Bienvenido a Costa Rica! ¡Pura vida! Here I sit in a paradisiacal jungle, with a cup of strong coffee and a view of the rollicking Pacific Ocean, watching a family of Capuchin monkeys gamboling around stealing my bananas and mangoes.
We decided to stay put in one spot -- Manuel Antonio, on the west coast -- on this particular week-long trip, even though Costa Rica is comprised of an abundance of delightful ecosystems. I’ve heard that Manuel Antonio is very touristy, which trust me, is not a negative here. This means there are fabulous excursions within a short driving distance, and anyway, I am, in fact, a tourist who speaks only limited Spanglish. Plus, I don't like roughing it. So my crew and I fly to the capital city of San José—a direct flight from Charlotte—and then ride 2 1/2 hours (or 4 hours, depending on whether you judge by the actual drive time or the woefully underestimated Costa Rican times provided by our house guide) to get to the town of Quepos, in the Puntarenas province of the country.
The airport is like airports anywhere, full of comatose customs workers and hordes of jostling men offering taxis. And lovable signs:
But once we clear the airport, it’s smooth sailing. Just kidding. Once we clear that, we are bogged down in a 45-minute traffic jam on the main highway that turns out to be caused by a man lying in the middle of the road hand-painting the yellow double lines while a bunch of other men in hard hats stand around and watch him. I promise I am not making this up.
The drive is supremely gorgeous. Verdant hillsides, lush foliage, glimpses of sparkling blue seas from the vantage point of twisty, mountainous roads. And palm trees. I am not talking about a few palm trees dotted here and there. I am talking about millions of palm trees, planted with military precision in geometric rows, so that no matter which direction you look, you see a foresty corridor stretching away to infinity. Why? Why plant palm trees over thousands of kilometers? Hold tight: I’ll return to this subject.
We pass some small towns of interest along the way: the chill, unpretentious surf town of Hermosa, and a larger hamlet called Jaco (aka the Vegas of Costa Rica.) Also lots of pastures dotted with exhausted knobby white cows. Once we reach Quepos, a bustling little city of bright buildings and narrow streets, we turn left and wind our way up a gigantic hill to reach our destination: the tiny town of Manuel Antonio.
As best I can tell, Manuel Antonio consists of one winding cliffside street overlooking the jungle and the Pacific, sprinkled with bazillion-dollar rental houses, hotels, restaurants, and a few commercial businesses. Then you come down the hill on the other side and terminate in the beach. Our place is accessible only by a very steep stone staircase (47 stairs) starting at street level and leading down to the house. Situated smack in the middle of the jungle, our house has four levels, a teeny pool, multiple terraces and decks, and a glimpse of the ocean. Lots of interesting flora and fauna.
The Capuchins descend most every afternoon, dozens of them, including clingy little babies, roaming all over our rooftops and decks and the pool, snatching our bananas and squabbling with one another. We can also hear a howler monkey from time to time, which lets loose with a guttural, shiver-inducing, primal roar. If that isn't loud enough, all my children like to howl back at it. Our pool sounds like it’s hosting a convention of homicidal gorillas.
Fetching as all this is, we did not come to the tropics just to lay around the pool and bellow at other pissed-off primates. We came for adventure!
Day One: Our first outing is a sunset Catamaran tour. I’ve been on these before, in other places, and this is by far the best one I’ve ever done. First of all, Costa Ricans are, as a rule, pleasant, intelligent, efficient people, and the other boat passengers are interesting too: a beautiful Austrian family, a charming French-speaking older father and daughter from Montreal, and a honeymooning couple from Chicago. I want to Facebook friend everyone I meet here, including the boat dudes. Our boat is staffed by a couple young guys and their elderly uncle, who is the cook. To my mortification, the older man whips up an incredibly delicious meal of fresh fish (and the ubiquitous rice, beans, vegetables, and plantains served at every meal here) for thirty people in a few minutes, using only two hot plates in the cramped bottom of the Catamaran. I take three times as long every day to grumpily make dinner for five people in a spacious, well-equipped kitchen.
Braced by crisp, refreshing breezes and a bunch of rum drinks, we sail further out to sea, where we encounter a humpback whale, who obligingly surfaces right by our boat spraying giant plumes of water out of his blowhole. (Is that what those things are called? Sounds kind of gross when I write it out.) Then a couple show-offy dolphins join him, streaking just underwater alongside our rudders, leaping up in beautifully synchronized arcs. When I ask why they swim so close to us, the boat dude says they are very curious creatures. Also, he says, they like to race.
