What Life is Really Like at the Mystical Yoga Farm

Most days at the Mystical Yoga Farm feel like a dream. I feel like I’ve been here for an eternity. I’ve been here for 32 days.

I’m living in a lush roadless forest without a town name. I’m surrounded by the growth of green plants, flowers, vegetables and fruits. Sunlight dances across the lake almost every day. I stare at volcanoes every single day.

Loose leaf tea is served all day along with fresh fruit. Most of the food is cooked in coconut oil. The salad greens are picked fresh from our garden for every meal. A gong is rung when meals are ready. We sing songs to bless the food before we eat. I eat hand rolled freshly made tortillas a few times a week. We om before and after everything. Click to fall in love with life at the farm

24 Hours in San Pedro

San Pedro La Laguna is a town on the southwest shore of Lago Atitlán that sits beneath Volcan San Pedro. With a population of about 13,000 people, it’s primarily inhibited by Tz’utujil Mayans, expats and backpackers.

From the farm a group of us took a private boat to San Pedro and got dropped off at the west side dock: muelle municipal. This is also the dock where boats, lanchas in Spanish, arrive from and depart to Panajachel. Continue reading

Market Life in Santiago Atitlán

Hoy was mi primero tiempo going to the mercado in Santiago Atitlán. Santiago is the town diagonally across the lake from the Mystical Yoga Farm. To get to any other towns from the farm (other then the village of Chacaya), we have to take a boat to Santiago first.

Santiago is a mostly indigenous Mayan community of around 50,000 people on Lake Atitlán. The locals speak Tz’utujil (pronounced two-two-hill). There are a handful of ex-pats who also live in Santiago.  Women and most of the young females wear traditional woven stripped long skirts and huipiles, shirts embroidered with colorful birds and flowers. Continue reading

Life lead me to the Mystical Yoga Farm

Inca Medicine Wheel

Inca Medicine Wheel

Update: The day I posted this blog was the last day of the year of the snake in the Chinese tradition. I found out the next day. So when I arrived the farm not only was it the cycle of the serpent, it was also the rounding up of all the remaining snake energy.

When I arrived at the Mystical Yoga Farm on January 5th, it was the day of the serpent. The farm follows the Peruvian Inca Medicine Wheel where an animal represents each cardinal point. The direction of the wind and the animal that compliments that direction guide the cycle of life at the farm. The serpent is the wind of the south who teaches us the way to walk on the earth with gentleness, beauty and care, who teaches us to shed our past and egos, who is the primary life force, who drives deep into the darkest places, and who is healer and helps us return to innocence. Instantly, this serpent energy spoke to me.

I came to the Mystical Yoga Farm to deepen my journey inward, to strengthen my physical body, to live in harmony with everything around me, to break down walls within me and to stare truth in the eyes. I came to make important changes within myself so that I can be the best version of myself possible and shine my fullest light. I came to grow into the best anchor for others and to life a live where I bring positivity to all.

Many things lead me here. Life lead me here. Sometimes it feels like everything lead me here.

The entrance to the Mystical Yoga Farm

The entrance to the Mystical Yoga Farm

For years I’ve known that I want to dedicate a huge portion of my time studying at an Ashram and living at a spiritual community. This past year at Burning Man, I had a huge wake-up call as to how I was living my life. Saturday morning at Burning Man I rode my bike to the Temple, tears streaming down my face as soon as it was in view. Everything that made me feel happy and complete flooded my mind: health and wellness, eating wholesome food, being outside, practicing yoga, traveling, writing, reading, helping others, fulfilling relationships and connections with people and on and on. After crying and meditating at the Temple, I realized that I was ready to devote myself to practicing yoga and reaching a higher spiritual state. I was ready to connect with my true self and live life through her.

I knew I was ready I just didn’t know where to go. I want to go to India at some point, but at the time I didn’t feel ready to take that step. After traveling in Costa Rica and falling in love with Latin America a few months prior, I wanted to continue learning Spanish. So I knew in my heart I wanted to go back to Latin America.
volcanoes across from farm

A couple weeks after Burning Man I volunteered at Symbiosis, a conscious-awareness music, yoga, art, and dance festival in California. The first day of the festival I talked to some volunteers about studying yoga.

“Then you should definitely check out the Mystical Yoga Farm in Guatemala,” one girl said. Those combination of words: Mystical. Yoga. Farm. Guatemala. were enough to pull me in. Shortly after that I met another girl who recommended the same place. Then I ran into some traveling friends who I hadn’t seen since Costa Rica. They couldn’t stop raving about Guatemala. I’ve always felt called to Guatemala, and then everything was aligned.

The Mystical Yoga Farm is an intentional spiritual community that focuses on self-sustainability, growing fresh organic food and growing healthy yogi’s, teachers and practitioners. Off the grid in a roadless forest along Lago de Atitlán, the only way to access the Mystical Yoga Farm is by boat. The farm blends into the beauty around it. When approaching by boat, you’d miss the farm if you didn’t know it was there. The beauty surrounding the farm is endless.

