Costa Rica: living la pura vida

Adventurers “sky trek” through the Monteverde Cloud Forest.
Adventurers “sky trek” through the Monteverde Cloud Forest.

When I was 14, a few friends and I decided living in Costa Rica would be a fabulous way to spend our summers. We’d stay with a family, attend a Spanish language school and travel across the country. For reasons we have yet to fathom, our parents agreed.

As the director from the school we were to attend drove us into Heredia—the town where we’d be staying—my friends and I exchanged apprehensive glances. The dark streets seemed unwelcoming, the bars on the windows of the houses alarmed us and everything was unfamiliar and disconcerting.

It turned out our first impressions were wrong. Granted, Heredia was nothing like home. But really, what would be the fun in that?

Our first few days in Costa Rica were spent exploring the streets of Heredia. We tried hard not to look like tourists while we scouted out the best places to buy lunch, all the ice cream shops and the cheapest Internet cafés.

We soon learned to expect gallo pinto and homemade tortillas for breakfast, not to trust drivers who claimed to be taxis unless they had the official triangle on top of the car, and to shower early in the day, because the hot water shut off at 11.

Under the guidance of a teacher at the school, we learned to make corn pancakes and identify native Costa Rican fruit. We raced through grammar lessons by telling jokes and stories in Spanish. We adapted to “Tico time,” where everyone ran at least 15 minutes late.

For our first weekend trip, we decided to go to the Tabacon hot springs near Arenal—an active volcano—with the school’s other students.

We were prepared for the breathtaking scenery we passed along the way. We were prepared to relax in the naturally heated hot springs. We were prepared to be impressed by the erupting volcano, which I had heard described as looking like “an exploding orange.” What we weren’t prepared for, however, is what we quickly came to call “Guido driving.” Guido, the intrepid guide who had organized the weekend for us so flawlessly, had little regard for speed limits. He had no understanding of how bumpy the roads were, especially for those of us who were jolting around on the jump seat in the back of his old van.

When we pulled our seat-belts tighter after passing a sign declaring the road we were on was the most dangerous in Costa Rica, he didn’t bat an eyelash.

We soon came to expect the crazy driving, and it only added to the adventure as we visited waterfalls, butterfly farms, coffee plantations and tropical islands. We journeyed across the country to take a “sky trek” through the Monteverde Cloud Forest. We rafted down the Sarapiqui River with only a few minor incidents.

Though we stuck to the typical tourist destinations, our familiarity with the country went beyond the descriptions in travel brochures, beyond the packaged image sold to the throngs of visitors.

Through conversations with our host families, street vendors and stories, tour guides and people we met along the road, we were exposed to the individuals behind the country, the people who made the Costa Rican motto of “pura vida”—literally “pure life”—a reality.

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