Glancing down for a moment, my eye caught sight of the orange glow of the speedometer. The readout hovered at 50 km per hour. My head did the rough conversion as a fat drop of rain streaked across the plexiglass visor of my helmet. Things sure felt faster than 30 miles per hour. Then again, the smooth predictability of asphalt had a way of hiding the thrill of speed. These old muddy paths, snaking through miles of regimented palm trees shrouded in fog were entirely different. The ATV clawed adeptly through ruts and undergrowth, providing jolts of adrenaline with every puddle of water hit at speed. Lifting your legs in the air at these moments was key to avoid burns from the hot steam, created instantaneously from the spray hitting the hot engine block. Weather be damned — this was living — I thought as I followed the string of red tail lights towards a cluster of waterfalls in the distance. My right hand juiced the throttle. This trip to Costa Rica was turning out to be anything but a stretch of lazy days on the beach.
For those unaccustomed to life in the tropics, the term “rainy season” sinks in with only partial comprehension at best. We’ve all dealt with the occasional storm, and many look forward to the changing of the seasons that come with the earth’s rotation around the sun. But a season of precipitation? It doesn’t quite compute. Needless to say, my girlfriend and I approached our voyage to the isthmus of Central America like any other beach excursion. We didn’t have much choice over our timing. A friend of ours (a native Costa Rican) was tying the knot in the country’s capital of San Jose, and we were using the excuse to tack on some needed R&R.
The name Costa Rica translates to “Rich Coast”. While money is in short supply here, the country’s other values shine through like few others. Costa Rica ranks third in the global environmental performance index, and its people are among the happiest in the world according to international surveys.
After a weekend of ceremony, we hopped a 30 minute commuter flight on Sansa Airlines to Quepos. In the case of Sansa, “Airline” refers to a fleet of 12 Cessna 208B Grand Caravans that whisk the country’s influx of tourists, 10 people at a time, to lonely airstrips carved from the jungle. Our belongings surely soaked in the hassle-free manner in which they were treated. The stomachs and nerves of fellow passengers didn’t see the situation in quite the same light.
Hesitations aside, everyone and every thing aboard the plane arrived without incident, and we soon were at our hotel, Arenas Del Mar, in the nearby beach town of Manuel Antonio. Named after one of the country’s most famous national parks, the town seemed to offer the perfect balance of relaxation and exploration. Arenas was recommended to us by locals as the ideal place to stay for those in search of escape. Built on 11 acres of ocean side property, the hotel’s facilities were scattered throughout the jungle, connected by a series of paved golf cart roads that shuttled guests and staff from place to place, without the need of a machete. If Tarzan had known a good contractor, Arenas Del Mar could have been the result.
Not a drop of rain had appeared at all during our stay, and we spent the rest of the afternoon enjoying the sun on the boulder-strewn beaches of the Pacific Coast. Signs posted everywhere indicated that the sea did not treat careless swimmers kindly. The currents were powerful and dangerous, as was the pounding 10 foot surf, which reached as levels as high as 17 feet depending on the tide. It was one of many hints the country dropped throughout our stay that “tame” was still outside of Costa Rica’s vocabulary. As we settled into our bungalow that night and enjoyed the sprawl our private balcony, the rain finally came. The roar of the Pacific, a mere 50 yards away, and the occasional cry from howler monkeys were no match for the onslaught of water that fell from the heavens in buckets. So began our education on what a “season” of rain implied.
From then on, our time was punctuated by downpours, which often occupied entire mornings and evenings. In other settings, the weather might have broken our spirits. Thankfully, Manuel Antonio is a place filled with casual adventures. A day spent in the national park revealed monkeys, iguanas, and sloths, among other enormous insects and jungle flora. Subsequent days filled with white water rafting class 3 and 4 rapids, zip lining, tuna fishing, snorkeling, and ATV driving to remote swimming holes, easily kept our minds away from thoughts of the lounge chairs we had arrived here craving.
The food was another distraction all together. As unexciting as rice and beans sounds, we always looked forward to the constant presence of gallo pinto with meals. Paired with the freshest fruit and tuna we had ever tasted, there was no reason to rock the boat over lack of originality. The local Imperial beer and even the taste of Guaro — a common, cheap South American liquor made from sugar cane and embraced by the Costa Rican natives — were welcomed for dousing the energy of the day’s activities. Like all good vacations, though, just as we were settled into our wild life in raincoats, smiles plastered across our faces, it was time to dry off and go.
Looking back at our brief encounter with the small country, it is the calm and casual nature of its people that made the biggest impression. For being in a foreign place, with a minimal knowledge of Spanish, the stress of handling daily interactions was nowhere to be found there. Costa Ricans are helpful, courteous, and go out of their way to make visitors comfortable. “Pura Vida” is both a greeting and farewell said by locals, and indicative of their attitude. In their eyes, living life to the fullest is the only goal worth pursuing. Based on the country’s top ranking among world happiness survey’s, it clear their philosophy is more than just talk.
We left the country keeping these lessons close as the jungle faded below the approaching cloud line aboard the 737, thinking the world could all use some time studying at the side of citizens of the Rich Coast.
Photos by Ben Bowers