AWAKN

How one woman lives a life of adventure: A story from Costa Rica

Tortuga Beach

Ester Kim is a friend of mine and an AWAKN Tribe member. I wouldn't be doing her justice if I even attempted to describe what an awesome person she is, Ester has a radiant personality and one of the most positive outlooks on life, she lives a longevity lifestyle in everything she does.  For that reason, I've been waiting for an opportunity to share her positive energy with the rest of the AWAKN community. 

She recently took an epic trip to Costa Rica, I could tell it had a really positive impact on her.  With a little persuasion, I was able to talk Ester into writing a guest post about her trip for the tribe. Not only does she share a fun and inspiring story but she provides tons on insider tips for anyone looking for an adventurous trip to Costa Rica. Enjoy!

P.S. Ester did tell me she brought AWAKN packets along and it was super convenient to have for travel :) 

Enter Ester... 

A Story From Costa Rica

Before I jump in, I want need you to know why I love to travel and how essential I believe it is to just go and see, do, eat, hear, and especially feel it all in all the ways you need…

I’ve traveled quite a bit for work over my career but that’s work—it almost doesn’t count. More personal travel outside of the continental U.S. has always been high on my list, but for some reason, it was never anything I could manage to prioritize. I talked about it, wanted to do it, and had the greatest of intentions, but I had this silly notion in my head that I needed tons of time to plan, lots of money to spend, and the perfect person to go with. Exactly when did I start believing this checklist was fundamental for travel?

Inspiration and a new perspective

Ester & Mom

6 years ago, I lost my beautiful mom to Pancreatic Cancer. My mom was only 56. I decided shortly after that I was going to “live life to the fullest” which included traveling, but I still needed that ideal person to do it with. Then I decided that I’ll start when I get married, and my husband and I will travel all the time. Two major heartbreaks later, I realized how stupid that was. Seriously so dumb (insert face palm emoji). And with that understanding, I booked a flight and took off.

Now, it was about me—what did I want, need, imagine? Unexpectedly, I would decide to take a trip, and I almost always had a friend who wanted to join, and on a few occasions, I would just wander solo. It quickly became clear that my girlfriends, and most importantly myself, were always that perfect person, and since, I have been to a few of the islands in Hawaii, all over Western Europe, South America, Central America, Caribbean, even lived in NYC for six months, with Canada and Asia-Pac on the docket for later this year. For me, girl’s trips have become an annual tradition; a brief moment that restores this precious and integral balance back into my very being—laughing so hard you’re in tears, rich quality time, and sharing some truly indescribable experiences. Costa Rica delivered in every way and was the first of 2019.

Costa Rica with 2 of my best friends…

This is one of those destinations for the adventurer—a thrill seeker, adrenaline junky, active explorer. But with twelve different microclimates, it also has those breathtaking views, hot springs, and relaxing tropical resorts, you know, the ones that serve you the drinks with the little umbrellas.

Costa Rica is quickly becoming a destination hotspot. For those of us living in the U.S., it’s a quick plane ride away with very little time change since its only 3.5-hours from Atlanta and 5-hours from New York. It’s not just the short distance that’s appealing to travelers, but it was the “pura vida” (pure life) lifestyle and culture that captured me. Being immersed in it was a much welcomed reminder and reset—I stopped apologizing and smiled more, people were easy-going and kind, and locals genuinely follow the mantra of “don’t worry, everything’s gonna be alright”…PURA VIDA!

One week there (8.5 days), so we had some decisions to make—Adventure or relax? Jungle or beach? Pacific or Gulf? We decided to have a taste of both worlds, so we chose to do the first half of the week in the rain forest in La Fortuna and the second half at the beach on the Pacific-side in Jaco. The roads are windy, some unpaved, and two-lane, so it takes hours to get from city to city, but hey, gave us plenty of time for Spotify playlists and carpool karaoke! Having a car was the best way to see the country—we took detours, ate homemade roadside empanadas, pulled over to enjoy a great view, and I think most importantly, it allowed us to be on our own time. For me, a perfect trip has some structure mixed with lots of freedom and flexibility.

With busy everyday lives, we rolled the dice and decided to figure it out as we go instead of booking ahead. I’m not sure if we got lucky or if this is standard, but it worked out, in quite possibly, the absolute best way. When we arrived at our Airbnb, our property manager took our list and booked all our excursions and dinners in La Fortuna—his hospitality and graciousness was unparalleled. Most locals do work to help each other out with tourists, so he was able to get us discounts, as well. We took recommendations from locals; this is how we operated the whole trip, and it allowed us to be flexible in how we spent our days. Eventually, that tour company linked us up with the tour company we used in Jaco.

Before I reminisce about some of our escapades, you have to know this: Unlike the U.S. and other well established countries, Costa Rica has no mandated safety regulations; this may intimidate some, but for us, it created this semi-absurd but unabridged and bona fide experience.

