By Mary A. Nelen
Is Costa Rica really the happiest place in the world? According to an international poll, the ecotourism paradise is number one on the “World Database of Happiness” with number 2 being Denmark and the United States at 20 out of 148.
“Pura Vida” is Costa Rica’s mantra to Pure Life. What is purer than ziplining through cloud canopies or doing yoga in a spring-fed waterfall? Or rappelling in a spring-fed waterfall?
Costa Rica has no army, much of the land is protected the rainforest and the lifestyle is 90% sustainable.
Does sustainability equal happiness? The answer was a plane ticket away. A tough job but somebody had to do it.
Bungalow is English for “Cheap”
I typed “Costa Rica” into Airbnb.com found a “Tico Organic Bungalow” in Brujo de Rio Nueva, wherever that was, and learned “Tico” means Costa Rican “Bungalow” means wicked cheap and Brujo was in the middle of nowhere. My contact emailed me the phone number of a driver to take me to paradise.
Dr. Seuss Landscape
The trip to the bungalow was not as easy as booking it. My driver Victor met me in San Isrido, a couple hours south of San Jose. His ride was a Pick-Up Taxi, a Tico beater with the suspension of a bounce house.
We traversed rocky roads through a Dr. Seuss landscape. Steep mountains of jade encircled by smoke rings featured cattle that defied gravity.
After a grinding hour and a half trip, Victor swung his Tico beater on to a red bridge. A guy straddling an All-Terrain-Vehicle greeted us.
“Pura Vida!” he cried and hugged me. He was brown, like a coffee bean and had the light colored eyes of many Costa Ricans.
The stranger motioned for me to get on the back of his ATV and we raced across the river on a bridge, just wide enough to accommodate the ATV.
With water raging below and Dr. Seuss cliffs above, we zipped off the bridge and onto the land and arriving at a sudden stop.
“Welcome to Finca Tres Semillas,” said a raven-haired American standing at a threshold of palms. She was Tamara, a 32-year-old expat from California who owned the place along with Hernando, the ATV guy.
The Pure Life
Their sprawling indoor/outdoor stucco and timber Fincas (estate) included three kids (ninos) some roosters, hens, dogs and a white horse. We toured the organic garden, a soccer field and the groves of citrus trees. It was as if the fruit section of Whole Foods suddenly came to life.
My place was a 10-minute walk down a path of banana trees. In a lush grove of trees, the bungalow was a vivid little shelter with windows all around and no electricity.
“Just go to bed when it gets dark and wake up with sunshine,” said Tamara.
Fear then Food
The sun goes down very quickly in Costa Rica. It was pitch black when it was time to go to the big house for dinner. I strapped on my headlamp but couldn’t find the path.
In a sea of darkness and unfamiliar sounds, fireflies began to appear and then a pair of eyes, bright and green. Would I survive the walk through the darkness? I ran like hell.
Dinner was a feast at a long wooden table with candles – half in the house half outside. We ate food grown on the farm, the likes of which I have never eaten. Our meal was a plate of greens, tomatoes, wild cilantro, hearts of palm, cucumber and homemade cheese served with an herb dressing. There were also black beans grown on the farm and rice.
“Fresco?” said Tamara. The juice made from fruit, sugar cane juice and water that flowed down to us from mountain springs. Mui pura. We talked until dawn.
Later that night in bed I was surrounded by nature in full force. First, there was a cacophony of sounds I had never heard before and then words of growing paranoia: “Who are these people? I don’t have a phone, there are no police, is that a growl? Is it too late to bail?”
It was definitely too late to bail but by around 5 a.m. the roosters started and this time I strolled to the big house, mesmerized by the beauty of the sun filtering through the banana trees.
A toucan floated past and around every palm hid a Bird of Paradise. Tamara greeted me with fresh juice and eggs. The juice came from a Mandarina tree, our eggs from the chickens behind the house, and the family cows produced our milk and cheese.
One morning, after discovering that my bungalow was surrounded by red hibiscus, the ninos and I hiked Los Santos Forest reserve near the farm.
After a peaceful standoff with a herd of cows, we passed through several eco-systems from the blazing sun on the mountains, through chilly cloud forest and finally to our destination, a swim in a waterfall on the edge of a virgin rainforest.
“Mira, mira!” The ninos cried along the way pointing out toads, lizards, a flame-throated warbler, and snakes.
All week long we hiked and hung out while Tamara gardened with a machete. In the afternoons, we went our separate ways and came together again for swims in the river. A daily downpour of 20 minutes around 4 p.m. was our signal for a nap before dinner.
On my last night there, Tamara was planting bok choy by the full moon. We shared a tearful goodbye.
Fincas Tres Semillas was a paradise that turned out to be harder to leave than it was to find. But due west was the Pacific coast, fresh fish, and Wi-Fi.
The Pure Surfer Life
Quepos was the closest Playa (beach). The small fishing village is just outside Manual Antonio, a National Park with the country’s most beautiful beaches. Quepos is a laid-back hipster scene for surfers, expats, expat surfers, and fishermen.
At the Best Western Kapos overlooking the ocean, my first fresh fish was a crunchy meal of sweet Mahi Mahi with a creamy and hot Jalapeño sauce. It was delicious and fresh, and right off the boat.
On the tiny main drag were a couple of bars, a restaurant, a place selling help clothing and the Café Milagro, a coffee roaster.
Their “Liquid Gold” espresso was my wake up call to a new form of the pure life, this one with a beach and fresh fish that keeps on coming.
The Pure Student Life
On my last day in Costa Rica my final meal was at a little place in the student district of San Jose. The funky Wok Noodle, an art gallery, a club and a fusion food joint was quiet and cozy at the end of the day.
Robert, a newly minted chef, served nirvana in a bowl —crab, mussels, white fish, red snapper on rice, and, just cause he could, starfish fruit.
While I ate, a couple of women next to me whispered and canoodled. Out on the street, it was rush hour in San Jose. Inside, the vibe was Pura Vida.
Fincas tres Semillas
Best Western Hotel and Casino Kamuk
Av Central, Quepos, 18, CR
Ave Central, Quepos CR
Wok & Noodles
Author Mary Nelen of Massachusetts is a writer, photographer and locavore.