The path we walk everyday

The path we walk everyday

We sit at the base of Volcán San Pedro, like a dog sits at its master’s feet and we stare directly at Volcán Atitlán. We’re right along one of the most magical lakes in Central America, a lake that’s steeped in Mayan history and culture. Grandfather Rock, a Mayan spiritual land monument, backdrops and shelters us. Mayans
believe that shamans’ souls come here when they die. Lush jungle plants and coffee trees grow around us. They call this part of Guatemala the land of eternal spring. Mornings and nights are chilly, but days are sunny and warm.

Grandfather Rock

Grandfather Rock

We use solar panels for electricity and composting toilets for the bathroom. At night we barely use electricity and instead stick with candles. The internet is spotty and slow, and we don’t use it often.

The Farm holds yoga teacher trainings through SchoolYoga Institute, hosts retreats, welcomes guests for the day, night or multiple nights, and has an active community of volunteers (karma yogi’s) who contribute through various projects. I’m staying on the farm as a Karma Yogi with the Ayani Harmony Tribe. As a member of the Ayani Harmony Tribe I’m a hostess for the farm. I greet guests when they arrive, show them around, and set up their rooms. I help with house-keeping duties, cooking, and gardening. I help with whatever projects are needed. Other than house-keeping duties, I’ve created space for a bench, painted the bench, painted trash bins, learned how to saw steel, and stained bamboo since I’ve been here. Soon I’ll be helping out with editing and social media.

As a Karma Yogi I also get to participate in the daily life of the farm. We meditate and practice yoga in the morning, have a lecture or workshop in the late afternoon and gather for satsang (community reflection usually involving singing) at night. It’s been an incredible experience so far, and I fall more in love with my surroundings each moment.

Want some Mystical Yoga Farm in your life? Hop on a boat!

From Santiago a private boat should cost no more than Q40 cuarenta quetzals.

Here we are in the grand scheme of the lake:
Getting to Mystical Yoga FarmThe closest village is Chacaya, a ten-to-fifteen minute walk along the lake. The closest boat ride is from Santiago. Check out the farm’s website for the getting to the farm guide.
The farm’s website also has tons of information about retreats, visits and volunteering. The volunteer commitment is for one month. If I wasn’t at the farm volunteering, I’d definitely visit as a guest. It’s the perfect place to relax, reflect and go deep within yourself.

My view at the farm as I was writing this blog post.

My view at the farm as I was writing this blog post.

Since the internet is spotty at the farm, I took a boat across the lake to Restaurante Bambú. Here’s my  current view as I post this blog:

The view from Restaurante Bambú.

The view from Restaurante Bambú.

Ah, life is so good.

Guatemalan Beginnings

On the fourth day of 2014 I left the United States to begin a life in Guatemala. A year prior I left the US around the same time to live in Costa Rica. The past two years for me have begun by migrating south for exploration, for warmth, for discovery and for freedom. After falling in love with Latin America, I couldn’t wait to return and fall deeper.
falling

My United Airlines flight was oversold and filled with primarily Guatemalan families. I was among the very few native English-speaking passengers. I sat next to a nine-year-old Guatemalan girl and her mother who was in her twenties. Between hearing Spanish all around me, sharing my snacks with the girl sitting next to me and helping her pick televisions shows to watch, my immersion began before I arrived in Guatemala. After months of not speaking Spanish, I was so thankful for this ease into the language.

When I arrived at the airport in Guatemala City I was surprised to see multiple signs first written in English and then Spanish written underneath in a smaller type. After exiting the plane, there weren’t separate lines for Guatemalan citizens and foreigners. Everyone went to the same line to meet the same Immigration officers. As a US citizen without a visa you’re only allowed to remain in Guatemala for 90 days. I fly back to the US after 90 days. As I walked toward the officer I felt my heart race, and nervousness set in. I memorized Spanish phrases, “Cuantos dias en Guatemala? Cuando es su vuelo de vuelta?”and repeated the responses in my head. “Relax. Remain confident,” I told myself. When I slid my passport through the officer’s window I said, “Hola, buenos noches.” He didn’t say one word. He just stamped my passport, and I was on my way.

A crowd of Guatemalans stood outside the airport doors. People of all ages circled the gate. My host told me later that going to the airport in Guatemala is like going to the market. “When someone flies back to Guatemala, their whole family comes to the airport to pick them up: their grandparents, aunts, cousins,” he said.

I spent my first night in Guatemala City at G-22, an environmental non-profit that educates people about sustainability and hosts guests. The director, Alfredo Maul, picked me up from the airport and explained some of G-22’s projects as we drove through the city. Before he even told me that some parts of Guatemala City were Americanized, I sensed it from seeing establishments like Dominos Pizza and a Shell Gas Station almost immediately after leaving the airport.

