As someone who lands somewhere between atheist and agnostic on the spectrum of religious beliefs, I wasn’t expecting to contemplate prayer during my trip to Costa Rica in September last year. Yet, here I was being chauffeured by a guide in a cargo van up the side of a mountain, my eyes clenched firmly shut, because I couldn’t bear to look out the window for another second, contemplating prayer.
“What do I have to lose?” I recall thinking. “Praying can’t hurt. Just in case there is a God after all.”
I’d wanted to vacation in Costa Rica for many of the same reasons most people want to vacation in Costa Rica: to get away from it all, to relax a bit, to lay eyes upon scenery so beautiful that it seems computer-generated, etc. But there was another reason I wanted to visit Costa Rica: to conquer some fears.
To get more specific, I’ve long been terrified of heights and drowning. I’m the kind of person who can barely stand to approach a window in a really tall building, and for just about as long as I can remember, I’ve had recurring nightmares about drowning; sinking below the surface of the water, lungs screaming for air, only to become a meal for crustaceans or sharks, or both. By the time I sat cowered in a van, making a plea for mercy to God — who I’ve commonly referred to as “an invisible folk hero living in the sky who was invented by pre-science storytellers” — I’d already raced through the sky over mountains and rain forests at 60+ miles an hour on a cable no thicker than a common garden hose, dove off a cliff into a river, whitewater rafted, and hiked up the side of an active volcano.
At no point during any of this, however, had I contemplated prayer. Yet here we were, almost high enough to touch clouds, with rocky cliffs thousands of feet tall just outside the van’s windows, moving briskly on wet, narrow roads. Looking up at me squirming through his rearview mirror, my guide, Edgar — a 40-ish, stocky, gruff-but-nice native Costa Rican — tried to reassure me and, in the process, ease my fears.
“Don’t worry. In Costa Rica, everybody drives crazy,” he said. “So it’s okay.”
Did I mention that it was raining? Quite hard. Like, rainy-season-torrential-downpour-hard.
In the end, Edgar appears to have been right. In my entire time in Costa Rica, when I took note of several “WTF?!” moments on the roads, I never saw a single accident. Upon returning home to the U.S., it took me roughly five minutes after leaving the airport to encounter a multi-car pileup. Go figure. As cheesy as it may sound, seeing the pileup was a subtle reminder of how everything in life can change in an instant, and I felt fortunate to have had the experiences I’d just had in Costa Rica.
With all of that said, here are some of the things I did/saw/heard/felt when I spent a week in Costa Rica in September 2015.
— It’s nearly impossible to go outside in Costa Rica without having some contact with the phrase “Pura Vida,” the country’s official motto. Translated literally it means “pure life,” but it seems to mean so much more there. It’s used as a way to say hello or goodbye, while also serving as a reminder of how beautiful life is. For instance, you might have a stunning plate of food placed in front of you and the person dining with you might look at it and say “Pura Vida” in a drawn-out way (“Puuuraaaa Viiiiida”) that roughly translates to “Holy shit look at that, this is what it means to be living!” More than anything, Pura Vida has come to symbolize what it means to live in Costa Rica. Simply put, it’s a way of life, one symbolized by peaceful, care-free living, reverence for the Earth and the environment, a life unencumbered by material pursuits and devoid of individualism, in favor of community. It’s an ethos that is, frankly, the opposite of the spirit of culture in the U.S., which I found quite refreshing.
— More often than not, travelers visiting to Costa Rica will fly into San Jose, which I frankly did not care for much. My advice: If you plan to fly into Costa Rica via San Jose, maybe get in and immediately head to wherever your first destination outside the city is. There’s just not all that much to see and do and it’s… well… a bit of dirty, loud Central American city. Also, I’ve been in lots of big cities in my life, and I’ve rarely felt more unsafe at night walking the streets alone than I did in San Jose. It didn’t help that someone at my hotel suggested that I keep one hand on my wallet when I did, in fact, venture out into the streets at night.
— One more note about San Jose: hardly any of the customs agents in the airport spoke English when I passed through, which I found somewhat surprising. So be sure to brush up on your basic Spanish before passing through. I found San Jose in general to be a place where not speaking decent Spanish was a big drawback, while most of the places I visited outside San Jose were easier for non-Spanish speakers. In short, I did not find San Jose, or its airport, to be particularly welcoming.
That said, if you do have to spend any time in San Jose, I highly recommend you stay at the Hotel Grano de Oro. It’s a Victorian home that’s been converted into a boutique hotel and it felt like a calm, relaxing oasis amid the dirty, hectic surroundings of San Jose. The French/Mediterranean restaurant housed inside the hotel is pretty good, as well.
