BOOM! I wake in the middle of the night to roaring thunder and a vehement downpour through the trees, crashing against the roof of my bungalow. In the pitch-blackest darkness, my eyes never adjust, with minimal city lights permeating the atmosphere in this little coastal town called Tamarindo in the Guanacaste province of Costa Rica. My sense of hearing heightened, my ears revel in the cacophony of wild animals celebrating this highly anticipated storm. Water means life, and nature has been comatose for about five months here.
On this inaugural storm of the rainy season, the local howler monkeys cry out with their guttural roars one after another, in between continuous rolls of thunder powerful enough to shake the bungalow. Several species of birds sing their gratitude, too. It may as well be Jurassic World out there. The sounds are so loud and clear that the only thing reminding me that I’m indoors is the fact that I’m still dry. Sleep is elusive, with thoughts of critters seeking refuge in my bungalow crawling around in my head; but eventually I surrender to the truth that this moment is the essence of pure life.
Pura vida – “pure life” – is not just an unofficial motto that echoes throughout Costa Rica from coast to coast; it’s an ingrained way of life. It means a number of things to the locals: peace, eternal optimism, living life to the fullest. Costa Ricans endearingly refer to themselves as ticos, essentially short for hermantico – “little brother” – a friendly way of addressing one another (-tico is a suffix used in Costa Rican Spanish to denote, with affection, something small). This term alone says something about the locals’ gentle, simpatico nature.
The identity of ticos is rooted in a general history of isolation and individuality. There is no ancient civilization like what one may discover in Peru or Mexico, nor extravagant traditions as in Guatemala. Instead, life in Costa Rica is simple, at times rustic, and in tune with its abundant natural environment – the tiny country is home to five percent of the world’s known biodiversity. High mountains and swampy lowlands prevented advanced cultures from infiltrating the region. With only a sparse population of indigenous people, there was little native slave labor, and colonists from Spain had to work the lands themselves just for subsistence. The economy started slowly with conditions unfavorable to the large, hacienda and feudal system of other Spanish colonies. This isolation from mainstream Spanish culture facilitated a fairly homogenous class and race with little to no oppression, a thriving “rural democracy,” and a tendency towards peace.
From the capital of San José we fly into Liberia Airport on the tiniest turboprop plane I’ve been on, every slight shift in altitude a reminder of my mortality. The lush image of the Costa Rica of my dreams is hazy from the heavens; anyhow, the rainy season has yet to bless the landscape with its signature green hues. The Guanacaste province is the driest in the country, though I wouldn’t know that from the thick humidity in the air. I bask in its intensity, which I prefer over truly dry climates.
On a one-hour shuttle ride to Tamarindo, opened doors of houses on the side of the road reveal bodies sprawled out on couches, some sweating the day away on meager patios. It’s a Monday, and it seems that no one has gone to work; but this is cowboy country, so perhaps they are at work. The livestock all seem emaciated; I can feel that the land needs nourishment now.
In town the vibe is noticeably urbane by comparison. Gringos and ticos alike stroll Tamarindo swathed in a mix of resort and boho fashion, surfboards in tow. The first order of business after checking into a cute little bungalow at the Hotel Luna Llena: head to the beach, just two blocks away. Along the way I spot a troop of about 12 howler monkeys – the most predominant primate in Costa Rican forests – swinging through the trees, at least two infants reluctantly following dad. They must move constantly in search of young leaves to munch on in order to reduce ingestion of toxins from overconsumption of any single species of leaf.
Four sun-kissed little ticas frolicking with horses and teenaged ticos practicing capoeira give a vibrant first impression of the local beach scene. There is no shortage of restaurants in the vicinity where I can dine with my toes in the sand. In major coastal cities or dense tourist destinations, securing a coveted seaside table at sunset may require V.I.P. cachet, but here I can take my pick: Nogui’s. I sink into the Adirondack chair – into pura vida.
To quench my thirst, Imperial Silver, the Costa Rican brand of beer. Fried yuca with bean dip is a good appetizer, but it’s casado I’m after – a traditional Costa Rican dish consisting of rice, black beans, plantains, salad, and a meat entrée. Casado, which translates to “married man,” is said to have originated from the notion that married men are cooked such rich meals at home. Gazing out on a twilit Tamarindo Bay, belly full of casado with mahi mahi probably caught fresh from one of the boats anchored right in front of me – the only word is perfecto.
