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17 lessons learned in my trek through costa rica

Sean Smith

Manuel's Beach

Business, Marketing, Philosophical, and Life lessons learned in my first trip to Costa Rica

This post has been a long time coming, and honestly I put it off for far too long. I went to Costa Rica with my brother Jeremiah in August of 2012 and learned many subliminal lessons in the process. Lessons pertaining to business, marketing, user-interface, psychology and experience as a whole. I'm going to try to make this pertain to marketing as much as possible but it may get pretty vague. So here is a spitballed list of lessons I learned in our epic trek through the beautiful country of Costa Rica.

Basically we flew in from Ft. Lauderdale, Florida airport to San Jose, Costa Rica which was a nice and quick flight. The drive from where we live in Sarasota, FL was actually the longest part (getting pulled over for speeding across the everglades didn't help either haha) but none-the-less, pretty flawless opening. We arrived to somewhat of a culture-shock though. It was 12 am when we arrived in Costa Rica so naturally all of the car rental kiosks had closed, there were a few taxis outside but we weren't ready to be picked up without any course of action. We were trying to look around for a nearby hotel for the night but there was absolutely no reference to where we should go, if ever there was a need for some well optimized hotel promotion posters (what would be a CTA online) this would be the time.

Lesson 1: having clear call to actions is crucial to funneling customers where you want them to be

We couldn't find any information on where the good hotels in the area were, and by this time all of the taxi's had deserted. We started walking. We exited the airport, went up the road a bit and saw a huge hotel off in the distance surrounded by nothing but single story buildings and Coca Cola advertisements. We headed towards it on the side of a major highway with no real protective barriers on the shoulders. On our walk up to the hotel we passed what I could only describe at the time as what looked like a post-apocalyptic zombie infested prison, for all of you walking dead fans out there, yes like that one. It was CREEPY! Giant building off of the roadside with huge watch towers with a giant gated fence that went around the entire property as if it was an embassy or something. Regardless of what it was it was uncomfortable to even walk by to get to the hotel. When we got to the hotel (which turned out to be a VERY nice Marriot) I asked one of the clerks what that extremely creepy building was, "Oh, that is our Wal Mart!" ... Yeah, their Wal Mart looked like it was built to hold off a Greek invasion with Prince Hector defending at the gates.

Lesson 2: trust signals are a HUGE deal to potential customers

I wouldn't even shop at that Wal Mart knowing that it is only a Wal Mart after that experience just because it was so freaky that initial moment that I saw it. All of the trust I had in that location escaped the moment I saw it. It was like if you were going to buy a iPad from a site that had great prices but when you got to the landing page there were porn banners surrounding every corner of your screen! The clerk did explain to us though that because of the high burglary occurrences in San Jose most stores are pretty bundled up in security and that Wal Mart spared no expense in this matter. I don't blame them, but I guess their target market isn't un-sensitized 20 year old Americans walking down a major highway at 12 am.

The next day we woke up and headed back up to the airport to rent a car (the Wal Mart didn't look so sinister in daylight) where we learned a great deal about product offerings. There were three rent-a-car dealer kiosks, so we went to the first one nearest to us (literally went down the row, typical ease-of-interaction flow chart style). We were looking for a 4-wheel-drive off-roader SUV or Truck, preferably a Toyota Hilux (the king of the terrain down there and pretty much everywhere) but we would settle for a 4-wheel-drive of nearly any sort. The first kiosk literally had not one 4-wheel-drive vehicle. This boggles my mind honestly to even think about this now. Costa Rica is a country with not the best infrastructure. It's coming a long way with it's development and I don't ever want my statements about the country to speak negatively of the place itself because I have an extreme love and passion for the country.. That being said, it is fact that Costa Rica has absolutely RUBBISH infrastructure. You NEED 4-wheel-drive or brass cajones if you do not pick up a 4-wheel-capable vehicle.

