There are certain things I get when I take advantage of local travel outriggers vs. large corporate hotel chains. On my solo trip to Costa Rica I wanted a taste of both. I visited Playa Hermosa first, and my local guide and surf coach Gaby took me places I'm sure I never would have gone had I stayed at a large hotel chain.
The first experience was going with Gaby on a river hike, where we ducked spider webs and vines and found a shed tarantula skin. The winding stream took us to a collection of smooth, pooling rocks below a freshwater waterfall, which was just cool enough to get rid of the warm stickiness that happens in Costa Rica's tropical climate. She told stories of the different places along the way that led to the waterfall, information only a local would know.
The next trip she took me on was really just a drop off. I went river rafting with King Tours and spent the day with a group of Americans. We started out with a freshly-cooked meal of chicken, watermelon juice and fresh fruit under a large white tent. We then headed out in rafts that gave clear views of boa constrictors in trees overhead, various birds and of course, whitewater. I've been river rafting on the American River, but this was warmer and smoother.
After I got back to Playa Hermosa, Gaby took me and a few other women that had joined our tour to downtown Jaco, where we tasted coffee from her boyfriend's coffee plantation at their cafÃ©, Finca Rica. I have a brother who owns a coffee roasting company, so the smell of fresh coffee makes me feel at home no matter where I am. Gaby made each of us a cup as the tourists and locals hustled down the hot, dirt-laden sidewalks of Jaco.
There were many other locals-only experiences on my trip. I went to the home of a seamstress, a friend of a tour guide, where she made us custom ordered swimsuits and sundresses that were ready for the streets of Rio. I went to another home for a massage and played pool while the matron made her daughter dinner.
This was all in contrast to my final two nights in Costa Rica. I reserved myself a room on the club floor at the four star Intercontinental San Jose. After 5 days of surfing and the worn wood, surf wax, sunscreen and sparse furnishings that go along with that, I wanted high count white sheets, butler service and a morning newspaper to help me prep for my return to the states.
It was well worth it. Back in the isolationist land of the wealthy and all it's accoutrements, I ordered french-fries poolside, took full advantage of the tea service, and watched wedding-goers in full regalia come and go from the lobby and gardens.
The most local experience I got in San Jose was a taxi ride from downtown back to my hotel from a novice taxi driver. He got lost, eventually asking me how to get back, but unintentionally giving me a tour of the homes surrounding the U.S. embassy in San Jose, which was a nice bonus!
The gap between locals and high-end hotels is wide and a totally different experience, but I wouldn't appreciate either of them without having had both. It's a great way to travel, can save some bucks, and although not for the timid, can be a way to make friends that last a lifetime. I'll always remember the clean white sheets of the Intercontinental, but I'll long for another visit to see Gaby again, and share a cup of Costa Rican coffee on the streets of Jaco.