— One of the first things I noticed when traveling around Costa Rica was the abundance of Coca-Cola signage all over the place. You see them at roadside restaurants known as “sodas” — I was told they’re called this because when American tourists started to pour into the country years ago they were always asking for soda — at fruit stands, on bus stops, everywhere. You’d swear that the entire country was sponsored by the soft-drink titan.
— The rainy season, which runs from June to November, was in full swing when I visited Costa Rica, and I have to say that I highly recommend visiting Costa Rica during the rainy season. The almost daily afternoon rainstorms are not that bad, typically lasting a half hour or so, a perfect time for napping, and the entire country is just so lush and beautiful during this time. Perhaps most importantly, you kind of have your run of the whole place during this time; hotels and resorts have more vacancies, which means lower rates, and there’s rarely a need for reservations at restaurants. Not having to fight tourist crowds only serves to enhance the Pura Vida life in Costa Rica.
— Something else I noticed immediately when traveling around the Costa Rican countryside was that almost every home, almost all of which are downright ramshackle in comparison with American houses, sports a red satellite dish on its roof.
— If you visit, be sure to try the tropical fruit they call a mamón. You can get them at most fruit stands, of which there’s no shortage of. I’ll admit being hesitant at first, as mamóns are probably the most peculiar-looking fruit I’ve ever laid eyes on — like a heart with long hairs growing out of it in all directions — but once I had my first I couldn’t get enough. They’re violently delicious. I left kind of saddened by the fact that they’re rarely found on produce shelves in the U.S.
I should add that one of my most vivid memories of Costa Rica is the smell of the roadside fruit stands; so very vibrant, a feast for the olfactory senses, they smell alive, like I imagine heaven would smell if it exists.
— The whitewater rafting expedition I went on was one of the most terrifying but exhilarating things I’ve ever done. Led by Rio Tropicales, a Costa Rican tour company, we spent the day rafting through rainforests along a 19-mile stretch of the Pacuare River, passing waterfalls and lush greenery along the way. I also spotted parrots, toucans, exotic butterflies and countless monkeys during the trip. Our guide, Kevin, couldn’t have been more professional, knowledgable, and comforting, and I somehow managed to go the entire trip without falling out of the raft into the water, the only person in the raft to do so. I was quite proud of this and probably always will be.
— In the same raft as me were a couple from Spain who were spending a month vacationing in Costa Rica, and a couple from Birmingham, England, who’d both taken year-long hiatuses from work to travel through Central and South America. They chastised me (and Americans in general, by proxy) for only vacationing for a week. It was a reminder how taking time extensive off from work is looked upon with scorn in American culture, while its something that’s encouraged and embraced in others.
— There are no sidewalks along the highways in the Costa Rican countryside, so people actually walk along the highways with children and animals in tow. Motorists just swerve to avoid them, and/or slow down to wait for oncoming traffic to pass before going around them. In the U.S. these people would be mowed down and the people who mow them down likely wouldn’t be charged with any crimes because the pedestrians would be considered insane.
— I spent a couple of days in La Fortuna staying at the Arenal Kioro resort, which was nothing short of spectacular. This was the view from my bed looking out over the balcony…
That’s the Arenal volcano in the distance, btw, one of seven active volcanoes in Costa Rica. The Arenal Kioro resort sits just outside it on 27 acres, surrounded by two streams. My room was enormous by any standard of hotel-room size, with two queen beds and a hot tub in the room.(I uploaded a video tour of my room here.) Waking up to this view each morning was above average, to say the least.
— The Arenal Kiaro resort features a long, winding, driveway that made me feel like I was visiting the home of a Hollywood mogul or head of state or drug kingpin. (I uploaded video of a journey up that driveway here.) Perhaps not surprisingly, the resort was almost eerily quiet at night, with the only sounds being birds chirping in the surrounding rainforest and an occasional human voice of people walking the grounds.
— I literally thought I might soil my pants on my first attempt at zip-lining across a mountain range with Costa Rica Sky Adventures. It didn’t help that I googled “zip-line accidents” at my hotel before heading out that morning. I mean, just look at this…
I almost turned and left when I saw that view, but I didn’t (the CRSA guides leading the group I was with could not have been more comforting and reassuring) and I’m so glad that I went through with it. Flying across the rainforests high up in the sky was an incredible experience.
— Something I loved about Costa Rica is that the milk they bring to your table to add to your coffee in restaurants is brought hot, not cold. Edgar, my guide, was aghast when I told him that milk served with coffee is served cold in America. His face registered a look of utter confusion bordering on disbelief, as if I’d told him Matthew McConaughey wasn’t really from Texas or something.
— At dinner one night in La Fortuna, Edgar and some of the waiters in the restaurant we were dining in got to talking about tourists, specifically which country’s tourists are the best and which are the worst. I was somewhat surprised to learn that they generally like Australian and American tourists (granted, they could have been just humoring me, an American), while Israeli and Spanish tourists rated as the worst. The Israelis tend to be rude and arrogant, they claimed, while the Spaniards are reviled for showing up late to restaurants, holding tables for hours, and then tipping poorly at the end of the night.