The first kiosk had tiny cars, motorbikes and I believe a sedan car. That one was out. Second up, they had a few options of off-road..ish looking vehicles such as trucks, SUVs etc. with 2-wheel-drive. We though about it because the prices were good but then we caught a glance of the next kiosk's promotion that was in a huge banner above their heads. The banner read, "4-wheel-drive" very simple. Hell, it's three words, one is a number and already I'm sold. We went over to that kiosk and looked at their 4-wheel-drive vehicles, granted they weren't what we were expecting. A lot of vehicles we haven't even heard of, or have never thought about considering an "off-roader" but we were still sold on one of these vehicles. We chose the Hyundai Tucson, which to be honest looked like a sub-par off-roader. When I say it looked like a sub-par off-roader, that is coming from a guy that grew up in North Georgia where every third car is a jacked up Jeep Wrangler with brush guards and a snorkel for mudding. Basically anything short of a militarized amphibious tank would look like a sub-par off-roader after growing up around that. Anyways, my animosity towards this vehicle was short lived because little did I know that it's an absolute miracle worker. I digress a lot, here's that lesson.

Lesson 3: know your competition, have a niche offering, make that offering far better than any competitor can offer, promote it visually

We set out from San Jose towards Jaco Beach for our first Costa Rican surf experience! We had a humbling drive down to Jaco, there are seemingly no standardized road rules in Costa Rica. The whole country's road system seems to work on a, "you got it, take it" and common sense basis. Road width that would constitute 3 lanes here in the US constitutes about 6 lanes there, with motorcycles and dirt bikes flying through the traffic seams. Honestly if you hate waiting on slow drivers in the US or have ever experienced gridlock traffic in Atlanta or a like-sized city you will love driving in Costa Rica. People find a way to move, they move quickly and they do it without wrecking into things. Basically the only restraint you have in driving in Costa Rica is your cars performance, the infrastructure your car is on, and how lucky you're feeling.

Lesson 4: not everything has to go through a committee, sometimes the common sense answer is just better, this way is far more lean and the freedom to constantly make autonomous decisions feels good

One of the main things we noticed on the drive from San Jose to Jaco was all of the advertisements. I wish I would have taken more pictures of just the advertisements alone. I do not know spanish very well and by that I mean I do not know spanish at all. I literally knew "hola" and some stuff I picked up by friends in school, but nothing of any consequence. I took french throughout grade-school but that is beside the point. My brother Jeremiah can speak spanish quite fluently, so it wasn't bad. Where I am getting at with the lack of spanish vocabulary is that regardless of how little I knew of the language, I could understand every bit of every advertisement I saw. Every call to action made sense to me, I could tell what it said even without being able to actually read it. This leads me to my next lesson.

Lesson 5: good call to actions and proper branding works on a global and universal scale regardless of language if you understand the intent (intent is everything)

Once we got to Jaco we were a bit taken aback, it wasn't as glorious as it sounded. It was a very artsy place, a cultural photographer's dream honestly but the buildings were all caged up and it looked a bit run down to be truthful. It seemed a very humble place, many smiling faces, but also many shady seeming people. It was hard to really tell what the fascination was around this place, except almost all of the hype we had heard about Jaco was oriented around surfing. We knew we wanted to get out in the water and gain a better perspective on the place. We checked in to a reasonable hotel right near the water, walked to the surf shop and rented some boards. It was nearly sundown but we weren't going to let another day go by without at least attempting to hit some waves. We ran down to the beach and paddled out into the surf. A beautiful, actually surreal experience followed. Once we were out in the water all of the hype made sense. Large igneous rock outcrops surrounded the cove, fog covered the mountains, perfect waves with beautiful set times rolled in like red carpets for surfers. The water was black and shimmering gold, glowing in the sunset. The sun burst in bright orange and yellow light over the distant mountains back over the shore, it was still and mesmerizing. This is Jaco, the ocean and beach make Jaco, the surf is Jaco. The town of Jaco is only a vessel to carry people towards their next experience of the true beauty which lays out in the water.

