Soon after you enter Costa Rica you will see and experience the unofficial law of the land, “Pura Vida”.
Pura Vida means pure living and it oozes through everything in life.
From the capital of San Jose to the surf city of Tamarindo you will see Pura Vida imprinted on almost every imaginable thing. It is used for expressing anything good. In everyday speech it means excellent or great or whatever similar expression you prefer.
Describing an atmosphere or painting a picture using only words can be quite challenging. The feeling you get from walking down an unfamiliar street, different from everything you know, or the sensation you get from overcoming an obstacle, be that climbing a mountain or taking your first successful turn on a snowboard, is hard to describe and can only be successfully relayed if the recipient has had similar experiences. Regardless of this, I’ll still try.
The most obvious result of the Pura Vida mentality is the abundant amount of drugs. Within hours of arriving to Costa Rica the distinct smell of weed hit our noses (me, my brother, niece and nephew), the first day, a guy clearly drugged up on heroin, started talking to us (very friendly) and within 24 hours we were offered free cocaine by a staff member at the hotel we were staying at. Getting drugs in this country is not a problem.
Pura Vida – take it easy and relax
Another very pleasant aspect is the way everyone talks to you. People walking the street greeting you with “”Ey mon, welcome to Tamarindo – come by tonight – its reggae night at the mermaid”, leaves you with a feeling that somehow, every night is reggae night at the mermaid. You can easily talk to someone if you want to, there’s always someone on the streets and you won’t be left alone for long.
A good example is when we were taking some surf lessons. When learning something new it can be quite hard to remember the instructions you were told and the result is you get angry or confused and forget all of them altogether. My brother experienced this and the result was that the instructor just told him to “relax man – pura vida. You’re confused, amigo. Just take it easy and be patient, you’ll learn my friend, don’t worry.”
How to relax the Costa Rican way
In many western countries, the way you really relax is at your home, either with some good friends, your family or alone. Preferably with some good wine, a blanket, some Netflix or a movie. It obviously varies from person to person but generally speaking, relaxing doesn’t involve physical activity or talking to people you don’t know. Talking to strangers requires preparation and a mind set for socializing.
In Costa Rica relaxing means hanging around your favourite spot talking to everyone who passes by.
You’ve got the surfer who spends his whole life at the beach doing nothing but surfing at day and partying at night. The way he survives financially is by teaching other people how to surf and as such he is set for life. Maybe when he is older he opens a surf shop and hires younger surfers as teacher. Surfing is his life and he enjoys every day of it. No need for excessive materialism.
On the other end you’ve got the street vendor. He spends most of his days on a street corner talking to people while selling his goods. He is not like a cashier in a western supermarket who does his or her job at $8 an hour and just wants to be done with it, so the actual part of life enjoyed by the cashier can begin in the evenings and weekends. No, this guy likes what he is doing and when he feels like he’s sold enough for the day he goes home and probably enjoys some divinely tasty food made from fresh vegetables. Naturally, it’s homemade.
Costa Rica is a poor country and it sets its limits. You can’t get an expensive car and you can’t travel to the other side of the world on a trip like the one we’re on now. Many things that we westerners consider necessities are not available to the average Costa Rican and for that reason alone many people wouldn’t want this life.
On the other hand, though, from my limited experience, they don’t need it. The focus of Costa Ricans lies on something completely different. The things that make them happy is much more basic. Good food on the table, a family that loves you and a roof over your head is a good start – combine that with some good waves or similar and you’ve got what you need.
Denmark, where I’m from, often prides itself on being the happiest country in the world – and on many lists, we are. But Costa Rica also scores high and even ranks #1 on this link for example. The one that ranks Denmark #1 is the world happiness report and in my personal opinion it is the more thorough list.
Nature alone Costa Rica worth a visit. Without trying to sound too much like a Wikipedia page, I’ll list a few of the things that make this country remarkable.
Although a small country, it contains more than 5% of the worlds biodiversity and 25% of the country is protected as national parks and similar protected areas. It has volcanoes, rain forests, beaches, mountains, rivers and everything in between making it a haven for adventurers and nature lovers alike. Alligators, pumas, sharks, sloths and nose bears can be found here along with a myriad of bird species. The 10.000 colones note even has a sloth on it!
Note: this post is alive, meaning I will continuously update it during my trip. Internet permitting, I will try to update on a daily basis
Total foreigners spotted: Too many to count. After entering Sa Pa, they have just been everywhere.
