If ever there were a phrase that fully captured the true essence of a people and a land, it would be “pura vida.”
To the people of Costa Rica, who call themselves Ticos, “pura vida” means everything. They use the phrase in every aspect of their speech – as a greeting, reply, adjective and noun.
Costa Rica, home of the beautiful Tico people and land of the lazy three-toed sloth, the ancient leatherback turtle and some of the most succulent pineapples in the world, is more than a tiny country nestled between Nicaragua and Panama. It’s a paradise, where the sweet scent of rainforest lingers in the air, the beaches extend forever and the people truly understand the meaning of pure life.
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My first introduction to Costa Rica was in the capital city, San José.
Set in the lush central valley of the country, San José boasts all the modern attributes of a city with 300,000 people: nightclubs, gridlock traffic, department stores and pollution.
But, what makes this city unique is the contrast of North American and Latin American culture. While people bustle passed Burger King, chatting on their mobile phones, vendors wheel rickety wagons full of tropical fruit in the streets; young men peddle their bikes as their girlfriends sit daintily on the crossbars, and every shop blasts lively salsa music.
The city’s main market is quite a spectacle for the unsuspecting tourist. At Mercado Central, the aroma of fruit and livestock hangs in the air and the buzz of daily business echoes throughout the gigantic space. Hundreds of stands advertise everything from fresh produce and live poultry to handmade sandals and jewellery.
While San José is a gentle introduction to Central America, it wasn’t until I left the city on a cheap bus bound for the west coast that I really began to sense the true spirit of Costa Rica.
As we left the bustling city in our dust, we were transported into a different world. On our way to the coast, a vibrant countryside unfolded with green hillsides and flourishing tropical flora. Farmers toiled on their land, many of them living in humble homes, sheltered by tin roofs and thin wood.
We passed through many small villages on our six-hour journey to the coast – passengers unloading, others taking their place and food vendors hopping on during breaks to pedal fresh mangos, plantain chips and frozen treats. Locals lounged near the bus stops, chatting with their neighbours as their children played soccer and tag in the warm evening.
As dusk descended and our bus sped along the bumpy road, the silhouette of palm trees darkened against the setting sun and the coastline unravelled like a purple blanket.
Guarded by the Pacific Ocean, the west coast is dotted with small towns, which have recently become popular destinations for surfers and eco-tourists alike. While many of the towns are still without local banks and supermarket chains, they have their share of campsites, hostels and pensions for the weary traveller.
Costa Rica’s Pacific coast boasts some of the most breathtaking spots in the country. Various adventure companies offer zip line and hiking tours through the rainforest, horseback riding on the beach and trips to visit the many ecological parks.
While the country is tiny – just a little larger than Vancouver Island – travelling from town to town is a long, and sometimes arduous journey.
Picture a 35-degree Celsius day, add 70 hot people crammed into a bus with no air conditioning, windows that open a crack, a winding dirt road with potholes and a few crying babies. Subtract a bathroom. This equals a typical six hour-plus journey between towns.
One of the most beautiful spots on the west coast is Mal País, located on the very southwestern tip of the Peninsula de Nicoya. This town was worth the 12-hour journey on three buses and two ferries.
Mal País, comprised of two side-by-side communities that overlook a 6km expanse of golden beach and turquoise ocean, is the perfect haven for beachcombers and surfers. While the area is mainly supported by a constantly-growing tourism industry, it is still nothing more than a handful of restaurants, an internet café and a couple of beachside nightclubs – a refreshing change from the more commercial tourist towns.
The simplicity of the area is what makes it so appealing. It is the kind of place one would go to spend a few days and end up staying their whole vacation. The mood is lazy; partly because of the extreme heat, and partly because it takes so long to get anywhere that people put it off as long as possible.
Although I spent a week surfing, sunbathing and relaxing on the heavenly beaches of Mal País, I also discovered a deeper layer to the country I’d become so fond of.
I met a man named Hermano who worked at my hostel. He was only in his early 20s, but he had an air of assuredness one would find hard matched by someone twice his age.
We had a conversation one night about his life in Costa Rica. He had a college education, but went from job to job, following the cycle of the tourist season. He said that the only sustainable work is in the main cities, San José and Cartago, and most Ticos who live on the coast are nomadic, working wherever they can. Many have several jobs and work an average of 12 hours per day to support their families.
And here we were, I said, North Americans, taking time off work, spending our money on pure hedonism.
To that, he shrugged nonchalantly. It was just a fact of life for Ticos.
Still, I couldn’t help but feel guilty for my privileged life back in Canada. I would later learn, however, that he is the one who is truly privileged.
A few days later, I left Mal País and headed north along the Pacific coast, passing more villages sprinkled with modest, but cosy houses.
My last stop on the coast was Tamarindo, a large tourist town in the north.
It was there, one windy starlit night around midnight that I witnessed Mother Nature at her finest.
There are only seven spots in the world where leatherback turtles return to lay their eggs, and Tamarindo is one of them. I joined a tour that took me to the nesting area.
On the way to the beach, the guide told our group that leatherbacks are unique because, no matter where in the world they swim to as adults – often as far north as Cape Sable, Nova Scotia – they will always find their way back to their birthplace to lay eggs.
We waited for four hours at the site, falling asleep in the sand under a clear sky, while our guides searched determinedly for signs of the mysterious 300-pound turtles.
Just when we thought our trip had been futile, an excited guide called that he had found a lone leatherback laying her eggs in the distance.
Walking in single file so as not to disturb her, we crept up behind the majestic creature hovering over the hole she had dug in the sand. The blinking red indicators on her tracking device seemed an odd contrast to her bulky dinosaur-like shell.
