As part of my daily meditation and prayer, I end with a “30 Days of Gratitude” sheet that poses a thought or question for the day. Today’s struck me as timely and poignant as it asked, “What place are you most grateful for?” Easy peasy, it’s Costa Rica. Exactly one week ago today I was on a plane headed to the Central American locale and it’s been on my mind and in my heart all day.
But why Costa Rica people ask? And how?
It all started five years ago when my husband and I were watching football on TV and saw an ad that Southwest Airlines was starting service to new destinations, including Costa Rica. The airline is my husband’s airline of choice and he flies it often for business so we thought, let’s use those miles and go somewhere different. We considered Belize, Dominican Republic, Turks and Caicos, Aruba, and other new SWA destinations but somehow settled on Costa Rica. And boy am I glad we did. We’ve now gone five years in a row every November.
San Jose is the capital of Costa Rica and has a population of 300,000 but we have never been to it. We fly into Liberia International Airport, which is a smaller yet surprisingly new and glistening facility. From there, it’s an hour drive to our hotel. Each year we’ve done an ATV tour and our first year we zip lined through a jungle canopy. Although I’m glad we did so, neither of us was a big fan of the activity and never have to do one again.
Truth be told, we go to Costa Rica not for adventure but for relaxation. The ATVs and walking the beach are pretty much the extent of our activity. The couple that joined us this year did rent bikes at the hotel and enjoyed them. We enjoyed hearing about them. Two of the five times my husband and I have gone alone, one year our daughter went with us, and the other two years we were joined by two different couples. We’ve loved each version equally.
There are so many things to love about Costa Rica. For starters, it’s an easy three hour flight from our Texas home and I speak the language. It also helps that it shares our Central Time Zone and uses the same electrical voltage as the U.S. so there’s no need for those pesky adapters. U.S. dollars are accepted almost everywhere but you might want to grab a “colon” or two, as the official currency is considered one of the world’s prettiest. But when it comes down to it, it’s all about the people and the place where we stay.
Our first year we chose the JW Marriott Guanacaste (Guanacaste is a province in CR) because we knew JWs are reputable and we felt safe staying at one in a country that at the time was very foreign to us. Our initial reaction was “pure paradise” and we’ve returned annually and stayed in the same ocean front room every year since. We love the views from “our” room and the sunsets are spectacular every night. It also doesn’t hurt that this lover of spas is blessed with a treatment that includes a scrub, massage, and private outdoor bath. It is truly the best I’ve had anywhere. The fact that we go in November means the property is not crowded and has a very quiet and chill vibe, something we were looking for and long for. Its negative edge pool overlooking the Pacific is heaven on earth and the fact that it sits all alone in the area just adds to the feel-good ambiance.
It’s also the people.
This year we were warmly greeted by staff member Rodney who’s been working there since we’ve been going and his congeniality is matched by each and every staff member whether it be a waiter, pool boy, housekeeping, drivers, tour guides, room service, and really any and every one. It’s the Costa Rican way.
“Ticos,” as Costa Ricans are often called, live by the national saying of “Pura Vida,” which means “the pure life.” But it goes much further than just a slogan on t-shirts and in brochures. Locals use it to say “hello,” “goodbye,” “everything’s great,” and “everything’s cool.” It also reflects the way of life in Costa Rica: no worries, no fuss, and no stress, being thankful for all you have, and not dwelling on the negative. The Tico way of thinking is that as long as you are surrounded by family, friends, animals, and nature, all will be well. Maybe that’s why Costa Rica is consistently rated as one of the happiest places on Earth and has one of the world’s highest life expectancy rates of almost 77 years. The motto is most definitely contagious, as the entire time I’m there all is good, all is well, and I’m so dang happy.
Another interesting thing about Costa Rica is that is has no military. Since 1948, this “Switzerland of Central America” instead uses its budget for free healthcare and education (students in uniforms are seen everywhere), which has proven to prevent a flood of rural poor into major cities and causing issues troubling other Central American countries. For this reason, Costa Rica is significantly safer than many of its neighbors and is regarded as a model Latin American country.
Costa Rica, which means “rich coast,” is today a peaceful democratic country that came to be in the mid-1500s when the Spanish came upon it and the gold in the area. Democracy came easy to Costa Rica, which gained its independence in the early 1820s and signed a 1949 Constitution very similar to that of the U.S. in that it guarantees all citizens and foreigners equality before the law, the right to own property, the right of petition and assembly, freedom of speech, and the right to habeas corpus. Its government is also divided into three branches: executive, legislative, and judicial. Although it did suffer a politically polarizing civil war in the 1940s and a brief tangle with socialism, today it boasts hardworking and well-educated citizens and in 2010 elected its first female president.
