Tag Archive: wanderlust


I rarely read non-fiction. I’ve never read a travelogue. And yet I was pleasantly surprised by Tom Lutz’s latest book, “And the Monkey Learned Nothing: Dispatches from a Life in Transit.” At first, the book grabbed my attention with its title, followed by the synopsis. After I read the first few chapters, I knew I was hooked.

Lutz is a solo traveler who dreams of visiting every country in the world. He’s also a great and introspective writer. Each chapter is a short account of his personal experience in a new foreign country. They range in length and topic: walking through an empty Middle Eastern town; being stalked by an aloof young woman in South Korea; infiltrating the secret tango scene in Buenos Aires…

Like every other travelogue out there, this one is subjective. It reveals a fair bit about the author himself, while also describing the way others reacted to him. It also adds a great deal of cultural context or just funny (and occasionally disturbing) anecdotes.

Just about the only flaw I could find in the book is the dry nature of some chapters that discuss local politics. Those chapters, however, were outnumbered by the ones that gave great travel advice, made me reconsider visiting a few places (sorry, Cambodia) and taught me to avoid monkeys in tourist-heavy areas. (“They are sociopaths, like particularly nasty juvenile delinquents.”)

This book was a genuine pleasure to read. It would make an excellent present to anyone that’s curious about travel, the world, the universe and everything. Most and foremost, it’s a must-read if your wanderlust has overgrown the confines of your own country and inspired you to travel abroad.

I give this book five out of five stars.

Full disclosure: I received an advance reader copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

Buy “And the monkey learned nothing” on Amazon.

In no particular order…

The largest Costa Rican bill has a beautiful butterfly.

Memorize this expression: “pura vida.” It’s a uniquely Costa Rican expression that means “life is good” or “hakuna matata.” Expect to hear it (and reciprocate!) anywhere, at any time, under any circumstances. It can be a greeting, a goodbye or a random observation – or all of the above.

Bring your own sunscreen, padlock and towel.

Sunscreen in Costa Rica is expensive: I’ve seen 8oz bottles sold for as much as $35. Stock up on it right after you go through airport security.

As we all know, a towel is the most useful object in the known universe. If you’ll be backpacking, you might not want to end up renting (or worse, losing) a hostel towel. (And they’re too tiny to take to the beach with you, in any case.)

If you plan on backpacking and staying at hostels, bring your own padlock. Some hostels will sell or rent you a padlock, while others will have no idea what you’re talking about. Make sure to get a reliable padlock: one of my hostel buddies ended up having to smash his Brinks combination padlock with a wrench after it got stuck.

Prepare for the worst-case scenario by hiding your debit card and a photocopy of your passport somewhere deep at the bottom of your backpack. If you get separated from your valuables, you’ll always be able to withdraw cash and go to the embassy in San Jose.

Speaking of backpacks, I used this one. It’s not the fanciest backpack out there, but it can expand and store a lot more than you’d think.

Bring clothes that are easy to wash, unless you feel like using up a lot of storage space and/or doing laundry while you’re on vacation. I survived just fine with 1 pair of cargo pants, 1 pair of swimming trunks, a 3-pack of wool socks, 3 polyester shirts (say no to cotton!) and 2 pairs of easily washable high-tech undies. (Well worth the price!)

Cargo pants are your friends. You’ll look like a gringo anyway, so why bother trying to blend in? Dark cargo pants (the better to conceal all the stains from your backpacking adventures) with a ton of useful little pockets will make your life a lot easier, trust me.

Tap water is safe to drink, unless you’re on the Caribbean (eastern) coast.

Do not flush your toilet paper! Costa Rican plumbing is a little fragile, so throw all your TP into the trashcan. Otherwise, you’ll end up clogging up the whole thing.

Costa Rica uses the same voltage as the US, so there’s no need to buy fancy power converters.

Just to be on the safe side, you might want to bring a power bank in case your phone/Kindle/whatever battery runs out while you’re out and about. This power bank seems to be the best deal on Amazon right now. It works like a charm: when fully charged, it has enough power to get your phone to 100% 2-3 times. (You can charge it through the micro-USB port, same as your typical cellphone.)

The local beer leaves a lot to be desired. The taste is okay – if you can stomach Pabst Blue Ribbon, you can stomach Imperial. The price is fine too – you can get a 40-oz bottle for just $3. The alcohol content, however, is grossly overstated. It’s not anywhere close to the 4.8% stated on the label, so you’ll essentially end up chugging beer-flavored water. Rum is cheap, though…

Due to high import tariffs, electronics are expensive. A simple pair of earbud headphones costs $9, so bring your own if you plan on listening to music or audiobooks during your stay.

There is nothing of note in Liberia and Limon. Stay there overnight if you have to, then move on to other, more exciting destinations.

San Jose is the capital of Costa Rica. It has some nice museums. It also has the highest crime levels in the country.

