So you want to escape the cold winter and see something new? Google “Best places to go in January” and voila, you’re set! A recipe for success that brought us to Costa Rica to kick off 2018.
Literally translated it means “pure life” and in Costa Rica, you’ll be sure to hear it as hello, goodbye, a response to how are you, or any question really. Just like Hakuna Matata, it’s so much more than a phrase. It’s a way of life. It’s about optimism, being laidback, and being thankful for what you have. I can’t imagine a more perfect way to start any year, but particularly this year (see why here), than immerse myself in and embrace the Pura Vida!
The countdown to this one seemed never-ending, neither Nick (my better half) or I had ever been to Central America and we’d heard amazing things about the nature, beaches, and people of this 5-million strong country nestled between the Pacific and the Caribbean.
On departure day, the timing could not have been more perfect. As we left our place, a heap of snow came tumbling out of the sky, clearly saying “You guys gotta get out of here.” You got that right!
Three layovers (read: hours of browsing and resisting the urge to buy another 324342 books, also, SNACKS) later, we made it! Bienvenidos! Our home for the next two weeks.
Liberia: Pimp my SUV
With plenty of stops on our itinerary (see map below), we rented a 4×4 (totally worth it and necessary) except, since it was high season, despite having booked in advance (ok, not that far in advance), we got a “So, we don’t have any cars for you right now, but we should be getting some back today. We’ll call you.” Luckily, our hospitable host informed us that the rental company was just a 200m walk away from the hotel. Why not just go stop by?
Our 2-Week Itinerary
A short walk along the road and the sign came into view. As we got closer, it was not exactly what we were expecting. A container and an empty field. No cars in sight (no shortage of buses though). A friendly-looking man in their temporary office was a star, super friendly despite the constant ringing of his phone. After repeating our phone conversation, he reconfirmed that we were just two people and then pointed to a house at the other end of the field. In what I thought was a neighbor’s personal garage, the cutest 2-door SUV was parked. SUVs for beginners. It was perfect. And came with a discount, not bad.
Playa Negra: Snoozing into 2018
We were looking for something a little quieter than Tamarindo (a well-developed tourist hotspot, pretty pricey for New Year’s), while being easy to get to from Liberia. By chance, browsing through Airbnb, we found Playa Negra. Just a leisurely 2-hour drive away from Liberia and we arrived. At this point were ready to take in the ocean, hear the crashing of the waves, touch the sand, feel the breeze. So we did.
Full of spontaneity, our host shared some recommendations for New Year’s Eve: The neighboring town, Paraiso, just a 10-minute drive away, was hosting a fair complete with food stands, rides, and a rodeo. What a fantastic coincidence, we’d ring in the new year the local way! Look at us, blending right into the local culture.
We spoke too soon. The flights and the day’s trip had taken their toll. Combined with my favorite jetlag (shout out to any fellow morning people), and an afternoon power nap turned into a 12-hour snooze. At 5am on the 1st January 2018, with the sun starting to shine through the windows, we cracked open our eyes, and with sleep in our voices, half-whispered, “Happy new year!”
My first thought was, oh boy, what does this mean for 2018? We SLEPT over New Year’s Eve. This must mean that this year will be a snooze… Hold on there, now. Isn’t it funny how our brains try to assign meaning to the most random of events? A phenomenon with evolutionary roots, but hardly appropriate in situations such as sleeping through a holiday. Any other day and I wouldn’t have thought twice about it. Every day is an opportunity to celebrate, to make resolutions, and while these dates serve as helpful reminder, let’s not let ourselves be tied down by the expectations they set out. And so, the thought dissipated and we started off the new year extra early, full of energy.
This meant getting to an undisturbed beach, with the exception of a couple of yogis getting their daily practice in. Just perfect. Waves crashed as the birds flew over the water, they were hovering so close to the waves that it seemed as if they were teasing any fish in the water, “I’m coming in, I’m coming in, oh, no I’m not!” with such grace. I just love being by the water.
With a book in hand, the day melted away, interrupted only by our stomachs’ grumbling and sun cream top-ups.
Paraiso: First Rodeo & Pork BBQ Bliss
While we missed out on the previous day’s festivities, luckily for us, there was one day left, so we’d still make it to our first Costa Rican rodeo (or any rodeo, for that matter). But with a 5am wake up, by 5pm we were knocked out (What? Lying on the beach, reading and sun-soaking is tiring. Ok, ok, I’ll blame it on the jetlag). This time though, our inner explorers won.
Having checked out the program, we arrived right on time for the bull riding to begin. Except, the arena was empty. Did we misread the times? Ah yes, that’s our Swissness coming in. Not every place in the world operates to the second. So what do you do while waiting? Check out the food stalls, of course.
Among the asian, fried chicken, ice cream, drinks, cotton candy, there really was only one stall that called our name: Pork BBQ.
Pork BBQ and a tortilla – food find of the night!
This reminded me so much of Filipino barbecue (with the addition of a mini tortilla, let’s call it a “tortillita”) so I felt this could only be a good thing. We ordered two sticks to start. The pork: Juicy and full of flavor. The tortilla: Warm and absorbent to soak up all the flavor from the pork. A perfect complement. Take your tortillita, use it to pull off a piece of pork from the stick, enjoy. Simple, delicious, and easy to eat on the go. A number of BBQ sticks later and the sound of the emcee drew us back to the arena.
