During a visit to Costa Rica, you will hear and see the Spanish phrase “pura vida” everywhere you go. It’s all over t-shirts and souvenirs, and is even used as a greeting by the locals. It translates to “pure life” in English and after a 6 day visit in this beautiful country, I can truly understand why this it is the official motto. Costa Rica is a place where once can truly experience PURE life in every form. Whether you’re looking for thrilling adventures, wildlife encounters, a busy city setting, or a relaxing beach getaway, here you can find it all. Two years ago, I was blessed enough to spend my 27th birthday on a fantastic vacation in Costa Rica and it was a trip I will never forget.
Before I begin describing my trip and making recommendations for those also wishing to visit, I will caveat on how I booked this trip. I normally do not advise people to use travel agents or go on guided tours. However, I wanted to try out Anywhere Costa Rica since I had heard so much about it, and I am so glad that I did. We got a phenomenal deal and they took care of every last detail besides the flight, so it was nearly effortless for us. I usually urge people to book everything themselves and explore on their own, but this was nice for a change. I highly recommend them.
When we first arrived in the city of San Jose, we were greeted at the airport by a private driver. We told him we were hungry so he took us to the cutest little fruit stand that sold sweets and delicious fresh smoothies. These types of places are very common everywhere you go here and we found them to be an absolutely delight. Nearby, we got our first dose of wildlife with beautiful red parrots in a tree and several huge crocodile lurking in a swamp. This was just a taste of what was to come for us. Costa Rica is a wildlife haven and a complete paradise for nature lovers. My first impression was total awe of the untouched tropical scenery around me.
When we finally arrived at our hotel in the touristy beach town of Manuel Antonio, we were amazed. We had breathtaking views of the jungle and the Pacific Ocean from our balcony. While inside the room, it felt like we were in a treehouse. Probably the coolest room I’ve ever stayed in.
I never really like staying in tourist areas or resorts where all the restaurants and shops are overpriced and Americanized, but Manuel Antonio was still enjoyable and quite charming. The people are great, the beach was close by, and the hotel put us smack in the middle of all the wildlife we could ever ask for. We saw a sloth up close and personal, plus many monkeys, toucans, and other creatures we never even got to identify. A highlight for us was when we were visited by white-faced monkey right on our balcony.
On the day of my birthday, we spent the morning on a hike through the Manuel Antonio National Park with an excellent and very knowledgeable guide, who was able to spot many animals and give us tons of fascinating info on them, including sloths, monkeys, deer, snakes, hummingbirds, tarantulas, lizards, raccoons, bats, and grasshoppers that were bigger than my freaking hand. Here I took one of the best photos I will ever take in my life – a mama monkey fast asleep in a tree with her baby cuddled up on her chest.
The next day, we were enjoying Manuel Antonio so much, that we did not want to leave! But we made a very long and grueling 5-hour trip through the mountains to the volcano town of Arenal. Thank God for the very caring and kind drivers we had, because some of this travel was brutal due to the windy dirt roads. But we managed to survive.
Our next adventure was world-famous ziplining through the Costa Rican jungle with unbelievable views of the volcano. This is something I was originally scared to do, but it honestly ended up being one of the BEST experience of my life and the most fun I’ve ever had. It was totally exhilarating in every way! I can definitely see why this is THE most popular place in the world to zipline. Out of the 8 lines we completed, one was a half-mile long and lasted almost one minute at over 50 MPH. And I loved every second of it.
Our final adventure on the last day was a 2 mile hike through the rainforest on the “Hanging Bridges” tour, which was even more interesting due to the fact that it was raining a lot that day. We had to cross several suspension bridges that connect one side of the forest to the other, the highest of which was 180 feet up! The bridges definitely swayed from side to side and were a bit scary, but they were still sturdy and safe. It was a very cool experience.