Costa Rican natives have the nickname of "Teco's" (pronounced tea-co) and believe in a saying, "Be the head of the mouse instead of the tail of the lion" which I really took to heart.

Jaco is a simple place, it is definitely the head of the mouse. The town may not be much to boast about but the surf and experience is other-worldly. Miami might be the lion city but it's surfing is a tail at best.

Lesson 6: simple is sublime, be simple in your offering, be what makes you unique and stand for it by not being distracted by unnecessary changes that some would deem "improvements"

 

Jaco Beach

Jaco Beach

After a couple of days basking in the beauty of Jaco we decided to head up to Manuel Antonio national park, a quick 1 hour drive from Jaco.

the view of Jaco from the mountains leading to Manuel Antonio

the view of Jaco from the mountains leading to Manuel Antonio

I don't believe I have ever experienced a more beautiful utopia in my entire life. The road to Manuel Antonio is very mountainous and lush with vegetation (which could basically be said for all of Costa Rica) the views are actually astonishing and we stopped many times to take pictures like good little American tourists do. Part of the way to Manuel Antonio it started to pour down raining, driving in rain in Costa Rica is quite a lot more frightening than driving in the rain in the US. Natives are used to it, so they are still going 80 KPH around mountain corners while we are crawling and barely able to see through our windshield. We were hungry too so we were looking for a place to pull off and eat, all this compounded made for a pretty stressful event. Finally we saw a banner for a little mexican restaurant on the ocean-side of the street so we pulled off and locked up the car. Running up to this place we noticed it was a 2 story, open wind restaurant meaning the top level had no walls, just a roof. We didn't know where we wanted to sit so we went up stairs to check out how it looked with the rain and little did we know it would be the best scenic view I have ever experienced during a meal. The rain was pouring off of the roof in an almost waterfall like fashion to the mountains below, there were houses lining the cliffs all the way down to the shore line, there was a nearly vertical line from the shore up the mountains and there were mountains out in the middle of the water shrouded with fog.

Lesson 7: stay steadfast towards your course, no matter what the current storm, there will be beautiful reward on the other side

 

manuel antonio restaurant

manuel antonio restaurant

manuel antonio cottages

manuel antonio cottages

manuel antonio meal

manuel antonio meal

After that meal it was about a 20 minute ride to Manuel Antonio national park, I could go on for days about this place. It was some of the most beautiful beach landscape I have ever experienced, the rock formations that lined the coast were like something straight out of a dream. There aren't many words to describe this place so I will just let this photo do the talking.

Manuel's Beach

Manuel's Beach

The next couple of lessons happen in response to us leaving this beautiful mesopotamia which we unfortunately did soon after arriving. We had planned to head from Manuel Antonio to a place called La Fortuna which was about an hour west of San Jose, San Jose was about 3-4 hours of a drive from Manuel Antonio. It was about 5 pm when we were leaving Manuel Antonio and we figured that we would be fine to make the trip directly without spending the night anywhere. Oh how wrong we were. We made it back to Jaco fine and from Jaco there were two options, go directly up to San Jose and then head west on the main highway with somewhat stable infrastructure OR take a direct route to La Fortuna via backroads and secondary highways.

I want to stress the important fact that we did not have a functional navigation system native to Costa Rica, we were running off of Google Maps on our iPhones. Not good. Don't do that if you ever go to Costa Rica, get the Lonely Planet's Costa Rica guide app on the iPhone. It has proper maps and that is something we learned the VERY hard way.

Our Route to La Fortuna from Jaco

Our Route to La Fortuna from Jaco

Basically we wanted to go as nearly "as the crow flys" as possible in our approach because once we got to Jaco it was PITCH BLACK. It doesn't just get dark in Costa Rica, there are no streetlights, there are hardly any lights at all. It is solid darkness at night. We knew we just wanted to get there and get there quick. We made our most impactful failure of navigation right above San Mateo, where we thought what looked like a road on Google Maps was actually going to be a legitimate road.

