An excellent Costa Rican adventure goes bad

Not every adventure goes to plan – sometimes they fall flat. But there’s always another waiting just around the corner

I step out of a bus in Turrialba – a tiny city 80 to 90 kilometres away from home. For me, home is where I leave my luggage. My bag, perhaps my life, is now in a hostel locker in the Costa Rican capital of San José.

There is not much to the city of Turrialba, other than the volcano that sits on its edge – Shutterstock Costa Rican
There is not much to the city of Turrialba, other than the volcano that sits on its edge – Shutterstock

This tiny city might even look welcoming. A handful of one-storey shops and houses are clamped together in no particular order right at the foot of the Turrialba volcano, surrounded by coffee plantations and pristine jungles.

Surely, every family in the city can see the smoky summit from their kitchen windows, along with beautiful tropical gardens, fruit trees and all the wildlife that comes with it.

The Turrialba volcano is one of the dozens of Costa Rican volcanoes that shake things up every once in a while and, in the past couple of years, it has increased its activity. Despite being located right under an active volcano the city seems peaceful. Too peaceful.

I look around searching for a sign of life but all the streets are empty. If I were to take a nap right now, I could use my backpack as a pillow, lay down on the main road and get some rest without risking being run over by a car. The bus that just dropped me here was the last for two days. A homeless dog is my only company.

Turrialba volcano is active and erupts regularly – Shutterstock Costa Rican
Turrialba volcano is active and erupts regularly – Shutterstock

The entire country is celebrating the Semana Santa – one whole week of holidays before Easter. Ticos (that’s what Costa Ricans call themselves) spend this time quietly with families or go to the beach with friends, because any holiday is a good enough reason to visit one of Costa Rican beaches. No wonder cities seem dead these days.

What am I doing here in Turrialba, you ask. Trust me, I’m asking myself the exact same question. All of my friends decided to spend this week on the beaches of neighbouring Panama. And me? Let’s say I was in the mood for my own adventure.

My Costa Rican friend Maria Carolina invited me to spend the Semana Santa with her family. And let’s be honest, when a place that you call home is just a place where you drop your luggage, sometimes you start missing another type of home. A home where a family gathers together, where a grandpa makes jokes, a beautiful Costa Rican mother serves everyone yet another variation of a rice and beans dish and two funny poodles are running around, making noise.

Ceviche is a dish of cured, raw fish, served with lime, lemon, onion and chilli pepper – Shutterstock Costa Rican
Ceviche is a dish of cured, raw fish, served with lime, lemon, onion and chilli pepper – Shutterstock

I painted a picture in my mind based on everything Maria Carolina had told me about her family and I was ready for a special adventure – and it seems like I’ve got exactly what I’d asked for. Only, I might need to revisit my definition of adventure and make sure it doesn’t include being left alone in the middle of nowhere.

I aimlessly wander the streets of Turrialba. The bright walls and retro signboards of local shops lead me to a neat square of exuberant tropical forest fashioned into a park. I walk through and find myself surrounded by tidy houses that all look alike: flat roofs, brightly coloured walls and wide, covered patios where I imagine a whole family would relax during the hot afternoon hours.

In one of these houses a beautiful Costa Rican family is gathered around the table, waiting for me. Which one? I don’t know. But I do know it’s going to get dark soon. Maria Carolina is not answering her phone. And now there is no-one else to welcome me in Turrialba, but that noisy homeless dog and that silent volcano.

Semana Santa can be a week of solemn processions, but in Turrialba it is spent with the family – Shutterstock Costa Rican
Semana Santa can be a week of solemn processions, but in Turrialba it is spent with the family – Shutterstock

I’m starting to get nervous and begin listing all my limited, unattractive options. I could go search for a hotel and risk getting stuck, at night, in the middle of nowhere. I’m not even sure there are hotels in this town, and of course, I have no mobile data to check it.

I could sit and wait, hoping that the phone will ring. But what if it doesn’t? Will I be sitting here in a city park, waiting for a call for the next two days until the bus driver has finished celebrating and is ready to take me back home? I need help. I can’t get out of this on my own and I absolutely need to find someone who can be trusted.

The empty streets no longer seem welcoming. If I met a person right now, I’m not sure if I would ask for help, or get scared and run away. An hour has passed since I got off that bus and my phone is still silent. I’m out of options and really freaking out.

San José is Costa Rica's bustling capital city – Shutterstock Costa Rican
San José is Costa Rica’s bustling capital city – Shutterstock

Suddenly, I hear the sound of an approaching car and raise my hand immediately. Who would be driving in this particular week and at this hour?

Of course, it’s a gringo, not a tico. His forehead is peeling slightly from recent sunburn, curly chestnut hair tumbles out from under a cheap Pura Vida cap. Adrian is on his dream vacation, taking a full month off his job in Columbus. He just finished a week of surfing on the Pacific coast and is now headed to the Atlantic. In Costa Rica you can make this trip in one day and, luckily for me, there is no other way but to pass through the capital.

I always wonder how gut feelings work. How, almost instantly, you know that a smiling stranger in a crumpled t-shirt can be trusted and that from now on everything will be ok? So, a couple of hours later when my phone finally rings, Adrian and I are laughing and sharing our travel stories over a yummy ceviche at my favourite seafood restaurant in San José.

Now it’s Maria Carolina’s turn to freak out when she sees all those missed calls from me and realises I’ve been waiting, while she has completely lost any sense of time, preparing dinner with her beautiful Costa Rican family and two funny poodles.

Natasha's phone finally rang as she was tucking into ceviche in San José –  Mark52 / Shutterstock Costa Rican
Natasha’s phone finally rang as she was tucking into ceviche in San José – Mark52 / Shutterstock

She is devastated, and ready to drive all the way to the capital to pick me up and have me join the family celebration, even though by now it would mean delaying the dinner for another 3 hours at least. Ticos are passionate people, so it is quite a challenge to explain that everything has turned out all right, that I’m safe, happy, and have no hard feelings whatsoever.

Sure, things did not go as planned, but now I’m having another adventure – enjoying my own version of the Semana Santa celebration with ceviche and the new friend I’ve made.

And so, Adrian and I continue our “Easter” dinner, because there are just so many more stories waiting to be shared and adventures to be discovered.