This first week in Costa Rica has been beautiful, exciting, and exhausting. It’s so hard to put into words what it has been like to explore this country, but the locals have a phrase that sums it up pretty well—“Pura vida” or “Pure life”. It seems like no matter where you go in the country, there’s life and energy pulsing through the mountains and windy roads.
With my dad, I arrived at San Jose, the national capital located in the central valley. From there, we rented a car and drove as far West as we could, through mountains, past hundreds of farms and ranches, all the way to Playa Flamingo. Driving through Playa Flamingo, it doesn’t take long to see that economy here is mainly based on tourism. From resorts and hotels to nature tours and souvenir shops, the town was clearly a tourist destination. At first I was hesitant, wanting to experience the “real” Costa Rica. But the longer I stayed there, the clearer it became that there isn’t a distinct line between the tourist experience and the “real” experience. I think it would be more accurate to say the tourism industry integrated with the local culture and natural wildlife to produce the sustainable eco-centric tourism characteristic of Costa Rica. All the tours focus on educating their guests on the importance of their biodiversity and the souvenir shops largely (though not all) sell pieces crafted by locals. The hotels and resorts use conservation practices such as room keys that turn off the lights and air conditioning when you leave the room.
It makes sense that Costa Rica would be so focused on conservation and sustainability, not only because the wildlife is so stunning, but also because most attractions there are centered around the environment—white river rafting, scuba diving, bird watching. One reason I enjoyed coming here early with my dad was that I had the opportunity to see a lot of these different attractions. The second day of the trip I went scuba diving at Catalina Islands, just a ten minute boat ride from the resort we were at. Everything about the dive was perfect—warm water, great visibility, and no shortage of tropical fish to look at. We dove at two different locations: Elephant Rock and Dirty Rock. The first got its name from the shape of the large rock structure that looks like an elephant dipping its trunk into the ocean. Although I was disappointed that it was off season for manta rays, we were still able to spot one from a distance. What really amazed me about the dive was the large rock structures. Unlike the flat reef ecosystems I’m used to in the Atlantic, the Pacific has towering rocks jutting from the ocean floor. The second site was just as magnificent. But what made me enjoy it so much more was the schools of tropical fish that would go into a frenzy eating away at algae on the rocks. If you were patient enough, you could run your hand along the side of a fish while it was distracted.
Diving has always been something I’m comfortable with, so although the sights were different, I was still in familiar waters. On the third day, however, I did my favorite thing to do—something I’ve never done before. After years of missed opportunities, I finally crossed surfing off my bucket list. I was worried at first—the fun, exciting kind of worried—that I would fail or embarrass myself. That disappeared when I popped up on my board on the first try. I didn’t stay up for more than a moment, but it felt great. Even falling into the ocean after that moment felt great.
My exercise for that day didn’t stop there. Between my love for running and the resort food induced guilt, I couldn’t resist going for a run. This didn’t turn out to be just any run though, it was the most beautiful run of my life. I literally had an entire stretch of pristine beach to myself, under the light of a full moon no less. I can’t think of anything more to ask for.
The fourth day was sadly much less active. We spent the majority of the day driving to our next destination—Arenal Springs. No complaints here though, the drive was by far the most scenic part of my trip. The GPS took us all along the side of Laguna de Arenal, every twist and turn opening up to a stunning view of the large lake. We also ran across a quirky little place called Toad Hall. Really, it would be impossible to miss—they have dozens of hand painted, oddly vague signs for miles before you reach the place. It turned out to be a cluster of different buildings—a restaurant, a hotel, an antique store—all part of “Toad Hall”. We made the easy decision to stop there for lunch and get what a sign promised to be The World’s Greatest Guacamole. The avocado dip didn’t disappoint but what we weren’t expecting was the amazing mountain top view looking over the lake (or the bird rescue area in the corner of the restaurant).
The drive definitely turned out to be worth it though. When we got to the resort we were more than happy to find our room looks out over the volcano.
The fifth day was one of our busiest. Right after an early breakfast we headed out to the beautiful lake Arenal for some kayaking. My arms and abs ached by the end of but I don’t think I’ve ever learned so much during a workout before. My dad and I had the pleasure of having our tour guide—Stephen—all to ourselves. It was absolutely amazing how much he was able to tell us about Costa Rica. From fruit production to the history of the lake’s hydroelectric dam, he answered our seemingly endless questions. One of the most amazing things I learned was that Costa Rica’s electricity comes from four sources—hydroelectric, wind, geothermal, and solar. No coal, no oil, no natural gas. My favorite thing about all of it was how passionate Stephen was about sustainability. It always gives me hope as an Environmental Science major to meet like-minded individuals that care about resource use—another reason to look forward to EARTH University.
The second half of the day was equally exhausting, but sadly less informative. My dad and I finally made the trip over to the volcano and hiked up to see the 1992 lava flow. The canopy and the view of the lake were breathtaking, but the lava flow didn’t quite have as the same effect.
The last place I was able to stay at, a small hotel in Alajuela, was less extravagant but more my pace. The view was incredible—the hotel was practically in the clouds looking down at the Central Valley. When the sun set it was even better, with the lights from the city lighting up the valley. The hotel was also located on a coffee finca, or coffee plantation, that had a trail lined with signs all about Costa Rica’s coffee industry. Even more than the resorts, the little hotel seemed dedicated to the cause of sustainability.
As the week draws to a close, I find myself amazed at the level of collective initiative to preserve the country’s resources. Environmental stewardship isn’t just a buzz word here and eating organic is far from a passing trend. The people here seem more connected to nature, to the point where the ecosystems are a strong part of their national pride. Experiencing this culture that’s so strongly rooted in their environment is only making me that much more excited for EARTH University.