Road above San Mateo

Road above San Mateo

We started on this path, not road.

Path above San Mateo

Path above San Mateo

This "road" ended up being a nearly 90 degree vertical off-roading course directly over a mountain. If ever there was a proving ground for a vehicle, this would be it. This few mile stretch gave me 6-7 hours of the most highly stress-intensive time of my life. Many times throughout this time Jeremy and myself had to reassure each other that we would be alright, and not literally die in the wilderness with no one to help us in a foreign country. Sure this sounds silly, but in the situation we were in (which is hard to describe in words) your imagination starts to wonder. Basically we were on a tiny little less-than single lane path headed directly up this mountain with sheer vertical drops on either side of us in absolute darkness except for seeing the lights from the citys on either side of us down at the coast and towards San Jose. At a point during our assent we started driving into mist which we soon found out was an actual cloud, where not only was it too dark to see, but now too foggy to see what our headlights previously showed us. There were a few instances that we lost traction, started to slide down hill and we feared sliding off the side of the mountain and tumbling into the abyss. Near the top of our assent we encountered a mechanical issue where our 4-wheel lock was failing and the lights were flashing letting us know that we no longer had 4-wheel-drive capabilities. We were able to finally creep over the mountain and started down the other side, passing over creeks that had been forming from rain water on the mountain. After an elapsed time of roughly 6 hours on that mountain we reached a paved road. I literally wanted to get out of the car and kiss the pavement. I was like a kid at Christmas.

After we hit the road we encountered a new problem, one inevitably caused by our off-road rampage over the mountain. Every time we had to make a slight turn of the wheel our right front axle sounded like it was going to come unhinged and send us straight off a cliff. So we had a choice, keep going to La Fortuna on mountainous roads and if the axle breaks we die OR head back to the hotel that we know on the roads that we know in San Jose and try to get the car fixed the next day by the rental company.

After the Mountain

After the Mountain

We chose to go back to San Jose. We arrived at the Marriot hotel at about 3 am or so and slept like kings thanking God that we were alright.

Lesson 8: don't set out in the dark without a pre-laid strategy to measure against, keep track of all variables and adjust accordingly

Lesson 9: clear navigation is under-rated

The next morning we woke up, quickly got our stuff together and got in the car and took it down the street to the rental place. Actually, no. That is what should have happened. Instead, seeing as the car was covered head to toe in mud and looked like Ace Ventura had been driving it we decided to find a detailer to wash it up so it looked pristine as if nothing ever happened. We did, and it did. For literally 5 USD we got the entire thing fully detailed in and out by 3 guys who did an incredible job in no time at all.

the most original car wash ever

the most original car wash ever

We then took the Tucson, which we had IMMENSE respect for after the mountain excursion and went back to the rental location. We told them that our 4-wheel lock suddenly came on on our way back from Jaco and that our axle sounded rough and that we would like a replacement car. They then took the Tucson and gave us a brand new 2012 Tucson, two years newer than our previous Tucson. We will gladly use that rental place every time we go back now because of that incredible customer service.

Lesson 10: quality customer service, even if it means eating the cost of some problems can be the best marketing tool you have

After getting our new Tucson we wanted a bit of comfort before we headed out on our second attempt to reach La Fortuna (ironic since we weren't too "fortunate" in our first attempt) so we went to a place I never thought I would be so happy to eat at, Denny's. There was a MASSIVE Denny's right next to the airport. We parked and went in, we felt as though we had stepped into a twilight zone. Everyone there was in a full suit, people were having what looked like big business meetings, huddled around a table with laptops and briefcases etc. Here Jeremy and I were, feeling underdressed in a DENNYS in our boardshorts, tee shirts and flip flops. This place had a valet service for crying out loud.. We were genuinely impressed, but we realized that this was one of the only places we had seen with free Wi-Fi that wasn't spotty, it was right next to the airport in the biggest city in the country. This was basically like being at the busiest Starbucks in New York City. I've never had a more elegant pancake. But really, we had a huge stack of pancakes, three cups of coffee, slammed eggs and sausage and felt like a million bucks.