Invest in a good guidebook. I used a 10-year-old Lonely Planet guide and it was great, though slightly out of date. It had all the information on landmarks, towns, etc. I also recommend buying this old Frommer’s guide for a penny – it’s not very well written, but it comes with a very large map of Costa Rica.

To get the recommendations on the best restaurants, use Trip Advisor. Check out the top-rated diners – it’ll save you the trouble of finding them yourself!

To get a taste of genuine Costa Rican food, find a local diner (it’s called “soda”) and order a “desayuno tipico” (typical breakfast) or a casado (dinner). The dishes are mostly based on variations of rice and beans, with the side of fresh fruits and veggies. Follow the locals – you can get a decent (and authentic!) meal for just $5 that way.

Bring a Kindle. If you plan on traveling between cities, it can take you a lot longer than you think to get there by bus. I did manage to visit both Costa Rican shores and a lot of stuff in between during my 2-week vacation, but I spent 2 whole days stuck on the bus…

To look up bus schedules, go on this site or just google “Costa Rica bus schedule.” The site will tell you the most efficient way to get from A to B to C.

Costa Rica doesn’t have anything like Greyhound – you’ll have to take different buses at different transportation hubs to get where you’re going. That means layovers, some of which can last 4-5 hours. Most of the time, you’ll just hand your money to the driver as you board the bus. In some of the larger cities, you’ll have to buy the ticket at cleverly concealed ticket booths.

Bus is cheap, but it can take a long time: the roads are less than perfect, and sometimes your bus will plod along at just 20 miler per hour. The other option is designated shuttles: they’ll take you anywhere – and fast, but you’ll have to pay anywhere between $30-50 for the privilege. (The same journey by bus would cost $10, if that.)

Costa Ricans call themselves “ticos.” “Tico” for male, “tica” for female; the plurals are “ticos” or “ticas.”

Despite what you might have heard, not everyone speaks English. I had a lot of hilarious conversations where I got a chance to practice my Spanish with the help of my two mini-books: this pocket dictionary and an equally compact phrasebook. They fit perfectly into the cargo pants’ pockets, by the way!

Do not exchange your money at the airport. They’ll sell you colones at a ridiculously high price and you’ll end up losing over 10%. Everyone in Costa Rica accepts dollars, but you’ll want to exchange your money at the bank anyway: the official exchange rate right now is 534 colones per $1. When you pay with dollars, most people will use the 500 colones exchange rate, if only because it’s simpler to multiply it that way. If you exchange your money at the bank, you’ll end up getting 7% more colones. That’s definitely worth the 40-minute wait! (Don’t forget to bring your passport.)

If you want to see sloths, head to the Sloth Sanctuary near Puerto Viejo.

Use your common sense. Most of the crime occurs in San Jose, but there’s enough of it elsewhere. I met a group of backpackers who had everything stolen from them: they’d rented a car, parked it near a hostel and went inside to see if there are any available rooms. When they got back to their car three minutes later, it was completely empty: all of their luggage, purses and assorted stuff was gone. Don’t leave your backpacks/purses/fanny-packs lying around, be mindful of your things and generally keep your eyes open.

Wear flip-flops at your own risk. Not just because of the random bugs and an occasional snake in a forest, mind you. I don’t know why, but during my 2 weeks in Costa Rica, I met four different backpackers who broke their toes. For the most part, they just weren’t watching their step – and there’s a lot of hard surfaces and sharp edges all over the place.

Ditto for surfing. Yes, it looks cool, but one of my backpacker buddies ended up breaking his face on his surfboard. Be aware of the risks.

The mile-long zipline in Monteverde is amazing. Bring a poncho, though – there’s an improbably large amount of mud flying all over the place while you do your Superman impression 100′ above ground.

You can see a lot more of the jungle nightlife if you take a night tour instead of a day tour. It’ll keep you from getting sunburned, too!

Speaking of sunburns: try to stay indoors between 10am-3pm. The sun is at its strongest during those hours. If you want to hit the beach, you may want to set out early in the day or in mid-afternoon. (Sunburns suck.)

It rains in the rainforest. A lot. About 80% of the time, according to the locals.

If you find yourself in La Fortuna, skip the waterfall. It’s a tourist trap – very pretty, but with very cold water and complete absence of anything remotely resembling a beach. It’ll make for a nice selfie (after you pay the $12 admission fee), but you’ll get very bored, very fast.

The Cerro Chato hike in La Fortuna will take you to the gorgeous lake hidden in the crater of a dormant volcano. The hike itself is difficult: after you pay the entrance fee ($17, I think), it’ll take about 3 hours of climbing, walking, jumping, crawling and quite a few pushups through the mud to get to the top. (The air is mighty humid, so bring plenty of water!) Then you’ll have to slide through the mud for 15 more minutes to get to the actual lake. Both parts of the journey are very strenuous: on our way back, my friends and I met a group of tourists who didn’t watch their step… One of them lost her footing and took a shortcut to the bottom. She got a cut on her leg but didn’t break any bones, fortunately: it would have taken hours to get back to the ranger station…

The Rocking J’s hostel in Puerto Viejo is one never-ending spring break. Beds in their shared dorms are just $11 a night, and if you can handle the loud music at night, you should be able to enjoy your stay.

