Off the track in Costa Rica

There are plenty of places in Costa Rica for the tourists… this one is for the locals. What is it like to live in a town of just 200 people?

Written by Michael Turtle

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle. He has been a journalist for more than 20 years and has travelled the world full time since 2011.

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle and has been travelling full time for a decade.

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Bajos del Toro, Costa Rica

Every Costa Rican town – even the smallest and most remote – has the holy trinity, it’s explained to me. They each have a church, a soccer field and a bar.

With these three things, the people are happy.

It doesn’t take me long to see all three of them in the small town of Bajos del Toro, high in the mountains of central Costa Rica. There are only 200 residents here and it feels that way.

The main street doubles as a highway and is home to all the limited commerce in town. A few sidestreets lead to some more houses beyond the main road but walking any further than that takes you into the jungle.

Bajos del Toro, El Silencio, local tour, Costa Rica
Bajos del Toro, El Silencio, local tour, Costa Rica

Bajos del Toro has a school but only 35 students go there. It also has a medical clinic but an actual doctor only visits once a month – the rest of the time it’s open just for basic treatments. Everyone knows everyone.

“I was born here in this town and I grew up here,” 50 year-old Doña Olga tells me.

“I will stay here for the rest of my life.”

Bajos del Toro, El Silencio, local tour, Costa Rica

Doña Olga runs the local grocery store. She was born in a house across the river, close enough to point to, but moved to this house when she got married to her husband Don Carlos.

They fell in love when they were just 18 years old and were exchanging rings in the church just up the road a year and a half later.

Now, as they prepare to celebrate their 32nd wedding anniversary, they have just welcomed a grandchild into Bajos del Toro.

Bajos del Toro, El Silencio, local tour, Costa Rica
Bajos del Toro, El Silencio, local tour, Costa Rica

The story of Doña Olga is typical for a small town here in Costa Rica.

Some people will move to bigger cities in search of work but strong families and a greater affluence than other South American countries means many local communities are thriving. It’s a traditional existence, though.

“I wake up in the morning, about 5:30 and I prepare the breakfast for my husband and my son,” Doña Olga explains.

“Then I open the store and while I’m working at the store, I start to prepare the food and the products to sell in the store.”

“At the same time, I’m cleaning the house and about 11 I start to prepare lunch for my family.”

“In the afternoon, around noon, I prepare all the products I sell at the grocery store, like the bread and the cajetas (traditional candies), tortillas and I spend most of the day in the kitchen and every day doing something. I can’t stop and do nothing.”

Bajos del Toro, El Silencio, local tour, Costa Rica

To that end, Doña Olga has also started hosting occasional cooking classes in the back of her shop in the afternoons. Tourists from the nearby El Silencio ecolodge are invited to learn how to make traditional tortillas with her.

I try my hand at it and discover that it’s actually fairly easy to mix the starch, white corn and water to make the tortilla mixture but it’s a little trickier to get the flattening technique just right.

We cook up some homemade cheese and sausages to go with the tortillas and it’s a delicious and filling afternoon snack.

Bajos del Toro, El Silencio, local tour, Costa Rica

“I love take people from other countries in my house and teach them to make tortillas,” she says.

“It’s interesting that people who come to El Silencio that they have money but everyone is really nice people and I love to meet people from other cultures.”

It works both ways. After afternoon tea, I go for a walk through the town and am fascinated by what I learn about the people of Bajos del Toro.

Bajos del Toro, El Silencio, local tour, Costa Rica
Bajos del Toro, El Silencio, local tour, Costa Rica

There’s Martin the gardener who has turned the land around his house into an enchanted forest. He collects tropical plants that are under threat and gives them a sanctuary in his garden.

There are more than 400 types of orchids here and he’s built tunnels of leaves and colourful collections. He’s also happy for visitors to pop in and have a look for themselves.

Bajos del Toro, El Silencio, local tour, Costa Rica

And then there’s the middle-aged couple who run the local bar. Of course, as a foreign guest, I was offered a glass of tequila as a welcome gift when I first sat down.

The true present was later in the evening when they decided to get dressed up and sing some karaoke for the remaining patrons drinking beer and eating deep-fried chicken.

