In English, pura vida means “pure life.” But in Costa Rica, it’s come to mean much more than that. The phrase means everything from “hello” to “excellent.” It’s the statement that symbolizes Costa Ricans’ love of their country and pride in what nature has given them.
Recently, Laurel and I visited Costa Rica for the first time, and we came to enjoy and respect what the Ticos, as they call themselves, have. The country ranks percentage-wise first in the world in protected land mass, with more than 25% of it designated as national parks or preserves. Since we’re avid birders, we were excited about the fact that, even though it’s only about the size of Vermont and New Hampshire, it’s home to more than 900 bird species and a wide variety of animals. In less than a week, we spotted nearly 90 life birds, thanks to our very able guides. (For bird lovers, I’m posting a separate blog that describes in detail what we saw.)
We stayed in a comfortable condo complex in San Jose, the largest city in Costa Rica. It’s about the same size as San Diego, but a word of caution here. If you’re enticed to visit Costa Rica, don’t rent a car and drive. The traffic is insane—narrow highways full of large trucks and crowded conditions everywhere around the city. Traffic lanes are marked, but treated merely as suggestions. In addition, street names just grew with the city. Avenida 3 is not necessarily next to Avenida 4. It takes an experienced taxi driver or guide to take you where you want to go.
That said, San Jose is an intriguing city full of parks and some excellent museums. We visited the Pre-Columbian Gold and Jade Museums, and they were both filled with wonderful art and provided an introduction to the history and culture of Costa Rica and its many indigenous peoples, several of whom still live in their old ways in various areas of the country.
Our primary guide, Deimer Espinosa, comes from a family that’s descended from the Charotegas people of Guanacaste, the region on the Pacific that now hosts several excellent beach resorts. He owns a company that has been influential in developing recycling methods for the country (you see recycle bins everywhere). He also leads a school that trains future guides, knowledgeable in the country’s flora and fauna. And he led us to a series of national parks and venues brimming with lush rainforests, crocodile rivers and tropical volcano craters. Everywhere we went, the spectacular countryside was fascinating and beautiful.
Tuesday was Valentine’s Day, and for a change of pace we decided to splurge and treat ourselves to a nice dinner. Rated #1 out of 524 restaurants in San Jose is a French restaurant named La Terrasse, so we made reservations (highly recommended, since the restaurant is in the owners’ home, and there are only six or seven tables). Here’s the address, in typical Tico fashion: Avenida 9, calle 15, 45 metros al Norte de Café Mundo, 25 metros al sur del hotel la Amistad, Barrio Otoya San José, describing that it’s 45 meters north of Café Mundo and 25 meters south of Hotel la Amistad, landmarks for the lost. Our cab driver knew the general location and, after a couple of wrong turns, found the home south of city center. We knocked on the door, and our host opened it and welcomed us in.
The chef of La Terrasse is Patricia Richer, and her husband, Gerald, is the waiter, wine steward and genial host. Together, they served us one of the best meals we have ever had. And in such lovely, intimate surroundings. Here’s the menu:
Vegetales orgánicos de Joseph Dugast, La BioFinca de Don Pepe.
“Para el placer de un cena romantica.”
Crema de esparragos, aguacate
Cardamomo & coco
Mini brocheta de camarón con especias.
Mini Tarteleta de hongos y queso camembert
Pisto de berros.
Fondante de caramelo espéculos & nueces caramelizadas
Croquante de chocolate.
Trufas de chocolate blanco & praliné.
And here’s a photo to give you an idea of what their “small home” looks like:
We highly recommend that if you ever spend an evening in San Jose, spend it at La Terrasse.
On the wild side of Costa Rica, we spent a late afternoon cruising the Tarcoles River, which empties into the Pacific. In two hours, traveling up and down the river with our knowledgeable pilot, we spotted 42 different birds, 29 of them life birds! We also saw several crocodiles, some of them hauled out on the river’s grassy banks. One of them had to be at least twelve feet long. We asked the guide why some of them lie with their mouths opened wide, and he told us that’s how the crocs cool themselves. We finished at the mouth of the river in time to see the sun set out on the Pacific. Click on Jungle Crocodile Safari to read more about the boat ride.
On the way to the river, we stopped for lunch at Restaurante Bar & Grill Los Toneles and had some excellent sandwiches, actually washed down by a Costa Rican craft beer. The craft beer explosion has hit Costa Rica, too, and it was quite good. Like a lot of countries, there is one beer that everyone drinks. In Costa Rica, that beer is Imperial. It even comes in draft at some places and is not bad, but it’s not a craft beer.
On the day we spent in the city perusing the museums, we walked up Avenida Central and discovered that it turns into a pedestrian mall for blocks in the city center. Bustling and busy, with shops from farmacias to book stores, live bands and women selling their produce spread on blankets, it was a delightful find. On one corner, we even found a craft brew tavern. Called Pub P3, it’s on piso tres, the third floor, and it’s a sophisticated little club that looks out through open windows at the sights below. Flocks of Crimson-fronted Parakeets flew up the street while we sampled their excellent IPA.
We wanted to get a better look at Costa Rica’s Pacific coast and spent a day on Calypso Cruise’s terrific catamaran, the Manta Raya. It took us out on a calm sea through several islands off the coast and eventually to Isla Tortuga (Turtle Island, although we didn’t see any turtles). We spent five hours ashore on a beautiful sandy beach and had a terrific beach lunch. Laurel got in some snorkeling, and she saw a few fish but said the water was warm and a little murky.
On the last two days, we were joined by a lovely young guide named Lucia Quesada. She has recently finished her three years of education as a naturalist/guide, and she was a fountain of knowledge, not only for birds, but also the culture and history of the country. Her family comes from the Huetares people, on the southern part of the Caribbean side. She and Laurel became a dynamic duo, spotting birds everywhere and then finding them in the bird guide.
We visited the Poas Volcano, another national park, and had a great look at the still hot caldera, then avoided all the crowds when our Deimer and Lucia took us back on a trail where we only saw two or three people. On the way to the volcano, we stopped at a terrific restaurant, Freddo Fresas. It’s in the heart of strawberry country and has a wonderful selection of pastries and desserts featuring the gorgeous berries. Freddo owns land across the street from the restaurant and has turned it into a garden filled with feeders. Hummingbirds everywhere!
Saturday was our last day before returning to San Diego. We started by hunting for the legendary Quetzal, which has a national park named after it. We didn’t find it, but we saw plenty of other birds. Finally, we visited the La Paz Waterfall Park, which has a series of three waterfalls in lush jungle. At the top is a major tourist attraction which features a zoo and a large aviary. Lots of birds in the aviary, but we didn’t add any to our list. We still finished the week with 127 different birds, 89 of them new to us.
One bird we saw in the aviary was a Crested Guan, about the size of a small turkey. We stopped near it to watch it perch on a railing. It seemed quite tame and was attracted to Laurel’s scope mounted on its tripod. Finally, the bird jumped down and began rubbing the legs of the tripod with its beak. Definitely, he must be a bird who appreciates long legs. Quite a laugh for all of us.
A word of caution: If you want to climb down to see the waterfalls, be prepared for what seemed to be about 300 stairs. Fortunately, you only have to climb back a quarter of the way, where a shuttle bus is waiting. A strenuous climb, but worth it.
It was our first trip to Costa Rica, but it won’t be our last. The Ticos’ idea of “pura vida” is addicting.