Guatemala City at night

Guatemala City at night

At G-22 Alfredo cooked me a delicious vegetarian dinner. “Everything you see here has a story,” Alfredo said as he poured me loose leaf black tea from somewhere in Guatemalan mountains and then poured white citrus honey into my cup. “You won’t find these items anywhere else.” I loved the way he gave life to the food and items we were using by saying, “Everything here has a story.”

We talked about his degree in Architecture and how he wants to spread sustainability to urban life and show people how to live simpler lives. I felt really connected to G-22 and their goals. I have strong interests in sustainability, especially when it comes to urban life. In a similar regard, I’m passionate about living a simpler life by being conscious of my purchases, reusing as much as I can, and giving new life to things I already have.

G-22

G-22

The next morning I left Guatemala City to begin my story at the Mystical Yoga Farm.

Please Bring Positivity

This past summer was another whirlwind of campgrounds, music festivals, rest stops and skylines. I spent another summer working for the Clean Vibes Trading Post, educating festival-goers about the importance of composting and recycling. When I wasn’t working at music festivals, I was road-tripping across the United States in my comforting and stately Subaru.

After traveling in Costa Rica for five months it was enthralling to embrace the places my home country has to offer. From almost getting caught in a tornado in Nebraska, to eating fresh Salmon jerky in Northern California to waking up in the redwoods, I fell more in love with the world around me.

I said farewell to summer and danced in the beginning of Autumn at Symbiosis Gathering, a celebration of life with music, live art, permaculture workshops, yoga, dance, and much more.

Symbiosis was filled with magical moments, and I wanted to share my favorite one.

Just before sunrise on the last day of Symbiosis I peeked into a small geodesic dome where a group of friends were all cuddled together in a circle. They invited me in, and I instantly felt warm, welcomed and accepted. As I drifted to sleep a song started playing in the background. “We are so blessed,” one of the friends said. Everything about the moment was so beautiful that I couldn’t help but cry. Light was approaching in the sky so the friends left to watch the sunrise. But first they put a pillow under my head and tucked me in. “When she wakes up she’s going to wonder if this was all a dream,” one of them said as he kissed my forehead. It’s a moment I’ll never forget. Thank you so much Chakra Activation Portals for providing a space where magic can happen.

I hope this song reminds you of the immense joy and healing music brings.

Montezuma: Be a light unto yourself

Attitude of Gratitude:

I’m thankful for these objects and people that keep coming into my life at exactly the right moment. I’m thankful that I’ve had full days to do nothing but read. I’m thankful to have the power of both no-thingness and alone-ness. I’m thankful for all the lessons I continue to learn along the way.

One of my first days walking the beach in Montezuma I found a semilla ojo de buey, eye of the bull seed, washed along shore.

semillas

These seeds drift all over the world, getting picked up and tossed around by the ocean’s pull, but are native to the tropics. Sometimes they spend years drifting along. They are good luck charms with healing properties that help develop strength to face change. I read somewhere that,  “When we know we have to deal with something that requires great effort, this seed gives us all the energy we need.” I instantly felt like I was meant to find the semilla ojo de buey.

In my previous post about Montezuma, I wrote about mine and Elizabeth’s conversation about the people who are drawn to Montezuma. At the end of our conversation she said, “And then I wonder if people look at me and think these things. I’m lost, but I’m purposefully lost.”

Montezuma is the perfect place to be purposefully lost.

While in Montezuma I spent full days doing nothing but reading. I spent a lot of time alone contemplating what it means to be purposefully lost, and I found out more about myself.

Afterall part of the reason I also came to Costa Rica was to be purposefully lost. I was drained from constant years of schooling, taking 16 to 20 credits every semester while working two jobs and maintaining internships, scheduling hangout dates with friends between lunch breaks, going from one relationship to the next, and feeling like my life was turning into a never-ending to-do-list. Since being in Costa Rica for the past four months, I’ve definitely learned a lot about slowing down, being comfortable with doing nothing, and finding the courage to be alone, sometimes with only the roar of the ocean drifting into my ears.

After revealing a few things about myself to my roommate Nolita, she told me I needed to speak my truth more. “You are a powerful being when you speak your truth.” But what does that mean exactly? She said that the Universe keeps putting certain patterns into my life so I can realize that they are happening and deal with them. She told me to shift perspective and be in gratitude for things that happened instead of picking them apart. There’s that gratitude, once again showing up in some form of my travels.

Speaking your truth means standing your ground, not giving up, not giving in, and sticking up for what you believe in no matter what.

The next day at Devaya Yoga I picked a card from a deck similar to a Tarot card and it said,

“Growth comes not by fighting with what it wrong, but by loving what is right.”

Instead of looking at a situation and thinking about everything that went wrong, remember what went right. What went wrong antagonizes you. While this can act as a driving force of change for you to be better, you need to also focus on what you know is already true in your heart, what is already right for you. If the reason for why things went wrong has been a similar pattern in your life, then be in gratitude that that pattern presented itself once again, and move forward with what is right. This can also be applied to people and relationships. Learn to love what is right about someone instead of picking apart their flaws. Of course all of this is easier said than done, but another lesson in growth is good for all of us.

