By ed boitano
Living the ‘Pura Vida’ in Costa Rica
I’ve been reveling in the warmth of my recent trip to Costa Rica, and not just because of the heat and humidity. This alluring Central American nation of 5 million ticos (citizens), roughly the size of West Virginia, consists of just 0.03% of the earth’s landmass but is home to 5% of its biodiversity.
My checklist included hiking misty rain and cloud forests, strolling pristine beaches, witnessing an active volcano, touring a coffee plantation and experiencing unique plant and wildlife – which included my first encounters with a viper and boa constrictor. Yes, there were bad dreams that night.
When booking trips to the rain and cloud forests, a guide is necessary to point out important sightings. To prepare for a Costa Rican journey, you will undoubtedly see numerous guidebooks with colorful wildlife photos. You will be lucky if you manage to see a few. The rainforests and cloud forests are not a zoo, and the animals are on their own time table.
For example, the only time I spotted a toucan was outside my cabin in my own private tropical rainforest, right under the Arenal Volcano. The primary colors of the toucan’s feathers, along with its yellowish-orange beak, were so mesmerizing it almost looked like a painting by Paul Gauguin. As was the active 5,357-foot volcano, which was in view every time I looked out my window. In 1968, the Arenal Volcano violently erupted, burying almost 6 square miles under rocks, lava and ash; eventually killing 87 people and destroying three small villages. Smaller eruptions continued through 1998. For the complete celestial experience, you can relax in one of Arenal’s many natural hot springs, surrounding the volcano’s base. At night, it’s just you and the stars above.
But, above all, it was the ticos’ gentle charm and hospitality that affected me the most. They seem to have graciousness in their DNA. Costa Rica has literacy and life expectancy rates higher than the United States, and with no standing army. The former military budget is dedicated to providing health care services and education. This has resulted in a nationwide cultural phenomenon where ticos are uncomfortable with any form of personal aggression or confrontation. The motto, Pura Vida! (pure life), is an expression used in various contexts, reflecting the ticos’ philosophy of a simple life, free of stress and a positive, relaxed feeling. It can be used as everything from “hello” or “awesome” to “all is well?”
Pre-Columbian Costa Rica was populated by 400,000 Amerindians. Columbus arrived on his fourth and final voyage in 1502; the result of repairs to his vessel, off the coast of Limón. Greeted by welcoming tribal chieftains, he noticed gold and silver worn by some. He made a wrong assumption this was a place of plenty. He proclaimed this new land as “Costa Rica” (“Rich Coast”), which led to the arrival of full force Spanish conquistadores in search of bountiful treasures. However, there was practically nothing to be found. Plus, the remaining tribal people—most had died due to warfare and the spread of European diseases—would not adhere to the usual barbarous Spanish practice of encomienda (forced labor). Costa Rica was described as the poorest and most miserable Spanish colony in the Americas by the Spanish governor.
Most of the Spanish left in search of wealthier lands, while the remaining settlers headed for Central Valleys, where they found rich volcanic soil, ideal for farming, with no choice but to work the land themselves. This period of history created the foundation for Costa Rica’s development as a more egalitarian society than the rest of Central America, resulting in a rural democracy with no oppressed mestizo or Amerindian class.
San José: Your journey will probably begin with a flight to the capital city of San José, because it’s accessible from many U.S. cities. Located in the center of the nation, populated by 1.035 million citizens, San José’s densely packed urban center almost felt like a third-world city. Many visitors use it as a one-night stopover and then head for their destinations of choice. I had been warned: as a new capital city, it is a bit charmless, with only a few examples of colonial architecture, museums, historic government buildings and grand boulevards. I took a midnight stroll on Saturday and another one the next morning. Contrary to popular opinion, it was a great experience. I felt safe and enjoyed the colorful Main Market and sense of life on the streets of Costa Rica’s largest city.
Don Juan Coffee Tour: What nation leads the world in coffee consumption? Did you know the lighter the bean, the more caffeine? Or, vanilla needs to be added to the cacao bean to transform it into chocolate? All this and more is what I learned at the two-hour Don Juan Coffee Tour. Located in the rich coffee country hills of Monteverde, you’ll receive a real taste of coffee education from touring the plantation’s sprawling coffee fields to the processing of the beans. The tour also includes turning Don Juan’s cacao beans, whose birthplace is pre-Columbian Central America, into chocolate. Aztec Emperor Montezuma II reportedly drank 50 flagons per day of the liquid chocolate (ocōlātl), mixed with water, honey and dried chili pepper. Visitors are welcome to participate in the process from grinding coffee beans to pounding the cacao into a paste. As an extra treat, you’ll receive coffee, chocolate and limeade tastings, made from the plantation’s sugar canes. BTW, Finland leads the world in coffee consumption per capita. This was my favorite tour in Costa Rica.
Tamarindo Beach: For ocean pleasures, the surfing Mecca of Tamarindo Beach on the northwest Pacific Coast, is a prime spot for surfing schools and sport fishing charters, diving and sunning. This is a location where the locals can be a little relentless selling souvenirs, such as wooden oxcarts (a national symbol), constructed with recycled wood. To the north, Playa Grande beach is a major nesting site for huge leatherback turtles and forms part of Las Baulas National Marine Park. The mangrove-lined estuary of Tamarindo Wildlife Refuge protects animals such as Howler Monkeys and crocodiles.
Conchita Tours: On the last day, I booked a two-hour jungle boat tour with Conchita Tours. Floating through mangrove swamps in the safety of the boat, the highlight was finally spotting a family of howler monkeys sleeping in a forest canopy. Their unique howls had served as a soundtrack for me every night. There were a number of crocodiles lazing on the shore, which explains why the monkeys prefer the safety of the trees.
In 2017, National Geographic magazine proclaimed Costa Rica as the happiest country in the world. Their article included these words: “Costa Ricans enjoy the pleasure of living daily life to the fullest in a place that mitigates stress and maximizes joy.” It sounds like “Pura Vida” to me.
For further information about Costa Rica, go to visitcostarica.com/en or ticotimes.net.