I'm pretty sure we hatched this "Good Morning America" weekend anchor series over drinks. In this terrible economy, would it be possible to go on a great vacation, have a real adventure, without breaking the bank? we mused. And if so, how would you do it?
Would you trade houses with someone in France? Nope. None of us was willing or able. Could you hop a cargo plane? Nope. Give your services in exchange for a discount? Now we're getting somewhere.
My plan came together when I casually mentioned the how-low-can-you-go idea to my friend Teri. Turns out her brother David is a professor who often takes groups to Costa Rica to do something called "volun-tourism" -- trading some time doing volunteer work in a community in exchange for a cheap rate on a room. I was intrigued.
David put us in touch with a guy named Merlyn Oviedo, owner of the Danta Corcovado Lodge in the remote town of Guadalupe on the Osa Peninsula in far southwestern Costa Rica. A few weeks later, I was standing in a rain forest.
The first thing you need to know about this vacation is that it's not for everyone. If you don't like camping, hiking, the feeling that something may or may not be crawling up your leg in the middle of the night, this is not your place. But even if this isn't your cup of tea, you can learn from my experience. And if you do enjoy the sounds of thickest nature and love, the thought of jumping into a waterfall in a dense tropical forest or zip-lining above the canopy, then by all means, get yourself to Costa Rica.
"When I grew up here there were no roads in Osa," Merlyn told us after he picked us up at the tiny airstrip in Puerto Jimenez. It was about an hour's drive north, along the Golfo Dulce and then inland, to the town of Guadalupe. Merlyn was nice enough to give us a lift for free.
We flew into Puerto Jimenez on a 12-seater from the capital of San Jose. The flight from New York is currently on sale for about $371 round-trip. The other way to get to Puerto Jimenez is to take an eight-hour bus ride, which costs just $12. That's what many of Merlyn's guests do. Others drive down in rented cars.
"Many people from Europe, they don't really plan anything," Merlyn confided.
"Not like Americans," I said.
"Yeah, seems like people [from Europe] like traveling around and seeing what they can find."
We discovered quickly that transportation would be one of our biggest expenses. Once we arrived at Danta Lodge we had no way to get around except walking or calling a taxi. And taxis would normally cost $10 or $15 a pop.
So we took the public bus. That was an adventure. There was a box of chicks up front. And I got to sit next to the guy holding a big piece of sugar cane and a machete. Seriously.
But hey, it's those little unexpected moments that make a trip an adventure, right? Like the time we were hiking in the Corcovado National Park and an earthquake hit. The trees shook, loose branches fell, the ground rippled under our feet. Our young guide, Isai, quickly said "temblor," meaning "it's only a tremor." Turned out it was a magnitude of 5.9.
Danta Corcovado Lodge was quite a place. Merlyn, 33, built it himself five years ago, using his father's old farmhouse as a base. Everything is made of wood.
"Trees that fall down or trees that my dad planted," Merlyn said. "We have never cut a tree from the forest to do it."