What Happens When a World Wonder Initially Lets You Down?

As we emerged from our hotel into the pre-dawn darkness the air hung heavy and still. The streets were unusually quiet for India and we reveled in the solitude. Mounds of trash and stray dogs lay every few feet along the deserted road as we made our way towards the Taj Mahal.   

The call to prayer started to play eerily, as if on queue, as we entered the gardens which led to the infamous world wonder. Fog, or smog, hung low to the ground, adding to the mystical ambiance. I had a difficult time accepting the putrid, polluted air into my lungs… It was clammy and had a sour taste as you breathed it in, but we walked through, intent on the end destination.
We arrived to the ticket office just after six, and made our way to the separated lines for men and women. Shortly before seven, armed guards popped out from a small door and proceeded to tear, punch and stamp our tickets before permitting us through to the security check.
When we finally got past the main gate and into the entrance for the Taj Mahal, it was completely underwhelming. The smoggy fog hung thick in front of the beautiful building, almost completely hiding it from view. After a head bobble and a chuckle, we accepted that “this is India” and nothing is ever as you expect.

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We continued on through the flower-laden grounds, to make our way to the mausoleum. Each step that brought us closer shed a different perspective on the building. It’s amazing to think of all the man-power that went in to constructing it- over 20,000 people and nearly 30 years. The Taj Mahal was built by Emperor Shah Jahan for his “favorite wife” Mumtaz Mahal after she died giving birth to their son. It’s a shame, because once the place was finally completed, one of the Emperor’s sons locked him up in the nearby Agra Fort, so he couldn’t even appreciate it freely, but rather from the distance of a cell window.

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We had to either remove our shoes or put on shoe covers before we set foot inside, but once inside it was a completely different world.

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It was quiet, and warmer, and smelled faintly of perfume. It was dark, as there is no electricity in the building, so the only light that illuminated the beautiful intricacy of the tiles came from the carved marble windows.

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As we made our way around the tomb and out into the sunlight that was starting to break through the gray sky, a new light was cast upon the buildings before us.

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The sun caught the gemstones inlaid in a floral pattern on the side of the building and sparkled brilliantly.

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I was reminded of a quote by author Roald Dahl which says, “And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.”
To each side of the main mausoleum was a building, brick red and sky high. As we walked up to it, the doorways framed each other, one after another, beckoning us to see what lay further within.

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The tile work was incredible, red and white stacked on one another until it created a beautiful dome above. Pigeons fluttered about inside, and there was a man with his bristle-brush broom methodically sweeping the dust and dropping in the soft morning light.

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As we came about full circle, we were delighted to look out on the Taj perfectly framed by a doorway of the building were in…

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and as we sat there admiring the view, a group of at least one hundred monkeys ran across the open space, taking the area by storm. It was amazing to see such a troop running together, and then in the middle of it all, was an Australian tourist chasing a monkey who had stolen his shoe…

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Eventually I separated from my group in order to absorb the beauty at my own pace, on my own terms, and with my own thoughts. I slowly walked the grounds and marveled at every detail, letting the architectural artwork feed my inner designer and fuel my dreams for a future home.

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I took time to notice every twist of a column, curve of a doorway or boarder of a wall. The place was spectacular.

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As I walked back through the gardens, I tried to imagine the grounds without the mass of tourists that were all around. I focused on the birds flying from the fountains to the tree branches, and the bees buzzing from flower to flower. I was happy I hadn’t let my first impression spoil my ability to look with glittering eyes, and to see past the smoggy morning to the wonder that lay within.

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My key take away from all this? Yes, first impressions can be accurate (for me, Agra is still the city with the worst air in India) but don’t let them get in the way of seeing past the obvious and finding the best in a situation. Whether it’s a person or place, always try to look with glittering eyes, and you will find yourself living on the happier side of life…

One Photo, Please! Meandering the Streets of Bundi, India

When I came to India, I knew there would be culture shock, but after a week of traveling through a few big cities, I couldn’t handle one more minute. I was sick of the filth, the overwhelming poverty, the deception and the greed that was so prevalent in the cities. Sure, I loved the food, the history, the colorful yet dilapidated buildings, but I was lacking human connection. I am a “people person” to my core, so to feel such a lack of trust with the majority of the people I encountered really affected me.

