When we decided to spend several months in Central and South America as part of our sabbatical, we knew we would need more than the tiny bit of Spanish we remembered from a community college course we took six years ago. So we booked three weeks at a school in Turrialba, a notably non-touristed town in Costa Rica.
Monday to Friday we walk to school and back to our host family’s house on the other side of Turrialba. The walk takes about 50 minutes there, and 40 on the way home. The difference is the 700ft we must climb to get to the school. The daily walk has been an important time for us to practice Spanish, look for birds, get exercise, and talk about how we are feeling that day (which typically includes some level of frustration with our inability to quickly learn a foreign tongue).
So, why not come along with us on our daily 3-mile walk?
La escuela (the school) sits on a hill on a busy road above the town. Typically, both large and small vehicles speed around its many curves. However, due to a landslide that closed the main route between San Jose and Limon (on the Caribbean coast), it is now inundated with semi-trucks as well.
Definitely not safe for pedestrians, so we take a quick left from the school onto a rocky road that leads down the hill.
Dogs are ubiquitous in Costa Rica (as in many developing countries). Hundreds roam the streets of Turrialba. Others, like Balto and Bruno that live with our host family, are family pets. And still others are somewhere in between, kept by families but tied up on short leashes to keep watch in front of the house, often lying in their own excrement. It is difficult for animal lovers like us to stomach.
We cross two creeks on this dirt road, both surrounded by lush vegetation, including wild pink bananas. One morning we watched a keel billed toucan for several minutes in one of the tall trees the line the uppermost creek.
Just after we cross the second creek, we get our first glimpse of the town below.
As we start our descent of the hill, we take a right hand turn through a gate that marks the beginning of land recently purchased by a developer who is quickly clearing it for new homes. Although the gate is almost always open, there is a hole in the wood cut by locals who apparently didn’t appreciate that the new owner had closed off a route they had always utilized without impediment. One day, we had to climb through this hole.
Along the steep descent, cows, horses and goats graze in the fields. Blue Black Grassquits dart back and forth across the road. And nearly everyday we hear (and typically see) a pair of Hook-billed Kites at one particular point where the road turns left for our final descent.
Volcan Turrialba rises to the north, but due to its ever present cloud cover, we have only seen it twice in our three weeks here. Even without a view of the volcano, the surrounding hills and mountains provide a lovely backdrop.
At this point, we have two choices: to run “the gauntlet” or walk the remainder of the road to a gate that may or may not be locked. Most days the gate is closed, so we turn left to walk a narrow trail through knee-high grass, under some barbed wire, down a fenced chute, through mud and horseshit and finally through a small opening between two trees onto a dirt road between some small homes.
We hang a right when we reach the barrio (neighborhood) and walk towards the city center. Trash is fairly pervasive on the streets of Turrialba due to the lack of trashcans and the street dogs that tear into any bag that contains food. But this barrio seems to have more than anywhere else. It is sad to see how much plastic litters the street and the streams.
Once we reach the commercial district, we might stop for a piece of queque de chocoloate, cafe y te negro (chocolate cake, coffee and black tea) at our favorite Panaderia, Flor de Trigo. Or just salivate over its dessert case.
We head east past the church (the tallest structure in town) and the parque central (central park) where sloths sometimes sleep in the trees (according to our host mom – we haven’t seen any here).
Continuing east, we cross la puente blanca (the white bridge) over Rio Turrialba, which can be a clear stream just 10 feet across or a muddy raging torrent depending on the day’s rainfall.
Just a few more turns and another five minute walk and we arrive at our house with its omnipresent metal bars and light-filled porch where we spend the rest of the day doing homework, talking to our host family, reading emails and planning the next leg of our adventure.
Thanks for coming along on our daily walk!