Manuel Antonio Park Costa Rica

Pura Vida: A Window into Costa Rican Life

“I stuck my head out the window this morning and spring kissed me bang in the face.” – Langston Hughes

“Pura Vida“, she smiled as she handed me a cup of savory rich Costa Rican coffee. “Gracias” I replied playfully, letting my rusty Spanish bounce off of my tongue. We had just arrived at our hotel in Manuel Antonio, and would be spending an entire week in Costa Rica for our family Spring vacation. When the waitress left, my twelve-year-old son who had just started learning Spanish at school asked me what “pura vida” meant. I told him that it was not exactly easy to translate. Instead, it was something that would have to be experienced in order to fully comprehend its meaning. He shrugged his shoulders at my response, looking a little bit miffed. Over the course of the next nine days he would certainly learn, I assured him. He would just have to be patient.

We would see nature like never before – such as sloths, monkeys, rainbow-colored grasshoppers, venomous snakes, and lots of beautiful birds. We would play in the waves of the ocean at sunset, walk high above the jungle on suspension bridges, zip-line above the trees, canyon down waterfalls, ride inner tubes down the rapids of a river, and horseback ride below a volcano. We would stay way up at the top of a mountain at a typical Costa Rican farm where we would be served hot rice and beans with friend plantains. We would constantly have to pinch ourselves that we were in a place so utterly beautiful and serene. Yes, we would experience Costa Rica’s pura vida in a little over a week.

If there are two words that sum up Costa Rica, it is “Pura Vida”. Literally translated as “Pure Life”, Pura Vida means much more than its basic definition. The saying can be used as simply as  “you’re welcome” or “hello”. Or even as a statement or a response to “how are you”. Yet in my opinion, Pura Vida symbolizes an entire way of life that Ticos (the nickname for Costa Ricans) enjoy. A life filled with appreciation, love and gratitude for the beauty of their amazing surroundings and nature. An energy and joy of simply being alive.

Gifted with some of the greatest biodiversity of flora and fauna on earth, there is no better place to experience pura vida than in Costa Rica. In her canopies of rainforest filled with life and her mystical volcanoes peeking out of the clouds. In her majestic sunrises and sunsets painting the sky in hues of pink, purple, orange and red. In her endless species of flowers delighting the eyes, the roar of the howler monkeys at the first sign of dawn or a pair of scarlet macaws flying directly overhead. There is no place on earth where one feels more of the pure beauty of life than in Costa Rica.

Here is my window into the meaning of pura vida….

Tulemar Vacation Rentals, Manuel Antonio, Costa RicaTulemar Vacation Rentals, Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica

Manuel Antonio Park Costa RicaManuel Antonio Park Costa Rica

Manuel Antonio Park Costa Rica

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The Peace Foundation, New York City

A Slice of New York at 110th and Amsterdam

“A true community is not just about being geographically close to someone or part of the same social web network. It’s about feeling connected and responsible for what happens. Humanity is our ultimate community, and everyone plays a crucial role”.  – Yehuda Berg

I got off at 110th and Amsterdam to the of sea of humanity and life that defines New York. As I walked down Amsterdam through the neighborhood of Morningside Heights in the Upper West Side, I was flooded with curiosity at what I’d find. It only took a few blocks for a potpourri of senses to settle in. Flower stalls, coffee shops, a Hungarian bakery, and any ethnic eatery under the sun caught my attention. The smell of greasy hotdogs, freshly baked bread and chicken curry infiltrated my nose while the sound of car horns, trucks braking and the distant hum of Mexican music rang in my ears. And I had only walked a block.

At 111th, I see a homeless couple sleeping on a plastic mattress on the dirty sidewalk, he shirtless with his arm stretching across his bare chest and resting upon her smooth sweaty shoulder. Shoes off, dirty sheets, and all their life’s possessions in a couple of see-through plastic bags. A few blocks later comes the grand entrance to the elite grounds of Columbia University where students of every color are abound, wearing ear buds, texting on cellphones and toting backpacks in route to class. Millennials eating lunch inside the fenced off green grass at the university or atop the grand stone stairway to their future success. Meanwhile a bum wearing rags and pushing a shopping cart collects trash from a full garbage can about a block away.

