When a Vacation and a Health Scare Coincide

Montezuma, Costa Rica: December 26, 2017 – January 3, 2018

…surrendering fully to Montezuma’s ever-present air of namaste.

Air sickness, long overnight layovers, sketchy car rentals, misinterpreting the colones to dollars conversion, sand fleas, planes grounding for inclement weather, getting lost on Costa Rican back roads, screaming geckos while trying to sleep, missing our ferry, barely making check-in times, and a near-deadly stomach virus mere weeks before the trip were just a few things that plagued our one-week vacation to Costa Rica. But it was just what the doctor ordered.

To tell you why Costa Rica had such a lasting impact, I need to start at the beginning. Seven months prior to our trip, we got the sudden itch to start planning our next vacation. Normally, that would mean that sometime in the spring, like we had been doing for the past five or six years, the two of us would load up my car and drive 15 hours to Ormond Beach, Florida, where we’d stay at the same oceanfront condo, Tropic Sun Towers, and imbibe on Coronas and cigarettes and roadside tacos and crab legs for a week straight, getting sunburnt from the overcast May sun and undoing all the healthy eating and exercise that led up to it. It was a nice, affordable, accessible vacation, don’t get me wrong (and better than sitting in our Philly apartment in the heat), but it was a bit uninspired. We were in Trump territory, the youngest people there by 30 or 40 years, and there wasn’t a whole lot of culture, unless you count the very ‘Murican culture of the annual Daytona Beach motorcycle brigade. It was time to change it up.

We never went anywhere besides a local house party or bar for New Year’s Eve, so entertained the prospect of maybe going somewhere warm and lively to spend the New Year as our vacation, somewhere like Miami. But one look at the prices during the week between Christmas and the New Year turned us off. Airbnbs there were absolutely outlandish, like $500 a night outlandish, and then there was the issue of if we’d drive the 20 or so hours or pay for expensive airfare, plus the countless jacked-up dollars on hotel breakfasts, dinners, drinks, etc. We could do it, but if we were going to spend that much, why stay in the States (was my mentality)? The only foreign country I had been to was Jamaica (and I didn’t particularly enjoy it), and the Caribbean was always prone to hurricanes. After a much too brief discussion, we decided on Costa Rica. It was completely uncharted territory for us (in fact, it would be the first time my boyfriend ever even left the country), I had heard nothing but wonderful things from people who visited there before, and winter was its dry season. That was it for us. It would be our first international trip as a couple.

We booked a second floor studio apartment with Casitas Sollevante, a resort featured on Expedia in the style of a bed and breakfast, its exotic, rustic cabins overlooking the Gulf of Nicoya and nestled in the jungle, and way too expensive flights (even though I shopped for months, the prices only got higher since it was peak travel season). By September, we were fully booked and counted the days until we could escape the Northeast’s hellish winters for some tropical sun.

And then, we were blindsided.

To preface, we aren’t unhealthy people, but we’re also not poster children for model health and fitness. Food and alcohol is our M.O., one of the biggest chapters in the book of our relationship: that is to say, it’s not THE integral part of what holds the bindings together, but it sure as hell contributes to a very large part of our history, our make-up, our narrative. Most conversations are centered around it: ‘Oh my god, this bone marrow is SO good.’ ‘I can’t believe it’s the first time you’ve tried it‘ … ‘I’m still dreaming of that duck confit.’ ‘Remember that time you left those duck leftovers in the coat closet of that restaurant?’ … ‘I couldn’t even eat Burger King right now if I wanted to.’ ‘But that was our thing in high school: eat dinner, go for a drive, get a second dinner at Burger King and follow it up with Cold Stone Creamery.’ ‘Yeah, that was the night we got really high and kept saying “Mint Mint Chocolate Chocolate Chip Chip”.’

For us, eating (and drinking) is an event…something to plan for, execute and then talk about…a lot. It’s the same to-go order from the taqueria we’re regulars at (2 steak burritos, 2 Mexican cokes, 1 order of chips), the routine laying out of the TV tray tables, the paper towels, the Cholula hot sauce. It’s planning the next meal while we’re already eating THIS meal, otherwise silent save for our too-fast chewing and gulping. It’s alternating wines to pair with dishes: If you start with the salad, you could drink the white and then I’ll get the steak and have the red, and then we can switch? It’s already having something sweet, or a new restaurant, queued up next in the Rolodex of our mealtimes. Our joint compilation of food eaten is so expansive, the checklist of different beers and wines drunk so large, it needs its own Infinite Jest footnote appendix. We even planned our vacations to accommodate our insatiable appetites, and couldn’t wait to experience Costa Rican food and drink, picturing mai tais, shrimp tacos, countless Coronas, fresh fruit smoothies. And of course, morning mimosas in the room, a vacation tradition. We would procure bubbly and OJ somehow.

