Costa Rica: Pura Vida

It had been a year since I last walked up to a customs desk and handed over my passport to receive a tourist visa. My adventures abroad have slowed significantly over the past few years but I am okay with that. The realities of balancing a full time job, paying the bills and growing roots in my beloved city have all contributed to this shift. Oh yeah, there’s also that business I started and the part-time work as an English language instructor that may have had something to do with it too. Travel still remains a priority in my life but it looks different than before.

That said, I was ecstatic to head south after the holidays with my partner Eric to visit Central America for the first time. We had an unexpected overnight stay in Atlanta on the first night of the trip after missing our connecting flight because of this:

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View from my window seat at DTW

We arrived in San José in the early afternoon of Friday, January 3. My Spanish was rusty and I found myself immediately grasping for common phrases and vocabulary that would have come easier only a few years ago. Rather than frustrating, I found this linguistic challenge to be stimulating and highly rewarding for even the most trivial accomplishments. For example, I had to converse with the owner of a laundromat because only one of my socks was returned. Unfortunately my handy Latin American phrase book did not prepare me for such dialogue. Nor did it offer examples on how to explain to the post office official that glue was needed to affix a stamp to a postcard because I accidentally licked off all the adhesive in my fervor to make sure it was extra sticky (whoops). Overcoming language barriers is one of my favorite parts of traveling. The not-so-anticipated conversations about socks and glue, along with the many expected ones that helped us purchase bus tickets, order food and direct taxi drivers, brought amusement to otherwise mundane tasks.

We spent the first two nights in Grecia, a small agrarian town located in the Central Valley located about 50 minutes northwest of San José. We stayed at Mango Valley which is run by a young Spanish couple from Madrid who moved to Costa Rica from a few years ago to exchange their stressful lives for pura vida. Mango Valley was situated north of the downtown area and by the end of our stay we had mastered the local bus that ran between the two. While this trip only took about 15 minutes by private transport, rides on the local bus ranged between 45 minutes to an hour because there were few actual bus stops. Instead, most riders waited along the road in front of their houses to get picked up. In addition, Mango Valley was situated at the end of the route and it was a steep climb up the narrow road to get there. Miraculously the bus drivers missed oncoming traffic, parked cars and pedestrians every time.

Mango Valley, situated in the rolling hills of the Central Valley

Mango Valley, situated in the rolling hills of the Central Valley

We only had one full day to explore, after losing a night in Atlanta, but we were able to visit Volcán Poás and take a “seed to cup” tour at a coffee plantation called Doka Estate.

Summit of Volcán Poás

Summit of Volcán Poás

On Sunday morning, after having breakfast in the shared dining area and saying goodbye to our hosts, we climbed onto the local bus one last time to begin our journey to Cahuita on the southern Caribbean coast. Luckily we made our bus connections in Grecia and San José and arrived in Cahuita by mid-afternoon. We stayed at a wonderful place called Bungalows Aché in a private bungalow, complete with a bathroom, mosquito net over the bed and a porch with our very own hammock. Bungalows Aché is located on the very edge of Cahuita National Park so the wildlife was abundant: crabs, hummingbirds, agoutis (short haired, hoofed rodents native to Central and South America), sloths and monkeys were easily viewed right from our window! For the most part this was fine with me, except for the first morning of our stay when I was jolted from slumber at 5:30am by the most blood-curling howl I had ever heard. It turned out this howl belonged to the appropriately-named and rather harmless Howler Monkey (or “hollering” monkey, as I repeatedly called them). Our time in Cahuita was divided between the beautiful beaches, hiking in the national park and eating lots of fruit, rice and beans.

Playa Negra, Cahuita

Playa Negra, Cahuita

One of my favorite traveling moments on the trip was passing through Braulio Carrillo National Park on our way to and from Cahuita. This park was created in 1978 after the completion of the Limón Highway, linking the capitol to the Caribbean Coast by road for the first time. Environmentalists successfully lobbied to conserve the important watershed, cloud and rainforests in this region with the establishment of this park. It was incredible to experience the sudden transformation of scenery from San José’s urban sprawl to a lush, green forest teeming with some of the best flora and fauna in the country.

We left Costa Rica with cameras full of pictures, backpacks brimming with coffee beans and chocolate bars and a long list of places we want to see on our next visit. Until then, we will be cultivating pura vida right here in Detroit.

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