top of page

Costa Rica - A ‘Pura Vida’ Way of Life

October 21, 2023

A view of a volcano and plants

written by Victoria Ilott

No matter what region of this beautiful country you visit, all of your senses will come alive. Whether it is hearing the sounds of the macaws calling, the feel of the mist on your skin in the rain forest, the sights of lush green landscapes, the taste of traditional cuisine, or the smell of coffee beans being roasted at a local plantation. 

I was fortunate enough to visit three key areas of Costa Rica; all totally different from each other and each having something wonderful to offer. San José was where I landed and although my hotel was on the outskirts of the city it was a pleasant 20-minute walk down and across a couple of large roads which were dotted with interesting sights along the way, such as a glistening copper and a mustard-coloured building that resembles a temple (but nobody seems to know the name of it or what it was or is). I met a local man who said hello and welcomed me to his country before pointing out the yellow snake living in the tree next to us. 

I couldn’t resist checking out a supermarket on route (a long-time habit of mine when abroad to see what unusual things they have) and was thrilled to see mangoes as big as my head. Arriving at Plaza de la Cultura I was surrounded by attractive buildings presenting themselves. The first was the National Theatre; I peeked inside to see the ornate lobby and marvel at how gorgeous it was. The next, (and it took me a while to figure out it wasn’t a palace), was the post office. It ran for an entire block, had armed guards outside the grand doors, and was open on a Sunday no less. The main shopping streets were loud and lively; no shop identified itself as one specific thing with most having an MC outside with a microphone or megaphone stating that should you venture in you could leave with a washing machine, a pogo stick, a gold necklace and a burrito. I caught sight of a cluster of trees at the end of a side street and thought it might be a park. It was. Parque Espana. Full of hummingbirds and huge Monarchs and Cloudless Sulphur butterflies, fountains, and floral displays. This multi-level green space was a joy to walk through. 

At the top of the park, I was greeted by the famous ‘Yellow House’ which was significant for political meetings held there in the past, and to the left of it was a powder blue coloured vintage cinema and a candyfloss pink coloured restaurant. Continuing past these pretty buildings, I was drawn to what can only be described as ‘tropical sounds’. It was like I was entering a rainforest or similar, but I was still in the middle of the city. I was on the edge of Parque de Bolivar. There was no way in with the main iron gates padlocked shut and overgrown with plants but I walked its circumference peering through the fence. I learned that it was now an urban garden left to grow wild for birds and animals to find peace and safety in the city. It is monitored by rangers, but they don’t interrupt it. 


Breakfast was al fresco in the hotel garden where I was joined first by native squirrels and Great Kiskadee birds, and then by six people from around the globe who I was joining on a small group tour heading north. An hour out of the city we stopped on a bridge and were encouraged by our guide to get out and have a look over the edge. There below me were dozens of freshwater crocodiles lazing about in the sun and the shallows, with a Jesus Christ lizard darting between them. A Tiger Belly Stork sat on the riverbank and a pair of Scarlet Macaws flew past. I was beyond thrilled. The next few hours of driving passed quickly with another stop and spotting colourful Oropendolas and several eagles. 

I arrived at my eco-hotel in Monteverde just in time for lunch, which was a traditional plate called ‘Casados’. It consists of rice, salad, vegetables, beans, and plantain. It was leisurely paced over three days looking around the town, trying local craft beers, coffees and cakes, and the scenery was breathtaking at every turn. I visited the butterfly gardens and on route spotted a little bird called a Blue Crowned Motmot, toured a coffee plantation which was interesting but more so was the Two-Toed Sloth and Emerald Toucanet I saw whilst looking around the grounds. 

Exploring the cloud forest in the evening brought new experiences; I opted to walk through the hanging bridges and got up close and personal with White-faced cap Monkeys, Forest Floor Millipedes, Tropical King Birds, and a very cute little Coati.