Blaring latino music… “Este toro es muy lindo”… More latino music… The sounds of a Costa Rican rodeo. One by one, contestants gave it their all to hang on to the bull (or toro) for as long as they could. The entire orchestration was fascinating. Crowds everywhere. In the stalls, watching and helping the contestants get on the bull; around the arena, watching in anticipation; and even in the arena, where young men showed off their bravery being part of the action. Everyone knew their role. The emcee gave us a play by play of the events while keeping the energy up. The medical team, ready to come to the rescue. And the three cowboys, so elegantly on their horses, clutched their lassos and masterfully rounded up the toro to direct him back to his stall. At some point though, we could no longer ignore it, sleep was calling.
Santa Teresa: Surfer’s paradise
After one final dip in the waters of Playa Negra, and a quick stop at the Jalapeño Eatery for some solid Tico Breakfast Burritos (Tico = Costa Rican), we hit the road to Santa Teresa.
Our host warned us as we left, “Oh, Santa Teresa? It’s really beautiful, but if you drove through 20 meters of bad roads to get here, just be ready for 3 hours of that to get there.” So here’s the offer: Just got your driving license and need to practice? Come to Santa Teresa, it’ll be a hoot. And make it a manual for more fun. You’ll come back with driving confidence like never before.
We bought a Lonely Planet guide, my first time ever (it was Nick’s idea, I’m all about “but we can just find all this stuff out on the Internet”), and I am so grateful that we did. Incredibly useful and super recommendations. I might be late to the Lonely Planet party, but it was right on time for me.
So back to the driving, because – surprise, surprise – after turning into one of those “Are you sure we’re going the right way?” roads, a dead end. Well, not exactly a dead end, more like a body of flowing water a.k.a. river.
Definitely was not expecting that, despite seeing a “Top tips for driving through rivers” in the LP guide (and boy am I glad I remembered stumbling across that passage). There is a funny story about how of all the people to encounter, another couple drove up behind us and ended being Swiss, the car stopped mid-crossing, how it was shallow and not a big deal, but suffice to say we made it safe and sound bumping along.
Playa Santa Teresa does its reputation justice. The roads are full of potholes, but man, it is beautiful. The beach just never ends. When looking at the shoreline, it’s just trees, surfboards, and sun-soaking beachgoers dotted along. And on the water, no signs of jellyfish, seaweed, or old plastic bags.
We learned that it’s prohibited to build anything right on the beach, to protect and preserve its beauty. Because of this, there are just a few places right by the ocean (luckily one, Roca Mar, with delicious fresh fish specials, was just 1 minute from our Airbnb). We found this eco-friendly, environmentally respectful spirit was also reflected in people’s actions. People would randomly pick up garbage along the beach when they encountered it. Pura vida!
We chose Santa Teresa for its surfing. But as total amateurs, I won’t even try to talk about breaks, etc. A surfer recommended it to us (and it was written in the LP Guide, so it must be so), all signs pointed to good surfing conditions.
Embracing the Pura Vida lifestyle, we decided we’d wait till we arrived, and then find someone to teach us to surf. And our Airbnb host knew just such a person. Surf’s up! It was amazing.
First, you learn the technique to place yourself and stand up on the board by practicing on the sand. A cool 10 minutes later, and you’re off into the water to give it a go.
“Ok, you’re gonna take the next one… ready? Paddle, paddle, paddle, paddle… and… UP!”
Push off with your arms, back leg, front leg, and U… Crash. Straight into the water.
With some handy tips, like “Look forward, not down” and “Stay low”, I made it up! A couple more tries, and I rode till the end of the wave, where instead of falling over, I decided I’d be stepping off now, thank you very much for the ride, wave. When you’re literally on top of the wave, it’s just so exhilarating. Like walking on water, but gliding, soaring.
Now, it probably all seems too good and easy. I felt like I was going to be a pro surfer in no time. Not so fast there, Steph.
Swimming back out into the ocean after falling over, a wave was approaching, so I ducked under the water, attached to my board. The wave passed and I proceeded to swim out, ready to take on the next one… Now, the thing about waves is that after they crash onto the shore, the current pulls them back, and along with it, people swimming, seaweed floating in the water, and a surfboard, for example. As luck would have it, the sharp fin on the bottom of the surfboard hit my foot, cutting it… Several stitches later, no more surfing (or swimming) for a while. On the bright side, more reading! Looks like I’d reach my reading goal for the holiday.
Montezuma: Waterfall-ing in love
On our last day in the area, we drove to Montezuma for a canopy walk passing through three waterfalls. Just an hour away from Santa Teresa, it makes for a nice day trip when you want a break from the beach (though there are beaches there too).
There are two ways to get to the waterfalls, with my foot, we decided to take the more developed route starting from the forest canopy and walking down the marked path and steps. While the paths were empty, we stumbled upon different groups of families and students, climbing on the rocks, jumping, and swimming in the pools. While I couldn’t swim, be sure to come ready for it. The water is cool and refreshing, just what you need after the walk.
The waterfalls are also accessible starting from the bottom, beach side. Most people take this way (it’s free) but the path is less developed than the canopy walk, so it really depends on what you’re up for (e.g. at some points you need to hang on to a rope to keep from falling, but definitely manageable).
And with that, it was time to leave the sand and surf behind for greener, cooler, and wetter… So, Costa Rica, I’m curious, your beaches are beautiful and have already made us fall in love… What else you got?
So this turned out much longer than expected, Monteverde and Arenal plus Food Favorites coming soon!