Logistics of Getting to Costa Rica from South Africa

 
Travelling from South Africa to Costa Rica
 

I made my first big travel mistake a few years ago when I decided to accept a teaching job in tropical Costa Rica. No, the teaching job was wonderful and living in paradise was a dream come true. Travelling from South Africa to Central America was the problem. 

I already considered myself a seasoned traveller and always double checked everything. Perhaps I was getting over confident and it caused my slip-up? Here's what I learned from my big mistake: 

1. The Cheapest and Quickest Way

It turns out that travelling through the USA is going to be your best option. We decided to fly via Dubai then the US and make the final flight to Costa Rica. This is already a super lengthy trek, but when you look at your other options you're either going to turn out broke travelling with direct flights or the others add on extra layovers and flights. Although this is was the route we originally planned to take, you'll see why we had to quickly change our plans. 

We were simply transferring through an airport in the USA. In our previous travel experiences this meant we wouldn't be exiting the airport and we wouldn't go through passport control to enter the country - so no visa needed, right? Wrong!

As a South African, you'll need a transit visa even if you are simply landing on American soil. We booked our flights, paid for them and when we tried to do our online check-in the day before we were expected to leave we couldn't understand why we were being asked for a physical address for the USA before it would accept our check-in. School in Costa Rica was beginning in a matter of days and there was no way I could wait to receive a US visa (having to go through the visa process, interview and the waiting period was not an option). 

My advice is that if you are a frequent South African traveller, you should look into getting a US travel visa even if you're not planning on visiting the United States. The tourist visa is usually valid for ten years and it makes transferring around the world cheaper, quicker and easier! 

2. The Long Way Around (visa on arrival route)

We needed to find an alternative - fast. And I guess this is what travelling faces you with at times. You need to be good at decision making and a keen problem solver. So, we kept our Dubai flight but rerouted it to Argentina (visa on arrival - yay!) and connected to Peru before Costa Rica. I've also used Costa Rica - Colombia - Brazil during another travel between SA and CR. Either way, it's at least a two day travel saga. If you've got time to spare make it worthwhile and visit the transiting countries! 

South America is a visa gold mine for us Saffa's but be warned, you'll need a Yellow Fever Vaccination to enter most countries. These are valid for life so get it done and don't worry about it again. We had to wait out the 10 day period before we were allowed to officially enter through Argentina. 

This was definitely a more expensive way around but needed to be done because of time. I was able to afford the 10 day waiting period but wouldn't be able to take the month or so the US visa process would be. 

I guess I learned a lot of valuable information from this process and am sure to remind every South African I know about these visa issues. I am also extra careful when booking flights now and always check through transit regulations a few times before booking anything. You win some, you lose some. 

A Day of Teaching Abroad in Costa Rica

 
A Day of Teaching Abroad in rural Costa Rica
 

When I thought about teaching abroad in Costa Rica the first things that came to mind were lush jungle, sandy beaches and an abundance of tropical fruit. And let me tell you, that was exactly what I got while teaching there for over a year! Costa Rica is a magical place, a paradise for sure and I would recommend everyone to travel there to experience this tropical dream - and if you're able to teach there, even better! Here's what a typical day teaching in a nature filled Costa Rican paradise entailed. 

Montezuma, Costa Rica

How I came to be in Costa Rica

After teaching in a Bhutanese village on the other side of the world for a year, I became obsessed with rural teaching. I loved the opportunities it presented for a slower, more simple way of life and the connections I was able to make to the community through teaching in these areas. So I was on the hunt for a rural teaching placement that still had access to comforts like the restaurants and outdoor recreational activities that Bhutan lacked. I missed the beach terribly after leaving South Africa and thought Central America was a good option to explore a culture outside of Asia. While looking for volunteer positions in Central America, I came across an international, sustainable school on the Nicoya Peninsula of Costa Rica. Escuela Futuro Verde had everything I was looking for: opportunities for professional development and growth, making a difference in a rural community by providing scholarships to locals in the area, and let's be real, they provided organic, vegetarian meals at school every day - I am totally food motivated. 