A bark scorpion glowing in the dark

By moonlight, I ventured down into the rain forest where it was much warmer and I was greeted by creatures of the night, starting with a Pygmy Frog and Red Eyed Stream Frog (both the size of my fingernail), plus a cane toad. An illuminous Bark Scorpion and an Eyelash Tree Viper then made appearances followed by a Red Knee Tarantula complete with hundreds of babies in a nest. By midnight I was glad to see a fluffy Tree Porcupine clambering above me. The night tour of the forest was over, however, when I arrived back to my room at the hotel I had one last surprise – a shiny black scorpion scuttling across the floor. I was in total awe and total fear of it. It was calmly relocated to a plant pot in the courtyard. 


Next stop was La Fortuna; home of the Arenal Volcano plus much more. By way of a small boat across a lake and a 4 X 4 vehicle, I had an exhilarating journey, and I was pleased to see a Three-Toed Sloth (with a baby) along the way. My hotel was at the top of La Fortuna town with a majestic view of Arenal Volcano; it was like it was just sat in the backyard. It looked magnificent. There was plenty to see and do around the area. I started by visiting two natural hot springs; the first was a free ‘wild’ spring, in the river where all the locals go, and the second was a spring that had a resort built around it and was very fancy, with different pools at different temperatures. 

La Fortuna offers a lot of extreme activities like rafting and zip wires etc. But I had spoken to a lady (in the hotel in Monteverde) who told me she had gone horse-riding to a waterfall. I wanted to do that. Not a widely advertised excursion, it took some finding, but I was not disappointed. A half-day adventure started with meeting a baby sloth sitting in a hedge near the stables. It was just too adorable for words. I learned from the riding instructor that all wildlife is free in Costa Rica, they do not believe in zoos or captivity. They have huge respect for their animals and only interact or intervene if they have to save an animal that is injured for example. My horse was splendid and after a basic tutorial (as I had only ever ridden once before) we were off. It was just me (and my husband) with the guide. We trotted gently along in no great rush uphill for about an hour and along the way saw a baby armadillo scurry alongside, Tree Turkeys and Tiger and White Eagles overhead. Leaving our horses in a safe place we walked a further hour to the waterfall. It was high but not wide, and the power of it was unreal. The current away from it swept me off my feet and downstream. I swam happily in one of the pools it formed and enjoyed listening to the noise it made while being surrounded by dozens of different coloured hummingbirds. After reversing the journey and saying goodbye to my horse I was presented with a platter of fruit and chilled juice, before being driven back to my hotel. What a wonderful experience. 


My last day in La Fortuna was spent in the Angelina Gardens looking at beautiful flowers and admiring the views of the volcano from another viewpoint and wandering along the Bogarin Trail; a nature reserve in a secondary rainforest where wildlife comes and goes as it pleases, so every day there is different. I couldn’t have had a better day. I saw a turtle, three Yellow Fronted Toucans, a Basilisk Lizard, Three-Toed Sloths, a Montezuma Oropendola, a Black and White Owl, and a Costa Rican Robin. Just amazing. 


My lunchtimes and evenings throughout Costa Rica were spent al fresco in cafes and restaurants, of which there were a lot to choose from all serving amazing cuisine. From street food in the capital to a 10-course vegan tasting menu in a tree house, I was constantly delighted with the freshness and flavours of the food, and I was almost always surrounded by butterflies and hummingbirds, and views whilst eating. Alongside the delicious food and ever-present wildlife were the amazing people of this country. The Costa Ricans are genuine and friendly. Several strangers stopped me in the street and welcomed me to their country and even though I don’t speak Spanish and they spoke little English I soon learned that you could acknowledge anyone, anywhere by just saying ‘Pura Vida’. 

This is the Costa Rican philosophy and way of life, and it literally translates to ‘Pure Life’. For them, that is how they live; a pure, good life in harmony with each other, their environment, their flora and fauna. Whether you are exiting a taxi, entering a café, or just trying to join in a conversation you can just say ‘Pura Vida’ and you will receive a smile. The Costa Ricans have a lot of respect and appreciation for everything - their glass is always half full.

bottom of page