As far as dining, I was never truly wowed by any of the food I ate. But then again, Costa Rica isn’t really known for its food. It was good, just nothing to write home about. Most plates consisted of typical Latin food – a meat, rice, beans, plantains, salad, and usually a fried egg. The best meals were in local restaurants, which are called “sodas” and are extremely inexpensive (about $5 for a huge plate of food). One of my favorite meals of the entire trip was actually a delicious pastry and milkshake I tried at a little coffee shop.
As always, a highlight for me whenever I travel is meeting the locals and learning about their ways of life, as well as other travelers from all over the world. Everyone there was very friendly and welcoming. While I am definitely familiar with most Latin cultures, I must admit that this was one I did not have much experience with due to the limited exposure to Ticos (aka Costa Ricans). Unlike other Latin countries, they have a very low rate of immigrating to other countries because in general, they are reported to be pretty content in their home country. You will also find a bunch of foreigners who settle here and open a little restaurant or small business so they never have to leave. It is easy to see why. It’s incredibly easy to appreciate the simple life in this beautiful country, which enjoys a much higher standard of living than anywhere else in Central America.
The tiny nation has earned the phenomenal titles of “the greenest” and “the most environmentally sensitive” in the world due to its extreme conservation efforts. This is made possible due to Costa Rica’s lack of military, which allows resources to go towards environmental priorities such as combating deforestation, minimizing pollution, protecting wildlife, developing clean technology, and keeping their ecological footprint at roughly a quarter of America’s. This in turn enables the tourism industry to remain booming, since people flock here from all over the world to experience this tropical oasis and its lush forests. A win-win for all. As an animal lover, it was such a joy to see so many wild animals living freely in their natural habitats, something that is sadly becoming more rare in this world.
I left Costa Rica feeling not only impressed but inspired. Witnessing how progressive this country manages to be was completely refreshing. This is a place where you can go on pretty much any kind of adventure you can imagine, or completely relax and be at one with nature. I got to do both. It’s somewhere I’ve always wanted to go and it surely did not disappoint.
Planning to visit this incredible destination and experience Pura Vida for yourself? Here are some things you should know ahead of time:
- Most of the locals who work in tourism speak very good English so communication barriers are minimal. It was so good that I was actually extremely lazy with my Spanish. If you do speak Spanish with them, their dialect is also a lot more understandable, proper, and clear than many other countries.
- It’s incredibly safe. Everywhere you go, you will see tourists freely wandering and mingling with locals, who embrace and welcome visitors. Crime, especially against tourists, is very seldom.
- While the local currency, Colones, is quite easy to convert, the US Dollar is widely accepted everywhere, making paying and tipping very convenient.
- There is an unlimited amount to do and explore. I literally do not think there is anyone on the planet who could not find something they love and enjoy here. From both the Pacific and Caribbean coasts to mountain towns, villages, forests, and urban settings, there’s so much to offer. The challenge is fitting it all into your trip and allowing for travel time between cities. I definitely recommend visiting at least 2-3 different parts while there, as most tourists do. Our mix of the west coast beach and forest area with the central mountain and jungle area was perfect, but it did involve that 5 hour drive in between.
- It’s pretty cheap in comparison to many other vacations. I spent far less than anticipated on food and incidentals, such as tips for guides and drivers, and souvenirs.
- There is a $29 exit tax that you must pay at the airport to leave the country, which isn’t much but still something to be aware of. The airport in San Jose is nice but security took forever, so plan for delays.
- We flew here via Spirit Airlines, which I must say was the worst airline experience of my entire life. They are the only airline I’ve ever flown that makes you pay for both checked bags and carry-ons, doesn’t even offer you water on board, and had the cheapest, most uncomfortable and paper-thin seats I’ve ever had the misfortune of sitting in. I do not like to spread negative info but I would avoid this at all costs, as there are many airlines that fly into the main airports in San Jose or Liberia.
- You will need lots and lots and LOTS of bug spray!
Enjoy and PURA VIDA! 🙂
Note: This edited post was originally written in July 2014 when the travel took place.