Saturday, January 7, 2017

First Impressions aren't what they seem

As my shuttle van pulled into the busy beach town of Tamarindo, I immediately regretted taking the 4 hour ride from San Jose and booking 3 nights without doing more research.  I was hoping to escape the crowds and traffic of San Jose and find a peaceful beach oasis. I pictured a place where I would meditate and do yoga in the mornings and take in the sunsets in the evenings. Kind of like my own beach yoga retreat. As the van inched through heavy traffic along the busy main drag, hoards of young Americans strutted their stuff with surfboards under arm and filled the touristy souvenir shops and trendy, overpriced restaurants. I could see right away that this hip, party beach town was not at all my scene. I'm not a surfer and I generally try and seek out places less..."gringo-y". This sentiment was exacerbated when I was dropped off at my hostel and 12 or so people were hungover from the night before and sprawled out on hammocks and lounge chairs. (At least I didn't arrive the night before; New Years Eve). My dorm bed wasn't ready yet so I reluctantly left my bag next to the couch that was occupied by a guy who was sleeping soundly at two in the afternoon. 

Outside, the sun was beating down with intensity. I didn't want to hang out in the hostel next to all the passed out patrons so I decided to face the heat and take myself to the beach, which always lifts my spirits.  I walked down the dirt road that led to the beach entrance and as I suspected it was completely filled with sunbathers as far as the eye could see in either direction. I removed my chaco sandals and tiptoed in the hot sand around all the beach bums toward the water. Once my feet were immersed in the cool waves, I immediately felt a little better. I waked like this along the beach until the tide reached a rocky point, and then I put my Chacos back on and traversed along the rocks, determined to get away from everyone. 

I succeeded at getting away from the crowds but the sun was beating down with a vengeance and the waters edge became so rocky that it was impossible to fully submerge myself to cool down.  I was not feeling the "peaceful beach oasis" that I was searching for. "What am I doing here?" I questioned. 

On my way back to the crowded part of the beach a luxury hotel with cushy lounge chairs caught my eye. I decided to explore and inquire about a room. Along with cushy lounge chairs, there was a private courtyard with a beautiful pool and an inviting bar area with perfectly manicured greenery all around. I found my way to reception and although the front desk man obviously spoke very good English, I struck up a conversation in Spanish, hoping it would better my chances at getting a deal. It worked...kind of. The superior room rate was $375 per night, which he offered to give to me at 20% off. When he saw my hesitation he then offered their most basic accommodation that runs for $120, and reduced the rate to $80, more than 30% discount, although with taxes it brought it up to $94 per night. They showed me the room to see if I liked it. It was basic all right, but it was private. And there was the nice private courtyard and pool with trees and flowers all around. I spotted outdoor massage tables and fantasized about staying in the superior sweet with a balcony looking out to the water. I could get an afternoon massage followed by a cocktail at their fancy outdoor bar...Jeez, I must be getting old with my expensive taste! I nearly bit the bullet but then decided I better stay in the hostel I booked at least for this first night and then I could move and splurge for the last two nights. 

When I returned to the hostel my bed was ready and people were up and about. It seemed less cluttered and more inviting. I met several people at the hostel who were volunteering to get a free bed to sleep in. The volunteers were here to escape the cold winters of their homes in various parts of the states, the U.K. and Sweeden. They spent their free days bumming on the beach and surfing the epic waves that draw so many other surfers here. Their community of young expats were all here for the same reason: they were all in search of their own "Endless Summer"*. And they had found it. I was beginning to see that Tamarindo is a place where people come to visit and end up staying a while, or in some cases, forever. I didn't quite understand it though. There are so many other places to see in Costa Rica that don't have this same 'gringo party town' vibe. Why do people pick Tamarindo as their stomping ground? 

That evening I joined some of the others who were on their way down to the beach to catch some waves and watch the sunset. To get to their 'sweet spot' in the water we had to take a short boat ride across a river estuary to another beach. Apparently there are crocodiles that lurk in the mouth of the estuary and about once per year an unsuspecting surfer swimming across gets attacked. The last attack was this past July and the croc took the guys leg. "It's the best dollar you'll ever spend" I was told as we paid the boat captain for the 30 second trip across.  

I watched the guys surf for a while and then rolled out my yoga mat on the firm sand to do some evening yoga. With my eyes closed I began to move through different stretches, listening to the meditative waves crash before me. When I arched my back into 'upward dog' I sensed something in front of me and parted my eyelids open.  Less than a foot away was a face staring back at me at eye level. It was the face of an adorable little boy, just learning to walk and fascinated by my strange movements. I smiled at him and his curious little face lit up and he smiled back. His dad, obviously embarrassed, tried to get his son's attention and walk over to him. I continued my sequence, moving into downward dog and the little guy mimicked me in the sand. We all laughed and eventually his dad had to pick him up to continue their beach walk. It was a wonderful moment. Soon the sun started descending on the horizon and the others joined me on the beach among other groups of people ready to watch the sunset. We chatted and watched the colors in the sky evolve as the waves came crashing in and rolling toward and away from us. I realized that I didn't mind all the people that were around. I didn't need to be alone to appreciate the spectacular show that seemed to last forever. 

The next morning I woke up with the sun and felt inspired to take my yoga mat to the beach. It was a different scene at 6am. The tide was up and the crowds were gone. I set up my mat on the sand and greeted the day with sun salutations followed by a dip in the cool water. On my way back to the hostel a family of howler monkeys overhead in the trees jumped from limb to limb, nibbling on leaves and berries. When I returned to the hostel fresh coffee was brewing and the few people who were up were moving about quietly, respectful of those who were sleeping. I plopped myself in a hammock and it sucked me in like a coddled baby. I swung back and forth, enjoying the feeling of being comfortably suspended. Suddenly, it struck me that I had found my beach oasis in the most unexpected place. 

Over the next few days I made friends with more people staying at the hostel and enjoyed myself immensely as we slurped down overpriced smoothies and mojitos and snacked on fish and patacones. Sure, it was overpriced and nothing spectacular, but the company was great. I did yoga on the beach in the mornings and watched the sunsets with the others in the evenings. In the heat of the day we jumped in the water with all the other swimmers, surfers and body boarders and got tossed around in the waves. It was grand! 

One of the days we convinced a boat taxi to take us up the estuary where crocodiles hang out. Just after spotting a baby croc the boat got stuck on a sandbar, making us all excitedly nervous, especially when our boat driver bravely jumped out of the boat to push. Afterwards we reveled in our "survival" of experiencing such a close call. It is these adventures that are meant to be shared with friends. 

I never did go back to the luxury hotel away from all the action. I didn't need to. I felt perfectly content being part of the action.  Tamarindo and the Backpackers hostel grew on me and I began to understand what brought so many people back here to stay. 

On my last night one of the hostel volunteers convinced me to take a surf board out and he offered to give me an informal lesson. We went out just before the sun set and by the time the light was reflecting beautiful shimmery colors on the water I had experienced the rush of catching my first wave. It was absolutely exhilarating! Being out in the water, high on adrenaline while also witnessing the sunset from this new perspective was surreal. That night the Venezuelan parents of the hostel owner cooked up a traditional BBQ at the hostel. It was the perfect ending to a perfect day and a perfect three day trip in Tamarindo; a place that I thought I would greatly dislike upon my first impression, but that I quickly grew to love. 

I found that I was a little sad to leave and I know that so much is because of the wonderful people I came to know. It was a good reminder that it's not always about the place itself; often the places that are the most special to us are so because of the memories we make there with people we love; even if they were once perfect strangers. 

Farewell Tamarindo...I'm sure I will see you again.