Living the Pura Vida Loca – Andy and Steve in Costa Rica

Everywhere we drove there were hawks flying overhead and everywhere we looked, nature was zooming, hopping or slithering over and under us. Costa Rica was a perfect combination, appealing to Steve’s love of nature, and Andy’s affection for Latin America. While Andy thought that the expression “Pura Vida” was an expression invented for the booming tourist industry (it’s everywhere, on t-shirts, in brochures), it turns out to be local lingo which means, well, pretty much anything: a mood, a person, an adjective, but basically pure life = something good. Which is what we experienced for a week.

It’s a country with an interesting history – a peaceful government, an educated population – and incredibly varied geography all within a few hours drive of each other. You can see a lot in short time, which we did! Lucky that Steve’s a brave driver – it was a great way to get around – though amusingly, there’s often few or no signs for turnoffs or even major tourism destinations. Those working in the tourist industry were warm and efficient! I was impressed by the towel art in at least two of the hotels, elaborate flowers and in one case, a pair of swans. On the many backroads we drove on, we’d occasionally receive a bright smile and wave, but generally, people seemed wary of all of these strangers driving around their backyard (“land of the suspicious look”, I coined it). It’s not a cheap place to travel, in comparison with say, Asia, or other parts on Latin America – but it’s cheaper than Europe or North America with a high standard of living. And you can drink the water!

Andy arrived on Sunday morning and was able to catch up with Monica, a Pearson College classmate and meet her wonderful family. They took him for a typical meal up in the mountains and a drive through the centre. Steve was lead into town from the Hertz rental car headquarters near the airport that evening, in a shiny silver 4 wheel drive (later dubbed “Dulcita”) with first experiences with some unusual turning lanes, lack of signs, and potholes. After a restful night at the lovely Hotel Alta we headed up Monday morning to the La Paz Waterfall Gardens where we spent the day. This nature park was an unexpected surprise – an aviary with toucans and amazing tropical birds, the world’s largest butterfy enclosure, enclosures for monkeys, frogs, lizards and snakes and my favourite, an area with some beautiful native felines – two pumas, a tigrito, two ocelots, and a jaguarito, all which were only an arm’s length away, and shown to us by a personal guide. In other zoos, the cats are usually hiding far away, sleeping or otherwise avoiding the humans (wouldn’t you?) A walking trail took us past a few beautiful waterfalls (flush and brown with rain – our first day getting to know the rainy season), and we decided to stay the night at the hotel. The completely over-the-top and expensive standard rooms were all booked out, but we got a reasonably priced apartment right across from the aviary for Monday night.

Tuesday we made sure to be near the hummingbirds at 9:15am so we could feed them by hand (amazing and beautiful creatures) which meant by the time we got to the famous view of the Poas Volcano, we saw… nothing. Just a big mass of cloud. The nearby lagoon was not that pretty either. So we headed onto Volcan Arenal next to Lake Arenal – a beautiful area dominated by the view of a live smoking volcano. We stayed at the very reasonably priced Volcano Lodge ($60 USD) and as it started to bucket down with rain, we headed over to one of the area’s famed hotsprings. One of the local guides recommended Baldi over Tabacon Hotsprings (which I’m still curious about). Baldi Hotsprings (USD 30 entry) is the Caesar’s Palace of Hotsprings with an enormous manmade structure looming in the background that creates a steaming hot waterfall (which Steve loved lying under) which then flows down to the various other sections of the park: waterslides, swimming pool bars, and spa areas, all to a loud soundtrack of 80s music. A good place to spend a rainy night, even though I slipped and broke my favourite pair of Crocs.

