A Magical Night in Puerto Viejo

To you, this picture may seem like any other Caribbean sunrise beach photo. But this photo represents so much more — and the night leading up to me taking this shot is a story worth telling. 

I didn’t plan to stay in Puerto Viejo for long. In fact, I almost skipped Cost Rica altogether because it’s expensive, kinda cliche, and Americanized in a lot of ways (my overnight stop in San Jose looked just like Washington, DC). But I was traveling only by bus and figured I could stay for a day or two in this Caribbean beach town that I’ve heard good things about. 

My hostel was located right on the water, above a popular reggae bar. I could easily walk down the staircase of the back terrace, take a few more steps and find my feet in the warm Caribbean water. My first day there, I spent by myself exploring the town and relaxing by the beach.  It’s a small town, very lively, colorful, loud, warm. Reggae music is constantly being played out of shops and restaurants. Everywhere you walk, you can see the curving coastline and the sea, its waves speckled with surfers. Up and down streets there are artisans selling jewelry, souvenir trinkets, and hair wraps. There are people on bikes everywhere, as they are used as easy transport around town and up to the surrounding beaches. I bought myself a coconut to drink (yum!) and sat on the beach taking in the beautiful scene and watching folks play frisbee. This was my first experience seeing the Caribbean, and now I finally understand why people talk about the Caribbean like it’s a paradise. It was gorgeous. 


The next afternoon I spent biking with my new Chilean friend Marco from Puerto Viejo to Punta Uva, a beach further up the coast that supposedly was one of the most beautiful in Costa Rica. On the way there, we explored some trails in between the road and the coastline – trails that meandered through rainforest jungle scenery. This was my first time seeing anything close to the rainforest, and I was awestruck. It is my natural tendency to love trees and the woods regardless but these were a new kind of woods I’d never encountered. On the way to Punta Uva, we would occasionally stop to check out other forest or beaches along the way.

Here, we propped our bikes against some trees in search of a cool lookout point on a cliff that one of the locals told me about. We only stopped here because I saw a large mass through the forest that looked promising. We explored the trails for a bit, while I kept stopping in awe because of the scenery. I find that I stop in awe frequently while transgressing any woodsy terrain, but just look. It’s so different from what I’m used to. So different and so so majestic.

We did find the right path up to the lookout point, a hidden gem which gave a glorious view of the sea and the coastline from pretty high up. I was absolutely stunned! It was so gorgeous!

We soaked in the scene for a little while and then continued on our journey. Back down the hill we went and into the forest. Upon retrieving our bikes, my feet suddenly started burning in pain. When I looked down, I realized that I was being attacked by fire ants!! In my haste to relieve my feet from the pain, I was unable to brush off all the ants, so instead I sprinted barefoot screaming through the woods until I hit the water. Ahhhhh. Relief. The ants were gone, the biting stopped. A little shaken, I walked back to the place where our bikes were parked and continued pulling my bike out of the bushes. Again my feet started burning a little. Looking down, there were just a couple so I managed to get them all off. I realized then that our bikes were placed right over a bunch of ant piles and since I only had flip flops on I couldn’t really protect my feet. Marco helped me out retrieving my bike because he had sneakers on. 

Catastrophe averted, we rolled our bikes back to the road and continued on our journey. On our next stop, we found the following beach, and then continued again. 

About 30-40 minutes after we began our bike trip, we arrived at Punta Uva beach. There we relaxed, took photos, swam a little bit, and played with some really cute beach dogs. 

We rode back around 5, returned our rented bikes, then chilled in the hostel for a few hours cooking dinner and relaxing. Sometime in the evening, an attractive couple with dreads and tattoos entered the hostel and began setting up on the back terrace. I didn’t pay too much attention to them, until a few hours later when I went outside on the terrace and saw a girl from the hostel getting tattooed by the dreaded dude. My interest perked up as I wandered closer past pairs of legs to see what she was getting done. It was a feather on the back side of her arm, placed lengthwise up toward her elbow. And it was beautiful. Further intrigued, I stayed to watch the artist do his thing, while studying the photos of his work being displayed on his laptop. His girlfriend, a stunning woman with hoops, a few long dreads, and curly tresses, gave me his photo book of some of his work. I sat admiring his watercolor pieces most especially, as I have for a long time desired a watercolor tattoo piece, especially for my grey-scale hummingbird piece on my arm. When talking to his girlfriend, I learned that they are from Argentina traveling together through South and Central America while he tattoos on the road. I ask her for his price, tell her that I’ve been wanting to watercolor my hummingbird piece forever (which I originally received while studying abroad in Chile with two friends). Mostly I emphasize that I don’t have the time (I was leaving the next morning) or the money for the tattoo. But I stayed to admire his work and dreamed about getting one. 