Bright and early at 8am I charge up for my first Costa Rica surf session with the Tico breakfast at Luna Llena: buttery rice and beans with scrambled eggs, fresh passion fruit juice, and café con leche. I walk down to the Costa Rica Surf Institute (CRSI), started in 1995 by California brothers, Dana and Hugh Garrison, originally as a Spanish school in a tiny surf town called Playa Dominical. They welcomed students from all over the world to learn the language through immersion. Costa Rica was the perfect locale for two reasons: one being its safe atmosphere in contrast to its neighboring Latin American countries, and two being that Costa Ricans speak pure and formal Spanish with no dialects that confuse the language. The Garrisons quickly realized that students desired to experience the country more fully and incorporated a surf program into their curriculum.
It was surf that brought the world to Tamarindo in the 1970s, when surfers discovered one of the world’s most perfect breaks here – and not a soul out there riding it. Back then this place was just a little fishing village; and still, ten years after that was when houses were built – just about seven of them. Up Tamarindo Beach there are easy waves for beginner surfers, and they get progressively more advanced toward the mouth of the estuary.
I’m paired up with a surf instructor named Yuergen, a 25-year-old tico born and bred in Tamarindo, with cocoa-colored skin and a head of puffy, sun-bleached curls. In a few bumbling surf sessions in California I had never gotten a feel for the sport, always a bit reluctant to pop up and commit to riding a wave. All scenarios would swirl in my head: wipeouts, rip currents, rocks, coral, crabs, jellyfish, and worst of all, drowning. Although I grew up near the coast and cherish a lifelong romance with the beach, I have always harbored a fear of the great, abysmal ocean. As soon as we paddle out I’m already in my own head, and to Yuergen, my nervous energy is palpable. He’s nice enough to remind me that he’s there to help me through it, but that doesn’t stop him from jabbing me a few times for flopping around like an awkward fish.
He launches me and my board on the first wave and all I have to do is pop up—I’m up, and I’m down just as fast. The next wave is mine for a few seconds until panic sets in over the sensation of standing on water, and my body instinctively falls back. I’ve mustered enough courage to ride the third wave all the way to the shore. By the fourth, I’m throwing up shaka signs to people cheering me on the beach. In between waves I probe Yuergen about what makes this place so special. To him, it’s just the place he grew up. In fact, he’s looking forward to tomorrow, when he leaves for a three-month sojourn to Barcelona. In Tamarindo, surfing is about as special as eating breakfast everyday. It’s a part of life. It’s pura vida.
After a couple of hours gulping saltwater, a fresh shell of coconut water awaits me on the beach. Catching a few waves and then drinking up pure nourishment from a fruit of the Earth is as good as it gets. If this is life in Costa Rica, I am happily going with that flow. One guy from Nosara, a beach town south of here with a sort of vegan vibe, says of pura vida: “Nothing can be bothered. Pura vida’s surfing, hanging out with some friends, having fun, enjoying life. The main thing is, peace, man. Nothing more than that.” I feel that. My surf buddies recommend refueling with a milkshake from Pura Vida Tropical Juice Bar; I find it tucked away in the corner of a food court and guzzle down a chocolate shake. I earned this.
I crash a barbecue at the Café and Surf Saloon at Black Stallion Ranch, about a 10-minute taxi ride outside of town. It’s worth the trip. More than a dozen gorgeous, smiling faces glow beneath soft, amber lights; their lean bodies clad in tank tops and shorts are gathered around a large wooden table – some laze in hammocks – as if it’s just another kick-back night in a friend’s backyard. “Hola!” they all greet me. The congenial group of friends traveling together from Canada has just finished a day of ziplining and horseback riding at the ranch, spirits high on pura vida – or maybe it’s the drinks the owner, Alex Urbaniak, is shaking up behind the bar. He asks what I’d like to drink – I randomly blurt out, “A margarita.” He pauses and says, “I’ll make you something like that.” Perhaps I’ve committed a faux pas and I counter by asking what the local drink is. “Cacique – rum.”
Next to me at the bar is a lone beauty named Katrina, with a baby bump and slender arms adorned with tattoos (one reads Mi Vida Loca). Her parents moved here from Germany when she was small and now she lives here on the property – the rest is a mystery. She shows off her baby red tailed boa constrictor, Mary Jane, which she had almost ran over on the road, and then kept as a pet. It’s a tiny thing now, but can grow to 10 feet and 50 pounds. A docile species, though, clearly, as it coils gently around the girl’s wrist and pecks her on the nose.