We stop to snorkel right in the midst of schools of bright blue and yellow and silver fish. A waterslide and a diving platform grace the top of our catamaran, so we all take turns whooping and leaping and sliding and cannonballing off the top of the boat. I feel like I’m ten years old. Then we get back on and lazily circle around the glinting water, watching the florescent orange orb of the sun sink into the horizon, lighting up the sky in a kaleidoscope backsplash of pinks and golds. Everyone snaps away on their iPhones like they’ve never seen a sunset before, but we all agree: this has to be the most beautiful sunset in the entire history of sunsets.
Day Two: Whitewater rafting. A bus picks us up from the top of our stairs, and drives us into the heart of the jungle. The main guide for this one is a gregarious young Costa Rican who regals us on the drive with the backstory of all those palm trees. Turns out there was a significant banana blight in the 1940s, which began decimating the 14,000 hectares of farmland around the port town of Quepos. The United Fruit Company, in an attempt to stem the bleeding, imported African palm trees and began harvesting palm oil. Palm oil comes from these little clusters of fruit at the tops of the trees, sort of resembling round red dates, that the workers extract by means of long skinny pitchforks. It’s backbreaking labor, especially as the trees get taller. They never stop growing, and so eventually the fruit company chops them down and replants them when they reach heights of around thirty feet. So as you drive along, you see clusters of trees of vastly different heights. Once the palm fruits are down, the workers load them onto little carts pulled by buffalo. They also use machetes to clear out the underbrush, which teems with poisonous vipers, so this is not a highly desirable job. According to our guide, a lot of the workers are Nicaraguan. (Brief geography lesson: if you turn left out of Quepos, you’ll reach Nicaragua in about five hours; if you turn right, you’ll reach Panama in two). Owing to its high saturated fat content, Americans don’t use palm oil for cooking much anymore, but it is also used for biodiesel fuel. There. Now you know a brand-new thing, which I am sure you were not expecting to learn today.
The rafting is terrific. It’s the dry season, so the rivers are down, which is perfect for my crew of little ones, but also makes us more likely to be impaled on a giant rock. Luckily we have talented guides. To be a rafting guide in ‘Rica, they apparently require you to be a tattooed international hottie in your twenties. Some of our guides are Costa Rican, of course, but one is Croatian, and one is from Boston, and they’re all lean and muscly. The paddling is oddly soothing even though it’s hard, the landscape—a silvery river winding its way along a mountaintop—is lovely, and the water is cool and refreshing. Every now and then, we come upon a patch of churning rapids, which we navigate like complete badasses. We stop to swim, snack on pineapple, and shower in a waterfall.
Somewhere along the way, my daughter slices her toe open. I immediately worry about this, because this particular child is the most pain-intolerant person on earth, but it turns out all you need to be brave in the face of injury is to be surrounded by a phalanx of attentive, attractive rafting guides. I stare in amazement as the owner of the mangled toe flips her hair and giggles as the guides tend to her. I’m going to have to figure out a way to bring these guys back to the ER with me.
Day Three: Zip-lining. Needless to say, this takes place in the rainforest. This necessitates another drive—maybe 30-45 minutes—through Quepos and then the palm oil plantations. Once you leave the town, most of the drive through the plantations consists of bumpy gravel or dirt roads, the foliage for twenty feet on either side of the road shrouded in khaki-gray dust kicked up by every passing vehicle. Every now and then we encounter a fat truck equipped with dual water blasters spraying down the road in an attempt to settle the dust clouds. This is done not to protect the graying plants, but rather the little townships we pass, miles and miles from paved roads in the heart of the forest. I’d be staring at rows of palm trees, and they’d suddenly give way to a row of shacks with corrugated tin roofs and open windows, all of them adorned with satellite dishes. Although these plantation people are clearly poor, they don’t appear destitute: the children all wear neat blue or white collared shirts and khaki shorts, and even the smallest hamlet boasts a nice school. In fact, in Costa Rica learning is so prized that in 1948 the government actually did away with their military—they are one of the only developed countries without an army, navy or air force—to focus on education and ecological preserves. Every single town has a school, no matter how remote: a third of of the country’s budget is spent on education, which is both free and mandatory for its citizens. The literary rate here is almost 98%.
After passing the palm oil villages, we reach the zip-lining place, located in a clearing at the base of a mountain. The guides get us all harnessed up and this is where my trouble starts. I don’t want to get too graphic here, but imagine dangling by a wedgie enhanced by the entire weight of your body. When they launch me off the first platform I yelp in shock, too preoccupied by the unfortunate situation in my groin to notice that I’m careening at high speed hundreds of feet above the forest floor. I’m sure it was beautiful.
