(Warning: Picture of spider ahead)

Ellen and I left Puerto Viejo today, heading to San Jose to visit friends. Puerto Viejo is one of those towns beyond description. It’s a surfing town and a tourist trap, and a weekend beach destination for Ticos (Costa Rican locals). It is also home to a fair number of street dogs and drug dealers, by both of which Ellen and I have been approached. We stayed at the largest hostel in South and Central America, Rocking J’s.

Rocking J’s is a huge compound of open-concept shelters, filled with hammocks, tents, and dorm rooms. Every surface is either a mural or a mosaic, with new ones added all the time – I painted a dragon on a shower wall on one rainy day when I didn’t feel like going to the beach. Prices range from $6 for pitching your own tent to $330 for staying in J’s Palace – a giant doomsday bunker made of seven shipping containers welded together in preparation for the end of the world next month. The hostel comes complete with an overpriced bar, cold showers, and large numbers of backpackers in various stages of dissatisfaction with the world.

We’ve come across the American guy away from home for the first time, deep in the throes of culture shock, afraid to leave the safety of the hostel because of all the travel horror stories he’s heard on the internet. There’s the recently divorced ex-military dude celebrating his freedom by doing lines of coke off the table in one of the cabins, and the guy who lost all his money and desperately begged to borrow my computer for the morning to contact his family and arrange a money transfer.

When we tell people we’re planning on volunteering on a farm next week, so we can learn more Spanish and experience Costa Rican family life, we’re usually met with mild surprise. The kind of people who stay at Rocking J’s are the type who tried to learn Spanish once but it was too difficult, and besides, the better restaurants and bars have English-speaking staff anyway. And Costa Rican food? It’s all rice and beans. Don’t bother.

It’s not all bad, though. The hostel is located by a beautiful beach with a coral reef and amazing surf, with safer beaches two kilometers away in either direction. There are stunning flowers, tiny lizards and giant spiders to see as you walk down the road or along the beachfront path through the jungle. We met a girl from San Jose who invited us to spend a day or two at her place this week, so we took the bus back to the city with her this afternoon.

Here’s one of the huge spiders by the side of the road.

Despite the assurances of the other hostel-goers, the food we’ve had so far has been wonderful. We’ve been eating at sodas – little roadside stands with two to four tables apiece, serving simple food to locals and tourists alike. The rice and beans are divinely flavoured, and each soda has its own homemade salsa, spicy and garlicky and much better than what you could buy in a store. Patacones, or mashed and fried plantains, are an inexpensive treat. We’ve also discovered a delicious drink similar to ginger ale which has had us going back to the same soda several times over to get it.

Our days in Puerto Viejo have been lazy and pleasant. Other people at the hostel have been going on jungle tours, taking surf lessons, or hopping on a boat to Panama, but we’ve spent our time wandering the beach, playing in the waves, taking pictures of plants and insects, window shopping in the local stores, and napping in hammocks. I’m satisfied with my experience here – we met a few interesting people, got acclimatized to Costa Rican weather, ate some nice food, and played in the ocean. I hope our next destination will be more authentic, but Puerto Viejo hasn’t done us badly for our first stop.

This river led to the ocean a few hundred meters from the hostel.