Costa Rica is “Pura Vida”

Streets of San JoseCosta Rica – You are bound to hear this versatile little phrase many times throughout Costa Rica…the exact translation for pura vida (pronounced poo-ra vee-da) is “pure life” but is used to mean “cool”, “all right”, “just great”, it is a greeting as well as a farewell, and a local will smile broadly if its your response to “Cóma está” (how are you?).
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“Do you know the way to San Jose…” although this 1968 hit sung by Dionne Warwick is about the California’s San Jose, the tune continually plays in our minds, which we see as an appropriate time to sing it with gusto (garnering strange looks) as our bus pulls out of the David Panama en route to the capital of Costa Rica.

I wonder why passengers are not shutting their windows so the air-Leaving David Panama for San Joseconditioning can take effect. As my hair blows into fright-night spikes and the curtains flap with wild abandon – which with the 30+degree temperature is like facing a hair dryer on the high setting. I realize – this is it…the whole 8 hours to San Jose! A passenger informs me, “No such thing as air-con on Tracopa buses.” Funny the things we take for granted.

Shortly after crossing over the Costa Rica border, our bus comes to a stand-still where a road repair is underway. The workmen have dug a trench across the “whole” highway, not leaving a passing lane open. Cars and trucks are using an adjacent field to get past, which is not an option for our bus, or the big rigs in a line. Our driver talks fast and furious to the sign-men – expounding on the bus being on a schedule, which seemingly falls on dead ears. Eventually, big equipment fills in just enough of the trench to allow us to pass.

From then on the ride goes smoothly along the coastal highway. We continue to be blown away (pardon the pun) by the verdant Costa Rica landscape…miles of African Palms that in the 1940’s replaced banana plantations. The palm kernels contain rich oil that is exported for use in food, cosmetics and lubricants. At times we glimpse the brilliant ocean, at other times small haciendas flash by with grazing “cebu” cattle, introduced to Costa Rica from India (strange to me with their back humps, droopy ears and loose skin flap below their jaws). The backdrop is the encroaching jungle foliage under a bluebird sky.

National Museum San JoseWe have booked the Holiday Inn Aurola for four days, and stayed for ten – which says it all – amenities galore and its just out-the-door to the pedestrian streets where the swirl of activity captivates us. Bursting with restaurants, cafes, shops, parks, museums, and thick with people milling about – this is our kind of city! Street performers range from the innovative young to old timers belting out traditional songs. We dive into Mercado Central, where the locals shop for less expensive goods; its labyrinthine of passages loaded with fruit and vegetables, slabs of beef, and slivery fish. There is “mucho” police presence throughout this whole area of the city; on foot, 10-speed bikes, motorcycles, and in the squares the uniformed fellows stand on 10-foot-high platforms for an eagle’s view.

On vehicle traffic streets we note that even locals obey the walk-signs,National Museum San Jose as the swift flow of taxis, cars, and buses do not take j-walking lightly, honking and not slowing down – you might say in Costa Rica they have pedestrians trained.

We are glad we did not miss the Museo Nacional de Costa Rica. One of the mysterious stone spheres of the indigenous Diquis peoples is outside in a specially designed glass and gleaming metal ball, which spikes my intrigue to quickly purchase tickets and get on in.

We enter through a butterfly garden where ramps sided by greenery take us amid fluttering wings up to the display levels. The museum building is the former Bellavista Barracks, which from 1905 until 1948 served mostly as a training centre for conscripts. A section is left showing the guard posts, the latrines and showers, and for those soldiers once “needing” discipline are prison cells with amateur drawings of things missed (mostly female forms). Further along the crude surroundings of the lower ranks is contrasted with the finery of the first and second commander’s former living quarters.

National Museum San JoseWe next enter the halls of Pre-Columbian History. The indigenous cultures date back 12,000 years, as evidenced by the stone tools found to hunt mastodon and giant sloth. At the time the Spanish arrived in the early 16th Century, the four existing cultures fled or succumbed to small pox – hence were almost entirely disseminated; today only 1% of Costa Rica’s population of five million are of indigenous heritage.

I am in archaeological-heaven walking past the intriguing burials. The earliest, dating back to 500 years before Christ are secondary bundle burials, comprised of bones, wooden beads and jade pendants wrapped in burlap-like cloth. Later dated tombs were excavated with stone-marked perimeters. Funerary offerings of jade and other greenish stones lay alongside the bones, an important part in these ancient cultures from about 500BC until 500AD to show rank or as religious objects. The sheer number of jade artefacts found in Costa Rica suggests that the local source of jade became exhausted by 800AD.