It was right around this time that my travels moved onward to the “small city” of Bundi in Rajathstan. This city of approximately 100,000 people was a breath of fresh air in comparison to Delhi (population: ~25 million), Varanasi (population: ~3 million) or Jaipur (population ~6 million).

From the moment I left Jaipur and started to drive through the countryside, I felt an immense relief. For the first time in days, there was space around me! I passed beautiful green crops, and saw herds of camels making their way across the desert land. It was wonderful.

About 4 hours after leaving Jaipur I entered Bundi, a city full of royal blue houses. Fort walls climb the mountainside where a clay-colored palace is perched, perfectly located to oversee the city below.

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Even though Bundi is “small” it is still packed full of people, and bustling with cows, dogs, carts, motorcycles, and other signs of life, but the difference with this city is that the people are still genuine. When they smile and say hello, there is no ulterior motive to proposition you to buy something, they are simply happy to share their town with a foreigner.

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As I walked the town, exploring the streets off the main drag, I found decorated doors and exquisite entryways. There were many brightly colored and ornately carved buildings. Of course everything could have used a coat of fresh paint, but it was beautiful and wholesome, and I loved it nonetheless.

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The best part of Bundi was definitely the people, especially the children. Everywhere I went, kids would smile and run up and ask, “One photo please??”

They were used to seeing foreigners take pictures of things in their town, and it made them feel special to have a picture taken of themselves. Of course I obliged.

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But every now and then, there would be a little scoundrel who would start hustling you for Rupees after you took the photo he had requested, and that would again put a bad taste in my mouth. Unfortunately, it’s probably only a matter of time until the obnoxious sales tactics of the larger cities makes their way into Bundi, but for now, the city is a sweet reminder of all that is incredible about India.

If you’re ever traveling about Rajathstan, and you’re starting to feel overwhelmed by the noise and the chaos, take a side trip to Bundi. The city’s slower pace will put you at ease, but it’s not so small that it will put you to sleep. In a matter of a day, you will know Bundi, and Bundi will most likely know you. Embrace the charm and share a smile with all those you encounter… Then, when it starts to become too familiar, make your way to Udaipur, with a stop at the Chittaurgarh Fort on the way.

Ways to Make the Best of your Stay in Bundi:
Be sure to climb up to the Palace and the Fort.
Eat a friendly local meal on the rooftop with brothers, Tom & Jerry, or kick back with some non-Indian cuisine at the delicious restaurant, Out of the Blue.
Stroll the streets, enjoy the “best Chai in Bundi” at Krishna’s Chai.
Make friends with the locals, but try to avoid getting head-butted by a cow…

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Same Same but Different

The past two nights I have had horrible dreams with the underlying theme of lying, cheating and dishonest people. The strange thing is that in both dreams I am on my “Indian adventure”, but in my own home town. My current travel partners from India are with me, and I am teaching them how to avoid being taken advantage of. However sometimes, as in my most recent dream, I am still the one who loses to the thieves if it is my own fault for making the opportunity too easy. As I lay in bed the second night, awake with unreleased scream of my dream still fresh in my head, I began to understand what the drama of my dreams was telling me. I’ll explain it for you in a new Indian-English phrase that I have recently learned: same same, but different.

Essentially what these dreams have been reminding me is that although I am shocked by the filth and the poverty and the apparent dishonesty of the people here in India, it is really just the same thing which exists in other places, only here I am more susceptible to it and it seems to be magnified by a million.

India is the seventh largest country in the world with the second highest population. There are at least 40 cities alone with over one million people. It is no wonder why I am feeling overwhelmed. I have just spent the past two years living in tiny Costa Rica, a country smaller than Lake Michigan, with only around 4 million people in total. I am now facing cities with double this amount of people on a daily basis.

