From city to coast, Chris Moss delves deep into Costa Rica to enjoy its natural riches, and experience life to the rhythm of pura vida
At the end of the road was the sign for Malpais. I was arriving, after a long day’s driving, at one of the legendary beach strips of Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula, a place that once enjoyed quasi-mythical status among pioneering Californian surfers. Twenty years ago it was completely off-radar, secret, basic; now Malpais is partially developed, though the overall feel is still reassuringly rustic and low-key.
I drove slowly down a sandy road by the coast, taking in the pizza and beer bars, surf schools and wooden shacks on my right. On my left, facing the beach, were well-spaced-out stylish hotels and apartment resorts, restaurants under mango trees and pool bars serving haute cuisine.
Eventually I found my accommodation, somewhere in between these two extremes, and unsheathed my board to hit the juice, as we surfers say. Actually, that’s a lie: I grabbed a novel, found a hammock, ordered a cocktail and lay back. After a week in one of the world’s great adrenaline-fuelled adventure wonderlands, I was ready for some serious downtime.
I’d started my trip at San Jose, Costa Rica’s small capital city. It’s the country’s main entry point for most travelers but is often bypassed, as visitors are so keen to get to the volcanoes and jungles, zip-lines and white-water rivers. I stayed just one night, and in the morning, I decided to take a look around the compact historic center, having a coffee under the arcades at the central plaza, and seeing the Museo Nacional, the main art gallery and — this being Costa Rica — the local butterfly park.
There was a lot of energy out on the streets with tropical fruit vendors, CD hawkers and street food stalls jostling for space. After a couple of conversations with the traders I picked up two vital Costa Rican expressions: pura vida, which translates as ‘pure life’ but means wonderful, and que tuanes, which also means wonderful. I’d hear both expressions everywhere I went in Costa Rica, perhaps because wonder is everywhere.
It took me some time to find a road out of the sprawl — San Jose seemed to have no road signage at all, and the city is spread out over hilly terrain — but soon I was on the highway to the Caribbean coast. My first stop was Turrialba, a town and region named after an active stratovolcano. Here I tried two of Costa Rica’s most famous exports. The first was a canopy walk, and a gentle hike, around the base of the volcano. I was encouraged to spend time alone on some of the gangways to soak up the sounds and sights: flashes of red feather, screaming cicadas, scuttling lizards.
A zip-line was offered but I’ve never seen the sense in whizzing through a beautiful forest. I opted for a different kind of stimulant: a cup of freshly ground Costa Rican coffee. The grade of beans is so high in this country, the coffee is often used to improve blends from Guatemala or Mexico, but when you get the pure organic stuff served in its homeland, it’s subtly perfumed and almost fruity on the palate.
The hit of caffeine was good preparation for the rest of my drive, to the Caribbean coast, where I stayed two nights at Puerto Limon, commonly known as Limon. It was here I had my first encounter with three-toed sloths. I say encounter, but the intensity was all mine. The curious-looking animal, perched high up in a cecropia tree, barely moved, gawping down serenely from its worryingly thin perch, and turning its head at a pace so slow as to be beyond human comprehension.
My guide told me sloths only come down to the undergrowth to defecate — a trip that can take more than an hour and expend all their energy for the day — and always use the same spot. Polite, harmless, quiet, vegetarian and cute in an ugly kind of way, they’re easy animals to love, but as it could be several days before this sloth needed the john, we went off to look for armadillos, toucans and strawberry frogs.
There were also jaguar and puma in the vicinity, I was told, but no sightings for me. If I’m honest, the sound and knowledge of teeming life was a sensory overload, and I didn’t need the big cats to come out and pose for photos. Puerto Limon was good for snorkeling and diving, so I spent the afternoon out on the reefs.
And, after all that, I had time to rig another hammock and lie back with a book and an ice cold beer. It was all very que tuanes and an evening meal of gallo pinto (the ubiquitous staple of rice and beans) with prawns and plantain was simple and superb.
On the road
The coast-to-coast trip across Central America’s most popular country involves less than 300 miles of driving as the toucan flies, but it’s not to be imagined as either a short or small thing. In map terms, Costa Rica is diminutive, which means a vacation here can take in a lot more sights and experiences than a trip in one of South America’s mega nations. But in size, as I soon realized while driving over the mountainous spine of the country, Costa Rica is rather like a brain: all those peaks and clefts, if smoothed out, would make for an immense surface area.
