and between working full time jobs and night jobs, we were both in dire need of some quality time. Laying in bed after a long day watching a few episodes of Grey’s Anatomy every night just wasn’t working for us anymore. Besides, we had already been looking at hotels in the area and read a bunch of reviews about Tamarindo.
The only negative thing we had discovered so far was the ride from San Jose to Tamarindo. It was about 5 hours of bumpy, mountainous roads just to reach the shoreline. We decided to take a look at Liberia which was a little more expensive but only an hour from the beach. We found a great deal on Black Friday via Expedia ($535 per person, hotel and flight included) and jumped on the opportunity. The Selina House was advertised as a bustling, upscale hostel with a variety of rooms from dorm style, to shared apartments to private bedrooms with private bathrooms. We booked the private bedroom and private bathroom and for the next couple of months, we prepared for our trip. A piece of clothing here, an excursion there, until the day finally came and we shipped up to Boston for our flight.
There were no red flags when we first arrived at the Selina House. The staff was very friendly and they got us checked in and showed us to our room almost immediately. The young man at the counter wistfully pulled his hair into a clump on the top of his head and grabbed both of our suitcases, motioning for us to follow him to a rundown building in the back corner of the complex. When we swung open the door, we were shocked, disappointed and frantic.
On the website, the room was described as urban and tropical. They had posted photos of gorgeous designs on the walls, a private bathroom with a waterfall shower head and a modern tub, perfect for a couple that was travelling alone. We were excited. Instead, we were lead to a room bordering a fence. On the outside of the fence was a trash pit that was home to rats and vultures at all hours of the day. The inside of the room was dimly lit by an overhead light and barely big enough to accommodate the twin sized bed that had been forced between the two walls. There wasn’t even room for our luggage. Literally, not a single drawer or bureau was available in the room. We couldn’t unpack which meant we would be living out of our suitcases that quickly found their home in the only remaining space in the room under the window. Which was also home to ants and other insects scurrying under the wheels and squirming their way through zippers and pockets into our clothing and cosmetics. I was disgusted.
We were then told that the bathroom was a few buildings over. It was supposed to be a shared bathroom with another two guests and we were given a key for privacy. Before we decided to leave, we told each other we can tolerate the small bedroom as long as the bathroom is OK. If you’ve ever gone to summer camp, you can picture this perfectly. You grab your crappy sandals and your shower caddy, sling a damp towel over your shoulder and run down the hill to the community bathroom at the bottom where you shower off quick and head to dinner. When you’re little, it doesn’t matter if you still feel dirty because you’re just going to climb into bed with a single sheet and no air conditioning and scratch your bug bites until you wake up at six the next morning for breakfast.
But when you’re an adult looking for a romantic getaway and you walk into a bathroom that looks more public than shared, you’re going to be fuming. The door to the bathroom was swung open, revealing another dimly lit rectangle of room with muddy footprints on the floor and mold clinging to the permanently dampened shower curtain. There wasn’t even soap to wash our hands and bugs were crawling all over the ceiling, buzzing noisily around the fading light.
I whirled around quicker than I ever have and marched to the front desk immediately. After we had checked in, it was like the boy didn’t even notice us. I say boy because he was most likely no more than 18-years-old and clearly couldn’t handle the responsibility of running the front desk of a “hotel” as there was almost a line out the door at this point with backpackers looking for rooms and angry customers alike.
When it was finally my turn, I calmly explained to him that this was unacceptable and we were less than thrilled with the conditions. He agreed to give us an upgrade for no additional charge but we would have to wait for the morning.
I told Jillian, “OK, we can handle this for one night. I just won’t shower.” She agreed, we wouldn’t shower. We’d take a dip in the pool, get through the night and switch rooms in the morning.
I trudged back to the room, key in hand and dirt smudged between the thong of my flip flops and my toes, the lip of the shoe flinging up puffs of dehydrated dust. We had been travelling since 5 a.m. and all I wanted was to take a nice, hot shower. Nothing is worse than laying down at night after flying all day and not being able to shower.
I sat down on the bed to take off my shoes and it felt like I was sitting on concrete. I kept reminding myself, it’s only one night. You can do this. The breaking point for us was when I went to lay down on the pillows and realized the cases were made of plastic and covered with a thin, cotton sheet. I removed the sheet to reveal clumps of black mold and dirt spread along the casing of the pillow.