 

The Rain Forest: La Fortuna

Excursion 1 – Rappelling

Ester Waterfall Rappelling Costa Rica

This is a bold statement, but rappelling has easily been the best travel experience I have ever had to date. I know you can do this anywhere, but trust me, it’s just not the same.

Y’all, let me start with that fact that we showed up with absolutely no information. Got in a van with two strange men. Stopped at an empanada stand 30-minutes out and switched vehicles. Yes. Changed vehicles and picked up a third man. Then drove an hour and a half further through dusty towns without a clue where we were or were going. Going off-road, we parked our van in a field and the guys hooked us into our [minimal] gear, mind you there was not one waterfall in sight. Our “safety” session and directions consisted of them telling us to keep our legs straight, right hand on the rope behind you for control and your left hand on the rope above you to guide. THAT WAS IT. We hiked down to the tree line and in that lived this vast rainforest.

Our first waterfall was, of course, the biggest one. We got hooked in, jumped off and that was it. The second waterfall required us to leap off a platform, then zipline out, and rappel ourselves down—I mean we’re talking advanced technique here—one of the guys said he wasn’t doing it because he was scared and left. Again, yes. Turned around and just went back to the van (I am dying laughing as I write this because it was just as ridiculous as it reads). We trekked through the waters climbing, jumping, and sliding off rocks. I remember looking up at one point and seeing how deep in the trenches we were and how we were seeing and doing something so many would never know in their lifetime existed in this world. I looked at my friend and said, “Hey. Look up. Look around us. Can you believe this?!” Pictures will show more than I can describe, so I will let them speak for themselves, but if there was one thing I would say you absolutely have to try in Costa Rica, it would be this.

  • Wear water shoes that are secure or tennis shoes
  • Wear your bathing suit
  • Normal athletic wear
  • Bring a towel
  • Snack for the long ride back
  • Water

Excursion 2 – Rafting

Ester and friends conquering the rapids

Maybe because they were just coming out of the dry season but the water wasn’t high enough for the wild rapids I expected. This was more of a bumpy stroll down the Balsa River. Honestly though, it was still fun. Hit a few rapids, swam, searched for sloths and monkeys in the trees (mostly just saw 100 giant iguanas), drank cervezas, cut open a pineapple, and took in the views.

  • Wear your bathing suit
  • Normal athletic wear
  • Wear water shoes or tennis shoes
  • Bring beer and/or water
  • Bring a towel

Excursion 3 – Hot Springs in Arenal

There are several options and a range of price points, but we went to Paradise Hot Springs for $54 and that included dinner, parking and entrance fees. We went for a few hours at night after we rappelled, and it was so nice to soak; it’s also a lot less crowded at night with fewer children and families to consider. The temperatures range from 95F to 104F with focused hydromassage for back, legs, and feet. You don’t need to dedicate a lot of time or money here, a few hours should be enough. Just wear your bathing suit and they provide towels. 

Excursion 4 – Rio Celeste in Tenorio National Park

Rio Celeste Waterfall

I like to call this an active recovery day. Since we had a car, we decided to go hike to Rio Celeste. A marvelous sight in more ways than one, the locals say that God dipped his brush in the river as he painted the sky. The scientific reason this water is so blue is that when two separate clear water rivers meet and a certain type of mineral remains suspended in the river—the size, suspension, and reflection of sunlight create this vivid blue color. It had rained that morning, so it wasn’t as blue as it typically is, but it was still beautiful. Beyond Catarata (the waterfall) there were other stops like Borbollones (hot and bubbly water), Tenideros (where the two rivers meet), Laguna Azul (Blue Lagoon), and Mirador (viewpoint)—don’t skip these and roundtrip is just under 4 miles.

  • Intensity is moderate – no special shoe requirement
  • Normal athletic wear
  • No guide needed
  • Swimming prohibited
  • Will need to pay for parking and park entrance

 

The Beach: Jaco

Crocodile Bridge

We took a travel day since it was a 4-hour ride and stopped by Lake Arenal, small towns, and Crocodile Bridge. This is an odd stop, but this main bridge into Jaco and several other beach towns runs over Tarcoles River. This bridge is deemed as Crocodile Bridge, because there are dozens of massive American crocodiles that stretch to 13 feet and weigh hundreds of pounds sprawled out all over. It’s a quick stop, but it’s definitely a sight to see. 

Excursion 4 – 7-hour ATV Trip

ATV Excursion

A very very close second as my top excursion ever. Yes, we dedicated a whole day to this - 7 full hours. Some of us had gone ATVing in Hawaii, so we knew a few hours just weren’t going to cut it this time. Our guide picked us up in a dune buggy, drove us to pick up our ATV’s, no safety training or directions, and we took off down main roads and up into the dirt paths of the mountains. This was a no holds barred, drive at your own risk type of ride. One second of losing control and you are flying off a cliff. Every part of the ride was charged with adrenaline—exciting and intense. I mean cervezas pit-stops, lunch breaks at remote spots that overlooked views you would never know existed, drifting down paths, cutting through rivers, and in typical Ester fashion, going full-throttle and flipping off my ATV. We were topping out at speeds of 50 mph at some points. The lack of safety regulations really benefitted us here, and I truly could not imagine that trip any other way than the adventure we had on it. It has ruined ATVing anywhere else for me forever because I know it will never be as free as that.