Day 15: HA GIANG CITY – VINH QUANG
As I was getting ready I noticed that I couldn’t find my motorbike key and this turned out to be an issue for obvious reasons. However, I knew what to do – I’d been in a similar situation before near Saigon. Basically I just had to steal my own bike. I got another guy from the hostel (JJ from New Zealand) to give me a ride to the nearest mechanic. I would sit on my bike and he would push me using his foot on the back of my bike.
At the mechanic we explained (using body language) that I lost the key and he promptly switched out the ignition for about 250k ($11). I also made him make two extra keys (which is surprisingly easy) so that I have 3 keys in case this happens again. That’s how easy it is to steal a bike. Basically we could have done this with any bike – not just my own. Crazy.
After a surprisingly quick speech JJ was convinced to join me towards Sapa although he was originally planning on staying in Ha Giang for another day.
12:00: We left town on the highway and it felt good to blaze along at 80km/t after all this mountain driving.
13:00: I noticed that my bike was making a lot of noise and I couldn’t figure out what. I asked a mechanic but he just said he couldn’t fix it and that we could just go on, no problem. Not convinced we pulled in at 2 other mechanics and got the same story. Can’t fix but it’s no problem. The last guy, however, said that there was a specific Yamaha mechanic in the next big town (Vinh Quang) that might be able to help.
14:00: We found a delicious little waterfall and went for a swim there. Private Jacuzzi. Yes, thank you!
16:00: After 3 hours of roaring noise through small mountain villages with everyone looking at us we finally arrived at the Yamaha mechanic and he showed us the problem. A big hole in the exhaust pipe. That explained why my bike sounded like a jackhammer. He fixed it using some very MacGyver’ish welding tools for about 30k ($1,5) and the bike was as good as new.
Day 16: VINH QUANG – PHO RANG
8:00: Wake up.
We covered a relatively short distance yesterday due to various problems (JJ had some problems as well) so we were eager to cover some distance. The problem, though, is that we had to stop every 5 minutes to take pictures and the roads were extremely curvy and windy (and windy too as we were on top of a mountain) with drops on one side and mountains on the other so it’s not like you have a grass field on the side should you need to emergency evade. Below I tried to get some of that captured in a picture but it’s hard.
Since it had finally cleared up I managed to get some decent shots although that mist is still there lingering patiently.
We didn’t miss the chance to get some good waterfall action as well. There are some great waterfalls along this route just waiting to be swum in. This one we had all to ourselves for the first 45 minutes until a group of Vietnamese kids showed up. We took a lot of pictures together and let them have it. Coincidentally we met them on the road later as we were pulled over for picture snapping.
You should be able to see me there at the bottom.
Another thing worth mentioning is of course the local market we ran in to. As it was a Sunday, everyone was out in their tribal traditional clothes buying and selling various goods. This made for an extremely vibrant and colourful market with many strange trinkets.
On our way to Pho Rang (our target rest-up for the night) we passed the provincial state line out of Ha Giang into Lai Cai province. As soon as we entered, the road turned from rocky dirty road to fresh paved highway and our crusing speed went up to a pleasant 60km/t. We rolled by a lot of sawmills and wood making camps (in lack of a better word) along the way and my guess would be that this province is considerable more wealthy as wood is a sought after resource. Ha Giang, albeit extremely beautiful, has a hard time growing anything, let alone trees, on their rough lands.
18:00: We pulled in to a Nha Nghi in Pho Rang after a long day of driving. This evening we went out for some good pho and draft beer. This city was an interesting city and definitely suited for people watching. You see all kinds of sights that will keep you well entertained while you sip on your beer after a long hard day.
21:00: Sleeping time.
DAY 17: PHO RANG – SAPA
8:00: Wake up
10:00: Out the door
JJ had a flat so we had to fix that and meanwhile I took care of some minor things (prepaid phone top-up, a mask for my face). After this we got some Pho at the same place as yesterday. I was feeling a little tired, maybe because of the alcohol, so in either case I wanted a proper breakfast this morning. I also stocked up on water.
11:00: On the road, our bellies full and gas in our tanks, towards new adventures.
12:00: Decision time, the route we were following would have us go north in a big de-route towards the Chinese borders and some very mountainous roads while the highway we were on would have us go straight for Sa Pa. JJ is as easy-going as they come so he was up for whatever and personally I still wasn’t feeling 100% and to be honest I’d seen a lot of mountain roads lately. I enjoyed the faster pace of the highway (although still very curvy and mountainous). So we took the short route.