03

A few days later at the 03 Institute I picked some Osho Zen Tarot cards. Lately anxiety kicked into my brain as I thought about the future and life post-Costa Rica. The present moment slipped away as my mind constantly wandered to the nonexistent, the future. Before I knew what the Osho Zen Tarot cards were, I picked a card from the top of the deck to look at it. It was completely black and said in white type, “No-thingness.” I thought that was a little weird so I put it back and walked away. Later I shuffled the deck and picked the card, “Alone-ness.” I laughed, showed Nolita and she said, “There’s another one in there that seems bad too,” and showed me “No-thingness.” I couldn’t get away from this card.

No-thingness says, “Relax into the nothingness of not knowing. Treasure each empty moment of the experience. Something sacred is about to be born. The nothing is not just nothing, it is all. It is vibrant with all possibilities. It is potential, absolute potential. It is unmanifest yet, but it contains all. Why in the middle become so worried, anxious, why create such despair? Nothingness to nothingness is the whole journey.”

It’s okay to not know what comes next. In Western culture we are taught the opposite. We are pushed into college straight from high school and then pushed into careers and family life. We often have plans far in advance. We have family and friends who nag us about what we’re doing with our lives. The future looms over us. What we forget to realize is that, it’s okay not to know. It’s okay to let the Universe unfold exactly as it should. It’s okay to not be in control of every little thing that happens to you. It’s okay to let go. Everything, even the nothingness, is part of the experience.

Which goes hand in hand with Alone-ness:

“When there is no significant other in our lives we can either be lonely, or enjoy the freedom that solitude brings. We can either feel isolated and bitter, or celebrate the fact that our vision is strong enough even to survive the powerful human need for the approval of family, friends or colleagues. Take responsibility for the choice you have made. The humble figure in this card glows with a light that emanates from within. Gautam Buddha said, ‘Be a light unto yourself.’ Ultimately each of us must develop within ourselves the capacity to make our way through the darkness without any companions, maps or guides. There is a tremendous difference between loneliness and aloneness. Loneliness is absence of the other. Aloneness is the presence of oneself. Aloneness is very positive. It is a presence, overflowing presence. You are so full of presence that you can fill the whole universe with your presence and there is no need for anybody.”

Remember that being alone is okay. Being alone doesn’t necessarily mean being lonely. Remember that each one of us carries a light inside of us. We can access this light, this power, anytime.

Learn to feel joy in solitude. Learn to know the thoughts that flutter through your mind when no one else is there to influence them. Learn to know how you want to spend the day when the choice is completely up to you. Learn to feel comfortable with nothing but your presence and your breath on your skin. Learn to sit in silence and observe. Then you’ll see how beautiful everything can truly be.

anamaya

Montezuma Attracts

Attitude of Gratitude:

I’m thankful that no matter where I go in Costa Rica I somehow end up seeing a familiar face. I’m thankful for natural tidal pools. I’m thankful for Montezuma.

In my hostel one night my roommate Elizabeth and I started talking about Montezuma. She said, “I’ve been to so many places in the world, and I’ve heard here more than anywhere else people say, ‘That person is so weird. That person is a little off.’ I’ve never heard people say that so many times in one day before. This place definitely attracts people who are a little lost.”

Montezuma

Right after this conversation my Tico friend Andrei picked me up to get dinner. I asked him about his day, and he shook his head as he said, “Oh man I just got stuck in a two hour conversation with this guy. He just got divorced, and he kept talking about burning things. Crazy people here.”

Montezuma attracts lost souls.

One day on the street I overheard a guy say to two women in a stopped car, “There are no rules here. We’re the rulebreakers and the black sheep of our families.” Days later at the Saturday market I saw him with a wheelbarrow full of coconuts. He kept muttering, cursing and pointing fingers at no one in particular. Andrei later told me that that man, Jack of the Jungle, took too much Reina de la Noche and never came back.

Montezuma attracts spiritual-seekers, yogis, health-conscious folks, healers, people who need to be healed, creators, kindred spirits, backpackers and all kinds of alternative types.

A few times a week I took vinyasa flow classes at Montezuma Yoga, a beautiful outdoor terrace studio at Los Mangos hotel. There I met like-minded people who I saw at the community farmers’ market and other events around town. I also took classes at Devaya Yoga, right in town. One day I was the only one who showed up, so Devaya, the owner, gave me a “healing bodywork” session. In between talking fast about her own life, she’d say random things about my life like, “Continue to use your non-dominant hand. You’re not going to be a journalist, but you’re going to write something. Writing and beauty will dominate your life. You’re traveling alone, aren’t you? Brave for a Libra.”

Montezuma Yoga

Montezuma Yoga

Montezuma Yoga

Montezuma Yoga

One of my favorite yoga classes was on the beach for a Full Moon Rise class outside of Ylang Ylang Beach Resort led by Ireni Stamou. It was one of the best yoga classes I’ve ever taken. After Shavasana the full moon hung low in the sky over the ocean illuminating all of us.

