Pura Vida is the unofficial motto of Costa Rica. Literally, it means pure life. It can be used as a greeting or farewell, but it also describes the Costa Rican way of life. Costa Ricans are optimistic and appreciative of what they have. And they have so much in the way of natural treasures.
We had the opportunity to visit Costa Rica in 2018. It was a special trip to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary and my daughter Corinne’s college graduation. It was a tour of Costa Rica that showed us a few of the highlights of this gorgeous country. We stayed in five different hotels over 12 nights and saw the beauty of the mountains as well as the coast.
I thought about trying to rank my favorite things about Costa Rica, but I gave up after the first five. It’s just too hard to decide! So, in no particular order, here are my favorite ways to experience Pura Vida in Costa Rica:
One of my favorite activities while traveling is spotting wildlife. I had my heart set on seeing a sloth in the wild and I was not disappointed. I saw four of them–one was a baby. They are just so adorable!
At home, we occasionally see a hummingbird visit our flowers in the summer. I simply wasn’t prepared to see so many hummingbirds at once at a hummingbird garden we visited. I was overcome (in a good way) by the sight of dozens of hummingbirds darting about. A video is required for you to understand what I mean.
We observed others putting their hands near the feeders so that the hummingbirds would land on your hand and of course we had to try. This was such an amazing experience that they practically had to drag me away.
Four different species of monkeys call Costa Rica home. We saw two of them: howler monkeys and white-faced capuchin monkeys. The monkeys live in families, so if you see one, you’re likely to see several more. In one park, we watched an entire family of monkeys climb up a tree and jump to the next tree. It was fascinating. Other times, the monkeys were content to lie around.
4. Night Walk
Costa Rica offers a fascinating way to see nocturnal animals: guided night walks. A guide supplies everyone with a flashlight and you wander around the forest looking for wildlife. Our guide asked us in the beginning what our top priorities were to find (sloths!) and tailored our walk accordingly by communicating with other guides. In addition to the sloths, we saw pit vipers, an armadillo, birds, and several cool insects, including leaf cutter ants.
5. Hot Springs
There is nothing more soothing than soaking in a volcanically-heated pool after a day of adventuring. Costa Rica has many of them. We visited one that had a couple of dozen pools of varying temperatures. Some of the hottest pools had a cool plunge pool next to them so that you could alternate between hot and cold. So relaxing!
If you’ve never seen bioluminescent water before, put it on your bucket list now. It is extraordinary. My husband and I had a chance to experience this on a kayak tour in Puerto Rico several years ago and when I found out Costa Rica also had bioluminescence, I made it a priority to organize our trip around it so our kids could experience it too. (You want to go when the sky is dark, so check the lunar calendar before scheduling.) Imagine fireflies, but much smaller and more densely clustered, in the water. And they light up only when you agitate the water. I hope my description painted a picture in your mind because my nighttime underwater photography skills are not up to snuff. Sorry!
7. Stunning landscapes
As we traveled through Costa Rica, we discovered there was no shortage of stunning vistas. From the Pacific coast to the rainforest and cloud forest, it was a feast for my eyes.
8. Hanging Bridges
Suspension bridges that traverse the treetops are a Costa Rican must-do experience. It was from one of these bridges that we watched that family of monkeys I wrote about in #3 above. It isn’t an exhilarating experience like ziplining (and there’s plenty of that to be found in Costa Rica too); it is the kind of experience that allows you to slow down and take in the beauty around you.
I adore butterflies. At home, I grow flowers that attract them and then chase the butterflies around my yard with my camera, taking pictures. Costa Rica was simultaneously a delight and a frustration. Butterflies were fluttering EVERYWHERE, but the problem was that most of the time they wouldn’t hold still for pictures. Our local conservatory has a butterfly show every year, and one of the most popular butterflies there is the Blue Morpho with its large electric blue wings. I was very excited when we spotted our first blue morpho and over the moon when one landed on me during our night walk. It stayed on my shirt for around 15 minutes while we walked around. 😀
Perhaps it’s because of the opening scenes of Fantasy Island that I watched growing up, but nothing says “tropical paradise” like a waterfall surrounded by lush vegetation. Costa Rica does not disappoint. My only complaint is that one of them was flowing so profusely that we were unable to jump in for a swim.
11. Swimming Holes
While we were unable to swim in the waterfall mentioned above, just a little way downstream, there was a swimming hole that was considered safe for a refreshing dip.
12. River Tubing
While we’re on the subject of water, let’s talk about river tubing. I’ve been whitewater rafting before and it does bear some resemblance to that, but with less control. How good are you at paddling with your hands? Probably not very good if your spouse hands you a GoPro and tells you to record your tubing run. Here’s a run my sweetheart recorded for me. It’s about a minute long.
What did you think? Would you try river tubing? I will say that I was the only middle-aged woman in our group. There were lots of dads and kids, but the other moms stayed behind. I am glad I tried it!
During our trip to Hawaii a few years ago, we got the kids PADI certified in scuba diving. We try to fit in a dive whenever we visit a destination that offers it. The visibility wasn’t great in the spot where we dove, but we did see some cool sea life including a starfish and a shark. I didn’t get a picture of the shark, but I did get the starfish.