We headed up the next morning, Wednesday, to try to get a closer look at the Volcano. The next time, that’s where I’d want to stay, at the Ecological reserve on the slopes of the Volcano. The morning was fairly clear – and you could see smoke streaming up from the lava flows, but I wish I could have seen it glowing at night. We had a good breakfast there (including fried plantains, yum, and the local breakfast specialty, Gallo Pinto (rice mixed with black beans) and went for a walk on the grounds. As Volcano Lodge was booked up that night, we headed for a drive around the lake – a man-made one, the scene could have been from may countries: Canada, Scandinavia, England… but particularly Switzerland, as the further we got around the lake, there were these crazy hotels and lodges with Swiss themes and decor (the guidebook mentioned a revolving restaurant but we couldn’t see it). We took a little detour to stay at the Mystica Lodge past Nuevo Arenal – a gorgeous little place where we were the only guests. There was a yoga and meditation room a short walk away from the restaurant, beyond that a path to an enormous Ceiba tree. On Steve’s hike there, he met a family of howler monkeys in the wild. Back near the room were iguanas, hummingbirds and more butterflies.

Thursday was adventurous driving on really rough roads to get us to Volcan Tenorio. We decided to seek adventure and followed a sign which promised hotsprings and pools (but basically got us to a pretty river and a dead end) – and afterwards spent rather a lot of time trying to decipher instructions from the Lonely Planet guide (incomplete) to get us to the entrance of the National Park. The road was the roughest we experienced, rocks and potholes galore, but it was perhaps the biggest reward: swimming in perhaps the most beautiful waterfall I’ve ever seen, then hiking along a crazy blue river, and to an area with a natural hotspring. Fantastico. Then we headed to the famous Monteverde/St Elena region of the Cloud Forests and while I was worried about reaching it by nightfall, over bumpy roads and with striking views, we made it to the Hotel Sapo Dorado (USD 125 a night), named for a poor golden toad that no one has seen for years. Monteverde is a really strange area, the roads around it purposely kept unpaved to keep tourism low, two major parks protecting the rainforests, and a significant Quaker population. It was dark and quiet and tiny yet had some of the best and most reasonably priced food (Sophia’s and Chimera – Nuevo Latino Cuisine. Rico. Rico. Rico) and has an extensive adventure tourism infrastructure (and a yummy cheese factory).

Friday morning, we had a nice walk in the St Elena Nature Reserve – lush and green and tropical, bromeliads everywhere, yellow breasted birds darting here and there. We saw a sloth (which looked, high above, like a pile of moss) and in the parking lot a local pig, a pecarry, and an anteater-like creature called a coati. In the afternoon, without either of us really planning it, we ended up on one of Costa Rica’s famous Canopy Tours, which was basically an hour and a half of zipping through and over the top of the rainforest harnessed to a zipline. Unlike rollercoasters (which we love), the adrenaline rush is not limited to one hill or loop, but is sustained for rather a long time as you speed down a length of 40 to 770 metres (the longest), and as high up as 130 metres. That night we took a chance on a night walk through the Monteverde nature reserve. It was pouring for most of the two hours, and while it started well – seeing a tarantula, and crazy stick insects in the wet night, it ended up not a full success. Though we shined our flashlights in earnest in every direction, we saw little else, a few sleeping birds, one frog, some spiders. We knew the guide was desperate when he started pointing out the local cockroaches, and Andy eventually started pointing out more Ocelots. “…’At’s a lot of stick insects…”

As an aside, I’d looked up the weather for the week on and it basically said “rainy” every day with the same range of temperatures. But internet weather doesn’t quite describe the rainy season in Costa Rica. Yes, it rained every day (mostly in the late afternoon), but it was also sunny and beautiful for parts of most days. They should create a new symbol to describe it!

Saturday, before heading back to the big smoke, we drove down to the coast and got a taste of the humidity there – we drove through an awful tourist beach town called Jaco (like Kuta in Bali, or Pattaya in Thailand), past a huge muddy river which had a busload of tourists walking over it and pointing into it inexplicably (we dubbed it El Rio Feo, the Ugly River), ah, and we saw a last waterfall, supposedly one of Costa Rica’s tallest, Bijagual, but from the tourist trap lookout at “Pura Vida Garden” (USD 20 entrance, big ugly concrete paths around a sculpted tropical garden, though we did get photos with a toucan and blue macaw), the view of the waterfall was only mediocre. We spent most of the afternoon on crazy, winding backroads, with more dramatic views of hills and valleys, to get back to San Jose and finished our last night recounting our adventures to Monica and Roger over delicious pizza. Pura Vida!

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