It’s one of the oldest tricks in the (travel) book: if you want more than a guidebook checklist experience of a place, make friends with a local. Or in Sam’s case, play an online multiplayer roleplaying computer game in your teens through which you make friends with a Costa Rican guy of the same age, and bham! Ten years later you have a local friend to visit when you wind up travelling through Central America.
We felt welcomed before we had even arrived in Costa Rica. Gwyne, Sam’s friend, took the trouble to go to downtown San José, Costa Rica’s capital city, to scout out various potential hostels for us, WhatsApping through photos of several places as well as a voice message with a breakdown of what he had found. Having expected nothing more than the name of a place he recommended, and considering Sam had never met the guy, this was a thoughtful gesture. It also meant that I had to stop joking that Gwyne might really be a forty-five year old woman: the voice message confirmed as far as his sex, if not his age.
Crossing the border was a less welcoming experience. At an unknown time, I managed to misplace my Yellow Fever Vaccination Certificate, and didn’t realised as I hadn’t needed it for the thirteen months of travelling up to that point. This meant that in Panama City’s bus terminal, I had to sweet-talk the woman in the ticket office into selling me a ticket to cross from Panama into Costa Rica, using a scan-in of my previous vaccinations as proof. When we arrived at the border, I handed over my passport to the Costa Rican border official, trying to be hopeful. But as I watched, she began to flick pages back and forth, and counted the days since I had been stamped out of Colombia, a high-risk country, on her fingers. Then, she asked for my certificate. Unable to present it, she sent me along to the Ministry of Health in a building a short way down the road, where I presented the scanned list of all my vaccinations, and pessimistically began to think of alternative options now that they weren’t going to let me into the country. To make matters more strained, the bus driver sent in a friend we were travelling with to let us know that he was fed up of waiting and was about to leave. Just at that moment, a doctor entered and handed me a stamped and signed letter to confirm that I was safe to enter the country. In a movie-finale climax, I raced back to immigration where the border guard stamped me into Costa Rica, grinning broadly at my very evident happiness, then I leapt onto the bus, just as it pulled out.
That evening, once we were ensconced in a beautifully painted, large, private room in San José, we met Gwyne. It was a surreal experience to watch: a first meeting after several of infrequent contact following a few years of virtual friendship. Very quickly, Sam and him were chatting away easily, and it was evident that they knew a lot about each other’s lives. I found Gwyne affable and easy to talk to, and quickly realised that though we only had a few days in Costa Rica, because we were meeting my parents in Nicaragua, our experience was going to be moulded by the fact of this unusually formed friendship.
Gwyne drove us out of the city centre and into the suburbs. Zooming through the city in a private car driven by someone who had lived there all his life was a different perspective from the local buses and occasional taxis we take. Our first impressions, when we had arrived in San José by bus, were of a city more developed than most places we have travelled so far, as we drove past shiny skyscrapers, huge billboards and along beautifully constructed roads. This apparent wealth was put into context by the low-down Gwyne gave us concerning his country’s politics, healthcare and education. As with most Latin American countries, corruption is a real issue and limiting factor in its development. Gwyne drove us up a small hill on the edge of the city where we had a fantastic view of San José spread out beneath us, glittering in the dark. We continued chatting about all manner of things, then he drove us back to our hostel. We ate a pizza together at the attached restaurant, and during the meal, the waiter asked how we all knew each other. It seemed to him like more than a recent traveller friendship, he said. Both Sam and Gwyne burst out laughing. It was an odd one to explain.
Over the next few days, Sam and I would do our own thing in the mornings, and once university and work were over for Gwyne we would all hang out. Gwyne drove us to Irazú Volcano, one of Costa Rica’s most active volcanoes only a short way outside the city. We walked along the ‘beach’, or large plain, next to two craters, one with a depth of three hundred metres, as the strong cold wind buffeted us about.
The volcano outing was our only real touristy activity in Costa Rica. Using Gwyne insider’s knowledge, we stuck to more local stuff. It was ‘University Week’ at the University of Costa Rica, which meant a week of art-related activities, including free outdoor concerts every night. When we went along on Tuesday, there wasn’t a huge crowd, it being early in the week, but we got the chance to watch Son de Tikizia, a nine-member, Costa Rican, Salsa band. As they worked their way through fast-paced salsa and cumbia songs, we watched the students all around us partner off and dance. It was an amazing and odd sight, a scene which would never happen back at home. We stood there, the stiff English folk that we are in comparison, gazing at the scene around us and pointing out people who were making a particular impression, as couples split and reformed, people ‘walk-danced’ on and on towards each other, spun, jigged, moved to the Latin beat. When we left, we felt that we had been privy to something completely normal in the life of a student in Costa Rica and yet so unusual for us.
On Thursday, Gwyne took us to another concert. This time, as Thursday to Saturday are big student nights out in San José and because the band performing was very popular, the area in front of the outdoor stage was absolutely packed. Cocofunka, the group performing, was an extremely popular Costa Rican band which mixed Latin, funk and reggae. From the moment that the first song started, and the students around us began dancing and singing along, we knew that it was going to be a great performance. The lead vocalist leapt around, as though electrified, as though he didn’t care that hundreds of people were watching him, whilst multicoloured visualisations spinning and shifting on a screen behind added to the hypnotic, vibrant effect of the music. It was an awesome live performance, and once again, it felt like the kind of experience that came from knowing someone on the inside track. Once the concert was over, we headed to a local student bar for a few drinks, it being our last night hanging out with Gwyne. He led us into what looked like an unremarkable place from the outside, and through several rooms, until we found ourselves in a small, dark bar, with plenty of exuberant dancing and a propensity for rock music. We had a few (Costa Rican) beers and chatted.
Once we were back outside our hostel, we said a heartfelt goodbye to Gwyne. Though we may have seen very few of Costa Rica’s top sights, and though what we did experience may just have been a couple of concerts and a few conversations, I somehow felt that we had been able to access something which is rare and often difficult as an outsider. Rather than the keen focus of a telescope looking in, it felt like Gwyne had given us his San José born-and-bred glasses for a few glimpses from the inside. It was a bit difficult to eloquently explain all this, to explain that he had significantly changed our experience of his country. So I just went in for a hug instead.