Travel Buzz – Pura Vida in Costa Rica

By Tracy L. Barnett, Contributing Writer
November 2010

Costa Rica changed my life.

Costa Rica, that tiny postage stamp of a country that lies between Nicaragua and Panama, caressed by the Pacific and the Atlantic in the narrow waist of Central America – Costa Rica, home of smiling Ticos and pura vida, the pure life. Costa Rica, the happiest country on the planet.

From left, Jennifer Anderson, Trisha Ellis, Sherri Miller and Ramsay Ellis, gear up to take a canopy zipline tour of the rainforest in Jaco, Costa Rica.

It was my first real glimpse of that varied and vast, sometimes confusing but always colorful world south of our border. In that three weeks I saw volcanoes and cloud forests, monkeys and parrots, black sand beaches and Caribbean Rastafarians and a mother turtle laying her eggs in the sand. I danced till the sun came up and trekked till the sun went down. I met people who smiled indulgently at my schoolgirl Spanish and patiently helped me hack my way through sentences.

I met people who had next to nothing, but lived in harmony with their neighbors and nature in their tiny, simple homes. I learned the meaning of tranquilo, a word I was to hear again and again from the Ticos, the nickname for Costa Rican residents, when they referred to their country. Tranquil. Indeed it was – but it was also alegre, filled with the vibrant rhythm of joy.

So it came as no surprise to me when I learned last year that Costa Rica had been designated the happiest country on Earth according to the Happy Planet Index, a scale invented by the New Economics Foundation in Great Britain that attempts to rate the life satisfaction, life expectancy and ecological footprint of the world’s countries. The U.S. came in at 114, in part because of its massive ecological footprint.

Houstonians whitewater rafting on the Savegre River: from left, Dee and Lizzie Sullivan, their children Catherine and Jack, and the Bakers (Blaine, Casey and Calynne) and their two guides.

Costa Rica, whose name means “Rich Coast” in Spanish, is a first-time destination for many travelers who are eager to experience Latin America but not sure about what to expect. For Houstonians, it’s a direct three-hour flight to San Jose, the colonial heart of the country. In three to four hours you can be almost anywhere, from rugged mountaintop to sea level on either coast.

Stuart Rosenthal, a retired physician-turned-travel agent specializing in Costa Rica trips, fell in love with the country long before I got there. He first went 35 years ago with his wife, Margie.

“It’s safe, it’s friendly, it’s adventurous; it’s foreign, and yet it’s very civilized,” he said. “And it’s so varied. You can go back and do different things every time you go.”
If you go: Costa Rica’s volcanoes, rainforests and beaches are only a direct flight away
When to go: Be aware of the rainy season, called the “green season” by tour operators, from May to mid-November. Rain varies by region, but typically mornings are sunny with a shower in the late afternoon or evening. Prices are cheaper than during the high season, late November through April, and prices are at their highest during Easter week and around Christmastime, but sometimes deals can be had during the week leading up to Christmas.