Where I lived (hint: paradise!)

My school and home was situated on the Nicoya Peninsula near the small beach town of Montezuma. Many expats had settled here because they wanted to get away from the cities and live closer to nature, so there was a clear need for quality education in this rural area. The area was surrounded by dirt roads, forest, wild beaches and the most diverse wildlife including creepy crawlies! Don't worry, you quickly get used to them. There was always an abundance of fruits and vegetables which literally felt as if I had landed in heaven after the scarcity of food in Bhutan. It's interesting the things we easily take for granted living in the western world and I'll be sure to never look at fresh food the same again. 

Costa Rica, Monetzuma

Before School 

Tropical, warm weather all year round meant getting out of bed each morning was a breeze. Even during the rainy season on the Nicoya Peninsula, it usually only rained in the late afternoons and evenings. Rainy season was the best because there were hardly any tourists and we had miles of beaches all to ourselves. Our small beach town of Montezuma became sleepy and everything took on a slower pace of life. I absolutely loved it!

I'd wake up early and take Charlie for a long walk along the dirt roads that weaved past our house. Charlie is a rescue dog we adopted while living in Costa Rica - probably not the best idea while travelling abroad but we love her dearly, and she quickly became a part of our family. Somedays my principal and fellow teachers would run past our house and we'd do a group run together with their kids and pets. It was like our own little community. I'd usually have a smoothie before school to keep me going for the first few hours before breakfast. If I opened a door or window at home there was literally jungle surrounding me in every direction, so the fruit peels from the smoothie got thrown out the back door into the forest to decompose naturally.

I'd quickly get ready for school and hop on my bicycle for the morning commute. We had a four wheeler too (the only cars that can drive on the muddy roads and through the rivers) but only used this when necessary or if it was raining. It would always be a mission and a half to get Charlie to stay at home and not follow us to work in the mornings, but I loved that she was able to be free to roam around during our time at work. We'd often come home and find our principal's pup in our garden having spent the whole day with Charlie! 

Running in Costa Rica, Monetzuma

Teaching Hours

Every day schedule's differed but here is an average one. The school has a bilingual, dual-immersion program so students learn English and Spanish alongside each other. I taught the English sections of first and second grade which meant that for some part of the day I'd have first graders learning English, Math and Science and then they would go to the Spanish teacher, and I'd do the same with the second graders. We had a lot of freedom in terms of curriculum and providing topics and assessment that addressed the individual needs of our classroom. Here is a typical schedule: 

7:30am Arrive at school and prepare the classroom. Check for any tarantulas, scorpions and snakes before entering. Say hello to Iggy our class pet, the iguana that lived on the roof. 
8:00am Homeroom. I was the homeroom teacher for first grade and my Spanish partner-teacher for second grade. We'd do "Peace Practices" that focused on mindfulness and creating classroom community. 
8:15am First Period with first grade. We'd usually begin with English writing and used the Writer's Workshop process for this, or we'd do a lesson that combined Science with English. Relating subjects and content was always encouraged.
9:00am Snack time! There was always vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free and non-vegan options every day. Breakfast included at least two fruits every day and then it varied from pancakes to gallo pinto, a traditional rice and beans dish that I still dream about to this day. As teachers we also had snack and lunch time duties so depending on the day I'd also need to supervise the kiddos during this time, or lunch. 


9:30am First grade Math. No worksheets or board work allowed in this classroom. Everything was hands-on and concrete. We had limited resources at our school so my math materials were literally numbers painted on rocks found at the beach #sustainability. 
10:10am Reading Groups for first grade. Centres were my jam and I used them for both Math and during reading time. I followed The Daily 5 protocol and for reading our school used ReadingA-Z. These are both programs that I had never even heard of back in South Africa and they were game changers to my quality of teaching. 
10:50am FREE PERIOD. Let's be clear, this didn't happen everyday, but the first graders had to have Art, Phys Ed, Music and Environmental Education sometime. I spent this time preparing readers and lessons, or writing in students planners. There was always a ton of admin and preparation to be done because our school was so hands-on and inquiry based. 