So when the end of October creeped in, after a particularly reckless month-long binge of our usual three-course meal with two bottles of wine at Chlöe BYOB followed by four beers and a shot of Jameson each at Oscar’s Tavern, the gods we don’t believe in punished us for being too hedonistic. More specifically, they punished my boyfriend, and my already frail sensibilities and generalized anxiety became unfortunate collateral. In short, what we believe but cannot confirm is that after a delicious sushi dinner in the city (not naming names), my boyfriend experienced two straight months of concerning gastrointestinal pain and severe, rapid weight loss. All healthy, lean, muscular 180 pounds or so of him withered away to 40 pounds less in a matter of weeks, and the whole nine yards that comes with it: gaunt skin on protruding cheek bones, shoulder blades that jutted out through even his tightest t-shirts, a pallor I can only describe as sickly, and worse, the both of us eating ourselves away from the inside out with incessant worrying that something was really, really wrong. With the added stress of him not having any health insurance at the time, terrible bedside manner and mis-prescribed medications from the quack doctor at a now defunct Hahnemann Hospital, and discovering a lump in his neck, it was, without a doubt, the worst point in our lives.

We navigated an incredibly frustrating application process for a crappy and expensive short-term health insurance for him, just for the time being. Four separate doctors had no clue what it was, as all bloodwork came back clean, which was comforting only for a second – that medical dilemma of wondering if it’s a false negative (What if they’re wrong?!), wishing you just had answers right away instead of being hung in the balance and assuming the absolute worst case scenario. Thankfully, the lump on the neck was a benign lymph node (only visible because of the amount of weight lost), but the very first medication his GI doctor prescribed to him for his stomach had seriously adverse side effects and did nothing to fix the problem, so that was a no-go. We tried everything food-wise: the B.R.A.T. diet, a holistic vitamin and tea approach, cutting out red meat, carbs, dairy. And certainly no alcohol. The laundry list of new restaurants to try was replaced with possible diseases: Maybe it’s IBS? A food allergy? Ulcerative colitis? Most nights, WebMD had us thinking it was some type of rare stomach cancer. Panic attacks and depressive episodes became the norm. Neither of us ate or slept all that much. We reluctantly trudged to our respective jobs each week in preoccupied, unfocused funks, sobbed or sat in silence at home, stopped socializing entirely. I remember one particular cold November night forcing the two of us to go on a walk for fresh air to clear our minds. It didn’t, and we walked in complete silence hand-in-hand, me with the intrusive thought to remember that time together, just in case.

We bargained and justified, see-sawing between facts and figures and emotions and existential crises. There’s no way it’s that, the blood work would have shown that! … If it was from food, I would have gotten it, too! … I think if you just stick to plain foods, it will go away. Any food we did eat was no longer a joy, but a gamble. Would this make it worse? Could this fix it? Are we doing the right things? I often wished we were religious – at least then we could pray our fears away, leave it in the hands of the gods. I more often wished for other ailments in lieu of this. Anything but this. Why couldn’t he have just broken his arm or sprained his ankle or cut his leg? At least then it would be something we could SEE and FIX. But I most often wished it was me instead, mainly because I hate to see someone I love suffer, and partly (selfishly) because I’m not a caretaker by nature and couldn’t handle the pressure of being positive for the both of us. I shut down, physically and mentally, also losing weight (about 15 pounds). People would tell me, “You look thin!” and I could barely hold back tears explaining the reason why. Sometimes they’d try to be helpful, offering unsolicited advice and comparisons to similar situations in their families. Sometimes they wouldn’t know what to say and approached it more like “it is what it is.” None of it helped, their words and sympathetic looks just another needless, busy journal entry in the lexicon of health scares and reminders of mortality that I grew to be so well-versed in. By early December, he still, unfortunately, was not improving.

Finally, in mid December (only two weeks out from our planned international vacation, mind you), we were, at last, able to get a colonoscopy and endoscopy on the calendar (something that should’ve been done two months prior). Both ruled out anything obviously structurally wrong, or tumors, but there were ulcers. They weren’t concerning and didn’t explain the real reasons for his problems, but rather, a byproduct. A return to the primary physician with the hospital reports and no actual improvements prompted the doctor to institute his last resort (I think mostly to appease our desperation): a prescription for a heavy duty, two-week, three times a day antibiotic to kill a parasite, if it were in there. Why they couldn’t simply test him for said parasite, I’ll never know. But we were willing to give it a shot.

We seriously considered cancelling Costa Rica. How could we possibly travel at all right now, let alone to another country? What if something were to happen there and we can’t get to a hospital in time? What about the food, the water, the ice? Is it safe? Will these antibiotics work? Will they confiscate them at the airport? Will we even enjoy ourselves? We joked – briefly – about “Montezuma’s revenge.” If he got more sick down there, he’d never be able to tell anyway. But after speaking with the doctor, he was fairly certain whatever it was should be knocked out almost immediately by the antibiotic, and that it was imperative that he continue to take them until he finished the bottle. And so, a few days later, luggage packed and carry-on backpacks full of the meds, the prescription papers, and backup copies of our passports, birth certificates, and health insurance cards, we began our long three-flight journey to Costa Rica. On some level, I think neither of us wanted to say the obvious: we were doing this because we might not get another chance.

