Skip to main content

Find Your Happy Place: Costa Rica Offers a Taste of the Good Life

Rainforest hike via El Silencio at base of the Arenal volcano
Rainforest hike via El Silencio at base of the Arenal volcano

Are you happy? Yes you, with your plastic fantastic rain boots and your threadbare copy of Love Story. If you answered “yes,” well, you’re wrong. At least, that is according to the Happy Planet Index (HPI), a new survey calculated by Britain’s New Economics Foundation. Out of 143 countries rated in HPI for overall happiness, life satisfaction, life expectancy and ecological footprint, the United States came in at 114 just behind Lebanon, Yemen and Kazakhstan, and a nose above Nigeria. Oh my.

But don’t fret. If you’re a singleton looking for your happy place, it is not beyond your reach. It’s south of the border. No, I am not suggesting Tijuana’s Zona Norte (get your mind out of the gutter), but Latin America, in particular Costa Rica, which received top rank as HPI’s happiest and greenest country. For singles in Costa Rica, the honeymooners are quick to engage you, chiseled surfers are a dime a dozen, the beaches are full of foreign charmers and the ocean does not discriminate.

I recently traveled to Costa Rica (hence the brief interruption to your usual programming) to find a bit of my own happiness and stumbled upon something equally as profound, “pura vida.” Pura vida literally means “pure life.” The phrase is commonly used by Costa Ricans in a variety of contexts to express their appreciation for “the good life.” It’s an expression that embodies good spirit, appreciating the moment, celebrating the little things, perseverance, strength and the importance of community, all synergized in two little words. How sweet it is.

Upon arriving on day one, we boarded a small van to take us on the long and winding drive from San Jose to Arenal near La Fortuna. Although our driver did not speak a lick of English, beyond American pop rock, and we did not speak fluent Spanish, he barely took a breath from his excited diatribe; pointing wildly at coffee plantations, sugar cane fields and preserved forest along the roadside. He occasionally stopped to toss a smile at me in the rear view mirror. I smiled back using the universal language: happy.

The low hanging mist of the late afternoon signaled the imminent rain, and everything was awash in a pungent green, with the occasional flash of stucco, wrought iron and tin; there were endless streams of bright colored clothing strung-up along the hillside to dry. Our driver inspired us to sing along with him to the radio “give a little bit, give a little bit of your love to me!” At the chorus, he would pinch his fingertips together in front of his knotted face and look at me again in the rear view, singing “just a little bit?” It made me laugh. It would be the first of many.

On day two we hiked into the rainforest via the El Silencio trails near the base of the Arenal volcano and studied Howler monkeys, sloths, army ants, viper snakes, termites and other things you do not want to touch, but are sickly fascinated by and would love to see up close. We topped off our day at the Tabacon Hot Springs where the bartenders were pleased to follow our trail, keeping wine in abundance as we explored the thread of steam laden paths to various black and rocky pools. We laughed ourselves to tears in the dark caverns under a hot waterfall late into the night. It’s a good life.

On day three we were ready for adventure and headed up Sky Trek’s Sky Tram to zip line 660-feet (that’s about 66 stories, folks) above the rainforest along eight cross-sectional cables. Each cable promised a thrilling ride lasting anywhere from 30-to-45 seconds and offered panoramic views of Arenal volcano and lake. Being the stuff of legends, I made history by slowing to a dead stop halfway across the first and highest cable, too far for the staff to come rescue me. Hand-over-fist, I unwittingly conquered my fear of heights Cliffhanger-style and slowly pulled myself to safety – the once peaceful feeling of a bird in flight now transformed to a jolting rush of adrenaline. Each pull of my gloves along the wire was met with cheers of encouragement. Once safely on the platform, my climbing belt unhooked by the crew, I was encircled by our group, who moments before had been complete strangers in plastic jackets and funny looking helmets, but who now hugged me, patted me on the back and spurred me on. Costa Rica will do that to you. There are no strangers here.  You can’t help but bond together, like teammates and comrades all here for the same reason – to feel alive through the thrill of adventure.

Day four was a travel day. Our cab driver dropped us off at a rustic looking building that, at first glance, seemed much like a barn. We wheeled our luggage inside (no backpacking for these city girls) and tried to decipher which patch of dusty grass was to be considered the runway. Despite being forced to surrender our aerosols, leaving us with no bug spray or sun block (oh crap), we were in good spirits and ready to journey on to Quepos and Manuel Antonio. Moments later, as I was busy photographing a butterfly just opening its wings, a small 12-seater propeller plane dropped down from the sky and seemingly turned on a dime to greet us. Several chewable Dramamine and some rice and beans later, we were aboard our second puddle jumper where the vast forest and lush countryside were met with a sweep of low laying clouds. I was no longer envious of those that decided to brave the four-hour bus ride to Quepos to “get a good look at the countryside.” There was no better view than ours from the sky. It was truly majestic, if not a little nauseating.

On day five, after mistakenly ordering more fresh fruit, scrambled eggs and toast with jam than we could ever possibly consume, we hiked in our bikinis and cover-ups into Manuel Antonio National Park where the trails spilled out onto magnificent brown sand beaches. We spent the day taking turns splashing around in the waves, soaking up the rays, chasing stealth iguanas with our point-and-shoot and falling asleep in the shade. We managed to make it back to town in time to enjoy a radiant pink sunset while slurping frothy Pina Coladas, our painted toes buried deep in the sand.

On day six we arrived at Hotel La Mariposa, meaning “the butterfly.” While Capuchin monkeys seek to snatch items from your unattended beach bag, you can traverse the various levels of the hotel to enjoy the dispersed reflecting pools, hot tub and swim-up bar. From the balcony of our room, you could see over the cliffs down onto the rocks and sandy shore, and all day long you are unable to tell where the sea ends and the sky begins. Dinner at Marlintini’s meant the best seafood and most delectable cocktails in town (and the owner is from Boston, go figure). Always a happy place when a mango martini is on the bar, especially when it is brought to you by a handsome, yet timid Jamaican his first day on the job.

On day seven we got up early to take in breakfast over the cliffs and head out for our first surf lesson in the rough and tumble of the public beaches. Put on your leash, stay on top of the crest to make it out past the breakers and listen to your cute, little Costa Rican instructor named Javier. Javier didn’t speak a lot of English, but it was enough to get me by. His limited phrase book consisted of: “get on board” (it’s time to rock and roll); “get off board” (a really big wave is coming and you’re about to get your butt kicked); “paddle” (this wave’s got your name on it); “UP!” (stand up and surf, girl!); “you have beautiful eyes” (I would like to take you salsa dancing); and his most oft used expression, “you OK?” (that wipe out looked like it hurt). Even the red hot sunburn the day’s lesson had left on the backs of our legs could not stop us from enjoying dinner out at Barba Roja, known for its amazing sunset views. We then headed out for salsa dancing with the surf crowd to live music at Bambu Jam that evening. We left Costa Rica the next morning sweaty, tired, burnt, bruised and completely exhilarated. Pura vida. It’s a good life.

American novelist Henry Miller once said "One's destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things."  Costa Rica provides both.  So, if you are waiting for someone to come along, love your peaches and shake your tree, you may be in for a long wait. Life’s just too short to stand still and taking action is amazingly empowering. So, drop your blackberry, grab your itsy bitsy swimmies and head for the nearest exit. I promise you an experience of a lifetime.

This is our happy place, where’s yours?


For more information on where to find happiness, literally, try one of my favorite books, The Geography of Bliss by Eric Weiner.