Livia, the Brazilian girl who worked at the hostel, encouraged me to get it. She helped me look up hummingbird photos and what colors I might be interested in, saying correctly that I might not find another tattoo artist like Damian… I knew she was right. I really didn’t have the money, but I had missed an opportunity to get a watercolor piece done in San Juan del Sur and I knew I shouldn’t give up this new opportunity. I waited for him to complete his feather piece before I showed him my hummingbird and explained what I wanted, telling him that I didn’t have a lot of money to spend on the tattoo but wanted to know how much he would charge. He told me he could do it for $120. Even though I knew I shouldn’t spend the money, that was a price I could manage. So we talked some more, he explained his style and they showed me more of his watercolor work. He told me he could not do a sketch beforehand because he was tattooing over the original hummingbird and I did not have a picture or print out of the bird, which meant that he would be doing all of it freehand over the original. When I was a bit timid about him not doing a sketch first, they showed me his freehand watercolor pieces and they were just so beautiful that I gave him my full confidence and spontaneously agreed to get one. This conversation happened at 10 pm on a Thursday night, above The Lazy Mon bar which was currently hosting its weekly Reggae night. Since I was due to leave at 7:30 the next morning, Damian agreed to do the tattoo that night at 11 pm, after he took a break to eat. 

While I waited, I went downstairs to take advantage of the free drinks for Ladies’ Night with a couple other girls from my hostel, while enjoying the reggae music. Around 11:30, the Argentinian couple started setting up the tattoo space and we began the tattooing right around midnight. Reggae was blasting up from the deck below. We were right on the beach. You could see the waves through the light emanating from the bar. You could smell the ocean. It was a spontaneous endeavor. All of it – all of my senses were stimulated and it was a pretty thrilling experience. The girls from the hostel came up to sit with me or check on me every once in a while and admire the amazing piece that was slowly coming alive on my forearm. I stuck it through the pain, jamming out to reggae when I wasn’t squeezing the pillow when the pain became too much. At around 1:30 am, he finally finished! And WOW was I so so happy with the final product. He turned my flat grey tattoo into a lively colorful piece of art on my arm! See the comparison below:

Here is the original hummingbird that I received in Chile on the left, and the finished watercolored tattoo on the right. (Photos taken by Damian/Arte Sobre La Piel)

We had a little photo shoot so they could put the photos up for others to see on their website. Then we chilled around for a while with the others while they cleaned up. Everyone admired my piece, and I was ecstatic. After Reggae Night ended around 2, me, the Argentinian couple, and a bunch of folks from the hostel headed out to Mango, a really fun reggae club. I went with a fresh tattoo and plastic wrap covering my arm, along with the other girl who got tattooed that night, and danced the night away to the best reggae and hip hop music I’ve heard in a long time. So much fun!! I didn’t bring my phone, so I didn’t know that when the lights went on to close the bar, it was already 4 am! And I was planning on being up by 6 that morning to leave…

On the way back to the hostel, it rained. We got poured on. Soaked. And I thought, “Pura Vida, I might as well just stay up all night until I have to leave at 6.” “Pura Vida” is Costa Rica’s laid-back, chilled-out slogan which translates literally to “Pure Life” but which also connotates living life in the moment and just being happy. I wasn’t so tired anyway, so after we all changed out of our wet clothes, we hung out on the terrace at the hostel where I received my tattoo. We talked, smoked a little, listened to more reggae. At around 5 or 5:30, someone mentioned that the sky was getting lighter. So I grabbed my camera and followed the edge of the beach for about 10 or 15 minutes until I found the sun. It hid behind some clouds as it came up, but I didn’t mind because the colors erupting onto the scene showed pink, purple and blue reflected in the sky and on the water. The pictures were stunning with the black silhouette of the beach. 

When I returned to the hostel, it was nearly 6. I finished packing my bag and getting ready for the day. Then around 6:30 off I went to leave for Panama. My friend Marco from Chile joined me on the journey as he was also headed to Panama. We took a bus to the border, during which in my hungover and sleep-deprived state I passed out. When we arrived, I awoke to aggressive rain and thunder, looking around the stopped bus in a bit of panic because the scene around me appeared to be a hurricane. It wasn’t really a hurricane, but waking up to such a dramatic scene after a calm morning in Puerto Viejo threw me off. We exited the bus and entered the shelter, putting our rain gear on and waterproof covers over our bags. The rain was heavy, so we decided to wait a little bit and see if it died down a bit. Luckily it did in twenty or so minutes. We befriended a German couple and joined together to cross the border, which required walking a pretty long distance, about 20 or 30 minutes in total. I’m not sure why that border is so spread out, but I’m glad I was in a group because we were able to figure out which way to go (there were no signs anywhere!). We finally crossed a long bridge to Panama, where we showed our passports to immigration, got our stamps, and continued onward into Panama!

I was sad to leave Puerto Viejo, and in hindsight I wish I had spent more time there. I only stayed for two nights, but I think it’s one of my favorite places I’ve been to on this trip. There is something about it that feels very special to me. Who knows, maybe I will return again in years to come! 

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