“Look at this, look at this!”
“What is – that’s a cockroach!”
“Urgh. Fine okay – oh, it’s a little frog! Get the camera!”
For the next few minutes, two camera-wielding tourists surrounded the 2-inch long tree frog that had decided to lounge on the wall of our hotel room, the bright camera flashes prompting it to edge further and further up the wall. Eventually we opened the front door, trying to shoo it back out to freedom. There was a moment of panic when the frog jumped from the top of the door frame to the bottom and lay very still. Surely that distance had been too great for that tiny animal? Fortunately not, as the amphibian happily bounded off into the night a few seconds later.
The frog-in-the-hotel incident happened on our last night of a week-long vacation in Costa Rica, the last of a string of happy encounters with nature. We’d had howler monkeys dropping fruit on our heads. Jesus lizards running on water away from our boat. A two-toed sloth mother and her baby hanging out in a tree to the side of the highway. Slathering on cancerous amounts of DEET to protect us from over 35000 species of insects from sunrise till well after sunset.
Mix into this a healthy dose of adventure. Rafting down a river that wasn’t so much a river as an endless series of rapids with toucans swooping overhead. Sitting in a 100-foot boat going 50mph around hairpin turns in a canal, guided by Roni, a driver that could have given F1 a run for its money. Hooking a set of handlebars over a metal cable and swinging half a mile through the canopy of a volcanic rainforest.
Finally add a dash of life-loving “Ticos” – Costa Rican residents. They are fiercely proud of their country. One driver spent two hours excitedly telling us how since the country had gotten rid of its army 50 years ago, they could now afford to build schools and provide complete healthcare for every single person.
“Pura Vida” – essentially “everything’s okay” is the country motto. Something to shout after getting through an exciting rapid on the river. Or just a greeting when passing a friend in the street.
All in all, a recipe for an unforgettable vacation. Costa Rica has struck an ideal balance between the commercial and authentic. One of the most accommodating countries for tourists – voltage and outlets match those in the US, all vendors accept US Dollars – Costa Rica nonetheless has surprisingly few “tourist traps”. There’s too much natural beauty not to be amazed anywhere you go. And even the most remote locations – Tortuguero, a city floating on canals and accessible only by boat – have hot water and wi-fi.
And when you aren’t as remote, the amenities blow away all expectations.
Roughly 2 million tourists per year arrive in Costa Rica, a country that only has 4 million residents. A country whose largest industry is tourism has hospitality down to a science. Bags are carried to your room before you even notice they’re gone. Our booking company called us during our trip to confirm that we were having a good time. During a tropical downpour, I rushed into an arbitrary hotel lobby to wait out the storm. The receptionist offered me coffee and a large towel.
The tour guide noticed that the seats on the boat were too hard and by the next day, he had spread out the life vests as makeshift cushions.
A country so rich in natural resources has no need for artificial ingredients. Here, there’s nothing special about “free range”, “cage free”, “organic” or “shade grown” – there’s no other way to do it.
Thank you for an amazing time, Costa Rica. I’ll be back.
tl;dr? Fast facts:
Best activities: zip-lining with Sky Adventures (they’re in Arenal and Monteverde), natural hot springs at Eco Termales, pineapple tour with Collin Street Bakery, white-water rafting down the Sarapiqui River
Best accommodations: Hotel Mountain Paradise (jacuzzi, waterfall shower, giant beds), Corteza Amarilla Art Lodge
Best food: Salsa Lizano, fruit esp. pineapple, papaya and watermelon, coffee (the best coffee is usually exported, so get it from places catering to tourists), grass-fed organic beef