The strawberry juice at the Guetto Girl [sic] diner in Puerto Viejo is the greatest argument for the existence of a loving deity that I have ever encountered. I’d need to conduct a lot more tests, of course.

Bread&Chocolate is the top-rated Puerto Viejo diner for a reason. Their coconut pancakes are the single most delicious thing I ate during my entire vacation. (The desserts are pretty amazing, too!)

The bakery at the bus station in Liberia has a very large, cheap and delicious selection.

Tamarindo is the definition of a tourist trap: colonized by Baby Boomers, filled with night clubs and real estate ads. It’s quite pretty, though. The beach is always just two blocks away, there are convenient smoothie kiosks all over the place ($3 for a 22-oz smoothie!) and the weather is always perfect.

Visiting Tamarindo? Check out the Pura Vida hostel. It’s nice and cozy and quiet and beautiful. Hard to beat the price, too: $14 a night for a shared dorm.

Most places won’t accept your credit card.

If you try ordering American-style food, you’ll end up wasting your money. Most of the French fries are bland (they almost got them right), and when you order tacos, you’ll get a soggy tortilla smothered by a mountain of wet veggies and meat that you’ll end up having to eat like a salad. Just stick with casados.

The exit tax is $29. You can pay it with your credit card, but it might end up getting treated like a cash advance, with an extra fee from your credit card company. It’s best to just set aside the $29 ahead of time.

Renting a car? Make sure to ask if your quote includes mandatory insurance – it’ll usually cost as much as the car rental yourself. Make sure to follow the speed limit to the letter: ticos don’t get hardly any fines if they’re caught speeding, but tourists get fined about $600. If you try bribing the cop, they’ll take the bribe, smile at you, then write you the ticket anyway. You can’t avoid paying it, either, because your car rental company will just charge your credit card. Basically, a rental car will make your journey a lot easier, but (potentially) a lot more expensive.

“Pipo” is coconut water, and it should never cost more than $1 (or 500 colones). It’s served refrigerated – all they have to do is cut off the top of the coconut and give you the straw. Once you finish your drink, smile and say “parta, por favor?” and they’ll split it open for you. That way, you’ll get a drink and a coconut snack!

Things are much more relaxed in Costa Rica than back home. No one is ever in a hurry, and people take their time to get things done. Don’t get irritated if a clerk/cashier/vendor doesn’t help you right away.

Ticos are excruciatingly polite. They’re pretty much the Canadians of Central America. When you go out to eat, they most likely will not bring you a check unless you specifically ask for it. Why? Because they don’t want to be rude by making it look like they want you to free up the table. When you’re ready to pay, just walk up to the cashier.

And remember, no matter what happens – stay calm and pura vida!

P.S.: if you like my writing and want to see more of it, check out my e-books on Amazon! You might particularly enjoy Taoism-101 or 50 shades of yay: great thinkers on happiness.

On wanderlust

In five days, I shall embark on a cross-continental journey, driving from Tampa to Seattle, stopping everywhere and nowhere, feeding my wanderlust. Over the past year, I’ve visited Dallas, New York, New Orleans, Omaha, Tampa, Charlotte, Chicago, Baltimore, Washington and Seattle, as well as Mexico and Grand Cayman. In the past four years, I’ve lived in Reno and Vegas and rural Nevadan towns you’d never heard of; in Dallas and Tampa and a few places in between.

The sensation of traveling, of moving and experiencing entirely new parts of the world, is indescribable. It’s confusing and mesmerizing and intoxicating, thought-provoking and inspiring, tinged with the bittersweet taste of nostalgia and vuja de. I have no doubt that within the next decade or so, wanderlust will become listed in the DSM as yet another suspicious condition, another sacrifice on the altar of the Pharmaceutical Industrial Complex.

Throughout history, wanderers and adventures (or misadventurers, as fate would have it) spread ideas and innovations throughout the world, assisting civilization and feeding their own wanderlust. Here and now, in the middle of the second decade of the twenty-first century, traveling is easier and cheaper than ever before. Strange foreign lands can be accessed with a swipe of a credit card and several hours in a flying metal vessel.

The full allure of it is hard to put in words. It’s a desire to explore, to see new places and to try new things, to not grow roots in boring little towns, to find something new. Something better. Something else. After all, even Frodo moved on and left his old digs for the Undying Lands when his grand adventure was over.

I spend my last days in Florida packing and reminiscing and enjoying the most of what this state has to offer. It saddens me to leave it all behind, but the exchange will be more than worth it, for there’s a new journey to be had, new city to explore, new land to wander.