If ever there were a truer statement to describe what happened between the non-diagnosis of “maybe a parasite” to the first few days of taking the antibiotics three times daily, as prescribed, it would be “gut health is directly related to mental health.” That will be our epitaph, mark my words.

He noticeably improved, even on the first flight to layover #1 in Chicago, when he, much to my surprise, ordered a red wine. He relaxed (a little), and so did I, by extension. Layover #2 was in Panama, where we then took a short flight late at night to San Jose (me for the first time in my adult life enduring one full hour of nausea outside of a hangover), the nearby town of Alajuela serving as our quick sleepover spot before traveling by land and sea to the Nicoya Peninsula where Montezuma was. A combination of his health issues and not really thinking stuff through caused us to neglect booking a Jeep or an SUV well in advance (heavily recommended by every online review ever) or pre-ordering colones through the Bank. We would “wing” it, which resulted in us getting screwed over percentage wise converting our dollars at the airport, and then negotiating with a local hanging out by the fully booked-up car rental counters, who drove us himself to his friend’s shady garage in Alajuela where we paid for the only car they had available, a tin-can 90s Toyota Echo (with souped up tires), paying for the vehicle only, no insurance or complicated forms to be had. It was a simple transaction, and I weighed both unsavory options: paying straight cash, only for something to happen to us or the car with no record of us being there or proof of payment, or paying by credit card and risk having my identity stolen. I chose the latter, finding I could trust the guys since we did download WhatsApp and had their full names anyway. He handed us the keys and off we went in search of our provisions for the night, the gas tank light fully on E, bright and orange, until we finally arrived at the gate of our motel seconds before midnight when the front desk would close shop for the night.

The first night was chaotic and very hot, trying to get our bearings after a full day’s worth of flying, but we fell asleep pretty easily and awoke to the sounds of the jungle and landscaping being done in what we realized from the light of the morning sun was a tree-house style motel with beautiful, lush grounds. Before hitting the road, we had a quick continental breakfast of rich, black Costa Rican coffee and massive, fresh bananas directly from the banana tree planted by the pool. The next five hours would be spent driving, using the car’s antiquated, built-in Garmin system for navigation to the coast where we planned to catch the 11 A.M. ferry out of the port town of Puntarenas. I white-knuckled the wheel and panic-checked the time every ten seconds as we meandered our way through small towns, past sweeping expanses of lush countryside, and through a jaw-dropping mountain pass where roadside yellow signs warned you of iguanas crossing, unfortunately not heeded by some drivers when we saw their carcasses splayed out in the shoulders.

After a couple mile stretches of the car sputtering up harrowing cliff sides (noteworthy that we were the only ones not in a truck or Jeep), we descended into a drive-by stretch of beach resembling Jurassic Park, the oceanside road then making a sharp curve inland to the rough, shack town of Puntarenas, and finally, stuck for forty-five minutes with no air conditioning in the line snaking around the perimeter of the inlet to wait for the ferry that we never got onto (peak season, man). Waiting in the line, we observed tourists strolling the port, sloppily eating juicy mango off sticks, cut into rose patterns by the street vendors. (It was also here we died laughing at the gem we quote often from a bored Veruca Salt child: “Mummy! Mummy, there’s no shops here!”)

We finally reached the boat just as it was pulling away. The next boat wouldn’t arrive until 1 PM, so we parked our car at the dock and our asses in the blazing afternoon heat outside the ticket place that was closed for lunch, with about fifty people ahead of us and fifty people behind us, standing with our backpacks for two full hours. At last, we got our tickets and hustled to the dock where I drove the car into the bottom deck of the ferry (high-key worried about not having insurance on the vehicle, low-key worried about being in the exhaust for so long). After popping some dramamine, off we went, cutting our travel time very close. It was a smooth trip on the scenic balcony level, just short of one hour across the Gulf of Nicoya, the outlines of volcanos and mountainous mystery islands like blue whales on the horizon. By the time we set foot ashore at Paquera, waiting very long for our turn to drive the car up the ramp and off the ferry, we had precisely two hours before sundown to make the trip to Montezuma without any stopping, hick-ups or car failure. Easy-peasy.

