Pura Vida en Costa Rica
Last Minute Getaway to Costa Rica
Generally speaking, I’m not a very impulsive person. Some of my closest friends could probably tell stories for days about how I struggle to choose from a menu. (They will also tell you that often whatever I choose ends up being pretty awesome. No for real.) Anyway, when it comes to travel, inhibitions tend to have no bearing on my conscience and my experience in Costa Rica is a reflection of that. <Insert cliche “live in the moment” line.>
It had only been a few days since moving on from my previous employer and I was anxious to get out again. The new marketing gig would start soon, so I only had a small window for fun. After a little research and reflection on others’ shared experiences, I was sold on the environmentally savvy and vegetation rich Costa Rica. It’s here that a form of pure life is found…or as the ticos would say, Pura Vida. The crazy part was that I was again leaving in two days, absent of any real itinerary. Seems crazy I know…but over time I’ve developed a sense of comfort in what some travelers would consider a madness of uncertainty.
My arrival in San Jose found me in a serious back and forth battle on whether I should rent a car. There are advantages to both, but the freedom it provides is invaluable. I had never driven in Latin America and was admittedly hesitant about it because of the horror stories revealed in my research. For many travelers the fear of the unknown can be quite daunting…understandably so. After all of the traveling I’ve done I find it absolutely necessary to be rational, but the reality is that most times it’s impossible to know every possible circumstance that will occur. Sometimes you just have to take risks. If you don’t, you’ll miss out on so much. Perspective is so important…be mindful that today’s unforgiving world is risky in everyday situations at home as well, so you might as well live on the edge while you’re away.
Up and Down the Pacific Ocean of Costa Rica
Despite the insurance costing more per day than the actual car, I elected to rent an SUV. It wasn’t as budget-friendly as I’d prefer, but it set the tone for a great trip. Heading west towards the Pacific coast, I wondered if I was leaving San Jose too soon. In hindsight it was the right move. Not to take anything away from larger cities, but my attraction often lies where the real culture and beauty is. This is often found in more remote areas and San Jose certainly seemed as though it had aged without much love or care from the government of Costa Rica.
Culture in Costa Rica
Driving through the countryside I jammed hard to this local radio station (Ciento Tres) playing reggae and reggaeton hits, many of which I had never heard before…Some seriously catchy stuff that would energize some crazy long road trips that lied ahead. The Latin culture is just so rich in music, and I find it extremely important to the spirit of the people. Observing the power of music in those countries is a beautiful thing. When you aren’t as materialistically privileged as others, your livelihood becomes more engaged in things like relationships, sports, and music. And really, that’s where life is at its purest. It’s absolutely why I’m so in love with this region of the world.
There is no shortage of chlorophyll near the equator. Everything is as green as one would expect a rainforest to be, and it’s very pleasing to the eye. I saw a lot of rain on this first day but the drive was still beautiful. Once I hit the coast, I headed south towards Manuel Antonio, which is one of the national parks in Costa Rica. Unfortunately I didn’t spend much time here, as I still didn’t have a real grasp on what I’d be able to accomplish in ten days. From what I learned, the infrastructure doesn’t present many options when traveling by car, meaning that a 200 mile trip could end up taking close to 10 hours on the road. Thus my focus to be efficient kept me moving along swiftly to establish some pace for the first few days.
Manuel Antonio National Park in Costa Rica
I found my first meal at a small rooftop restaurant on the beach…settled on seafood rice served by a very hospitable young waiter. Enjoying the fresh catch from across the street, I realized my accommodation was yet to be reserved. There are plenty of good options…I booked a hostel for the night and figured it was wise to get to sleep soon so I could get an early start the next day. This place was not easy to find. I eventually connected with the owner and she was very kind to guide me through the gravel roads that lead to the jungle destination. When I did finally reach their gate, that fear of the unknown started to poke its head again.
A Little Paradise
Seriously, the approach to this place felt like one of those very predictable scary movies where we all find ourselves saying ,”Why would you go in there?!” No lie, it was pitch black and the reluctancy was intense, but at this point I was committed. As I stepped out of the car, my mind toyed with me…snakes, spiders, who knows what’s on the ground waiting for me to invade its territory. All thoughts considered, the walk to the door made for quite a rush. Thankfully those concerns were a waste of time as I was welcomed into this very eclectic house by a laid back couple who very welcoming and easy to talk to. I got settled in and fell asleep enchanted with the various noises of the rainforest.