Lesson 11: sometimes a bit of the normal comfort can mean a huge deal

We then set out for La Fortuna on the proper course using main roads the entire way. It was an incredible journey out, with rollin hills through farmlands and coffee fields. Over mountains (but on paved roads) and through valleys. We made it to La Fortuna, the town at the foot of the mountain. "La Fortuna" literally means The Fortunate in Spanish. La Fortuna has two stories about how it got it's name, the first being that when Volcan Arenal (the largest volcano in Costa Rica, which La Fortuna sits at the foot of) erupted in the 1960's it exploded in the completely oposite direction of La Fortuna, devastating everything but the town of La Fortuna. The other story, and what is told is the true story is that La Fortuna just has some of the most rich and fertile soil from all of the surrounding Volcanic activity that it makes for perfect farmlands somewhat like the Fertile Crescent. Regardless of which story is true, this place was worth the journey and is truly rich in beauty.

We checked in to the Lomas Del Volcan hotel, which is actually a bit of a drive back from the city. It is a cluster of bungalows that literally sit right at the foot of Volcan Arenal, you could walk out of your room and straight into the woods and not see another soul between you and the mountain. This place was seamless, they had incredible rooms and breakfast buffet service included at 7am every morning, an awesome resort pool and giant hot tub gazebo. Best of all at the front desk you could schedule excursions with local companies that specialize in eco-tourism, something that I grew a supreme love for over the next four days.

bathroom and the front door of our bungalow

bathroom and the front door of our bungalow

our minimalist room

our minimalist room

view from the back porch of our room

view from the back porch of our room

We started with a Volcan Arenal hike, where we hiked about 1/4 up Volcan Arenal with a tour guide giving us an explanation of the history, etc. It sounded cool on the brochure, but I didn't realize how much I would get wrapped up in the tour guide's talking. Our tour guide's name was Jose and he spoke to us about everything from how Costa Rica completely de-militarized to become a neutral country to how its nature and preservation is constantly being determined by nature, or more directly from natural disasters. Every time they have been advancing their technology or infrastructure there is an earthquake, volcano eruption, tsunami or something of the sort. Costa Rica is constantly rebuilding a foundation instead of being able to build the next levels of their infrastructure. This keeps them humble in technological advancement, but also keeps them close to nature so they have to work with nature to ensure that they have workable infrastructure even if there is a massive natural disaster that effects half of the country. Jose influenced my connection with Costa Rica as a country so much just through inspiring me with what they stand for, and how they stay humble. It was also Jose who told me about the "head of the mouse, not tail of the lion" Teco saying.

Lesson 12: influence through inspiration. inspiration is one of the greatest psychological responses and using that is one reason companies like GoPro have blown up to billion dollar valuations

After the Volcan Arenal hike we got to decide between going to one of three hot spring resorts as the second part of the excursion. Each of these resorts have pools that are directly fed by hot springs straight from Volcan Arenal. We heard a lot about each of them but the guys at the hotel recommended we go to a place called "The Springs" hotel which they said was definitely the nicest of the few. We took their advice and went with The Springs resort, little did we know that they COMPLETELY undersold it. We arrived at The Springs resort thinking it would be a nice place with one pool and whatnot, no. This place was a mansion in the middle of the woods with a perfect view of the volcano. The Springs hotel is a GIANT open-air four story mansion with a full 5 star restaurant, 12 pools (all fed by the volcano hot springs ranging from 80 degrees to 104 degrees), it was just incredible. We had full access to it for the whole day. By far and away the most incredible resort I have ever been to. We actually found out that a month prior to us being there Will Smith had actually come and stayed a month.

