The Death and Evolution of My First Love or My Changing Perspective on Music Festivals

***This post has been published in a slightly different version at elephant journal! Read the article here.

There’s something you need to know about me: I love music festivals. I love folk, world, bluegrass, indie rock, psychedelic dance, weekend-long, week-long, camping, non-camping, you-name-it music festivals. But recently this love felt different. I attended one of my favorite music festivals and didn’t feel the all-encompassing, “oh my goodness my life is altered,” riding on the waves of bliss kind of love and pure joy that I usually feel. Instead Envision Festival left me feeling jaded, sad and heartbroken in ways that I couldn’t quite understand.

Envision Festival is a four day camping, music, yoga, art and movement festival in the Costa Rican jungle alongside a beach. Over the past few years there’s been an emergence in music festivals that are centered on conscious community and transformation, Envision included. Throughout the day at Envision there are multiple yoga classes, permaculture discussions and healing workshops. At night and through the sunrise hours there’s live music (mostly electronic).

I love music festivals because of moments like this: a group hug at Random Rab's sunrise set.

I love music festivals because of moments like this: a group hug at Random Rab’s sunrise set.

This year I went to Envision straight from living at the Mystical Yoga Farm, an intentional yoga community in Guatemala. It was my first time leaving the lake and leaving the farm for more than 24 hours. It was also my first time in a long time being around thousands of intoxicated people.

Many magic moments happened at Envision. Nahko and Medicine for the People’s set fueled me with energy for days. Ayla Nereo inspired me to not waste time in following my heart. Suzanne Sterling’s yoga class brought me to my knees in prayer, love and tears.

Suzanne Sterling's class. Photo courtesy of Envision.

Losing ourselves to ecstatic dance in Suzanne Sterling’s class. Photo courtesy of Envision.

Running into the ocean naked revitalized and invigorated me. I made connections with people who helped me to see with clarity. I connected with my tribe of festival friends from around the world. I overheard a toddler call to their friend over and over, “I love you so much. Bye. I love you so much. Bye.” These words echoed throughout the night.

Many beautiful things happened. But I didn’t feel cradled in community. I didn’t feel supported. I connected with people when I needed, but those were mostly fleeting connections. I was slightly overwhelmed by all that was going on. I saw the warped connections that occur once it gets dark and people start taking too many drugs. Especially since I’ve been living at a drug and alcohol free community, I felt ultra-heightened to these bizarre hours of the night and day when shit just gets weird.

I didn’t feel jaded because of my personal experience (more on that in a different blog post), but overall something seemed missing. I came to realize that what I really felt was a lack in overall intention. The Envision program reads, “Together we are here to celebrate our spirits, heal our bodies and minds, and revitalize our souls…” Yes, I do think Envision provides a space for that, but it also provides a space for people to partake in and possibly abuse drugs and alcohol. Depending on the music festival, drug and alcohol use are going to occur, but I think there can be a stronger balance with drug use and wellness. Even though there were yoga classes and there was a healing area, I’d like to see a greater space devoted to wellness and connection at these types of events.

After Envision I spontaneously landed at Tribal Alliance Retreat, a visionary leadership immersion in the middle of the Costa Rican jungle. Once Tribal Alliance was in full swing I realized why Envision left me jaded and upset.

At its core Tribal Alliance was a journey into the heart of community, sacred celebration, regenerative culture, rites of passage, empowerment, and embodying the vision of a new Earth. All this and more at an alcohol-free event with limited participant space and three vegetarian meals daily led to an intimate, inspirational gathering. At Tribal Alliance people were united in their intentions to be vulnerable, to go deeper, to build and maintain lasting connections and to remain centered on ultimate wellness and love. Focused on the more engaging, learning, grounding aspects of community, Tribal Alliance bridged the gap between music festival culture and tangible aspects of health, wellness and permaculture.

Where music festivals provide a plethora of options to partake in at all times, Tribal Alliance provided one workshop at a time. Where music festivals provide multiple stages with multiple musicians playing at once, Tribal Alliance provided one stage with one band playing at a time; there were no overlapping sets. Where music festivals provide a space to be pulled in a million directions, Tribal Alliance provided a space to be grounded and to be a part of community.

Another important aspect to Tribal Alliance: the food. The event included three vegetarian meals a day, and we all ate together. Eating with others and connecting over a meal is a beautiful bonding experience. I love being able to share the joy and fortune of food with others. There was live music every night, but it ended at 1 a.m. It was easier to rest when I didn’t have to worry about missing any late night music or have the remnants of late night partyers stomp through the campground.

Meal time at Tribal Alliance

Meal time at Tribal Alliance

I still think there’s a place and need for music festivals and I always will, but my personal needs are changing. As my life becomes more focused on health and wellness, I find myself questioning how nourishment fits into being at a four day party without getting the best rest or eating properly. As I become more myself, my values are changing. I value getting 7 to 8 hours of sleep a night, looking people in the eyes, mindfully eating, learning who people really are, practicing yoga daily, connecting to people without the influence of drugs or alcohol and carrying an awareness while remaining grounded.

The more immersed I am in community, the more I realize how important a support group is. The more time I dedicate to yoga and health, the better I feel in every way. I want to live life as intentionally and mindfully as possible without fogging my perspective with drugs or alcohol. But at the same time, I love live music. I love dancing all night until past sunrise. I love the magic that can only occur at music festivals. How does all this balance? Where does it fit? At Tribal Alliance I felt the balance. I experienced how nourishing, healthy transformational events are possible.

Right after Envision I realized I was slightly heartbroken because at Envision a piece of myself died, a piece of myself who I’ve been for years, a piece of myself that was so intertwined with my identity. At Tribal Alliance I realized it didn’t die; it evolved.

So will I always be in love with music festivals? I can’t say for sure, but I know I’ll always love them in a special way. They’ve shaped my life tremendously. I’m constantly growing more into the person I want to be, more into the person I am. I’m recognizing what I really want out of life and how events like Tribal Alliance combine my interests in the most positive, meaningful way. I want to bring concepts and ideas from events like Tribal Alliance into music festival culture. I want to attend and be a part of events where ultimate wellness involving mind, body, spirit, land and community is the root.

This is my last blog post under the name ‘aprilsfestivals.’ I’m keeping the blog, but I’m ready to make the official transition to Smile and Be Free. Smile and Be Free represents the evolution of my love of music festivals and my ideas on life.

What are your thoughts on this emergence of “transformational” music festivals? Where do healing, yoga and permaculture fit into music festivals? How can we foster lasting positive change at these events? How do you remain present, grounded and mindful at music festivals when the chaos spins all around you?

Happy Valentine’s Day, I love you very much.

Feeling the spirit of love and friendship all around at the Mystical Yoga Farm, I decided to indulge this Valentine’s Day. As I was growing up I enjoyed having a special someone be my Valentine. This year I’ve decided that that special someone is me.

Leela, a lovely Karma Yogi who inspires me every day, led a poetry and yoga workshop last week. It was my day off so I missed the workshop, but Leela gave me the prompt: write an ecstatic love poem to yourself. Be as mushy and loving as possible. Read Leela’s gorgeous love poem at her blog Zen BootCamp.

Love and acceptance are broader themes to personal subjects I’m working on constantly. Loving myself is an important part of that process. Happy Valentine’s Day to the people I love very much, including myself. Please share your self-love poems in the comments section. Click to read my poem and be swept away in self-love

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 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.