Colorful birds, wet terrain, and steaming water come to mind when I think back to my 2014 Costa Rica trip. My first excursion outside the United States awakened something deep inside of me. Scared, timid, and awkward
I made my way out of my comfort zone with my collegiate teammates.
As you scroll, you’ll see pictures from my older phone of my daily adventures. The pictures are comparably not as high quality as today’s insane phone technology. So please don’t expect professional photos. This trip was a while ago, so I needed to use the company Costa Rica Soccer Tours as an itinerary aid. I found an example on their website to keep my days straight.
For a quick overview, this trip was organized by Salem College’s Women’s Soccer team. It was my Freshman year of college and for our January-term, we studied abroad in the focus areas of architecture and volunteer work. We left after winter break and stayed nine days in paradise. It was hot, tropical, and I arrived back in the U.S. with a major sunburn. Finally four years later, I’m about to share my Costa Rica trip.
Day 1: Fly to Costa Rica
- Arrive in Costa Rica and transfer to San José.
It was dark and I was quite groggy. I may have only gotten an hour of sleep I don’t remember. The butterflies in my stomach seemed to be restless. As I lugged my giant purple checked bag behind me to the charter bus, I said a quick goodbye to my friend and ran to get in line. I was so focused on my teammates loading into the bus that I was sure I arrived late. After we all hopped onto the wagon, we got comfortable and napped until we reached the airport. I struggled to keep my heavy-eyes open and fighting my heavy luggage didn’t help my case. I remember entering the airport and dropping off my suitcase, but the rest is a blur. Flying is all relatively the same though anyway, right? You want the juicy travel details.
We had a couple transfers before taking our final flight heading to Costa Rica. I remember this particular flight due to the extreme size of the aircraft. It was the largest plane I had ever seen. Other than the massive transport, I think back fondly to this flight because I sat next to a wonderful woman. In short, she ran her own successful boutique located in Texas despite her second home residing in Florida. Throughout our long flight, she discussed geographic locations we flew over, successful business tips, and casual conversation. She was an inspiring woman with the intellect and confidence of a truly accomplished female.
After receiving life’s lessons from the majestic human next to me, she pointed out the window to discover our descent had begun. Blessed, our landing was softer than the previous flights we’d had that day and as the plane slowed to a definite stop I began to feel nervous again. I asked my seatmate why we weren’t at a gate. It was odd that we were parked in the middle of the runway. The dame kindly explained that at this airport, a staircase was our “gate.” My poor naive mind immediately started thinking of the grand entrances made by politicians and celebrities. Princess Kate always looks spectacular descending the steps out of an airplane. I felt more awkward than ever. In a few minutes, I’d be walking in a new country next to this successfully chic woman. Nineteen-year-old me managed to not fall on my face and I soon forgot all about my jitters as I took in the mountains surrounding us. It was beautiful.
We didn’t have time to take in the landscape yet as we rushed through customs. Again, it is all a big blur in my memory. I think I was too flustered to take a mental photo or recording. I do remember clinging to my passport like it was the last doughnut to exist; I wasn’t about to be stuck in Costa Rica because I was an amateur traveler who neglected to keep her items close.
Once we cleared the airport, our team took a bus to transfer us to our first destination. Our lovely and humorous guide talked to us about the upcoming events to expect in San José. Primarily, our guide explained our first day was getting settled into our hotel and having a welcome dinner. This dinner covered our itinerary in depth and explained our chances at winning personal awards from opposing local teams. At the dinner, we had rice and black beans as it is a traditional delicacy. Our team was surprised with beautiful dancers for a fantastic half hour show. It was quite memorable with the women spinning their skirts round and the men tapping their heels to keep the beat. I don’t have pictures because I wanted to actually watch the dancers rather than focus on getting pictures.
The hotel we were staying in was a nice family-friendly environment with mostly tourists on vacation. A few of us plus random children got extremely enthusiastic upon our arrival. We discovered a few glass tiles on the floor of the lobby. We each took a turn to stand on the glass panels to watch the water run below our feet. It was the most fascinating thing I saw all day, but I was sleep-deprived and I think anything would have thrilled me at that point.