We pitted the spotty GPS service on our phones against the Garmin as we took to the rural roads, hoping one would bring us on an expedited route in the general direction of Montezuma. The sun was still hot, but its angles were fading comically fast, challenging us to speed up, only to get stuck behind a truck carrying hay for several miles. At one point, our phones (which I naively believed were superior) alerted us to a potential shortcut, so we turned our reluctant car that would barely fare well even in South Philly down a narrow dirt road off the beaten path that only led us to muddy blockage where several cars were turning back around, a British couple shouting to us, “Mudslide! Don’t go that way!” Losing several precious minutes, we made our way back to where we came from and decided to stick with the Garmin and its intrinsic knowledge of the area; that was, until the sun really began to dip and the sky turned that iridescent shade of violet magic hour, when our phones promised we could shave off close to half an hour if we just made a left into these woods right here.

Making the bold decision to potentially get really lost AND drive in the dark, we made our way into the jungle by way of a gravely, barely one-horse path that couldn’t have possibly been meant for anything other than ATVs. After several terrifying minutes of gunning our Toyota Echo uphill, peeling out over stubborn boulders and skidding sideways over thousands of sliding rocks (and having to reverse back down a particularly difficult curve in order to let another car downhill), we at last reached pavement at the top of a woodsy mountain just as the sun was setting. Less than five downhill miles later (and another rocky path, but flat this time), we reached Casitas Sollevante, unassuming from the front, and checked in with a gorgeous Italian woman at the bar by the pristine in-ground pool after walking the perfect squares of concrete on the grassy, landscaped grounds, too frazzled to take in the view of the sea just beyond.

The woman settled us into our casita for the week and gave us the lay of the land, pointing on a map to where the resort was (perched in the mountains atop the tiny Bohemian village of Montezuma), how far we were from the center of town (just a short 5 minute drive down the mountain…it was apparent a vehicle would be absolutely essential here), and where the best restaurants were (not the corner beach bar with daiquiris and disco lights). We made the easy decision to stay in that first night since we’d been traveling for two days straight, opting to have the same Italian woman and another equally as gorgeous Costa Rican woman cook us a meal at the bar/kitchen (from what I could glean, they lived on the resort year-round and were simultaneously concierge, bartender, waitress, and receptionist, and both spoke Spanish, English, Italian, and German). I think we ate burgers that first night (still gun shy from my boyfriend’s compromised stomach), and washed them down with local beer. We were exhausted, but relieved that our car, and ourselves, had made it in once piece. We could finally relax.

The room at night was better than I had imagined with all its sultry, summer night humidity, velvet skies, silence except for crickets and a light ocean breeze rustling the thick, fragrant leaves, and scents of cactus flowers and garden hoses from the sprinkler system hidden just over the hill, every so often misting the foliage. Our apartment “Arriba” was off the main grounds, secluded from the rest, its entrance just a few minute walk down a rocky road adjacent to a private property lined with palms. We were in the jungle, but with all the (sort of) comforts of home, like running water (mostly cold only) and a sewage system (albeit with warnings to not flush toilet paper?), a full size mattress (rock hard), and a propane one-burner stove (so long as you brought matches). A laminated sign lectured us to not kill the insects that were (rightfully) there before us – thankfully, I saw not one single bug our entire stay, but still cautiously stepped into the shower and surveyed the tile walls and floors. The AC unit was a saving grace on hot nights, chillier than the one in our Philly apartment, and for the first time in months, we fell into the void of pitch black, dreamless sleep at approximately 8 or 9 PM each night (that is, until we were awoken at sunrise by the haunting ghoul moans of distant howler monkeys, barks from the neighborhood stray dogs, and jarring, guttural chimpanzee sounds from the tiny, screaming geckos that were our roommates for the week).

In the morning light, however, the room took on new meaning and color: vibrant orange stucco exterior, electric blue rafters on the porch, greenest of green palms over the red tin awning, the cabin-feel of the room with its creamy white walls and vaulted ceiling with dark wooden beams. The bed was separated from the kitchen by a breakfast bar with shelving where my boyfriend’s bottle of antibiotics sat, not forgotten, but more or less feeling like a pesky, daily vitamin he had to set an alarm for as a reminder. Terrible WiFi and data connection meant no distracting or depressing morning scrolls on social media, and the few times we did connect, our friends and family sent us pictures of shoveling feet of snow, icy tundras on lawns, wind and sleet whipping against parkas. But that place was far removed from our current reality: percolating delicious, cocoa brown, rich and bubbly Costa Rican coffee into tiny mugs, frying up scrambled eggs on the one burner, nibbling buttered toast and sipping mimosas in the adirondack chairs on our balcony overlooking the grand view of where the mountain edge fell off to sea, gray volcanic horizon, stratus clouds, unrelenting sunshine.

