The International Writers Magazine: World Travel
Pure Life: Costa Rica
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. Its 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.
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 citys 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
wasnt 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
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 pencions for
the weary traveller.
Costa Ricas 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 Id 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 couldnt help but feel guilty for my privileged life back
in Canada. I would later learn, however, that he is the one who is truly
A few days later, I left Mal País and headed north along the
Pacific coast, passing more villages sprinkled with modest, but cozy
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.
Pic: Turtle Eggs
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 Natures
amazing power into perspective. I remained in Tamarindo until the end
of the week. After Id 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.
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.
Arenal on a bad day
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 wasnt 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
But, on the other hand, he said, it is these same tourists who help
to sustain Costa Ricas economy. Roberto said he didnt 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.
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
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 couldnt 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 dont 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 isnt
about work and money as much as it is about friendship, family and laughter.
Ill 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.
© Amber Turnau Jan 2006
Turnau is a Canadian freelance journalist currently living in London,
England. She was bitten by the travel bug at birth, having been born
into a nomadic family. So far, she's backpacked through Australia, Costa
Rica and Western Europe. One day she hopes to make a decent living travelling
the world and writing about it.
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