As I continue on, I hear a melodic harmony of sounds floating out an open window of a piano hall. I stop for a moment and close my eyes to listen but am interrupted by the piercing sirens screaming towards the Mount Sinai St. Luke’s Hospital up at 113th. I then realize that within these four short blocks is a slice of New York and I am dumbstruck of how every spectrum of humanity seems to live within this small radius of space.

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Jean Baptiste Jean Jospeph, Isador Gallery, Haiti

The Textures of Haiti

“Men Anpil, Chay Pa Lou” = “Many Hands Make the Load Light”. Haitian proverb

Haiti is often a misunderstood place. Besides the poverty and squalor, there is beauty to be found amidst its incredible art and culture. When visiting Haiti, one has to keep an open mind in order to comprehend her immense problems and appreciate the good things that this country has to offer the intrepid spirit. I will not lie, travel in Haiti is difficult. However, the rewards for those who seek to visit this place are immense. Alongside the poverty and despair exists a resilience and hope in the future and a beauty that inspires through Haiti’s incredible art.

Take a walk with me and embrace the colorful, vibrant textures of Haiti.

The capital city Port-au-Prince is overcrowded, congested and chaotic yet also home to some of the greatest artisans, artists and designers in the entire country. Croix-des-Bouquets, a community on the outskirts of the capital,  is home to over 1,000 metal artisans with over 60 different shops and studios creating social change and opportunity within the community. It is a magical, happy place filled with energy and life.

Croix-des-Bouquets is also home world-famous beadwork artist and Vodou priest Jean Baptiste Jean Joseph. Some of his beadwork sells in the thousands of dollars to the rich and famous. His studio is a magical, spiritual place filled with so much colorful beadwork and art that it leaves you dizzy with inspiration.

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Pascale Théard Creations

A Step into the World of Haitian Designer Pascale Théard

There is no studio in Haiti as beautiful as that of Haitian designer and community arts activist Pascale Théard. A step inside Pascale’s divine space, Pascale Théard Creations, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti is pure magic. Instantly, a visitor’s eyes are welcomed by a burst of color and emotion that no one besides Pascale could create. It is no wonder that Pascale’s work is world renown and she is one of the most famous designers in Haiti.

The daughter of a Haitian industrialist, a lover of art, and a French mother, heiress of a 200-year-old family tannery, Pascale Théard grew up in Port-au-Prince to the rhythm and beat of Hait’s unique culture. Her childhood was filled with art and creation which eventually became her lifelong passion and career. Pascale left Haiti to study in France where she worked with some of the top luxury leather goods brands in Paris and Milan before returning home to launch her own unique brand, Pascale Théard Creations, the first handmade luxury leather goods brand in Haiti.

It was my second visit to Pascale Théard Creations and despite having toured her studio before, I was still completely mesmerized by the absolute beauty and life of her work.

Pascale Théard Creations

Pascale’s studio

Pascale Théard Creations

Immediately as you open the door, you are invited into a world bursting with color, life and ingenuity. The words painted across the wall reveal Pascale’s utter love and devotion to her country: AYITI NAN KÈ’M (“Haiti is in my heart)”.

Her current theme is based on the incredible, vibrant art found on Haiti’s tap-taps. A tap tap (which literally means “quick quick” is a privately owned vehicle for hire that is usually made from a pick-up truck and has some of the most incredible, painstakingly detailed art imaginable.  Even buses are used as larger tap taps for longer distance rides, and are equally as impressive as the done-up pick-up trucks. Along the streets, tap taps are everywhere painted like a kaleidoscope of colors and imagination. (I did an entire post on the art of Haiti’s tap taps. To read, click here).

This time Pascale was not in town to greet us however her lovely mother was there. We marveled at the gorgeous new products on display in the entryway and shop before heading back to see the artisans and craftsmen and women behind the scenes. I couldn’t resist purchasing a beaded vodou doll for my daughter and a beautiful leather and beaded passport holder for myself. I knew that would be an instant conversation starter while traveling!

