Live. Travel. Play.

Almost Paradise at Playa Sámara

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Gregor and I recently spent two weeks at Playa Sámara on Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula, parked in a ‘rustic’ campground called Camping Los Cocos. We are rarely drawn to a place so much that we want to stay for two weeks. In fact, the few times when we have stayed in one spot for more than a week were under very special circumstances – for example, when we took Spanish lessons, or when we both got the flu, or when we found a hippy beach in Mexico where chocolate croissants were delivered to our van every day by a handsome Spaniard.

Camping Los Cocos had exceptionally bad washroom facilities and was a rather hazardous place to camp. So why did we stay there so long? Well, the place had a special something…

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The First Day at Playa Sámara

After our wildlife watching escapades in Manuel Antonio, Gregor and I headed north to visit fellow overlanders Amanda and Travis, who were renting a home on the Nicoya Peninsula. En route to their place, we stopped for one night in the coastal town of Sámara (prononced “SAM-ara)”.

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Gregor and I decided to stay at Camping Los Cocos, which was located right on Sámara Beach (Playa Sámara). We were greeted by the camp manager, Don Jesus, who said we could stay the night for $15 CAD ($12 USD).

Don Jesus
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Don Jesus

Don Jesus welcomed us with delicious mangoes and coconuts that he gathered from his own trees. He had a gentle demeanour and we liked him right away.

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Don Jesus chit-chatted with us (in Spanish) about Sámara and his property. He pointed out that Playa Sámara was peaceful and the campground was very safe, as it had ample lighting at night and was separated from the public beach with a fence. We agreed that it felt very safe, and we really liked the vibe of the place.

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At Camping Los Cocos, we met Eva and Carlos (Xino-Xano Latinoamérica – “Xino-Xano” is pronounced “chino-chano”). Eva is originally from Spain and Carlos is from Mexico. They’re driving their ’77 VW bus ’Kukis’ from Mexico to Argentina with three cats (yikes!).

Eva and Carlos
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Eva and Carlos with one of their three cats

The stuff in the luggage rack under the blue tarp is all cat food and cat litter!
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The stuff in the luggage rack under the blue tarp is all cat food and cat litter!

We first saw Eva and Carlos’s bright yellow VW in Zipolite, Oaxaca, Mexico, but we only got to know them over dinner at Camping Los Cocos. Like Gregor, Eva and Carlos work remotely from their van. She is an English-Spanish translator and he manages and designs websites. It was great to meet a couple who could relate to the challenges of working from a VW camper. But we couldn’t possibly relate to having 3 cats roaming around our van!

Gregor and I stepped out to the beach to get a feel for the neighbourhood. We liked the vibe of Playa Sámara right away. The sand felt so good under our feet and the water was clean and warm. The rhythm of the waves soothed our senses and the refreshing sea breeze made us feel alive.

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Horses with empty saddles galloped along the beach, tempting me to join them for a jaunt. I had slo-mo visions of me riding a white stallion, my hair flowing in tandem with the horse’s mane, sand being kicked up and scattered as the horse raced on the crescent-shaped shore in an epic Lord-of-the-Rings kind of way.

“We should go for a horseride while we’re here,” I said to Gregor.

“Look, a surf school!” my husband replied.

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Pato’s Surf School is located next door to Camping Los Cocos. As I fantasized about riding Middle Earth on horseback, Gregor walked straight to Pato’s to ask about surf lessons.

Nicolas, one of the surf instructors at Pato’s, greeted us with such a genuine smile and spoke with such a friendly tone that we liked him immediately. He told us in impeccable English that a 1.5-hour surf lesson costs $35 USD per person and included free use of a surfboard for 5 days. This was such an amazing deal that I quickly forgot about the horses and got excited about practicing my surfing skills.

We decided to return to Playa Sámara after visiting Amanda and Travis and take surf lessons at Pato’s. I felt such a great vibe from the beach, and from Don Jesus the camp manager, and from Nicolas the surfing instructor that I was already looking forward to coming back.

That is, until I used the campground toilets for the first time.

