Prevalent diseases in Costa Rica include Malaria, Hepatitis A and B, Zika, and Dengue Fever. Hayley caught Dengue on her trip. This disease is usually mild, but can be severe and even lead to death. Patients usually experience a fever, severe headache, pain behind the eyes, muscle and joint pain, nausea, and a red rash. Like many other diseases, Dengue Fever is spread through mosquito bites. Read Hayley’s account of her illness.
I sat on the cool concrete step at the opening of the outdoor stall, head in hands, and having a staring contest with the frog who had taken up residence next to the toilet, concentrating on anything other than my aching, shivering body and nausea. Eventually, I lay back against the cool stone path, hoping that would relieve some of my discomfort added by the high humidity, which meant that the sweat never evaporated and instead beaded, and my clothes never felt truly dry. I had caught Dengue Fever, one of the prevalent diseases in Costa Rica.
Conservation Trip to Costa Rica
In 2014, I arrived in Costa Rica, having signed up for a volunteer Sea Turtle conservation trip that was advertised during one of my university courses. Our group ended up being six US university students, Pan, our local guide, and Christy, the owner of the volunteer tour company. Our first stop was along the Caribbean Coast, north of Limon and over an hour speed boat ride to the nearest town.
Sea Turtle Hatchery Patrol
Four-hour beach patrols at midnight and six-hour hatchery patrols between the jungle and the strong currents of the Caribbean Sea greeted us. We bonded quickly over our new experiences, the incredibly rewarding ones like releasing leatherback sea turtles into the ocean and even the difficult and tiring ones, all while cursing every insect that could bite.
Trying to fend off the bugs
At one point I marked and circled them, all 139 bug bites down my legs that I had sprayed several times a day with the strongest deep forest DEET that I could find in the States. I had even sprayed my cargo pants before I put them on, and yet they always found a way. The only relief was when I would stand knee deep in the water, the waves too dangerous to fully submerge myself. The owner of the dorm had already warned us of the rip tides and bull sharks waiting out for the baby sea turtles we were protecting on the beach.
At the Chocolate Farm
Once my bug bites had mostly healed and back on a regular sleep schedule, I thought the toughest part of the trip was over. We had moved to a chocolate farm, pruning cocoa trees and fermenting the beans, with Pan excitedly showing us the boa that he had found in the grass. The days were full of hard work, followed by nights sitting around a fire laughing like old friends, or piling into a hammock to sing along to “Stay with me” from Christy’s speaker.
Our volunteer quarters consisted of several outdoor stalls with showers and toilets, and a dorm room for us to share. Occasionally a frog would find it’s way in, though they were less hostile than the large crabs in our showers on the coast.
Now, laying on the stone path, I dragged myself off the stone path and crawled into bed hoping a night’s sleep would heal everything. However, the next morning I peeled open my eyes just enough to see Christy with her hand on my forehead, telling me that I was burning up. I felt as if I could barely move or comprehend why she was there, and fell back asleep. I was hot and even sweatier than I had been the entire trip. I had caught Dengue Fever.
Days in a Daze
The next few days were a daze. I would hear my group wake up to tend to the farm chores, and curse the rooster who thought that every lightning strike was cause for crowing, then I would fall back into a deep sleep. I finally regained a small amount of energy and walked down to the deck overlooking the valley, where I rested in a hammock with Pan placing a cold rag on my head.
I learned later that the whole reason Christy had known to check on me that morning was because Pan had a dream in which he was wading through a river and pulled me up from the depths. He was so shaken that he woke Christy up to check on me. Though at the time I could just wonder where he was able to find ice he was using on my head, as I hadn’t seen it since I left the States.
The Kindness of the Hosts
I must have looked as bad as I felt from the Dengue, because the family who owned the farm had their son take his motorbike into the next town to find me ginger ale, Gatorade, and crackers. I took sips and nibbled on the crackers until I drifted off again until, the rumble of thunder woke me up and lightning struck the valley in front of me.
The days bled together, until one day I suddenly awoke with energy. Once I could pull myself up, I finally returned to my group. The smell of food from the kitchen made me realize I had barely eaten in days. There was a huge pot of soup waiting for me, with many different bright vegetables in it, and I ate as much as I could.
Shortly after, we were to hike to a nearby waterfall, which we were told was an hour and a half round trip. But it turned to be a much longer, windy adventure. By the time we got there I was overexerted, having already trailed behind the group the whole time, bonding with Becca who had also trailed behind, due to a knee injury. Through the paved and dirt roads and into a path in the forest, we reached the fall and I immediately jumped into the pool, desperate to feel the cool water on my skin, to wash the sick and tired fully away. We splashed, played, and sat under the fall.
Then the moment I dreaded came. We had to walk back. However, it appeared that my lack of physical ability was evident, and by the time we reached the forest’s edge, our motorcycle saviour was waiting to taxi us back to the farm.
Leaving the farm
When the time came, I was sad to leave our farm. We each made cards for our hosts, Pan and Christy helping to translate into Spanish. This was especially helpful for me, who had trouble picking up the language besides small greetings, even with having taken Spanish lessons our first week, and living in Texas for three years.
Diseases in Costa Rica
Unfortunately, one by one the rest of my group fell to the illness. One more fell ill at the farm, and the rest at our short vacation stay in Samara. We would wake up every morning and discover yet another person with the fever. They would take their turn to lay sick and aching in one of the many hammocks around the hostel, and on the beach, that is, when they had the energy to stumble out of the hostel dorm room. We all recovered within a few days, but for those days the pain and fever came on strong and we were no match.
More Victims of Dengue Fever
Months later, as one of my friends was preparing to return to Costa Rica, she messaged me saying that her doctor was certain that we had all caught Dengue. Dengue is one of the diseases in Costa Rica that is spread through mosquitos and is prevalent in many areas of the world, including Costa Rica, with high cases on the Caribbean coast. The symptoms included severe headache, high temperature, muscle and joint pain, and many more that we had all experienced.
Thinking back on this trip, I was tired, ill, and sweaty for most of it, but I returned to the States stronger. I had travelled from my home alone, met great friends, and caught Dengue, but all of my travel stories involve a few misadventures. When I think back on this trip, I am reminded of how travel can bring people together. I had never met Pan or Christy or anyone from my group before I showed up to the Costa Rican airport, but we now, even if we don’t talk often, I will always have a bond with them through our shared experiences, even if none of us particularly wanted our share of Dengue.
Hayley grew up in the USA. Hayley has always traveled as much as she could afford. She is always looking for the next adventure and enjoys writing about her experiences and tips for other travelers. You can follow Hayley on her blog or Instagram.