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There is good as well as evil everywhere. A wise friend once told me that India will show me whichever face I want to see. If I focus on the aspects which disgust me, then I will only see more of these, and if I focus on the beauties all around then these will become more prevalent. This is really true with anything in life. When it comes to India, I am trying. In a city where I am accosted by swindling beggars over and over I am having trouble with this. I wish there was less of a communication barrier because I would so love to talk to these people and ask a simple question: why? I guess it’s a way of life, and it is their way of making money to survive, but I think that many people on the streets here are taught to put their hand out before they are taught to put their hands to work.

As I watch women with babies in their arms run up to strangers and wave an empty bottle in their face, I realize that it’s not only happening to me. The people of the street approach unsuspecting Indians as well as visitors from other countries. The sad thing about the example with the mother, baby, and empty bottle, is that if you didn’t know any better, you would gladly want to buy this woman and her poor baby milk. But nothing is as it appears here. As soon as you walk away this woman won’t give the milk to the baby she is showing you – she will instead exchange the milk for money. The baby in her arms most likely isn’t even hers as the kids are passed around like accessories here.

I once witnessed one woman approach our group asking for money, and as she was turned down by half of us, she punched the child in the face to produce a more sad looking child as she rounded over to the second half of the group, where she again began to smile sadly and touch her hand to her mouth in the motion of “please help feed me and my struggling child”. At this point I had seen the truth and I knew it was a facade.

However I can’t let these instances tarnish my perception of this amazing country. When you travel, you see things that shock you, but that’s the point of travel- to broaden your horizons, to challenge your what you see as “normal”, and to learn how other people live their lives without judgement.

As I moved away from the chaotic city life and on to a “small city” of 100,000 people, I found myself again enjoying India. I have been told that India will cause you to bend until you snap, but once it happens, you will snap into place. I think I’m on my way there..but until then…I am beyond thankful for the charming blue accented city of Bundi and a little reprieve from the congestion and chaos of the past few days.

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The Sounds of India

From the moment you wake up, even before you open your eyes, you can hear India all around you.

From the bed where I rest my head, I hear voices from the hallway, loud and foreign. Doors shutting forcefully, and causing the rest of the doors to shake in their frames. People washing themselves. The splash of the water, the sounds of people clearing every orifice to start their daily routines.

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On the street, the crowd has only just begun to form. India isn’t a country of early risers, but India is a country of more than 16 billion, so even the “early rising” crowd can account for thousands.

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There is a clamor all around. A bustle that comes with the street. People are walking, and shuffling around one another. Some push carts, full of food- vegetables dripping water, popcorn bursting over a fire, and many unidentified fried objects. Others pull carts, loaded with rock or brick or wood.

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Every hundred steps or so, you see a dog. Surprisingly, I haven’t heard one sound from a dog, but their eyes tell a story and you know they have seen unimaginable things.

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As you come to an intersection, you wonder how there hasn’t been a collision. No one stops until their rickshaw is almost touching the car or cart or motorbike that has crossed in front of them. The intersection is a place where a crash seems inevitable, yet somehow everyone manages to continue on, unscathed.

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The horns are so prevalent that before you know it, they become your background noise. The calls of people however, jump to the foreground, as they approach you, inviting you to try this, buy that, or simply give a handout of some sort- chocolate, milk, money…

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The temples have a sound all their own. The Sikh temple has live music, blaring rhythmically, enchantingly from the speakers surrounding and inside the building. The Hindu temple is cool, calm, and quiet, with the sounds of the people echoing off the marble floors, walls and ceilings.

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As afternoon turns to evening, the bustle dies down again, as India is not a late-night place either. Again, there are still thousands, but in comparison to the hundreds of thousands, this seems tame. As you walk through the market, you are accosted by hundreds of smells all at once, but this is another tale completely…

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There is no official end to the day, but once the streets are dark, there is definitely a “quiet” that comes about. Horns are fewer, as the traffic mostly turns to pedestrians. You return back to the room where you reside, and if you are in the Raj Villa of Paharganj, New Delhi, the sound that will accompany you to your dreams is the sound of the hotel elevator playing Kenny G every time someone steps in to use it…

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This is India.

