By Jane Finn, Photography by David Finn
¡Pura Vida! ¡Pura Vida! In Costa Rica, whether you’re traversing a mountain trail, hiking in the jungle, relaxing by the water or ordering shi-frijo for lunch, you’re bound to be the recipient of this distinctive Tico greeting. Two simple words that translate as “Good Life,” but how do you define it?
Is it catching the perfect wave, thundering across a deserted beach on horseback or playing a round of golf beneath a jungle canopy? Is it meeting new people, savouring the local cuisine, volunteering or a combination of all or some of these pursuits?
For me, ¡Pura Vida! means doing more of what you love to do. Walking your happy path, wherever it may lead, and on this trip, it led us to the magical, majestic Pacific Coast.
I have to admit as I touch down in Costa Rica, I am not too impressed with San Jose. It’s boisterous, crowded and sprawling. Where is the peace and serenity, the nourishment I crave to feed my soul? However, within minutes of leaving the city, I get the answer to my question. Zipping along the highway en route to Jaco, the buildings that lined the narrow city streets soon give way to green, verdant rainforests, and the rallying cries of scarlet macaws replace honking horns, welcoming me to a piece of paradise on earth.
Costa Rica is a world leader when it comes to environmental protection and doing ecotourism right. This tiny Latin American country makes up less than 0.03% of the planet’s landmass but is home to more than 5% of the world’s biodiversity. More than half of Costa Rica remains undeveloped, and 25% of the land is protected and dedicated to national parks, marine reserves, and wildlife refuges. That’s what I am here to explore, and it isn’t long before I have my first taste of the wild.
I park the car at Crocodile Bridge and traverse it on foot to catch my first glimpse of these magnificent and somewhat terrifying reptiles. From high above the Tarcoles River, I safely count more than fifty crocodiles lazing on the beach or stealthily navigating the muddy waters. Even at two hundred feet, I could sense their power, their cunning and their strength. Crocodiles have inhabited the earth for millions of years, and in many cultures, they are revered as the keepers of ancient wisdom. Crocodiles remind us to absorb the experience before moving too quickly to the next activity. Intuitively I know that there are lessons they still have to teach me, so this would not be my last encounter with these unstoppable, untamable creatures.
As I pull off the highway and start climbing the private 1.5-kilometre road leading to Villa Caletas, my heart begins to sing. When French entrepreneur and visionary Denis Roy purchased this property in 1989, it was a wasteland. The rainforest had been decimated to make way for cattle ranching, and the landscape was barren and bleak. Today, every hectare has been painstakingly restored to its former glory and is once again teeming with life.
Within minutes of arriving at the main building, perched atop a 365-metre peak, I find myself on the terrace taking in the sweeping views of the Gulf Islands, Playa Herradura and the Nicoya Penisula. Over the next few days, I feast on incredible meals and enjoy unparalleled service from this vantage point at the Anfiteatro restaurant. However, watching the sunset over the vast expanse of ocean before me would become a nightly ritual that never failed to delight.
Between Villa Caletas and the Zephyr Palace, this charming property provides guests with a choice of ten different accommodations, exquisitely decorated and very romantic. I am lucky enough to snag a Junior Suite Superior with a private plunge pool, and after unpacking, taking advantage of this amenity was my number one priority. I had no sooner settled in with a perfectly chilled glass of wine in hand, ready to let my mind drift, when the overhanging tree branch began to rustle and sway. With bated breath, I wait to see who had come to call when a white-faced Capuchin monkey with her baby in tow emerged. I did nothing to entice her to stay, as it is illegal to feed or touch any wildlife except sit exceptionally still. For the next fifteen minutes, I am entranced watching them frolic between the jungle and stone wall that surrounded our hideaway – another memory to treasure and a harbinger of what was yet to come.
As difficult as it was to tear myself away from the tranquility of Villa Caleta, I am determined to get up close and personal with the crocodiles I had seen before. I have booked a safari with Jose’s Crocodile River Tour, and I’m so glad I did as it turns out to be an experience of a lifetime.
The tour starts calmly enough as we languidly cruise the Rio Tarcoles, encountering motmots, pelicans, howler monkeys, and more than a dozen crocodiles, the largest weighing in at 1900 pounds. About the halfway point of our journey, we round the bend and come upon a mother surrounded by thirty or more babies. Jose cut the motor to get a better look, suddenly a Tiger-Heron landed on the shore and snatched one of her babies before quickly dancing out of reach of Mama – I can only describe it as a ‘National Geographic’ moment, one I will never forget. She let out a fierce roar, and I could feel her anguish as she faced the difficult choice between saving the one or protecting the many.