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Atelier Calla, Port-au-Prince, Haiti

A Visit with Haitian Bone and Horn Artist Christelle Paul

“Sonje lapli ki leve mayo ou” – Remember the rain that made your corn grow (Haitian proverb)

I had never heard of Horn and Bone art until I first visited Haiti two years ago and met with Haitian Horn and Bone artist Christelle Paul, founder and chief designer of her workshop Atelier Calla“ in Port-au-Prince. Horn and Bone art began within the walls of Haiti’s prisons in the 1950s. To pass the time, the men in prison enjoyed playing games and they ingeniously discovered they could use old horns and bones to make pieces for card games. The art continued to evolve over the years being passed down from generation to generation.

Christelle has always been passionate about art yet she pursed a career in business and worked in the banking industry for many years. One day back in 2006 she was out shopping and noticed that there were a lot of products made out of horn and bone yet none that she really liked. This inspired her to start creating her own horn and bone jewelry based on the designs and ideas she desired. What began as a hobby suddenly grew into a passion. Yet the journey from being a full-time banker to full-time artist was a long one.

A series of setbacks such as the devastating 2010 earthquake stopped Christelle from following her dreams. A inspiring meeting with world renown designer Donna Karan was the final push Christelle needed to leave banking and pursue her passion for Bone and Horn art full-time. Her workshop Atelier Calla“ was opened in October of 2011 and today her team employs a handful of artisans within the community who were once unemployed. Her mission is to provide fair wages and work opportunities to help young, unemployed people find a fulfilling, sustainable career in the arts. She is a remarkable woman.

The last time I was in Haiti in 2015, I had visited Christelle’s studio to learn more about this unique kind of art and also hear how her studio and workshop have helped other Haitians pursue a career in Horn and Bone art. Since my past visit two years ago, Christelle has moved to a new location in the center of Port-au-Prince in her mother’s home that was abandoned after the 2010 earthquake. Christelle is in the process of rebuilding the house as her studio and workshop. The roof fell down and walls have crumbled leaving a big part of the house in ruins. However, Christelle is determined to rebuild and get her new studio and workshop all fixed up. She has done it before seven years ago after the earthquake struck and she lost everything. She had to start all over again, working seven days a week while raising three young children yet succeeded. She attributes her strong resilience to simply being Haitian. The path is never easy but with hard work, perseverance and resilience I am certain Christelle will succeed.

Driving from our hotel to Christelle’s studio. Conditions in Port-au-Prince are still very difficult and the infrastructure throughout the country significantly needs to be improved. This is a challenge for entrepreneurs as it makes getting their products to the market difficult. 

Caribbean CULTURE Haiti
Jean Baptiste Jean Jospeph, Isador Gallery, Haiti

A Step Inside the Studio of Vodou Priest and Artist Jean Baptiste Jean Joseph

“Kay koule tronpe soley, men li pa tronpe lapli” – Haitian proverb meaning “A leaky house can fool the sun but it can’t fool the rain”. 

No visit to Croix-des-Bouquets is complete without a stop at the studio of world-famous vodou artist and priest, Jean Baptiste Jean Joseph. Jean Baptiste’s Isidor Gallery has been receiving customers from all over the world for years and some of his most impressive pieces sell for thousands of dollars. Yet despite his fame and notoriety, like many of the other highly successful artists of Croix-des-Bouquets Jean Baptiste has decided to stay in Haiti and continue his work and mentorship to other aspiring artists. This is what makes Croix-des-Bouquets so special.

Stepping into the Isidor Gallery feels like stepping into a dream. The scent of incense flavors the air and the walls are filled with a riot of colorful, imaginative vodou flags intricately designed and handcrafted. The lights are low or even off, and the hot, humid heat of Haiti adds to a slightly dizzying effect. To be inside Jean Baptiste’s studio and to see his work, gives one a true sense of Haiti’s rich, intricate culture and religion. It feels like magic.

Croix-des-Bouquet Haiti

Jean Baptiste Jean Jospeph, Isador Gallery, Haiti

Jean Baptiste Jean Joseph was born in 1967 in La Vallé Bainet and was raised in Croix-des-Bouquets, a community known for its metal artisans in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. At a young age Jean Baptiste became passionate for folk art and textiles. Following his dream and passion for beadwork, he worked in a small factory where he honed his skills by sewing pearls and beads onto wedding dresses. Then in 1991, thanks to the receipt of a small loan from a friend, Jean Baptiste opened Isidor Gallery in Croix-des-Bouquets.