The husband was a Swiss gentleman who spoke very good English. We talked quite a while over some potent Costa Rican coffee about their story and the variety of people they host from all over the world. A big part of me would’ve loved to stay longer, but I had a lot to see and only a little time. On the road again, I passed by several beautiful beaches. Dominical was a recommended stop from a friend and worth the time to relax a bit and watch the surfers. Continuing southbound, I was determined to find a good spot near Corcovado National Park. A lot of positive reviews about this place being highly untouched by tourists, mostly because of the difficulty to reach it…I’m all about that.
The Gem of Costa Rica – Corcovado National Park
It was quite an adventure to make it, but I eventually ended up at the Finca Exotica Eco Lodge in Carate. I arrived just before sunset and was shown to my tiki tent by the attractive receptionist. Definitely a good first impression and the first time I’ve ever been to a spot like this…the lodge is set on the coast of the jungle, with the option to stay in small tents or huts. A very real experience without all of the hassle. I thought it was a bit pricey, but in reality the value was so much greater.
The lodge at the top of the hill afforded a nice view over the ocean during dinner, followed by a pretty awesome light show from the tropical thunderstorm. The walk back to my tent was another braintease, although I was only subjected to a confrontation with a 10 pound bullfrog. Ok not that big, but close! After one last inspection of the tent for unwanted guests, the repetition of rain drops against the tent led me to sleep.
My third day commenced to the sound of howler monkeys roaring, tropical birds singing, and a plethora of insects shouting. It’s hard to put into words the feeling, but most travelers can relate to being blown away by an experience previously unbeknownst to them. Simply put, it was pretty cool man. Energized by the epic morning greeting, I had a look outside my tent to see what was scurrying around…a bunch of Coatis. These animals are considered tropical raccoons…very odd looking creatures with anteater-like noses and three foot long bushy tails. They’re basically harmless though.
Flora and Fauna in Costa Rica
We had an early start for our guided hike through the jungle. A group of 8 people…three couples, myself, and the gorgeous tour guide who was also the receptionist…worked out pretty nice. One of the first animals we saw was the richly colorful Scarlet Macaw. Several of them flying from tree to tree, scavenging for almonds and literally spitting them out as they pleased…on our heads. Be advised future visitors, the impact is not pleasant.
The trek through the national park was memorable to say the least. A great group of people to share the discovery of several animal types I had never seen before, including poisonous frogs, exotic crabs, various birds, lizards, as well as more monkeys and coatis. Oh, and minor detail…after lunch on the beach we decided to continue hiking a bit farther before turning back. The older couple was tired, so they decided to hang around and wait for us to come back.
Not long after we set out, monkeys began panicking in the trees, and our guide kindly let us know that meant a CAT was in the area! Better known as a PUMA! The look on every face was priceless. It was fight-or-flight mode, imagining every possible scenario that I could feasibly escape the puma. I mean yeah, of course I didn’t have a shot, but I wasn’t going down easily!
Beware of Pumas
Anyway, we safely evaded the area and met back up with the older couple whose faces were glowing…ecstatic to share the fact that they had actually encountered the puma! Even better, they were able to get as close as six feet and catch some great images! I couldn’t believe it…as nervous as I was about the animal’s presence, I would die to have shared that intimate moment. How often does an opportunity like that come around?! Yes, still upset about it…and I’m sure it seems impossible to approach the animal at this proximity. Apparently the puma was sick, as it was dazing and eating long grass near the beach, which is usually a sign of unrest considering they prefer meat.
On the trek back to the lodge I paid for my ill-advised dress. I planned for rain with a jacket and pants…and it turned into being a very humid day absent of rain…so I got wet, but not the way I had planned. Mosquitoes feast on fools like me. I ended up hustling back to the lodge ahead of the group because I wanted to get out of the jungle before dark. That’s usually not something I would be concerned with, but considering the challenge to visibility and a rugged terrain it wouldn’t be unusual to be stranded with a car issue. I like the animals, but not being vulnerable in the presence of big CATS on a midnight run!
Guanacaste Day in Northwest Costa Rica
The drive through the jungle was an experience in itself…twists and turns up and down crazy gravel roads, as well as pushing through small rivers and an endless array of potholes…absolute adrenaline rush. I drove for about 5 hours to a small beach town called Jaco. On arrival the nightlife was vibrant with young people chasing the music from bar to bar. I was intrigued but my body had reached a level of fatigue that couldn’t hang. My plan was to also wake early and head up to Guanacaste. The research I did showed there would be a festival celebrating the Guanacaste Annexation from Nicaragua. There was no way I could miss that.