— My favorite meal while in Costa Rica was probably the lunch I had at the Don Juan eco farm in La Fortuna. It consisted of tilapia, rice and beans — which are served at virtually every meal in Costa Rica — fresh mango, tomatoes, and cucumbers, and Yuca chips; and everything served was raised/grown right there on the farm using the manure of two old cows as fertilizer. Not only was the meal incredible, but the whole experience was a crash course in sustainable living. After I ate I was given a short tour of the farm by Sergio, one of the farm’s workers and a true believer in its mission.
“We are people of the world, so we want to protect the world,” Sergio told me. “We respect the environment and want to do everything we can to protect it.”
— At some point on the third or fourth day I was in Costa Rica, the subject of prostitution came up, namely because I had seen no overt signs of it despite it being famously legal in the country. Upon me asking something to the effect of, “What’s the deal with prostitution in Costa Rica?” Edgar responded flatly by asking, “You want a girl? I can get you a girl.” When I told him that I didn’t want him to do so, that I was just asking because I had some curiosities about it in general, he seemed relieved. “Oh good, because I didn’t take you as someone who comes to Costa Rica to pay for girls. You strike me as a real Pura Vida kind of guy.” It was arguably one of the best compliments anyone has ever given me.
— I spent my last few days in Costa Rica at the Parador Resort and Spa in Punta Quepos, home to the stunning Manuel Antonio National Park, which boasts a wide array of exotic plants and animals (sloths, monkeys, lizards and birds in particular). Situated between the beaches of the Pacific Ocean and the jungle of the national park, every view afforded by the windows of my room offered something unique and stunning. (I uploaded a video tour of my roomhere.) For instance, my balcony offered a Pacific Ocean view worthy of a postcard, while the window in the show of my bathroom often provided me with a view of monkeys playing a lot of the time.
— The main pool at the Parador Resort also featured a pretty spectacular view.
— One of my favorite things in the Manuel Antonio area — hell, all of Costa Rica, for that matter — was El Avión, a restaurant and pub that’s housed inside an American cargo plane that was shot down over Nicaragua in 1986, sparking the Iran/Contra scandal that took place during the Reagan administration. The food was average but the setting was just so incredibly cool. I couldn’t help wondering if Oliver North has ever been there.
— One of the advantages of spending a few days on Costa Rica’s Pacific coast in August/September is getting to be up close and personal with some migrating whales.
— Edgar and I stopped at a roadside cafe one Saturday afternoon to watch a Costa Rica vs Brazil soccer match with some locals. It was a wonderfully atypical “sports bar” experience, for a host of reasons. Some of those reasons are obvious in the photo below, but also because it was here that I had an empanada that I still think of often, in addition to one of the best cups of coffee I’ve ever consumed, which was made pour-over style using what looked like a sock and a beat-up tin can. The fireworks of flavors that went off in my mouth at this simple little spot on the side of the road was a delightful surprise.
— I was told that you can book this treehouse in the beach town of Domenical on AirBnB. Thinking of staying here next time I visit Costa Rica.
— Along the five-hour drive from La Fortuna to Manuel Antonio, we crossed a bridge over the Rio Tarcoles, a river that runs through the central part of the country down to the Pacific Ocean. As we approached the bridge, there were dozens of people standing on it to look over the edge to the river below. Upon stopping, getting out and walking over, I discovered why: the Tarcoles is rife with crocodiles. I was told that the locals have nicknames for many of them, including “Monica Lewinsky,” the big one in the photo below. I didn’t ask why the croc had come to be named that, but you can draw your own assumptions.
— I departed Costa Rica on Sept. 6, 2015. When he dropped me off at the airport for my flight home, Edgar had a simple question for me, but one that was laced with incredulousness: “Trump? Really?” At that time the primaries were still in full swing and it would be months before any presidential election ballots were cast. Somewhat humored by his question, I confidently responded to him by saying, “Don’t worry, there’s no way the American people are going to elect Donald Trump to be president.” Edgar then said, “Good, because Trump is not a Pura Vida guy.”
Fast forward precisely a year later and on the morning of Sept. 6, 2016 CNN released a poll showing Trump with a slight lead over Hillary Clinton. It’s all got me thinking about Costa Rica a lot these days, specifically about how it basically struck me as the opposite of what I imagine America would be like under Trump in every way. I’m not saying we should all up and move to Costa Rica in the event of a Trump presidency, but it should be high up on any list of potential places for Americans to flee to for those who might be considering leaving to live abroad.
At the very least, it should be one of the first places Americans think of when looking for a place to escape Trumpism and all it entails. I’ll take the Pura Vida life over the “Make America Great Again” life any day.