Mishaps in San Jose, Costa Rica: A Tale of Woes and Happy Accidents

When it rains it pours.

Which is a great way to describe the first several hours of my Costa Rica trip, both in the figurative sense and literally, because I did come to this country during monsoon season.

And which what our American Airlines pilot announced over the intercom after our second airplane malfunctioned en route to San Jose from Miami.

Earlier that morning, before the sun was even up, I got myself to the D.C. airport in moderately high spirits (as high as they can be on three hours of sleep).  The check-in line stretched a hundred feet away from the kiosks, dotted with angry customers and one very frazzled airline assistant.  By the time I finally reached the computer to print out my boarding pass, the minutes creeping dangerously close to take-off time, I received the worst possible news any traveler can receive from a computer at an airport: you’re at the wrong airport.

Ugh.  How could this happen?  I even checked and double-checked the night before!  And I certainly didn’t have enough time to make the hour long drive out to the Virginia airport from where my “actual” flight was supposedly leaving.  The frazzled woman working for the airline was highly unsympathetic, announcing that I could “try again tomorrow” and storming away with such contempt at the surrounding chaos that I can only imagine she quit her job right then and there and never looked back (I wouldn’t blame her).

But regardless, I needed to get on this flight.  I was sent to another long ling which was monitored by the TSA-version of the Line Police (a kind of authority for which I apparently have zero tolerance under such circumstances).  Frantically pleading my way to the front, I learned that I was, in fact, at the correct airport, thankyouverymuch, but that American Airlines had listed both departure airports on my reservation causing confusion and delay for everyone.  Despite recognition of their error, I had to fight to get on that plane and for my luggage to come along with me.  I ran my butt through airport security and made it just in time.

But, alas, the figurative rain would not relent.  My layover in Miami seemed simple enough until the pilot announced right before takeoff that the plane had broken and we’d need off-load and get a new plane.  A couple of hours and a new gate and plane later, the same pilot announced the infamous words with which I began this post, and explained that this plane, too, had malfunctioned.  Another hour of sitting in an un-air-conditioned plane, and then, finally, takeoff.

Now it was actually raining in Costa Rica, which sent us into a holding pattern for about another hour, looping around the country in which I should have landed hours earlier and could only longingly admire from 6,000 feet above.

My relief at finally setting foot on land an hour later was short-lived, once I activated my data plan and was greeted by a bank notification that my account had been hacked and my credit card cancelled.  You have got to be kidding me.

By the time I had landed, worked out a plan with my bank, cleared customs, and (honestly, to my surprise) retrieved my luggage, the next call I had to make was to cancel the waterfall tour I had planned for the afternoon, set to begin hours earlier.  I walked into the torrential downpours outside, flagged down a taxi, and headed to my downtown Airbnb.  I was tired and hungry and wet and totally defeated from the day.

But mostly I was hungry.

My Airbnb host, Juan, instantly proved himself trustworthy both as a non-serial killer and also capable of solid restaurant recommendations – a judgment which I largely made based on the impeccable taste with which he decorated his urban lofted home and his keen awareness that the strange American girl who just walked into his home was fading, quickly.  He sent me straight to Kalu.

My dreamy urban artist’s loft Airbnb in San Jose

My dreamy urban artist’s loft Airbnb in San Jose

Kalu is this hip little gastro-oasis in the middle of downtown San Jose – a city rejected by all Costa Rican travelers and online forums as the truest form of a dump.  Now I’m not going to say that San Jose is a cosmopolitan metropolis, or even that you should dedicate much time to it while you’re in the country, but I can say that it does have its gems, and Kalu is one of them.

