10 Things Traveling Through Central America Has Taught Me

This has been a particularly insightful week in Costa Rica. Why, you ask? I don’t know, it just has. I’m already making plans for my next trip, so it means there is some sort of end in sight and that always brings a time of reflection, whether a philosopher or not. This trip in Costa Rica will be my second longest trip ever. The first, when I lived in South Africa for a summer during college. Just as the trip in South Africa did, this has been a very revealing trip, as I’ve immersed myself in a culture I only knew from books, magazines, and conversations with friends and family. As I was sitting on the beach today, I was quickly able to come up with a long list of things I’ve learned and could have kept going. So here it is: 10 things living and traveling through Central America has taught me.

1. Pura Vida. Ok, if you've spent anytime in Costa Rica, than you're probably saying to yourself right now: "I swear, if I hear someone say 'pura vida' one more time!" Pura vida, translated "pure life", is everywhere in Costa Rica. You see it on shirts, marquees, and homes and hear people using it in various forms, as greetings, salutations, and more. However, like so many phrases you may be accustomed to in popular culture, the term "pura vida" is much different. The term has come to mean a way of life in Costa Rica. You'll notice that life goes by at a much slower, laid-back pace in Costa Rica. This is something much of the world can learn from.

2. I am a slave to time. It's called "tico time" in Costa Rica. "Tico", being the term for Costa Ricans. You might as well just leave your watch at home when you come to Costa Rica, because nothing is going to happen on time. Throw out your strict itinerary and learn to just roll with things, because you're not going to convince anyone to be on time around here. If you want to leave at noon, tell your driver to be there at 11:30, and maybe he'll be there at 12:15. That's not to say this is the case all the time, but I've learned to let go of my dependence on time.

Costa Rica Tour Guide

3. The great affair is to move. As much as I like the ring to that phrase, I can't take credit for it. That credit goes to the great Robert Louis Stevenson, who accompanied those words with: "For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel's sake." While so much of travel and travel writing is about landmarks and attractions, the most memorable moments for me in Central America have been conversations and experiences.

Nicaragua Border

4. We're all running from something, but while doing so, we should be running toward something else. I can't emphasize this one enough. When my marriage unravelled last year, I promised not to run away, but to stay in the general area where I was living and continue my job for at least 3 months. You can't escape your past, even in Costa Rica. Many people I've met are divorced, jobless, recently out of prison, or otherwise. However, while you may be running from one thing, make sure you're running toward something that will result in a better outcome.

New York City High Line

5. I am a slave to technology. While most people have cell phones and other gadgets here, you won't find the same dependence as you would in the U.S. A couple weeks ago I took a three-day weekend and left my cell phone and laptop behind and it's one of the best things I've ever done while traveling. If there's anything this trip has taught me, it's the importance of unplugging while traveling.

Granada Iglesia la Merced

6. I am a traveler, and not an expat; yet. While I've always said that I could see myself as an expat, that time hasn't quite come. Some people made comments before I left, wondering if I would end up staying in Costa Rica, but if there is a country I'm going to do that in, it's not Costa Rica. While the thought has crossed my mind more than once to stay, there are many more trips on the horizon.

Hermosa Beach

7. If there's a perfect *insert word here*, I've yet to find it. I've tried to be a little bit more careful when making recommendations, especially in a place like Costa Rica. You may hear terms like "perfect beach" in Costa Rica, but that doesn't exist. I've seen some nice beaches, but nothing even close to what I would call perfect. What is the perfect beach anyway?

Dog Pooping Sign

8. The term "socially unacceptable" is subjective. While taking your bathing suit top off on the shores of the Outer Banks of North Carolina to walk around and nurse your child may be "socially unacceptable" there, that doesn't mean it is so in other parts of the world. Also, in some cultures, driving down the road in an ATV or golf cart can actually be quite stylish and not redneck, as long as you have a license plate.

McSorley's Bar in New York City

9. Face-to-face relationships are what bind us together. While I love all of my Facebook, Twitter, and blog friends, I really hope I can meet you all in real life. While I still use Twitter and Facebook a lot, there's nothing like connecting with fellow travelers and locals while on the road. It's the conversations and experiences with those people that have made this a special trip.

You were expecting a 10th item here weren’t you? Are you really disappointed? I think not. You’re probably tired of “top ten” lists anyways, and I’ve actually just done you a favor. So you’re welcome – you can buy me a beer later. The fact is that I can’t put a cap on what I’m learning and experiencing in Central America. I made this list in just a few minutes, which is rare for me, and I really could have gone on and on. This is how travel should be. There is no right or wrong way to travel, however, there should be a change that goes on within. The day I no longer find that the case is the day I quit traveling. Echoing the words of many great travelers before, I find that the more I travel, the less I actually know.

*Photo #5 is courtesy of Kirsten Alana.

22 Comments on “10 Things Traveling Through Central America Has Taught Me

  1. I like #8. You should get out to Catalina Island sometime (out of Long Beach) – the main mode of transportation is golf carts :)

  2. Excellent post Spencer. Love #5 and #9. Sometimes unplugging is the best feeling in the world. And there really is nothing like connecting with fellow travelers on the road. Especially when you meet people who you’ve been following on your feed reader for the last year. What a small world!

    • Definitely Ryan and hope it works out for us to meet up in the near future. It’s always refreshing too, when I see such passionate travelers who aren’t doing the blogging and social media thing, but are just traveling and soaking it in.

    • Thanks PD. To the states very briefly this spring and then Europe, somewhat to rediscover my roots.

  3. I have to admit, after spending a couple weeks in Costa Rica I got tired of hearing the phrase Pura Vida too, but I do enjoy the lifestyle! ;-) After traveling I opted to do the expat thing (in Mexico) and it’s definitely a different experience!! Looking forward to seeing where your headed next.

    • Thanks Laura and I agree. Even the gringos here have taken on the phrase. I know others who are doing the expat thing in Mexico and love it. Wouldn’t be surprised to see myself doing it in the future.

  4. Not sure what to write since you know I relate to all of these!! Such amazing photos of you. Those are so cool to have. Number four is so true. I needed that reminder. ;-)

  5. Love this post Spencer, I hope CA continues to be as good to you as it was to me. I don’t travel with a cell phone and at times it can be a pain in the ass but I really love how I don’t keep looking at a phone to see if I missed a call.

    • Thanks so much Ayngelina! Nicaragua was the best and I absolutely loved it. It’s been a very insightful trip and great to spend a concentrated amount of time in another culture.

  6. Fabulous list, and I loved, loved, loved spending a few days in a small town near the Arenal Volcano with Ticas, myself. I like #9 the best, although the picture of the dog pooping certainly has its appeal. It’s easy for us travel bloggers to get stuck behind our computers when not actually traveling — maybe that continues to heighten the appeal of hitting the road for us!

  7. They say travelling is about learning more about yourself and your world and it certainly seems like you are doing that.

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  9. I like number 4! It’s very true, no matter what you are running from (not always a bad thing) it won’t go away just because you move but you may just find something better to focus on!

    Photo 5 is a fab shot of you!

    • Thanks Annie! That’s probably the most important thing by far I’ve learned over the last year and continue to learn on a daily basis. I have Kirsten Alana to thank for that photo. She took it, and a few others of me in NYC last fall. That one is from the high line in Chelsea.

  10. Just discovered your site man … good stuff and I am planning on being down that way next year around this time!

    • Thanks Scot and thanks for the follow on Twitter. Hope you’re stop by from time to time.

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