11:30am Lunch - finally. All meals were cooked at school by an amazing team and all produce was sourced so that almost everything was local, organic produce - how awesome is that? Everyday was different but we frequently ate pasta, lentil cakes, soups, and rice with beans and veggies. Salad was an accompaniment every day. 
12:20pm Second Graders were then with me for a chunk of the day. I'd follow a similar schedule beginning with Science or Writer's Workshop, or Science in the Writer's Workshop. We'd do Math stations and then our language activities. Brain breaks, outside learning and use of the library and computer lab were also scheduled in to ensure students were getting the most out of their day. 
2:45pm Home Time. I would always get first grade at this time as their planners and backpacks were kept in the homeroom. We'd have story time and share reminders before lining up for the bus stop at the end of the day. 
3:00pm Schools Out! Woo-hoo!

Like I said before, every day was scheduled differently to ensure that first and second grade had equal sharing of both teachers and were equally exposed to Spanish and English. Some days I'd even begin with second grade, and others I'd see less of one class. The periods were also really flexible, if I had first grade for a long chunk of time I didn't really focus to much on starting and ending a subject as the bell rang but rather focused on what they needed and adapted to if they needed extra time on something. 

School in Costa Rica
Teaching in Costa Rica

After Classes

Escuela Futuro Verde promotes having a balanced life for both their students and teachers (no homework for students), and although the work load was heavy to ensure our students were really getting the best from their education, teachers were also encouraged to lead a healthy lifestyle. After all, if the teachers are happy and healthy they have more energy and clarity in the classroom. Exercise classes were provided almost every day after school, free for teachers to join. I even started my own club dedicated to body weight training! 

After cycling home to a very excited puppy, Dylan and I would usually do something together with her so we weren't up at 10pm having to play fetch. We'd cycle with her to a river or take her down to the beach - her favourite! The beach was about 3km away and easy to get to, plus Charlie loved swimming and chewing on coconut husks. We'd get dinner going and usually wind-down with Netflix or read a book together. One of favourite things to do together was for me to read aloud a book that both of us were interested in. 

Costa Rica, Montezuma

Life in Costa Rica 

Besides my weekday teachings, life in Costa Rica was wild and free. The best way I can describe it is that weekends were play time, even for us adults. We were always outdoors cycling to rivers or beaches, or going to for long runs. I loved that this was encouraged within our community and it really helped with motivating you to become healthier. We would often have dinners together and on rare occasions go out for a meal (restaurants are crazy expensive because of tourism).

My fondest memories of are simple pleasures: going to the beach with a big group of friends until sundown, singing and playing ukulele together, watching the surfers catch waves while the children played and Charlie ran around happily waving her tail, and let's not forget cycle touring Costa Rica for a whole month! You can read more about that experience here

I often think about Costa Rica and my "family" there, and I can't wait to return one day. Have you ever been to Costa Rica? Would you consider teaching there? If you are a qualified educator and find this teaching situation appealing, you can read more about the school from the director here

Cycling touring Costa Rica with our dog
IMG_7423.jpg
Camping in Costa Rica

The Pros and Cons of Teaching in Costa Rica

 
Pros-Cons-Teaching-in-Costa-Rica

As usual, before moving to Costa Rica and accepting my contract I did very little research. To be honest, when making major life decisions I go on my "gut feeling" rather than reading what other people say (so ironic, because now I'm writing this for you to read). I knew the school I would be teaching at focused on sustainability and had an inquiry based curriculum, and it had my magic word that I find it very difficult to resist - "rural". This is was I found to be the pros and cons of teaching Costa Rica based on my personal experience living in a smaller town (not the capital city where most international schools are located): 

Pros

1. You are surrounded by a country known for its biodiversity. I've never seen such colourful birds, butterflies and constant spottings of wildlife. I'd wake up to the sounds of howler monkeys right outside my window and I literally lived in the jungle surrounded by trees and fruit that would just fall down in abundance. 

2. Beach life and eternal sunshine. Need I say more? Obviously if you're teaching in Costa Rica, aka tropical paradise, you're going to want to find a school or living situation that is close to a beach or in the forests. The lifestyle you live in Costa Rica is close to nature and naturally you spend more time outdoors. We were at the beach every weekend, hiking, trail running or mountain biking. 

