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Stepping into Costa Rica is like falling into Wonderland. The colors here are brighter. The smells richer. The tastes sweeter. This is one of the most bio-diverse countries in the world. It’s where you’ll find dozens of endangered species. There are cloud forests, mangrove forests, rainforests (wet and dry), mountains, volcanoes, waterfalls, beaches, and people who value and protect the magic here.

This is not where you go if you’re only looking for sun and sand.

Costa Rica is where you go if you want to play with wild monkeys, fly through one of the world’s few remaining cloud forests, dip into volcano-heated thermal baths, dance in the over-crowded cobblestone streets of San Jose, or hike through rainforests so lush and so colorful you’ll think the red and blue wild mushrooms are made of hand-blown glass and the brightly colored toucans are statues.

Mapping it Out

Pura Vida—translated into English—means “the pure life.” You hear it a lot here. Like aloha, it means both hello and goodbye. It is also a way of life. Costa Ricans are committed to living a joyful life. There is no army. Twenty-five percent of the land is protected, and they’re working to become 100 percent self-sustaining. Electricity is generated by wind and water.

Education through college is (mostly) free. Health care is universal. And retirement pensions are plentiful. The standard of living is not the same as in the U.S. Here homes are smaller. Meals consist mostly of rice, beans, and a protein (usually fish, chicken, or pork). Fresh fruits and vegetables are plentiful.

There are two seasons: wet and dry. Wet in the winter and dry in the summer. I prefer the shoulder seasons—those spring and autumn months right in between. It’s cheaper, cooler, and less crowded than the summer. It’s not as wet as the winter, when it’s not uncommon for roads to flood. Costa Rica is more expensive than most other Central American countries. But, if you travel like a local, you can find some amazing deals.

There’s a lot to choose from. I, personally, am not usually a fan of tours. But for my first trip, I wanted a taste of it all and opted for a one-week tour, followed by three weeks on my own.

Volcanoes

After flying into the capital of San Jose (more on that city later), we spent the night, then climbed aboard our bus for the drive to the north central mountains.

Here you’ll find the Arenal volcano and neighboring La Fortuna. Poas Volcano National Park is a major tourist attraction here. It’s kind of like a tropical zoo. There are spectacular waterfalls. You’ll also see the brightly colored birds, frogs, turtles, butterflies, and crocodiles Costa Rica is famous for. And the infamous monkeys and sloths but nothing, nothing, even close to the ones you can experience in the wild.

In Arenal proper, there is horseback riding, waterfall rappelling, ziplining (you’ll pretty much find this everywhere, as it was invented here), white-water rafting, and volcano-heated hot springs. Baldi Hot Springs is the world’s largest hot springs and offers 25 thermal pools. You swim under waterfall, after waterfall, after waterfall. The pools range from cool to hot, and there are several swim-up bars.

Cloud Forest

If you don’t go anywhere else, go to the Monteverde Cloud Forest. Set atop the spine of Costa Rica’s continental divide, the 26,000-acre mountain reserve is one of the most biodiverse areas in the world. You will find six ecological zones here with thousands of plant, mammal, bird, and reptile species.

The area began as dairy farms owned by U.S. Quakers trying to avoid the Korean War draft in the 50s. The Costa Rican army was dissolved here in 1949. It is now mostly a reserve for scientists, tourists, and wildlife.

You can walk through the clouds on one of the many sky bridges, take a tram to the top, and zipline on one of the world’s highest and longest ziplines. Do it. Even if you’re afraid. There are several to choose from. Ours included 14 ziplines that gradually took us 2,500 feet in the air.

I’ll admit, I didn’t expect it to be so high, and once you take the plunge, there’s no going back. It’s like being in a plane with no seats. Or walls. Or floors. For a couple of the lines I had to close my eyes and count. But, ohhh, the views! Not just in the air, but climbing from one platform to another. There are hundreds of wild orchids, lush vines, trees, exotic birds, and if you’re lucky, you’ll spot some monkeys or sloths.

Monteverde is also home to a locally-run coffee plantation. Because of the 200 volcanic formations in this Central American country, the soil is rich and perfect for growing coffee beans, one of the nation’s main exports.