Because there was a retreat happening I was never able to take a class there, but another yoga attraction in Montezuma is Anamaya. It’s a body, mind and spirit resort on top of the hill with spectacular views. I would love to go to a retreat there someday.

View from Anamaya

View from Anamaya

Almost every day in Montezuma I ran into someone I knew. My first night in Montezuma I saw my manager from the outdoor store I worked at in New Jersey. He just happened to be in the middle of the street, right across from my line of vision. I knew he was going to be in Costa Rica, but I didn’t expect to see him in the middle of the street on my first night in Montezuma.

I ran into three people who also volunteered at Rancho Margot. One of them, Jennifer, told me, “You’re gonna love it here. Happy, healthy people.” She’s studying with Dr. Teodoro, a naturopath, at the 03 Institute in Delicias, which is up the hill a bit from Montezuma on the way to Santa Teresa. The 03 is a spa, wellness and healing center. I did the sauna and cold plunge there and also got a facial. I highly recommend this place for everyone, even if you think you don’t need any kind of treatment. It’s a beautiful, tranquil place just to be.

O3

O3

Montezuma attracts love. 

When I was in Santa Teresa my hostel roommate there said that Montezuma was thee place to fall in love. Her and her boyfriend were having problems, and Montezuma changed everything. A guy I met in Montezuma told me, “Montezuma is special for relationships. There’s something about it that makes you fall in love.”

Some say it’s because of the waterfalls.

I got this picture from google because the day I was there the water was brown from the mud.

I got this picture from google because the day I was there the water was brown from the mud.

Andrei said Montezuma is his favorite place in Costa Rica. “I think it has something to do with the waterfalls. Something about them affects your wellbeing and your spiritually. It releases something in your mind,” Andrei said. “Montezuma just maximizes whatever you’re feeling. Here I just feel things. I stop thinking and start feeling.” Cesar, the co-director of my hostel, told me he originally moved to Montezuma because of the waterfalls.

Others will tell you it’s because Montezuma is one of the Blue Zones of the world. A Blue Zone is an area where scientists have found that people live longer and know how to be happier. The whole Nicoya Peninsula is considered a Blue Zone. In 2004, the man behind the Blue Zone concept, Dan Buettner, teamed up with National Geographic and hired the world’s best longevity researchers to identify places around the world where people lived measurably better.  In these Blue Zones they found that people reach age 100 at rates 10 times greater than in the United States. Find out more information about Blue Zones here.

Montezuma attracted me.

Before I came to Costa Rica everyone that had been to Costa Rica told me that I had to go to Montezuma. They all got the same dreamy look in their eyes and sheepish grin as they talked about it. Before I came, it was one of the only towns in Costa Rica I knew about. I was hoping to go right away, but didn’t make it until April. In Costa Rica different people I met had opinions about Montezuma that went from one side of the spectrum to the complete opposite. While I was in Puerto Viejo, I felt really called to Montezuma. I knew it was time to head there.

The first few days I spent in Montezuma I didn’t see what all the hype was about. For starters the prices of everything from clothing and souvenirs to food were the most expensive I’d seen in the whole country. Most casados cost anywhere from 3500 to 4000. But I did find one for 2500 at El Capitan, a hostel/restaurant in town. There are places in Costa Rica with a similar vibe that have cheaper price tags. But by two weeks in, I too started to develop that dreamy look in my eyes and fell under Montezuma’s spell. I abandoned my ideas to explore other parts of the country and decided to stay in Montezuma longer.

Montezuma is on the eastern side of the southern tip of the Nicoya Peninsula. The sunrise side. The sun rises in Montezuma and sets in Mal Pais/Santa Teresa, about 19 km away. To get to Montezuma you drive down steep hills that never seem to stop winding. Between the trees, azure water sparkles in the distance, but it doesn’t seem like anything else can exist down there.

Is there anything down there?

Is there anything down there?

Most of the restaurants, travel agencies and souvenir shops run along the two perpendicular streets along the beach. The Nicoya Peninsula’s information website says, “Montezuma’s town center, with charming old wood houses, itinerant artists, and vivid street life has an almost Caribbean flair and feels like the open-air living room of the community where a continuous mellow party takes place.” There is no post office or bank, but there’s an ATM. There are plenty of vegetarian eateries in town and quite a few places to get vegan food as well. The party night in town is Thursday when Chico’s Bar hosts Reggae Night. The street is blocked off for performers and firedancers.

One street in town

One street in town

The  other street in town

The other street in town

In Montezuma I was instantly greeted with kindness and remembered how friendly the locals on the Nicoya Peninsula are. A huge part of that is thanks to Kerri Bowers and Cesar Benavides, the founders of Proyecto Montezuma, a nonprofit organization which provides free English classes for locals, TEFL training, a tour agency, a hostel, and more, all in one. I ended up staying at Proyecto Montezuma for 16 days when I originally thought I’d spend a week at the most.