Caribbean CULTURE Haiti

A Visit to Meet the Metal Artisans in Croix-des-Bouquets

No trip to Haiti is complete without a visit to Croix-des-Bouquets. Croix-des-Bouquets is a unique artist community on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince that has grown into one of the largest, sustainable metal art communities in Haiti. It all began in the 1950s by a local blacksmith named Georges Liautaud who began using recycled oil drums to create amazing freestanding sculptures of art known as “fer découpé”. Liautaud mentored and inspired many metal artisans within the growing community of Croix-des-Bouquets and although he passed away in 1992, his most celebrated apprentice Serge Jolimeau continues to be a moving force within the community. Known as the godfather of Croix-des-Bouquets, Jolimeau opened up his land to the artisans so they have a place to work for free and learn the trade through apprenticeships.

Today, Croix-des-Bouquets has over 1,000 metal artisans with over 60 different shops and studios creating social change and opportunity within the community. It is a magical, happy place filled with energy and life. Although Jolimeau travels the world with his art, he continues to reside in Croix-des-Bouquets where he supposedly never even bothers to lock his door. It is that kind of close-knit community; a sharp contrast to some of the neighboring slums.

Croix-des-Bouquets is located on the edge of Port-au-Prince in the district of Noailles. You can tell you have arrived in the right place by the non-stop clanking of the hammers on metal. Beautiful handmade metal signs hang outside each workshop and the entire place is alive with the sounds of creativity. I felt like a kid in a candy shop looking at row after row of artwork with each piece being more spectacular than the last. My camera in hand and notebook ready, we began our tour of Croix-des-Bouquets and I was thankful it was not my first visit. Taking it all in for the first time can be quite overwhelming.

Croix-des-Bouquets, Haiti

Croix-des-Bouquets, Haiti

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Observatoire, Port-au-Prince, Haiti

Where to Eat and Stay in Port-au-Prince, Haiti

“Anpil men chay pa lou” – Haitan proverb meaning “Many hands make a load lighter”.

To say that the bustling, congested and vibrant capital of Haiti, Port-au-Prince, is a bit chaotic and overstimulating would be an understatement. Monstrous traffic combined with endless honking horns, pedestrians, street vendors, motorbikes and every thing imaginable being sold on the street leaves you with such an immense sensory overload that your head is spinning by the end of the day.

As a newcomer, it is hard to conceive that peaceful, beautiful places coexist with the utter chaos of this hectic city of neglected potholes, broken down cars and uncollected garbage. However if you dig deep within the local culture and outskirts of town, you will be surprised at what true treasures Port-au-Prince has to offer.

Above the urban sprawl rising up the northern hills of the Massif de la Selle lies the affluent suburb of Pétionville which was founded in 1831 and named after Alexandre Sabes Pétion (1770-1818), a Haitian general and president who is recognized as one of the founding fathers of Haiti. Today Pétionville hosts some of the most desired restaurants, shops, hotels and residences in the capital. The views from Pétionville are beautiful and the air is much clearer and calmer than in Port-au-Prince.

However, the growth of Pétionville has not come without a price. A lack of governance in development has led to some serious problems with squatters. On the outskirts of Pétionville, a massive slum of rural migrants have dangerously built homes moving up the slopes of the mountainside, offering little protection against mudslides, heavy rains and earthquakes. The slums are always in view and are a big contradiction to the large mansions and wealth of Pétionville.

Oftentimes it was hard for me to wrap my head around the luxury I was experiencing and the horrible conditions just across the way. Yet, as a conscious traveler to many developing countries, it is something I just have had to accept and hope that at least my voice as a blogger and my tourist dollars will somehow help.

Hotel Montan Pétionville, Haiti

Off in the distance, moving up the hills at the edge of Pétionville lies the slums. These were built illegally by rural migrants who came to the city.

Pétionville, Haiti

Sadly these slums are poorly constructed and prone to washing away during mudslides. A lot of destruction and devastation happened here too from the 2010 earthquake.

From Port-au-Prince, there is one main road that winds up the mountainside to Pétionville. The road is narrow and depending on the time of day, traffic can be horrific especially if there is a stalled car. It is best to plan at least an hour from downtown to Pétionville unless you leave very early in the morning or very late at night.