3. Costa Rica is vegan/vegetarian friendly and health conscious in general. There are an abundance of tropical fruits and many of the expats who have made Costa Rica their permanent home have bought along their kombucha, natural healing, organic produce preferences and crystals along with them. I was constantly surrounded by others who were looking for alternative ways to living that were more natural and aligned with sustainability. We'd just open our back door and chuck vegetable off cuts and fruit peels into the jungle, giving it back to the earth and whatever creatures lurked outside. 

4. You get to practice slow living, get down to basics and escape the hustle and bustle. You spend so much time in nature that you become more accustomed to more natural ways of being. You're no longer surrounded by malls and even advertising! I remember our town putting up its first "billboard" and it looked so out of place. You are not constantly being bombarded with information but instead are surrounded by nature and fresh air. 

5. I found myself surrounded with positive, conscious, like-minded individuals. I feel like many people choose to move to Costa Rica because it offers an alternative lifestyle away from the fakeness that a western society can so often bring. These were people you could be yourself with, that accepted differences and you could have an actual conversation with without them constantly being on their phone. 

Cons

1. Its very expensive. I had this idea that Central America was cheap and boy was I wrong! Prices are on par with that of Europe - seriously. I would sometimes think about how local people even managed to survive, and basically many of the people where I lived would live in a bigger town (away from the beaches or forests) which meant rent was cheaper and they would live off of simple staples. You're able to find all of the western luxuries but you're going to have to pay for them. Coming from South Africa and living in Asia, most of what you'd expect to pay there was tripled in Costa Rica. P.s the teaching salary DOESN'T triple along with it and there is little opportunity for saving, but some things are worth more than money right? 

2. Flights to Costa Rica from any other part of the world (besides the USA) are ridiculously expensive, and so are flights within Central and South America. When I first booked my flight to Costa Rica I made the mistake of thinking I could easily transit through the US, because I would be staying in the airport and not leaving. Unfortunately, as a South African I needed to go for an interview at the US embassy for something as simple as a transit visa. I didn't have the time or the money at that point and had to opt for flights through South America instead with a hefty fee.

3. There are tons of tourists. I mean technically I was a tourist but what I mean is I wasn't just passing through. At high season it can be difficult to go anywhere without it being overcrowded. On the plus side, low seasons are amazing. You constantly have whole beaches to yourself and in the rainy season the country is so beautiful - everything turns green and lush. 

4. Most of the international schools are located in the capital city, San Jose. This is an inland city and it takes hours to get to the beaches where most people would rather be. As foreigners we are not permitted to work in a government school and therefore have limited options. 

 

The teachings of cycling around Costa Rica

 
Cycling-Around-Costa-Rica

In 2016, while teaching abroad in Costa Rica, I decided to go on a real adventure. I didn't have any plan at all about what I was going to share about my experience cycling around Costa Rica for a month, towing my rather large dog in a trailer. Dylan has his story but what I wanted to share is a little different. 

Sometimes our cycle around Costa Rica feels like a dream that didn't really happen. Firstly, because I would never have imagined (even probably a month before we actually began) that I would do something of this magnitude or be so "adventurous". I knew I was an adventurous person in trying new things, dealing well with change and being out of my comfort zone, but I honestly was not adventurous in the physical, athletic sense. At least in the way of when I say the word "adventurer" you picture a rather gnarly individual who looks like they can take a beating. 

And I think this is basically the point of telling you my story. To push you away from the idea that we are a certain way, that we have a personality or traits that we are defined by. It's just not true. They are boxes we made up for ourselves, or have been brainwashed into believing. Boxes that have walls of ideas that we limit ourselves to. When I was younger people would constantly tell me "you're so quiet". I grew up thinking that was a part of me. Why? Why do I need we need to stay the same, or even think that changing is a bad thing. After my travels people are constantly telling me "you've changed" and are sometimes even saddened because I am not how they remember. To me this means growth is happening, and I honestly haven't felt like I've changed at all but rather become more and more my most authentic self. 