Several people on the boat are pleading with the crew to intervene and save the baby, but they are adamant that we had to allow Nature to run her course. Amazingly, another Tiger-Heron arrives who is equally intent on stealing the prize. As the fray ensues, the heron drops the baby crocodile, and mom goes on the attack giving him a chance to get back in the water. A stark reminder how fragile life can be.
Day three, the sun has barely risen as I make my way to the entrance gates at Manuel Antonio, the smallest of Costa Rica’s 27 National Parks. Still, it’s one of my favourites because it contains several ecosystems within a compact area. Geographically and biologically complex, you could explore it on your own, but I find engaging a guide makes for a much richer experience, it’s also another way for you to be able to help the local economy. The same can be said for dropping a couple of dollars in the donation box at the wildlife refuges to support the volunteers who toil tirelessly to make sure these preserves will be there for generations to come.
Our friend Fabio Solano from Tee Times Costa Rica has hooked me up with a local who is not only a certified ICT naturalist but also a photo enthusiast. Danny has a trained eye and a keen ear, not to mention a big ass telescope. On every one of the eight trails, he points out sloths, toucans, frogs, flora, and fauna that I would never have observed. I did not see the elusive and endangered squirrel monkeys, but the howlers made their presence known, and the white-faced capuchins came out to play. Danny’s connection to Nature helped me capture some stunning images through his lens.
Of all the two-winged and four-leggeds we meet, I find the sloths the most intriguing. Ticos affectionately refer to them as ‘perozoso’, which translates as lazy, but I think that’s a misnomer. Sloths are ancient, arboreal mammals that spend most of their time hanging upside down, taking in their surroundings. According to Indigenous people, sloth symbolizes relaxation and conservation. When times get rough, they know how to adapt to change. They take time to think about their next move – skills we need to hone in these challenging times.
Costa Rica boasts more than 800-miles of coastline, and no vacation would be complete without some time by the sea. As much as I had enjoyed my inland adventures, I admit I am looking forward to spending time in Tamarindo, soaking up the sun and the beach town’s bohemian vibes.
For the next couple of days, I wander downtown on foot, chatting with local artisans and making a jewellery purchase or two along the way. I took a catamaran to Witch’s Rock to watch the surfers ply the waves, spent an afternoon snorkeling at a secluded bay, and visited Playa Grande, home to Las Baulas National Park and the largest nesting colony of leatherback turtles in the world. I also sampled more than a few cervezas at the Paradise and Volcano Brewing companies!
It’s our last night and looking for a little romance, we make our way to Panga’s, a casual but elegant beachfront restaurant at the far end of town. The furnishings aren’t fancy. Rustic chairs and tables appear randomly strewn across the white sand shore, but trust me, they are strategically placed to ensure everyone has a front-row seat to witness the sky splashed with pink, orange and purple as the sun goes down. The arrangement ensures that groups can freely converse while couples enjoy an intimate dinner for two.
And the food, in a word – fabulous! I have to say the Wahoo Carpaccio is heavenly, but the main courses are divine. If you’re a beef lover, be sure to try the Rib Eye. Know that it will be cooked to perfection since it arrives atop a volcanic rock that is heated to 500°allowing you to finish it off to the degree of rare/medium rare/well done that suits your personal taste.
Before retiring for the night, I gaze up at a star-filled sky, and a single word pops into my head – mellow – and I realize I have mentally slowed down and recognize that busyness is not a badge of honour.
Costa Rica is a place where you can raise your consciousness and be in the moment. Life is continuously manifesting itself around you. If you close your tablet, turn off your cell phone, and stop worrying about your number of likes, you can’t help but feel alive, aware, grounded and centred.
¡Pura Vida! is more than a marketing slogan; it’s a mindset that Costa Ricans take to heart and live every day. ¡Pura Vida! is about being, not just doing. It’s about enjoying life’s simple pleasures and taking stock of what’s important – family, friends and community. Perhaps that’s why Costa Rica is ranked #1 out of 140 countries as the “Happiest Place on Earth!” – I thought that was Finland?
When you’re ready to reconnect with your surroundings and yourself, Costa Rica awaits. It’s time to find your happy path.
To read the entire April 2021 issue of Planet Golf Review visit: https://planetgolfreview.com/PGR-planet-golf-review-magazine-issue-18.pdf