Alex serves up a feast: ranch chicken, organic filet mignon, homemade chorizo sausage, pork ribs, and dorado fish – all local and served with mushroom garlic sauce, spicy jalapeño mango sauce, and BBQ red wine ranch sauce. On the side: shrimp seafood pasta, organic ranch green salad, grilled vegetables, spicy ranch rice, tomato and goat cheese salad, and grill-toasted garlic French bread. The Canadians split off into a few smaller groups scattered around the many seating areas of the yard. The communal vibe of this low-key fiesta is as unforgettable as the elegant food; it’s the best meal of the trip.
Black Stallion embodies the chillness of Costa Rica. When a wealthy man threw a fit over his family being grouped on a ziplining excursion with a young backpacking couple – whom Alex would not refuse despite their modest budget – Alex asserted that exclusive attitudes are thrown out the window in Costa Rica. After begrudgingly going along on the excursion, the wealthy man and his family had inevitably forged friendships with the young couple by the end of the day.
Alex introduces us to two of his staff, Nancy and Sergio – both native Guanacastecan – giving me a chance to practice my Spanish. It rolls of the tongue much easier after a little bit of Cacique. I manage to elicit some laughs from Sergio, who speaks very little English, so I must be doing something right.
After the barbecue, my surf buddies had invited me to Sharky’s, the sports bar hub of Tamarindo. The scene is predictably buzzing with Americans and Canadians spilling onto the sidewalk. There’s baseball and basketball—what I came for—on several screens. And it’s karaoke night. (Really, it’s no wonder American tourists get mocked wherever we go, but I’m fine with it.) One particular rendition of an Iron Maiden song by a charismatic and talented chanteuse makes the crowd go wild. The Imperials just keep flowing, and soon, the relentless rain.
I should feel like a zombie the next morning, but no – I feel invigorated by the energy of the fresh life the big storm has revived all around. I guessed right about critters creeping into my bungalow for shelter. Ants had already been coming out of the woodwork at night, and today, a palmetto bug. I have a new roommate: a gecko, or two. For sure these invaders would bother me at home, but here, I somehow feel happy to coexist with them. After all, they lived here long before developers, tourists, and I ever came along. They’re just a reminder of how lush and alive this place is.
Breakfast is a petite stack of pancakes with fresh pineapple juice and café con leche. A wide-eyed woman emerges from one of the nearby guestrooms swathed in a Hawaiian printed bikini, matching sarong, and glowing with repose. Her voice and her body sway at the same speed – the only speed here: slow. She stops to say hello and tells me she’s on sabbatical from her job in Hawaii and is here looking for a place to live for a year with her son – leaving one paradise for another. Her other choice was Indonesia, but Costa Rica is safer. Just another expat seeking respite in this low-key country.
By chance, a friend of mine from Los Angeles is in town as well, so I amble down to the Tamarindo Diria Beach Resort – 40 years ago, the only hotel in town – to find her in a colossal lagoon pool bordered by tropical gardens and pre-Colombian sculptures. I wade to the swim-up bar and she’s got a margarita in my hand in a flash. The opulence of it all offers a stark contrast to my low-key bungalow experience. I wouldn’t trade, though. She recounts yesterday’s underwhelming – and overpriced – volcano tour, which ended in an engagement! It’s great news, but she’s been lounging at the resort for almost a week and seems ready for a holiday from her holiday. She’s a city girl, and Tamarindo is not that. The beauty of the place is its rugged nature and its loveable locals. Confinement in a resort bubble is a way to unwittingly miss the real essence of pura vida.
In the afternoon, I’m picked up by Alex Urbaniak, who happens to be the hardest working guy in Tamarindo. An expat from South Africa, he started building his dream of a tropical ranch 16 years ago. Today I get to see the Black Stallion Ranch and its 44 acres of eco reserve in all its glory. Horse statues in full rear welcome us to the property. Natural wood elements and manicured (but not overly) flora give the place an earthy vibe with just the right amount of elegance. As he dotes on the baby ducklings waddling around it’s clear that this guy is living the dream.
