My arrival in Costa Rica was a little messy. A stubborn tropical storm meant circling above San José airport waiting for a safe moment to land. When I finally cleared customs and found my luggage, it was two hours later than scheduled and the dense night sky had already settled in.
I’d arrived with only the jingle of left over Colombian Pesos in my pocket and the assumption it would be easy to take out cash at the airport. I was wrong. As ATM after ATM refused to acknowledge my bankcards, and the airport rapidly emptied around me, I found myself on the cusp of panic. My plan for a relaxed journey into the city was well and truly scrapped.
It was then that I saw an open currency exchange counter alone under the fluorescent lights and hurried over, just in time to be served by the most thorough person I’ve ever encountered. The sense of urgency I felt sure I was emitting went unnoticed. Every possible promotion was robotically recounted and each note meticulously counted and flattened with brain surgeon-like deliberation. Time, for her, was clearly no concern.
Needing to break my Costa Rican Colones into taxi friendly denominations, I quickly bought a snack from a tiny tienda. It was then that I met my soon to be taxi driver and temporary best friend, eating an apple, leaning on the shop counter and chatting up the girl behind it.
He gestured towards the long line of driverless taxis in front of us, and told me his was an official one at the back. When we reached the end of the queue, he promptly passed my luggage to his waiting friend, and with a grin and a wave, told me to wait a second.
As we stood, watching him run across the street into the darkness behind a building, his friend assured me it was perfectly normal. So I waited.
And sure enough, moments later, a car pulled up with the word ’Official’ shakily stencilled on the side and my slightly out of breath driver in the front. Good enough for me.
During the long drive through San Jose’s evening traffic, we sang loudly, bonding over a love of 80s rock ballads and reggae hits. I genuinely wished his invitation to go out that night was a plutonic one, but his glances in the rear-view told a different story. So with a heavily discounted taxi fare and a lingering handshake, we left each other’s lives.
Temporary best friend number two, turned out to be the owner of the tiny hotel I was due to stay in. It was late when I arrived at the building’s security fence and answered my name through the bars. The old lady in possession of the gravelly voice calling out from the lobby had one of the kindest faces I’ve ever seen. She also had one of the dirtiest laughs.
It was only after chatting for a while, and being introduced to members of her extensive family, that she glanced at my passport and advised me I wasn’t Mexican. It came as a surprise to be told that, since I already knew.
What I didn’t already know was that my online reservation hadn’t been received and the only remaining room in the building wasn’t waiting for me, it was waiting for Natalie Sanchez. And she actually was Mexican. Crap.
After some dramatic reservation book searching and a plethora of apologies, the landlady called a friend. Then another. And another. It soon became clear there was no space anywhere. Refusing to admit defeat, she made one last call and with a proud smile of success and a boa constrictor hug, told me to leave my suitcase behind the counter and walked me across the neighbourhood.
There’s no tour of an area quite like a late night one with an eccentric old lady on a mission. We talked about our lives, our families, our interests, and understanding about 70% of what each other said, found everything else hilarious.
With the relief of finally having a safe place to sleep and a friendly new proprietor who found the whole situation very entertaining, we returned for my luggage. Tired from our mission, my unofficial tour guide asked her son to escort my luggage and me to my new accommodation, then hugged me like I was leaving for war and demanded I return for a chat in the morning.
We walked through the darkness, him dragging my broken suitcase and me dutifully apologising for it. But as we crossed the old railway tracks and passed the park it suddenly dawned on us; neither of us had a clue where we were going.
In a way that had begun to seem completely normal for that evening, a passing stranger asked what we were looking for and based on my vague description of the building’s front door, confidently led the way.
As we rounded an unfamiliar corner in what definitely felt like the wrong direction, we found ourselves face to face with one of the landlady’s only family members I hadn’t already met that night; her daughter. She shouted for her friend to join us, and together, our mismatched entourage of strangers and relatives weaved through the neighbourhood in search of my bed for the night.
In a disorientated muddle of friendly bickering and laughter we stumbled across the owner of our destination as he peered down the street wondering where I’d got to.
The night had been a truly memorable fiasco.
It was then that I realised, I might just love Costa Rica already.