It’s 5: 30 in the morning, and I’m staring directly into the eyes of a caiman. I can tell it sees me but does not flinch as the boat lingers in front of it. Its mouth is wideopen and its sharp teeth are exposed. I feel unnerved as I slide further back in my seat.
“Don’t worry,” our tour guide Cloied Taylor tells me with a laugh, “caimans aren’t aggressive.”
I feel myself relax a bit as the boat continues by and I spot a white-faced monkey in the trees overhead.
I close my eyes as the warmth of the sun shines on my face, and feel gratitude to be in one of the most natural and beautiful places in the world: the rainforests of Costa Rica.
It has always been a dream of mine to visit Costa Rica and experience the culture, cuisine and, of course, the adventure the country has to offer.
It didn’t take long to become used to the sight of monkeys, sloths, caimans, exotic birds and lizards – and the magnificent turtles.
I initially stayed on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica, in an idealic village called Tortuguero, which can be translated as “Land of the Turtles” in the Limón province.
The beaches around Tortuguero are a key nesting site for many of the world’s most endangered sea turtles. The village can only be accessed by boat or airplane. It is a fivehour drive from the capital city, San Jose, to the Tortuguero River, where I caught a boat that transported me to the village in just over an hour.
The exquisite place I am staying at is called Pachira Lodge, along the Tortuguero River and nestled in the rain forests. It offers all the comforts of home – if my home had a cascading waterfall pool, riverside bar and a luxurious spa.
The rainforests are spectacular. The national park in Tortuguero is a mustsee for anyone seeking adventure and to experience the incredible beauty of the inhabitants of its shelter. There are myriad colourful birds – such as the toucan and blue heron – the poisonous red tree frog, Howler monkeys and the Basilisk lizard, which runs across water.
Tortuguero’s turtle conservancy centre, Caribbean Conservation Corporation, is a small museum that features various bones and specimens from the many marine creatures that inhabit the area, particularly the turtles that nest there throughout the year. Green sea turtles, which flock in amazing numbers between July and October, make Tortuguero a very important breeding ground for the endangered reptiles. The enormous leatherback turtles nest during March to October.
The food on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica is rich in texture and flavour. A typical dish consists of rice and beans (Caribbean style, of course) served with fried plantain, fresh fruit and a meat or fish dish.
My favourite was Rondon, which is a thick stew made of fish, coconut milk, prawns and vegetables. I had it served with breadfruit, a fruit that has a potato-like flavour similar to fresh-baked bread.
After visiting the Caribbean side of Costa Rica, I returned to San Jose to learn more about the emerging capital city. It’s home to two million of the four million people who live in Costa Rica.
I visited Poas Volcano National Park, a 90-minute drive from San Jose. Poas is one of Costa Rica’s five active volcanoes and has erupted several times over the past century.
The park contains many giant ferns and poor man’s umbrella plants; their huge leaves are nearly three feet in diameter. From the crater lookout, I was able to see smoke wafting from it.
One of the dormant craters, which is approximately 10 minutes away from the main crater, has transformed into a cold-water lagoon, known as Botos Lagoon, which flows down the mountain and feeds the Sarapiqui River. It is truly awe-inspiring.
After visiting Poas Volcano National Park, I toured a nearby coffee plantation, Doka Estate.
From seed to cup, I was able to learn about how coffee is grown and made. And a matter of interest, most of their beans are exported. However, five per cent of their high-grade beans are kept within Costa Rica.
In San Jose, there are many “sodas,” otherwise known as a small diners/snack stops where locals dine on traditional Costa Rican dishes. There are also many takeout eateries that serve up Tacos Ticos (Costa Rican tacos), which are delectable.
No matter where I was, people were always friendly and willing to help me, especially on those days when I was a bit “Spanish challenged.” The locals are laidback and made me feel both relaxed and welcomed. There is a love of life known as “pura vida,” or “pure life”, a common saying in Costa Rica.
However, it isn’t just “pure life” in theory. As a country, Costa Rica was recently rated as the happiest place in the world by the Happy Planet Index. Some may say it’s due in part to the country’s history: its army was abolished in 1949, its money and focus invested more in its people. Others say it’s because of the lush and green environment, as Costa Rica is nurturing its surroundings, and has plans to be the first carbonneutral country by 2021.
However, I believe it is something much simpler: It is the happiest place on earth because the people embody “pura vida” in their culture, their food and, most importantly, in one another. And it’s something I hope to carry forward in my own life.
RECOMMENDED PLACES TO EAT:
Mirador Ram Luna has breathtaking views of whole Central Valley. Serves traditional dishes and features Costa Rican dancers and fireworks.
Aurola Hotel offers beautiful views of San Jose and innovative, creative fusion food.
Mercado Central (Central Market) boasts myriad shops, including many fresh-food markets and the county’s first ice cream vendor.
RECOMMENDED THINGS TO TRY:
Zip-lining, city tour, kayaking through the rain forest, volcano visit, coffee plantation tour.
BEST TIME TO GO:
Any time of year, as Costa Rica’s climate is very humid and warm throughout the year.