Travel Talk with Jillian: A Lifetime of Travel, Her Costa Rica Tips & More
I’m back with another installment of my Travel Talk Interview Series! Meet Jillian Amatt, a lifelong traveler from Canada who’s seen 46 countries and has spent the last few months living in Costa Rica and Nicaragua. She shared her insights on the places she’s seen, her thoughts on full-time travel, and useful tips for traveling Costa Rica.
Introduce yourself! Where are you from, where do you live now, what do you do?
My name is Jillian Amatt. I was born in the popular Canadian tourist town of Banff, Alberta, smack dab in the heart of the Rocky Mountains. After the age of 3, we moved down the road to Canmore, still deep in the mountains, and incredibly spectacular.
I am so thankful for the childhood that I had, and I feel like my lust for adventure really began because of where I grew up. Many of my days were spent running around in the woods and swimming in the rivers and ponds nearby. As kids, my friends and I truly felt like we were free as we explored the vastness of the environment around us. Of course, we didn’t think much of it then, but I now realize how lucky we were to have had those freedoms.
Right now, my partner and I are temporarily living in Rivas, Nicaragua where we are housesitting for almost five months. In 2017, my partner and I sold all of our possessions to head out on the road and to seek out a life of constant travel. This is only our second country after Costa Rica, but we will be doing this for a while and hope to see as much as we can of this vast planet before we settle down again.
How did you get your start traveling?
My parents are travellers! For as long as I can remember, they took me anywhere and everywhere that they could. My grandparents lived in England when I was a kid, so my first overseas trip was at the age of 10 months to visit them.
Later in my childhood, my dad started a motivational speaking business and would get speaking engagements all over the world. He took my mom and I with him on business trips as much as he could, and I got to see some really awesome cities around the world including Singapore, Hong Kong, Sydney, Australia, Kuala Lumpur and many more great spots.
It sounds like you’ve had some amazing experiences around the world from an early age! How do you think traveling young has impacted you?
Yes! A couple major highlights of my life are trekking to the Base Camp of Mt. Everest two times at the ages of 16 and 19. The other biggie is a ten-month sailing trip that I did. It was a year of high school aboard a 188ft tall ship with a program called Class Afloat. I was 18 at the time, and we sailed from the West Coast of Canada, around the world, ending up on the East Coast of Canada. We visited 30 countries!
I still find it difficult to put into words just how much that trip and those trips to Nepal changed the trajectory of my life and made me the person that I am today. One thing I have realized though is that the more I see, the more I want to see. It is a never-ending process!
I can totally agree with that sentiment! How did you begin blogging about your travels?
In my early days of travelling, and well before “blogging” existed, I kept detailed travel journals of my trips. I always wrote them with the thought in the back of my mind that someday I would publish some of my stories, but it never came to that…at least not yet! When my partner and I went on a six week trip to Europe in 2015, I was breaking an eight YEAR non-travel stint and realized that the best way to journal about my travels in this day and age was to start a blog. I felt that even if no one read it, at least my stories would be out, and I would have a record of our experiences online. So I did!
Much to my surprise, my writing was followed by many friends and family, and upon my return I was told story after story about how much people enjoyed my writing. It seemed like everything had come full circle, as I was also told by teachers at a young age that I should explore a career in creative writing, but of course, that hadn’t happened at that point. Little did I know what my future held after all!
You’ve traveled to 46 countries so far. Can you pick a favorite? What did you love about it?
I get this question a lot, and it’s a difficult one. While on Class Afloat, we visited some pretty amazing tiny island nations in the South Pacific such as The Solomon Islands, The Marshall Islands, and Nauru. We also saw a few in the Indian Ocean, Cocos, Chagos and Christmas Island, to name a few. We also went on a safari in Africa, cruised down sand dunes in Namibia, visited the Seychelles and so much more. However, I must say that a highlight of that trip was going to Bali. We were there in 1994 when Ubud still had dirt streets and it wasn’t a full-on tourist destination just yet. The peaceful nature of the Balinese people is incredible, and I feel like they are possibly some of the most beautiful people on earth.
However, I would be remiss to not mention my time in Nepal. I was there before internet, and possibly some places where electricity hadn’t even reached up in the Himalayas in 1992. So I got to see those places in their raw states, when few people were travelling there. I also really have enjoyed experiences in Vietnam, New Zealand, Costa Rica and so much more. Each place brings its own unique adventures, and it’s really hard to pinpoint a specific favourite at this point. I have to say though, I think what brings me the most joy when visiting places is the people. The locals are always so interesting, and if you can take the time to get to know a few on your travels, your experience will be that much richer.
Amazing! I’d love to see Nepal. Tell me a little about what you’re up to right now in Nicaragua.
My partner and I just finished volunteering for three weeks at an Earth Bag house construction project. Earth building is something that we are both very interested in, and we were so happy to find a project that we could dig into for a little while. We learned so much and really felt like we contributed in meaningful ways. It was a great experience.