The restaurant is first and foremost a shrine of sorts to Costa Rican coffee, with samplings of coffee beans and a dedicated coffee bar and seating area attached to the dining area.  The energy of the restaurant itself seems to exude both the buzz and coziness that I’ve always associated with a steaming mug of good coffee.  Kalu’s décor and attention to detail is impressive: even the iron window grates used probably to keep looters out are painted white and designed to look like trellises, making the whole place seem like a trendy mid-century urban garden, a theme continued inside with sliding glass walls opening up to a mini rainforest-like courtyard with twinkling bistro lights and tiny tables.  And inside, along with the restaurant and café and trickling fountains, are several little “shop fronts” featuring creations of local artists and designers.  I.e., my happy place.

Kalu’s garden courtyard

Kalu’s garden courtyard

A little girl’s unicorn-themed birthday party occupied the covered courtyard, so I took a seat inside, although honestly I wished I could have joined the party.  I ordered a sampling menu featuring octopus and mango ceviche, and grilled squid-and-potato salad, and a Swiss and mushroom burger, accompanied by three intensely appreciated glasses of wine.

The coffee corner at Kalu

The coffee corner at Kalu

Everything was heavenly, from the rain pouring down in the courtyard to the soft sounds of Spanish birthday songs to the wonderful new book I read over dinner to the delicious meal which I know had as strong feelings for me as I had for it. I just know it.

The beauty of the whole evening made me realize that if my flight hadn’t been delayed and if I hadn’t spent all that time on the phone with my credit card company, I wouldn’t have cancelled my waterfall tour, and would have been stuck in a rainforest in the middle of a monsoon going on three hours of sleep.  If it hadn’t been for everything going wrong, everything wouldn’t have gone so right.  I wouldn’t have had my perfect evening at Kalu.

And I wouldn’t have met Otto.

Otto, the handsome, suntanned, salt-and-peppered South African man sending me side glances from his nearby table as he enjoyed his own wine-accompanied sampling menu.  Otto didn’t approach me in the way that a creepy foreigner approaches a single female tourist after a few drinks.  No, Otto approached me like a gentleman, bearing a small container of tiny homemade desserts.  Praise God for people like Otto.

He handed me the sampling of dark chocolate lava cakes and mint cookies and passion fruit tarts and I was instantly won over, inviting him to join me as I finished my post-dinner cappuccino.  He shared with me his Costa Rica travel stories and showed me dozens of pictures which would be followed by his embarrassment for showing me all these pictures, and then more stories with more pictures.

Otto was a joy not just because of the desserts and the company he provided and the mesmerizing South African accent with which he spoke, but also because he gave me so many fantastic travel tips.  Beaches I needed to see and the phone number for some-guy-with-a-kayak who would give me deal on a diving excursion and fantastic and affordable hotels that housed him along the way.  Although my plans for the next several days in Costa Rica were far from settled, Otto’s recommendations and stories seemed much more compelling and I decided to abandon my kind-of-plans and be open to a change.

El Teatro Nacional de Costa Rica

El Teatro Nacional de Costa Rica

Part of the growth and joy of traveling comes from mishaps.  It comes from delayed flights and cancelled tours and inclement weather and credit card theft (well, okay, we can do without the last one).  I think it’s these mishaps that remind us that we are not and should not be in complete control when we are stepping into a new journey in a foreign place.  Our travels plans get stomped on, and we let adventure take over.  The mishaps force us to loosen our grips on our itineraries, and shift our hearts and minds to be open to opportunity and guided by the whims of the country itself.

White water rafting on the Pacuare River

White water rafting on the Pacuare River

By the end of this rainy day, I was so open to opportunity that I last-minute cancelled the next day’s volcano tour and instead booked a white water rafting trip by the recommendation of my unfailing Airbnb host.  Which ended up being the most exhilarating, action-packed rafting trip I’ve ever done, and gave me an entire day submerged in the beautiful rainforests and canyons of the Pacuare River.

So I’m grateful for all these mishaps, and for the lovely detours that were ultimately so much better than my original plans.  And I’m grateful to start my Costa Rica adventure off with a reminder of what I love so much about traveling – the flexibility, the spontaneity, the challenges, the new friends, and, well, the chocolate.

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