Costa Rica has six active volcanoes and another 61 dormant ones, making them rather hard to miss. One of the hotels we stayed in had a great view of Arenal. Well, as good a view as anyone’s likely to get because the summit is usually surrounded by clouds.
My son set up a time-lapse photo shoot to see if he could capture it with no clouds. Here’s what happened.
15. Volcanic Mud Baths
While I’m talking about volcanoes, I can’t help but mention that Costa Ricans make the most of their volcanoes–from hot springs (#5 above) to mud baths. Why would anyone want to paint themselves with volcanic mud? I believe the official reasons are to detoxify and soften the skin. The unofficial reason is that it’s just plain fun!
16. Fresh coconuts
Coconut trees are abundant in Costa Rica. On one of our outings, our driver stopped at a roadside coconut stand for a treat. First we each got to drink the juice from a fresh coconut. Refreshing! Then, they showed us how to cut the coconuts open and scoop out the fresh coconut meat. It was a delicious and memorable experience.
17. Dinner in a treehouse
Another memorable culinary experience in Costa Rica was dining in a treehouse. The restaurant was built around a large tree.
I love to photograph flowers wherever my travels take me. I took pictures of dozens of types of brightly colored flowers. Aren’t they lovely?
19. Lush foliage
You might think with all those pretty flowers in Costa Rica, the green stuff would just blend together. Not so. I enjoyed the pretty leaves too.
20. Learning about the indigenous culture of Costa Rica
During our trip, we had the opportunity to meet a member of the Maleku tribe and hear him talk about his culture and the challenges his people have to maintain their traditions. After that, we were able to shop for some artwork made by his fellow tribe members. It was really interesting and provided the type of learning opportunity we like to have while traveling.
Costa Rica is a bird lovers’ paradise. Some bird enthusiasts plan entire trips to Costa Rica around birdwatching. The hummingbirds (#2 above) were my favorite birds, but we saw several others. I enjoy spotting a pretty bird, but I’m not knowledgable about what type they are. I know that we saw some Scarlet Macaws, but I don’t know what the others are.
We found lots of interesting insects in Costa Rica. Several of them were on our night walk (#4 above), but we saw plenty of others. Nearly everywhere we went, we saw large nests of termites in the trees. My kids were enthralled with the giant grasshoppers we found hanging around the gardens at one of our resorts. And leaf cutter ants are so fascinating to watch. If looking at live insects isn’t your thing, then perhaps you’d enjoy a visit to an insectarium with thousands of specimens of dead insects that you can inspect without worrying about them crawling on you.
It wasn’t until long after we got home from the trip that I realized just how many pictures of crabs I had taken. Apparently, I’m more fascinated by them than I realize. We saw lots of these cute little guys scuttling along the beaches and inching about the tidepools.
24. Other Wildlife
From lizards to mammals, we saw lots of interesting wildlife. Spotting wildlife is one of my favorite things to do. In one park we saw a coatimundi (a relative of the raccoon) for the first time. One of the surprising things about Costa Rica was how many raccoons there were and how fearless they were. One walked up to me while I was sitting in a lounge chair by a swimming pool and tried to take my lunch. I grabbed my lunch, but he got my piña colada. My daughter Camille is a big fan of lizards and got to see many of those.
Costa Rica has many amazing resorts that range from more traditional resorts to eco-friendly resorts, some that are all-inclusive and others that include breakfast only. We moved around the country several times and got to experience different resorts. Here are pictures of a few of the places we stayed at.
26. Infinity pools
There is something special about infinity pools that just adds an extra special touch to a vacation. The views remind you that you really are in a tropical paradise.
Costa Rica has so many amazing things to see and do, so I suppose it shouldn’t surprise me that I’ve gotten to #27 before talking about beaches. We only had time to see some of the Pacific coast, but there is another side–the Caribbean coast–that offers plenty more gorgeous beaches. If you’ve been following me for a while, then you know we had to spend one day on the beach building a sandcastle.
Closely tied to enjoying the beach is getting out on the water to enjoy it. In addition to the scuba diving (#13) already mentioned, we also had an opportunity to go on a sunset kayak cruise and go stand-up paddleboarding. Fun!
29. ATV Rides
One thing that my husband really wanted was for the whole family to go on a guided ATV ride. After finding a vendor that offered this, we scheduled a guided ride along the coast just before sunset. We got to see some fabulous views and even saw Nicaragua in the distance from where we were in northern Costa Rica. It was a fabulous way to explore the coast.
While there are certainly many more ways to experience Pura Vida in Costa Rica, I wanted to write this solely from personal experience. In just 12 days, my family experienced all of these amazing aspects of Costa Rica. It seems only fitting to save the stunning sunsets for last.
Would you like to visit Costa Rica and experience Pura Vida for yourself? I would love to help you plan a trip. Read about how my services work here and then send me an email. We’ll schedule a complimentary consultation over Zoom so we can determine if we’re a good fit for each other.