The first couple of days, we’d drop the Echo into D2 and slowly wind our way down the paved, 45 degree mountain until we hit Montezuma proper, a three block village nestled at the foothills with jungly gardens, streams and pedestrian bridges, occasionally peppered with outdoor restaurants and bars and shops, ATVs and Jeeps crowding any available patch of road or grass (my TripAdvisor discussions on forums months prior practically laughed at me when I asked about the parking situation). The single supermercato/bodega was located here where we did our grocery shopping for the week, picking up only the morning essentials, along with some fun, local snacks, extremely cheap bottles of red wine, massive gallons of distilled water, and granola bars for hiking. On the streets, fit, tan yogis with dreads and barefoot hippies with half sleeves of tattoos sauntered around with surfboards and guitars strapped to their backs. Vendors selling handwoven bags and beach hats, jewelry and incense sat on sheets on the pavement. The main road ended abruptly at sand and sea, where a loud beachfront grill turned nightclub blasted reggaeton and hosted white 20-somethings in search of frozen margaritas and drunken hook-ups. Here, the eponymous Montezuma Beach served as a port for speed boats carting tourists to and from faraway islands for a day of snorkeling. The beach here was gravely, a bit dirty, and full of cars in search of a watering hole for the day, but the landscape served up a quality, picturesque photo. Local men posted up under the palms and chopped off the ends of grassy-flavored coconuts with plastic straws for $5 a pop.

The calmer beach at the northern end was home to nomads propping their tents up for the night or hanging their hammocks between palms. Locals, too, hung out here, standing with their hands in their jeans pockets, waiting to sell people weed when the sun set. After a rather awkward encounter, we got ripped off in scoring some “shit Jamaican weed” from some guy whose face I couldn’t see in the twilight hour. In the mornings, we would go full environmental, fashioning a bowl out of a red delicious apple from the market and smoking it, surrendering fully to Montezuma’s ever-present air of namaste.

The remainder of the week went as follows: each night, with no television in the room, it was early to bed, early to rise. Like children, we’d be puckered out by nightfall, tiring ourselves from a long day of hiking or swimming in the sunny 80 degree weather and stuffing ourselves to the brim with delicious food.

One afternoon, with the help of our concierge, we snuck through the neighbors’ back patio to take a shortcut through the forest to get to the infamous waterfalls by foot. Descending through the jungle (where I could sense snakes were underfoot but never got a visual), we heard the rushing waters and careened down a rope embedded into the cliff’s edge like it’s been there for centuries, landing us at the foot of the first of three tiered waterfalls, the small one, where a friendly, local man helped us to the edge to jump the ten or so feet off it, plunging into the ice cold water that emptied out into the two massive ones below. That night, back on the mountainside of town, we dined at a fantastic Middle Eastern restaurant where we had our first non-bland meal in months, exciting the taste buds with a massive whole fried fish, long grain rice, vegetable salad, and fresh fruit and milk alcoholic smoothies. (Another night, we had dinner just next door at Mocha’s Monchis where the chef personally greeted us and served us his perfectly cooked swordfish that he wrapped in foil and threw on the grill, like we were at a family barbecue. The restaurant’s charm was complete with an indoor tire swing and a stray husky that roamed the premises).

Another day, we started at the lowest, largest of the falls that was teeming with hundreds of people sunning on the rocks, snapping photos in the murky shallow waters, climbing the slippery footholds behind the falls to jump off. Impressively, the coconut men managed to haul their entire table setup here for vending. I, too, attempted to climb the falls’ rocks and required the strength of a man and his tiny girlfriend to pull my entire useless, flailing, soft body up the rock by my weak arms, causing several scrapes on my stomach and thighs. After this, we worked our way from the bottom up, hiking an even steeper mountain than the one we resided on for the week, climbing stone steps built into the jungle floor and passing a daunting rope bridge we didn’t cross until we reached an eclectic Mariposa butterfly garden turned brewery nestled atop a mountain for ziplining where we treated ourselves to caloric intake by sampling flights of local beers and devouring pork tacos. Descending, we realized, was more of a strain on the calves than ascending, but we had the view of the distant, violet sea the entire way down, the criss-cross of power lines the only thing marring it.

Most days, however, were spent hiking in our bathing suits and backpacks the several miles by foot, down the mountain, through town on the dusty dirt road, and around the shoreline until we reached the beach that was the best kept secret of the locals, Playa Las Manchas, a sacred spot so Mediterranean you may as well have been in Amalfi. This wasn’t the Jersey Shore – that is, no pop-up beach tents, umbrellas, coolers, or tailgating chairs in sight – and it was obvious with the pebbly sand chockfull of unbroken seashells and glassy, aquamarine bathwater waves why this place is considered only one of seven “blue zones” in the entire world, an ecosystem in which to retire and die at a very old age breathing clean air.

