By Amanda Finn

 

Going to Costa Rica was supposed to be an exciting start to my 2022, the first international trip since the COVID-19 pandemic. While I knew it would be full of adventure, overcoming adversity, and seeing more wildlife than I could handle, I didn’t know I would meet people that would become mi familia–my family. 

Then again, I didn’t realize we would be meeting Jose Mendez. Jose runs a tour concierge company called Passport Adventure and is, without a doubt, one of the kindest human beings on the planet. Whenever you meet someone who works in the tourism industry they usually love what they do, but Jose doesn’t just love his work, he exudes joy in a way that is simply indescribable. 

You know the phrase “love what you do?” A dictionary entry would include a photo of Jose. 

Before heading to Costa Rica, I knew at some point in our weeklong journey, our group was set to go ziplining. I was adamant about my fear of heights and made it clear I was not interested in taking part. Not only was our zipline stop one of the longest (if not the longest) in Latin America, it’s done Superman-style on your stomach for the full almost mile, high above the canopy of trees below. Hard pass. 

Jose was well aware of my fear. He went out of his way throughout our first few days to assuage my anxiety around the zipline. Above all else he wanted me to know that I didn’t have to do it and could sit out with him at the tour van. Despite the pit in my stomach, the sense of panic, and the feeling I would maybe throw up on my zipline gear, I promised my trip companions that I would do the course.

Before heading back down the mountain in the van to meet us at the zipline office, Jose bid us all farewell. He looked me straight in the eyes, told me everything was going to be okay and wrapped me in one of the biggest hugs. At that moment, I felt like my father (ironically also named Joseph) who was thousands of miles away was giving me the courage I needed. In that second Jose became family not just for me but my travel companions too who were all given encouraging hugs by our sweet concierge. 

That wasn’t the first or only time Jose would be that morale-boosting, warm spirit in our lives. Throughout our week together Jose was always asking us how we were doing, if we needed anything, inquiring about our lives back home, bonding with my husband over anime or comic books, or gushing over his kids and love of Costa Rica. He wanted us to know that every group he has hosted as a concierge has been special to him, though we knew in our hearts that we would be friends with Jose well past our time in Costa Rica. 

Horseback riding, a much less arduous excursion, was one of the most special times for me in Costa Rica because I was paired with “Hippie,” the senior horse who preferred the back of the pack. Jose, in his father-friend manner, let me know many times that Hippie was the horse his mother rode so that made her a very special horse for him. 

Though much of the ride left me wishing I wasn’t out of earshot of my friends who were happily galloping far ahead of me, the final stretches of the tour were the most memorable of all because Jose slowed his horse down to keep me company. 

He regaled tales from his life, raved about his children–particularly his daughter who dreams of staying in the U.S. after she finishes school in New York and gave me advice about my own someday-kiddos. Jose gently corrected my grammatical Spanish errors (those ten years of classes haven’t held up–lo siento maestros) and I encouraged him to come to the states to fulfill his dream of seeing Comic-Con. His nickname is Goku, so Comic-Con needs to happen. 

In Costa Rica, a common phrase that equates to a lot of things colloquially is “pura vida” which literally translates to “pure life.”  I’ve said it now so many times I’ve lost count. Yet, when I think of the phrase “pura vida,” I think of Jose. Not because he said it all the time, but because he embodies it so perfectly.

When I told Jose I intended to write this piece about him, his immediate response was humility. If I had any questions about him, Jose encouraged me to look at the reviews of his business because he didn’t want to boast about himself. Our simple interaction around this article only exemplifies what spirit inhabits our Costa Rican concierge turned forever-friend. 

Before departing the country, three of us decided we wanted to get sloth tattoos to commemorate our time in Costa Rica. But we weren’t alone. Jose and our wonderful driver Rafa agreed to get them with us. In fact, the whole situation was Jose’s idea. So, with Costa Rica imprinted on our hearts, a few of us left with a memory literally imprinted in our skin. 

Jose wasn’t able to get his sloth before we left the country (an amazing tattoo artist can only go so fast). When he was able to get his sloth Jose sent our group the photo via WhatsApp. But he had a surprise. 

He also tattooed our names below the sloth. The tears still hit me when I think about opening that photo. 

My travel companions and I weren’t even home a day before talking about going back to Costa Rica to spend time with Jose. Our friendship is now the epitome of what I mean when I tell folks that traveling introduces you to the best people. If you’re ever in Costa Rica, I insist you contact Jose. 

You will never find a more joyful, funny, and genuinely kind person to show you around. And when you see him, tell him his Sloth Family says “hello.”

Pura Vida. 

 

Amanda Finn is a queer award-winning theater, travel, and lifestyle writer. Her work has been featured on Huffington Post, Ms. Magazine, Yahoo, and more. Amanda is a proud member of the American Theatre Critics Association, the International Food, Wine and Travel Writers Association as well as the North American Travel Journalists Association.