Pura vida! Meaning: Pure life! This popular expression in Costa Rica is used to greet, embrace, and say goodbye to others. It exemplifies the positive outlook of Costa Ricans, who live in a country where more than a quarter of all land has been set aside for national parks, wildlife refuges, forest and biological reserves. While this Central American nation takes up only 1 percent of the Earth’s landmass, it is home to 5 percent of our biodiversity: 130 species of freshwater fish, 220 varieties of reptiles, 630 distinct resident birds, 1,000 different butterflies, 1,200 types of orchids, 9,000 unique plants, and 34,000 kinds of insects. And that’s just for starters.
Dazzling Pacific Ocean and Caribbean coastlines, dense rain forests, rugged mountains, and countless oh-so-cute monkeys make this a remarkable vacation getaway. Toss into that pura vida equation the fact that Costa Ricans have one of the longest life spans in the world (average 77 years for men; 82 years for women), a high literacy rate (97 percent), and no standing army (it was abolished in 1949), and you’ll understand why this tropical wonder is a beloved place to wander.
Recently, I flew to Costa Rica’s West Coast, where the ocean serves up splashy surf and sublime sunsets. To see my photos of Costa Rican animals, flowers, beaches, mountains, rain forests, sunsets, and more, please click the pink gallery launch button (at top right or below).
1. GREEN SCENES
After landing at Juan Santamaría International Airport (SJO) in San José, pick up your pre-booked rental vehicle (with GPS) or join a pre-arranged hotel shuttle van. You'll travel on a winding mountain road toward the West Coast, connecting with the smooth new Caldera highway, and then head south on to Quepos.
2. ROAD TRIP TIPS
Fresh fruit is the quintessential Costa Rican snack food. On your journey, about 50 miles outside of San José, near the town of Tárcoles, stop roadside to buy all-natural nibbles, stretch your legs, and peer wide-eyed over the side of Tárcoles Bridge. Why, you ask? Click on...
3. CROCS PICS
American crocodiles! On the banks of the Tárcoles River, which flows toward the Gulf of Nicoya, live hundreds of crocs, with some males as long as 20 feet. Spy these creatures in the wild—while standing atop the bridge at a safe distance, of course!
4. A HOTEL WITH HEART
It is an approximately two-and-a-half hour drive (about 100 miles) from San José to the small fishing town of Quepos, where there are many hotels near popular Manuel Antonio National Park. My favorite soul-soothing, spirit-lifting spot is Parador Resort & Spa.
5. SPLASHY ATTITUDE
Parador is more than a hotel. In 1993, Dutchman Jan Schans dreamt of building a deluxe European-style hideaway that respects and preserves Costa Rica's natural gifts. Jan's wife, Marianne, and their daughters, Marja and Diana, toiled with him to create this jewel in the jungle.
6. A FAMILY AFFAIR
It opened in 1995 and now has 129 guest rooms and suites, with multiple pools, Jacuzzis, open-air gourmet restaurants (with its own chef's garden), bars, tennis court, putting green, free wifi, and posh amenities, such as...
...the tranquil Pacifica Spa, where you can relax with a Costa Rican volcanic mud wrap, ylang-ylang milk bath, yoga lesson, and, an ultimate spa experience...
8. SERENITY SWIRLS
...a four-hand massage, which involves two therapists working in concert to melt away all your aches. A very welcome indulgence? Yes!
The Schans family (which includes Marja's husband, Diego Gonzalez) is committed to a protect-the-environment philosophy, earning international awards for sustainable tourism—with elaborate composting, water-and-energy conservation programs, and other eco-conscious initiatives.
10. ART APPRECIATION
The Schans have collected art and antiques from around the world, including fascinating pieces from Spain, Holland, Belgium, Indonesia, and Central America, transforming Parador into a mini-museum. Many of the coolest works date from the 16th century.
11. A WALK ON THE WILD SIDE
Yet Parador's most celebrated achievement is its preservation of a secluded 12-acre rain forest. Several hiking trails allow you to appreciate an amazing array of wildlife within minutes of your guest room door. Whoo are you looking at?
12. GUIDING LIGHT
Elias Mora, Parador's personable nature guide, leads guests on daily hikes through the property, enthusiastically pointing out animals and flora, and helping to scout out the best photographic moments. He also expertly mimics a variety of bird sounds!
13. LOOK ALOFT
At Parador, you'll see quirky sloths. These slow-moving, solitary, long-clawed mammals spend most of their lives in trees, where they also sleep, mate, and give birth. Eating mainly leaves (a low-energy diet), sloths are so sedentary that green algae grows on their fur.
14. SCREECH THAT!
Howler monkeys populate Parador's rain forest. Living in large family groups, each run by a dominant male, their social heirarchy is complex. Watching them swagger and swing across trees is a rush!
15. MONKEY AROUND
Perhaps the most endearing wild animal at Parador is the adorable Central American squirrel monkey. It is small, with orange back fur and a facial "mask" of white-and-black. Spend hours gazing at groups of them frolicking and playing together!