The road to Sa Pa was gorgeous but, unfortunately, everything just seemed secondary after Ha Giang.
16:00: After some coconut drinking and pineapple eating rest stops (10 small pineapples, peeled and ready to eat, for 25k – that’s cheap!) and nice highway we arrived in the mountain resort town of Sa Pa. This place is so different from what we’d been used to the last couple of weeks. Immediately we were greeted by a fellow asking us in perfect English if we need a place to stay and women in traditional clothing come to us and ask if we want to stay in an “authentic homestay”. Tourism has shown its ugly face. On the positive side it now meant that even the guy at the gas station speaks English and you can get hamburgers and western food all you want for a price of 80k-100k ($4 – $5) – about 3 times as much as I’m used to paying.
We drove around town for a bit looking for a place to stay and ended up at a place where JJ stayed last time as he’d already been to Sa Pa before. Good view in the dorms and breakfast included. Done.
The rest of the evening was spent relaxing and talking to fellow travellers while I also managed to write two days of this journal as well as taking care of some finances and extending my travel insurance. I already decided to stay two days in Sa Pa to get some well-deserved R&R before moving on.
DAY 18: SAPA
7:30: Wake up and hearty breakfast
10:30 After some lounging around me and JJ ventured out on a trek around Sa Pa. We didn’t want to pay for a guide and the weather looked too bleak for an attempt on the 3143m tall Fansipan mountain. Neither of us had trekking shoes and a rainy muddy ascend that people usually spend two days on was just not a good idea when you wouldn’t get to see anything at the top. I will have to conquer Fanispan, the tallest mountain in Indochina, some other day.. Instead we just went straight out from the hostel towards the “trekking areas” without any further plan than that.
The road was very nice and we got some surprisingly good shots when the sun occasionally popped out
After about 6km’s JJ had to turn around as his foot had an injury which turned out to be worse than anticipated – probably a good thing we didn’t go for Fansipan. I continued on as I had a more or less random goal of making it the 10km’s to a homestay that was recommended to me – and I don’t like backing down from goals, no matter how random.
Eventually I made it. I had some well-deserved waffles. The place (Luckydaisys bamboo and buffalo bar) was alright and seemed like a good place to rest a bit but I was happy with the place we found in Sa Pa town.
16:00: It was time to head home. The bamboo place was about 2 km’s away from the main road in a small town so there wasn’t much of transportation to get back home so I had to walk back another 2 km’s – this time uphill. When I got close to the main road I stopped a couple of random xe may’s (motorbikes) to get a ride and the with the 3rd one I got lucky. He gave me a ride all the way back home to Sa Pa and he didn’t ask any money for it. A perfect ending to a good day.
Tonight it will just be further R&R before heading out on the road again.
DAY 19: SAPA – SON LA
7:00: Wake up and breakfast
8:00: JJ was getting antsy – let’s go! Out the door we went.
It had been raining heavily the day before so we were a little worried about floods, slippery roads and more rainfall during the day. Luckily after a few hours it cleared up and stayed like that all day. We were heading for Son La and highway 6 (now called AH13) which is supposedly a beautiful area – not like we hadn’t heard that before!
Out of Sa Pa we drove all the way around Fansipan mountain on windy roads with quite significant wind gusts. So strong that you would have to account for it coming around corners as it disturbed your balance quite noticeably.
The road took us across the highest pass in Vietnam with a road on it, once again taking us into the clouds and much colder weather. All the way along the road you could see water falls both right next to the road and all the way across magnificent valleys.
All the way on the top we saw this abandoned house straight of “The Shining”, complete with a broken bolted up gate, mist and broken windows.
On the way there we passed through the largest rice fields of Vietnam which were beautiful but still underwhelming. Maybe it would be more impressive if it wasn’t this time of year – the fields were mostly still in the germination phase meaning that they were either completely hidden in muddy fields or just showing the first tiny shoots. Full grown plants would’ve definitely been a different visual experience.
Pushing onwards towards highway 6 (AH13) we had a refreshing 25k pho, the sun was shining and the scenery was outstanding.
13:00: We saw a large dam and decided to climb it (we could drive all the way). Behind it we got the first glimpse of an astoundingly large lake with blue quiet water. A very pretty vision indeed. We later found out that this was one of the largest, if not the largest, hydroelectric power plants in South East Asia (sources vary and there are more than one dam in this area).