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As I approached the facilities, I realized that there were no handles on any of the washroom doors. A layer of grey grime on each door indicated where people placed their hands to enter the stall. Afraid to touch any door, I peaked into one of the open stalls. I just about puked in my mouth.

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What the hell is on that toilet seat?
Why is a toilet brush mounted on the door at eye-level?
And why are the walls painted like a psycho ward?

Completely grossed out by the first toilet, I gingerly opened the other washroom doors. All of the others induced the same gag reflex.

I stood outside the facilities, in a panic and almost in tears, thinking to myself: “This is it. This is my life. I’m 41 years old, I live in a van, and I paid money to use these toilets.” I looked out towards the beach and saw Gregor happily puttering around the van, oblivious to my panic attack. Seeing him with Lucky calmed me down.

“It’s such a nice campsite,” I re-assured myself, “And it’s right on the beach. I should be able to get over a little germ phobia and just enjoy this place.” I picked a toilet stall and walked in.

I discovered that the stall had no lighting and there wasn’t a lot of space for my legs. I held the door slightly open to let just enough light in, while also giving myself enough room to do an Olympic hover-squat over the toilet so that I wouldn’t touch the seat.

I was suppressing the tears again: “This is it. I quit my job to go on The Journey of a Lifetime and I’m hanging onto a bathroom door with no handles, hoping that no one sees me in this desperate position.”

To top it all off, the toilet didn’t flush. I walked to a gross sink to fill a pail of water for a bucket flush.

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Every time you use the sink at Camping Los Cocos, you first have to walk 8 feet away from the sink to open a leaky algae-covered valve.

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Once the valve is open, you can turn on the tap at the sink. When you’re done at the sink, you have to walk 8 feet back to close the grimy green valve.

I hurried back to the van and told Gregor about my awful bathroom experience. Ever the optimist, he consoled me by diverting my attention back to the beach. The sand, the water, the horses – they were really beautiful.

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After a day in the sun, it was time to hit the showers to wash off the sea salt and tropical sweat. Unlike the toilets, the showers had light switches. When I flicked on the light, I startled about 20 mosquitoes and sent them flying around the shower head, which was basically a pipe protruding from the ceiling.

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Those are empty bottles of shampoo and Gatorade in the shower rack.

The cold water came straight out of the pipe in a such violent stream that it felt like it was deforming my scalp. In between lathering with soap and swatting mosquitoes, I noticed that the walls were the same psycho ward colour as the toilets, except they had an added layer of multi-coloured mildew. Nooice.

I hurried back to the van and told Gregor about my awful shower experience. Like me, Gregor also has an obsession with showers, but he’s a bit more positive about it. “At least there’s good water pressure,” he said with a grin, “You feel clean, don’t you?” True, I couldn’t deny that I felt clean, and a shower always feels good just before bed. That night, the sound of Playa Sámara’s waves lulled us to sleep.

The next morning, Gregor and I woke up feeling like a million bucks – we hadn’t slept that well in months! I was so well rested that I wasn’t as appalled by the bathroom facilities as I was the day before.

After a lazy morning on the beach, we packed up the van and drove to Nosara to visit Amanda and Travis in their rental home.

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Visiting Friends in Nosara

We first met Amanda and Travis 5 months earlier at Overlander Oasis in Oaxaca, Mexico, and we stayed in touch through blogs and Facebook.

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Amanda and Travis, with their Toyota 4Runner ‘Bruno’ at Overlander Oasis last April

Amanda and Travis (Freedom with Bruno) are originally from Canada – she is from Alberta and he is from Nova Scotia. They lived and worked in the United States for several years before starting their Central American journey in March 2015. They took about 4 months to drive from Oakland, California, to Nosara, Costa Rica, where they are currently renting a cute bungalow on a 5-month lease.

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The bungalow is located in a beautiful jungle setting with howler monkeys and tropical songbirds surrounding the property. The home also has a lovely outdoor area with a hammock, lounge chairs, and a pool.

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Amanda and Travis made us feel at home right away, offering us the guest room with an en suite bathroom. I was so grateful to have a nice, clean toilet and shower all to ourselves. It even had hot water! Such a treat after Camping Los Cocos.

