I landed in Costa Rica’s Liberia Airport ready for some sun and the “ecotourism” I’d heard so much about. After experiencing one of the worst winters in memory, I needed to thaw out. Costa Rica has been on my bucket list since my first trip was derailed last century, and then again in early 2000s, both times because of work. But this time, with New York winter’s wrath wreaking havoc on my sanity, I was more determined than ever to make it to the Central American country.
My driver picked me up at the airport, and as we drove through Guanacaste to the hotel, the bumpy ride reminded me of many towns in Central and South America that I adore. Unpaved streets meet local highway. I spied a “supermercado” flanked by a church, a roadside local bar, a rodeo, a soccer field, and townspeople at bus stops waiting for the super crowded bus to take them to their next destination.
But in spite of its quaint, provincial nature, Costa Rica is surprisingly sophisticated. It’s come a long way from its humble beginnings when a man rode down from Guatemala by mule with a letter announcing that the king of Spain had granted them independence. English is widely spoken and compulsory for students beginning at age 6. Microchips are its largest exports, followed by agriculture (Chiquita, Dole and Del Monte all have a strong foothold in Costa Rica) and tourism.
Although Costa Rica has experienced a flood of American tourists, it has managed to fuse the comforts of home while keeping true to their mantra, “Pura Vida,” that Costa Rica is famous for. In Guanacaste, American hotels and fast food chains are nestled next to quaint Costa Rican resorts and beachfront eateries. But in spite of this, Costa Rica is thankfully lacking that touristy vibe that would deter the sophisticated traveler looking for a respite.
Guanacaste is easily accessible from many gateways in the United States, and because of its location on the Pacific side of Costa Rica, it has some of the best shorelines, weather and surf in the country. It also has an abundance of wildlife, volcanoes, jungles and rafting, so this little slice of paradise is perfect for a quick getaway or a few weeks of leisure. Whether it’s relaxation or adventure you’re looking for, Costa Rica really does have something for everyone.
After a day of leisure at the beach to defrost and decompress, I began my Costa Rican “experience” at the Buena Vista Lodge, the antithesis of a large American hotel chain. The lodge is a sustainable development built on 2,000 acres of privately owned farmland, and embodies the ecotourism that Costa Rica is famous for. They grow much of the food on the grounds, manufacture all their soap (both liquid and solid, from cooking and biodiesel oil), recycle horse manure into methane gas, make paper from coffee shells and filter fresh water from water lilies and their in-house desalinization plant.
Along my tour, I tasted many of the homegrown herbs and vegetables, tried the soaps, and emerged impressed at how they could make the otherwise humdrum composting and sustainability exciting and have you really committed to try this at home.
But Buena Vista Lodge was not all granola ecotourism. After we toured the grounds, it quickly shed its alter ego like a teenage schoolgirl and let loose. They have 12 canopies of ziplining over the lush Costa Rican jungle. And even though I’d been ziplining several times before, there’s a difference when ziplining through the jungle with monkeys and indigenous birds peering over your activities.
Buena Vista Lodge is also home to the longest water slide in Costa Rica, located a third of a mile up a mountain, and reached only by hiking through the lush vegetation, past the largest Strangling Ficus I’d seen. Once there, you’ll release your inner child as they open the floodgates to slow, medium or insanely fast.
Afterward changing, I hopped on one of their gorgeous, well mannered mares and galloped through the canyons to the foot of the Rincon del Vieja volcano, indulging in a mud bath and luxuriating in their hot springs (which consisted of five pools of varying temperatures of bliss).
Next, I traveled to their sister lodge, Hacienca El Viejo—located in the famous El Viejo Wetlands—for a rafting trip down the Timpesque River. Traveling by an inflated raft joins the excitement of a fast-paced trip down the river with an unparalleled view of the colorful birds that put Costa Rica on the map (as well as a few not so handsome flat-nosed bats).
After barreling down one of the steepest falls in the river, you’ll find a seeming innocuous rope suspended from a tree. If you’re adventurous, swing out on the rope 15 feet into the rapids and let go! Then swim to the embankment on the other side for a rock climb. The only way to get down is by jumping 30 feet into the roaring rapids for the adrenaline rush of life.
But even if you don’t care to tempt fate like I did, not to worry, there are plenty of other activities to pass your time—such as taking a boat ride through Palo Verde National Park, where you will see wildlife, birds, and Costa Rica’s famous white-faced monkey. (Take heed, as the monkeys seem to love having a bit of fun with their human visitors.)
Costa Rica also has plenty of quaint villages. Cocoa Beach is a cute little town with nightlife, restaurants and tranquil beaches. Tamarindo (my favorite) is a picturesque beach town most famous for surfing, but the town itself is charming, with shops and nice beach dining where you can catch a beautiful sunset. There are five active volcanoes that lend themselves to hiking, hot springs, and spas.
With all these options at your fingertips, Costa Rica truly lives up to its moniker Pura Vida, but I’d probably rename it to “Pura Alegria” for Pure Happiness!