Travel Journal: Costa Rica…Pura Vida!

by Gretchen Inman

If there ever was a market slogan that sums up a country it is Costa Rica’s Pura Vida! Pure Life!
Visiting this peaceful Central American country has been on my bucket list for over two decades and I finally made it! If any expectation could have been exceeded it definitely was! The people are simple, family centered, devoted to faith and their country. There wasn’t any where I visited that pride in their community wasn’t blatantly evident. Even in the villages struggling with poor economy, drugs and prostitution there was an underlying desire to show the best of what they could offer.

The ecological conservation of this heavenly place on earth is in the forefront of the governing bodies. They are fairly self sufficient and sustainable agriculturally. It seemed that the entrance of foreign business interests were for cheap labor and nothing more. Witnessed on the miles of countryside were sugar plantations- the smell was sweetly intoxicating, palm oil farms for manufacturing food oils, coffee, melons, papaya, pineapple, mangos, pejibaya, bananas, strawberries, coconuts (pipa fria was my favorite- and young coconut with the top macheted off and a straw to slurp the cold refreshing coconut water- full of electrolytes) All the fruit was sold at it’s perfection! Nothing wasted. The local fish – a sea bass called Corvina was the staple in many a delicious ceviche, refreshing and often made the meal, but I enjoyed the calamari, shrimp and octopus too.

Recycling is a way of life, everywhere we went was small bins of sortable recyclables. There were trades folks that had created sellable crafts using recycled materials and creative, artful ways of reusing discarded materials – furniture, hammocks, fencing, etc. Their cognizance of planetary conservation is a matter of survival. The people live fairly simply in small gated homes that all appeared to reflect love and pride regardless of their socio-economic state. There is plenty of poverty and the two classes are distinguishable but segregated. Many people lack transportation and we saw many people on foot walking up and down the mountains, valleys and using foot power to get anywhere. Bicycles, motor bikes and buses were everywhere too. No one looked miserable.

The comida tipica (typical food) is definitely worth mentioning. I had expected something close to Mexican food and although there were similarities I never felt like I was eating Mexican food. The volume of fresh fruit in their diet was impressive. I’ve never been much of a fan of papaya until presented slices of perfectly ripened, custary, slightly sweet fruit- it was a revelation! The tamales are steamed in banana leaves and filled with vegetables, pork or eggs. They use more black beans and mix the beans and rice together- that and some cheese, meat or eggs is a perfect meal! The local cheese was fresh, salty and squeaky- reminded me of farmers cheese swimming in whey. The eggs are ridiculously fresh and shelved, unrefrigerated in the grocery stores. The tortillas were fresh, thicker than we’re used to and the corn meal is often mixed with cheese and griddled for a quick snack. I pampered my palate with some of the higher cuisine but it was French and classically prepared and presented. I saw many a Costa Rican cook living viva locavore because that’s all they have ever done! The tap water was consumable and refreshing- another revelation!

The B& B where I spent most of the nights was high on Volcano Poas just north of Alajuela in a strawberry-growing mecca, but also abundant in this region was arabica coffee, bananas, cut ferns and cattle. The rich view we had from the porch was of the city lights and mountains to the south of San Jose. Every morning was waking up to cool sunny days surrounded by wild bougainvilleas, hibiscus, split leaf philodendron, and prolific amounts of lilies and orchids and a really nice cup of local coffee.

As we ventured closer to the coast the green mountains turned into dry tropical forests. The week we were there they received the first rain since November – I’d always pictured a humid, sweltering environment – not unlike the Midwest in August!

I wasn’t disappointed. There definitely were muggy days but coastal winds allowed relief. A three hour hike to the bottom of a jungle ravine lead us to a cold swimming hole and the base of an incredible waterfall. We ran into several North Americans sharing the same amazing experience. As we were leaving a strong rain cooled the ascent and the tropical forest frogs emerged by the hundreds to give us a special view of the two diverse but symbiotic, micro climate.

Touring an orchid farm to see how these magical flowers are raised to give us such a unique plant in our indoor gardens was a special experience. The day spent at the butterfly conservancy taught me that over 350 species of butterflies are from Costa Rica and they preserve the species through careful measures and send pupa all over the world to ensure their survival. The people were passionate about sharing the beauty of their country. The experience I continue to feel after returning to the USA was that we’re on the right track and although we are significantly more complicated than Costa Rica, we get it! Pura Vida!