The four of us walked to the nearby beaches of Playa Pelada and Playa Guiones. Both beaches had picturesque rocky outcrops, lovely sand, and gentle waves. Since it was a Sunday, lots of locals were out playing in the water and eating together on the beach. Gregor and I forgot to bring our cameras to capture the scenery, but that was okay because it allowed us to spend quality time with our hosts.

It was great catching up with Amanda and Travis. We talked about our favourite places in Central America, and what it was like to travel in our rigs, and what we missed most from home.

I missed having daily access to clean toilets and showers. (Surprise!)
Gregor missed having consistently fast Internet.
Amanda missed being able to buy monster bags of unsalted almonds at Costco.
Travis had a recent craving for Tim Horton’s timbits.

For those of you who have not had the privilege of eating at Tim Horton’s, timbits are bite-sized donut balls that are popular snacks at hockey games and in corporate office lunchrooms.

Gregor and I were fascinated by Amanda and Travis’s choice to stay in one place for 5 months, as we couldn’t picture ourselves doing that anywhere in Latin America (well, not yet, anyway). But they enjoyed the pace of their new life and they had everything they needed. As we got to know more about them and their Costa Rican home, we started to see the draw of settling down in one place for a while.

Amanda and Travis let us work in the house while they took a trip to San Jose to fetch their truck, Bruno
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Amanda and Travis let us work in the house while they took a trip to San Jose to fetch their truck, Bruno.

Pancake breakfast after Amanda and Travis returned from San Jose.
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Pancake breakfast after Amanda and Travis returned from San Jose.

The pancake mix came in a box…
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The pancake mix came in a box…

...and the back of the box had a cut-out Minion figure.
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…and the back of the box had a cut-out Minion figure.

Arts and crafts time
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Arts and crafts time

Minion assembled!
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Minion assembled!

Bruno, Lucky, and the gang
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Bruno, Lucky, and the gang

“Bye! Thanks for a great time!”
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“Bye! Thanks for a great time!”

Amanda and Travis will drive back to the USA this winter. Their plan is to settle in a city where they can live comfortably without having to work full-time ever again. You can find out more about how they achieved financial independence here.

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The Return to Playa Sámara

After four enjoyable nights at Amanda and Travis’s place, we went back to Camping Los Cocos in Sámara.

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At the campground, we re-united with Swiss surfers Bettina and Rolf, and their Labrador dog, Nera (@neras_adventure on Instagram). We first met this friendly trio last July at Playa Esteron, El Salvador.

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Bettina and Rolf at Rio Mar campground, El Salvador

Bettina and Rolf flew from Switzerland to California, where they purchased their pickup camper and bought Nera as a puppy. They’re driving to Panama and back, raising Nera on the road. As first-time dog-owners, they’re doing a great job – Nera is a well-behaved and healthy dog who loves being with them outside.

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We spent an enjoyable two weeks at Playa Samara camped beside Bettina, Rolf, and Nera, sharing homemade dinners, travel stories, and Pacific waves.

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One evening, Bettina surprised us with home-baked Swiss bread (the camper has an oven!). It was absolutely delightful.

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We enjoyed Bettina’s bread with pasta and boxed Cabernet Sauvignon. That’s right, we’re drinking boxed wine in Costa Rica because it’s the cheapest option ($7 CAD/$5 USD).

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Surf’s Up!

Bettina and Rolf are very experienced surfers who have been chasing waves around the world. Gregor and I, on the other hand, still had to learn the basics. As planned, we went next door and took lessons with Nicolas at Pato’s Surf School.

Nicolas is an awesome instructor
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Nicolas is an awesome instructor

We learned how to wax our surfboards…
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We learned how to wax our surfboards…

…and practiced paddling into the wave.
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…and how to paddle into the wave.

Gregor and I did a LOT of falling and got a lot of water in our ears and noses.

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With Niki’s patience and guidance, we eventually caught a wave and stood up on the board without assistance.