Stone “metates” give us pause. These stone grinding tables fashioned out of volcanic rock show little wear, so are thought to have been symbolic. Some were found over buried bodies, while others sculptured to represent human figures with animal masks are believed to be associated with human sacrifice.

In the last section are the uncanny stone spheres! In the southwest of National Museum San Josethe country where the Diquis peoples once made their home, over 300 spheres have been found (to date). We walk in wonder past those showcased in the museum, varying from baseball size to that of a kitchen stove. A flattened spherical shape against the wall indicates the size of the largest discovered to date, the size of a mini-van! This behemoth stands where it was found – understandable being that it is 2.5m (over 8ft) in diameter and weighing over 15 tons! It is not known what these spheres meant to the Dipuis; rank signifiers, territorial markers, or perhaps astronomical significance? I leave the museum pondering these relics of the past.

National Theatre San JoseAnother day we venture to the National Theatre, said to be as “old Europe” on the inside as its outer façade, which after entering, we have to agree. Gold cherubs cling to standards on the wide red-carpeted staircase. Rich chartreuse tapestry drapes frame tall windows of a reception room with its circular padded seating and grand pianos. I can imagine wine being sipped and dainty morsels sampled during performance intermissions. The theatre itself has general seating levels and for the dignitaries there are boxes hanging like the Gardens of Babylon on the upper outer wall edges. The theatre is a spectacle to behold, but rather pricey with entry fees of 7,000 Colones for two (or $14 US).

Early is not our thing….but getting up at 5:30 a.m. for the 6:00 o’clock pick-up is what we must do in order to fit in the Poas Volcano, Doka Coffee Estate and La Paz Waterfalls (conveniently booked by Mario Montero at the Holiday Inn Tour Desk).

Edwin pilots the van, while Donald, our guide fills us in on some interesting country facts as we roll down the road. “Costa Rica has mostly middle class with minimum wage the equivalent of between $400US and $800US a month, therefore people need to live together to be able to pay rent/mortgage/utilities.” He proudly adds, “We have a 97% literacy rate. Tourism is major to the economy, with electronics (micro chips for Intel) next, followed by exports of tropical fruit, coffee, textiles and flowers.”

Arriving at the Doka Estate, which has been in the Vargas family for overDoka Coffee Estate Costa Rica 100 years, we are privy to the process from tiny coffee slips ready to be transplanted, to the tall bushy coffee plants still with a few clumps of hanging red beans (being February it is near the end of the picking season that started in December). Then it is on to the whirring, chugging turn of the century machinery that washes and skins the outer layers of the bean. The bare bean is partially tumbled dry then laid out for “old sol” to finish the job. Our eyes bug out at the wealth of burlap sacks of dried beans stacked ceiling high in a warehouse ready to be exported around the world, where the roasting will be done, as the beans stay fresher for longer when not roasted before export.

Doka Coffee Estate Costa RicaHowever, the Estate also roasts and packages a portion of their crop. We traipse over to another building where a fellow times batches of beans for “dark”, “medium” or “light” roast. In yet another building we are invited to taste the Estate’s exclusive specialty gourmet coffee – PEABERRY. What is unique about this coffee? Well, it is made from the 5% of beans present in all crops that are naturally mutated. Coffee beans normally contains two seeds with flattened facing sides; in the beans used for Peaberry only 1 of the 2 seeds was fertilized so this single seed has nothing to flatten it, hence it is oval or pea-shaped – which increases the acidity and sweetness. With each sip of Peaberry we are in for a rush of silky rich flavour that mellows and lingers on the tongue delightfully nudging the senses for more.

Back on the bus we head for Poas Volcano, which has erupted 39 times since 1828; the last major blowout was in 1910 when it dumped 640,000 tons of ash on the surrounding area. “The last significant eruption was in 2012”, says David, “when the crater ejected mud and ash over 500m in the air.”

We are psyched to see the one-mile diameter crater’s milky turquoise sulphur pool in its constant bubbling, smoke emitting glory…but alas, by the time we climb to its crest a thick mist has come out of nowhere. The volcano is totally socked-in. Drats! When after twenty minutes the mist seems solidly lodged, we accept this as luck of the draw. Snapping a photo of the sign showing the crater as we would have seen it under clear conditions, we move on.

