Whether you are lost in the central bustle of Paseo Colon or navigating your way through the lush jungles along the coast, you will be greeted by locals with a smile and 'Pura Vida', an expression meaning 'pure life'. The uses for Pura Vida are endless...hello, goodbye, thank you, to express emotions or gratitude. It is a phrase that goes beyond the words and is representative of the lifestyle in Costa Rica: happy & positive with a deep appreciation for family, friends & nature.
Costa Rica is a country the size of West Virginia or Denmark, yet despite its small size, it is rich in culture and boasts an abundance of natural beauty. Ranked as the worlds 'happiest country' they are also one of the worlds 'greenest' (environmentally sustainable), and have the worlds largest Blue Zone, an area that is one of the healthiest due to lifestyle and nature. Costa Rica is considered a biodiversity hotspot with 1/4 of the country protected as national parks, reserves and conservation land. Rolling hills and rugged mountains, tropical rainforest, volcano peaks, wild and unspoiled beaches and lush river valleys make up this diverse southern paradise.
Costa Rica neighbors Nicaragua and Panama, yet has its very own unique atmosphere, probably due to the abolishment of the military in 1948, instead, using military budget for education, health and culture. Costa Rica has maintained its culture despite the development in certain areas of the country, such as the capital city, San José. For every Wal Mart, there are countless 'sodas' - family run restaurants where you can find some of the best (and cheapest!) local food. Despite the paved maze of road systems throughout the city, drive 10 km out of San José and you will find winding dirt roads leading to farms in the countryside. While the older generations seem to carry on Costa Rican traditions through food, holidays and an obvious love for their country - the younger generations are slowly shifting the mentality by sharing diverse and creative ideologies. A more liberal, open-minded demographic of students and entrepreneurs are helping to create an even more progressive culture - bringing awareness to the importance of art, holistic health and business with social impacts. This demographic also includes the many foreigners who now call Costa Rica home for their families and businesses, and contribute to the diversity within the country.
To say Costa Rica is white sand beaches, palm trees and cold Imperial beer is ignorant and strips the country of its character. While some may visit in search of those three things, I have faith that my readers are interested in the real Costa Rica: a charming country with much more to offer than 5-star resorts and piña coladas, (although they grow the best pineapples in the world, so it's not a bad idea to try one of the famous juicy fruits...with or without rum!) so if you are interested in traveling and learning then read on...below are some of my favorite places I would highly recommend. Let your wanderlust take over, begin your journey mentally and add this incredible country to your adventure list!
1. Mauel Antonio National Park
Boasting some of the best beaches in the country, this small national park is abundant with wildlife, white sandy beaches and sparkling blue waters. Walk along the dense tropical trails to easily spot monkeys, sloths, deer, reptiles and macaws. The surrounding area feels quite touristy due to its small size, however you can find all types of accommodation and restaurants depending on your budget and preference.
2. Santa Teresa
One of my favorite spots in Costa Rica, Santa Teresa is truly a small slice of heaven! A beach town bustling with international travelers and expats in search of the Pura Vida lifestyle and perfect waves. Culture in Santa Teresa is a medley of relaxed tropical Tico time and foreign influence in food, art and mentality. Santa Teresa has a wide range of quality restaurants (Koji's Sushi) and cafes (The Bakery) allowing you to nourish yourself with healthy vegetarian cuisine one day (Olam, Chop it) and the best thin crust Argentinean pizza (El Pulpo) the next. Santa Teresa is overflowing with yoga and international teachers...some of the best shalas in town are Flor Blanca, Pranamar and Tropico Latino which are all beachside and surrounded by lush gardens. During sunset, Santa Teresa's beach becomes a colorful show with surfers in the water and friends gathering on the sands to watch the sun drop.
3. El Caribe - Puerto Viejo
The Caribbean Coast is like traveling to another country within Costa Rica. The culture and energy shifts with the strong Afro-influence, gifting the streets with the sounds of reggae and rasta vibes, and restaurants with some of the best seafood and 'rice and beans' - a take on gallo pinto with the rich flavor of coconut milk. The main road from the town of Puerto Viejo takes you on a 12km journey to Manzanillo, a wildlife refuge. This road is lined with unique beaches and bays, each with their own personality and beauty. Development is secluded with most hostels, B&B's and eco-lodges small and hidden off the road. Rent a bicycle and spend your days exploring this strip of jungle. Discover Punta Uva, a lagoon like beach and enjoy amazing wholesome food at Bread & Chocolate & La Botanica Organica.
4. Santa Rosa National Park
One of the oldest and largest national parks in Costa Rica, this 91,926 acre park protects many species of mammals, birds and plants. The park has scrub grasses and thorn trees giving it a less tropical feel and instead a rugged dry terrain. The beaches that lie at the base of the park are some of the worlds best surfing - Ollies Point & Witches Rock and are usually empty as the only way to access the beaches are by boat or 4x4. There are great trails for hiking and camping sites with trees for shade, bathrooms and fresh water.
The Nosara area has become a popular destination for active sport loving tourists and families. While the traditional village of Nosara is 6km inland, most tourists and expats find themselves in Playa Guiones or Playa Pelada where the tourism is oriented towards surf, yoga and health. If you love adventure and want to have a wide range of activities, then this is a great place to make your home base...zip lining, quad escapades, jungle trekking and stand up paddle board tours are few of the many ways you can explore nature. The beaches aren't the prettiest in Costa Rica, however they are full of people utilizing the sand and surf which creates a lively and energetic atmosphere. Indulge in homemade ice cream and veggie specials at Robins Cafe. Treat yourself to a passionfruit mojito for sunset at La Luna, overlooking the horizon in their outdoor chill out. Check out Nosara Yoga Institute or Harmony Hotel for great drop in yoga classes.