The Amazing Race to Bocas del Toro Panama

When I set off to travel to the islands of Bocas del Toro, Panama, I had no idea that I was setting off on a trip that would rival the adventures seen in CBS’s  The Amazing Race. I had been living in Costa Rica just over 7 months when at that time, and I had been hearing about the beautiful archipelago of Bocas for at least half that time, so when my friend came for a visit, I decided it would be the perfect long-weekend vacation for us.

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We  rose with the sun, and set off from San Jose, Costa Rica before the clock struck 6. After winding through the gorgeous and dense Braulio Carrillo mountain range for a few hours, we emerged in Limon and drove along the coast until it was time to curve inland to get to Sixaola and the Costa Rica – Panama boarder crossing. This portion of “the race” took us around 5 hours…no problem.

We parked my car at the long term parking yard and then approached the Costa Rican boarder, where we needed to stamp out. There was a bit of a line, so it probably took us around 30 minutes to complete the paperwork and receive the stamp before we were ready to exit the country.

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In order to cross from Costa Rica to Panama, we had to cross a bridge…but not just any bridge. This old wooden bridge which we crossed had wobbly boards and spaces between the planks which were so big that a 3 year old child could have fallen right through to the river below! We learned that up until only a few months before, the bridge had still been in use by semi trucks passing between the countries! My friend had a rolling suitcase, so we laughed quite a bit as she tried to drag it along behind her. Eventually we accepted the fact that carrying the suitcase was the better option, and we made our way, suitcase in hand, from Costa Rica to Panama, where another line awaited us.

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The line to get into Panama was much longer. We waited alongside the immigration building for at least an hour before finally getting into the office. There, they told us we must have proof that we were leaving the country. My friend had a copy of her return flight from Costa Rica, and I had the ticket from the parking yard for my car and my residency card for Costa Rica, but that apparently didn’t cut it- I had to buy a bogus $14 bus ticket from the bus station at the bottom of the hill. This is obviously a complete scam, but sometimes you just can’t reason with the boarder patrol, so I sucked it up, bought the bus ticket, and jumped back into the passport line to receive my stamp for Panama and continue on my way.

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After officially making our way through the boarder crossing, it was time for the next segment of our Amazing Race: catching a mini-van to the coast. There are quite a few vans waiting to fill up with tourists, so once the van we selected was sufficiently loaded, we set off on the 45 minute drive, winding through the breathtaking Panamanian countryside. It was during this van ride, that our party of two expanded to become a party of six. We met four incredible Americans traveling together and they complimented our vibe perfectly, so we offered to share the extra space in our beachside bungalow with them.

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Once we arrived at the waterfront, we walked to the docks, and caught a 30-minute boatride to Boca’s main island, Colón. On Colón, we stocked up on some groceries, then made our way to our pickup point where we would catch our final boat to our small island. On this ride, we passed many small islands, stilt houses, mangroves, and even had dolphins swimming alongside us during the final stretch of our Amazing Race.

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As we approached our bungalow, we couldn’t believe our luck. With a dock stretching out into the ocean, and the house built on stilts, it stood in the midst of the gorgeous blue ocean, welcoming us. It was beyond spectacular.

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The caretakers of the bungalow, Michael and Christine, were from San Diego, and were incredibly friendly and hospitable. We spent the remainder of the day lounging in the water around the stilt house.

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The next day, we started to explore the island, finding coconuts to accompany our breakfast.

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Michael took the six of us out on his boat, and we made our way through the mangroves, then on to five different spots for snorkeling.

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The snorkeling was the best I have ever experienced. The sheer variety of coral alone was amazing, but the quantity of fish that accompanied the coral, and the beautiful sea creatures we encountered along the way, made the experience completely magical.

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After hours of snorkeling, we pit stopped on Isla Coral at the Coral Cay Restaurant to enjoy a mid-afternoon lunch break.

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After hours out on the ocean and in the sun, we were able to rest easy that night, soaking in the sunset and delighting in the bioluminescence of the waters below the bungalow.

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When it came time to set off the next day, Christine brought us back to the main island of Colón, where after breakfast, our party of six shrunk back down to a party of two.