My drive west involved lots of highways too — including the legendary Pan American, which is pocked and pitted thanks to the huge 18-wheelers that power up and down, freighting cargoes through Central America. Then there was the mist to contend with, and sudden squalls, as weather fronts drifted in from the two oceans and dumped all their rain on the cool summits
— the lesson for any driver was: take it easy.
At Rincon de la Vieja I was able to really slow down, joining a small group and a couple of local cowboys on a horseback ride around the slopes of the namesake volcano. The dense vegetation and rolling landscape meant I didn’t initially realise we were on an active volcano. Woodpeckers, humming birds and macaws flitted around the low canopy and we spotted howler monkeys high up on a slope to the east.
The following day, a change of saddles saw me hire a bike, and ride along sandy lanes around the base of the steep slopes, on the edge of a cloud forest. It was a gloriously sunny morning. That evening I indulged in the more beneficent aspects of seismology: kicking back in a thermal spring with a cocktail at the Borinquen Mountain Resort.
It was another slow-going drive to the Nicoya peninsula, a smallish finger of land, fringed with sandy beaches, jutting south into the Pacific. After my much-needed afternoon of lounging and watching the surfers crash and burn out on the juice, I had one more adventure waiting for me: an after-dark wade across a river at Puntarenas, to Buena Vista beach to see turtles hatching. Or rather not to see them — partly because a huge storm rolled in, partly because the guide said we had to be careful not to disturb crocodiles along the river, and mostly because turtles are shy and unpredictable. Costa Rica is one of Mother Nature’s great and generous showcases, but it’s no theme park, and everything — including the invisibility of the planet’s threatened species — has to be recognized for its own worth. Pura vida, as they say, in all senses of the words.
Costa Rica Travel Points offer the nine-night Multisport Costa Rica package, taking in San Jose, Rincon de la Vieja and the Arenal Volcano, with rafting, horseback riding, cycling and wildlife-watching all included. T: 1 800 626 3843. www.costaricatravelpoints.com
Where to stay:
Costa Rica offers a great diversity of accommodation, from functional three-star hotels in the capital to lovely rustic lodges out in the mountain ranges. Beach properties in the Nicoya Peninsula run the gamut from exclusive, designer boutique hotels to surf shacks and good-value seaview villa lets.
Hotel Borinquen Mountain Resort and Spa: Ideal for exploring the Rincon de la Vieja volcano and national park, this luxury complex has a spa fuelled from a natural fumarole with a range of treatments and massages on offer. Activities include horseback rides into the nearby forests. T: +506 2690 1900. www.borinquenresort.com
La Hacienda: This charming boutique hotel in Malpais has a choice of suites in the main house and two detached cabanas with kitchen and porch in the tropical garden. www.lahaciendamalpais.com
The Alta: One of San Jose’s smartest boutique properties, the Alta is on the Alto de Las Palomas (the Hill of the Doves), affording great views of the volcanoes, mountains and valley that surround San Jose. T: 1 888 388 2582. www.thealtahotel.com
- Climate: Costa Rica has a tropical climate, outside the hurricane zone but still subject to heavy rainfall year round, depending on the location. Broadly speaking, December-April is drier on the Pacific coast and February-March on the Caribbean.
- Currency: Colon (CRC). $1 = 500CRC.
- Time: UTC -6.
- Dial Code: +506.
- Getting There: There are frequent flights from New York (JFK) and Miami as well as daily flights from Houston, Newark and Ft Lauderdale into San Jose’s Juan Santamaria international airport. Carriers include Air Canada, American Airlines, Continental, Delta, Frontier, Spirit Airlines and Taca.
- Getting Around: There are good domestic air and long-distance bus services. Car rental is easy to arrange as are chauffeured cars and long-distance taxis.
- Red Tape: For entry into Costa Rica, visitors must present a valid passport valid for at least three months after arrival and a roundtrip/ outbound ticket. All visitors must pay a departure tax of $28.
- Geography: Costa Rica is a mountainous country on the Central American isthmus, 10 degrees north of the equator.
- Visitor Numbers: 830,000 US visitors in 2010.
- Contact: Visit Costa Rica. T: 1 866 COSTA RICA. www.visitcostarica.com
PUBLISHED IN THE SUMMER 2012 ISSUE OF ASTAnetwork