Pura Vida en Costa Rica

While stuck toiling away in a sunless office and daydreaming of traveling—somewhere, anywhere, really—the idea of just throwing a dart at a map and hopping on a plane with little more than a passport and a healthy dose of adventure sounds like little more than a daydream, but that’s more or less what I had the chance to do this past spring.

Through a little happenstance and a lot of generosity, I’d come into possession of a pair of airline vouchers, and after a year of working full time—and having been bound to only domestic flights for even longer—my boyfriend and I decided to go big or go home and choose the furthest place our roundtrip tickets would take us. As we were flying JetBlue, that narrowed our search to the Caribbean and Central America—still a vast enough region that I hardly knew where to begin. After a lot of research and a good deal of hemming and hawing about which of the seemingly endless Caribbean islands were a fit for us, we finally decided on a place that seemed to boast the best of both worlds—offering a tropical climate and beautiful beaches, but enough adventure to keep us busy—and settled on Costa Rica. I’ll admit that the swoon-worthy (and unbelievably affordable) Airbnbs Costa Rica offers were one of the initial factors in its favor, but after extensive research, it seemed to be a country about which few people had anything bad to say—and I now wholeheartedly count myself among them.

Inevitably, my restless feet had me pushing for a vacation sooner rather than later, and somehow, the universe worked in our favor and the stars aligned enough for us to scrape our trip together on just three weeks notice. After weeks of research, we took a leap of faith and booked our flights and rental car, nailed down an itinerary, and secured stays at two Airbnbs and a hot spring resort within the same night. Due to blackout dates associated with our vouchers, we ended up allotting just six full days in Costa Rica, which was certainly on the shorter side of the timeline other travelers had suggested online. Initially, I was a little nervous about the swiftness of both our planning and our actual vacation, but in the end, things could not have worked out more perfectly.

It was a Friday night in late April (the beginning of the country’s rainy season, initially another cause for concern,) when we hopped a plane from San Francisco to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and then jetted two hours down to San Jose. Costa Rica’s bustling, smog-layered capital is likely what you’d envision of a Central American metropolis, but beyond its traffic and oppressive heat (and waiting an hour in line to clear customs) is a land of absolute paradise. We rented a four wheel drive SUV for the entirety of our stay (an absolute necessity for getting around the country if not traveling with a tour group,) and were soon on our way. A word of warning: driving in Costa Rica requires nerves of steel at times—narrow lanes, hairpin turns, few sidewalks, and windy rural roads with no street lights, stray animals and motorcycles zipping by, just to name a few obstacles—but our experience was nothing like the horror stories we’d read about online, in which tourists recounted being run off the road or having their tires slashed in order for thieves to rob and extort them. Costa Rica offers many of the rental car companies with which you’re probably already familiar (we used Enterprise, which was completely painless,) and I while I would absolutely recommend purchasing the highest level of insurance offered, unless your regular car insurance already covers international rentals, our experience was overwhelmingly positive. That said, some of the windy, guard rail-less mountain roads, narrow bridges, and inclement weather make the experience of driving in Costa Rica not one for the faint of heart.

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From San Jose, we spent out first night driving about three hours (through near-torrential rain) to one of Costa Rica’s most stunning and most visited areas: Lake Arenal, which lies at the foot of a dormant volcano and is surrounded by natural hot springs. There were few Airbnbs available in the relatively remote area, and so we opted for a two-night stay at the Tabacon Thermal Hot Springs Resort, which was an absolute dream come true. Since April is the beginning of the rainy/off-season in Costa Rica, we were able to find a reasonable rate for a room at the five-star resort, and spent two days soaking up the lush natural hot springs, which boast health-boosting properties and temperatures exceeding 100 degrees Fahrenheit, complete with views of the volcano, a swim-up pool bar, a guests-only garden with cabanas, and other perks. While many resorts in the area boast their own private hot springs access, some, including the Tabacon, offer day passes for non-guests to enjoy the springs, and there are even points of access to the hot springs that are completely free.

