Rocking J’s Hammock Hotel is one of those magical places that one can only imagine existing in some sort of drugged out fairy-tale. Luckily for adventurous backpackers everywhere it can also exist in a small Caribbean town named Puerto Viejo in the Limon province of Costa Rica (not to be confused with the other Costa Rican town bearing the same name).
Puerto Viejo wasted no time living up to its renowned reputation as Costa Rica’s drug-trafficking port; someone had just been shot in the middle of the street shortly before my bus pulled into town. Everybody in town—including the police, supposedly— knew who was responsible, but didn’t seem to care. I got the sense that they either preferred to let drug handlers take care of their own business or that nobody cared because this particular victim was, according to a few locals, “an asshole.”
In addition to being famous for its drug trade, Puerto Viejo is also a major destination for surfers. Professional surfers flock to the area to test their talent on Costa Rica’s biggest wave, the Salsa Brava. It didn’t take too much time to realize that I had just pulled into a Caribbean paradise. This town alone could keep the career of Bob Marley thriving if need be; his unmistakable voice was ever-present, dominating the speakers of most businesses in town. The street vendors—most with dreadlocks and sporting the colors of the Jamaican flag—had no shortage of reggae merchandise to offer. Those who opted not to sell Legends tapestries and marijuana instead took to selling exotic fruit or massive bricks of raw chocolate, and can often be seen carrying large machetes. I had never heard of most of these strange fruits and certainly didn’t expect raw chocolate to be bitterly disgusting, but these were just the first of many surprises Puerto Viejo had to offer.
Already astonished by this mysterious city I strolled towards the hostel not quite sure what to expect. It’s a decent walk down a long dirt road surrounded by jungle rumored to be a dumping ground for dead bodies—a reputation echoing that of the desert outside my own hometown, Las Vegas. I have no concrete evidence to back this up unless, of course, you consider the drunken ramblings of strangers to be reliable sources. (However, I will say this: I never felt at risk in this town; quite the contrary, I felt safe the entire time.) Though safe, walking along the jungle in the blistering Caribbean sun while carrying a backpack proved to be a torturous ordeal. Fortunately for those who are smart enough to realize that buying a phone card is much easier than a hike in the sun then you can call the hostel and they will gladly pick you up from the bus station.
Finally arriving at my destination, which turned out to be a giant camp on the beach protected by a secure wall, I felt as though I had just walked into one of those hippie communes occasionally seen in documentaries on the History channel. With my newly acquired pool of sweat and stink, I seemed to fit right in. Little did I know that the journey from the bus station to Rocking J’s had led me to exactly the rabbit hole I was looking to fall into.
At the check-in counter I was presented with several sleeping options: camping in my own tent for $4; a hammock for $5; one of their tents for $6; or choosing from one of their tree house dorms that can range anywhere from $7 to $450. All options came with a free locker to ensure the safety of your belongings. Shortly after deciding on a tent, I learned of their ability to lock in heat, causing me to feel as though I was sleeping in an Easy Bake oven—or just a regular oven for that matter. I switched to a hammock that proved itself to be the perfect place to rest my head. I could now truly start soaking up life on the Caribbean.
With its private beach, the hostel made it easy to enjoy the much longed for Caribbean lifestyle. The beach is home to a circular coral reef that creates a natural swimming pool and—as if this ocean pool weren’t mystical enough—it also plays host to a species of tiny fish that feed on dead flesh. These fish, referred to as “Doctor Fish,” picked at a deep cut I had on my leg leading the wound to heal at an impressive rate. Their appetite for eating dead skin cells allows for the rest of the skin to both grow and glow. This process made it easy to drop the dead weight that seemed to be holding me back for so long. Upscale beauty spas in several countries use these fish to administer beauty treatments as well as aiding in the recovery of psoriasis and eczema. If there’s one thing I didn’t expect upon entering Rocking J’s, it was, without question, a luxury spa treatment.
Even with spa service included, Rocking J’s is still not the ideal place for everyone—just everyone who wants to have fun. Located directly next to a skate park, the hostel offers several activities to keep its travelers occupied. In the daytime, art is strongly encouraged with J lending out supplies to create murals and mosaic works throughout the perimeter. At night the beach is used for bonfires. A library, a tree house with movies, fresh banana bunches and a garden are all included in your stay. There is also a delicious and affordable restaurant on the premise along with the option to rent surfing equipment and bikes.
It was from one of these bikes that my money was stolen. I had locked my bike up to a palm tree while quickly dipping into the ocean, making sure not to take my eyes off of it. I returned to shore only to find out that my money had been snatched. Even with no one on the beach, it took me a while to realize the culprit had most likely been a monkey. Costa Rica is home to monkeys, sloths, birds, jaguars and a ridiculous amount of terrifying insects (the thought of which make my skin crawl to this day). While a couple of weeks earlier I may have found it amusing to witness a monkey yank an iPhone from someone who’d been riling him up, this was not so hilarious. I’d done nothing to this monkey. Later that night my burglary didn’t look so bad, when another girl returned to the hostel having just been bitten and ferociously chased by another of the Curious George bastards.
While Costa Rica may be crawling with interesting creatures, Rocking J’s produces its own kind of animal—the party animal. Local girls walk through the hostel selling $10 pot cookies out of their tote bags like little red riding hoods of the Caribbean. Beers are only a dollar or two and the owner, the very Rocking J for whom the hostel is named, celebrates full moons by passing out free mushrooms.
J himself is a very interesting creature. When he’s not gone fishing—literally—he can be found starting massage trains or leaving messages on the community wipe–off board such as, “Does anybody have a weed connection in New Mexico? Inquire with the front desk.” While some may instinctively write him off as a sleazy pothead, he is no such thing, or at least the sleazy part is incorrect. His story of spontaneously buying land, toiling to save money and building the hostel himself from the ground up can be an inspiring one to small-business owners everywhere.
His new project, “The Ark,” consists of ten 40-ft. steel shipping containers that will be used as a life-saving vessel in the event of a tsunami or earthquake. When The Ark is not functioning as a life-saving device, it will operate as a recording studio, music venue, gym and house. Most importantly though, the townspeople seem to like him, a feat not to be undermined as Costa Rica’s capital, San Jose, is filled with anti-American bias.
He currently resides on hostel premises in a tree house nicer than my New York City apartment. The house, which can be rented out for a hefty sum, has a tin roof that slides open so you can lie in a hammock and get lost in the stars. This luxury abode, with a seashell shower, is also equipped with a pulley system running from the front door to the upstairs bedroom. The pulley is mainly used to deliver Snickers bars to J. Upon witnessing this advantageous device in action, it became obvious to me that in this small drug trafficking town, hidden on the lower east corner of Costa Rica, I had accidentally stumbled into the American dream.