Growing up, just before I went to sleep my Dad would often whisper “don’t let the bed bugs bite.” At some point along the way I started to silently wonder about this. A once soothing reassurance suddenly kept me up at night. Was he being silly? What would actually happen if a bed bug DID bite me and…how exactly does one know which beds have bugs?
After a day in San Jose, Costa Rica, we were picked up by our guide, Maria, and began our journey towards Arenal. Our ultimate destination was the Hotel Montana de Fuego and Volcano. However, it’s a long drive on Costa Rican highways from the La Paz Waterfall so our tour company booked us a stop at a local eco-friendly resort named Sueño Azul for the night.
Getting to Sueño Azul is bit of an adventure all on its own. After lots of highway miles, it turned into a scene out of a bad Hollywood horror movie. As in any of these plots, it starts out all well and good. Then before you know it, the roads narrow and begin winding like a snake. Just when you think you’re safe, your van crosses a “bridge” that consists of two twelve-foot planks suspended across a river. We were sure the planks would snap under the weight of the vehicle, but made it to land.
We dropped off our things in a clean room that I’d describe as minimalist meets muted. We then spent the afternoon taking yoga with an instructor who seemed to me could have been hallucinating on some seriously mind-altering substances. I can’t recall if the class was any good, but it was memorable. After yoga, we showered and changed for dinner with the other guests that was served in front of a massive fire. After some chit-chat we headed to bed. The Yooner was in bed already nodding off when I emerged from the bathroom, so I grabbed a magazine.
As I was about to jump in, I thought: “Wouldn’t it suck if my bed was infested bugs?” I’m not kidding. That exact thought went through my head. Then as I turned down the blanket I just happened to see a small bug. When I turned the blanket down more I saw, in the middle of the bed, a swarming colony of shiny, squirmy bugs. All over my bed.
I’m not one to scream. In this instance though, my brain decided to make an exception. After politely awaking Yooner by my cursing, we quickly surmised after running around each other in circles that the rooms didn’t have telephones. On our walk to the front desk for bug spray, we calmed ourselves down, took deep breaths and did our best to shake it off and find our backbones. No big deal.
What seemed like the most logical, and least embarrassing course of action in fact turned into a three-hour odyssey. First, woman at the front desk had no idea what I was requesting (yet again, I should have paid more attention in my high school Spanish class). We all agreed there were bugs in my bed. But after that, the only phrase I knew that seemed to fit the situation was, “Oy, Dios Mio!” After an hour of this, the night guard passed by. He came to investigate the room and after significant pleading, agreed to spray bomb our sleeping arrangements.
He mentioned it might smell. If I had known just how bad it would be, I would have opted to just sleep outside on our patio. The smoke was everywhere and so thick. On top of that was this horrible chemical smell. As you inhaled, you could almost feel the crap searing your esophagus. It took an hour for him to spray the room and another two hours for the smell to dissipate enough that we felt like we wouldn’t choke to death while sleeping.
Fast forward to the next morning and Yooner, of course, thought the entire thing was hilarious. Somewhat odd, considering the nightmarish horror she considers butterflies to be. But bugs in a bed made her laugh hard enough to spill coffee all over while retelling our adventures to Maria. She giggled and smiled as if knowing something we did not.
Later in the day we stopped at La Selva Biology Station for a walk. There, Maria’s all knowing smile reappeared as she identified what was really in the bed.
Although termites aren’t the bed bugs my Dad was referring to, the fact is beds must be bug free. Since this adventure I always fold my blanket ALL THE WAY down to check for bugs when I’m traveling. Maybe it’s a good habit. Maybe it’s deep emotional scarring. Either way, I also check under my pillow because after this experience, I never want it to happen again.
**Author’s note: in retrospect the Yooner and I agree that sleeping in a spray bombed room was a horrible decision. I want to be clear the guard conveyed his concern before starting the process. Unfortunately, when you are sleep deprived you don’t always make good choices. Instead of insisting on a new room, we insisted on a spray bomb, new linens and slept with the patio door open. If this ever happens to you while traveling, please learn from our stupidity and get a new room.**
In my mind, the best way to start a holiday in Costa Rica is with a trip to La Paz Waterfall Garden. Approximately one hour to the north of San Jose by car, the “waterfall” is actually five different falls that range in height from 85-120 feet.
You can take in the waterfall’s grandeur on a large viewing platform. More adventurous travelers can walk down a series of steep, windy steps and actually stand under the waterfall. If you are fit and don’t have vertigo problems, I recommend both. It’s beautiful to see the falls at eye level. But looking out beneath them offers you a very different perspective of the sheer power and volume. Being surrounded by the sound of the water rushing past you is almost deafening.