The climate change from the south to the north was pretty remarkable…very hot and dry in Guanacaste. When I arrived at the festival there were tons of families in the park spending time together. Live music and entertainment coupled with plenty of good food. I spent most of the afternoon watching the families interact amongst each other. At night a huge crowd gathered to listen to some cultural music and I spent the night talking with a new friend about the history of the city and her life there.
Tamarindo Beach Life in Costa Rica
The next day I floated back to the coast to visit some highly regarded beaches in Tamarindo…and it lived up to the hype. The last few days had consisted of a lot of driving so I pledged to slow things down a bit today. After carving out a comfortable space on the beach to relax, I settled in and tried to not fixate on the story my friend from Guanacaste shared about a recent crocodile attack in this area. Couldn’t help it…I was constantly looking over my shoulder in attempts to channel some Steve Irwin expertise. Crazy things we allow our brains to manifest. Anyway…Tamarindo was time well spent. Met an Argentinian girl who was selling bracelets. Had a few of the local brews. Did some laundry in the ocean. Went for a nice run up and down the beach.
Central Costa Rica
The Cloud Forest of Monteverde
At sunset I hopped in the car to find the cloud forest of Monteverde. The aforementioned reggaeton was vital in keeping me alert enough to scale the mountains. Up and down and around I went, turnt up to the tune of Daddy Yankee. By the time I reached the hostel, the weather had changed drastically again. It was drastically colder with like 50 mph winds! I’ve never seen so much climate change in a country this small.
My original plan for the following day was to do some ziplining, but something inside me just didn’t see the enjoyment in doing it alone. As much as I love traveling alone, there are certainly a lot of moments better shared with someone. Regardless, the value of solo travel can’t be recreated. Second option was to do some exploring of the cloud forest. A lot of luscious green floral but a disappointing lack of fauna. I mean it makes sense considering the climate, but it wasn’t nearly as riveting as the Corcovado adventure.
Lake Arenal – Entryway to The Most Active Volcano in Costa Rica
After encounters with several species of caterpillars I moved on to get a look at the volcano of Arenal. A lot of rainfall today and limited visibility made the drive a challenge. Unfortunately it also made the volcano experience quite underwhelming. The lake surrounding it was spectacular, but I had no view of the volcano itself. Can’t win every battle I guess.
Caribbean Coast of Costa Rica
Puerto Viejo de Talamanca
Staying true to travel impulse, I decided it was wise to head to the Caribbean coast. Another five hours of great music actually makes the drive go by pretty fast. The acknowledgement of being free to roam a foreign country as you please can be very liberating. My jungle conversations in Carate involved a lot of discussion about the difference between the Pacific and Caribbean coasts. At the time I didn’t get it, but it was very evident upon arrival. The small beach town of Puerto Viejo welcomes you with reggae and repose…it’s impossible to not fall in love with it.
I mentioned that a last minute trip can have its complexities. Well one of those sometimes involves sleeping in a car. I arrived at the hotel in Puerto Viejo around 10 to find that they had already closed up. Little did I know, this minor obstacle would set the stage for a spectacular strand of days to follow. When the hotel opened in the morning, I went in to explain what happened and was greeted by a beautiful woman. She was kind enough to give me the next night for free and we ended up hanging out for the next few days.
I spent most of this first day walking through the city and observing the different types of people it had attracted, followed by relaxing at the reggae spot on the beach, Salsa Brava. Imperial beers and Bob Marley hits…that’s fulfillment if you ask me. It didn’t take long to make sense of the allure to Puerto Viejo. At the core I think the appeal is all about the vibe…slow the pace, appreciate the purity in values, and spread love to those around you.
Mi Amiga de Costa Rica
Later on I met with my new friend for some good conversation and perspective on Costa Rica. We grabbed some food at a nice spot…some very tasty shrimp and mojitos to be precise. Afterwards it only seemed right to turn things up and hit the dance floor. Some of the best nights I’ve had always seem to involve good music and dancing. Add the intelligent, attractive Tica with panoramic views of the Caribbean coast and I’m not sure there’s a better scenario.
I planned to spend two nights in Puerto Viejo and ended up tallying five. Without the rental car there would have been no rush to get home. We spent those next few days in paradise…Walking the beaches as the surfers challenged the Caribbean tide…Hiking through the jungle with monkeys and sloths…Eating tropical fruits and bathing in the sea as the waves encapsulated us…Listening to reggae as we spoke deeply into our convictions…Then waking up amongst the invigorating sounds of nature to do it all over again.
Muchas gracias por tudo, Costa Rica. Esto es Pura Vida.