On our way to the Tabacon, after hours spent driving through pitch-black rain, we stumbled across a warm, well-lit roadside restaurant that offered us our first taste of Costa Rican hospitality—and its amazing food. One of the things I noticed right away about Costa Rica is that there are few chains of any kind, but especially few food chains. Fast food franchises are almost non-existent (yep, even McDonalds,) but who needs them when mom-and-pop bars and restaurants line almost every roadside? Though we were nervous about having to use our Spanish skills at first, we quickly found that most people in Costa Rica also speak English, and are more than gracious should you attempt to dust off your high school Spanish to order ceviche. Many restaurants are family owned, and we were immediately greeted with a warm welcome from the owner (and his wife and son,) and offered a round of the country’s national beer, Imperial, which we sipped blissfully while listening to the ribbit of frogs and chirping of bugs in the humid, inky Costa Rican night.

The next morning, our first full day in Costa Rica kicked off bright and early (being so close to the equator, the sun rises around 6 a.m. and sets around 6 p.m. year round) with a hike at the Arenal National Park, where you’re offered one of two routes up to a scenic viewpoint of the volcano. There wasn’t much in the way of large wildlife to see here, but you are surrounded at all times by some pretty incredible flora and fauna—birds, frogs, insects, and the general sounds of the rain forest. After a night of rain, we ended up lucking out with the weather; it was a warm, sunny day, and the volcano’s peak was completely visible, an apparently rather rare sighting due to the usually misty rainforest climate. Park entry is $10 per person, and the admission for most national parks, tours and attractions we visited ranged from about $10 to $50. Costa Rica is generally not an expensive country, and it’s very doable without the assistance of a group if you’re feeling adventurous, so the admission prices were, in my opinion, quite reasonable (many places even offer student discounts, so be sure to bring a student ID if you’ve got one.)

Just a few kilometers down the road from the park was a butterfly conservatory where, immediately upon entering, we were fortunate enough to be ushered over to see a group of howler monkeys perched in the trees outside. From there, we paid $15 for a self-guided tour of the sanctuary, which is helping to reestablish the rainforest and its precious native species. The first greenhouse we entered was home to the national butterfly of Costa Rica, the beautiful Blue Morpho, which has gorgeous iridescent blue wings on top, and a spotted brown pattern underneath. The Blue Morpho is a creature in constant motion, and there were dozens fluttering all around us as soon as we entered. The following greenhouses were home to other species of butterfly, moths, and a whole atrium for amphibians, where we saw turtles and several of Costa Rica’s most poisonous frog species. The final leg of the tour offers a shorter or longer walk along the river, where sloths, howler monkeys, and other creatures—as well as the volcano—can often be viewed.

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Later that afternoon, we stopped for lunch at a local restaurant (and, as I said, they’re all local in Costa Rica) for a delicious burrito, quesadilla, and “natural drink,” which is fresh-squeezed fruit juice—pineapple, strawberry and guava were the most common—and is absolutely delicious and highly refreshing on a humid day. As someone whose diet is at times restricted by the fact that I don’t eat meat and can be a bit of an obsessive germaphobe, the availability of food I could eat in Costa Rica was initially a concern, but was quickly abated. It’s hard to drive more than a few hundred meters through the country without coming across a family-owned restaurant, coffee shop, or fruit stand, most often boasting about vegetarian or vegan options, fresh seafood, local fruit and vegetables, natural drinks, and menus that truly align with Costa Rica’s famed “pure vida” (pure life) way of living. I’m a pescatarian, and had no trouble finding meatless burritos, tacos, rice and beans, ceviche, and other options everywhere we went. Because most establishments are family-owned, there’s a lot of pride taken in the art of hospitality and in the quality of the food served, and we felt profusely welcomed and well-fed everywhere we ate. Food safety was never an issue in our experience, but the quality of tap water can at times be a real concern in Costa Rica (the reason a Hepatitis A vaccine is recommended, though not required, for travelers,) so we stuck to drinking bottled water and beer just to be safe.