The hostel, on a ledge overlooking the ocean with two accesible beaches and natural tidal pools, is the perfect place to relax. It’s about a seven minute walk from downtown and a two minute walk from the waterfalls. It’s perfect for people who want a quieter stay, away from the hustle and bustle of town.

The side of Proyecto Lodge that faces the water

The side of Proyecto Lodge that faces the water

The view on the right of the hostel with the tidal pools.

The view on the right of the hostel with the tidal pools.

The left side of Proyecto

The view on the left side of the hostel.

That is what I had right at my fingertips day in and day out. Life just continues to get better.

Smile You’re in the Caribbean

That was the first rule at my hostel on the Caribbean side. As I explored the town, I continued to see this mantra everywhere.

Attitude of Gratitude:

I’m thankful that despite what everyone said, I explored the Carribbean side. I’m thankful for the wonderful community of people I met in Playa Chiquita and that community exists. I’m thankful for spiders.

The first night I arrived on the Caribbean side calypso music breezed through the windows of the cultural center in downtown Puerto Viejo de Talamanca. (The locals drop the de Talamanca and refer to it as Puerto Viejo. There’s another Puerto Viejo in Costa Rica, Puerto Viejo de Sarapiquí.) Musicians wearing brightly colored sarongs swayed in the front of the room as people served traditional Caribbean food in the back. I arrived just in time for Gran Feria Cultural: Casa De La Cultura,  an Afro-Caribbean culture festival. As I danced to the calypso rhythms at the free event, I knew I was going to like it in Puerto Viejo. Back at my hostel they were hosting mud wrestling. There was already plenty to smile about.

I started my Costa Rican journey on the Pacific side and most people I met said the Caribbean side was nothing much, to put it nicely. I feel like some people in the States are also like that, always thinking their side of the coast is better. When I got to the Caribbean side and explored Puerto Viejo and every beach south, I realized that no one knew what they were talking about. Regardless of what people say about a place, you can never judge it until you’ve been there yourself. Until you experience something yourself, you never really know. Each day in the Caribbean side I found something new to love.

The Caribbean side pulses with life.

So many of these beauties everywhere

So many of these beauties everywhere

Bright blue morpho butterflies flutter right past your face sometimes. Neon orb-weaver spiders weave webs all through the jungle and between the power lines of the road.  Some say that the Caribbean side lacks a dry season. It rained most days I was there, but most of the rain poured during the night. In turn, lush green vegetation swallows you up. Leaves of trees seem to reach out and cling to you.

Caribbean trees

The Caribbean side is a mixture of all different types of people and cultures that includes indigenous tribes like Cabecar and Bribri Indians. Artisans sell jewerly and clothing all along the road, which adds to the vibrant colors you see everywhere.

Bob Marley music can always be heard somewhere. The jungle path pushes right up to the beach in Puerto Viejo and Cocles. There are restaurants in Puerto Viejo for every price range with a wide list of options from typical sodas to Thai and Italian.

In Puerto Viejo, there’s always something to do. There’s a farmers market on Saturday mornings. Lazy Mon hosts an open mic night on Sundays. Tasty Waves has trivia nights on Tuesdays. OM Yoga has a community class on Wednesdays. Jessy Chick performs at EZ Times on Wednesdays. There are tons of shops with really cute clothing and great souviners.

My favorite store in town is Luluberlu. It’s on one of the side roads and is a must-go-to if you’re in town. Just look at all these colorful things:

Luluberlu

Luluberlu

Luluberlu

When you talk to most backpackers about Puerto Viejo, they’ll suggest the hostel Rocking J’s. Most people I talked to didn’t really know anything else. But there are plenty more options. I knew Rocking J’s was a party hostel, primarily targeted at the 16- to 21-year-old crowd. I don’t mind partying every once in awhile, but I didn’t want to be living in the party. Rocking J’s is a great place to visit though. They have tons of beautiful mosaics.

Good VibesLife's so good

A guy I met at the bus station in Nicoya told me to go to a place called La Ruka instead. The name stuck with me as I traveled throughout Costa Rica. I ended up spending 16 days at La Ruka, my longest stay since volunteering at the ranch. When driving from the center of town, La Ruka is on the right, just before Rocking J’s. The couple that runs the hostel were extremely welcoming and accommodating. It’s one of those hostels where the other guests become your family. By foot, it’s around 5- to 10- minutes from the center of town.

One of the main differences of Puerto Viejo than most of the other places I’ve visited in Costa Rica is the paved road. The paved road added a whole new dimension to things. For one, people drove much faster than on the rocky, dusty roads.

Puerto Viejo is a bit seedier and rougher than most places I’ve been in Costa Rica. There are many places where you don’t want to walk or ride your bike at night regardless if you’re alone or not. Danni, the co-runner of La Ruka, told me, “When you walk at night be confident, and shine your light out.” I think this roughness is part of the reason Puerto Viejo gets a bad reputation. It’s not like people are murdering people in the streets. It’s mainly petty crime like people stealing your belongings. I’ve heard of worse things happening in Santa Teresa.

