Exploring the land of Pura Vida
Pura Vida, meaning simple life or pure life, is a term heard almost everywhere from people of all walks of life in Costa Rica. But they don’t use it as a greeting or an enduring term, they live it.
A country of five million people, Costa Rica is wedged in between Nicaragua and Panama, in middle America. It rises from the Caribbean ocean, across lush tropical rainforests, up and over mountain tops before descending through the humidity back down to the beautiful Pacific coast.
Rather than fight against nature, Costa Rican’s embrace it, make it part of their life and their livelihood. They live among nature like co-inhabitants rather than conquerors . . . that’s Pura Vida.
Catching only a glimpse of our surroundings as we exited the airport, a waiting shuttle quickly spirited away out of the city through the highlands and up into the mountains. After an hour of driving past incredible scenery and almost unparalleled beauty, we arrived at the Chayote Lodge near Naranjo de Alajuela. It is the complete opposite of the frantic paced capital city of San Jose, now a carpet of twinkling lights in the valley down below.
Owner, Rolando Campos wanted to create a destination for tourists in his native region. He speaks passionately of his admiration for the nature in the surrounding the area. The lodge has 12 cabins that are all positioned overlooking the valley.
With volcanos and mountains tops all around you, you can’t help feel as if you’ve become one with the clouds. The cabins have rustic interiors crossed with modern architecture that includes all-glass front that allow for a full view of the valley. . . It’s an incredible sight to wake up too.
Dinner or breakfast at the hotel restaurant is a good choice. The food is simple but fresh and delicious. For those with a more anthropological inclination, the hotel offers some great outings one of which is to a local elderly woman’s house in the village below the hotel where you help to cook a traditional Costa Rican-style meal. The menu for our visit was fried cauliflower and plantain with potatoes, chicken, and rice and beans. The food was homey, delicious and mostly prepared on a wood stove that doubled as the source of heat that keeps her house warm, even though she did have modern amenities like a fridge and gas stove. Delicious as it was, the meal was unexpectedly different from Mexican or Cuban food; it is not spicy at all.
Breakfast at the Chayote Lodge is a wonderful experience too. Costa Rican coffee, which is delicious, fresh fruit, local rice and beans served with fresh cheese and eggs will temper any appetite and the view, on the patio overlooking the valley below with the rain forest-covered mountains, is second to none.
Further immerse yourself in the natural beauty with a visit to the waterfall at Catarata del Toro Adventures near the town of Bajas Del Toro, about an hour away from the Chayote lodge. The hike to the bottom of the falls is not for the faint of heart. but after doing all 3500 steps down, the view was more than worth it.
Another experience for the adventurous is the Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridges Park. Hike through the jungle and across bridges made of planks and steel cables, while surrounded by snakes, howler monkeys, sloths and more. The animals are literally all around you. Fear of heights aside, it is an experience for all age groups and ability levels.
If relaxation is more your style, the Arenal region is a great place. With resort-like accommodations, the Hotel Magic Mountain sits at the base of a volcano in the town of La Fortuna. It has a nice pool, swim up bar, and a retro sports bar that serves really good local beer that’s inexpensive too. The bar is a great place to rub elbows with the locals, many of whom seem to go there after work.
Another spot in the La Fortuna region that is worth a visit is the hot spring resort, Tabacon. The water is heated by the magma from the Arenal volcano and mineralized underground. It flows naturally forming the Tabacon River. The resort is surrounded by 900 acres of rainforest and offers a swimming pool with bar and the hot springs, as well as a spa. Purchase a day pass which can include either lunch, dinner or both, for an added fee. There are towels and locker available for the day time guests.
The more sporty types can head to Pedal Board Costa Rica, located in the La Fortuna area. Pedal boarding is a mix between riding a bike and stand-up paddle boarding. Although man-made, Lake Arenal is breathtakingly beautiful. The experience is made even more memorable by the guide’s knowledge of the local eco-system. . . It's also quite the workout.
In keeping with the eco-chic style of inner Costa Rica another location worth visiting is the Macadamia Café. Order at the counter and the food is brought to your table. The restaurant sits on a hillside overlooking Lake Arenal and is quite scenic. The food is diverse and delicious with a mix of North American, Italian, and Costa Rican options. Make sure to try one of the local alcohol-free cocktails made from fresh fruits or a coffee drink made from locally-grown beans.
For the adventurous, Costa Rica does not fail to offer some great attractions. The Buena Vista Lodge is a solid choice for the thrill seeker or those who just want to decompress. Located in the mountains of the Rincon de la Vieja National Park, in the state of Guanacaste, the lodge is a true eco-themed resort: making its own soaps for consumption, farming much of the produce used at its four restaurants, and filtering the grey water (with the help of a bio-digester) so that it can be reused. Walking around the hotel you will see beautiful turquoise blue butterflies, small raccoon-like animals with a long skinny tails called coatis, tropical birds, and monkeys.
The sunset at the hilltop bar is par none in terms of beauty. The breakfast at the hotel consists of local sausage, beans and rice, fresh coffee and eggs, it’s simple but tasty. For a relaxing day there is a hot springs area in the middle of the rain forest that offers a bar, mud baths, a sauna and massages. From lukewarm to boiling, the hot springs are divided up according to temperature so there’s something for everyone. The springs leave you with a very Zen feeling. There is also on-site horseback riding. It is a great experience as you climb and descend the rainforest-covered hills as packs of coatis run by, and monkeys in the canopy above.
Centro de Rescate Las Pumas is a great non-profit animal rescue attraction that specializing in re-releasing injured and unwanted animals like pumas and cougars back into the wild. It also serves as an educational facility for the local population on how to properly interact with wild animals.
Thrill seekers will love the zip lining course that is both a little nerve wracking but also a lot of fun. The LasPava is a 10-line canopy-course while the Extreme Zip Line is a more intense course that offers lines of up to 425-metres long and several hundred feet above the ground, as well as a Tarazan-style rope swing. It was hard to put my faith in the harness and leave the first platform but it is a thoroughly enjoyable experience. After zip lining, try cooling down at the sugar cane processing area where you can taste local food, or coffee while you watch the ox-powered sugar cane processor.
The nicest part about Costa Rica is the warmness of the atmosphere: the people are good natured and friendly and the sense of personal safety is unparalleled. Make the trip extra immersive and hire a guide. The tour guides are highly knowledgeable professionals. The passion they display as ambassadors and advocates for their country is heartwarming. After a week in the mountains, I saw both the Carribean Sea and the Pacific Ocean but never once set foot on a beach — unconventional for a warm-weather southern vacation but when it comes to Costa Rica, the nature is all you need. It is truly restorative.
Enhance your experience in Costa Rica by talking to the locals. The nature has shaped them into a wonderful people. After only a few days you will be decompressed and in love with the beauty of the country. Ah, Pura Vida . . . I can’t recommend it enough!