What does it mean to live a pure life? Is it having high morals or abstaining from toxic substances? Following individual passions instead of cultural dogma perhaps? Or is it experiencing the best that life has to offer?
Whatever your definition, Costa Ricans live a figurative and literal version of it. “Pura Vida,” they ask upon greeting one another. “Pura Vida,” comes the reply. The phrase can be used to express excitement, to say you’re welcome, offer a “no worries” when a minor offense has taken place, or even encourage the receiver to hang loose and go well.
For a list of reasons, Costa Rica isn’t as undiscovered as it once was. Since the late 1980s, the country has bloomed into the poster child for ecotourism and adventure travel. In fact, nearly 3 million visitors come to this “rich coast” each year to witness five percent of the world’s total biodiversity, zip-line some of its finest jungles, surf its greatest beaches, or river raft through emerald rainforests.
If you’re searching for a destination to impress your well-traveled friends or value rock-bottom prices over remarkable experiences, don’t go to Costa Rica. But if you like getting wet and want to experience one of the world’s most proven and beautiful playgrounds for green adventure, exotic wildlife, and extremely good vibes, here’s why you should immediately upgrade Costa Rica to your bucket list.
On my first five days in Costa Rica, I rappelled, climbed, cliff jumped, swung, swam, and conquered Gravity Falls. I tried and failed to touch the powerful Fortuna Waterfall before being baptized by it; mountain-biked through rural towns; and paddle-boarded in front of an exhilarating volcano at Lake Arenal. Flew like Superman and swung like Tarzan through the extreme Cloud Forest of Monteverde. Surfed righteous waves in the warm waters of Jaco Beach. And floated 17 miles on the Indiana Jones-approved Pacuare River—a top rafting adventure. All of that doesn’t come cheap, mind you. But it’s still 30% less on average than you’d pay for something you can’t get elsewhere. Two full days of jungle rafting, for instance, plus one overnight at a crazy remote retreat and all meals included costs only $300 per person.
Costa Rica can be defined as highly accessible and concentrated fun. These qualities allowed me to do all of the above in such a short amount of time. Costa Rica is the size of Maryland and Connecticut put together and possesses less than .02% of the world’s landmass. Which means you can drive to all its goodness on its admittedly slow-moving roads in a few hours at most. Not that you’d want to go any faster on these byways. All of the country is a “scenic route” after all, if not for the surrounding views then certainly for the insane amount of animal and plant life you’ll encounter at virtually every turn.
Unless I can eat them, I’m usually not one to fuss over plants and animals. I love my dog and respect mother nature. But I wouldn’t call myself a biology or botany enthusiast. That said, the non-human things that grow and live in Costa Rica still gave me pause a number of times. I observed the famously poisonous (and tiny) red and black frogs in a patch of trees by a parking lot. I was dumbfounded by the slowness of naturally occurring sloths (spoiler alert: they live up to their reputation of not doing much). I counted more Toucans in five days than I ever saw in two years of living in Brazil. I saw oversized blue, yellow, and red butterflies drunkenly fly in the air all week. I was told there are more birds here than in all of North America combined and believe it after hearing their raucous symphony at volumes I didn’t think were possible. National Geographic must love this place.
Costa Rica is both beautiful and has a lot of things for visitors to eat, sleep on, and do. And for the ecologically minded, Costa Ricans offer this in a respectful, preservation-minded sort of way. But they’re also creative, as in the case of Studio Hotel. The quality matches what might expect from a top resort in the case of El Establo. And utterly relaxing in the case of Arenal Monoa, my new favorite place to unwind. Seriously—it’s wonderful, especially after several full days of adventuring.
Unlike some other beautiful lands I’ve visited, Costa Ricans are sure of their place in life. They don’t feel the need to ask for your repeat business or referrals with things like, “Please tell your friends about us.” They confidently know you will because they’ve lived pura vida their entire life. They build adorably small but immaculately clean pink square houses atop rainforest peaks. They welcome you onto their local farms to enjoy homemade tortillas, vegetable hash, shredded pork bbq, and homemade cheese that degrades other hispanic cheeses to Kraft levels. They laugh wholeheartedly with you, never at you, since they pay no mind to your being a gringo. They won’t hound you to buy souvenirs or charge you to take a picture. They’ll never ask you to use a dirty bathroom since they take so much pride in cleaning even the truck stop ones. They are as beautiful as the land they inherit.
Since visiting Costa Rica, I’ve often pondered what pura vida really means. And although I’ve known it for less than a week, I think I’ve found the answer. Despite its small size, pura vida is warm, natural, and welcoming. It lives up to its big reputation. Always constant, its seasons, sunsets, and weather never change. It is satisfied, self-assured, trusting, inclusive and accommodating. It doesn’t need your validation. But you’ll miss out should you choose not to visit it for the sake of fashion or pennies saved.
Image: Daniel Mennerich, CC-BY
Off the Grid columnist Blake Snow writes epic stories for fancy publications and Fortune 500 companies. Follow him on Twitter.