You might think I am exaggerating but after two hours of checking into our hotel, we were running frantically from door to door at 7 o’clock at night begging hotels within a half mile radius to take us in for the seven nights we had scheduled.
Thank God I can speak Spanish because this would have been horrendous otherwise. It’s not that the people of Tamarindo don’t speak English but rather, their native language is Spanish and I don’t think I could have effectively communicated the urgency of the situation through the tears and exhaustion had they not fully understood my native tongue. Granted, I don’t fully speak theirs but they got the point after I took several deep breaths and wiped at my eyes for a few minutes.
We were turned away at every single one until we finally found a little hotel, called Luamey, at the top of the hill that was advertised as a restaurant first and a hotel after. They had a room available for us for the seven nights we would be in Tamarindo, but again, it was shared. I asked politely to see the room and Will (who was the manager of the hotel and was constantly checking in on us and making conversation – I can’t say enough good things about this man) took us to the back of the building, up a winding, unpaved road and a few flights of stairs. The room had a small common area, two bedrooms and a shared bathroom. We agreed immediately.
We paid on the spot, promised him we’d be back within the hour and ran down the hill to grab our luggage. I dragged my suitcase across the complex, into the reception area and told the boy we would be leaving. He apologized and tried to refund us but because we booked through Expedia, he wasn’t able to. I would have to file a claim online and see what they can do. Fine, just get me the hell out of here. (They were able to refund us).
Within minutes, we were trekking through the streets with our luggage in tow and it was in that moment that I swore I would never come back to Costa Rica unless the trip turned around. It only got worse from there.
The next day, I got a message on Instagram from the assistant manager of the Selina House. I responded, thinking it was to discuss the unlivable circumstances of the hotel, but to my absolute shock, he asked me out for drinks. I can only assume he asked the boy at the front desk what my name was and found my social media which lead me to believe they gave out my private, confidential information.
We quickly learned that Tamarindo is one of those places that you stay at for a couple of days and move on. In our seven nights that we stayed there, three different groups of people moved in and out of our little shared space with plans to see the rest of the country or having come from other parts already. Each and every person said the same thing; Tamarindo is not nearly as beautiful as the rest of the country, from the beaches to the scenery to the excursions to the locals to the mountains. Everything was better everywhere else.
Almost every single morning, we were woken up to the stench of sewage. I thought it was a freak thing the first couple of days until I finally googled it and found that because of the lack of pipelines and modern plumbing in the country, the sewage draining system wasn’t at all what you would expect for a highly developed tourist town. There were feces and urine running through the streets and when the wind blew, which was every day since we were there during the windy season, it wafted through the hinged windows into our tiny nook and I awoke many mornings with the covers wrapped so tightly around my face I could barely breath.
The beaches were rated as the best beaches in all of Costa Rica but where I come from, our beaches are ranked as some of the best beaches in the world so I might be a little biased. Nevertheless, the view was very pretty but we couldn’t lay out for more than five minutes without someone walking up to us waving handmade trinkets in our faces, desperately trying to sell us something, and not leaving until we verbally acknowledged that we weren’t interested. The current was too strong to swim and with the amount of surfing lessons happening, we were lucky if we didn’t get hit in the mouth by the end of a surfboard. It did make for some truly extraordinary sunsets though.
After three or four hours on the beach, we had had enough. But by then, it was only noon and because we had anticipated being at the beach all day, we didn’t have any other plans. We decided to walk back to the hotel most days, take a dip in the pool whose water levels didn’t even reach the filter. There was so much debris, you really couldn’t spend more than five minutes in the water and the smell of sewage was overwhelming. We ended up confined to our room, looking for other hotels that had better accommodations. Some days, we wandered around town bopping into little boutiques and souvenir shops but there’s only so much you can do in a town that is about a mile in each direction.
By the end of the trip, we had watched cockroaches climb out of the shower drain, found tiny fire ants in our sheets a handful of times, shared the walls with couples who had no respect for the people in the next room (I’m sure you can pick up on what I mean) and woke up nauseous from the smell of literal shit almost every single day.
