When I took my gap year I was less than enthused about sticking around for the cold, bitter depths of winter in Colorado, so I instead ran away to Mexico, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Panama. I didn't (and still don't) speak any Spanish, I'm a small blonde woman, and I was going alone. My dad was less than thrilled about the idea due to unnecessary stigmas surrounding these countries, but I had already done much more dangerous things previously with my job riding racehorses, so he knew there was not much he could do to convince me otherwise.
I used my favorite site workaway.info and found a surf camp in Costa Rica called Dreamsea to stay at for 3 weeks in exchange for working a couple hours a week and a small fee of a couple hundred dollars a week for food (I don't remember the exact amount). So, I packed my pale, exceptionally blonde self a carry on luggage and a personal item-sized backpack and got on a plane from Denver to Costa Rica. When I got there, being young and sticking out like a sore thumb, I panicked a little bit. My phone was struggling to connect to a carrier and I could not find the shuttle that was supposed to take me to Dreamsea an hour away from the tiny little airport that I suddenly felt swallowed by. Once my phone connected to data I immediately called my mom in hysterics, saying that I couldn't find my shuttle and I was all alone and "what the hell was I supposed to do since I don't speak Spanish?!" Once she settled me down, I managed to go over the information desk and ask if they knew where the Dreamsea shuttle would be and though I am not entirely sure the poor man even understood what I was saying, he was entirely unhelpful. Thankfully, there was another blonde girl, about my age, next to the desk that overheard me and asked me where I was going. I was so grateful to hear someone who spoke English and looked like me (more about my thoughts on this later) that I relaxed considerably. She was also looking for a bus or shuttle to take her to her homestay in Tamarindo, same place that Dreamsea was located, where she stayed during her study abroad program, though she had already been there a semester. We had just decided to split a taxi when someone came wandering in holding a sign for Dreamsea. I guess good things happen once you calm down enough to let them come to you. The girl from the airport, myself, and another girl headed to Dreamsea piled into this guys Honda-Prius-turned-shuttle and headed towards Tamarindo. I vividly remember the conversations I had with these two girls on the way to Dreamsea, and the one also headed there would become quite a good friend, and I would even see the blonde one again.
My accommodations at the surf camp were, if I'm being generous, meager. I vividly remember pulling back my sheet and seeing hundreds of ants swarming in my bed. I was not the only one who had this problem in our room. This was the price I paid for traveling cheaply, I guess. All of the "volunteers" at the camp, and there were many of us, decided which jobs we wanted to hold during the week. The woman I met at the airport and I decided to tackle the community bathrooms together, which consisted of basically a couple of shacks with admittedly quite functional toilets and ice cold showers. This meant we spent about 2-3 hours per week total working, when often times work exchanges consist of far more work. Not a bad situation.
Yoga teachers from all corners of the world, including Ukraine, Germany, and the U.S., held yoga classes every morning, which I only occasionally participated in when I decided to forgo sleeping in. 8am was breakfast and one of our meals included, then about 15-20 of us would pile into the back of "El Toro", a tiny truck that should have been retired several years ago, and head to the center of Tamarindo where we could then do whatever we wished. Lunch was up to us, I usually got an empanada or two at a local stand, which cost about $2 each. Some of my peers were especially courageous and would buy meals people were selling out of the back of their cars. Considering the various and unfortunately graphic stories the people I was living with shared with me about their various food poisoning incidents from either end, I was not too keen.
Tamarindo is a small but bustling town right on the west coast, with a jungle skirting the outsides where howlers monkeys call and swing from tree to tree. Stray dogs and cats wander the streets and men riding skinny horses offer you rides. The waves were the best at dawn and dusk, and there was nothing like watching the sun fall while sitting on the beach, wet, salty, and drunk from the sun. I spent 3 weeks of my time in Costa Rica here. It only cost me $5 a day to rent a surfboard and when I wasn't surfing, I would hang out on the beach with the incredible, unique people I had met at the camp.
The men and women I met each had such complex, diverse stories and many of them had been traveling for a long time. One woman I met was giving herself 5 years to travel to every country in the world, and she was still recovering from a chronic illness that at one point had left her paralyzed. There was a kind couple from the Netherlands with whom I would save a young child from drowning. There were several other Americans and a German who I would team up with for adventures to other areas of Costa Rica. I came across a young Swiss couple that invited me to come visit them in Switzerland, which I actually did later on. The list of people I met is indefinite. While I may have started out alone, I certainly didn't feel alone anymore. It was with my new friends that I would go out and experience the night life, go to a local rodeo, and life the famous "pure vida" lifestyle.
Perhaps one of the most daunting parts of starting out on a solo journey, especially as a young woman, is the overwhelming sense of loneliness. The good news is that this is a fleeting feeling. In fact, there were often times in Costa Rica when I would actually wish for times to be alone because I was constantly surrounded by people. Traveling alone through Costa Rica posed different challenges to me, but without them I would not have grown. This is how you learn how courageous you are, how to be scrappy, and how to be able to laugh at yourself.