At the end of December, I had the opportunity to visit Guanacaste Province, Costa Rica with Andy and his family. I knew I would have work to do while I was there, and I had to leave a day after getting off another cross-country flight. And yet, it was too much of a good thing to pass up. So, I packed my bags, and we headed off – determined to experience that “Pura Vida” that everyone was talking about.
It turns out that I might not be great at “Pura Vida,” or, at least, it took some time for me to find my own version. On my most relaxed days, I tend to be scheduled. I want to know what is next. It took me a couple of days to let some of that go and just be. Did I still work? Yes. Every morning Andy and I would go to the patio of our favorite beach restaurant/bar and write. Fantastic views, warm breezes and a sense of accomplishment – that’s my “Pura Vida.”
Would I go back? Absolutely! The country is beautiful; the food is fantastic, and the people are delightfully welcoming. And I can’t wait to share with you my favorite places from this trip – the restaurants, a wonderful locals beach and the creatures we encountered.
What were the most interesting things about visiting Costa Rica in December?
December is the start of their dry season – though it did rain a couple of days during our stay (briefly), much to the surprise of the locals. It was very warm! I went from 17 degrees and snow to Costa Rica where it was 86 degrees F with 80% (or higher) humidity. And it was glorious, particularly at night, or during our early morning work sessions, when the warm breezes swept across the beach.
Costa Rica is a Catholic country, and Christmas is a very different experience there than here in the States. For instance, I don’t think I was one “xxx shopping days before Christmas” kind of sign. It’s not retail-oriented in Playa Ocotal. Much was closed on Christmas Eve – it’s the time for families. But nearly everything was open on Christmas. And if you are looking for mass on Sunday, you’ll be welcomed into their fold. It’s a time of celebration, but like most of life there, it is lower key and more family-oriented/personal. I understand that there are bigger public celebrations in San Jose.
Playa Ocotal is close to Playas del Coco, but quieter and without a main strip – unless you consider Father Rooster’s downtown. If you want to go exploring, you should consider renting a car when you fly into Liberia. I would recommend bike riding, but given the way the driving and roads are there, that might be more of an adventure than you were anticipating.
Playa Ocotal is surrounded by volcanic rock. It has a black sand beach that mixes with lighter sands at certain points, but to get from Bay to Bay, you’ll have to scramble over the lava rock and through some channels. It’s doable but take care.
I highly recommend investing in (or bringing) water/land shoes. I had a pair of Teva Terra-Float Livia shoes, and they worked really well. They protected me against sea urchins, made it easy to walk across the black sand and still looked nice enough to walk through town. With the exception of Christmas Eve dinner, I wore them everywhere.
Everything tastes so fresh here! Of course, if you are fish eater that is often because they have literally caught the fish that morning. I don’t think any of us had a bad meal the entire time we were there. I even discovered that I have a great love for fried plantains. Who knew? In Playa Ocotal, food in the main restaurants and even in the grocery store is more expensive than in San Jose, but still pretty reasonable. The local sodas are going to be cheaper than the bigger restaurants if you are focusing on budget. The one exception to the cost is coffee. Coffee is very inexpensive there, and I know Andy wishes we had bought bags of it before returning.
Every person we interacted with the entire time we were visiting Costa Rica was pleasant. This was true of immigration officials, waiters, bus drivers, dive teams and the guy who rented kayaks on the beach (even though we ended up needing to be rescued – a story for another day). Even the man who was raking and sweeping at the beach bar we worked at in the morning was a delight every day. They say Costa Rica is one of the happiest countries in the world – I definitely saw that. I wish I could have bottled that feeling and brought it home with us.
I had never encountered a Howler Monkey before this trip. At first, I thought it was a very unusual owl. And then I heard the growl. It’s not really menacing, so much as something you can’t ignore (which I suppose is the point since they are trying to communicate with other monkeys). They populated the trees near where we stayed and down by the beach, although we didn’t actually see the Howlers until mid-way through the trip. We heard them every morning, and now I miss it (in an odd way). Curious about how they sound: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xxzbqmFkXwU
Casual is the Word
I felt pretty proud of myself when I got everything I needed for Costa Rica into my squish-able carry-on bag. But by the end of the trip, I had to admit to myself that even that included too much stuff. Because it was my first time, I brought additional dresses, a light sweater (because even in summer, California night’s can be cool), a wide variety of skirts and light shirts. I could have brought half that stuff. The only time I dressed up when I was there was for Christmas Eve dinner, and that is because we wanted to be dressy, not because it was required. If you are visiting Costa Rica in December, look at what you have packed and ditch half of it. Trust me, you’ll be in a bathing suit and whatever you want as a cover-up 90% of the time.
I’ll never forget the feeling I had the first late afternoon in Costa Rica. After dropping our bags in the room, we walked down to the beach bar to meet up with everyone and watched the sun dip below the hills. There were loads of people milling about on the beach, but the sand dampened the sound of nearly everything except for the waves. Warm breezes had taken hold of my hair, and as I tried to stretch the plane kinks out of my back, I took a deep breath and held it. There is a peace here that goes beyond the quiet. Maybe it was just something I was seeking, but it felt like other people were experiencing it too. Much like the first time I heard the silence of the desert, Playa Ocotal captured a restless part of me and held it. It’s a feeling I would very much like to conjure up throughout the year when life gets challenging and deadlines loom.