Costa RicaCosta Rica

Day 1: ATVs, Tattoos & Airplanes

Destination: Manuel Antonio

Packing for a flight on Costa Rica's domestic airlines reminds me of one of those brain teaser puzzles from middle school. I spent three hours last night worrying and juggling numbers, converting kilograms to pounds and measuring my bag's linear inches again and again, paranoid that I had made a careless mistake or not calibrated my scale properly.

Thankfully, when I got to the Liberia airport everything was fine. I saw many guests check in with bags that could not possibly meet the size restrictions, but it seemed staff were only measuring suitcases that were obviously over the limit.

pool at condotel las cascadasAt 7:20 a.m. we departed for Tamarindo, then stopped briefly in San Jose, and finally made our way to Quepos. The typically stunning bird's-eye views were obscured by clouds -- but it didn't matter because my eyes were squeezed tightly shut. Strong winds had made the flights more turbulent than normal. While traveling solo is a great experience, in times like these I really yearn for a buddy's hand to hold. I held on to the armrest until my fingers were white, resisting the urge to give my neighbor a bear hug -- and reminded myself that flying is statistically much safer than driving.

In less than two hours I was in Quepos. A $6 shuttle was waiting to whisk me from the airport to Condotel Las Cascadas, a family-run hotel just outside of town. Friendly owners Gary and Catalina greeted me at reception, and took me on a tour of their beautifully landscaped home.

all terrain vehicle

Fourteen rooms divided into one and two-bedroom condos constitute their property, including "the dome" -- an enormous structure situated atop a steep hill. The dome boasts two sister apartments and an incredible view of the pool. I could easily picture myself vacationing there with a large group of friends.

At 10:40 a.m., FourTrax Adventure picked me up from the hotel for our ATV excursion. The moment I laid eyes on the bright red vehicles, I remembered my first experience off-roading almost one year ago. Today, the familiar rush of adrenaline felt amazing as we catapulted along pot-holed dirt roads, feeling the intensity of every nook and cranny beneath us.

Our group of six bumped along at a snail's pace at first, until we had all proven ourselves capable of driving. Fourtrax Adventure had provided helmets with face plates to keep the dirt out of our eyes, and our leader was undoubtedly impressed with how quickly we were catching on.

After a while, one of the guests from the states decided that it was time for us to "get crazy" -- so we picked up the pace.

taking a break on the atv tour

We splashed through streams and puddles, weaved around stray cows, and plowed up and down hills and through fields of tall grass. We watched in awe as the guide performed impressive peel outs and other tricks in front of us, lifting two tires on either side of the ATV completely off the ground. These antics were accompanied by the timeless shout, "Don't try this at home!"

I found this first experience with a manual transmission ATV much less stressful than driving a stick-shift car. With a manual ATV, it is not necessary to move at a certain speed to change gears -- even at a standstill, you just press the up-shift button three times before applying gas and it's in third. The same applies to downshifting. Our guide held up one to five fingers to let us know which gear we should be in, so that even the riders completely unfamiliar with this concept had no problems adjusting.

An hour or so into our ride, we stopped to check out the teakwood leaf, a plant that creates a deep henna paint when crushed. Our guide painted a beautiful butterfly tattoo on my right arm, and lizards on the other two girls in our group. I didn't know it then, but this butterfly would stay with me for the rest of the trip. Natural teakwood ink is indelible, and I was later thankful that I didn't put any of it on my face unlike the others, who probably resembled football players wearing red "eye black" all week.

fun with teakwood henna tattoosAn hour and a half later, our group was exhausted. After so much driving, we all yearned for superhuman powers -- particularly thumbs of steel. On an ATV, gas is applied not by a foot pedal, but by pressing a lever with your hand on the right side. Thumb cramps are no fun.

At this point, our heads were spinning and it was time for a break -- we had made it to a swimming hole in the sleepy village of Londres, Spanish for London. Travelers stop here to swim or tube down a small set of rapids, or to sunbathe upon the adjacent rocks. A family-owned restaurant called the "Robin Hood" is situated on the riverbank, and we ordered drinks from the amenable staff.

relaxing by the river in londresOur group sipped Imperial beers and swam for an hour before heading back to town, where we lunched on one of the best chicken casados (a typical dish of rice, beans, salad, meat and sometimes a plantain) that I have eaten in my entire two years in Costa Rica. We rested after our meal, appreciating a world that stood still. Running on very little sleep, I finally had a moment to breathe and reflect. After so many hours splicing through fields and forests, I couldn't wait to collapse into the big, welcoming mattress waiting for me at Las Cascadas.

Day 1: ATVs, Tattoos & Airplanes in Pictures