Getting there: For a first trip, most travelers choose the Pacific coast. The Atlantic, with more of a Caribbean vibe, is not as developed and tourist facilities are more primitive. Flights are usually $500-$600 round-trip. Most international flights still arrive at San Jose’s Juan Santamaria International Airport, but those who are heading to the North Pacific regions of Guanacaste and the Nicoya Peninsula may prefer the new Liberia airport. San José is a more convenient gateway if you are planning to head to Manuel Antonio National Park, the Central Pacific coast, the Caribbean coast or the southern zone.
Places to stay: Many of our travelers ended up at Los Sueños, a resort near Jaco on the Pacific coast known for its fishing and golf course. Private homes and multi-bedroom condos ($210-3,000 per night) are available through Stay In Costa Rica. Stuart Rosenthal’s tour company, Active Adventure Traveler, (713-666-9917 or shrat4@gmail.com) highly recommends Xandari (www.xandari.com), which offers two resorts, one on the Pacific Coast near Manuel Antonio, and another in the Central Valley. Rooms are $195-$598 per night. Rosenthal also suggests Si Como No Ecoresort (www.sicomono.com), a sustainably designed and managed hotel which offers “barefoot luxury” at Manuel Antonio for $185-340 per night.
Things to do: Popular activities include fishing expeditions, canopy tours, ATV tours, white water rafting and surfing, all of which can be arranged through Stay In Costa Rica . Guided tours of the rainforest at Manuel Antonio National Park offer visitors an opportunity to see sloths, three species of monkeys, rain frogs, toucans and other animals. Arenal Volcano offers visitors a chance to see a live volcano spouting hot lava. Monteverde National Park is also an excellent destination for birdwatchers and nature lovers, but requires a couple of days to do it well. For those interested in surfing – or just watching the surfers – top surfing beaches include Manuel Antonio, Dominical, Playa Hermosa and Tamarindo.
Costs: Accommodations can vary greatly, from budget travel accommodations starting at $10 a night to luxury accommodations for $1,000 a night. Check www.vivatravelguides.com for a detailed listing. Restaurants are reasonable – budget half what you would for Hawaii or Cabo, says Sullivan. Fishing, however, can get expensive at about $1,500/day for a boat that will fit six comfortably.

Dee and Lizzie Sullivan are likewise repeat travelers. They first went for their honeymoon in 1993, and have been back about a dozen times.

“For a tropical location, the entire experience cannot be beat,” Dee said.

Dawn and Mark Willis, friends of the Sullivans, had heard them speak so glowingly of Costa Rica that finally, on Memorial Day this year, they decided to join in a five-day expedition of three Houston families.

Most of the Houston travelers tried their hand at the deep-sea fishing that the Pacific Coast is famous for. Like the Willises, the Ellises stayed at Los Sueños Resort, but they stayed in a three-bedroom rental condo, while the Willises stayed at the Los Sueños Marriott Resort.

Trisha related the adrenaline rush of a 120-pound catch – a sailfish. Watching a friend haul in a 160-pound blue marlin was another unforgettable moment. “He had a good fight – I’m talking 20, 25 minutes getting that fish up to the boat. It was pretty, pretty incredible.”

The sailfish and marlins were catch-and-release only, according to Costa Rican law, Trisha explained, which was one factor in the abundance of the fish. Costa Rica is known for its strong conservation ethic. “The country is so conscious about the environment, so environmentally aware – everyone recycles everything.”

Fishing rules allow visitors to keep their game fish. But the big billfish, like sailfish and marlin, must be returned to the waters.

“They want to preserve their ocean and not overfish like they’ve done in place like Cabo and Acapulco,” Trisha said. “There are just not that many out there anymore. It’s sad.”

The adrenaline really flowed when it came time for the zipline tours.

“It was pretty scary for me, because I have a fear of heights,” Dawn confessed. “My 10-year-old son decided to be the first – he has no fear – so I watched him step out on the platform and zip off into the forest.”

Visitors are suited up and instructed; then they climb a staircase high up into the canopy. Jumping off the platform for the first time can be a tremendous leap of faith.

The Ellises were so thrilled with their experience that they’re already planning a second trip to see other parts of the country, and even exploring the idea of a second home there.

For first-time travelers, Lizzie Sullivan had a few words of advice.

“People who have a sense of adventure will enjoy Costa Rica,” she said. “However, they need to keep in mind that it’s still a Third World country with lots of little quirks – sometimes things don’t run as efficiently or perfectly as you would like. However, people who are adventurous will understand that and think of the quirks as charming, rather than irritating. It’s not uncommon to lose power at a restaurant during a rain storm. We like the way the locals treat that as standard operating procedure and whisk out the candles instead of panicking and shutting down.”

Editor’s Note: Tracy L. Barnett is a freelance writer based in Houston. She is making a yearlong journey through Latin America. To follow her travels, go to www.tracybarnettonline.com.