Climbing to the secondary site of Botos Lake, which fills an extinctPoas Volcano National Park Costa Rica crater, our spirits are lifted – the pathways through the cloud forests are wonderfully encased in foliage stirring visions of enchantment. Hooray! The pretty turquoise lake and sandy rim edged by forest green is vivid, with not a hint of mist!

It is off to La Paz Waterfall Gardens for a fine buffet lunch, then to wander the grounds to see the zoo-like setting of exotic birds, serpents, monkeys and frogs. Along the roadway a Juan Valdez-looking fellow stands by his cart holding the reins of two burly oxen, hoping visitors will pay a few colones for a photo op. Rick and I oblige and climb into the cart while the fellow snaps our cheesy smiles.

La Paz Waterfall GardensThen it’s down 400 steps and up 90 to see the various levels of the rushing, gushing cascade of water roaring with powerful velocity over a crest 37m (121ft) above!
“Well, this tour rates 9 out of 10,” I say as our bus wends its way home, “the one point less than perfect can be blamed on Mother Nature for hiding Poas.”

Life’s a Sandy Paradise at Manuel Antonio – Costa Rica

We break away from San Jose and head for the Pacific Ocean. At the recommendation of Roger, the concierge, we choose the beaches of Manuel Antonio, which he says is a popular with locals and visitors alike. As well as its renowned park, other draws are surfing, fishing, sailing, snorkelling, hiking, bird watching, kayaking, and white water rafting.

In 3 ½ hours “direct” with Tracopa Bus Lines, we arrive at Quepos and make the mistake of getting off the bus here, only to find out if we had stayed on the bus would have taken us to Manuel Antonio (7km southeast), and almost to the door of our Hotel Verde Mar. Oh, well – a taxi got us from Quepos to our hotel for $8.00.

Our room at the Verde Mar is a good size and has a kitchenette. I love theManuel Antonio Costa Rica safe – it’s a picnic-basket-sized steel box bolted to the floor that latches with a small key lock, and “it ain’t going nowhere” as the lid alone weighs 4kg. After settling in we go out to buy some breakfast food at the “marcado” five minutes down the road. On our way back we cross the busy roadway at the same time monkeys cross above on blue rope that has been placed there for their convenience (and safety, so they will not use the hydro lines that also cross the roadway).

Manuel Antonio Costa RicaThen it is off for our first walk along the stretch of white sand with rows of sunbather’s on lounge chairs under multi-coloured umbrellas. Off come our sandals to dip our toes in the frothy turquoise waves under a smiling sun. And do you know how most of the world’s beaches are backed by hotels/resorts? – well, this is not so here – the jungle profusion is like a solid wall stopping abruptly at the sand’s edge. What is amazing about this is the nearness of wildlife; such as, watching a mother sloth and her baby on a tree branch overhanging the beach. It is broad daylight, telling me the mom is ignoring her nocturnal predisposition in lieu of her hungry young’un savouring a piece of fruit.

Protrusions of volcanic rock poke sporadically through the sea. At one end of the beach is an interesting phenomenon known as Punta Cathedral. Once the outer point was an island, but with the accumulation of sediments over time it united with the continental landmass forming a sand strip called a “tombolo”.

Having breezed through Quepos the first time, we decide to take a localQuepos Costa Rica bus back to check out this town. Red taxies are like the links of a chain along the main street. After almost needing a step-ladder to negotiate the curbs we realize their height is to allow waste water to run in a trench below. Magnificent Frigate Birds soar on air currents above as we walk the promenade along the ocean. A great cappuccino and cinnamon bun are a good send-off before heading back to our little village niche.

Arising early the next day we head for Manuel Antonio National Park and Manuel Antonio National Parkbefore we know it four hours have passed! Some of the trails are rugged but the wealth of wildlife supersedes the effort to navigate them. Monkeys galore, some families so close along the trails they are within three feet of us! Birds call from every direction, but hard to spot in the thick foliage. Sloth sleep soundly curled around tree branches. We are lucky to see a coati rooting around in the bushes. A few white tailed deer grace us with their gentle presence. The raccoon are the boldest, marching down the stone path to get to where they are going. One upward trail opens to a wonderfully tranquil lagoon. We leave Manuel Antonio feeling the balance between sunbathing and wildlife watching is near perfection!

Back to San Jose we once again relish in the electric vibes of this great city, while planning our journey into Nicaragua. Costa Rica is indeed “Pura Vida”.

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