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After two days of enjoying the Arenal region’s hot springs, waterfalls (the La Fortuna waterfall, pictured above, is 400 steps each way and absolutely worth every one,) butterfly sanctuaries and stunning volcano views, we drove from there to the mountainous region of Atenas, stopping first at the Mistico Hanging Bridges.

I’ve certainly never been a fan of heights, and so the idea of walking across eight entire bridges suspended high above the Costa Rican rainforest (which, by the way, have grated bottoms you can see through and swing as you walk upon them) was not exactly a thrilling idea. But hanging bridges are an absolute must-do when visiting the country, and trust me, after the first bridge, the experience only gets easier from there. The park offers gorgeous views, as well as another waterfall, and some really beautiful wildlife (though still no sighting of the elusive sloths I’d been dying to see!) From there, the drive to Atenas took us through about three hours of winding mountainous roads, and we arrived at our next Airbnb, an actual tree house, after nightfall. The house was totally open air and incredibly rustic, complete with a stone shower, wooden tub, and bug net for the bed—a good thing since we encountered all sorts of beetles, mosquitoes, frogs and even a bat in our bedroom. As much as I wanted to be one with nature, the sounds of the cicadas and the rainforest were so deafening I could barely sleep, and I awoke with a startle each time a bug or bat smacked against the flaps covering the windows or the bug net draping the bed, but it was an unforgettable experience, to say the least.

The following day, we drove about two hours to the luscious, emerald green Monteverde region for a tour of the National Cloud Forest Reserve, which was only $10 with a student discount, and offered a stunning two hour hike through the rainforest. After this came one of our most-anticipated activities, and one of the highlights of a trip that already boasted so many: zip lining. If you’re planning to visit Costa Rica (and I hope I’ve convinced you to do so!) you’ll come to find that popular activities like zip lining and hanging bridge tours are offered in a lot of places across the country, but trust me when I say there’s a reason why Monteverde is famous for it. If I thought the hanging bridges were scary, I had to completely abandon all fears in order to go through with zip lining; even the cable car that took us up to the first platform made me break into a nervous sweat and had me desperately wishing to be back on solid ground. Alas, as I ascended the metal steps leading up to that first zip lining platform, there was no turning back; the only way down was by zip line, and so I let myself be hooked in, leaned back, placed my knees up against my chest—and away I went. Though we were all made to do a practice zip line at first, I still had no idea quite what to expect from the first real run, suspended hundreds of meters above the dense green rainforest—and the actual experience was one of the most incredible things I’ve ever done.

Zip lining is truly an adrenaline rush, and after that first real line I was absolutely hooked, and from then on was frequently the first one to step up at each following platform. There were eight lines in total, the longest of which was a half mile (!) long, and our pace was ultimately a quick one thanks to an impending storm that sent rain droplets smacking into our faces as we whizzed across the zip lines. The entire experience was absolutely incredible; surreal, invigorating, yet utterly calming, this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to survey so much natural beauty from such a unique vantage point, to feel the wind whipping your face as you sail through the sky, to feel so truly in control of your own body and so powerful and strong that you can practically fly.

I couldn’t stop smiling. Or at least, I couldn’t until we finished the last zip line, descended steps to the last platform, and realized with a sinking horror that we’d have to rappel—or jump—in order to get safely back to solid ground. I was already incredibly proud of myself for accomplishing zip lining, but let me tell you, after being made to jump backward off a platform some fifty feet high and free falling for several seconds as my screams caught in my throat before the bungee cord did, I truly felt like I could do anything. It was absolutely terrifying—I truly felt my heart jump up into my throat—but it was incredible. I felt like Wonder Woman at the end. It was such a rush, and I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