By the third platform I’ve adjusted things to the point where I’m no longer dying but I am still feeling a tad grim. What in tarnation is wrong with my harness? I’m too afraid to mess with it further, convinced I’ll wind up as a headline in BuzzFeed: Grotesque Ziplining Accident After Woman Accidentally Disconnects Wedgie Harness. Inexplicably, everyone else seems to be perfectly comfortable.
Eventually, I recover to the point of showing off by swooping around with my hands held aloft instead of gripping the rope for dear life, but I am ready to remove this infernal contraption and have lunch. I decline the Superman portion of the zip-line, which is probably a mistake. You lie prone in that one, suspended by an array of ropes along the length of your body and glide facedown the length of the whole mountain. My six year-old does it and pronounces it “goodly fun.” Oh well. I’m happy to eat. All of these excursions feed you lunch, which is some variation of rice, beans, fish and vegetables. They have this sauce in green jars, which I highly recommend. Lizano Salsa, it’s called, and it is freaking delicious. Yum.
Day Four: We were supposed to do a rainmaker tour—something in the rainforest again—but we bail and go to the beach. Ooh la la. It would have been a short walk to the beach from our house, but the sidewalks are basically nonexistent in places and there are a lot of hairpin turns. Acting on inside information from Rambo, our cook, we take the bus—easy peasy—and get out at a restaurant called Kachá, situated a stop or two before the main entrance to the beach. The owner rents us chairs and umbrellas on a quiet section of seashore, away from all the mobs, and brings out a steady stream of mojitos and beer. Bliss.
The beach is glorious. Teal-blue water, although not transparent like it is in the Caribbean. The jungle hugs the periphery in a gentle curve so the view is lovely in all directions. The water temperature hovers around perfection—warm and comfortable, but cool enough to be refreshing—and a strong breeze continually nudges you so you don’t roast. The waves, which are about my height, crash close to shore.
Some of us go parasailing, some of us read, some of us splash into the water. I read for a bit and then decide to go for a swim. I love swimming in the ocean. I bounce out, happy as can be, and dive under a big wave. Then I bodysurf in, and it’s so much fun, I do it again. But this time, I get bashed upside the head by a much-bigger rogue wave, and it knocks me under. Sputtering, I come up exactly in time to get pummeled by an even bigger wave, and this one spins me under before I can get a breath and it churns me around until I can't tell which way is up. There’s a horrible burning in my chest—not just air hunger, but a sharp, full, foreign feeling— and I realize I’ve breathed in a gulp of seawater. I don't have any oxygen left in my lungs and I know I can't hold out much longer until my next involuntary breath.
I don’t feel fear so much as a desperate disappointment and a sickening shock. Even in the midst of imminent death, I can't believe it and I absolutely don't want it. I want to be alive! I love my life! In my last frantic surge of strength, I kick toward what I think is the surface, and my face hits the bottom, hard. By now, the sentient part of my brain is graying out, like a pixellated cable malfunction, and my disappointment gives way to a monstrous fatigue. I feel very, very tired.
I don’t know how I come up. But I do, obviously, and another wave comes crashing down on me as soon as I catch a breath of air, so I have to go back under again. It feels like a huge hand shoving the top of my head. But this time, my feet hit the bottom, and I kick up hard. I get lucky and manage to flail a few yards forward before the next wave hits, and this time I catch the wave and coast on it. My arms and legs are noodles and I’m shaking. My chest still burns with that strange heaviness and my face hurts, bad, because my sinuses are completely full of salt water. I lean my head forward and let the water run out. I’ve also partially lost my bikini top—it had come untied and is floating around my neck like a drift of hot-pink seaweed—but at this point I’m unconcerned with propriety. I stand up as soon as I’m close enough for my feet to hit bottom and tie it back. Then I stagger in to shore, waving my arms in feeble circles above my head to alert everyone of the incoming tsunami.
“Rescue the children,” I gasp to my husband, who is calmly sipping a beer. “Everyone out of the water! There’s a vicious undertow! I almost drowned.”
He eyes me with what looks suspiciously like amusement. “That happens every time I bodysurf,” he says.
“No!” I screech. “It’s dangerous! Look!” I point toward the ocean, where old people and toddlers are bobbing leisurely along the length of a tiny, genteel wave. I blink.
“You’ve got mascara all over your face,” my husband says, kindly dabbing a corner of his napkin along the condensation on his beer glass. “Here, let me help you.”
“For real, I nearly died,” I tell him. Grimacing, I blow another foul glop of ocean out of my nose.