The best thing about La Paz Waterfall is that the visit also includes an animal sanctuary, restaurant and lodge. The animal sanctuary, while lovely, is not as exotic as it may sound. Visitors will see butterflies, frogs and other amphibians. If you’ve never seen butterflies in their natural habitat, be forewarned, they are beautiful but the fly everywhere and tickle your skin when they land on you. And even as lovely and harmless as butterflies are, as it turns out, a swarm can intimidate and be a bit disconcerting for some people.
How do I know this? Well, thank you for asking. Read on…
At this point, I had known my friend (nicknamed “Yooner”) for 12 years, and had no idea she harbored a deep-rooted fear of insects approaching her. I mean, how often do two career-focused women share irrational fear of the threatening and unpredictable flight patterns of papilionidae? Well in my case, the answer was not until she was shrieking and running in circles. If traveling with a friend, it may be worth posing this question at least once before hopping a plane for Central America.
Not even five feet into the butterfly sanctuary the serene afternoon was sliced open by shrill screams. It sounded like the sound one would make after breaking a bone (or perhaps, stepping in some exotic poo). By the time I realized what was going on, my face gave my thoughts away. Even as she glared back at my bewildered amusement, her arms were up, waving frantically around her head and face. In short breaths she could spare from all her upper-body aerobics she said “I. Don’t. Like. Bugs.” As if that statement wasn’t clear enough, realizing there was no place to really “run” she yanked the hood of her sweatshirt over her head, pulling the strings together so only a very small portion of her face was exposed. It remained that way for the remainder of the day.
If you visit La Paz, know that “gardens” on which the sanctuary is located are not traditional flower beds. Instead they are natural Costa Rican vegetation (moss, grass, trees, etc.) for animals and birds. In an effort to emphasize eco-tourism, Costa Rica is very big on not disturbing natural habitats, letting them exist “as they are.” It’s beautiful and a fascinating contrast to our country’s approach. It seems to work well, and we left with a harmonious feeling.
I don’t care what they say, January and February are the cruelest months. It’s cold and dark. That’s in addition to it snowing, sleeting or whatever combination of weather misery Mother Nature can conjure up.
As if the weather isn’t bad enough, January especially brings a “back to reality” slap in the face. The holidays are over. The “slow(ish)” days at work are bygone, no exchanging gifts and everyone’s losing, or lost the spirit. To combat this reality, I’ve chosen to reminisce about, and/or plan a trip to, Costa Rica.
People often say a country “has everything” and Costa Rica is no exception. However, it’s one of those rare places that really delivers everything promised. You can lounge on beaches, learn to surf, or geek out on nature (the country features 10 nationally protected areas ranging from volcanoes to rain forests).
Given Costa Rica’s Central America location, the weather in this country is usually perfect (60’s, 70s, 80s). It’s certainly warmer than North American in January/February. In case you are considering a visit to the country, first think about what you want your trip to include in terms of sites and activities.
After a little research, I decided I wanted to see Arenal (the Volcano), Monteverde (the rainforest/cloud forest area), and Manuel Antonio National Park. Basically, I wanted to bask in the glory of nature. I wasn’t confident in my ability to drive around the country on my own so I booked a semi-private trip with Adventure Smith Explorations. (I checked their website while writing this and it doesn’t look like they offer this option any more. It’s unfortunate, because the tour was excellent. Despite this, I recommend the Company for guided trips. The booking process was easy, the trip was as described, our guide and driver in Costa Rica were absolutely fantastic.)
If Costa Rica is on your “bucket list” or “must visit” list, here are three points to keep in mind.
Three Things You Should Know Before You Go
- English is not universally spoken, especially outside of major cities like San Jose. Don’t be the jackass that gets annoyed because people speak Spanish. Buy a book of phrases, do Rosetta Stone, whatever but figure out a few key words and you’ll be fine. I managed to get us through two weeks of Costa Rica on three years of High School Spanish. (Yes, Señora Schneck, I should have studied harder. You were right)
- The weather changes fast and often. Anyone who’s ever traveled around the San Francisco area knows that you have to dress in layers because there are dozens of microclimates within miles of each other. This is especially true if you are traveling inland, around the rainforest and cloud forest. Even if your agenda only includes a day in this area, don’t be fooled. Do yourself a favor and pack a sweater and a rain jacket, and dry bags. Because “perfect weather” doesn’t always mean sunshine and song birds.
- Costa Rica is bug friendly. As anywhere in Central America, there were termites, ants and cockroaches in nearly every hotel we stay at—that’s not a cleanliness thing, that’s a part of life on the equator. While we weren’t staying at the Ritz, neither were we slumming it, or staying in hostels. Costa Ricans seem to have a larger tolerance for bugs than I do. If you don’t like bugs, brace yourself and above all bring mosquito repellant. My personal favorite is Burt’s Bees because it doesn’t stink.
Where do you go to escape winter?