Bordered to the north by Nicaragua and to the south by Panama (another nice Central American country to visit), Costa Rica is small in size with just 75 miles separating its two coasts and a population of just under 5 million. Small perhaps, but it boasts some of the most diverse and beautiful scenery in the world and is home to a diverse natural landscape that ranges from rainforests to beaches to active volcanoes. Much of this is prized and protected by an enviable ecotourism program. Nearly 25 percent of the country’s land has been set aside in protected areas and there is an astounding 850 species of just birds. While zip-lining, white-water rafting, hiking, or just relaxing at a pool or on the beach, you’re likely to see native Howler Monkeys, iguana-like basilisk lizards, and a raccoon-like coati as well. The idea that travel should incorporate education about the environment and the preservation of natural resources is not lost on the millions of visitors who visit the country, a number that has more than quintupled in the last decade, making tourism the leading sector of the nation’s economy.
This great land spans from a high elevation of 13,000 feet to sea level with more than 735 miles of coastline along both the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. Somewhat surprising is the fact that the Caribbean side is remarkably undeveloped and it’s the Pacific side that boasts all of the popular towns, beaches, and resorts.
Costa Rica also boasts one of the world’s most biologically diverse ecocultures and let’s not forget the volcanoes. Flying into Liberia four or so volcanoes are always pointed out. Part of the Pacific Ring of Fire Circle, Costa Rica has more than 200 volcanic formations dating back 65 million years but today only five or so are classified as active volcanoes. Arenal is perhaps the most famous and picturesque volcano as it has a perfect volcanic cone and sits inside the lush Arenal National Park. Irazu Volcano is said to have the most stunning views however, where on a clear day you can see both coasts of the country. The most accessible active volcano is Poas, which has the second widest crater in the world at nearly one mile in diameter. Not only are the volcanoes top tourist attractions, their eruptions over the years have created a soil rich in minerals and extremely fertile, resulting in dense forestation and a myriad of bird and wildlife species.
We have not ventured to or visited any volcanoes as they are far from where we stay but we have heard about tours leaving the area and I’m of the thinking they would be glorious to see. If only it didn’t require me leaving the pool or beach.
Tourism is hands down the country’s main industry, but medical manufacturing and call centers employ many a Tico as does banana, sugar cane (we saw miles and miles of cane stalks along the highway), and that famous Costa Rican coffee production. Also known as “grano de oro” or “grain of gold,” the local coffee, especially brewed tableside in a Costa Rican “chorreador” pour over coffee dripper, is indeed a little cup of gold.
Power is important in Costa Rica, but not the kind you’re probably thinking of. I’m talking the kind generated by Cachi Damn, which is Central America’s largest. Through it, the country sells 60 percent of power to other countries.
The overwhelming majority of Costa Ricans are practicing Catholics although gambling and prostitution are legal. Hunting wildlife and marijuana are not. But, just last year the country decriminalized possession of weed and the personal cultivation of marijuana is legal in small quantities. Selling it and large-scale possession of it or cultivated it for profit are punishable by imprisonment. Currently legalized medicinal marijuana is pending in the Costa Rican legislature.
I’ve always said Italy has the best food on planet Earth and while the traditional Costa Rican menu isn’t necessarily memorable, I’ve had one of my favorite meals ever at one of the hotel’s restaurants. Shown above, it’s Costa Rican cocoa beef tenderloin with au gratin potatoes and confit tomatoes. I die. The national dish is Gallo Pinto, which is black beans and rice and something my husband loves. You will also be treated to a lot of delicious chimichurri, beef, chicken and fish, specifically shrimp and sea bass. Something else my husband loves is the local guanabana, also known as soursop. Native to the Caribbean and Central America, the fruit has an aroma similar to pineapple, the creamy texture of a banana, and the flavor or a combination of strawberries and apples. It is used to make fruit nectar, smoothies, juice drinks, and ice cream. My husband has a guanabana smoothie all day every day we are there.
Although I’ve gotten better in my old age, I love a good souvenir and gift store. When in Costa Rica, the things to buy are Guaitil pottery, traditional and painted oxcarts (have one!), handmade jewelry, and wood carvings and exquisite wooden bowls. My friend and I saw so many of these gorgeous bowls this year that we literally couldn’t decide which ones to buy. Most are made of native teakwood trees – so many of which we saw along the highway – and are beautiful keepsakes of a beautiful place.
I hope this helps explain my love for Costa Rica and I hope it gives you a quick snapshot and insight into the “Pura Vida” style. I also highly recommend the book “Happier than a Billionaire” by Nadine Hays Pisani. In the witty book, Pisani writes about her and her husband quitting their New York City jobs and life and moving to Costa Rica. It wasn’t always easy and far from glitzy or glamorous, but today they own a beautiful B&B called “The Happier House” and are truly happier than billionaires. You can follow their adventures at happierthanabillionaire.com to get a more feel for Costa Rica . It is truly my happy place.