I recommend going with smaller groups. We had our group of four plus our guide, and we were cruising. We flew past two groups of 7-10 dudes, and it was so satisfying. You’re only as fast as your slowest person. I told our guide he was too slow, so he definitely taught me a lesson LOL. 

Excursion 5 – Hike Manuel Antonio National Park

Manuel Beach

Manuel Antonio National Park is nestled in a cute little town called Quepos. It was about a 1.5 hour drive from Jaco down the Pacific Coast. Once you get there and find parking, they will tell you that you need a guide. You don’t, and you can just follow the crowd to the entrance. The paths inside all lead to the same place, the beach. We got suckered in and got a guide, but the benefit to having a guide was that they can spot the wildlife and have this telescope they carry that allows us to view and take photos up-close. We saw sloths, squirrel monkeys, howler monkeys, indigenous birds, and several other creatures. But I would skip the guide—without a doubt.

The walk to the beach is about 30-minutes from the entrance. There are trails beyond the beach, as well. Do not bring any food with you. Actually, just err on the side of caution and don’t bring anything besides a backpack with a towel, sunglasses, phone, money, and water. Take cash as there are lots of vendors along the way.

Excursion 6 – Catamaran Tour to Isla Tortuga

Tortuga Beach

This was the one true beach day we planned. It is the only white sand beach on the Pacific-side, and the views and ride out to the island is breathtaking. Seeing Costa Rica from the sea and how lush and picturesque the country is really rounded out the whole experience.

We used CostaCat Tours, and it couldn’t have been a better choice. From Jaco, many of the catamaran tours take off from a location about 1 to 1.5-hrs away. This one sets out from Playa Herradura just about 20 minutes away from Jaco, and the last thing you want to do after getting back is to drive another 1.5-hours in a van. The Captain was hospitable, his crew and service were top-notch, the food and drinks were abundant, activities well planned, and the shenanigans that occurred with all of the guests were hilarious. We met some new friends, got too much sun, and ended our trip with a bang.

  • Bathing suit
  • Towel
  • Beach footwear
  • Hat/Sunglasses
  • Sunscreen – do not forget this! 

Any time with people I love is time well spent.

Fresh Pineapple With Friends

Costa Rica is probably the most last minute trip I’ve ever taken, but I knew it would certainly be unforgettable just because of who I was with. People love to travel for a myriad of reasons, but one of the main reasons I do is simply the factor of time. It probably seems like a strange reason, but hear me out. We all know that time is not promised to anyone, and I witnessed that as I saw my mom’s stripped away in an instant. The time you invest in relationships, career or anything else that may or may not work out isn’t time wasted but time spent. And the time that you had allotted for yourself in the future may never come. There is too much to go and see, do, eat, hear, and feel to let that opportunity pass when you have the time.

Then there is this notion that seems to exist—that time heals all. I don’t believe in that. Time is inevitable. It comes and goes whether we want it to or not, and it will continue on regardless of our efforts to slow it. To me, it’s more about what you choose to do during that time—that my friends, is what I wholeheartedly believe is what heals and grows us—travel, reconnecting with someone, enjoying time with your family, volunteering for something that serves others, processing, spending time getting to know yourself, etc. We should must find what makes our souls feel content and our hearts full, and for me, experiencing different cultures and parts of the world have fed both of those. There is so much freedom and happiness in traveling, and Costa Rica was no exception.

 

Tips:

  • Get a rental car but don’t be fooled by the low reservation pricing
  • Don’t book tours ahead of time – it’ll save you money
  • They provide lunch with all of the long tours
  • Waze and Google Maps both work great
  • Easiest to get breakfast items at the grocery store and cook + my AWAKN
  • Eat at Sodas which are what they call local family run food stops—roadside, cheap, homemade, and good
  • Use Airbnb!
  • Every tour provided homemade lunches – they were the best meals I ate
  • Use your tour companies and guides as resources
  • Yelp! ratings are coveted so a good dining resource
  • Credit cards accepted but carry cash (colones)
  • Almost everything is negotiable
  • Stop at the local stands and restaurants on the side of the road
  • Super clean restrooms everywhere
  • A lot of places have running water you can drink – ask first though
  • You don’t have to do tours at all to get a full experience
  • Tipping is usually included in the price
  • USD is accepted – know the conversion rate
  • Note the rainy season – usually cheaper to travel though

Follow Ester and all her adventures on Instagram @essie_k11

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