16. TASTY TANGO WITH MANGO
Like most of Parador's guests, squirrel monkeys love to eat succulent mangos. Here, one is relishing its lunch on the outdoor hallway in front of my guest room door.
17. HUGGABLE CUTIES
Babies can often be seen carried on the backs of their mothers. Aww!
18. LIZARD LOUNGING
In Costa Rica, you'll often see iguanas sunning on rocks and scampering across walkways. With their excellent vision, as well as camouflage skin tones, iguanas often elude predators.
19. TAIL TALE
Fun fact: If an iguana's whip-like tail is caught by a predator and breaks off, it will often regenerate.
20. TROPICAL FLOWER POWER
Heliconia, known as the parrot flower or lobster claw, brings splashes of bright color to verdant rain forests. It also attract hummingbirds, which feed on its nectar. Sweet!
21. BRIGHT LIGHTS
Delight in the red ginger, too, with its glossy, oblong leaves and cane-like stalks that can grow as tall as 15 feet!
22. PETAL PUSHERS
Trumpet-like hibiscus also attract hummingbirds, as well as butterflies, and the flower is used in tea. Some hibiscus have a scent that is a popular ingredient in many perfumes.
23. SUNSET SURPRISES
As soft end-of-day hues glow across a dimming sky, survey the treetops. At first, dark silhouettes of leaves will be obvious, but peer further and you'll notice the birds, so many of them, pausing to share the final fleeting light, almost looking identical to the leaves that they are sitting beside.
24. PARK YOURSELF
A ten-minute drive from Parador, Manual Antonio National Park—though small in size—is one of the world's loveliest and most admired national parks, with four pristine beaches, each with a different personality. Spend a full day to truly treasure its abundant pleasures.
25. A SHORE THING
Hire a guide to make the most of your experience at Manuel Antonio. You'll want to ooh-and-ahh as hidden monkeys, sloths, birds, and lizards are pointed out to you, as well as learn about notable vegetation, such as the manchineel (or manzanillo) tree, the apple of which is poisonous.
26. MONKEY AROUND
In Manuel Antonio, this white-headed Capuchin monkey—with a distinctive black fur crown—stood two feet away from me, staring at my face for a long time. "What are you thinking?" I gently asked him. He turned away for a minute (when I took this photo), then swerved back to stare anew.
27. LAZY AFTERNOON
Ha! I laughed, when spotting this Capuchin monkey, who was doing exactly what I had longed to do after a hefty hike through Manuel Antonio.
28. CRACKING THE COCONUT
This Capuchin monkey opened the coconut and drank its liquid. All around, it was eye-opening for me to sit quietly and take in the life of the rain forest as it played out.
29. DUELING DRINKERS
Later, in another part of Manuel Antonio National Park, monkeys took turns quenching their thirst at a faucet.
30. SWEET TOOTH
Someone inadvertently left an unattended Snickers candy bar on a picnic table. This raccoon nabbed it, deftly opened the wrapper, and gleefully chewed away! (Park visitors are advised not to feed the animals.)
31. FREE AS A BIRD
Manuel Antonio National Park harbors 329 species of birds, including plentiful green-backed herons, Ospreys, Rufous-necked wood rails, tucanets, and green kingfishers. This pelican patiently waited on a giant rock offshore for the tide to send in its dinner.
32. FARM LIFE
In this area of Costa Rica, you'll also see many palm oil farms, astounding miles and miles thick with trees, as well as banana groves.
33. CHILL OUT
For a change of pace, visit nearby Playa Esterillos, a sweeping beach with milk-chocolate-colored sand, no crowds, a laid-back ex-pat vibe, and...
34. SURF'S UP!
...a surfer's sensation! And there is another bonus...
35. WINGING IT
Playa Esterillos is a prime turf for scarlet macaws, which perch on the massive beachside trees. When a large flock of brilliantly feathered birds circle the sky, they resemble a twirling wheel of fire. Gorgeous, indeed.
36. PLUMAGE PLUS!
Both male and female scarlet macaws have green, yellow, blue, and red plumage. Their powerful beaks are used as a climbing aid, as well as to crush nuts and seeds; their toes are tight grippers. Very intelligent, they are able to vocalize loud squawks and screams that can be heard for miles.
37. LOVE NEST
With wide strong wings and hollow bones, scarlet macaws can fly as fast as 35 miles per hour. These charismatic birds generally mate for life, in what is called a "pair bond," and raise their young together.
38. LIFE'S A BEACH
At vacation's end, on your return ride to the airport in San José, allot extra time to stop in Jaco, to squeeze in a visit to one more invitingly lengthy and no-fuss beach.
39. MORNING LIGHT
When I now recall Costa Rica, deliriously happy images flood back, beginning with a break-of-dawn bird-watching expedition at Parador, when this slice of paradise was just waking up, still hushed and draped with morning dew...
40. NOON SWOONS
...followed by an energetic mid-day hike through Manuel Antonio National Park, when I was sumptuously
41. NIGHT DREAMS
...and ended with a sunset so heavenly and visually soothing that I wanted to pinch myself to make sure this haven was real. Yep, pura vida!
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