Enchanted Cloud Forests, Lunch via Machete, Underwater Beaches… And You Thought You Knew Costa Rica!
By Jeremy Fancher
You’ll hear it over and over again in Costa Rica: Pura Vida! It’s a slight twist on “pure life,” which in Spanish would be Vida Pura. The inverted slogan denotes the Costa Rican modus operandi, a focus on family, nature, and a rich daily existence. Gone is the career ambition and relentless pursuit of self-actualization that defines the urban pursuit of happiness. Jogging at 24-Hour Fitness under the glow of florescent lights is replaced with daily work on the farm or a long walk to visit a friend down the road. Shopping at Whole Foods for that perfect notional tomato is replaced by access to year-round bountiful yields of fruits and vegetables, and locally processed cheeses and coffees.
Peter Bragiel, host of Koldcast TV’s unconventional travel series In Transit, takes a 1,000-Colones (about $2) bus from Nicaragua down into Costa Rica’s northern Pacific Coast. Big on dreams but short on cash, he’s figured out a way to see the world on a budget. The show follows Bragiel as he walks, scoots, and hops on public transport to travel from Los Angeles all the way to the Panama Canal. Peter visits a few beaches in Costa Rica before trekking into the capital city San Jose, home to about half of the country’s four million citizens.
You are watching the first episode of InTransit, “Leaving Los Angeles”
I quite literally opted for the scenic route on my own low-budget Costa Rican adventure with a friend two weeks ago. Peter Bragiel might be right to defend the city, deciding to explore it rather than shy away after hearing from so many that they hated it. San Jose was actually a sleepy village up through the 1970s, but has seen a relentless North American-style sprawl of haphazard neighborhoods, highways, fast food restaurants, and malls in the interim. The best option for stubborn Peter Bragiel-types and those with time to kill in the city is to walk around the relatively compact downtown, replete with a pedestrian-only street, museums, eclectic clothing shops, tasty empanadas, and mango smoothies from street vendors.
After landing in San Jose, we rented a car and immediately left the capital. Tourists flock to Costa Rica to see a myriad of ecosystems all contained in a country the size of Vermont and New Hampshire combined. The term eco-tourism was actually spawned in Costa Rica, and when compared to its northern neighbor, Nicaragua, the government’s efforts to maintain the integrity of the country’s lush ecology become clear. While Nicaragua let swaths of rainforests and jungles get razed for commercial development and industrial needs, the Costa Rican government has been prescient in its stringent preservation and protection initiatives. The forward-thinking programs have paid off; visitors can see a vast array of beaches, dry forests, tropical rainforests, cloud forests, mangrove swamps, mountains, volcanoes, coral reefs, and jungles, to name a few.
Having escaped the heavily trafficked city center, we made our way to the Pacific Coast, and drove 80 miles down to the backpacker and budget surfer destination of Dominical. While Costa Rica disallows private ownership of beachfront land, they have leased a long swath of palm-shaded beach to a selection of hostels, surf shops, and bars. It’s fantastic surfing country, and the local bar scene is hopping (particularly when the waves are weak), but the beach is rocky and isn’t great for lounging.
However, there are a couple hidden gems just down the road. Drive 12 miles south to the town of Uvita, and go to the Ballena National Marine Park, one of the country’s many protected areas (much like a national park in the US). You’ll pass through a small gate, pay a few dollars for a park license, and then have access to a huge, pristine beach. Make sure you check the tide charts before you go, as the majority of the beach is a sandbar — perpendicular to the coastline — extending out into the ocean. It gets completely submerged during high tide. The park attendant told us that they frequently have to take a boat out to the end of the sandbar, which is the last part to be submerged during high tide, and rescue hapless tourists that have stranded themselves on a newly formed island 250 meters from shore.
A few miles farther south you’ll find another beach, Playa Ventanas (Windows Beach), tucked away right off the coastal highway. During high tide, the waves crash into two tunnels bored through a rock formation, and you can stand on the other side and watch as the water shoots out of the tunnels with explosive force. During low tide, you can walk through the tunnels to the ocean on the other side. The beach is littered with coconuts, so bring a machete (seriously), if you’re interested in cracking them open for some fresh coconut water and meat.
We booked our accommodations through airbnb, which is basically a paid version of couch surfing. We stayed with a Spanish couple on a beautiful estate, Casa Tordesillas, on top of a mountain about five miles up the hill from Uvita. Unfortunately, the road from Uvita is treacherous, and you’ll need a 4×4 to traverse it. Instead, we took our wimpy SUV up the highway from Dominical, through the fastest growing Central American city, San Isidro, and down into Socorro, a village within hiking distance of Casa Tordesillas.
The couple focuses on sustainable living, and aside from a little solar power, goes without any modern conveniences. They grow most of their own food and raise horses for transportation. They built their house from scratch ten years ago and run a sustainable agriculture and architecture program for local youth. We even did Japanese exercises, Do-In, with the couple in their geodesic dome above the living room. All this for $60/night, not to mention incredible home-cooked meals prepared for us with food from the garden each day. Breakfast was on a patio overlooking lush cloud forests with a view all the way down to the beach in Uvita. Dinner was by candlelight, as their only powered light was in the kitchen.
The mountains rise out of the ocean so steeply that you’ll gain one mile of elevation by going just five miles inland. The result is incredible views, cooler weather, lush vegetation, and relatively easy access to the beaches down below. We were able to hike through the cloud forests, replete with capuchin and howler monkeys, and a wide array of tropical birds. Other than hiking, there are fantastic horseback riding trails through the mountains, coffee plantations, quaint villages, waterfalls, spring water swimming pools, and even a pineapple plantation in the immediate vicinity.
On our way back from Casa Tordesillas, we decided to take the Pan-American Highway through the country’s inland mountain range, rather than taking the coastal highway. We stopped near the Summit of Death, the highway’s highest point, at a place called Truchas Selva Madre — Trout Mother Jungle — to hike through a privately owned rainforest and spot the indigenous Quetzal bird. Afterwards, we fished in their pond for a trout, which they grilled for us on the spot and prepared with lime juice, fries, salad, and beans, for a traditional and fresh Costa Rican meal, which cost around $12 for two of us.
While there are cheap public buses that run regularly all across Costa Rica, a rental car is recommended if you have the stomach for mountain roads and unfamiliar terrain. I recommend doing your best to see local, rural Costa Rica, rather than the insular tourist enclaves in the more popular beach destinations. Costa Rica offers some of the most biologically diverse places on the planet, and the rural inlands are the best place to find a true pura vida experience.
Jeremy Fancher is a second-year student at the University of Michigan Law School. He is left-handed, and wishes he had a dog, which he would name John Elway. Jeremy would hypothetically enjoy taking long walks with said John Elway.