Beaches

Next stop: Samara and Carrillo Beach. Located along the Pacific Ocean, this is where the wealthy and modern-day hippies converge. I personally would only stay here a day or two. The beaches are lovely, but compared to the rest of the country, it doesn’t offer much more than that.

Same with Jaco Beach. Except Jaco also offers a city where you can bar hop and find a lot more tourists. It’s also known for its surfing.

There are night tours to nearby beaches where endangered turtles nest. Larger endangered turtles nest on the Caribbean side of the country. You can volunteer there, but you have to pay for the privilege.

Farther south, but still along the Pacific coast, you’ll find Manual Antonio National Park. This is where we hopped off our tour, and I’m so glad we did. While the area can be extremely touristy during the day, most tours only make one daylight stop and stay in the park. The surrounding beach areas are less crowded and downright magical. Watch out for the monkeys, though. They’re professional thieves who will grab your backpack, your camera, and especially your lunch.

This area is home to several species of monkey, some endangered. They are wild, but you wouldn’t know it by the shows they put on at nearby restaurants. They dance. They howl. They swing from anything that’s not nailed down. And, again, they steal! Some of the more daring monkeys will make a mad dash through the restaurants, grabbing packets of sugar. The waiters tell me they only go for sugar, so some no longer put it on tables.
Hotels can be expensive here. There is the beach, the road, and the mountain. The farther up the mountain you go, the more expensive the lodging. We stayed at a local, waterfront hotel. (I didn’t meet any other Americans while I was there—which was fine with me.)

The port city of Quepos is a short taxi drive away.

Mangrove Forest

Our foray into the mangrove forest began the way I suspect an encounter with a serial killer would begin. After being given a slick, professional brochure (yes, from a stranger we met at the park), we soon realized we were not headed to the tour in the brochure.

Sitting in the old, beat-up truck with two men who spoke no English (my Spanish is limited to “please,” “thank you,” and “where’s the restroom?”), we drove a couple hours into the deep forest.

The longer the ride, the more frightened we became. Finally, we stopped at what looked like a creek and an old, tin boat held together with duct tape and a prayer. This is also where we met Ricardo and realized we were not in any danger. Far from it.

Mangroves are estuaries, complex waterways, where saltwater comes together with freshwater. We spent the next couple hours gliding through canals rich with roots, wild flowers, and fruit.

You’re not supposed to feed wild animals for a lot of reasons. In fact, feeding monkeys is a crime. So I was surprised when we pulled to the side and Ricardo did his “monkey yell.” Dozens of monkeys came running. Sitting on the front of the boat, he smeared banana on my hand. Monkeys (yes! wild monkeys!) jumped onto my shoulder and licked my hand. Licked my hand!

I later learned, if you sit still and let the monkeys come to you, it’s not as detrimental. They are still “foraging” for food, and a smear of banana is not enough to sustain them, so it doesn’t discourage them from hunting. It does, however, make them less scared of humans, which is not good. Hard-core conservationists would argue against this kind of interaction.

The City

Many, if not most, tourists fly in and out of the capitol city of San Jose without spending a night there. I was almost one of those people. I only budgeted a couple nights here because it’s big; it’s dirty; it’s crowded, and it’s full of crime. Once there, I wished I had budgeted more time. I loved it. Because it’s big; it’s dirty; it’s crowded, and it’s full of crime. (Okay. Not so much that last part.)

It is also full of history, art, culture, and food. If you go to Costa Rica, don’t miss out on this enchanting mountain city. It’s the only place I’ve been where you can walk into a Denny’s at 5 a.m., order an omelet and a bourbon and then gamble while waiting for your food.

If you are one of those Americans who needs American-standard hotels, there are plenty of options skirting the city. If, like me, you want to sit on a balcony built 150 years ago, listen to live music from the city center below, enjoy the flashing casino lights across the street, and dodge pigeon poop, you’ll want to pick one of the city center hostels.

Like the rest of Costa Rica, Pura Vida prevails. There is the Gold Museum, the Jade museum, the artisan markets, and the ornate National Theater. Life here is slow. It’s not always easy. But, there is a sense of pride that is well-deserved. A peaceful nation. A grateful nation. A way of life we could all learn from. Pura Vida!

I could talk about this forever, so for more information about tours and hotel costs, visit outfrontmagazine.com.