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It had started to rain, which is actually quite typical for Bocas, but that didn’t stop us from walking around and exploring the town.

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The city was alive with color, and the flowers were blooming all around.

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Our hostel for the night, Bahia del Sol, was right on the water, and beautiful within…

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but was located in the heart of a typical neighborhood, with houses on top of houses.

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Once we had dropped off our belongings, we continued to explore Bocas, stopping for drinks with a view from above…

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and delighting in whatever else we happened to stumble upon along the way…

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As our visit came to an end, I was extremely happy that we had chosen to pursue the Amazing Race adventure to Bocas del Toro. Each hour of the long journey was worth it, and after it all we were left with memories and friendships that have continued on long past our long weekend in Bocas del Toro, Panama.

Have you ever taken a trip to Bocas? If so, what did you think?

23 Surprising Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Costa Rica

Costa Rica, literally meaning, Rich Coast, is one of the most culturally appealing countries I have ever had the pleasure of visiting, and after living there for more than two years, I proudly call this place my second home. During my time in Costa Rica, I was constantly learning new and interesting facts about this little country and their wonderful way of life. Here are 23 fun things you probably didn’t know about Costa Rica until now…

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1. Costa Rica is smaller than Lake Michigan. 

I always knew Costa Rica was small, but one day I was looking up the stats and was astounded to find out that Costa Rica measures in at only 51,100 square kilometers, whereas Lake Michigan measures in at 57,800 square kilometers. Despite the fact that this whole little country can fit inside the the Great Lake which boarders my home-state of Michigan, it is packed with amazing things to do and beautiful places to see.

2. Costa Rica has 5% of the world’s biodiversity and around 20% of the land is protected in the form of National Parks or Nature Reserves.

Come to Costa Rica and there is no question you will see more exotic and colorful plants and animals than you have ever seen in your entire life.

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3. Costa Ricans are called Ticos and Ticas.

Following the masculine and feminine endings, a male is a Tico and a female is a Tica.

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4. Pura Vida is a popular saying, as well as a way of life.

How are you doing? Pura vida. Thank you! Pura vida. I’ve been waiting for hours…Pura vida. When you come to Costa Rica, you will quickly learn that “pura vida”,  which literally translates to “pure life”,  is basically a way of living happily and brushing away your worries.

5. Costa Rica is rated as one of the happiest places in the world.

Perhaps due to the laid back pura vida lifestyle, Costa Rica has been rated as one of the happiest places to live for several consecutive years. The fact that it is nearly always sunny and 80 degrees doesn’t hurt either…

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6. The Ticos are some of the friendliest and most helpful people you will ever meet.

However, sometimes in their willingness to help, Ticos might not tell you that they don’t really know the answer, and this can end up leading you in circles…Especially with directions!

7. There are 7 provinces which make up the country.

These provinces are as follows: San Jose (where the capital is), Cartago (where the capital used to be), Alajuela (hot and in the center), Heredia (beautiful and mountainous), Guanacaste (where you will find the best beaches on the Pacific), Limon (often recognized as the most unsafe area but home to beautiful Caribbean beaches) and Puntarenas (where you will find more beautiful Pacific beaches).

8. Addresses as we know them in the United States do not exist. You must use a point of reference, sometimes referring to a place that hasn’t existed for the last 10 years. 

“100 meters south of the old Suzuki dealership” or “300 meters north of the Red Cross” or “50 meters west of the big Roble tree”… When I first set off to travel Costa Rica, I expected to plug an address in to my GPS and go, however I quickly learned that I needed to use the province, then a “point of reference”, and then hope for the best. Also, there are many duplicate cities in Costa Rica (example: there are four “Playa Hermosa” beaches…) so it is important to know which province you are looking for, and then work from there.

9. “Mae” is the Ticos way of saying “Dude”

Open your ears and you will hear this being said in nearly every sentence.

10. The national dish is the Casado and consists of a piece of protein, a salad, rice, beans, and a fried sweet plantain. 

The word “casado” actually means to be married, and this is how the term came to be used for food, because once a man was “casado” he would have food for life.

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11. When women get married, they do not take the last name of their husband. 