Laying in bed, I reflected on my nervous feelings from earlier in the day. I didn’t know what to expect on this trip. I barely knew the people I was with and I hadn’t traveled a lot via airplane. When I did travel, it was I always from Minnesota to Walt Disney World with my family. Other than that, I drove to North Carolina for school and back home for breaks. Simply, my culture shock was very limited. So this trip was a slight reality check for me which I’m grateful to have received.
Day 2: San José
- Team training session.
- Tour San José’s stadium
- Friendly soccer match #1.
Morning came and I had to pull my heavy limbs to breakfast. I’d have run if I’d known about the coffee. I am your typical white-girl basic coffee lover, but hot damn. Fresh Costa Rican coffee with a drizzle of warm milk made me rethink my life choices. How can a Keurig Starbucks coffee compare to beautifully fresh coffee produced in the same country you’re drinking it. This fact alone was enough to make me consider losing my passport for an extra weekend.
Caffeinated and fed, our group left the hotel to study architecture. I wasn’t expecting the magnificence of the Estadio Ricardo Saprissa Aymá Stadium. San José’s prized gem. To make this enormous stadium even more appealing, guess what professional sport is held at this great stadium. If you guessed soccer (football), you’re correct, friend. Unfortunately, we didn’t travel in-season when we could have attended a professional match. We did see the entire stadium though and as we climbed higher the winds started to pick up. I wasn’t about to get too close to the edge when we got to the top floor. I have a few pictures of our time in the stadium.
After the stadium, we had our first game against a local San Jose team. It was a tough hot fight and I played in net the entire game. It was quite the game that we did win in the end. The exposure to language differences was really interesting. It was an amazing chance to feel like a professional World Cup team playing with opponents that don’t speak your language. Of course, that’s a stretch but it was still a lot of fun. I was happy enough to play in the net, but our opposing team selected me as the MVP. Say whaaaaatttt?! It was so kind of them to choose me when all I did was keep the ball out of the net. Looking back, I think I was really into the game due to the thrill of being in January without snow surrounding me–remember I’m from Minnesnowta.
After winning we ate at the hotel and went to bed. The next day was going to be intense so we needed rest.
Day 3: Arenal Region
- Volunteer on a service learning project with at-risk youth.
- Travel to Arenal Region.
- See Arenal Volcano & Lake Arenal.
- Visit Baldi hot water springs.
What a BUSY DAY. We were in over our heads but in a good way. This is my favorite day because of the activities we dove into…and I got to have Costa Rican coffee again.
Our morning began with training, practicing, and playing with young children in the area. Poverty in the community didn’t stop these little guys from tearing up the field. Their smiles and competitive sides warmed my heart. These children, boys and girls alike, played together despite not having normal games or practices. We found out the community tried to put on matches for them whenever possible. Transportation, teams, and water aren’t accessible resources for the children to have regular games. So as college representatives, we women of Salem College had the pleasure of meeting and teaching these children soccer skills for a few hours. Communicating with them wasn’t as difficult as one would think with our language differences. I had a little buddy that I got along with very well and he asked for a picture at the end of our session by gently pulling on my shirt and making a camera motion. I was touched and treasure the photo to this day.
I think it’s amazing that the children had extraordinary skills from practicing on the streets. Honestly, most of them were almost better than my poor goalie foot skills. Regular practice for them was to play with each other because they love it. It isn’t structured like back home with programs and leagues. I find it truly inspiring and admire the children’s spirits.
After our volun-tearing session, we headed to our next destination. The Arenal region. When on vacation, I need to be in nature and out of the city so this was the relaxation I needed. I fancied this location the most out of every destination I saw in Costa Rica because of the natural habitat.
Upon seeing a volcano for my first time, I realized something. I was terrified. I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the enormity of power the volcano held. I’d never witnessed anything like it. Suddenly, the realistic fear of Pompeii hit me as I stared at the dangerous beauty in front of me.
We settled into our next hotel, which was more my style. Every room had a view of the volcano and onsite were several hot springs. Spa dream come true! After settling our things, our next excursion was at the nearby Baldi Hot Springs.
Natural springs at varying temperatures were scattered throughout the “building.” I can’t say that it was a building because it felt like you never went into one. The abundance of hot springs left me trying to fit them all in before it was time for lunch. We ate within the building in a beautiful restaurant overlooking the volcano. A few springs had bars in the water which is where I had my first taste of a very strong margarita. The entire experience was tranquil.