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We had so much fun surfing and were completely hooked, even though it was absolutely exhausting and it made us hurt from head to toe. The soreness and exhilaration were the same sensations that we felt when we learned to rock climb for the first time.

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Wahoo!

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The Good and the Bad at Camping Los Cocos

After an awesome day of surfing, it was that time again: shower time. As I walked to the facilities, I clutched my towel and soap with a feeling of dread. This time I went to a different shower stall, hoping it would be a bit better.

When I flicked the light switch, I got zapped with electrical current. Great, I thought, I almost got electrocuted in a Central American shower stall. Good thing I was wearing rubber flip flops.

Check out the wiring job on the light fixture
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Check out the wiring job on the light fixture

I went to the other stalls and found that all the light bulbs were missing. Too lazy to go back to the van for my headlamp, I decided to risk showering in the electrocution chamber.

When I stepped inside, I paused to examine the locking mechanism: To ‘lock’ the door, you have to grab a wet shoestring attached to the door and tie it around a nail on the wall. Geez, door hardware must be pretty expensive in Costa Rica.

As the violent stream of water came rushing out of the pipe, I held onto my soap with a death grip, praying to the lord above to keep me from dropping it onto the mildewy floor. “Please, please, please, don’t let me drop the soap,” I whispered over and over again. I managed to return to the van with bath soap intact.

Each time I used the facilities at Camping Los Cocos, I cringed. And each time I cringed, I reminded myself of positive things like our great access to the beach and the waves and the surfing.

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Every time I had to use the sink and touch that slimy green valve, I was pretty grossed out…

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The view of Don Jesus’s backyard from the sink.

…and every time I was grossed out, I gave myself a pep talk: “Ok, so washing up here is a little inconvenient. But our location is super convenient compared to other places we’ve stayed.” After all, we were just a few minutes’ walk to amenities such as grocery stores, banks, restaurants, and bars.

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Super Samara had expensive groceries, but great food selection

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Costa Rican Microbrew – a nice break from Central American lager

Every time I went to the toilet, I suppressed the gag response by thinking about how lucky we were to be at Playa Sámara where the beach vibe and the weather and the view was just so nice.

Ugh, gag me with a spoon!
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Ugh, the washrooms are so awful!

But we’re only steps from the beach…
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But we’re only steps from the beach…

…and the horses are so pretty.
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…and the horses are so pretty.

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Coconuts and Acceleration Due to Gravity

Living up to its name, Camping Los Cocos is full of coconut trees. While the trees provided very welcome shade, they also presented the hazard of falling coconuts. Every morning we woke up to find one or two busted coconuts lying on the ground.

“Did you know that more people get killed by falling coconuts than by sharks?” Bettina casually mentioned to me one morning. I looked up and noticed how tall the trees were. The tallest one was about 15 metres high.

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If my math is correct, the instantaneous velocity of a coconut falling from a height of 15 m is 62 km/hr (38 mph). That’s faster than residential driving speeds in Canada!

After Bettina shared that little piece of trivia, I walked to the washing facilities with dread and fear – the fear of being whacked by a coconut. That’s not how I want to leave this world, I thought to myself.

Every time I went to the shower or the toilet or the sink, I looked upwards and carefully stepped between the invisible fall lines of each coconut cluster. All the while, I cursed Don Jesus under my breath, wondering why he would leave so many coconuts up there, and couldn’t he just hire someone to clean them up?

But next thing you know, here comes Jesus again offering us two fresh coconuts, carefully opened so that we could drink the fresh coconut water straight from the shell.

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It was times these when all the inconveniences and hazards of Camping Los Cocos melted away. How lucky we were to drink coconut water straight from a real coconut instead of a can! And, besides, Don Jesus is a really nice guy. And the beach is so beautiful. And the surfing is so fun.

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A Fine Balance

Throughout our two-week stay at Camping Los Cocos, we experienced a host of bad conditions and discomforts, but these were always countered with good times and positive outcomes.