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From there, we spent one more night in our Airbnb treehouse before heading out bright and early for a three hour drive to Costa Rica’s Pacific coast, stopping along the way in the quaint, colorful surf town of Jaco, which offered cute souvenir shops, a surprisingly hipster cafe very reminiscent of California, and the absolute freshest smoothies we’d ever had. From there, we made a necessary stop at the Alturas Wildlife Sanctuary just south of the Dominical, which is a nonprofit animal rescue perched high atop the Pacific Ocean. It’s home to all kinds of beautiful wild animals that require rehabilitation and other special care, including toucans, vivid scarlet macaws, howler monkeys, and, of course, two-toed and three-toed sloths. Sloths are a sort of unofficial mascot for Costa Rica and easily the country’s most famous and most adorable residents. They’re also masters of disguise, however, hiding high up in the rainforest canopy with fur that’s designed to mimic the look of moss, which makes them difficult to spot outside of a sanctuary or without the help of a trained guide. We learned this the hard way after several hikes through national forests without any sloth sightings, a truly disappointing endeavor, so I’d highly recommend taking at least one guided wildlife tour in order to get a glimpse at all of the incredible creatures Costa Rica has to offer. Fortunately for us, Manuel Antonio National Park is the country’s most famous, and was just about 45 minutes from our Airbnb in Dominical. Guided tours run about $50, but they’re worth every penny as your guide points out not only the adorable sloths sleeping high up in the trees, but the smallest lizards, tree frogs, and even butterflies and other insects so fleeting and small that their beauty would never be visible otherwise. You can even view (and photograph) the wildlife through telescopic lenses, and while you’re not supposed to feed the animals, you might just get lucky by having a member of your tour group accidentally smuggle in a banana that sends the capuchin monkeys scurrying right up to you.

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Our whirlwind of a trip through Costa Rica concluded with afternoons on secluded beaches and humid evenings high up in the misty rainforest, dodging the rain and side-stepping neon-bright poison frogs, and then in the mornings watching the golden sun rise over the crescent-shaped coastline and bright blue Pacific. It’s almost futile to attempt to capture a place as rich and warm as Costa Rica in writing; it’s a cliche to say it must be experienced, but it’s true. The only way to know pura vida is to live it, and should you ever find yourself presented with the opportunity to escape to this beautiful land of rainforests and friendly people and creatures beyond your wildest imagination, trust me when I say you must go as far as your feet and your money will take you, and strongly consider never coming back.

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A few travel tips for Costa Rica: Brushing up on high school Spanish is absolutely useful and travel is a great opportunity to practice, but most people in Costa Rica speak both Spanish and English, and most signage is written in both languages. There’s no need to exchange currency before traveling, either: dollars are accepted everywhere, and you’ll get change in the national currency, colones. The exchange rate is posted everywhere, and most places will also do the conversion right in front of you so you know you’re getting a fair return. Bug spray and sunscreen are absolute musts. In the off-season, beginning in April, the country is much, much less crowded and less expensive. Most parks and tours will allow you to either drop by or make reservations just a day or so in advance, so there’s not a whole lot of planning required. Don’t try to do too much: the country is manageable by car if you budget your time wisely, but know your limits. Also know that Costa Rica is a very early country: people are out and about at 5 a.m., as its proximity to the equator means the sun rises around 5:30 a.m., and sets around 5:30 p.m., so don’t plan to be hiking, zip lining or doing anything active after dark (unless you’re signing up for a night tour somewhere to spot wildlife.) There also isn’t much that we experienced in the way of night life, but places do stay open fairly late, though know that Monday is essentially the country’s unofficial “off day,” and many parks and attractions are closed that day. Know which experiences are worth paying a premium for and which are not: read TripAdvisor (there’s no Yelp in Costa Rica.) I would absolutely recommend a guided tour of at least one national park, specifically Manuel Antonio. You may think your binoculars and guidebooks will make you a wildlife-spotting expert, but our guide could spot a sloth’s tuft of fur high up in a mossy tree, or the smallest of spiders crawling around a leaf. Paying for a tour from someone who lives and breathes Costa Rica’s nature and wildlife is absolute must—trust me, you won’t quite experience the country the same way on your own.