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2015 Narrative Travel Writing Contest Runner-Up Winner

Pura Vida Magic

“The world is filled with magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.” —W.B. Yeats

Costa Rica's Pacific Coast
View through Monteverde coffee leaves to Costa Rica's Pacific Coast.

Three days into our family’s New Year trip to Costa Rica, my neck ached. The pain wasn’t anything like the one that radiated across my shoulders after a day hunched over my laptop at home in California. This was more like the muscle soreness you get after a workout. At first I blamed it on sleeping in a hotel bed. Then, tipping my head back once again to spot a bird, sloth, monkey, or butterfly, I realized the animals were to blame.

The neck exercises started on the winding way from San Jose to La Fortuna, when our group leader pointed out the first howler monkeys in treetops along the road. Then, as the bus pulled off beside a waterfall a few miles down, we saw a coati, a long-snouted, southern relative of a raccoon, begging for (illegally proffered) treats.

In between whitewater thrills on the Sarapiqui River, we spotted Blue Morpho and Monarch butterflies, herons, egrets and a macaw’s bright yellow breast. In the garden courtyard of our funky La Fortuna cabinitas, we looked up, down and around to spot wild residents, from what my husband first called “giant squirrels” (actually, agoutis, relatives of guinea pigs) on the lawn, to busy lines of leaf cutter ants along the pathways, flamboyantly frilled iguanas nesting in a palm tree and tiny brown frogs near the swimming pool.

The alternating rain and sun bred a kind of verdant exuberance my drought-addled brain drank like fresh water. Grass worked its way through sidewalks, sprouting in small jungles from every crack and crevice. The air had a just-drenched smell like moss, or mushrooms. Rainbows replicated themselves in single, double and even triplicate from windblown mist. The landscape itself seemed to be a continually multiplying organism, exploding with unfamiliar color, sound, and movement.

In addition to spending time with my family and unplugging completely from my laptop, I had come for the animals, especially the monkeys. Our 9-day, budget adventure made the most of the time we had, exposing us to three different environments: Arenal Volcano, Monteverde Cloud Forest, and Manuel Antonio National Park. I didn’t expect cultural immersion, but even a short stay in Costa Rica imparts a sense of pura vida.

Capuchin monkey in Manuel, Costa Rica
A curious white-faced Capuchin in Manuel.

Used interchangeably as a greeting, goodbye, and general statement of goodwill, pura vida greases the wheels of commerce and cultural diplomacy in Costa Rica, raising the status of any tourist who embraces it. Popularized in 1956, after the release of a Mexican movie, Pura Vida, the expression sums up its citizens’ pride in living in a country that in 1948 chose to disband its military and invest instead in security, education, and culture. With a 96% literacy rate, an average life span of 79 years and a solid democracy, Costa Rica is the most progressive and stable country in Central America. 

When my husband pointed to the Costa Rican flag decal on our river guide’s helmet and asked about the meaning of the blue, white, and red stripes, he replied, “Cielo, paz, sangre.” Those three words—sky, peace and blood—describe a national identity enriched by nature, buoyed by peace, and anchored by family: pura vida.

Above all, pura vida describes Costa Ricans’ (also called Ticos) serene and reverent approach to their irreplaceable natural landscape. The country’s 20,000-square-mile territory is divided into eleven areas of conservation. Twenty-five percent is protected to varying degrees, and UNESCO counts it among the 20 most biodiverse countries in the world. 

This pura vida spirit touched me and my youngest daughter as we walked up the road to the La Fortuna Waterfall. A man renting horses waved us over. “Perezoso, perezoso!” he exclaimed, pointing up at a nearby tree. Cynically prepared to shake our heads and walk away at a suspected sales pitch, we looked up and saw our first sloth, close enough to see the moss growing on its back. Thanking the man as he cracked a wide smile, we continued to watch and snap photos of its progress up to tastier leaves, one slow, outstretched arm after another, with many stops to scratch along the way.

Sloth near Arenal Falls, Costa Rica
Slow Travel: Three-toed Sloth near Arenal Falls.

Pura vida again prevailed on our tour of a small, family-run sugar cane, coffee and chocolate plantation, where we washed down a home-grown, home-cooked meal of saucy chicken, gallo pinto (the national dish, rice and black or red beans mixed together and mounded high), homemade tortillas, fried plantains and water squash (wild cucumber) with fresh-squeezed pineapple juice and light-roast coffee (which, we learned, is actually the strongest). When asked why the food here was so delicious, our guide attributed it to a secret ingredient: love.

After skirting the edges of house-height stands of sugar cane planted densely on hills overlooking the Pacific, we stirred up a batch of molasses-like brown-sugar candy; tasted chocolate; sampled sugar cane liquor; and rode in a traditional, ox-drawn cart. Explaining the many stages of growing and preparing each commodity, our guide called the process “slow, like a sloth.”

Cultivating patience paid off when we arrived in rainy, windy Monteverde. Disappointed by an earlier cloud forest nature walk where humans were the dominant species, we hired the same guide for a night hike through a private wildlife preserve. Walking with flashlights on a dark, muddy, route treacherously marred by potholes, rocks, roots and branches, we set off with low expectations as he warned us to stay on the trail or risk a deadly viper encounter. Almost immediately, he started pointing out small, colorful, sleeping warblers—still and unaffected by close observation—perched like ornaments in trees along the trail. As we spotted silent bird after bird (including one wide-awake toucan), I became hyper-aware of my surroundings, alert to every new smell, rustle and call.

Our guide pointed out insects: walking sticks that blended into tree trunks and flat green ones that looked like leaves. We watched bats flitting erratically and a mottled owl that swiveled its head almost completely around before swooping away. He pointed out landmarks: the spot where another guide had once seen a mother puma and cub and the tree where he’d often seen a kinkajou, also called a honey bear. When we came to a small hole at the base of a tree, he tapped inside with a stick. A palm-sized, orange-kneed tarantula emerged and quickly scuttled back inside. Finding a piece of wood nearby, he picked it up and asked us to turn off our flashlights to see its fungi-covered surface glow.

Throughout this sleight-of-hand, our guide’s radio crackled and lights from another group bobbed nearby. Then the call came, alerting him to a female two-toed sloth giving birth in a tree. He could hardly contain his excitement as we hustled down, practically running, to the spot. We arrived in time to catch a glimpse of the newborn, hanging off the branch near its mother, not yet latched on to her chest for traveling. For ten minutes we stood watching as mother and baby slowly moved to a less-exposed part of the birthing tree. From our guide, we learned that sloths’ gestation period is 11 months, and babies spend 2 years with their mothers before going out on their own. The slow timetable fits the species.

My eyes were opened. Stunned by what sat hidden in plain sight along a dark trail, I knew I would never think of the forest in the same way again. That’s why I was ready a few days later, when I finally spotted my first white-faced capuchin monkey peering out of mangroves at Las Damas as we floated past in a flat-bottomed boat. “Monkey!” I shouted, full of joy. It was already climbing down a vine toward shore as the captain pulled up. We were soon face-to-face. Only a week into 2015 and my life was complete. Pura vida.

Ellen Girardeau Kempler is a writer who travels. She is founder and chief navigator of Gold Boat Journeys: Mind Trips for Writers, based in Laguna Beach, California.

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