Lesson 13: undersell and over-deliver. Set customer expectations low and over-deliver by giving them incredible results or service

The Spring's main pool

The Spring's main pool

The next day we woke up and ate at the buffet at 7 am as the sun came up and watched the fog clear from over the volcano. Lomas Del Volcan has such an incredible system around these excursions, each excursion starts in the morning right after the breakfast buffet. They have a currier van come and pick up people for the excursion right at the eating area so you can wake up, grab a bite and then your ride will be waiting for you after you finish eating. I would say that this is such a seamless user experience that it made us feel fully happy buying an excursion for every day we were there.

Lesson 14: user experience must be so seamless that the user does not feel like they are actually using anything at all. Think Steve Job's mentality towards his products

 

breakfast at the foot of the mountain

breakfast at the foot of the mountain

Our excursion for the day was white-water rafting. We went white water rafting down class 4 rapids on the Rio Toro river, it was an incredible adrenaline rush. I'm definitely an extreme sports addict, doing everything from skateboarding, rock climbing and mountain biking to surfing and the like but this was still VERY intense.

While I would like to think of a lesson I learned from this portion of the trip, the only real lesson came from the second half of this excursion. See after we got done rafting we all got in this bus and headed over to an organic farm. This farm is completely self sustainable and we got to get a complete walk through tour of it by the guys who run it. They have literally synced up everything that could work together in nature to work in perfect harmony in this farm. The two acre (pretty small) farm could sustainably support up to 55 people daily without fail. They have a tilapia pond with certain plants growing above the farm that have leaves that fall off and tilapia love to eat them, so that is what they live and grow off of. They have different vegetation that serves many purposes, from feeding their cows all the way to warding off monkeys. They had a problem with howler monkeys that would come in and eat all of their fruit, but they noticed that the fruit they would not touch was surrounded by a certain aromatic plant. They then grew that aromatic plant in a complete proximity around the farm and now monkeys don't come past the tree line.

Lesson 15: there is beauty in a synced ecosystem, such as this organic farm works together in perfect harmony; companies like Apple have made their products work in perfect harmony with one another.

Lesson 16: self sustainability breeds success, having user generated content like the MOZ blog or Inbound.org can be very successful while being self-sustainable with marginal input

 

making tequila from sugar cane at the organic farm

making tequila from sugar cane at the organic farm

On our last excursion we hiked up Cero Chato Volcano which is far more intense than any other hike I've ever done, we then swam in the pool that formed in the mouth of the volcano (the volcano has been dormant for over 3000 years). But before we swam in the pools our hiking instructor had a treat for us for making it to the top of the mountain. He pulled out a few Milky Way candy bars and handed them out. I do sports like this a lot, and pack a lot of CLIF bars, sometimes even Snickers or Almond Joy for bursts of high carb energy but a Milky Way? Why? It turns out that Milky Way was the first actual American candy bar company to ship and sell in Costa Rica, which in turn made them dominate market share in Costa Rica. All Costa Ricans tend to eat Milky Ways as their primary candy bar, in each gas station we went to we noticed it, they always had them in hotels etc.

Lesson 17: early adoption works, be the first in the market. No one cares who comes second, even if second is better, people are creatures of habit

 

Jeremy and I swimming in the crater of Cero Chato

Jeremy and I swimming in the crater of Cero Chato

At the top of Cero Chato (Arenal in the background)

At the top of Cero Chato (Arenal in the background)

Swimming in the La Fortuna Waterfall

Swimming in the La Fortuna Waterfall

in the canopy above the La Fortuna Waterfall after Cero Chato

in the canopy above the La Fortuna Waterfall after Cero Chato

After that excursion we slept in La Fortuna and headed back in the morning to San Jose, we spent the night there in the city and got up the next morning to catch our flight out.

us not wanting to leave Costa Rica

us not wanting to leave Costa Rica

There was so much more that I couldn't express; emotions had, struggles undergone, challenges overcome, great times had and experiences won. Those are 17 lessons that I learned in my first trip to Costa Rica. Many more trips are sure to come as it is a beautiful place that I would recommend to all.

I feel I should sign off with the Costa Rican country saying, mantra, and philosophy, Pura Vida which means "Pure Life"