In Search Of “Pura Vida” In Costa Rica

Monday, June 21, 2010

In Search Of “Pura Vida” In Costa Rica

Finding the “pura vida” in Costa Rica these days takes a little patience and some luck, but once found, well worth the wait.

By Maria Russo

As beads of sweat trickled across my forehead, I could not help but feel that I had made a mistake coming back to Manuel Antonio National Park. The humidity intensified as the afternoon sun shifted west — its rays prodding at my freshly burnt skin. I sat up slowly, trying to inhale the thick air as my lungs begged for some reprieve. The sea air permeated as waves pounded the shore then softly retreated out to sea. Cliffs hugged the base of the dense jungle forming a protective barrier against the waters of the Pacific — an intriguing seascape of water, earth, and sky.

My trip to Costa Rica had been mediocre at best. It was not that I was unappreciative of the rural beauty of the lush countryside, or the geometrically stunning patterns of the vivid rainforest flora — a wild, picturesque backdrop to the majestic, long stretches of beach beneath the awe-inspiring vistas of rock formations anchored in the vast ocean floor. It was that I had traveled to Manuel Antonio to experience intimate encounters with the park’s biodiversity, only to discover a multitude of guided tours flooded with sweaty tourists taking turns to squint through a telescope to view nothing more than a speck of an animal surreptitiously tucked within the arms of the canopy.

Longing to get away from the “theme park” feel that surrounded me from the onset of my arrival, I set out to find pura vida, a phrase meaning the “Pure Life” that Costa Ricans often use to express contentment or happiness when chatting with friends and family. Venturing the four-and-a-half miles north to Quepos, a small town known as the gateway to Manuel Antonio, I planned to meet Josue, a local Quepeño who offered to provide an inside glimpse of how tourism has shaped the lifestyle, culture, and economy of the area’s people.

Josue met me at Café Milagro, a quaint eatery with rich blue walls and an outdoor dining patio situated around a garden of Heliconias. It was here  where we began the tour with a warm cup of the area’s best coffee. Even in the sultry heat I enjoyed the delicate light roast and appreciated the opportunity to visit the town’s only coffee shop.

Only six square blocks, Quepos is comprised of local eateries, tourism-related businesses, a few ramshackle hotels, and the Marina Pez Vela, a sportfishing attraction bringing people from all over the globe here. The town has managed to escape the complete takeover of Americanization thanks to the government’s refusal of Western patronage, yet after chatting with Josue, I realized how the glamor of tourism has still managed to strip away much of the simplicity of what once was a small, quiet village nestled in the heart of the rainforest.

“When I was young I knew everyone in this town,” he said. “You could walk around and say hello to anyone, but not anymore. Now there are so many people from other countries that have come to make money that people barely stop to talk to one another.”

We strolled along the narrow streets, and Josue brought me to La Esquina del Sabor, one of his favorite sodas — the term used for small restaurants serving typical cuisine — known for its delectable Costa Rican fare. Resembling a wooden beach shack, it provided the heart and soul of “Tico” cuisine: rice and beans with meat, chicken, or the catch of the day; sweet fried plantains, and Casado (a Costa Rican specialty combining all the staple foods piled onto one heaping plate). The seating was especially interesting: two long, open-air bars forming an inward “V” where diners both inside and out share space to eat. It was relaxed, inviting, and the perfect set-up for an afternoon meal with friends.

Our next stop was the local market, where most Quepeños satisfy their shopping needs. Stands selling tropical fruit, holistic hair and body care, fresh Ceviche, greeting cards, toys, electronic devices, and soccer paraphernalia were swarmed with people browsing during their lunch hour. Ceviche is a popular Costa Rican dish similar to Carpaccio, but most often prepared with fish. The ceviche stand here was famous for this refreshing meal and, after tasting it myself, was indeed deserved of its claim to fame. Josue pointed out another market directly across the street called Super Mas that supposedly targeted tourists, charging double the price for many of the same commodities.

Growing tired from the midday sun, I thanked Josue for his time and generosity and headed back to my hotel for an afternoon siesta.

* * *

It was my last day in Costa Rica and I had yet to find the elusive quiet of the forest that I had traveled 2,000 miles to experience. I decided to act on a tip I had received from the hotel’s hiking guide. He recommended hiking the trail through Manuel Antonio National Park on a weekday afternoon rather than the morning — most of the group tours head out early in the morning. Deciding to give it one more try, I caught the hotel shuttle to Manuel Antonio at around noon. Oscar, our driver, was able to convince the guards to allow me to pay at the park’s entrance but enter through the exit, enabling me to skip the hour’s walk through crowds and head straight for Playa Espadilla Norte, one of the park’s many gorgeous beaches.

My mind continued to twirl in rumination as the waves roared and whispered with each ebb and flow. Parched from lying listlessly in the sun for two hours, I inched off my towel and headed towards a water fountain I had passed on the way in. Turning onto the path of the forest floor, I was surprised by a troop of capuchin monkeys playing far below the forest’s canopy. The family’s alpha-male quietly watched over the group as youngsters rolled around below, engaging in playful spats. Others carefully groomed parasites from each other, showing gentle signs of affection. As the troop gracefully drifted from branch to branch, other creatures began to emerge from within the forest.

As I watched, a petite, silky anteater scurried as it searched for insects, three Macroteiid lizards quarreled over a mango, birds belted whimsical chants in melodious song, and a Jesus Christ lizard — yes, that’s it’s real name — lay perfectly camouflaged among the creviced bark of a tree. Thunder cracked in the distance, yet I could not lift my fixation off the tiny creatures, instinctively scurrying about to find a place to hide before the approaching storm.

The capuchins’ behavior shifted as it appeared that their focus had changed from play to mischief. Five dropped from the trees and headed towards the man-made path leading to the beach. One bold male lunged onto the metal flap of a garbage pail and began jumping rabidly, creating loud, clashing sounds and high-pitched screams with every pounce.

The rest of the troop chimed in with alarm calls as they closed in on a small path just before the beach. Fascinated, I watched as a female, carrying a tiny baby latched to her back, soared through the line of trees guarded by the screaming monkeys. Once the mother had climbed back to the safety of the canopy, the others rushed towards the beach and searched for unattended backpacks of beach visitors.

Able to slide open the zipper, several of the capuchins ripped bags of food from the opened flaps and swooped back into the thicket like a child jumping from a swing mid-air, all while shocked tourists shouted after them. I stared in astonishment as one small primate delicately untied a plastic bag that held a box of juice and a half-eaten sandwich. He examined the straw and quickly figured out how to remove it so that he could pour the remaining liquid into his mouth. Concerned for the animals’ welfare, several park ranger appeared and chased the remaining monkeys back into the jungle, ending the dramatic spectacle.

The forest turned quiet once again, and the last of the visitors trickled out the exit to avoid the approaching storm. Warm droplets of rain cooled my face and the pure scent of earth permeated the salty air. I walked back to the spot on the beach where I had felt defeated and uninspired just a short time ago. Looking out at the tumultuous ocean, I watched as the storm intensified, making the raw palette of sea, sky, and forest come to life in the soft twilight. Isolated and deserted, the park was truly magnificent, mysterious and primitive. The words pura vida involuntarily flowed from my lips.

I now understood why travelers religiously flocked to this enchanting jungle by the sea. It was an extraordinary place that in many ways had been exploited, and because of it I had undervalued its rarity and allure. Like all places worth visiting, one must seek out the beauty, and eventually nature reveals itself to those who appreciate its unyielding will and mesmerizing brilliance.


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