In remote Costa Rica, the coffee’s aromatic, the sea sensuous, the flora vivid and the fauna a tad pungent, says Alex Robinson
The deep-red sun sinks seawards, over a beach you could walk along for hours without reaching either end, sending shimmering reflections across long tidal pools oozing into the Pacific. Dew from the tropical air has condensed on the sides of my glass of mojito, which is perfect: icy and lime-tangy, with a hint of mint. Along the beach someone is playing a Spanish song pizzicato: finger-picked guitar music mixing with the wash of waves. Bliss, I think. It couldn’t get any better. And then it does: as the sun dips into the ocean, dolphins crest, fins silhouetted against the low light.
To think that only a week ago, as I made my way here, I was wondering if I’d made an awful mistake. I’d long wanted to come to Costa Rica, naively picturing the ideal: monkeys in branches, big-eyed tree frogs and untrodden strands where rainforest meets rolling green waves.
A friend of mine proceeded to throw a big bucket of cold water over my fantasy when I told him about it one Saturday over brunch.
“It’s a nice dream,” he said. “Sure there is forest — and there are great beaches, but they are so busy.”
It turned out he had a point: Costa Rica is essentially a spine of wild, fuming volcanoes in the middle of Central America, covered in jungle and a patchwork of coffee farms. These fall in corrugated valleys to both Atlantic and Pacific coasts. Beaches on the former are forest-backed, and either ash-grey or narrow, silvery slivers. They’re better on the latter, but heavily corralled by concrete condos or completely unreachable.
“Of course, you could go to eastern Nicoya,” he added casually. “To Santa Teresa. But you might not thank me for the tip. It’s tough to reach and the road is really rough.”
I did go. And I’m so glad I went. Although I have to say, he was right about the road. Getting to Costa Rica was easy enough: a change of aircraft in Amsterdam and a two-hour drive and I was on the Nicoya Peninsula, which sticks out like a thumb from the southwestern Pacific coast by the border with Nicaragua. I’d picked up a four-wheel drive, overnighted at an airport hotel, and was away in the early morning. This was classic Central America: tropical light, distant volcanoes, men in straw hats machete-cutting sugar-cane fields, piling the sticks onto the back of SUVs.
I stopped for a caffeine hit in Jicaral, a village of spaghetti-western belltowers and bougainvillea-pink plazas. The coffee was strong, cut from bushes that grew in the central Cordillera mountains, which rose, misty, a few dozen kilometres away across a sleeve of blue water. Costa Rica: the Rich Coast. Today, coffee and tourism drive the economy, yet the country was founded on a myth of gold, supposedly named by Columbus in 1502, impressed by Amerindians with ornate gold jewellery.
“Pura vida,” said the waitress with an almighty grin. “It’s what we say in Costa Rica. ‘Pure life’ — but here it means different things. For me, it’s ‘Celebrate life.'”
Famous last words. After Jicaral, the road turned to dirt, narrowed, steeped in jungle; exciting for the first hour, maybe. After four, I’d had enough of this life, pura or otherwise. Was Santa Teresa a myth? I only knew this: it is something of a low-scale celebrity haven, counting supermodel Gisele among the famous fans who, I might add, tend to helicopter in. I pressed the accelerator petulantly, crashing over more potholes. As I was reaching the limits of my exhaustion, a sleepy village appeared: Santa Teresa. Worth the rollercoaster ride? It certainly looked promising. The late-afternoon sun gilded the Pacific, turning it into a sea of honey. Ridges sparsely sprinkled with sugar-white villas fell to a coast shaggy with coconut-palm coves, edged with long swathes of sand. Things looked even better by the time I reached the hotel, one of just a few around Santa Teresa, itself little more than a street of surf shops and cafés with chalkboards offering acai and goji berry smoothies.
“Bienvenido! Pura vida!” said Carlos, the check-in clerk at the Florblanca, a sprinkling of villas, as he walked me to my cabin-in-the-woods. Another espouser of the national motto (were these people being paid by the tourist board?), Carlos offered another take on its meaning. “It means ‘pure life,” as in “Be alive. Now!”’
Pure life was everywhere: red heliconia flowers lined the path through the trees. A capuchin monkey daintily picked fruit from a palm. Lizards skittered about the veranda of my villa. The forest was a wild chorus of songs. I could hear the lap-lap of the sea. And so I settled in by the pool and soaked it up, watching hummingbirds suck nectar from flowers and blue butterflies float through shafts of dappled light.
Some days I took long beach walks, only occasionally passing another soul. On one walk I saw a surfer, small as a speck, his board glinting in the sunlight. It took me half an hour to reach him. He emerged, glistening, from the waves, like a Latin American Matthew McConaughey, swim-honed, with sun-bleached hair. Edwin, my new friend, spent the next few hours teaching me how to surf.
“This is how you put your feet,” he said, pushing them to either end of the board, moving me to a placid pool and then to the ocean, where I tumbled inelegantly.
“Pura…” he began. “Vida,” I felt confident to add.
Re-energised, I was beginning to know what it meant — the opposite of what I found in my holiday reading later that night: that Costa Rica was called ‘the poorest and most miserable Spanish colony in all Americas’ by an 18th-century governor who administered at arm’s length from distant Guatemala. Just monte y mata – mountains and forest. Before I left Nicoya, I went inland to see for myself. I hired a guide for a visit to the Cabo Blanco Absolute Natural Reserve, a 45-minute drive away, arriving early in the morning so I’d have the best chance of seeing wildlife.
Mariana, my guide, met me at the gates, looking serious in jungle khakis, with binoculars, a water bottle dangling from her belt. We reached a beach and a plaque that Mariana told me was dedicated to Olof Wessberg, a young Scandinavian whose quest for a tropical Shangri-La brought him to Nicoya a lifetime ago.
“Cabo Blanco was Costa Rica’s first national park,” she explained. ‘Olof founded it in the 1960s. Then he died – murdered – lobbying for our second national park in Osa. Nobody in Costa Rica wanted to save the rainforest then. They wanted to cut it down for cattle.’
Mariana looked out to sea. “Olof was pura vida,” she said. “It was his work that helped make Costa Rica rich – rich in biodiversity, rich in the pure life.”
Today, reforestation exceeds deforestation. Costa Rica’s myth of gold is fulfilled – the country is the eco-tourism world’s gold standard. Mariana was a mine of information as she led me onwards, the way ahead now cutting through tangles of saplings, climbing up steep slopes, dropping over rocks. Sweat dripped from us. Somewhere in the undergrowth I heard a low grunt, then a rustle. Mariana pressed her finger to her lips.
“Shhh, I think it’s a peccary!” I remembered a guide once, on a journey in South America, turning white with fear and bolting up the nearest tree when we heard a peccary there. Immediately at Mariana’s outburst I pictured a labrador-sized wild pig with vicious-looking teeth. I dropped my bag, sending the animal shooting out of the trees, right in front of Mariana. It wasn’t a peccary. It was small, pied, squirrel-like animal, black-and-white, with a pretty, bushy tail.
“Cute,” I said, moving forward to take a closer look.
“Stop!” Mariana shouted. “It’s a skunk.
But it was too late. The animal looked round nonchalantly, turned its back and squirted. Despite moving like a cat, Mariana caught the spray on the edge of her shoe. The smell was of rotten cabbage. As parting gifts from Costa Rica go, it was not my idea of pura vida. Whatever, it certainly put the reek into Costa Rica — a magical Latin American land that, I can confidently say, overwhelms the senses in every way.