Everyone typically has two last names- the first last name is from their father, and the second last name is from their mother.

12. Couples refer to their partners as their “media naranja” or the other half of their orange. 

The first time I heard someone use this term, I was beyond confused…

13. Dogs roam about freely. 

Sometimes they have owners, other times they are community pets. They are almost always friendly, and will often adopt you for a walk along the beach.

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14. You can’t flush toilet paper. 

They say it’s because their pipes are old and small and clog easily…I didn’t want to test it, so I followed suit and threw the TP in the trashcan like the locals.

15. Many celebrations include mascaras. 

Mascaras are traditional paper mache headdresses, and people put them on and dance around during various celebrations like birthday parties and city anniversaries.

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16. There are unlimited parties during a Presidential Election, and the winner must win by at least 40%.

While I was living there in 2014, there were at least 13 people competing in the Presidential Election, and when the top two candidates nearly tied, they had to go into “overtime” and have another election day between the top two candidates in order to determine an official winner. Also, it is fairly easy to have the opportunity to meet the President. Here I am with Luis Guillermo Solis, winner of the 2014 Presidential elections.

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17. The police (“policia”) drive around with their lights on all the time, just to show their presence, however they cannot pull you over for traffic violations.

However, the Transito (dark blue vehicles with yellow writing), typically sit along the side of the road, and can wave you over with only their hand, then write you a ticket.

18. They money is called Colones and the colorful bills come in the form of 1000’s.

You can look like a millionaire, but really only have a few hundred dollars to your name.

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19. Costa Rica can have snow.

This was shocking to me, but it is true. Near Chirripo, the tallest mountain in Costa Rica, there are times where there is ice and even snow.

20. It is pitch black by 6 pm, year round. 

Costa Rica is close to the equator, giving the country a solid 12 hours of daylight year round. The upside to this, is that the sun always rises by 5:45am, but the downside is that the sun sets by 6pm, year round. Side note: Costa Rica has the most breathtaking sunsets ever.

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21. Milk and eggs are sold unrefrigerated, and people wash their eggs before using them. 

Funny story about washing the eggs… The word for eggs is “huevos”. People also refer to men’s testicles as “huevos”. When one of my friends was learning Spanish, she innocently started a conversation with her co-worker about how she was shocked to find out that Ticos washed their “huevos”.  The poor man sputtered in surprise at the statement until he finally understood that she was referring to eggs, and not testicles… Needless to say, my friend was beyond mortified, and this deterred her from practicing Spanish for quite some time.

22. A “Soda” is  small restaurant where you can buy typical food.

They often look like a hole in the wall, but don’t let the appearance fool you- the food is always delicious.

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23. People brush their teeth after nearly every meal

Even in the corporate world, after breakfast, lunch, or the afternoon snack, all of my co-workers would flock to the bathrooms with their toothpaste, toothbrush, and sometimes even mouthwash or dental floss and clean their mouths before they would even consider attending a meeting. This was a custom I appreciated and embraced, and I now go everywhere with a toothbrush.

Now it’s your turn…Have you ever visited Costa Rica? What were some surprising things you learned during your visit?

 

Make the Most of Your Visit to Monteverde Costa Rica

Tucked away towards the center of the country, you will spend several hours driving to arrive in Monteverde, Costa Rica. Despite the fact that it is one of the country’s top tourist destinations, the roads remain unpaved, and they curve along the mountainsides as they climb higher and higher into the luscious cloud forest that awaits you. Take it slow, and enjoy the journey. The drive is worth it- Monteverde is amazing.

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When most people say “Monteverde” they typically mean the whole area around the actual National Park of Monteverde. Santa Elena is the city which is a “hub of activity” with restaurants, hotels/hostels, supermarkets, shops and the Amigos bar. Although the area is quite small, it is brimming with things to do. If you love to hike and be out in nature, this is the place for you.