As we continued down the road we hit the main part of the lake and got a glimpse of the full glory of this lake
This lake came out of nowhere as we can’t really see it on google maps or anywhere else and it’s not in JJ’s guidebook. Everything looks brand new as well. This lake is hands-down way prettier than Ba Be Lake and it’s also far more remote. You would think a lake this size had a lot more traffic on it but besides the occasional single lonely boat – nothing. This area was very remote with only a few spread out farmers living in bamboo huts along the lake working these unforgiving steep hills for a bit of crop.
As we drove all the way around this mysterious unexpected lake we got to take pictures from all sides around it. We also did some exploring and the road you see below is the road we had to take to get here.
We both agreed that this road which lasted for a couple of hours (with no gas stations) was one of the most spectacular scenic roads we’ve been to – and that says a lot! I’ve got many pictures to prove it!
After many hours in the sun around this lake we needed a break and we got one in the next town along with an oil change.
17:00: We’d been on the road for 8 hours so maybe it was time to stop for the night but then again. We were only about 60 km’s from Son La and for some reason it felt appealing to make it there. Like some sort of unwritten goal. It had to be done.
18:30: Done. We got a banh my and a room in Son La and tucked in for the night.
This day was one of the better days with some unique extremes (highest road, largest power plant, largest rice field and this “prettiest lake” of Vietnam).
Day 20: SON LA – MOUNG KHEN
8:00: Get up
9:00: Off we go. JJ is an early riser and I don’t think I remember him being up after 9pm. On the other hand, though, he is all fired up and ready to go at 7am every morning. It’s exhausting but we definitely cover some distance quickly.
Today was highway the entire day. Same road – highway 6 / AH 13 – from Son La going all the way to Hanoi. Compared to the last 3 weeks this wasn’t all that impressive but it had its moments.
12:00: We were both agreeing that a swim in a waterfall right about now would be the right thing to do so we looked one up and one hour later we did just that. This waterfall was quite public though and we were the only ones swimming. There was lots of picture taking of the dumb white clowns going for a swim but no one stopped us.
We also found this spot which JJ proclaimed to be “mean” which is the opposite of “stink”. I’m not down with the hip lingo kids use these days but I think he means it looks great. And Indeed it does!
19:00: Even though we started early this morning we ended late. I blame JJ.
The first place we checked was a nha tro binh danh and that roughly translates into working class homestay – I think. Anyway when we got in there It looked like a prison. Concrete walls, ceiling and floor. The doors were large sliding metal doors that made an eerie sound when moved. It was like straight out of a Western movie (you know the type of movies with cowboys) prison with the key warden dangling with a large set of old iron keys. This key warden even came with bad eyesight and trouble finding the key. When she finally got the door open there was nothing in there but a 1½ person wooden bed – no sheets, no pillows, no mattress and nothing else for that matter. Concrete everywhere except for the metal door. Jeepers, this place was one step up from sleeping on the street. However though at 25k each / 50k total this place was very cheap. Staying in a place like this you could survive for about $3/day including food and clothes – $5 if you want a feast. Apparently this whole area had a bunch of these types of accommodation that were, as JJ described them, ghetto as fuck.
We ended up finding a normal’ish Nha Nhgi for 200k which is pretty standard. It wasn’t your average place though. First of all, it was huge! I mean gigantic. It was connected to a hotel with slightly higher prices as well as a karaoke place. To get there you also had to go through a natural cave over a bridge through a garden and the view from the back of the house was spectacular – a million-dollar view. Unfortunately, I didn’t get that view because for some reason they all came out bad. I got the cave though.
Dear reader, you’ve gotta understand the odd feeling we got about this place. First the prison hotel and now a 5-minute walk from the reception through caves and karaoke bars to get to our place. Everything about this city just gave a strange unfamiliar vibe.
At least it was a place to stay. It had sheets that were sort of clean. Good enough.
DAY 21: MOUNG KHEN – HANOI
Back home to Hanoi. End of the trip. Awful highway, dusty roads, heavy traffic and lots of trucks and busses. Luckily it’s only 100km’s.
13:00: 3 amazing weeks came full circle and I’m back in Hanoi. The first thing I did when I got there? Getting me some Dominos – Extra cheese! Pizza tasted so good after 3 weeks of pho and com!