By John O’Toole.
I did it “my way” that is for sure! Arriving here in September in 1993, I knew no one, and relied upon my fluent Spanish to establish myself (note: I went abroad to Spain for 11 months to study Art History as a junior in college at Santa Clara University, and made numerous trips to Mexico in high school with a colorful teacher “Señor Cox”).
I quickly found work teaching English to a employees of a paint company at night, and rented a room from a very nice family in Sabanilla – a middle class suburb of San José. Riding the bus to the beach on the weekends, where I learned to surf in Playa Cochles on the Caribbean coast, and making daily trips into San José center of town, I picked up the local culture and slang, and immersed myself, which proved to be easy since the Costa Ricans are friendly and open to American visitors.
Most speak some English, and were entertained with a “Gringo” (aka North American white boy) who threw around the words “mae” (dude) and “Pura Vida” (“it’s all good”) like he had been here for years!
A few of my college buddies were visiting me and we had rented a car, making the drive from Arenal to Manuel Antonio in one day, which at that time, was no small feat since the roads had many, many pot holes, and signs were few and far between. We ended up getting a flat tire in front a beachfront surfer hotel called Cabinas Las Olas, in Playa Hermosa, a few miles south of Jacó.
We stayed one night, then extended it to 7, and fell in love with the place. My buddy Mike and I ended up buying it and establishing one of the first websites in the country, taking bookings on email and from walk up travelers. We fixed up the hotel, put a restaurant in, and I lived there and managed the place for 8 years until we sold it in 2002.
I learned to surf in double overhead waves, like dropping into a black diamond run as a beginner skier! The surfing lifestyle led me to travel to find the best spots up and down the Pacific coast, and granted me the ability to meet a colorful cast of travel characters, plus gave me a first hand education of how to run a business in Costa Rica.
In 2002, after going on a sojourn, or as the Aussies say a “walk about”, to Puerto Rico, Indonesia, and Hawaii, I then settled in San Diego, California and found work as Latin America Sales Rep at Wavehunters Surf Travel.
I learned to package and sell customized trips to Costa Rica, plus was able to continue my travels to new places. In 2005, I return to live in Costa Rica again having constructed a custom home in the rain forest hillside of Playa Hermosa. I got involved developing and selling an ocean view, residential conservation project overlooking Jacó I named La Joya (the “jewel”). After the real estate market took a turn in 2008, I was still getting requests from my friends for travel tips in Costa Rica, so in 2011 I began packaging and selling trips here, and John’s Picks was born!
In 2013, I took the business “off the kitchen sink” and formalized it with all pertinent government permits. My focus became offering personalized travel packages for families and couples from the U.S.
So many people look at a map, and at the numerous often-misleading websites, and think they can conquer this small country in a matter of days. They get here and it is a disaster as they try to cover too many places, too far apart, in too little of time, and sometimes find that the integrity of hotel or rental car company they dealt with is not what it appears to have been on the web.
This is where I come in, piecing it all together so that you get the most bang for your buck, and stay at places that are picked by Yours Truly for their friendly services and good locations. Tours and activities are also part of what I offer the visiting travelers, with emphasis on cultural experiences. Rural tourism activities include authentic lobster lunch on Sandra’s front porch in Lagarto (45 minutes south of Tamarindo), or an educational tour of a coffee plantation and processing plant in Cartago (1 hour outside of San José).
For the past 15 years, myself and a group of fun-loving individuals organize a charity surf event called the Pura Vida No Pro for orphaned children from San José (this year it takes place on November 19th). Tourists travel here as part of a customized package, to volunteer for the event. We also have a PE teacher program for the children at the orphanage, and welcome donations in the form of sporting equipment, medical supplies and clothing.0