This past weekend I visited La Fortuna, a small town in Costa Rica famous for its proximity to inactive Arenal Volcano. I went with my study abroad program, which consists of around 25 students, mostly women.
We left early in the morning on Saturday, around 6:30 a.m. and stopped around eight to use the restroom and grab a snack from a small convenience and souvenir shop. Across the road from where our giant tour bus stopped was a tranquil little lookout point facing lush green hills and mountains in the distance. The view reminded me a bit of my home state, Wisconsin, because of the visible farmland and grazing cattle – even though most of Costa Rica is a dense rainforest far from the American Midwest.
Our journey continued and our next stop was La Fortuna waterfall. A little sleepy still, I changed into my swimsuit in the restroom and followed my friends down the 500 stairs to the pool below. Along the path a small family of monkeys darted between the trees and I nearly tripped trying to get a better glimpse of their small, furry baby.
The view of the waterfall when I made it to the bottom looked like something out of a highly edited Instagram photo. The only thing that ruined it slightly was the dozens of tourists doing the same thing I was: marveling at the scene before them and preparing to dip a toe into the frosty water. I did more than dip a toe; I made my way down the jagged, rocky shoreline and jumped in. This was the most refreshing experience thus far in Costa Rica. The sun was shining, I wasn’t wearing sunscreen, and I hoped to see a sloth, or at least another monkey.
The weekend passed by in a similar fashion. The hotel was beautiful. Palms lined the roads between our rooms and bushes with bright red, orange, and yellow blossoms greeted us as we made our way down to the pool. The volcano was always visible to the East, and had a perpetual circle of clouds obscuring its jagged mouth – due to, as I learned, condensation from human activity during the hot hours of the day. Our gaggle of study abroad kids spent the night drinking spicy margaritas at the hotel wet bar (accessible right from the hot springs – what could be more luxurious) and taking turns rocketing down the steep waterslide that has likely never passed a safety inspection.
I had tons of fun and returned home exhausted and tan. However, part of me wondered if it was a packaged, tourist version of La Fortuna that I had just experienced. Our comfy tour bus was essentially a bubble from which to experience a town and resort where many of the staff spoke English and were used to Americans parading in and out. I felt embarrassed, and a little guilty. These thoughts were not new to me after living in San José for two weeks, but I have not yet learned the best way to navigate feeling like a spoiled outsider. I came here to step outside of my comfort zone and practice a second language, and I’m finding it much harder to do both than I expected. I keep asking myself, “am I being too cynical?”
In the coming weeks it might be up to me to push myself to experience some less-touristy spots and spend time with non-English speakers who are not in my program. Updates are to come, but right now I have mixed feelings about if I’m experiencing Costa Rica the “right” way.