As you drive up the mountain, the road is filled with art stands selling all kinds of local Haitian art. The views of the city are spectacular but it is hard to stop since there are no shoulders on the road.

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One thing I love to do when I travel is stay and eat local. Being conscious about where my tourist money is spent and how can have a big impact on the local community. Sadly, the majority of revenue earned from tourism often goes into only a few hands (large international corporations or wealthy elite) and very little money goes to support the local community. This is a huge missed opportunity because supporting local businesses creates a ripple effect that benefits entire communities of people. More local jobs means more income enabling more people to send their children to school, buy food and afford homes. In a country of vast unemployment, sustainable local tourism has an enormous potential to help eradicate Haiti’s crippling poverty.

I was pleased that our guide Haitian-American Natalie Tancrede of Explore with Nat selected all locally run and owned venues for our stay in Port-au-Prince. We could have chosen to stay at the beautiful new Marriott Hotel downtown but instead opted to stay at the tranquil, family owned Hotel Montana in Pétionville. It was my second stay at this beautiful hotel and I would go back there in a heartbeat.

Here is my list of the best places to stay and eat in Port-au-Prince.

Where to Stay:

Hotel Montana

The Hotel Montana is a true gem. Located up in the hills of Pétionville high above Port-au-Prince Hotel Montana has been run by a Haitian family since 1947 and is designed in Haitian Art Deco flair. The grounds and 45 rooms are stunning and the staff is delightful. There is a large open-air terrace that has a restaurant, bar and pool affording breathtaking views of the city below. The personalized service is lovely and it feels like a home away from home for many of the guests.

Hotel Montana Pétionville, HaitiHotel Montana Pétionville, Haiti

Pétionville, Haiti

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Haiti Bound: A Week Exploring Culture and Adventure

“Dèyè mòn gen mòn” – Haitian proverb meaning “beyond mountains, more mountains”. 

Two years ago, I had the opportunity to visit Haiti as part of a social good blogging trip to learn about the amazing artisan market that is helping put Haiti on the map. It was a life-changing trip that challenged a lot of misperceptions about this beautiful place. I wrote quite a lot about the trip and had always wanted to go back but the timing never seemed to work out. (To view all my posts on my past trip to Haiti, click here. There are a ton but these are some of my most favorite posts on my blog to date!).

Carnaval 2015 Port-au-Prince

Our group, #Bloggers4Haiti

Fast forward, and I am now sitting in the Miami International Airport waiting to catch my flight to Port-au-Prince, Haiti. I will once again be traveling with my Haitian-American friend Nathalie (Nat) Tancrede who at the time ran the artisan program in Haiti. But this time, I will be doing something completely different. I will be joining Nat on her first adventure and cultural tour for her new travel business, Explore with Nat, as her storyteller and social media companion. I can hardly wait!

I will be live blogging and social media sharing during the entire week in Haiti and it is my goal to show the world the beautiful, amazing parts of Haiti – not the sadness they read about and see in the media. As a dedicated writer, I did what I always do before going on a trip. I purchased a travel guide – or shall I say the only travel guide on the market. Haiti is not currently known as a tourist destination and only the most off the beaten path travelers seem to venture to the tiny nation. It is my aim to uncover the beauty and culture of this often misunderstood place, and I will have a week to do it.

During my past trip, I visited Port-au-Prince and Jacmel, a lovely coastal town a few hours away from the capital. This time I will be exploring a few new places such as Cap Haitien and a beach resort near Montrouis. I will be learning more about the historical and cultural side of Haiti which will be utterly fascinating.

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Six Years of Blogging and Leaving Behind a Shadow of Me

“Keep your face to the sunshine and you cannot see a shadow”. –  Helen Keller

When I started my blog on a whim back in January 2011, I honestly had no idea what on earth I was doing. As a stay-at-home mom of two young children, I was desperately looking for a little piece of me. An outlet. A voice. A way of doing something different than changing diapers and playing with legos and dolls. I had done a lot of traveling and had kept my stories in a series of hard-covered journals stuffed in a dusty box in the back of the closet.