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If you decide to take the trek to Monteverde, the following list will help ensure that you make the most of your time in the area…

1. Go zip-lining or walk the suspension bridges

Monteverde is known for its magical cloud forest, and two great ways to experience this forest are either to zip-line through it, or to walk in the sky while crossing the incredible suspension bridges. Zip-lining will take you zooming through the canopies and across open expanses where you feel as if you’re a bird, soaring through the open sky. The suspension bridges will also take you to amazing heights, but with these you will walk through at your own pace, which lets you look around longer and soak in all the details. Both experiences will get your heart beating and will leave your mouth dropping open in amazement…and if you’re really gutsy, be sure to try the Tarzan swing towards the end of your zip-lining experience. This swing will be one of the most terrifying, yet exhilarating, experiences of your time in Costa Rica.

There are several places which offer these services, and you can book a tour ahead of time while walking through Santa Elena. I chose Selvatura Adventure Park and was 100% satisfied with the experience.

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2. Hike Curi Cancha Nature Reserve

Curi Cancha Nature Reserve is full of wildlife, easy walking trails, and spectacular scenery. The trails are well-marked and the rangers at the entrance will help you select the route that’s best for you. Every time I have visited this park, I have been lucky enough to see the cute pizotes (they look like a raccoon’s cousin) hanging out around the picnic tables, as well as dozens of hummingbirds buzzing around the feeders in the trees. Curi Cancha is up a small dirt road just to the left of the Monteverde Cheese Factory. You can always stop here before or after your hike for a sweet treat or something more substantial to eat.

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3. Climb the hollowed out strangler trees

While hiking around, you will see many tangles of vines covering trees. If you get closer and stick your head into the vines, you may be delighted to find out that some of these masses are hollow within, and very easy to climb. “Strangler trees”, as they are called, start out as a seed in the branches of existing trees, and over hundreds of years they grow down and cover the tree, suffocating it until eventually the tree within dies and decomposes, leaving behind a natural tree-ladder. If you decide to climb up these central tunnels, you can look out the “windows” at the forest beyond and depending on the tree, you may be able to climb all the way up to the top and emerge out in the canopy above for the view of a lifetime. There are strangler trees all around the area’s cloud forests, but I found at least half a dozen to explore in Curi Cancha alone.

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4. Take a night tour

A night tour offers a whole new perspective on the  beautiful forests you have already explored during the day. It is incredible to see the different creatures which come out at night, and to also find the daytime creatures curled into a ball and sleeping in the branches. There are many places which offer night tours in both English and Spanish, and they typically start around 6pm, just after sunset.

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5. Stop at Stella’s Bakery

Stella’s is an absolute must if you are anywhere near Monteverde. Located shortly before the Curi Cancha Nature Reserve, it offers a delectable menu with both savory and sweet items, as well as juices, teas and coffees. The best part about Stella’s is the wide variety of birds which come to the feeder just outside of the main eating area. In the time it takes you to drink a coffee, you will probably see over a dozen different exotic birds right outside the window!

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6. Catch your own fish dinner

If you’re up for a bit of an adventure, continue past Monteverde towards the town of San Luis and go catch your own fish dinner at the Rancho de Lelo. On the drive, you wind down into the valley and see the San Luis Waterfall in the distance, before eventually passing the school and curving towards the right to find the sustainable Rancho, which is actually a project in conjunction with the University of Georgia. The drive is only about 15-20 minutes beyond Monteverde, but as we made our way there, my passengers began to exclaim that we couldn’t possibly be on the right track… until we came upon the sign below, and then entered our own personal paradise. One thing I learned from my two years in Costa Rica is that you can’t judge a place based on the appearance.

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Places to stay:

Santa Elena / Monteverde has many options of places to stay, ranging from hostels to bed and breakfast hotels. Two places I highly recommend, due to their hospitality and wonderful owners, are the Monteverde Rustic Lodge, and Cabanas Valle Campanas. Both are owned by Costa Rican families, and have beautiful accommodations which are only about a 5 minutes drive from the city center.

Many visitors spend a few short days in Monteverde, and if you are one of them, make sure to keep this list in mind. These six suggestions will help you have a unique and memorable experience, and when you leave you will know you have made the most of your visit to Monteverde, Costa Rica.

Have you ever been to Monteverde? What were some of your favorite things you did while there?