Sergio, along with two other guides, Danny and José, are shooting pool in a sort of open-air game room. They introduce themselves with all the tico charm I’m growing accustomed to. We all jump into the back of Alex’s flaming red Mad Max-style pickup truck modified with benches on each side of the bed. Our destination is the top of the highest mountain of the reserve’s Three Camels, but the first stop is a visit with the adorable resident donkey, Indie. Still practically a foal, she bounds about her pen like a puerile puppy, nuzzles me and eats berries out of my hand.
We bounce along dirt roads climbing the mountain, Alex’s mutt, Guarda chasing after us. At the top – a rustic gazebo and what Alex calls a “stairway to heaven” leading to a 360-degree vista of Guanacaste. The landscape is not quite as green as it will be after the rainy season, but I’m not complaining. Suddenly, I remember that the whole reason I’m up here is to fly over that tree canopy down there.
The first zipline is about 1,250 feet – the longest of all nine lines. After giving us the safety lecture, José effortlessly zips down ahead of us. Danny straps me in and asks, “Ready?” Yes. “Sure?” Yes. And here I go flying through the air at nearly 35 miles per hour. Within seconds I’m safe at the other end, but I couldn’t tell you what just happened. My eyes had been locked in on José the whole time as I waited for the signal to brake. No problem, I’ve got eight more chances to pay attention to the scenery. Danny comes last, flipping upside down halfway down the line. Okay, these guys are showing off. I ask them if they like their job and they laugh, because they feel ridiculously lucky getting to spend all day showing people how to fly.
In between lines, José tells me about the time he spotted a jaguar in the wild – one of my dreams. There are two jaguars on the reserve here, but they have only been spotted twice in 10 years, only emerging during the rain.
On the last line Danny mischievously tugs the cable up and down, springing me weightlessly through the air the whole way down. At the end, Guarda, who had been hot on our trail the whole way is there cheering us on. No doubt, he’s loving life, too.
Sergio has saddled up some horses for us – mine is named Mapa – and we ride into the evening along bush trails. I engage in an impromptu Spanish/English lesson with Danny, who already speaks near perfect English as it is. He’s a real life cowboy who rides bulls at the rodeo, one of Guanacaste’s longstanding traditions. Suddenly, it rains. Horses trotting and beads of water trickling down my face – it feels like one of those pure moments that only happens when your heart is open wide enough to find beauty in imperfection. No jaguar sightings, though.
It’s a low-key night eating pizza with some new friends at La Baula – named after the Spanish word for leatherback sea turtle. Juan Carlos – a young attorney who shares a mutual hobby with me of playing music – teaches me a dozen Costa Rican Spanish slang words, which are definitely profane in this mild, conservative culture, so I’ll be mindful about repeating them to strangers. When I learn that his girlfriend, Emi is a biologist who specializes in insects, my deep fascination inspires a plan to return to Costa Rica to visit them in the wilderness of Monteverde, where she lives and does her field work.
Just when I think I’ll get some sleep, we end up in the scintillating scene of Hotel Pasatiempo, where the Leatherbacks – the legendary local band – are hosting an open-mic night. Plans change in Costa Rica and that’s pura vida. It’s honest-to-goodness fun, but the music is lackluster – until a sultry, bohemian muse of a girl gets on stage and straps on a guitar. As she strums and starts singing a Bob Marley tune with the most heavenly voice I’ve heard in a while, I realize she’s the Iron Maiden girl from the night before.
To tell the truth, I would have rolled my eyes if someone had told me five minutes ago I’d be captivated by a cover band. I’ll never forget the sound of her voice singing, “I don’t wanna wait in vain for your love…” She bears her soul so effortlessly that something clicks with me: this moment, this girl, this light, this music, this magical little town, are all in perfect harmony. When she finishes, there’s nothing more to see, so, until tomorrow.
A young guide named Luis takes us out on a sky blue motorboat into the estuary of Las Baulas National Marine Park. At first the hazy, rainy day doesn’t seem ideal, but I soon feel very comfortable – barefoot, finding pleasure in watching raindrops pierce the surface of the brackish water. Something about it awakens my primal nature as a young island girl. We spot a few American crocodiles – just small ones under five feet long – inconspicuously floating along the edge of the mangrove forest. Luis points out some lone birds that haven’t yet migrated – a green heron, tricolor heron, spotted sandpiper, little blue heron, yellow crown heron, tiger heron, and a willet. Unfortunately, we are less likely to see a leatherback turtle. Twenty years ago, there were 1,800 nesting females in the area – today, only 200.