6. Playa Grande
One of Costa Rica's best kept secrets - Playa Grande lies only a few kilometers North from the overdeveloped Tamarindo, however it is a world of difference. Playa Grande is turtle reserve, home to the famous Baula turles (they grow up to 2 meters big!) and has little to no development on the beach. The beach is wide, open, usually empty and always boasts perfect waves for beginners - intermediate surfers. There are loads of private residencies, small B&B's or hostels to choose from for accommodation. I recommend El Manglar hostel, meters from the beach through a small pathway with affordable rooms, a pool, outdoor kitchen and laid back surf vibes from its youthful owners.
* On your way to Playa Grande, pass through Liberia and stop 20 minutes outside of the city for some of the most secluded and spectacular waterfalls 5 minutes directly off the highway: Cataratas de Cortés *
7. Punta Banco
A hidden gem in Costa Rica (probably due to the off the beaten path and Southern location boarding Panama) Punta Banco lies a few kilometers from Pavones (a tiny pueblo which exists almost entirely for surf) and is even further off the tourist track. Punta Banco has stunning vast, volcanic black-sand beaches which offers an incredible color contrast to the vibrant lush green palms. The empty beach is perfect to lay low and relax. Pavones and Punta Banco are both extremely laid-back with a few restaurants, Super minis and accommodation options. Much of the surrounding area is protected nationally and privately, therefor many locals and expats take pride in sustainable living and protecting the wildlife. Check out The Yoga Farm for an unforgettable stay with this community of holistic minded travelers.
8. Montezuma beaches
The Little hippie town of Montezuma is a great spot to stop and chillout for a few days. However, the market style main street which hosts rastas selling homemade crafts, shell and macrame jewelry is a small aspect of Montezumas beauty. Rent a bicycle or quad and get lost on the dirt coastal roads that wind along untouched clear coves - idyllic postcard beaches, a 3 tiered waterfall with a swimming hole and unnoticed local villages make up Montezumas real magic.
Some of the most natural and untouched parts of Costa Rica lie minutes outside of San Jose. Cartago, once the capital of Costa Rica is now a small city (in comparison to San Jose) that boasts mystical ruins of an old church, and outside of the city, agricultural villages and lush mountainous terrain. Take a drive to Terrazu, where Costa Rica’s tastiest coffee is grown and experience a tour where you can learn the process for growing & producing some of the worlds finests coffee – I garuntee you will appreciate your daily cup much more! I have gotten lost while exploring these beautiful and highly underrated countrysides and I am always grateful to enjoy a local meal at a Soda where your waiter is also your chef and friend - it is a refreshing change of scenrary and pace of life from the beaches.
Known for it’s iconic cloud forests, Monteverde offers the best ziplining and sky trekking through hanging bridges that float amongst the misty canopy. Monkeys, sloths, butterflies and bugs, hummingbirds and the famous quetzal bird are abundant in the cloud forests. The town is small and full of backpackers and families looking for a bit of adventure...accommodations range from simple hostels to 5 star eco lodges tucked away from the main town.
¡San Jose Bonus!
Kalu & Kiosko - a bit pricey but worth the colones for the modern but tranquil atmosphere and creative local design shop
Ravi – a small Gastropub which has a NYC vibe with its funky, mismatched art and delicious international vegetarian menu
Al Mercat – market to table gourmet eatery which uses local and seasonal ítems for a fusion and globally inspired menu
Café Del Barista – a hidden cafe which you must look for to find, boasts some of the best coffee, accompanied by a lively atmosphere and home baked goodies
Feria Verde – every Saturday houndreds of locals, forgeiners, farmers, vendors and creatives join forces to bring this magical market to life. Home made foods, drinks, crafts, clohting, fruits & veggies, flowers & live music are only a small taste of this unique market. A great place to practice your Spanish (foreigners), taste test healthy & delicious foods (everything is available and encouraged to indulge your senses!) and people watch – bring your camera and immerse yourself in the flow of people and positive energy
Andamio – A school of movement which offers dance, yoga, zumba & antigravity yoga in hammocks (try an antigravity class after a long flight - go upside down in the comfort of a silk hammock, decompress your spine and watch the tension melt away!) – visit Melania, a wonderful teacher who’s spirit will welcome you and encourage you to sweat with a smile on your face
Parque España, Parque Nacional – Traverse through these lush parks in the city center in between coffee breaks and grafetti hunting
* Look for places in or near Barrio Amon or Barrio Escalante - a prime location for exploring the city center yet immersed in quiet neighborhoods with quant cafes, organic food, yoga studios and parks
Casa Botanica – a refurbished old house, this beautiful B&B is located in Barrio Aranjuez, an up and coming neighborhood with surrounding cafes, restaurants, bars, parks and interesting areas filled with street art. Enjoy the comforts of a private residence with homemade breakfast (included in price), a garden terrace and incredible art and artifacts throughout the house
Hotel 1915 – conveniently located close to the airport and local buses in Alajuela, this B&B is reasonably priced (in house breakfast option) with comfortable rooms, chill out lounges for reading, courtyard gardens and free wifi
Enjoy the travel recommendations while creating your own journey along the way...Costa Rica has endless possibilities to satisfy everyones soul!
LAUREN LEE E-RYT 500 is passionate about living with purpose, exploring the world, and empowering others to live as their most authentic, radiant Self. Founder of Raise Your Beat, dedicated teacher and forever student on the path of yoga, she leads transformational workshops, retreats and trainings to awaken the individual and collective consciousness. Read more about her here