When you live in Costa Rica, you become accustomed to being surrounded by noise 24/7. The midnight howls of the neighbourhood dog. The sound of monkeys jumping from palm tree to palm tree. Loudspeakers blaring happy hour adverts in Spanish from the back of a pick-up truck. The cafe’s resident chipmunk shucking its daily nut above your head as you sip your morning coffee.
Strangely, none of these noises are agitating. Instead, they’re all part of Costa Rica’s charm and what makes it an ideal escape for today’s stressed, agitated individual – that is, someone like me.
Located at the cusp of Central and South America, a short three-hour flight from Florida, Costa Rica is very livable. It’s warm, with loads of beaches and natural attractions, and a big city (San Jose, its capital) equipped with all the necessary infrastructure to support a remote work scenario or a laid-back holiday for a month.
Our plan was simple. Find a place near the beach where we could live and work during the week, and rent a car on weekends to go exploring. A chance find on Airbnb, an industrial-style loft with a Balinese-style pool for US$1,000 (S$1,300) a month – just a five-minute Uber ride from the surf-friendly beach town of Jaco – sealed the deal.
Both a blessing and a “curse”, Costa Rica’s proximity to North America sees it heavily influenced by the United States.
Popular towns like Jaco and Tamarindo feel uncomfortably familiar, with all the accoutrements (hip co-working places, third-wave coffee bars, surf and yoga schools) and the millennial jet set that populates other nomad hotspots like Barcelona, Lisbon and Cape Town – all of them attracted by a more affordable way of life but with a lot more lifestyle thrown in.
It’s not unusual to patronise shops owned by friendly Ticos (how Costa Ricans refer to themselves) but serviced by staff from all over the world. So, acclimatising is not an issue. It also helps that the locals have an easy-going nature as well as a family-friendly mindset, and are always eager to show visitors
their favourite and lesser-known spots.
The essential pura vida experiences
The real beauty of Costa Rica is in its natural setting. When one of the national mascots of a country is the sloth, its pace of life clearly trends towards leisure versus keeping busy.
For beach lovers, Costa Rica is paradise. It has no shortage of idyllic, picturesque settings, and depending on your location (and preference), there will be a suitable slip of sand and sea for you.
Popular spots include Manuel Antonio Beach, fringed by a rainforest and with a decent coral seascape for snorkelling.
The pink-gold shores of Playa Conchal offer a chance to laze on fine white sand and admire seashells, while the burnt beige grains of Tamarindo let you get your surf on, and afterwards, assimilate right into the transient surf community that populates Costa Rica.
Wherever you choose to base yourself, a beach will be close by. And where there’s a beach, there will be surf instructors to help you fulfil any Step into Liquid dreams. At Jaco, a popular spot with Americans for a weekend jaunt, lessons by surf champs are dished out at rates starting from US$40 for two hours (inclusive of all equipment).
They’ll get you surfing and cruising down to the shore like a pro, even if they have to push you right into the white water. For optimal lesson times, check the tides and schedule one either two hours before or after high tide.
Away from the beach, Costa Rica is one of the best places to embrace ecotourism. Everywhere you look, the locals do their best to lower their carbon footprint. They peddle art made from scrap metal, use glass instead of plastic in restaurants, and generally throw themselves into an active, nature-loving lifestyle.
That is hardly surprising, as the plethora of national parks, volcanoes and rainforests means there’s always some aspect of nature to uncover. Unfortunately, that same abundance means that no matter how long a trip you have planned, you won’t be able to explore it all.
One highlight would be the awe-inspiring cone-shaped Arenal Volcano – go hiking in the area to spot old lava trails and explore the different microclimates.
Equally impressive and photogenic is the fog-covered Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, home to the famous and elusive quetzal bird. It also has six different ecological zones offering rich biodiversity, with more than 400 bird, 100 mammal and 120 reptile and amphibian species.
If you only have time for one national park, though, Cahuita is a slice of Caribbean paradise and the epitome of what makes Costa Rica so special.
Located in Limon Province along the southern Caribbean coast, the 22,300ha marine area is a nesting ground for sea turtles and was created in 1970 to protect the surrounding coral reefs. Entry is free, but you can support its conservation efforts by hiring a guide (for US$55) to take you on a snorkelling tour, during which you may spot manta rays and sharks.
Just diving into the cool, clear azure waters is pure bliss, and post-swim, you may come face-to-face with a monitor lizard lazily sunning itself on the sand – true story.
On the ground, the park is filled with mammal-spotting opportunities, as it is home to creatures such as northern tamanduas, sloths, playful howler monkeys, and the odd raccoon out to steal your snacks.
It’s as grounding as an experience as you can get, one to make you appreciate that sometimes the best things in life are best left untouched and unplanned, just as nature decided. If that isn’t a gem of a vacation takeaway, we don’t know what is.
This story was first published on Her World's July 2019 issue