I don't know if charging horns of coconut rum at 9am, to shouts of 'Pura Vida' is a fair reflection of the Costa Rican philosophy of living the good life...
…. but I’m pretty sure grabbing the nearest hand and filling the morning ferry deck with salsa certainly is.
If you want to discover the meaning of the phrase which fills the air of this effervescent land, then first come to Santa Teresa, a secluded yet bustling beach town nestled deep at the southernmost point of the Pacific-facing Nicoya Peninsula.
The phrase, literally meaning pure life, has come to stand for the relaxed lifestyle that Ticans enjoy, and an appreciation for more simple pleasures. It’s something like a national slogan now, but nowhere is it better put in to practice than in this idyllic little spot, which has so much to offer visitors, but somehow still feels like a bit of a secret.
Much like the rest of the Pacific coastline of Central America, world-class waves draw surfers from all over the globe, many – quite understandably – seem keen to never leave. Whether you’re a tanned and tattooed, fully signed up tube rider, or just a beginner hoping to stand up on a board for the first time, the beaches around Santa Teresa offer some great breaks and plenty of space to master your skills.
Lessons and rentals are available throughout the town, through surf shops and most hotels and hostels.
There are also activities a little less adrenaline fuelled too, should relaxation be higher on your agenda, you can find yoga classes and camps to suit all levels of commitment. What better way to enjoy one of Playa Carmen’s jaw-dropping sunsets than in the downward dog position on baked golden sands.
Or if even that sounds a little bit too much like hard work, take the weight off your feet with a serene horse riding tour down the coastline.
Living the good life means eating well too of course, and Santa Teresa has an embarrassment of restaurant-riches for a town of its size, there’s loads of international variety and some really great value food too.
A typical Costa Rican breakfast of rice, beans, plantain and more can be picked up from one of the ‘sodas’ (traditional local cafes) for just a couple of quid.
At lunch be sure to check out the Chop In for revitalising salads spilling over with fresh organic ingredients, or if you’re not feeling quite so virtuous, some of the best burgers in town. The locally caught and smoked fish salad gets my pick, honestly it’s one of the best things I’ve eaten in a very long time.
If you’re still in the mood for seafood come teatime, Fish Bar offers all the usual fruits de mer, like fantastic crisp calamari, or quickly seared rare tuna steak with Cajun potatoes. Should you happen to head out on a fishing trip of your own, they’ll be happy to cook up your catch for a small fee.
For those that like somewhere to siesta, Casa Marbella is a great place to stay. The beautiful little boutique hotel just off the main drag combines unforgettable sea views with a salt-water hot tub and infinity pool that’s almost impossible to vacate.
Charming hosts Andre and Jessie have created an environment that’s at once homely, family orientated and yet also fantastically glamorous.
Whether you were feeling sensible and hired a car, flush and got the shuttle or adventurous enough for the local bus, chances are you’ll be getting the ferry over to Punta Arenas back on the mainland – and I’d highly recommend you do so.
During the ninety minute trip across the water I had a vitalising taste of ‘Pura Vida’, toasting triple shots of coconut rum, amongst salsa-dancing revellers, before the sun had climbed much past our eye lines.
A steep ascent towards the country’s mountainous interior brings nature-lovers to Monteverde, a haven of biodiversity thanks to its unique micro-climate. There are three cloud forest reserves in the area, each offering something a little different. I chose the more secluded and less well trodden Santa Elena Reserve which features five different trails of varying length and difficulty, frequented by only a handful of hikers each day.
It’s quite easy to find yourself walking alone for a few miles without seeing another soul, which I’d say is the best way to experience the magical ambience of these natural habitats.
Dense thick cloud and perpetual drizzle may sound a little to close to home for anyone living in the north west of England, but there’s something so beautiful about the lush peaceful environment, broken only by tropical bird song.
The fact that this cool damp forest refuge is only a few degrees north of the equator makes it all the more fascinating.
For those on a budget it turns out one of the best things to do in Monteverde is actually free. A short walk north of Santa Elena town rests a ficus tree – which is a little like the boa constrictor of the plant world – it wraps itself around a host to steal nutrients and sunlight. Now only the parasitic climber survives, and you can scramble your way up the inside to perch on top and enjoy a view of the whole town.
The prospect of hurtling through the air on a zip-line seems to be available in most places across Costa Rica, but there’s surely nowhere better to test your nerve than in this verdant undulating landscape. Parque de Aventura is the pick of the bunch, offering a canopy-crossing tour that culminates in two Superman-style lie down nosedives, before finally the gut swirling Tarzan swing, which is more bungee jump than jungle glide.
With rambling and adventure of the cards, it helps to feed up on hearty fare. Restaurants like Sabor Tico and Tico y Rico serve up the local solution, casado, which packs in the usual Central American suspects of rice, beans, plantain, cheese, tortillas and your choice of meat, fish or veg. It’s definitely the most cost effective way to refuel, but makes for a delicious platter too.
Base yourself at Hotel Las Orquideas for cosy log cabin style rooms overlooking the valley’s waterfalls on one side and the Pacific ocean in the opposite direction, with wildlife roaming the pretty flower filled gardens. Elegant handmade wooden furniture, inviting you to rest awhile, can be found in every corner of this quaint family-run homestead.
Occupying your trip with beaches and forest hiking would be more than enough to fill any Tican trip but of course, the country’s incredible array of wildlife is probably its biggest draw.
Perhaps the best place to witness some of this fantastically rich natural world is in Tortuguero, a remote spot on the Atlantic Ocean accessible only by boat or plane, named for the annual pilgrimage of egg laying sea turtles which grace the coastline.
Visit between July and October to witness this amazing spectacle, but don’t worry if that doesn’t fit your time frame, there are year-round animal experiences to be found.
A morning boat through Tortuguero National Park feels like setting out on the Amazon, binoculars in hand, and a few hours spotting is guaranteed to turn anyone in to a certified twitcher – resplendent toucans, kingfishers and macaws dive across the waters, serenading the dawn air.
You’ll also witness howler monkeys, with their blood-curdling growls, stealthy still caiman lizards camouflaged between cracks of sunlight and sloths lumbering along their branches.
For the best chance of getting close to some species at any time of day, sleeping at Tortuga Lodge & Gardens is a must, it’s nothing short of an animal-lovers paradise. Beautiful rooms in a riverside setting and jungle walks within the hotel grounds mean you might spot as much on your walk to breakfast as anywhere else in this forever animated country.
There is also wild Caribbean coast to explore, a morning spent picking a palm tree to rest under in the afternoon wouldn’t be a bad way to waste any day. A small town with modestly priced eateries serving local fare and street sellers cracking cold coconuts should be enough to keep you sustained.
From coast to coast this peaceful, welcoming and passionate part of the world is filled with wonderful people and experiences, just waiting for your visit.
Tim stayed at Casa MarBella, a boutique hillside retreat in Santa Teresa for more information and to book click here.
Tim stayed at Hotel Las Orquideas Monteverde a locally owned lodge on the edge of Santa Elena town for information and to book click here.
Tim enjoyed a tour of Tortuguero National Park and stay courtesy of Tortuga Lodge & Gardens for more information and to book click here.