Still, we made the best of the trip. Despite everything that went wrong, it became laughable. We had a little system by this time – we didn’t need to make the most of every single day. It was OK to sleep in and wait for the little acai shop down the street to open up. It was OK to walk down the beach a couple of miles and find a spot that was secluded and away from the pestering locals. It was OK to spend $25 on the beach club that had a private pool and poolside service. It was OK to be in bed by 9 with a good book and the air conditioner.
By the end of our trip, we had gotten into the routine of things and learned how to avoid the things we didn’t like. We didn’t let the frustration of our circumstances affect our relationship and at the end of the day, we were together, away from the stress of our jobs and in a country that most people won’t ever have the privilege of seeing.
When we got home, my mom asked me how I could handle the Dominican but I couldn’t handle Costa Rica. A little bit of a back story to put this into perspective; when I traveled to the Dominican, I knew exactly what to expect. I knew we would be seeing modern day slavery in its purest form, I knew you couldn’t wander off the resort without being pestered by the locals, I knew there would be days that I wouldn’t be able to shower and when I did shower, it would be out of a bucket filled with stale, soapy water from days ago that had been collected when the water was running through town. I was prepared.
What made Costa Rica so upsetting was that I went in with expectations and I left with the knowledge that I would never return. Someone explained it simply while we were down there; stay in American resorts when you travel to Central/South America (except that the American resorts like the Marriott, Wyndham and Best Western were anywhere between $250 and $300 for a single night). What you see on Expedia/TripAdvisor is not what you will get. You will get what you pay for.
She also asked me what my favorite part of the whole trip was, which I think is super important to share. We booked a tour via TripAdvisor which took us to Rincon de la Vieja, a national park north of Liberia, about an hour from Tamarindo. If you go to Costa Rica, you must do this tour. No matter where you are staying, make it a point to do this. It included everything (zip lining, horseback riding, river tubing, natural hot springs and mud baths) as well as transportation, breakfast and lunch all for $145. If you’re looking to fill your time, I would also recommend the ATV Tour(which we didn’t do), a fishing trip with Capt. Lee Keidel and exploring any of the national parks in the neighboring areas which are filled with wildlife, lush rain forests, hiking trails and waterfalls – all of the things we didn’t get to do.
Note to the LGBTQ+ community: It is safe here but people will look at you and cat call you whether you are two women walking down the street as friends or two women walking down the street holding hands. It doesn’t make a difference to the locals there. At first, we were very skeptical of even showing that we were in a relationship in public places like the beach and around town but we quickly realized that we were being stared at because we were women, not because we’re a same-sex couple. We were happy to see other same-sex couples in the area and no one bothered us.
Note to women: Look out for predatory men travelling alone – we were invited for dinners, drink and hotel rendezvous way more than anywhere else. A lot of men travel alone there and will offer you drinks and drugs. One guy offered to rent us a car if he could come with us to travel throughout the country. Another couple invited us back to their hotel for a foursome (we declined obviously). Countless single men approached us on the beach and asked us to accompany them to dinner, even after we said no. Stay together, travel smart and be aware of your surroundings!
Note to men: Stop being so creepy towards women traveling alone! You might think you’re being nice but your harmless/suggestive advances are uncomfortable.
Friends – Found within the Mercadito, which is kind of like a food court but more upscale. There are all sorts of food choices here from poke bowls to fresh seafood to different styles of Latino and American food. The Acai Bowls and Crepes at Friends are very good. Outside seating only.
Patagonia – Found next to the Mercadito. Known for their fresh meats and traditional Argentinian dishes. Good quality. Outside, covered seating only.
Wok n’ Roll – Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese and Thai food. Very good. Drinks aren’t the best. Inside and outside seating.
Pico – Beach view. Gluten free and vegan bistro. Air conditioned inside, offers outside seating.
Sharky’s – Known as one of the best bars in Tamarindo. They offer very Americanized snacks like wings, burgers, nachos and beer. Indoor and outdoor seating but most people sit outside as there is always some sort of event (live music, DJ, karaoke, sports game) inside.
Rumors – We loved it here. Really good restaurant overall that offers breakfast, lunch and dinner. Live music most nights and it turns into a pretty active wine bar.