It was quintessential tropical vacation: tall, flexible palms with coconuts, monkeys, and exotic birds bending their strong-willed limbs, mangrove roots underneath creeping their way towards islands of large rocks for skipping where warm, shallow pools of saltwater like hot tubs hid. The mountainous backdrop looked like the mouth of the sky was emptying the contents of its stomach out to sea, cascading jungle and cliffside yoga retreats and shirts drying on Jeeps included. We napped on beach towels and snacked on trail mix from the market underneath the same squat palm tree, remaining as pale as ever for being near the equator (due in part to our 100 SPF sunscreen), stuck near a local family of ex-pats that frequented there each day and whined in nasally voices about the nannies being too expensive back in Manhattan. We’d hike back uphill the way we came, jumping in an icy shower rather than the piss warm infinity pool, the cold water a welcome reprieve on our sunburned shoulders and blistered toes after miles of hiking, but even more so on the wounds unseen.

Days here blended together so easily in a mishmash of new flavors on the tastebuds, exotic wildlife, an assault on the eyes of vibrant, tropical colors: peachy, purply rainbow sky after a storm, the deep orange and blue of the sun rising from the east over the Nicoya Peninsula where we had prime viewing from the Casita’s manicured grounds (I’m still salty I have yet to see a sun set over an ocean), the rich green leaves that caught my eye every time I looked out our bedroom windows, their stalks home to auburn and black bushy-tailed squirrels, the hot pink of my strapless bikini top dripping on the chair and the addicting daiquiri in a can I impulse bought at the supermercado, the scaly brown iguana that scuffled loudly under our tin awning at all hours of the day, only popping its whitened head and squat arms out to bask in the hot sun (differing starkly from the beach variety with its lime green body and orange head), the yellow-faced monkeys with dark brown tails as long as their bodies lounging on the mangroves at Playa Grande or somersaulting over the telephone wires that hung like canopies over the dirt trails at the foot of the steep, jungly mountains with shanties made of colorful wooden boards like craft popsicle sticks, where people made homes, the midday snacks at the roadside taquerias, shrimp and rice and Coronas and frozen fruity drinks with umbrella straws, the milky, earthy flavor of the coconut I bought before hiking it up the mountain on my shoulder to drink from on our balcony, and those brave, pesky magpie birds of royal blue with frilly black and white feathers around their heads, clucking on our balcony railing, inching closer to us every time we brought food outside, their long beaks and talons stamping over the wet swim trunks, beach towels, and sweaty daytime clothes hung out to dry.

This was already a routine I could fall head over heels into.

The morning of New Year’s Eve, we decided to explore farther north and venture to Playa Grande, a much wider and desolate expanse of beach meant for surfers. The map tricked us into thinking it was a short 20 or so minute walk just up the coast on flat, sandy beach, but it became apparent, after tripping over mangled jungle roots and hopping over rocky, wet stones jutting out of foamy shorelines, that it was a daunting hike, and our choice of Croc sandals was a poor choice. The whole hike ended up being close to an hour, one way, but that’s due in part to our many pitstops along the way: a seaside graveyard of cairns (peoples’ fascination with stacking rocks always fascinated me), a swampy inlet with drooping palms and the threat of alligators (where I saw a nude European man bearing his penis to the sun), and a babbling river with chilly, dangerous undercurrents for cooling off (which felt a lot like Wissahickon), that emptied out into an even more dangerous, gray sea, its waves rough and salty in their high tide. After several more minutes of walking (past a beach too rocky and trash-filled for swimming), we at last set foot ashore on Playa Grande, its vast, cream sands pockmarked with pebbles and broken seashells more akin to what we were used to back home: flat and dampened from the sea and plenty of room to roam around. Craving shade, we finally found an open spot inland underneath a tangled mess of palms atop driftwood wreckage.

Hanging our backpacks and bandanas on the trees, shaking out our towels on the rough sand covered in brush, and sitting on the makeshift log of a fallen palm, we caught our breath and cooled our sweat in the breeze, watching surfers take to the cresting waves. I had the sudden urge to camp here for the night like castaways (if you could bring one thing to a deserted island, make it insect repellant) and this, I realized, encapsulated the Costa Rican motto of “Pura Vida,” oft-uttered by locals and ex-pats alike, and a phrase I used to mock as one reserved for overbearing reiki-types and Californians who burned sage and threw the “hang loose” symbol at every chance they got. But sitting here, after taking a quick dip in the waves far too large for a casual swim and creeping further inland to the forest, sand fleas burrowing into the skin of my bare feet and ankles while I popped a squat in the thickets, soaking in the nutrients of the Pacific and mid-afternoon sunshine, I understood. We were deep in the heart of pure, simple and true Costa Rican life, any and all illnesses like pesky fleas burrowing away beneath the sand until the next humid, tropical rainstorm.

