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Don’t Go Chasing Waterfalls in Costa Rica

by Calli Zarpas
Practicing Spanish on a hunt for waterfalls in Costa Rica

It’s my last day in Costa Rica, and I’m sitting in a smoothie bar watching a ceiling fan whirl lazily above my head. My two friends, Maggie and Maddie, are sucking on the last of their smoothies as cars buzz by like flies between us and the ocean shimmering across the street. We’ve just spent the previous week canyoning, white water rafting, and drinking a few too many guaro sours in Jaco’s beach bars, but we still don’t know what to do now that it’s our last day. A few of our friends have already booked guided tours to nearby waterfalls, but our pockets are pretty empty after a week of fun. 

We think about just spending the day at the beach, but instead, we decide to ask the cashier if she knows of any nearby waterfalls we could just take a cab to. In our limited Spanish — Maggie and Maddie had both taken Spanish in high school, and I had been studying Spanish for three months — we manage to get three suggestions from her, which she writes down on a piece of paper. 

There is one name that catches our eye: Tres Piscinas, or three pools. Just seeing the name conjures images of driving along the coast to the little village home to the waterfall, windows down, a Spanish song crackling on the radio, and relaxing by three tranquil blue waterfalls pooling one into another. We imagine it to be the perfect way to enjoy our last day in Costa Rica.

And what an imagination we had. Well, to be fair, it starts out like this more or less. After thanking the cashier, we step out into the sticky sunshine and hail down one of Costa Rica’s classic red cabs. The taxi door opens up to a bronzed and balding man with a smile that reaches up to his eyes. Costa Rica isn’t ranked the happiest country in the world for nothin’!  

Quiero ir aquí por favor,” I say slowly, having to coax each word out of my mouth to get the right pronunciation. I point to the torn piece of blue paper with the cashier’s scratchy handwriting on it. 

He smiles again and waves his hand towards his taxi. ¡Vámanos! Before we could get too excited, Maggie asks how much it’s going to cost by saying, ¿Cuánto cuesta? It’s good thinking because we’d been tricked into paying three times the standard taxi rate in other countries we’d visited, so we had learned to always ask before going on our merry way. 

He tells us it’ll be 25,000 colones, or about $45, which was what we were expecting, so with a shrug, we hop into the taxi on our way to the little town of Parrita. We’re feeling pretty proud of ourselves for using our relatively weak Spanish skills to take our own path and step out of the typical tourist world for a little.

So there we are, smiles on our faces, just three girls driving along the coast to the little village, windows down, a Spanish song crackling on the radio, just waiting to arrive at our tranquil blue Tres Piscinas. That is until we stop. More specifically, until we stop at a dusty, two-pump gas station in a town that seems to be nowhere near the turquoise waterfalls we’d been expecting.

If you don’t have clear directions to the waterfall you’re chasing, don’t be surprised if there are a few bumps in the road.

If we had been speaking English, I would’ve said, “Excuse me, but this isn’t the waterfall you promised to take us to when we were back in Jaco. Is there a reason we stopped here?” But all I can manage to say is, “No es Tres Piscinas,” or “This isn’t Tres Piscinas.” 

After a lot of pointing to his tires and then in various directions on the part of our taxi driver and a lot raised eyebrows and side-eye glances on the part of my friends and me, we find out through our amazing Spanish skills (and a very helpful translation from an understanding passerby) that our smiley taxi driver can’t take us to the waterfall like he said he would. This is because — hence the tire pointing — that his car can’t make it down the 2km dirt road that would take us from the central part of town to the waterfall. 

Realizing we might have come all this way for nothing, I throw my hands in the air — an international translation for, “what the f**k dude?” and think about just getting back in the car to drive the forty minutes back to Jaco. After a little discussion between the four of us, we end up, somehow, convincing the taxi driver to find someone else to drive us.

Soon after this, a man in a beat-up pickup truck pulls up, we give our old taxi driver just 20,000 colones because he didn’t hold up to his side of the bargain, and then we watch him go on his way smiling like nothing even happened.

It's difficult to get clear directions with limited language skills.

Our waterfall daydream is slowly fading away as Maddie, Maggie, and I slide into the backseat of a pickup truck that smells like rubble, and we wave goodbye to all parental advice as we turn down a dirt road towards who knows where. Our new driver speaks a good amount of English, so in between the bumpier parts of the trip, he asks us about our stay in Costa Rica, and we start to relax into our leather seats. Outside we watch chickens shuffle freely alongside us and feel eyes follow us from the front stoops of the wooden shacks that dot the dirt road. 

After a while, we turn down another little road and arrive in front of a house. An old woman is waiting outside in a long green dress and sandals on the front lawn. Our taxi driver shouts a greeting to her and then tells us to pay the woman before heading down a half-mile path to the waterfall. We hop out of the car and thank our driver. ¡Gracias! ¡Hasta luego! 

This quick little hike soon turns nearly impossible with the first splat onto a path so muddy it suctions Maddie’s shoe right off. At this point, our taxi driver begins to laugh a little under his breath before completely losing it once the three of us are full-on trudging through the mud barefoot after multiple shoe casualties. Close to tears from laughter or utter disbelief in where our independent, trotamundos (globetrotter)spirits have gotten us, Maddie, Maggie, and I can’t help but laugh ourselves silly as we trek twenty long minutes through the mud. Eventually, we hear the thunderous sound of our waterfall.

Finally, and somehow, we turn the corner and see Tres Piscinas, all calm and beautiful, just like we had imagined it with its three tranquil blue waterfalls pooling one into another. We ended up having the best day and getting back to Jaco, but the moral of the story is that if you don’t have clear directions to the waterfall you’re chasing, don’t be surprised if there are a few bumps in the road. To this day, this is one of my favorite memories with my friends because we ended up having an afternoon completely free of other tourists, surrounded by nature, and we made it back to Jaco ningún problema (no problem).

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