Round the world tickets (RTW) are by far the most economical way to travel if you actually go around the world a lot. The only thing about round the world tickets is that you can only cross each ocean once and can not leave a "region" and return to it. I had one week between my board meeting in New York for WITNESS and my talk at SXSW so it totally didn't make sense for me to fly back to Dubai and "break" the RTW ticket. I was looking for a convenient place to park myself and get some work done and I remembered that my old friend Eric Haller lived in Costa Rica and seemed to have situation of having broadband ie. able to play World of Warcraft and be immersed in a very relaxing environment.
I met Eric in 1990 when I was working on the film Indian Runner - the first movie Sean Penn directed. I was working for the executive producer, Thom Mount, and Eric was a 2nd assistant director. We were around the same age and were similarly over-worked and under-paid for the few months that we worked on location in Omaha together. We hung out a bit and kept in touch. Later Eric lived in San Francisco and started blogging where we "met up" again. After that Eric joined my World of Warcraft guild, We Know, and still serves as one of my "Guild Administrators". About three years ago Eric moved to Puerto Viejo.
I messaged Eric and told him that I was looking for a place to "park" for a week. He encouraged me to visit him in Puerto Viejo. Puerto Viejo is on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica, not the Pacific side, which is where most of the tourists go. The big town on the Caribbean side is Limon, but there are no flights to Limon from any reasonable US airport.
Eric picked me up in San Jose, Costa Rica with a driver in the middle of a crazy storm and it took us over six hours of pretty treacherous driving across Costa Rica to get to Puerto Viejo. Eric had warned me to bring a raincoat - now I knew why. The road was full of potholes that felt more like mini land-mines, but we made it in one piece.
It was late when we arrived so we had a quick bite at the local Italian place and called it a night. When I got to my hotel room, there was something about the quiet sound of the rain and the jungle animals that sort of made me nervous at first and then jerked me into another reality. I fell asleep and didn't wake up for another 10 hours. I don't think I can remember when I last slept that long.
Eric came over, told me to put my watch away and stash everything into the little safe except a photocopy of my passport and a little wad of cash. We didn't have a plan. That was the point. We wandered to the local store in our flip flops on the dirt road. The store had one kind of bottled water, one kind of hair brush, tree ripe bananas, papaya, pineapple and just about everything you'd ever need, but nothing more. We bought a bunch of fruit and headed off to his house.
As we walked down the street, Eric waved at everyone we passed and chatted with maybe one in three of the people we met. Eric being the guitarist in Puerto Viejo's favorite band, Plan B, knew just about everyone and there was always a little bit of gossip that needed to be passed on as we made our way to his house. His house was set back from the road a bit and was in an area nestled up near the jungle. "Watch out for the leaf cutter ants," he said as we stepped over an army of ants carrying neatly cut pieces of leaves down a long path. Costa Rica was one of the most bio diverse countries in the world and you could just feel it.
Eric's house had all kinds of fruits and was a mini-jungle in itself. Eric showed me the machete that he used - which was his primary and only gardening tool. The climate was perfect so he never had to water anything and ever since his compost pile was stolen - the only thing he'd ever had stolen, he just dumped his compost directly into his garden where it quickly turned into plant food. Eric had an internet connection, a beaten up old beach bike, a guitar and a cat. Once he had bats in his attic which created some valuable bat shit, but he gave that to a farmer who really needed the bat shit fertilizer more than Eric did.
We ate fruit, swatted the mosquitoes (which he said you got used to after a few days) and talked about his life in Costa Rica. Costa Rica had banned the military and invested the money saved from that into health care and education. While Costa Rica still has some of the problems that all small countries have, the people were well educated and the health care system basically worked.
The basic cost of living was so low in the idyllic and sleepy Puerto Viejo and the fresh fruit, great coffee, rice, beans, fish and chicken so bountiful that you didn't really "need" much. After listening to Eric talk about his life of no plans except his nightly musical performances I started to understand. Eric said that he had looked at the Director's Guild of America's life expectancies for assistant directors and thought about his life in Costa Rica and realized the insanity of NOT finding peace and happiness in the minimalist but totally fulfilling life of Puerto Viejo.
For several days I walked and biked around the town and the beach with Eric chatting with his local and ex-pat friends. There was a very interesting variety of people who ended up in Puerto Viejo. Some ended up opening cafes, bars, yoga schools or teaching surfing or giving massages. Everyone seemed friendly, happy and relaxed in a way that made me completely envious. Occasionally, I saw some clearly out-of-place tourists looking for "the modern comforts" or some frat boy types being rude, drunk and annoying, but for the most part, the locals tolerated them because at the end of the day, tourism is the bread and butter of the town.
I'm sure I also stuck out like a sore thumb and looked pretty much like a Japanese tourist, but with Eric's introductions, the local community made me feel at home and completely safe. Many parts of Costa Rica can be a bit sketchy, but it seemed like the local community knew just about every little detail about every little weirdness that had happened, was happening or would ever happen in the town - or at least they had a rumor about it. This community "policing" reminded me of something between my little village in Chiba, Japan and Chicago where most of the policing was handled by the community and if you weren't part of the community, you really had no idea what was going on. ;-)
In Puerto Viejo, I had the best coffee I've ever tasted at Caribbeans, I heard some of the greatest Rasta/Calypso music from Plan B at Tex Mex and The Beach Hut, had a great time at Mango, got a great massage at Rocking J's, learned to surf from Peace on some great beaches and ate some great local food at Soda Johana and Soda Lydia.
As Eric and I took the public bus back to San Jose, I felt my brain being ripped back into the reality of the modern world like some tear in the fabric of space-time and as we had bad coffee and crappy hotel food in the hotel in San Jose the night before my departure - I already missed Puerto Viejo.
I think my trip to Puerto Viejo was the best vacation ever. But... I think it was because of Eric and his network of friends and his advice to leave "reality" behind. In fact, I don't think I opened my suitcase once after I got my flip flops, shorts and t-shirt out. If you're unable to leave your ego, money, watch, cars, attitude and stress at the door and "go native", I really don't recommend Puerto Viejo. Just as I'd hate to inflict Puerto Viejo on people who are looking for modern comforts, I'd hate even more to inflict people like that on Puerto Viejo. But if you're looking for real happiness and have time to invest in getting to know everyone and trying to fit in to the understated and quiet community that is Puerto Viejo, I'd recommend taking a few years, selling all of your shit (like Eric did) and heading over to take a look.