Scenes from a Madcap Year

IMG_1355In a few short days, 2014 will draw to a close. My first full year in Costa Rica has been madcap and invigorating, but it wasn’t until December—the usual month of reflection—that I realized just how much has transpired in the past 12 months. Even if you take away the less obvious victories (getting hired full-time at The Tico Times, taking a couple of surfing lessons, receiving visits from U.S. friends, and even eating my first bowl of crickets), my life this year reads like a series of headlines. Which I suppose shouldn’t be surprising, since writing headlines is what I do.

2014 was also my first full year of marriage (awesome), my first year of car ownership (surprisingly awesome), and my first full year of comprehensive medical coverage (super awesome, and thankfully I haven’t had to use it). My esposa Kylan has blown my mind, serving as an adjunct professor for three wildly different universities and teaching an essential new course (entirely in Spanish) at the University of Costa Rica. Thanks to awesome friendships (new and old), exciting collaborations, and pure dumb luck, Kylan and I have enjoyed opportunities never before imagined. I doubted anything could rival 2013, a year of globe-trotting adventure, massive lifestyles changes and epic mountain climbing. But 2014 has given those 365 days a run for their money.


  • I take my first trip to Rio Celeste, the mysteriously turquoise waters of northern Costa Rica. I spend the night in the rustic Tenorio’s Door, a quaint hostel on the edge of the National Park.
  • My compañeros Lindsay Fendt and Alberto (Beto) Font take me to the toros, or Costa Rican bullfights, in Zapote. Years after I first heard of these “humane” bullfights, I finally have the chance to witness them firsthand.
  • Continuing the livestock theme, I also attend my first Palmares Tope, one of the biggest festivals in the country. Despite the boozy reputation, I manage to film the video without ordering a single Imperial. I also get to see [shifty] presidential candidate Johnny Araya Monge firsthand.
  • I publish my first audiobook, How to Ride a Bike in Pittsburgh, in
  • Finally, after months of labor, The Tico Times launches its redesign. The new site is cleaner, easier to use, and incorporates multimedia as never before.


  • To kick off the month, I get to help cover Costa Rica’s general elections, which is basically just a huge, family-friendly party featuring a dozen presidential candidates and bazillions of flags. In the wake of an historic runoff between Johnny Araya and Luis Guillermo Solís, my compañeros Beto and Matt ask me to produce a video about which candidate is a better dancer.
  • Since I missed the rave craze, I jump at the chance to attend Life in Color, a large-scale “paint party.” In order to photograph it, I end up mummifying my camera in Saran Wrap.
  • Thanks to some wonderful folks at The Little Theatre Group, I am cast as The Gentleman Caller in Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, marking my first international acting gig. I make friends with some excellent actors and a seasoned production team, and the show garners a spectacular review.
  • I meet with the artistic director of The National Theater and produce a video of the playhouse’s massive renovation project. Not only does the video feature my first on-camera interviews in Spanish (which were carried out while also holding the camcorder), but the segment was screened in The National Theater’s lobby for several months.


  • 1422469_10152073274013995_1833451138_nThe day after the Irazú Challenge, I hop a bus with my compañera Erin Morris to the Panamanian border, and we cross the bridge to Bocas del Toro. We visit multiple islands and beaches, eat incredible food, and swim with bioluminescent phytoplankton.
  • To celebrate Kylan’s birthday, we head to Tortuguero, a remote region full of rainforest and natural canals. Wary of the recent crime wave, we nevertheless have a fantastic time and canoe along the waterways, spying the gamut of reptiles and exotic birds.
  • At the first commercial St. Patrick’s Day party, held in Escazú, my friend Adolfo (the owner of Stiefel Pub) introduces me to an astonishing range of Costa Rican beer brewers. I end up so inebriated on samples that I can barely make it home—even though the festival grounds are only a few hundred meters from my apartment.
  • I take the bus and ferry to Montezuma, the hippie-surfer town on the edge of the Nicoya Peninsula, to meet the German swimmer Renate Herberger. I produce a short documentary about her final swim along the Pacific coast of Costa Rica.
  • During a film shoot, I get to meet acclaimed Costa Rican director Esteban Ramírez, the auteur behind Caribe.
  • While I plan to run the Irazú Half-Marathon, I opt out, because I have to take an early bus to Panama the very next day. But I have the chance to photograph the event with the inimitable Andres Madrigal, and I also get to root for Kylan, who attempts to run the full marathon and does remarkably well, considering it’s one of the most grueling races of the year.


