Costa Rica is the land of "pura vida," not just because it's renowned for its biodiversity and exotic animals but also because ticos y ticas (or Costa Ricans) throw the words meaning pure life around as a greeting, a goodbye, and a passionate yet casual way of expressing an appreciation for life. It's a highly sentimental phrase that only they seem to truly understand.
For visitors, pura vida may consist of warm welcomes by Costa Ricans, some of the most hospitable folks around in a continent where hospitality is an art form (unless you're us). Or it's waking up and falling asleep to the comforting sounds of rain, having cute animals such as monkeys and sloths as neighbors, and being surrounded by Pachamama's greenest plants and trees (okay, so Pachamama is the Mother Earth of the Andes, but you get what I'm saying).
To make the transition into experiencing the "pure life" a little smoother, here are some tips on what to expect, what to do, what to eat and where to go:
First off, don't bother changing your American dollars into Costa Rican colónes, since the U.S. dollar is accepted everywhere in Costa Rica. English is also commonly spoken among tico/as. And you're likely to run into at least one or two expatriates who abandoned the American dream for pura vida, which will have you immediately planning to ditch the U.S. with your roommates.
The most famous Costa Rican dish is gallo pinto: seasoned beans and rice mixed together and commonly served with eggs for breakfast. But you should also try a casado, a plate of white rice, black beans (served separately, not mixed), plantains, salad and your choice of meat. To wash it down, try anything guanabana, a refreshing tropical delight (called soursop in English, mãng câu in Vietnamese and quite common in OC) that tastes like the lovechild of banana, strawberry and pineapple. Many guanabana stands will offer to add rum to your guanabana smoothie or juice, and, well, why would you turn that down?
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In San José, Costa Rica's capital and largest city, the rainforest seeps into the urban metropolis. While it's home to zoos, resorts, shopping centers and museums, a visit to the tico capital wouldn't be complete without stopping by the Mercado Nacional de Artesanías (Avenida Segunda, San José, Costa Rica—as with many places in Costa Rica, no website, phone or exact address is available; you just gotta ask around for directions). Here, you'll find all the handmade knickknacks and doodads to bring home to the folks. And if your haggling game is strong, this is likely the cheapest place in Costa Rica to buy such keepsakes.
More hipster-y is Finca Luna Nueva (San Isidro de Peñas Blancas, Chachagua, San Ramón 1250, 800-903-3470; fincalunanuevalodge.com). It's a certified-organic biodynamic farm and a rustic eco-lodge perfect for anyone who wants to learn about agricultural sustainability in an intimate rainforest setting. If you're anti-GMOs and ride a fixie bike, you'll love it here.
La Fortuna is home to the Arenal Volcano found within the Arenal National Park, which is a popular hiking destination. However, the real gems in La Fortuna are the hot springs produced by the Arenal Volcano. The Tabacon Grand Spa and Thermal Resort (855-TABACON; www.tabacon.com) houses some of the most luxurious natural hot springs Arenal has to offer. There's even a bar in one of the springs, so you can sip on a margarita while relaxing in steamy water among exotic vegetation. Other must-dos in La Fortuna include visiting the indigenous village of the Maleku, ziplining through the rainforest, and water rapelling—if you dare. Try goadventurepark.com for that.
Just south of the city of Quepos lies Manuel Antonio National Park, which exudes Jurassic Park-esque vibes thanks to enormous trees with roots large enough to hide raptor eggs. After a stroll along Manuel Antonio's trail, you'll reach a white-sand beach with gray-blue waters. Careful not to leave any belongings unattended, as packs of mischievous monkeys hang out along the beach, waiting to steal snacks from tourists' bags. And suddenly, they're not so cute anymore—pura vida!