From Vision to Reality
Costa Rica had been on my shortlist of places I wanted to visit for some time, mostly due to photos I had seen of its wildlife, its reputation for natural beauty and scenic hikes, and the universal raves from pretty much anyone I had ever talked to who had been there. When I suggested to Samantha that we go for our next vacation, she was all in. “But,” she said, “you’ll have to do all of the planning.” (She being in the midst of an 8-month-long online certification program on top of an already hugely demanding new full-time position at work.)
And so it began.
I had only been out of the country three previous times in my life, and had never actually planned an international trip myself (or taken one with Samantha alone, just the two of us, for that matter). And I knew next to nothing about Costa Rica or the spots within we might most enjoy visiting, save for a few recommendations from my dental hygienist who had lived there for a time. So I hopped onto the Internet and proceeded to become…overwhelmed. Whereas only a couple of decades ago planning an international trip would have been intimidating for entirely opposite reasons, I now found myself inundated by more information than I could ever hope to absorb, a veritable rabbit hole of websites and blogs chock-full of thoughts, opinions, and information readily available at my fingertips – and all in English, needless to say.
So I started off by reading articles and posts that came up in my searches in a somewhat random and haphazard fashion, taking notes and bookmarking pages I thought I would want to refer back to, and continuing for as long as I could at a spell until fatigue set in. Planning a trip is a process (and voyage of discovery!) in and of itself, and it mirrors the experience of actual travel in the quantity of decisions, large and small, to be made.
After confirming we each could get the time off from our respective jobs, Samantha and I planned for an 11-day round-trip vacation (10 nights/9 full days in Costa Rica, bookended by air travel). After extensive reading, I settled on three main destinations – La Fortuna/Arenal, Monteverde, and Manuel Antonio – that we would cover as a loop, flying in and out of the San Jose airport (SJO) and renting a car to get to them:
“Pura vida [pronounced poor-uh vee-duh],” our driver who shuttled us from the airport to the rental car office explained to us in Spanish, “doesn’t just mean one thing.” It is an idiom that is used throughout Costa Rica: as a greeting/salutation, a reply when asked how someone is doing, an expression of thanks, or a response to nearly anything. Yet, despite its pervasiveness, it’s somehow not generic or empty of meaning. Quite the contrary – it adds a positive tint to almost any life experience, and reflects both the good-natured vibe and underlying resilience of Ticos (Costa Ricans).
Generally, you could say it equates to “It’s all good.” But, depending on the context, it could just as easily mean “such is life” or “so it goes”. It’s a declaration of optimism, a decision to maintain perspective and have a positive attitude towards life. It’s hard to get too upset when saying it or hearing it. It can defuse your own irritability or help you forge an instantaneous bond with a stranger. Talk about a useful two words: “Pura vida!”
Go with a Guide
In addition to our own explorations, we booked guided tours with several different professional outfits (we used Pura Vida Tours for the Mistico Hanging Bridges in Arenal, Jacamar Naturalist Tours for their “Pure Nature Safari Float” on the Rio Frio, and Costa Rica Jade Tours for Manuel Antonio National Park). We also booked a guided Night Tour at Curi-Cancha Reserve in Monteverde, after having done a self-guided walk there earlier the same day. All of the tours were excellent.
The difference between going with a qualified/certified guide versus going on your own is dramatic. Each of our guides was incredibly knowledgeable about the flora and fauna, ridiculously adept at spotting wildlife invisible to most tourists’ naked eyes, super friendly and engaging, and exceedingly generous about helping everyone get photos and/or videos (often with the assistance of their own spotting scopes). Whenever possible and practical, I recommend going with a professional guide.
A Few Raves
Samantha and I enjoyed all of the places we visited and all of our activities in Costa Rica, planned and unplanned, guided and on our own. But I’d like to sing the praises of a few places that, in my opinion, richly deserve it:
Hotel El Silencio Del Campo (La Fortuna): We stayed three nights, and I can’t say enough good things about our experience there. The employees were among the friendliest and most professional we experienced in Costa Rica, we loved our accommodations, and the grounds are magnificent and beautifully maintained. It was a real pleasure to come back to our hotel at the end of a full day and enjoy the hot springs pools (there are several right on the premises) and magnificent restaurant without having to venture out again. Their breakfasts were among the best we had (and are included), and always provided great birdwatching opportunities. If you’re looking for a place that isn’t simply somewhere to rest your head, this hotel will add some relaxation to and greatly heighten your time in La Fortuna.
Bogarin Trail (La Fortuna): This is an experience not to be missed, and MUST be done with a guide to get the full effect. The Bogarin Trail has a refreshingly non-commercial feel to it despite being in one of the most touristic areas in all of Costa Rica, and it’s easy to miss if you’re not looking for it or don’t know about it, even though it’s not far off the main road into town. If at all possible, book a tour led by Giovanni (Bogarin, the trail’s namesake). Some eighteen years ago, it was all swamp land, but Giovanni (with no money) convinced the owner of the land to let him take a machete to it, plant some trees, and build a trail/natural sanctuary on it, which he has worked on and maintained ever since. He takes great pride in his work, and will regale you with tales about it. He also knows every inch of it and will reveal amazing wildlife lurking within, at times like a magician. On top of that, he is perhaps the most colorful character we encountered on our trip and a natural-born entertainer (though this may surprise you when you first meet him). If you want to see a guy completely in his element, sharing his love and knowledge of the natural world joyfully, by all means take a tour with him!
Monteverde Inn (Monteverde): This place is a major find, and an incredible deal. We paid only $100/night (a breakfast buffet is included, and the restaurant on the premises is surprisingly good – try their pizza!). The accommodations are simple, but do the job. But the property on which they are located is a stunning nature preserve (Valle Escondido), and is filled with treats for nature lovers. Like a lot of places in Costa Rica, they are very eco-conscious, and have sustainable environmental practices that much of the “developed” world could learn from.
Also: if you visit Monteverde, book a guided Night Walk. We did ours at Curi-Cancha Reserve (our guide, Jorge, was stellar!), but these are also offered at Valle Escondido, the renowned Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve, and elsewhere in town. It’s a unique experience, and one you’ll definitely want an expert guide for.
One of my favorite parts of the travel experience is the people you encounter you otherwise would never meet, and this trip was no exception in that regard. Be it fellow travelers from all over the world, tour guides and others in the hospitality industry, or locals – the conversations had with such a wide variety of people outside of my usual circle was, for me, a big highlight of the overall experience.
While it’s generally very easy to get around in Costa Rica as an English-speaker (the tourism industry is a major part of their economy, and caters to a majority of visitors from the U.S. and Canada), I never felt so grateful for my high school Spanish teacher (muchas gracias a Señor Sauber!). While not highly proficient, I can speak Spanish well enough to get by, which gave me a degree of confidence I absolutely would not have had traveling on our own in a country where I spoke nary a word of the native tongue. Being able to practice my Spanish constantly (however imperfectly), and actually accomplishing things at times solely relying on doing so, was immensely satisfying.
As was, of course, seeing:
A few from a troop of capuchin (aka “white-faced”) monkeys we followed right to our room at the Monteverde Inn:
And some additional animal photos to close out the post:
The people of Costa Rica – warm, gracious, sincere, hospitable, kind, and helpful – for showing us around and making us feel welcome.
Samantha: for being my lovely wife, traveling companion, and best friend, and for taking most of the photos included here.
Eric (yours truly): for driving the two of us back in our rental car to the San Jose airport for our return flight, without working WiFi and in morning rush hour traffic – a more adrenaline-pumping adventure than ziplining, rappelling down canyons, bungee jumping, or white-water rafting could ever hope to be.