  • During Costa Rica’s landmark runoff elections, I spend the day—at the beach. I still manage to cover the voting process, by hanging out at a high school in Playas del Coco.
  • After 10 years of scheming, I finally attempt to bicycle across Costa Rica, from the Caribbean to the Pacific coast. I document this journey in an 11-part travel series called “Pura Vía,” one of the most exciting writing opportunities I’ve ever had. One of the hardest physical challenges of my life, the “Pura Vía” tour attracts thousands of readers.


  • High-brow university magazine The Smart Set publishes my essay “Inside the Refugio.” A one-off would have made my year, but they go on to publish two additional essays as well, all about my experiences in Central America.
  • In one of the most bizarre turns of events, I end up cast as an extra in the patriotic Costa Rican sports movie Italia 90.
  • Kylan and I travel to Nicaragua to meet her high school friend Laura Hopps. We stay in a Quaker community center, tour local educational initiatives, and drive up Mombacho Volcano.


  • The Tico Times has a blast covering La Sele, Costa Rica’s soccer team, as they surpass all expectations in Brazil. At the height of World Cup fever, Lindsay Fendt and I drive to La Fortuna to film a Sheena the Sloth, who accurately predicts the outcome of the final match.
  • Kylan and I head to the U.S. to visit our beloved Pittsburgh friends and celebrate the marriage of Jen Resnick and Peter Perkins. We also visit my brother, sister-in-law, and baby niece in D.C.



  • Kylan and I buy a car, an adventure unto itself. I later describe this hilarious process in an essay for The Smart Set.
  • After the gauntlet is thrown by my friends Bill Holman and Christopher Whitlatch (whose mother endured ALS before passing away a few years ago), I accept the Ice Bucket Challenge [and present it as a 1920s-style silent film].
  • Beto and I travel to the town of Siquirres to document an after-school cricket program that focuses particularly on young women.
  • I learn that I was runner-up for an award from the Pittsburgh Black Media Federation.


  • Kylan, Lindsay and I head to Uvita for a whale-watching tour. The location is famous for attracting whales during humpbacks’ mating season.
  • I head to Lake Arenal to research a story about a halfway house for young victims of sex slavery. My feature about Salvando Corazones becomes one of my proudest achievements in journalism so far.



  • My short story “B.” appears in Pif Magazine, my first work of fiction to be published for a long time.
  • After receiving a fortuitous classified ad for a “gringo actor,” I end up becoming the mascot for Locos4Travel, a Costa Rican start-up. I have the chance to work with Daniel Moreno, creator of Media Docena, Costa Rica’s version of Monty Python.


  • I take a week to travel to Guatemala and Panama City, two places I have hoped to visit since first moving to Central America. Both experiences leave a profound impression, and I plan to write extensively about these journeys in forthcoming months.
  • After years of fascination, I finally have the chance to see the Ruta de los Conquistadores, one of the most arduous bike races in the world. Beto and I document the second day of the backbreaking three-day event.


  • After reviewing their Central America on a Shoestring, I receive an invitation from Lonely Planet to write an online article about San José, one of the most high-profile opportunities of my career.
  • Based on a random idea Beto and I had months earlier, the North American-Costa Rican Cultural Center hosts a photographic retrospective of The Tico Times. The exhibit displays several of my own photographs, making this my first art show outside the U.S.
  • I celebrate one of my final December nights in Costa Rica by attending the Festival de la Luz, a fun-hokey-nocturnal version of the Macy’s Day Parade.
  •  Fly to the United States, enjoy some R&R (and far too much food) with parents, grandparents, and new nieces. Return to Costa Rica. Gear up for 2016.



2 thoughts on “Scenes from a Madcap Year

  1. Robert,

    I enjoy reading each and every one of your articles on Costa Rica, and look forward to
    more of your writing in 2015. Hope your looking forward to 2016 was just a typo, and
    doesn’t mean you are abandoning us for a year!
    Happy New Year,
    Carol Vaughn

  2. Carol,

    What a wonderful thing to read — thanks so much! Yes, 2015 was absolutely a typo. I must be overcompensating: Usually it takes me until March to remember to write the correct year…

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