It all starts with "Pura Vida". Our guide, Enrique, welcomes our 10-strong travel group with those two words, which will accompany us throughout our five-day tour of Costa Rica.
There is no apt translation for "Pura Vida", as it encompasses more than just "pure life". It is an attitude to life, or more precisely, the Costa Rican attitude to life. Finding an adequate description for this country is no easy feat. Exotic, adventurous and colourful are just as fitting as peaceful or tranquil. A land of contrasts — which make Costa Rica so captivating.
Though occasionally referred to as "the Switzerland of Central America", Costa Rica is absolutely unique. And also stunningly beautiful. It has the world’s highest concentration of different natural forests. And one would be hard pressed to find a similarly--sized country that boasts coasts on two different oceans. "Getting to know Costa Rica –or even a small part of it– requires at least fourteen days," Enrique tells us. This is because, though comparatively small, Costa Rica is set in different climate zones which makes travel within the country relatively long. "The Tortuguero – Limón – South Caribbean – Arenal Volcano – Monteverde – Manuel Antonio – Corcovado – Pérez Zeledón - San José route is especially popular among Swiss tourists," our guide informs us. He should know, considering that he is a real expert who has worked as a tourist guide in Costa Rica for decades. In the five days at our disposal, we manage just four of these stops, namely Tortuguero, Limón, Pérez Zeledón and the capital San José. When touring a country, it makes sense to spend the occasional two full days in one place. After all, rather than just a hint of "Pura Vida", it should be experienced to the full.
Tortuguero – a paradise for nature enthusiasts
We get our first impression of this pure Costa Rican attitude to life on the Caribbean coast, in Tortuguero, which is a paradise for nature enthusiasts. Oropendolas — in English: Montezuma Oropendola (colourful Central American songbirds), darters, howler monkeys and red-eyed tree frogs are just some of the exotic animals that inhabit the area. With a bit of luck, a sloth may just be sighted on a tree. The most likely way to spot the animals is on a Nature Awakening Tour that starts at six in the morning. "The animals are most active at dawn," Enrique explains. Visitors lucky enough to be in the Tortuguero National Park between July and September can expect a true spectacle of nature: this is when the turtles lay their eggs. The turtles, and with them the Tortuguero National Park, have been under protection since 1972.
Ecotourism and adrenaline rushes
Those who think they have seen Costa Rica’s best spot in Tortuguero are wrong. Limón and the Pacuare River are situated 100 kilometres south of Tortuguero. Pacuare is the epitome of a river rafting haven which, since 1986, has also included the Pacuare Lodge that features 20 ecological and individually designed suites. A particularly exciting feature of the Pacuare Lodge is that it can only be reached via river raft or on foot – an unforgettable adventure! "Anyone arriving via the river with its raging waves will understand why the indigenous people refer to the Pacuare River as 'life'", says Roberto Fernández, founder of the Pacuare Lodge. The area surrounding the Pacuare River is ideal for adrenaline junkies who, besides river rafting, can enjoy kayaking, zip-lining and hiking.
Relaxing with a view
"Can we take off?" Enrique asks while shutting the aircraft door. Of course we can! When else do you get the chance to fly over Costa Rica in a tiny charter plane? The engines are humming, the rainforest is below us and the clouds beside us. Our next stop: Hacienda AltaGracia in Pérez Zeledón. The former coffee plantation with its own landing strip can be seen in the distance. A charter plane is a comfortable (albeit rather luxurious, but affordable) alternative to travelling the frequently bumpy and, for Swiss standards, almost impassable roads of Costa Rica. Be that as it may, we have sufficient time to relax in one of the fifty "Casitas". Hacienda AltaGracia is home not only to the most beautiful spa in Central America, but also features the most beautiful view of all. "The countryside is best explored on horseback or by ultralight aircraft," the marketing representative informs us. I only listen with half an ear, given that the magnificent view and that sense of being in such a wonderfully remote place triggers "Pura Vida" in me. And it is lovely.
Big city jungle with a special flair
"Pura Vida" is not quite as apparent in the Costa Rican capital of San José. The city is neither particularly nice nor particularly ugly. I am told that San José is home to a piece of the Berlin Wall which sparks my desire to go on a guided city tour. I don’t get to see any piece of wall, but enjoy the Farmers’ Market instead. The market is colourful, noisy and a real culinary experience. I try fruit and local fast food. Divine! As a passionfruit fan, I savour some granadilla. It tastes nice and sweet. Food in Costa Rica is generally of top quality (the restaurants “Maza Bistro” and “Al Mercat” are a must; one is located in the west, the other in the east of San José). I pay little attention throughout the rest of the tour, preferring to watch the vibrant world of the ticos, which is what natives from Costa Rica are called. The ticos convert the city’s streets into their personal dance floor and vibrant space — bringing "Pura Vida" to San José too!
7 Pura Vida Tips:
1. Maza Bistro: Besides local cuisine with a special twist, the "Maza Bistro" in San José serves fabulous cocktails. The well-known mixologist Lizz Furlong is happy to help guests choose their drink.
2. Eating with the locals: Costa Rica’s indigenous people live lives as modern as we do. But when it comes to preparing food, they still prepare it in the traditional way and grow many of the ingredients themselves. When visiting the "Bribri" or the "Borucas", the chance to savour the food should not be missed.
3. Pacuare Lodge: The individual, ecological suites are illuminated with candle light in lieu of electricity — but still offer plenty of luxury: hammocks, private pools and unforgettable experiences, such as zip-lining to a dinner table set twenty metres above the ground, provide for a truly unique stay.
4. Hacienda AltaGracia: The wonderful spa and fifty "Casitas" (small "houses") leave nothing to be desired. The stunning landscape surrounding the former coffee plantation is best explored on horseback or in an ultralight aircraft.
5. Nature Awakening Tour: Early birds up at 6 in the morning will experience nature to the fullest in Tortuguero: sloths, red-eyed tree frogs, howler monkeys and many exotic bird species are particularly active at dawn and can be observed on a boat trip through the Tortuguero National Park.
6. River rafting: The Pacuare River is one of the best river rafting spots in Costa Rica. The stretches on offer range from fun routes for beginners to those suited exclusively for pros. Definitely worth a try!
7. Farmers’ Market in San José: From farmers to the wife of Costa Rica’s current president: the Farmers’ Market in San José is where people from all walks of life do their shopping. We Europeans get a chance to discover and sample plenty of exotic foods. Prices are lower than in any supermarket.