Solo Travel: Two Months in Costa Rica and Nicaragua

I was as nervous as my loved ones were about my solitary exploits as a woman in Central America last summer. Nonetheless, I discovered helpful community everywhere from buses to budget hotels, and even with friends of friends.

After two months of road trips from corner to corner of Costa Rica and around southern Nicaragua, my energy was waning. Just then, on a bus ride, I crossed paths with one of the most inspiring people I’d met in months. After finding 1,000 children living in a garbage dump in Managua, Andres was spearheading orphanages around the world—a shining example of someone living his passion.

Andres was one of many people that smoothed out the challenging moments that came with venturing outside my comfort zones. Being open to creating a new community, even a temporary one, seems essential when traveling—especially alone. It touches your heart in so many ways.

The trip began in tiny Playa Uvita, Costa Rica.  I walked along a rainforest road, accompanied by roosters and bugs. I was thrilled to end up solo on a wide beach, wading in wonderfully warm water. Suddenly a meddlesome man I’d met earlier rode his horse right up to me, with dog in tow, like a scene from a movie. When Prince Charming’s horse released his bowels in the ocean, my perfect beach moment took a hit as well. I chalked it up to a lesson in tolerance.

Nosara was next, a stormy beach where friends of friends hosted me in their tropical guest house. I continued to discover community in the most unexpected places. What was that pounding on the roof? An iguana! Screeching at 5 a.m.? A jungle bird. Loud scary dog-like sound? Howler monkey. Strange creature on the floor along with the ants and worms? A scorpion!

In Nosara, I met a jovial New Yorker who offered me a ride to Nicaragua. We made our way through rain, road construction, passport stamping on both sides of the border, and changing money from colones to cordobas. Then came the task of finding the least decrepit and safest budget hotel once arriving in charming San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua.

I felt comforted by my growing travelers’ community when I took a spontaneous jaunt with another Californian to Isla de Ometepe, a peaceful island with petroglyphs, cows and pigs walking freely in the roads, and adorable children smiling from their patios. On the way to the island, I asked the taxi driver to slow down since I didn’t want to die—especially on my birthday. Next, we took a sweltering ferry ride to Ometepe, where the taxi driver was amusingly island-paced, stopping in the middle of the road to chat with friends on foot. He suggested we eat bull testicles with chili and lemon to feel strong. Settled into a hotel, we swam in a lake along with pop-up sardines and a view of two volcanoes. As I later stood by a tree, a cow chomped on avocadoes and a squirrel dropped a mango on my shoulder.

My fellow adventurer woke me at 4 a.m. to ask me to turn on the light; he was spooked by the sound of an animal on his upper bunk bed. As happens sometimes in Latin America, the electricity was out, so he wondered if the noise was a monkey munching on some food. I found this unsolved mystery hilarious.

Worn out from so many two-day trips, the bronchitis that I’d had in San Diego was back, so I stayed several days in beautiful colonial Granada, Nicaragua. The doctor who helped me recover couldn´t fathom how at 38, I had no kids and was traveling alone. Eleven years ago, my ex-husband had guided me through four months in South America and it was one of the most meaningful experiences I’d ever had. Now I am so grateful that I followed my dreams, as I found out it wasn’t too late to take the solo trip I’d fantasized about at age 20.

For safety, I hired a guide to accompany me to a lake and an historic outdoor market outside Granada. The usual child vendors, working to help their needy families, climbed aboard the bus. A few girls selling plaintain chips and candies asked, “Is everyone in the U.S. white?” I explained that I had friends who were African-American, Asian, Mexican, and so on. As we chatted, one girl sadly asked if I could adopt her as her parents had died, and she disliked living with her grandmother.

San Jose, Costa Rica may be run-down, but I kept returning to the city as it’s a hub for buses throughout the country. Through family friends, I met Raquel and Federico, whose home was respite from the noise and cigarette smoke typical of budget hotels. We shared lovely meals and became fast friends, touring a volcano and lush hilly smalltowns.

Next came the malfunctioning foot portion of the trip. The scene: a hostel with the typical array of 20-something North Americans, Italians, and Israelis vying for the Internet. Ironically trying to avoid a construction zone, I rammed into something in that disheveled area too difficult to see in the dark. Thinking it was a bad toe stubbing, I socialized for a few hours until I discovered my foot was bleeding and cut.

I relocated to Casa Ridgway, the San Jose hostel where I most felt a sense of community among interesting activist travelers. A delightful Australian living in Hong Kong burned incense in our room, and then flew off to Cuba. A 16-year-old drilled me about the goods and bads of solo travel, plotting her future. I befriended a humanitarian videographer, and a group of young breakdancers from Nicaragua and Guatemala. Unable to walk, I’d call on whoever was passing by to bring water, beans or avocados from the market.

Then Raquel’s amiga rescued me. Marielos picked me up, cleaned up the pitiful foot, and with help from a doctor friend, started me on antibiotics. Within a few hours, we were like sisters, watching a dubbed Ben Stiller movie on her bed. I lived with her family for a week until I was back on my feet again.

It was time to return to California. I decided I wasn’t going to become yet another U.S. expat in Costa Rica. I’d heard of too many tourist robberies, found the mosquitoes and humidity irritating, and as a vegan, was longing for more variety than gallo pinto (smashed rice and beans). While I’d enjoyed the lush beaches, tropical creatures and made dear friends, those nights when I was scared for my safety sleeping alone made me long for the comfort of San Diego and friends there.

It was indeed a life-changing trip. Not only did I find community in all corners of the world but also cultivated a profound inner strength for having conquered deeply-rooted fears about traveling alone.

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