Take, for example, the time we discovered a wasp nest dangling about two feet away from our van:

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The next day, Don Jesus burned up the nest with a fiery piece of chair foam:

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Then there was the time when Don Jesus decided to fix his friend’s stereo speakers in the campground while Gregor was working. For hours, we endured the sounds of high-pitched stereo feedback, hissing speakers, and cheesy marimba music cutting in and out at full volume. It sounded like a completely inept roadie was setting up the sound system for an extraordinarily bad Costa Rican folk concert.

As Gregor got more and more irritated by the interminable sound check, I reminded him that there were worse places to work.

Office with a view
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Office with a view

In between the stereo feedback, we heard the yapping dogs of the Costa Rican campers beside us and the tantrum-throwing French toddler in the rental house next door. And of course, there was a crowing rooster:

Can’t get away from the roosters…
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Can’t get away from the roosters…

…but we got to see wild parrots.
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…but we got to see wild parrots.

Campground hygiene seemed to get worse over time…
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Campground hygiene seemed to get worse over time…

…but the water and the sand at Playa Sámara was clean.
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…but the water and the sand at Playa Sámara was clean.

The tent sites to our left were a real disaster…
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The tent sites to our left were a real disaster…

…but the overlanders to our right were really great neighbours.
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…but the overlanders to our right were really great neighbours.

Terrible toilets…
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Such a terrible toilet…

…Oh, look, horses!
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…oh, look, horses!

I never got used to the psycho ward showers...
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I never got used to the psycho ward showers…

…but I eventually got used to staying on the board - even if I didn’t look good.
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…but I eventually got the hang of staying on the surfboard – even though I didn’t look very cool.

We stayed at Camping Los Cocos for two weeks because the beach was beautiful and the surfing was fun, the location was convenient and it felt very safe, the people were nice and the vibe was great. We didn’t actually want to leave, but Gregor and I had to get our corporate year-end taxes done and we needed super fast Internet (which we didn’t have at the campground). We left our little piece of almost-paradise and went to a Hilton in Liberia to work for a few days. From there, we’ll drive towards the Caribbean to enter Panama.

Playa Sámara was one of those places where we could have settled down for a while because we felt a sense of routine and freedom at the same time – we knew what to expect and we could accept the unexpected.

And, hey, we could wear our swimsuits all day.

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10 thoughts on “Almost Paradise at Playa Sámara

  1. Jacqui

    Haha I’ve totally cried those lines as well, “I’m 34, living in a van – what am I doing with my life?”
    Right now we’re enjoying a few productive weeks staying put, but are looking forward to being back in the van soon! 🙂

    1. Janice Post author

      I’m glad someone else gets those panic attacks, too! It’s always nice to stay in one place for a while and get a routine going. That said, I wouldn’t trade my nomadic life just yet. By the way, we’re crossing the Darien during the week of Nov 16. We’re shipping with John and Paula of OurBiggerPicture. Scary and exciting!

  2. Melvin

    The Electrical inspector in me can’t get the picture of the showers light out of my head…all those beautiful beach pictures and all I can see is the shower/unbelievable electrical safety hazard.

  3. Janice S.

    Janice, you are the best writer ever!

    Feels like we were there!

    Love all of the pics of the gorgeous beach, and your vivid description of the bathroom situation is hilarious / nausea-inducing.

    Nice work.

    1. Janice Post author

      Aaawww, thanks, Janice! Oddly enough, we would go back there again if we ever return to Costa Rica. Hopefully, Don Jesus upgrades the facilities by then.

  4. FreedomwithBruno

    Nice detox from the beaches of Guanacaste with a stay at the Hilton! Oh, and a big thanks for all the toilet pictures – we had forgotten what it’s like to be back on the road! Overall, glad you enjoyed your stay in Sámara. We loved having you stay with us and will absolutely keep in touch as you head south and we head north!

    1. Janice Post author

      Thanks again for having us over! Sadly, Mr. Minion didn’t make it past Liberia – he got crushed in a terrible van-repacking accident. Our business paid for the Hilton, so the hotel didn’t end up on the budget 🙂 Sneaky, eh? Looking forward to following you guys back up north.

        1. Janice Post author

          Mr. Minion was such a brave little soul. Had we bought Krazy Glue a few days earlier, we could have saved him.