Like when traveling anywhere else, if you go out at night, be sensible. Don’t walk alone in the dark. Don’t carry anything valuable on you. And most importantly, shine your light out.

In Puerto Viejo people will openly offer you marijuana. More people ask, “Do you smoke?” in Puerto Viejo than any other place I’ve been in Costa Rica. I can see people being put off by that, but it’s as simple as saying, “No, gracias,” and walking away. The locals also have a favorite go-to line, “Hey girl, where you from?” It’s like they memorized that English question and nothing else.

While Puerto Viejo is nice for going out, the true gems of the Caribbean lie south of Puerto Viejo. I think another reason people dismiss the Caribbean side is because they get to Puerto Viejo and stop there. Keep going. Always keep exploring. The small beach towns past the main town are the heart of the Caribbean side.

After Puerto Viejo there’s Cocles, Playa Chiquita, Punta Uva and Manzanillo. I loved the jungle feel of the places along the main road.

A cafe along the road

A cafe

The town's welcome sign

The town’s welcome sign

You never know when you'll need a little jungle love.

You never know when you’ll need a little jungle love.

cafe

Outdoor dining in the Caribbean

My suggestions as always: rent a bicycle and explore. The day I rode south of PV, I really started to fall in love. I felt like each passing sight and sign was written for me, especially in Playa Chiquita. I’m pretty sure I could stay there forever.

“Chocolate tours, vegan and vegetarian food, kundalini yoga, save the forest, and plant trees,” are just a few of the signs  I rode past.

Just when I thought things couldn’t get any better, we pulled into the beach Punta Uva.

Punta Uva Punta Uva

This instantly became my favorite beach in Costa Rica.

And this ledge on Punta Uva’s beach instantly became my favorite place to practice yoga and one of my favorite places in the world.

Yoga Punta Uva

In Playa Chiquita my favorite place is La Botantica Organica, a vegetarian, vegan and raw foods cafe with a store that offers all kinds of sustainable, eco-friendly, and local products. While I was in Puerto Viejo they hosted a community movie night and community art showcase night.

At La Botantica Organica I met happy, healthy people who were facilitaing community in every sense of the word. I was so tempted to never leave so I could grow in community with them. But now I know I have a Puerto Viejo family I can always go back to.

I walked into Panama

Attitude of Gratitude:

I’m thankful that I’m no longer getting bit by Panamanian bugs. I’m thankful for the days I’ve been starting with delicious, balanced, home-cooked breakfasts. I’m thankful that I overheard my British friend and her Mom skyping about knickers and the laughing that ensued. Read my previous blog post here to learn about my attitude of gratitude.

I’ve always loved the idea of suspension. Of being in two places at once, of being between two ideas, two realities. Crossing the border from Costa Rica to Panama on foot on a rainy day over an unstable, slippery bridge wasn’t as romantic as my thoughts of suspension. The wooden bridge had an old railroad track down the middle with wide open gaps between some steps. Boards shook when you stepped on them. Between the gaps the dirty river raged below.

Here I am bracing the bridge

Here I am walking into another country. Good thing I wore my hiking boots.

Entering y Exiting Costa Rica:

As a United States citizen you don’t need a visa to enter Costa Rica. All you need is your passport and proof of leaving within 90 days. Once the 90 day mark comes, you need to leave the country for 72 hours before you can return. For more information about traveling to Costa Rica as a United States citizen head to the U.S. Department of State’s page here.

Many people recommended Bocas del Toro, islands of the  northwest coast of Panama, and my friend from the States was heading there, so it was perfect time for a border run.

Logistics of a border run:

My friend and I started in Cahuita, a town on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica. If starting in Cahuita, make sure you have colones at the bus station to pay for a bus ticket. They wouldn’t accept American dollars. We missed the bus because of this. But also make sure you have American dollars before you enter Panama because that’s the currency in Panama.

From Cahuita we took the 10 a.m. bus to the border town of Sixaola. We were confused because we heard people say Sixaola and thought they were saying six hours. It took two hours to get to Sixaola from Cahuita. The bus deposited us at the bottom of the hill at the end of town. The only way to go was forward, towards the bridge. Before walking across the bridge we had to go to the immigration office on the right. We had to fill out an immigration form and get an exit stamp from Costa Rica. Once in Panama we could have walked right into the country without anyone stopping us. We walked into another country like we were walking home from a neighbor’s house.

Once off the bridge there’s a border office to the left to get an entrance stamp. Like Costa Rica, in order to enter Panama you need proof that you’re leaving. I was able to show my flight out of Costa Rica as proof. My friend had to buy a bus ticket from the stand down the stairs on the side of the big building. For $14 he bought a ticket that was valid for a year. He had to write his name and passport number on the ticket. The whole border process took about an hour. There was no fee to enter Panama.

