The golden morning sunlight baffled me as it crept through the soft mosquito net framing my bed. I was bleary-eyed, still confused by the 4am howler monkey wake up call from the gang that ruled the jungle right outside the window of our cabina.
Surreal, was all I could think. Then, all I could think about was coffee.
Jet-lagged but ecstatic, I was far from home and my husband. I was the closest I’d ever been to the equator, in Costa Rica, a country that had been calling my name for years.
I had this unexplainable obsession with Costa Rica, one that was all my own. I convinced my husband to make the trek with me back in 2011, but we had to cancel it for financial reasons. Costa Rica ate away at me. Especially as I started traveling internationally again this past year, thanks to a career path that allowed greater financial stability—and with that—greater freedom to travel. Another urge I’d had for ages was attending a yoga retreat in an exotic locale. I learned about one from my old yoga teaching connections, but at the time we had just moved to Portland and dropping a few grand on a yoga retreat was a pipe dream.
I told myself, if they go to Costa Rica next year, I’m doing it. And, I’m doing it alone.
Flying solo for some soul-searching
They went back to the same place in Nosara, a paradise for yogis and surfers alike. The yoga retreat was tucked away high in the jungle, a 10-minute drive from the beach. Mornings were all about anatomy and practice, and the rest of the day was for exploration and reflection. It would be a dream come true, both obsessions packed into one great trip.
I brought it up with my husband. He was hesitant, protective and worried, since he wasn’t going to be there. What if something happened? Isn’t Costa Rica unsafe? Why can’t you go to a retreat in a forest right here in Oregon?
That wasn’t the same. I had to go to Costa Rica.
So, I booked the trip, flying out of the country on Inauguration Day. All day when I was traveling, it was broadcast on the airport TVs and there was this crazy, tense energy everywhere. Women’s marches were happening across the country that weekend, and travel bans were looming in the near future.
There I was, passport stamped, fleeing to appreciate the exquisiteness of escapism, simplicity, and unrequited beauty. To get away from the negativity in a remote location where wifi sort of existed, but I never ended up using it.
I used the week to shut down from everything, to embrace the unknown and to find the me that got lost over the past year, thanks to too much focus on adulting and getting back on my feet after a layoff.
Letting go of expectations in Costa Rica
Letting go was key for me. Leaving my laptop behind to release the many responsibilities that came with that slim, shiny device—it was a tough sell, but I forced myself to travel without it. Turning away from the daily grind that ruled so many of our lives in favor of nature, meditation, and soul-searching.
All too perfect, the first morning meditation was about—yep, you guessed it—letting go. I cried. Okay, I bawled actually. I needed it, to shed the emotional heaviness I’d been carrying around. With the brilliant sunshine on my back and a view of the Pacific Ocean looming in the distance, it was the perfect haven to let go.
A wave of clarity crashed into me the second I arrived in Costa Rica, and the first morning swim in the ocean confirmed it. It was as if some strong tide had pulled me here. And, the crazy thing was, people totally didn’t get that pull before I left or even when I got back. In fact, I heard negative things about Costa Rica. Negativity came from people who went and had a “disappointing time” and negativity came from people who had never visited the place, but heard this or that…
“Costa Rica is all tourists, Pura Vida is a cheesy slogan, it’s all expats, the nature’s just okay, the locals try to scam you.”
Myth #1: Costa Rica is all tourists
There are tourists, but like anywhere else, you have to choose your experience. Some people actually like being around other tourists from their own country, because it’s more familiar. So, they can stay at a resort, and yes, there will be lots of tourists around. Others searching for a more local experience would be better off renting an apartment or home, staying off the beaten path, choosing an under-the-radar group tour.
Costa Rica is a sprawling country, and it’s wild. Driving around on the dirt roads in our shuttle bus, I often whipped out my journal to write about the sights whizzing by me, the little things, and my bigger realizations.