Bajos del Toro, El Silencio, local tour, Costa Rica
Bajos del Toro, El Silencio, local tour, Costa Rica

Like most countries, there’s a rural hospitality away from the big cities and typical tourist haunts. The people in these small towns are just living their lives and enjoying what – and who – they have.

It may be a new granddaughter, a lifelong partner or a collection of orchids. Whatever it is, they’re happy and they’re happy to meet you.

Time Travel Turtle was a guest of Visit Costa Rica but the opinions, over-written descriptions and bad jokes are his own.

32 thoughts on “Off the track in Costa Rica”

  1. Sounds like a few days in Bajos del Toro is just the thing. Is it far from San Jose or any of the coasts? If I remember correctly, the roads in Costa Rica are quite nice, but I mightn’t have been enough off the beaten track. (Also, you mean football field, don’t you, not soccer 😉 )

    Reply
    • It’s basically right in the middle between the two coasts. It’s probably about a two hour drive from San Jose. So with a car, it’s easy enough to get to (and is a beautiful drive). It would be pretty impossible with public transport, though.

      Reply
    • You won’t regret it! I haven’t done any other travel around Central America so it’s hard for me to compare… but everyone says CR is much easier (but more expensive and touristy). It does make it a pretty good option for a trip, though.

      Reply
  2. Geez that really is a small town, you could have met everyone in a day basically. The best thing about the people there is that they are happy. Sounds like a cool place to visit

    Reply
    • It was a fun place to visit. To be honest, I don’t know how different it would be to many of the small towns in this part of Costa Rica. They all seemed to be pretty cute and friendly. The reason I went to this town was because I was staying at a hotel nearby and they arranged for me to go to the cooking lesson.

      Reply
  3. I often find you get the best experiences when you leave the big cities and get off the beaten track. The locals are way more welcoming because having a tourist in their town is a big novelty. We found that when we visited Wisconsin in the US. They hardly ever have interstate visitors let alone people coming all the way from Australia 😉
    Great post – we plan to go to Costa Rica later this year!

    Reply
    • I can’t wait to hear what you think of Costa Rica, it’s a great place.
      And I found that in the US too. I guess a lot of places in the US don’t have tourists and it’s a real novelty to have foreigners. They’re usually so happy to chat and share a few stories!

      Reply
  4. I love visiting little towns like that. You get so much more of a feel of how people live, what is important to them and what kind of struggles they might have. It sounds like a wonderful experience.

    Reply
    • It’s the difference between a place that knows it is going to be full of tourists and one that doesn’t expect them at all, isn’t it? It always feels a lot more authentic in the smaller places like this.

      Reply
  5. These photos reminded me of our Costa Rican trip. Rural areas where time slows down, majestic green forests and small towns and villages. It is a beautiful country as soon as you turn off the beaten path.

    Reply
    • You’re so right about time slowing down. I don’t think I looked at a clock for most of my time in Costa Rica – there’s no need. Everything just plods along at a comfortable pace and everyone is completely fine with that!! 🙂

      Reply
    • There’s nothing wrong with the tourist trail, though. It’s such a beautiful country and I actually found that it wasn’t too overloaded with foreigners (although it wasn’t peak season when I was there). My feeling was that a first trip to the obvious places is nice to get a sense of Costa Rica… on the second trip you can start to explore a bit further afield!

      Reply
  6. I will have to make an effort to visit this town next time I return to Costa Rica. 2 hours is not that far from San Jose but you mentioned it’s hard to get to via public transportation. It sounds like a bit of creativity is required here if you don’t have a car. Maybe a combination of bus and hitchhiking for those who don’t want a car?

    Great photo essay. At first, I thought you had it wrong because of Bocas del Toro in Panama but then I remembered the way things are a little different in CR and it’s nice to see these small towns. DId you stay in a hotel or were you a guest?

    Reply
    • You probably would need to be a bit creative to get there… then again, there are probably other similar towns you could get to. I actually think it would be quite nice to just slowly explore that part of the country, away from some of the more tourist areas.
      I was staying at an ecohotel just outside the town. It’s called El Silencio.

      Reply

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