An hour or so later, we arrived back at camp and took a long midday nap so we could last into the nighttime for the New Year’s Eve celebrations, where the streets come alive with people from all over the peninsula, dressed in too-tight, too-short club wear and copious amounts of cologne. We joined the festivities just before midnight, convening in the circle that had formed around a scantily-clad fire dancer, the shouts and claps from the crowds matching the ominous drums like a tribal ceremony. We waited on the ground outside the ice cream shop for the fireworks to start, people-watching the youngins’ grind to “Despacito” blasting from the DJ booth set up at the beach cut-off (that was about the hundredth time we would hear that song during our trip). We purchased from a corner beer distributor a six pack of Heinekens and a bottle of champagne. Midnight struck at different times so I’m not sure at which precise moment we rang in the New Year, but we shouted down to 12:00 with the rest (Tres! Dos! Unooooo!) as hundreds of bottle rockets and fireworks too close for comfort exploded. We popped the bubbly and sprayed it over the crowd, forgetting to classically kiss, fully wrapped up in the moment of, for the first time in our lives, being sleeveless in January.

Cabs being a scarce commodity during peak season and on the most popular party night of the year, we had no choice but to drunkenly trudge in our sandals up the shoulder of the mountain road in the dark, where a lithe stray black dog emerged from the shadows and led us home, panting with its tongue out, tail wagging happily, every so often looking back at us to make sure we were okay. It followed us through the rocky dirt path that snaked to Casitas Sollevante, down the dark alleyway, and up the steps directly on to our porch, where it plopped down to sleep outside our door. We sadly had to bid it farewell, leading it to the adjacent property with a bowl of drinking water and a forlorn look of “we can’t keep you.” We fell asleep fast, no doubt finishing off a turbulent 2017 on the highest note possible.

Nighttime was the best time in Costa Rica, I decided. We had three or four really late night dinners under the stars. One night, we had stumbled upon a beachfront restaurant with heavy South Florida vibes and buried in the palms where we were seated at a ledge with stools next to a snoozing stray cat (“There’s a cat over there…if you’re cool with that,” said an uninterested host). We dined on deliciously medium rare steaks and outstanding bruschetta. Another night, we drove south to Playa De Los Artistas, a unique little beachfront restaurant where we dined on an impeccable tapas-style meal with an ambience begging to be the setting of a romance novel: candlelight flickering in stemless wine glasses with the backdrop of silky, moonlit waves, breezy palm leaves and distant blue sands, a papyrus menu written entirely in Spanish calligraphy, low, lacquered tables fashioned out of trees, and even lower adirondack chairs where you’re encouraged to rest your feet in the sand while you decant and sip wine from stone carafes. A server kneeled in the sand opposite to translate the menu for us and a German couple beside us. We ate tomato gazpacho, grilled octopus with crostini and hummus, and the best ceviche I’ve ever had. Here, my internal organs that had been twisted since October finally unwound: my boyfriend is eating raw fish and washing it down with red wine…and he’s fine.

Yet, both these places were close seconds to the most memorable dinner we had during our entire stay in Costa Rica…and it happened to be Italian. We drove the Echo up a wide, perilously rocky dirt road, so far up a neighboring mountain we reached the top, where open fields of tall grass spanned out underneath inky black skies strewn with stars. Nestled in the trees up here was Tierra Y Fuego, an oasis of strung patio lights, pebbly walking grounds, a wood fire pizza oven, and lush palms and fawns making way for patio sets. It was here, at one of the adorable bistro tables, that we sat underneath the lights, nocturnal insects hovering but never landing, like A Midsummer Night’s Dream. A seasoned, hardened Italian woman greeted us, served us, cooked us our meal. She was the owner, the head chef, the goddamn sausage maker. Everything on the expansive menu, she explained, was scratch-made on the premises, locally sourced, caught, gathered, killed, butchered, cut, served. Feeling very much like we were in Tuscany, we downed a chilled bottle of Malbec with our caprese and mozzarella salads, hearty bowls of fresh and meaty pasta, and tropical panna cotta with starfruit, a mild grass-scented breeze blessing our table. The whole thing was magical and extravagant and took a very long time from start to finish, but it was then and there my boyfriend decided, “Okay, we’re going to Italy next.”

January 1st. It was a new day, a new year, a new beginning. We cleansed ourselves in the clear waters at our favorite spot of Playa Las Manchas all day (choosing to be lazy, in part because our trip was nearing a close, but mostly because my grand plans to snorkel at Isla Tortuga that day were floundered when we neglected to also book that excursion far in advance). We at least got to witness the phenomenon of 2018’s first Supermoon. Photos didn’t do it justice, its golden, marbled face glimmering off the Pacific, as big and bright as a cartoon rendering. I had a good feeling about the year to come and what it would bring (spoiler alert: the Eagles would win the Superbowl), but more importantly, that my boyfriend’s health was on the right track and had only improved since day one of our vacation. I snapped a photo of him snapping a photo of the moon over the sea, and I felt at peace.