Tired and ever so ready for bed after our hot springs experience we met at the hotel rendezvous for a team meeting. After, we ate dinner in our hotel and went to our lodgings to get some rest. Our room decided to wind down via tv shows. My roommates introduced me to the tv show NCIS that night. I’m still hooked.
Day 4: Arenal Region
- Plant Trees
- Optional: zip line or rainforest canopy tour.
- Friendly soccer match #2.
- Team hot springs
Next morning we welcomed a nice weather change from hot sun to warm rain. Our first excursion of the day was another voluntary project. From our lodging areas, we walked to the rainforest to plant trees. I enjoy plants and nature so I found a lot of joy in planting trees to help preserve the rainforest. I would have enjoyed planting trees for an entire week if I had the option.
After drying our muddy hands and soaked feet, our team headed to Arenal Park. There we had the option of ziplining or trekking along the rainforest path.
I, of course, went for the thrilling aspect of zipping out of the rainforest with only a harness and prayer to keep me from falling.
I. Loved. It. I plan to try another zip line in another country at some point in my life. It was amazing and the view was fantastic! We traveled on seven lines at 65 mph. I sang “I’m A Believer” by Smash Mouth everytime I jumped off a platform. It was kind of a confidence thing.
After our adventure across the rainforest, we went to our second soccer match. This one ended in a win as well. I loved this field the most because of the volcano view. It was the most serene soccer match I ever played. Our team decided to celebrate in the hot springs of our hotel after eating delicious fresh fruit. We bonded with a couple visiting from the Midwest. I was able to talk geographic locations with them and about the snow back home. After saying goodbye to our new friends, the team decided to head in for the night.
The hot springs were so clear and beautiful. I felt so clean by the time I went to bed.
Day 5: Pacific Coast
- Travel to the Pacific Coast.
- Team training session
- Team bonding night
We had to leave our spa haven for our third match. The destination this time was located along the Pacific coast. Once we were situated in our final hotel our mission was to take it easy swimming in the ocean until dinner. Post dinner, we had team bonding in the bar and on the beach of our hotel. I honestly don’t remember a lot about this day or the hotel, so I’ll shower you with pictures instead of a lengthy description.
Day 6: Pacific Coast
- Team training session.
- Friendly soccer match #3.
- Afternoon relaxing / match recovery at the pool
Tired as we were from the traveling, we had our third match. No winner was declared, and the score ended in 1-1. I think a lot had to do with our energies being lower from spending the day shopping and in the ocean the day before. After our match, we chilled at the hotel for the rest of the day and ate with the locals for dinner.
Day 7: Pacific Coast
- Day at the beach
- Fourth match at night
I learned how to body surf. I can’t tell you if I could do it again, but I did learn on this day! My friends on the team were kind enough to share their skills. Despite my fear of entering the ocean, they finally convinced me to slowly wade into the waves and get up to my shoulders. I got over my fear and ended up loving the experience.
Our last match at night ended in a win. It was a night game under the lights and it was intense. We were ecstatic to return home undefeated. It didn’t really count for anything other than our pride if we’re being honest, but it was a good confidence booster for our team.
Day 8: San Jose Last Day
- Return to San Jose.
- Historic sites
Our last full day we traveled back to San Jose to officially tour the city and see the historic sites. I can’t tell you the history, but I can show you the pictures I took.
Day 9: Heading home
After eight days of fun, we were ready to head home. The journey was smooth and, again, a blur. I don’t have any pictures because I was exhausted and my phone memory was full. Below are side highlight photos.
Highlight Photos from on-the-road moments
I mentioned at the start of this blog that 19-year-old Kat felt something shift when she entered Costa Rica. Scared and excited, this beautiful country changed my mindset to a more open outlook. I wasn’t as scared to travel and I knew I wanted to experience more cultures.
Traveling is a true passion of mine but meeting people and creating bonds with them is an even stronger passion. Since Costa Rica, I’ve traveled to many other places within and outside of the United States. I plan to keep exploring while making connections and sharing them on this blog.
As far as Costa Rica goes, I hope to see it again. I love that the flight isn’t 24 hours long and the time change isn’t drastically different. Most of all, I loved the natural environment. The rainforest and volcano exposure warmed my heart. The air felt fresher and the fruit was unbelievable. The favorite part was the coffee though. I brought home several bags! I am thankful for this trip and how it made me realize my passion.
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