There were locals, everywhere. They gathered for happy hour outside the Mercado (grocery store). Kids played soccer underneath the bright sun and big skies. Farmers herded their cows down the road and traffic stopped. Drivers yielded to allow another person to pass on a ridiculously narrow bridge—and nobody honked their horns.
That’s because they do life a little differently, at a drastically slower pace. “Tico Time” it’s affectionately called, meaning a local from Costa Rica will likely run late because their lives don’t revolve around schedules.
This was apparent when our driver, Rico, picked us up at a hotel to bus us out to the yoga retreat. As he organized our luggage by our cabinas, we all watched him take his sweet time. Even we, a bunch of yogis, had to let go. We hadn’t released the go-go-go we were accustomed to just yet, but eventually we would all cave and be on Tico Time ourselves.
Myth #2: Pura Vida is a cheesy slogan
Costa Rica will challenge busy North Americans with Tico Time, in addition to its popular phrase that truly epitomizes their culture…Pura Vida or “Pure Life.” It’s not really a slogan so much as a philosophy.
Seeing and hearing it everywhere, cynicism leads you to believe it’s some cheesy slogan. But, Pura Vida is a philosophy in Costa Rica, and the locals will use it as the punctuation for the best possible moments. Pura Vida is about leaving your expectations behind, letting go to embrace life in its purist form. Keep it simple and enjoy, something we can all be pretty bad at.
And, I think that’s where things go wrong for people who visit Costa Rica and come home saying “they’ve had better.” They just didn’t get it. And that’s okay, because some people don’t. Others have quite the opposite problem and accept Pura Vida with body and soul…and they never come home.
Myth #3: it’s all expats
I can see why. I almost became one of them, a happy new member joining the booming population of Costa Rican expats.
The expats, too, get a bad reputation for some reason—as if they are all greedy Americans hell-bent on bulldozing the jungle and plopping down chain restaurants and high-rises.
In Costa Rica, the expats are very in tune with the culture and no less different than the locals I met. They are people who embraced the Pura Vida so much that they decided to live it. From the lovely owner and yogi of Ahki Retreat to the young surfer running the juice cart in Playa Guiones (order the banana coffee!), I can tell you they respect the new land they have chosen to live on. They wouldn’t be there otherwise.
Myth #4: the nature’s just okay
Lies, I tell you. If you’re into nature, Costa Rica will be your thing.
No matter the age, every local I met was a complete nature nerd. I could tell by the way the SUP tour guide became animated about the different birds in the mangrove tunnels. From the way the ziplining tour guides pointed out the types of trees with confidence that knowing about nature is actually cool, not nerdy.
Locals want you to appreciate and enjoy it like they do. In fact, they expect that. Even if an adventure tour isn’t your thing, you can show your respect for their unbeatable nature any day by joining the locals on Costa Rican beaches for epic sunsets.
It’s a party, a beautiful one. Everyone drops everything to watch the big sun slowly sink into the Pacific. They drink beer, laugh, hug, and marvel. Watching a sunset here is like paying homage to life, strictly the Pura Vida kind.
Myth #5: the locals will scam you
I could have been scammed, multiple times. I’m terrible at math, and the Colones to US dollar conversions were confusing. Okay, it’s especially confusing when you’re paying your tab at the bar after a few Imperial beers.
I tried giving too much money to a female bartender—we couldn’t communicate because of the language barrier. But she smiled at me, shook her head, and took the right amount of cash gripped in my hand. She didn’t have to do that, but she did.
So, yes. A place like Costa Rica can be misunderstood when people try to turn it into something it’s not.
But you have to go with a true sense of openness for the Pura Vida to work. Hell, you should always travel with a true sense of openness—be vulnerable and let go, accept possibilities, and don’t let yourself be surrounded by barriers you’ve built yourself.
Sometimes you just have to go somewhere, and it doesn’t matter if it makes sense to anyone else. When you have that urge, listen to it. That’s your soul speaking and souls don’t lie.
Image Credits: c/o Britt Skrabanek
Is Costa Rica calling your name too? Check out our 15-day trip there.