The stand to buy a bus ticket is behind the white van.

One of my first glimpses of Panama. The stand to buy a bus ticket is behind the white van.

On the Panama side there were a lot of people just hanging around, watching. I didn’t feel threatened but it was a little unnerving. Most of them seemed like they were just trying to make money by helping. We took a van(one of the men hanging around was advertising the shuttle service) for $10 to the port where we took a boat for $4 to Bocas Town. Once we got into the van, the soundtrack of old school Ja Rule and 50 Cent gave me hope for the way things were working out. But once we got to Bocas Town, I quickly learned that it wasn’t where I wanted to spend my time.

Bocas Town, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Bocas Town is a small slice of a town at the bottom of Isla Colón. It’s the most developed and most visited area of the six islands that make up the Archipiélago of Bocas del Toro. Isla Colón is named after Christopher Columbus, who sailed to Bocas del Toro in 1502. The islands eventually turned into Chiquita banana plantations. Workers came from Jamaica and the West Indies, which increased the Caribbean vibe. Now there are hotels along the water, homes raised on stilts that are painted vibrant colors with a mix of tropical and colonial porches, and tons of water-activity based tours to go on.

Who names paradise?

For the first time in my travels I experienced what people deem “paradise” right alongside stark poverty. Being in Bocas Town made me feel sad and uncomfortable. Being there made me feel like I should be doing something to help instead of bar-hopping like most people. I started thinking about who deems a certain place paradise and how someone else could experience it completely differently. It looked like the locals were getting pushed out to construct hotels and places for visitors. Many areas were littered with trash and many locals homes were just piles of wood planked together. Are the locals enjoying the islands for the turquoise water and pristine beaches or are foreigners the only ones able to enjoy all the paradisiacal activity? It was also my first stop that wasn’t a backpackers’ town and instead a place where wealthy people vacation. I wasn’t used to not seeing smiling passer-bys on the street, not being able to find a decently priced meal containing vegetables and not freely going up to strangers to chat.

Here are some homes in Bocas Town:

There were places I enjoyed in Bocas Town, but I think three days is enough to experience what Bocas Town has to offer.

My suggestions:

-Rent a bicycle and ride out of Bocas Town towards the main part of the island. Ride towards Playa Bluff. Before the beach there’s a cool lounge on the water called Paki Point. Great place to chill, eat, drink. Playa Bluff was one of the most beautiful beaches I’ve been to.

-For food: Bocas Blended. A food truck two doors down from Tropical Markets, next to a house with a sign that says Marisqueria. It’s on the road along the water. I had a Mediterranean veggie wrap, Thai salad and mojito lemonade for $7. Any combination of wrap, salad and drink is $7. So fresh and delicious. I would definitely go again.

Bocas Blended

Bocas Blended

La Casbah: Located on Av. Norte between Calles 3 and 4. Very fresh food and reasonably priced. I had a falafel plate with pita and veggies on the side for $6.50. Split bruschetta for $5.50. Great atmosphere.

La Buga: on the water. Had good veggie options for lunch.

Cosmic Crab: on Isla Carenero. Need to take a $1 water taxi from Bocas Town. Right on water. Great place to go for sunset. Good specials.

Favorite store: Island Traders. Two doors down from police station. They have traditional mola patches, unique jewelry, beautiful displays of local art, among other things.

My favorite store on the island

My favorite store on the island

Favorite place to take yoga: Bocas Yoga. In a big purple house. For $5 you can’t beat it.

Cool hostels in Bocas Town:

Casa Verde (right on the water), Mondo Taitu (a party hostel), Mare Iguana (not in the center of town), Hostel Hansi

The inevitable thing in Bocas:

I can’t blog about Bocas without writing about the bugs there. I’m naturally prone to bug bites, so I might be a little biased. But out of all the years of my life of constant bites, swelling and infections, I’ve never experienced bites to the degree that I did in Bocas. Bocas is known for its invasion of no-see-ums or sand flies. In clusters they attacked my ankles and pretty much every part of my body. After itching them they would burn for hours. This hasn’t happened to me with other bites. I’d wake up in the middle of the night to partake in scratch-a-thons. I wouldn’t be able to fall asleep. No bug spray or medicine helped. I did use a relief oil that I bought on the island. “Stop Scratchin Bite Relief” had jackass bitters, mataratton, aloe vera, coconut oil and beeswax. This helped but I had to apply it constantly.

If you have any questions at all about more information in Bocas or want to know more specific details about what I mentioned, message me or leave a comment and I’d be happy to help.

One last thing

I can’t write about Bocas without mentioning Sweet Love. Sweet Love was graffitied everywhere. You couldn’t walk down the street without it making an appearance. I’m not exactly sure why or where it came from, but there’s no denying that sweet love makes everything better. Here’s hoping there’s more sweet love for all of us.

I hope all your days are filled with sweet, sweet love.

I hope all your days are filled with sweet, sweet love.