Close by, a newly-hatched turtle squirmed his way down the sand in search of the ocean. Wriggling in circles and occasionally flipping onto his back by mistake, the little critter seemed to have an amazing sense of direction.
A half-hour later, as we all watched in silent awe, the baby turtle dipped his tiny head into the Pacific Ocean. He still had a long way to go: passed the crashing surf, under the radar of predators and into the open sea, but he had miraculously, against all odds, found his way to his new home.
Watching this amazing cycle of life, first-hand, put Mother Nature’s amazing power into perspective.
I remained in Tamarindo until the end of the week. After I’d had my share of coconuts – called “pipas” – and swallowed my share of salt water from failed surfing attempts, I decided to head inland for a taste of fresh water and rainforest.
My first stop was La Fortuna. Officially known as La Fortuna de San Carlos, it is a small inland town in northern Costa Rica. Shadowed by the active volcano Arenal, the town is best known for its volcano-related tourism. But, tucked deep in its remote forests lays a hidden wonderland where the adventurous can come to play.
I discovered a canyon rappelling tour that was featured on the Eco Challenge 2003, and decided to sign up.
We knew we were in for an adventure the moment our 4WD truck turned off the paved road and ascended a mountain trail broken into the mud and rocks.
As our little truck crawled up the track, vegetation unfolded in the valley below and our minds raced with anticipation. Our guides hung off the back of the truck, joking and laughing, the carefree way Ticos seem to do.
Soon, we arrived at our destination, and our tour group climbed out at the canyoning home base.
After fastening our harnesses and helmets and listening to a brief how-to lesson, we hiked 10 minutes into the forest and found ourselves standing at the edge of a 165-foot waterfall.
Inching to the edge, I felt the weight of my harness support me as I leaned back and fed the rope through my gloved hands like the guide had taught us. Before, I knew it I was flying through the air, bounding away from the rock face and flying back toward the wall three metres down.
And, so our adventure began, hiking through the pristine forest, through streams, over rocks and down waterfalls – all the while surrounded by massive rock faces and ancient forest.
It was an exhilarating introduction to La Fortuna.
The adventure wasn’t over yet. I was determined to stay in town until the clouds surrounding Arenal dissolved so I could see the volcano by night, red hot lava pouring down her face with a supernatural glow.
It was also during my stay in La Fortuna that I met Roberto, the man in his mid-50s with soft brown eyes and a kind smile who was staying in the room next to mine. He travelled the country, selling churros (deep fried pastries with cinnamon and sugar) at fairs and carnivals and was in town for the Parade of Horses festival.
Between my broken Spanish and his patchy English, we managed to have quite an in-depth conversation.
I asked him if it ever bothered him that there were so many tourists in the country. He admitted that North Americans are wealthy compared to Ticos, and some Ticos are annoyed that tourists can vacation in Costa Rica and take advantage of the cheap prices, thus driving the cost of living up.
But, on the other hand, he said, it is these same tourists who help to sustain Costa Rica’s economy. Roberto said he didn’t resent anyone for having more than him, but he wished that there were more opportunities for his fellow nationals to find good jobs.
As we sat on the porch that evening and watched the La Fortuna children play across the street, I noticed – with a pang of warmth – that, although they were without video games and satellite TV, they were laughing and jumping and spinning, just the same.
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Having spent almost a week inland, I longed to get back to the sun and salt, and mustered enough energy to make the long journey to the Caribbean coast.
The Pacific and Caribbean coasts differ as much in landscape as they do in culture. While the Pacific coastline is longer and rugged, with more national parks, better surf spots and a heavy Latino influence, the Caribbean boasts a shorter, more overgrown coastline, delicious coconut rum and Rastafarian culture.
Many of the people who live in the Limon province are of Jamaican descent and their passion for reggae music, unique slang and adoration of Bob Marley are all integral parts of the colourful Caribbean spirit.
Puerto Viejo, the most popular travel destination on the east coast, is a laid-back surf community that boasts the world famous Salsa Brava reef break. The town has an eclectic mix of hair braiding salons, street vendors, reggae bars, and bicycle rental shops.
Again, like many towns in Costa Rica, the amenities are spread over several kilometres, so a leisurely bike ride is the most appealing mode of transportation.
I spent a day biking south along the single lane road that connects a string of east coast towns together. Cycling parallel to the beach, past vibrant red hibiscus bushes, palm trees and ferns on my way to the seaside town of Manzanillo, I couldn’t help but realize that the virgin land has barely been touched since settlers inhabited it in the middle of the 19th Century – just a few sparse homes and the occasional bridge. Selfishly, I hoped this little sanctuary would never change.
Time flew by in Puerto Viejo all too quickly and there, my two-month journey through Costa Rica came to an end. Later that week, I found myself begrudgingly walking back onto a plane bound for Vancouver.
I have seen, in the heart of Costa Rica, not only a paradise of palm trees, beaches and ocean, but an intelligent, resourceful people, finding innovative ways to support themselves, living off their land and crafting beautiful jewellery, art work and clothing to sell.
Despite the fact that they work so hard for so little money, it seems like the Costa Rican people truly enjoy life. They surf, they dance, they love and they live.
While they don’t possess the material wealth we do, amidst our reality TV shows and our cheap mortgage rates, Ticos have something much more valuable. They have the wise understanding that life isn’t about work and money as much as it is about friendship, family and laughter.
I’ll always remember riding that bike along the deserted road in Puerto Viejo – red flowers lining the road, the warm Caribbean breeze on my face, and the aroma of rainforest in the air.
There, I felt a taste of that pura vida the Ticos speak of; and it was sweet. It was the rush of rappelling down a waterfall. It was a baby turtle finding the ocean against all odds. It was children playing in the twilight. It was pure life.