The locals call it "Tamagringo." With all the retirees, surfers, yogis, and 30-somethings who gave up the rat race to start anew, the small northern Costa Rica town of Tamarindo has a reputation as an expat haven.
So how did I end up in this touristy town? It all began last year when I took a solo trip to Amsterdam and decided to try living like a local. I would shop at the local grocery store and ride a bike everywhere. But after a week of bar-hopping solo at neighborhood pubs, hanging out in cafes, museums, and historical sites, I was exhausted from my activity-packed itinerary and, worse, had not made one friend. I knew, I needed something different. No itineraries, no trying so hard to see everything or to make like a local. Relaxation is what I expected from my next vacation in Costa Rica.
Yet my dog-eared, sticky-noted guide book said otherwise. Volcano-hunting, snorkeling, hiking, zip-lining, animal-watching, it was all too enticing for a fast-paced city girl like myself, and my resolve to do nothing flew out the window in true Type A fashion.
At my hotel, I bombarded LB, the friendly receptionist, with price and time requests for the various excursions. This in addition to daily yoga and bike riding. He promised to look into all my questions and get back to me. Costa Rica here I come!
LB took a little too long for my tastes, so on my way to the beach I checked out a snorkeling trip the following morning. I had heard Costa Rica was not the best place to go snorkeling, due to lack of visibility at times, but the tour operator assured me it was fine. Pushing aside my hesitation, I forked over my credit card. What could go wrong?
Well, apparently zero visibility and rough waves that tossed me into a large rock formation, gashing my knee open and inducing a panic attack as I desperately tried to swim back to the boat. After finally making it on board, thankful to be alive, I examined the damage and knew I needed stitches.
"After I stitch you up," said the doctor, "no biking, no yoga, no hiking, and you can't go into the water."
"Damn!" I momentarily thought of forgoing the stitches and ignoring his advice. But upon realizing that risking infection would be idiotic at best, I caved in. "Fine, stitch me up."
With my activity-filled plans ruined, I gathered my books and iPod and headed to the beach. While other guests frolicked in the waves, I sat on my lounge chair feeling resentful, like a sidelined athlete. I wanted so badly to fight against my situation so typical of me, always insisting on bending things to my will.
After some time fuming, I realized that I felt exhausted just like at home and I was acting contrary to the need that first brought me to Costa Rica: Relaxation! That's when it dawned on me that nobody cared but me; I was battling myself. Accepting that idea and the fact that I had no power whatsoever to change my situation, I allowed myself to give in.
No longer wanting to struggle, I quit swimming upstream in a no-win race and rode calmly along with the flow.
And that's when the fun began.
A young, charming, local surf instructor with rock hard abs sauntered over.
"Oh honey, what happened to your leg?" he said.
"I got into a little snorkeling accident," I replied.
"Mind if I sit next to you? My name is Alex by the way."
"Nope not at all," I said with a smile.
Truthfully, Alex and I had little in common, but he was just one person who led me to another. One situation led to the next, and before I knew it, I had an entire posse of new friends: a goofy do-gooder from NYC, three uber-manly police officers from Cali, a hilarious Dutchman, a fun-loving surgeon from Florida, an Israeli surfer, and of course Alex who fit your typical surfer-dude stereotype.
Would I have encountered them had I been busy plotting my itinerary? Would I have sat down next to the cops by myself or invited myself to hang out with the guy from New York? Probably not. Once I dropped my itinerary, my need for control, and my attachment to the idea of a action-packed vacation, and let myself go, people came to me. Even without a cell phone, I somehow managed to connect with everyone I needed at just the right time.
The funny thing about travel is that by getting you out of your comfort zone, you become well . . . uncomfortable. And that discomfort is what causes you to rethink, open up to new people and possibilities. Or, as the Costa Ricans say, pura vida relax and enjoy the good life