My husband and I set out to explore the more unexplored parts of Costa Rica, as best we could over a whirlwind four days, beginning in the small, centrally located city of Alajuela. It’s less than a half-hour taxi ride from the San Jose airport, and full of winding streets, leaning houses and busy storefronts. We headed to the outskirts, to a hotel named Pura Vida—a term used often in the country to describe a particular embracing-of-life-and-family Costa Rican attitude. The property features lime and banana trees; black, yellow and orange-spotted butterflies; and stone steps winding around rooms with names like Mariposa, Katydid and Toucan. Proprietors Berni and Nhi encourage guests to turn off lights and fans when leaving. There was no air conditioner, nor was one needed—bursts of rain brought cool temperatures at night.
We caught the local bus, a rickety former U.S. school bus, to downtown Alujuela, where the sidewalks teemed with people shopping the discount stores in preparation for August 15, Mother’s Day, La Dia Del Madre. There were rows of whole chickens turning on spits; stands laden with papayas, platanos and chili peppers; women jostling kids on their hips; appliance stores booming dance music from souped-up speakers. Back at the hotel, with no sound but the rain falling, the proprietor served portabella and blue cheese bruschetta, fresh shrimp scampi with local spinach and crisp asparagus, and a warm pear crepe with fresh cinnamon-topped cream.
Welcome to the Jungle
Returning to the airport the following day, we boarded a single-engine, 10-passenger Sansa Regional plane. With its propeller whirring, the plane touched down on a narrow strip in Puerto Jimenez at Costa Rica’s Southwestern tip, a one-room airport bordered by a graveyard. Soon, we were on a small powerboat streaming across the Golfo Dulce, a large, protected, calm-water gulf with nothing in front but lush, untamed jungle.Playa Nicuesa is a rainforest eco-lodge where the main lodge literally looks like part of the surrounding jungle. Its open-air ledges and patios allow everything from toads to bats to birds and the occasional monkey to come in and hang out, hop in or swoop through. And surrounding trees and grounds are incredibly alive. Countless hermit crabs crawled over the rocky beach, tiny to fist-sized; a long-legged orb spider spun its spiraled web; a striped basilisk, known as a “Jesus Lizard,” scuttled by. The more we saw, the more we knew was in there, hiding in the shadows. Individual cabins require flashlights to find at night, and what lights are available inside the partially open-air cabins are necessarily dim. This is an eco-lodge in every respect, from the local hardwood used for the buildings to the fact that it’s run almost entirely on solar power. Then there are the biodegradable soaps and shampoos, the extensive composting and recycling and the organic garden where fresh herbs are gathered for nightly cocktails.
We wanted to wake up early, and did, to the haunting sound of howler monkeys hooting in the wee-dawn hours. We loaded onto a boat with kayaks pulling behind. When we neared an opening in a mangrove forest we took to kayaks and paddled into a scene straight from Yoda’s swampy training ground in The Empire Strikes Back. The mangrove roots rested like long, bony fingers on the murky water, alive with crabs crawling their lengths. Around one narrow bend we saw white-faced capuchin monkeys, small and agile as they leapt between branches, occasionally throwing a stick our way. Navigating back out, we clapped our hands and heard the forest’s “clapping clams” echo back. We entered the boat as three American crocodiles rose to the surface and began to sun on a nearby bank.
By the time we left Costa Rica, our eyes were sharper. We had seen spiders by hand-cranked flashlight, hiked amid downpour, drank deliciously dark coffee and spotted the scarlet macaws in the upper reaches of the treetops. Pura vida, indeed.