Our last day arrived with a doozy of a bill for all the charges to our room (we had a lot of breakfasts and late night beers at the pool bar). It was now time to make the harrowing journey home in reverse (at least this time we had our bearings, and it was easy to see by the early morning daylight), first speeding north farther up the mountain and snaking through the countryside where we still somehow narrowly missed our ferry at Paquera, practically skidding onto the middle deck sideways, then hauling ass out of the boat at Puntarenas where we drove to the airport at San Jose to park our Echo in the lot, unlocked with the key under the seat, and catch our first flight to Panama, where we unfortunately had booked an overnight layover, my boyfriend with the impression that we could just sleep in an airport lounge overnight using our luggage as pillows. If there were any type of “lounge,” it was nowhere to be found in the bare bones airport of Panama, so I last minute booked a nearby hotel for the night on my phone, spending a little over $100 for a surprisingly luxurious stay at a mid-range hotel, where we swathed ourselves in fluffy white bathrobes, ordered New York Strips, french fries and red wine for room service, plundered the floor’s vending machine for candy bars and soda, and queued up rom-coms on the TV, thrilled to fall asleep to silence, rather than screaming geckos. It was excessive, but worth every penny, and the relaxation was necessary for what was to come.

The next morning, we took the shuttle to the airport where, due to insane winter storms in the U.S. and peak Christmas/New Year travel season, we joined about a thousand others to wait in a line that snaked through the entire ground floor of the airport. We reached the counter and managed to book an earlier flight to Chicago where our third flight was waiting, me thinking that maybe we could also catch an early one there and get home in record time (wishful thinking). With only 25 minutes to our departure time, we lucked out when a flight attendant held up a cardboard sign with our flight number on it and let us skip the hundreds in front of us to get to our gate, with just enough time to buy a single bottle of water and finally board.

In Chicago, we descended into pure mayhem: all flights in and out were grounded due to inclement weather, so we alternated standing and squatting in a two hour line until we, at last, reached only one of two open counters, given the option to either stay in Chicago for the weekend and board the only available flight to Philly days from now, rent a car and drive from Chicago to Philly, or take the last two available separate seats on a flight to Washington D.C. at 10 P.M. that night. It was 3 P.M. now, but without hesitating, we jumped on the latter option, waiting for hours in the lounge, leaving only to nosh at a Chili’s, until well past 11 P.M. when a backup pilot and energy-drained flight attendants finally arrived after running the length of O’Hare. It was a tumultuous red-eye flight and I nearly grasped the hand of the girl next to me as the plane barreled over the gusty winds of an ice storm, screeching to a halt on the runway surrounded by snow. We were back in the Northeast and I wasn’t thrilled about it.

It was 1 A.M. at this point and we needed to get home to Philly stat, as my boyfriend had a shift at work the following day. I rented a car at the Hertz counter, paying exorbitant costs for the car and the insurance lest we crash on the black ice of the highways, and off we went, up the dark hypnotic stretch of 95, me pulling over midway through when I couldn’t take it anymore and switching with my boyfriend so I could bob my head into much-needed sleep. Close to two hours later and we were in a deserted, slush-covered Philly airport, dropping the car off at the Hertz counter there with a huff and toss of the keys, and waiting in the terminal for a half hour until the next available Lyft arrived, driving us in silence the 10 minutes to our apartment. We crashed on a sheet-less mattress and didn’t move a muscle until far past noon the next day.

A few days later, reluctantly resuming normal life in the tundra of Pennsylvania’s negative windchills, every antibiotic in my boyfriend’s bottle was finally gone, and so was whatever the hell sickness it was (later, we would self-diagnose with the help of a doctor in the family that it was most likely H Pylori). He gained the weight back pretty rapidly, and I attribute most, if not all, of that to the antibiotics in combination with the placebo trifecta of Costa Rican booze, weed, and food.

I’ll admit, though, that as October 2018 neared, I felt a similar sense of doom, as if bad luck has a schedule. What if he got sick again? What if it’s me this time? I held my breath. But nothing happened. We finished out the year unscathed and booked our trip to Italy the following year, ready to take on the next adventure.

Because all that hassle leading up to Montezuma, the hospital beds and pinpricks in the arms and urgent care waiting rooms, the travel hick-ups and uncertainty in another land, the trip from hell home that followed…it was all worth it, and we got through it…together. Barely staying awake on that wind-whipped drive from D.C. to Philly in the wee hours of the morning was so us. Why should it be easy? Our bed wouldn’t have felt so nice if we had it any less hard.

So Montezuma didn’t really take revenge on us after all, unless navigating to and from its beachy, jungly mountains counted as some sort of a lesson. It had kept our sanity in check, unequivocally hitting the reset button on our mental health (and, by extension, our gut health). It was a trip and a half, and not one I would likely be pining to do again (and I’m never again traveling during winter storms), but nothing worthwhile ever comes easy, however the saying goes. You want to feel the cool depths of Montezuma’s falls, you’ve got to jump in…all in.

Pura vida, man, am I right?

© 2020 Andrea Festa

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