Yet a life-changing trip to Nepal in November 2010 was the defining moment that pushed me into action and prompted me to put away my pen and paper and do something more daring. To share my stories online for anyone to read. I typed up my first series of posts (which looking back now admittedly are not very good but I can’t delete them for nostalgic reasons) and have never stopped writing since.

Fast forward six years and my blog has become an enormous part of my life. I have shared over 1,200 stories and thousands of pictures documenting the highs and lows, adventures and misadventures of my life. I have made amazing connections with new friends from all over the world, and have experienced new opportunities that never would have come my way without my blog. It has opened doors and also has opened my own mind and heart to some of the injustices in the world.

My blog has literally changed my life in so many profound ways, and in an essence my blog has become a shadow of me.

“When walking through a valley of shadows, remember that shadows are cast by a light.” – H.K Barclay

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Traveling to India in the spring of 2013 as part of Mom Bloggers for Social Good where I visited slums and saw light, darkness, pain and hope.  Seeing hope and light within the dark shadows changed my life. I continued to explore this avenue of social good and advocacy work by visiting Haiti, Ethiopia, Nicaragua and Tanzania. And I hope to do more!

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White-faced or Capuchin monkey

Exploring Rural Tourism in Dos Brazos de Tigre, Costa Rica

As we pulled out of the gravel driveway to waves of goodbye from our gracious hosts at the Osa Lodge, I realized that the real adventure of my week in the Osa Peninsula was about to begin. I was saying goodbye to air-conditioning, hot showers, wi-fi and all the worries of the modern world and heading off into the rich tropical rainforest jungle that makes this place so special.

I would be visiting places that hardly any tourists have ever seen, and staying in rural communities for the next six days. The tiny town of Dos Brazos de Tigre would be the first community we would explore and my first experience in rural tourism.

The Osa Lodge, Puerto Jimenez, Costa Rica

We followed the one and only paved road leaving Puerto Jimenez enjoying the beautiful lush countryside. We had the radio on and the windows down, blowing in a fan of thick sticky air that felt liberating to the soul. It was another hot and humid day in the Osa and my northern skin was sweating profusely. It wasn’t long until we turned off our last paved road for the week.

The dirt road was lined with banana trees, sugar cane, small plots of farmland and pastures for grazing cattle. Despite its fertile land, plentiful rain and sunshine, the farming industry in the Osa Peninsula is not very developed. Most produce and meat come in to the Osa via truck from other parts of the country to the main grocery store in Puerto Jimenez and if the truck is late like it was on our way out of town, you are out of luck on certain items. (We were supposed to bring cilantro, broccoli and peppers with us for our dinner but alas the truck hadn’t arrived). Like tourism, developing the farming industry would be a great way to make the Osa more sustainable and provide much needed jobs.

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The Osa LoPuerto Jimenez, Costa Rica

Welcome to the Osa!

“We live in a wonderful world that is full of beauty, charm and adventure. There is no end to the adventures that we can have if only we seek them with our eyes open”. – Jawaharlal Nehru

As the 14-seat Sansa plane touched down on the tiny airstrip, my heart raced. After a long day of travel, I was finally there. I’d arrived safe and sound in the Osa Peninsula of Costa Rica. I could hardly wait to climb off the plane!

Our plane was met by the fervent waving hands of children who were outside playing in their yards adjacent to the runway. What an odd place to have a home, I mused yet at the same time I was delighted by such a warm and enthusiastic welcome to Puerto Jimenez.  The actual airport was equivalent to the size of the runway. Small, empty and nondescript. What was even more unusual however was the tiny local cemetery right outside the door, alongside the runway. Just like other cemeteries I’ve seen throughout Latin America, this one was filled with ornately decorated white gravestones, all above ground and covered with fresh flowers.

The sun was beginning to set in the horizon radiating a golden hue across the graveyard while a chicken quickly scampered off the runway and over to the makeshift wooden homes of the children who greeted us. Smoke rose from a nearby fire rising a steady stream of mist into the hot and humid air.

“Welcome to the Osa!” Lokal Travel founder Eytan Elterman beamed with a relaxed smile. We grabbed my duffel bag and climbed into a rented Land Cruiser which would be much needed for all the unpaved, bumpy roads and river crossing we would encounter over the upcoming week.

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