“I’ll go watch the children,” my husband promises. “Here, why don't you rest for a minute? I ordered you a mojito.”
Okay, so other than this, I’m really enjoying the beach.
Day Five: Canyoning tour. Somehow we thought we had signed up for a different, milder version of this tour, so we’re a little taken aback when it starts. First, we pass through the usual dusty plantation towns. (Side note: there are four elements required to call yourself a town in Costa Rica: a church, a school, a soccer field, and a bar. Usually they are all cattycorner to each other, thus constituting the main square. Everything else is optional.)
When we get to the rain forest, our guides attach a bunch of gear to us and usher us up a rickety rope ladder extending millions of feet into the tree canopy. The kids clamber up looking like spider monkeys, and the adults creep up looking like large frightened adults, staring fixedly at each rusty rung. We reach the top and make our way out onto an overcrowded platform. I look around and immediately regret it. Here we are: a thousand pounds of terrified, sweaty Norte Americanos, literally hugging a tree. The tree is crawling with ants, but I press my cheek against it anyway, trying to figure what I’ll grab onto if the platform gives way, which, by the look of it, could happen at any moment. Instead of being made of nice reassuring iron or something, it’s constructed of nailed planks of elderly wood, one of which has already partially caved in. Meanwhile the kids are milling around, straining against their tether cords, arms pinwheeling like suicidal baby birds as they lean out over the abyss.
One by one, we’re harnessed up to a zip line and sent soaring, which is infinitely preferably to cowering on the doomed platform. This time I’m not suffering from a painful crotch attack, so I enjoy myself. The next platform looks a little better, too: no rotten boards. There’s another longer zip line. Then we reach the suspension bridge.
I don’t know what the term ‘suspension bridge’ brings to mind for you, but to me, it had conjured up an image of attractive steel cables and a wide walkway, possibly large enough for a car to pass. This suspension bridge turns out to be a single, thin rope to walk on, strung out above a terrifying crevasse, with two similarly thin ropes to grip as you go. Tightrope walking, basically. It takes me a minute to figure out you’re supposed to angle each foot diagonal to the rope, rather than directly along its length, so the first few steps I take are disastrously unstable. For extra excitement, as soon as I pass the point of no return, the guide behind me shakes the rope and cackles. All of these excursions have accompanying photographers, and this one perfectly captures the hysterical expression on my face as I fervently vow to be a better person if only I make it off this damn piece of string alive. The kids, of course, barrel across like it’s a sidewalk.
I think it can't get worse, and actually I’m right. That was the worst. However, the next adventure, waterfall rappelling, presents its own challenges. I’m not excellent when it comes to mastery of mechanical contraptions, and I feel certain I’ll screw this up and bash headfirst into the rocky cliff on my way down. As it turns out, I execute a perfectly controlled descent. At the bottom I plunge into a little pool, pleased by my athletic prowess and adventurous spirit. I hadn't been truly frightened by all that stuff before! Just a little exhilarated!
We proceed to the next stop, which the guides say is a “surprise.” We obligingly attach ourselves to a swinging rope, and allow the guides to shove us off yet another platform, where we dangle helplessly far above the forest floor. My six year-old goes first, wearing a calm but faintly surprised expression before she suddenly vanishes from sight, plummeting approximately fifty feet in under two seconds. (Of course, six- year-olds often wear a faintly surprised expression, since basically everything in their lives happens without them anticipating it.) My turn. After toying with me by several false drops of a few feet, they loosen the rope and send me free-falling. With a tremendous thwap sound, I smack into a pool far below, shooting dual jets of amoeba-laden water up my nose. I guess I don’t look wet enough, because the guide at the bottom helpfully splashes me in the face a few times just to make sure.
We trudge along to the next platform, where we zip-line backwards nearly straight down to another free-fall jump, this one over dry land. And that, thankfully, is the end. Feeling invigorated because none of us died, we enjoy our lunch and watch a photo slideshow documenting our bravery.
Day Six: Acting on another tip from a local, we take a taxi to Arenas Del Mar. This is a seaside hotel with a private beach, accessible only by golf cart. The taxi lets us out at the end of a very steep road, and the golf carts whisk us away through a very hilly, very lovely forest. It feels a lot like we’re in Jurassic Park, right before the T Rex attacks. On the journey to the beach, we finally—FINALLY—see a sloth. My kids have been dying to see a sloth. The actual experience is underwhelming as the sloth just clings lethargically to the top of a tree, resembling nothing so much as a lumpen grayish wasp nest with claws.