Luis docks the boat to give us a closer look at the land crabs, which scuttle into their holes anyhow. Like the leatherbacks, these creatures are losing a lot of their habitat to land development. As he leads us, barefoot, down a nature trail, I sense that this is a special place for him. He says, “I feel the connection [to the land and the wildlife]. I love being here.” And of course, he is saddened by the habitat loss. Many of the guides in Costa Rica are naturalists, so their work can be a catch-22. While eco-tourism is economically vital for Guanacaste, the place is not immune to tourism’s overall adverse effects on biodiversity. But for now, the Costa Rican government and its people sustain a commitment to conservation. Over 25 percent of the country is protected area, and in 20 years, they have reversed deforestation. Oil drilling has been continually banned – their national parks are simply more important to them.
With pride, Luis shows us the spiny cedar, covered in bark of thorns, and the Guanacaste tree, also known as the “elephant-ear tree” for the shape of its seedpods. He mimics the call of the howler monkey with eerie accuracy, and lo and behold, there’s a troop right over our heads. When we return to the boat, Luis quarters and slices a whole fresh pineapple with a small machete. Cruising beneath the mangrove canopy, rain drizzling against my skin and plenty of pineapple in the palm of my hand – I need nothing more than this. I know this feeling is pura vida.
Pulling back into shore, some other guides point out something in the water just about 20 feet from our boat. Spikes poke out from the surface – it’s the biggest crocodile I’ve ever seen, almost 10 feet long from nose to tail. As we disembark, it shifts its body to face us head on. “He thinks you’re a big fish,” Luis jokes.
I hop in a taxi to a remote guesthouse near Playa Conchal. The driver is Nicaraguan and speaks no English at all. My map and directions are hieroglyphics to him. He makes his way towards Matapalo, the closest town to the home, and seemingly, hopes for the best. He stops once or twice to ask neighborly bystanders if we’re on the right track. The unpaved roads are brutal on his little old sedan, and I feel responsible for every bump and thud. Most city cab drivers around the world might have dropped me off at the nearest payphone, but this one receives my superfluous apologies with warmth, reassuring me that this is just another element of the Costa Rican adventure. He gets me to my destination in one piece and even agrees to return the next day to take me to the airport.
The Canadian couple that owns the guesthouse had escaped from the freezing winter wonderland of Calgary to this tropical paradise. At home in board shorts, the lifestyle change seems like a good one for them; although visitors must be few and far between at their off the beaten path home, judging by their willingness to converse with me into the night. A neighbor drops by – an old German nightclub owner named Ingo. He speaks little English, and I speak no German, so naturally, we converse in Spanish. He orders up a round of ice cream for all of us, homemade by my hosts.
That night I relinquish the bed inside my cabina to sleep outside in the cradling comfort of the rooftop hammock and the warm night air. Ocean waves in the distance are my lullaby. I’m awakened at dawn by a symphony of howler monkeys, geckos, squirrel monkeys, roosters, and many types of birds – the idyllic way to wake up feeling alive. I had slept in my bikini with the intention of hitting the beach before my eyes were even fully opened.
I’m greeted in the yard by Ingo’s free-spirited dog, Timmy, who apparently makes rounds of the neighbors and the local beaches everyday. “Vamonos!” I call out, and he’s at my heels. He pads a few steps ahead, stops, and looks back, to which I reply, “A la playa,” and he leads the way. Along about a mile-long dirt road framed with picturesque tree canopy, there are howler monkeys and a couple of creatively crafted squatter homes.
At the end of the road, through the clearing, is an empty beach – one of the most beautiful I’ve seen in all the world. This is Playa Conchal. The white sand is still pristine, until Timmy takes off and leaves the first tracks of the day. I collect flawless clam, scallop, cockle, and tiny conch shells from tide pools. The waves are mere ripples, crystal clear and inviting, so I take a morning dip. After about an hour, beachgoers and watersports equipment rental operators are starting to post up just in front of the Westin way on the other side of the beach, but I’m far enough away to still enjoy complete secluded silence.
Timmy manages to find the perfect spot for us under a tree – as if the entire beach isn’t a long series of perfect spots – no other soul around but a single yellow butterfly. Timmy nuzzles me then rests his head on my belly, both of us staring out into an endless cerulean sea. Even the dog knows in his heart: this is pura vida.
Photo by Gina Sabatella