Now that that's out of the way, let's talk about the cycling. I think a part of me was tired of seeing Dylan go off on these epic adventures while I stayed at home. Not because I didn't want to be alone, but I was sort of jealous that he was off seeing these amazing things and I wanted a part of it too. He had talked about "cycling the world" for years and it was always something that I was completely closed off to because I really and truly just didn't know how to ride a bicycle (yes, really). Once I was open to it I learned pretty quickly and cycling was so much fun. I think I must have had the childhood experience rather late because I would literally squeal with joy while we were riding. Cycling is so much easier than running - I had trained for half marathons with Dylan before and that was death. 

I was also determined to bring Charlie, our dog, with us. Anyone who knows me, knows how much I love my dog. This made it fairly easy to get into the right state of mind with the whole "you're going to be towing a heavy load for 60 km a day" thing. I think that's what made this whole trip feel like a task that not only I would accomplish, but really nearly anyone could too (provided you are in a state of good health). It's that I was determined to do it. 

The first week was an adjustment period physically and mentally. I had to learn how to listen to my body in a new way and see food as fuel over anything else. It's amazing when you feel totally depleted, like you can't carry on, and after 10 minutes of eating a piece of fruit or some nuts you're a new person. I found I had to eat a handful of nuts every 10 kilometres to keep me going. The thought of trail mix still makes me feel a little queasy now because I definitely over did it on the trip. I saved candies for the steep climbs (okay, even little hills) and would pop them like pills when I saw an incline in the distance. Uphill is the worst and I've never understood why there is the expression "it all went downhill from there" with a negative connotation attached to it. Downhills are literally the best - you don't do anything but rest! 

Dylan had an app so he could see and plan out what kind of climbing we would do each day, and so we could prepare for what kind of distance we were going to cover. I almost felt it would be better if I didn't know I'd be spending the whole day climbing a mountain because I dreaded it so much. After a while I think this turned into reverse psychology because I'd talk it up so much in my head and then when I started doing it, like our 3 day non-stop climb up The Road of Death (that's literally the translated meaning), it actually wasn't that bad. I think by then I was also getting fitter and it didn't take long before the muscles in my legs became more defined. 

The first few days were also so tiring. I would just fall asleep everywhere and anywhere in the middle of the day, even though I was going to bed just as the sun set every evening. I remember not being able to keep my eyes open and just wanted to sleep for hours. To be fair, we were also in the hottest part of the country during this time so it made it a lot tougher. Once we got further into the centre it got cooler. 

It's so funny that when you live in a house or are constantly in man made buildings you aren't as exposed to the elements. I don't think I'll ever look at trees the same again. I've always loved trees for their beauty, but man oh man their shade giving abilities are by far one of their biggest assets - you know, besides the whole oxygen giving thing. The sun would be beating down so hard and I'd feel like I couldn't carry on, but seeing a tree in the distance would motivate me to pick up speed just so I could have a rest under it in the cooling shade. 

I also learned what an amazing machine the body can be. Never in my wildest dreams did I think this body of mine would be able to exercise for 8 hours every day - and even thinking of doing it now sounds like a daunting task. Mornings were for pushing out the kilometres, and it slowed down as the afternoon approached with frequent breaks midday in that tropical heat. There were times where I'd hit a wall, thinking I couldn't carry on. I'd often just ignore my mind and literally 20 minutes later I'd forget how tired I was and be okay again, cycling for another hour or so. It would baffle me! I'd be thinking I was going to die one moment, and the next be totally okay. I can't explain the impact this lesson has had on me because it can be applied to so many different aspects of life, especially when you're having any kind of tough time - trusting that everything in the moment is okay, and then everything just is. 

I would encourage anyone and everyone who has the physical capabilities to try something like this. It doesn't have to be cycling for 30 days, but it should be something you find scary or difficult physically. I've found that when we push our physical and mental boundaries amazing things happen, and we learn so much about ourselves and life. 

I really am the most average, normal human being and if I was able to achieve this, anybody can. You can achieve anything you desire.