Then the golf carts pull up to the most appealing beach I’ve ever seen. A tiny green infinity pool perches on a deck, full of adorable tots and wholesome, smiling mommies and daddies. The Balinese-style alfresco restaurant of the hotel overlooks the shore, two-thirds of which is shaded by gorgeous low trees with wide bright-green leaves, growing right out of the beach. The sunlight filters through, casting the polished teak furniture in a soft dappled glow, with tables and chairs and swings and soft cushy chaises and even padded low beds dispersed hither and yon on the generous expanse of powdery sand. All of this leads right into pristine clear water with rollicking waves even bigger than the ones that had nearly subsumed me two days before, churning under a bright blue sky. The entire place reeks of posh decadence and stunning natural beauty. Charming waiters materialize out of thin air, bearing icy ginger-banana liquor drinks and bottles of champagne on ice. With exuberant grins at our good fortune, we collapse into the chairs and nearly take down a sloth with a renegade champagne cork. Lunch is delicious, naturally.
Food: There are an abundance of fabulous open-air restaurants overlooking the Pacific in Manuel Antonio, but they seem to be uniformly empty during our stay. Apparently this is because many of the houses have private chefs. If you’re in a large group, or even a regular-sized family, a vacation house is the way to go. It’s often cheaper than a bunch of hotel rooms and you aren't crammed into a grubby bedroom, every surface festooned by clumps of sand and a discarded article of your kids’ clothing. Unlike Caribbean countries, the staff is not included in the cost of the house—you pay extra—but it is so worth it. I cannot overstate my profound enjoyment each morning and evening at not having to produce a meal for multiple people.
Our chef, Rambo, is a bright, articulate, engaging guy who loves rafting and holds an advanced degree in hospitality services. “I love to cook,” he tells us, a wide smile lighting up his face. “I cook all day and then I come home and I cook some more because I love it so much I cannot stop.” I nod, even though I have no idea how anyone could possibly feel that way. I like cooking a lot of the time, but the pressure to produce meal after meal after meal—not to mention all the associated cleaning—is wearying at best. Rambo serves fresh, elaborate, healthy multi-course meals which all of us fall upon like starving beasts. Like most places near the equator, the cuisine is heavy on beans and rice—they have it at every meal—but even my picky eaters seem to love it. There's tons of fresh fruit, roasted vegetables, and fresh fish. Rambo can make anything: ceviche, guacamole, empanadas, crab dip, tres leches, Bananas Flambé, filet with chimichurri sauce, grilled lobster. Afterward, he and his assistant also clean up, which is fortunate because the rest of us have splatted to the ground in food comas.
The climate: In three words: hot and humid. But cool ocean breezes temper the heat, along with an odd meteorological quirk: unlike North Carolina, where mornings are cool and afternoons are often scorching, the reverse seems to be the case here. I have no idea why this would be, but it happens every day: by mid-afternoon, the warmth dissipates, the air takes on a crisper feel, and the slanting rays of sunlight wash out over the Pacific like a spilled goblet of golden champagne. Needless to say, sunsets are spectacular. And early: in March, it’s fully dark by 6:30 or so.
Money: The local currency is colones, but don't bother with money exchanges because everyone accepts dollars. (Although the price may be higher in dollars...) Unfortunately, not everyone accepts credit cards, so in the middle of the trip I find myself in the unfortunate position of having to go to a bank after my ATM imposed a ridiculous $100 limit. As previously mentioned, I speak limited Spanglish (bolstered by an occasional inappropriate Italian or French phrase) so I’m a bit dismayed to find I’d blundered into the only bank in Manuel Antonio where no one speaks English. After a confusing but pleasant sign-language conversation with a security guard, I’m made to understand that getting any money requires a passport, so I trudge back to our house and retrieve mine. I return, panting like someone in the throes of labor from a combination of the exertion, the heat, and the 47 stairs. After a long wait, I realize I was supposed to have signed in on a computer. I do so and am assigned number setenta y nueve. I shuffle off to a government-office style waiting room, where I grow old and die.
Ha, not really. But it takes an extraordinarily long time, like maybe an hour. Eventually my number is called and I manage to communicate to the bank guy that I want some money. He makes an old-fashioned carbon copy of my bank card, charges me an exorbitant fee, forks over the dollars, and I limp back out into the stifling heat. Moral of the story: take gobs of cash with you.
So, finally, let's go back to the national motto of Costa Rica, which they say not only as an expression for living a peaceful, simple, and deeply appreciative life, but also as an eternal expression of optimism. It's a belief, an emotion, an attitude, a figure of speech, and a way of life here; the idea that what you have is in some way good.
¡Pura vida, y'all!