In May, we started a four-and-a-half-month housesitting gig here in Rivas, and we really love it here so far. I was actually here back in 2004, living nearby in San Juan del Sur for four months, but this place was always just a bus stop for us. So it’s nice to experience the city and the Nicaraguan people, especially since we just spent almost six months in pretty remote parts of Costa Rica.
Speaking of which, what tips would you give someone planning to visit Costa Rica?
1. My number one piece of advice to travel down here is to LEARN SPANISH! Even if you just take a small Spanish class or know a few sentences, you will be welcomed by the people in such a different way than if you just blurt out English to them, hoping that they understand.
2. Unlock your cell phone before leaving home, and get a Costa Rican SIM card upon arrival. We did this and the SIM card cost just $4, and we would reload our phone with $4 at a time which would give us tons of minutes to talk, two weeks of Whatsapp and Facebook, plus a small amount of data for when we were away from wifi. Cell phone use is incredibly affordable down here, and it just doesn’t make sense to try to up your plan to an international one before leaving home. You will spend WAY more doing that I can guarantee it.
3. Travel like the locals do. The bus system in Costa Rica is great! The buses are modern and clean, and we experienced no problem on them at all. However, the schedules aren’t always perfect, so don’t try to rush around like you are back home. Open yourself up to a few hours of getting from point A to point B, and you will get there eventually. The buses are frequent (on most routes) and cheap! Rental cars are astronomically expensive there, so just catch the buses to where you want to go, and you will be saving a ton of money.
4. Try to get off the tourist track. This means staying in smaller places that aren’t crowded and busy and also means that you will have time to experience the Costa Rican culture, not that of the one that you just left. I’m not a resort person at all. I don’t go travelling to meet other travellers per se; I go travelling to experience the people and traditions of where I am visiting. That is where the richness in the experience will really come in.
5. Take the time to experience the flora and fauna. I wouldn’t recommend hot spots like Manuel Antonio or Arenal Volcano, but places like Rincon de la Vieja in the north is nice, and there are other less popular national parks. The wildlife in Costa Rica is simply stunning and you would be really missing out if you didn’t take the time to experience it.
6. Rent a house. You will save money, you can cook for yourself if you want to, and you will usually have a few Tico (Costa Rican) neighbours that you can talk to and learn all about what their life is about. My partner and I really make an effort to try to make friends with the locals when we can. In doing so, we have a far more richer experience than we would if we were to just hang out with the same people that we would be back home. Not to say that it’s not nice to have some friends with a similar background, it’s just not what I am generally looking for when heading to a foreign country.
Those are super useful tips! What’s been your favorite place in Costa Rica? What three destinations would you recommend to people traveling to the country?
I don’t travel in the traditional tourist sense, so I’m not going to recommend all of the tourist hot spots. For the most part, we spent four and a half months housesitting and managing a cabina rental spot in a town called Matapalo. It’s located between Quepos and Dominical, on the southwest coast, and it really is overlooked by many tourists as they drive by from those two points on the highway. It had a twelve-kilometre unspoiled beach just outside our front door.
We were able to make friends with locals and experience Costa Rica away from the hard-worn tourist track. There are a handful of small cabinas and lodges that dot the waterfront, and it is very lowkey and peaceful. Plus you get to see turtles, sloths, toucans, monkeys and many more types of wildlife on a daily basis. It truly is a unique spot.
We also rented a house from a Costa Rican family, back in the mountains, again totally off the tourist track. It was rugged and we definitely roughed it, but we absolutely loved the experience.
For our first few days in Costa Rica, we visited a dairy farm about five kilometres outside of Monteverde, where we were hosted by the third generation owners. We learned how to make cheese, fresh from the cows the same day, and ate traditional Costa Rican food, a great experience with a really nice family!
In 2004, while spending most of our time in Nicaragua, I also visited some spots in Costa Rica, including Arenal, the Nicoya Peninsula, and Puerto Limon on the Caribbean coast. Although it was a while ago, I remember the Spanish reggae culture on the Caribbean side to be really unique and vibrant.
Costa Rica is such a diverse country; it’s really hard to choose a favourite, as every region offers its own unique experiences.
What advice would you give to others dreaming of traveling the world like you have?
Just get out there! Don’t wait! The world is so big, and the longer you take to get started, the less you will see. I recommend heading to a spot that you are comfortable with first. Culture shock is a real thing, and if you go somewhere that is too much of a contrast from where you live and are used to, it really is possible to shock yourself into heading straight back home and never going out again. Instead, find a spot that has a similar lifestyle to what you are used to, and work your way up from there. The more you see, the more you will want to see, I can guarantee it. But the first step is to just book that ticket!
So true! What trips do you have planned? What’s on your bucket list?
Well, we are on a perpetual trip right now. We really have no direct plans other than what we are doing right now. Every day I keep my eyes peeled for new housesitting opportunities, volunteer gigs, or interesting things to check out next. But for now, we are content where we are. I should say, however, that ultimately, we really want to get to Uruguay. We have heard great things about the country. So I guess we are on a quest to get there at some point, a very slow quest which will likely take us all across the South American continent. We are keeping our options open and are letting things fall into place as they should.
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