Tropical nature, beaches, mountains, and oh yes, sloths! Welcome to Costa Rica, a Central America haven for international visitors. It is not surprising that one of this country’s prime economic driver is tourism. Beautiful landscapes, warm weather, culturally foreign enough to freshen your outlook without losing some of the home’s comfort. I have wanted to go to this country for so long and finally, was able to spend some time there.
We landed in San Jose, the capital and spent two nights there. We then drove East through the mountains to arrive in Santa Cruz, close to Turrialba where an active volcano was only kilometers away. Next, we made our way to the laid-back Caribbean coast for some striking beaches and warm weather. Finally, we decided to travel to Panama’s Bocas Del Toro, a unique destination composed of dozens of visitable islands. Here is a summary of our journey:
San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica
So many people go to Costa Rica without spending any time in the capitol! The reason? We are not sure because, from our perspective, it has a lot to offer. Despite not necessarily being visually inviting at first glance compared to the rest of the country, this city is an urban cultural hub. I always appreciate a nation better after learning more about its native roots and history which is exactly what San Jose offered.
First off, the Teatro National is one of the most beautiful and unique buildings in the country. The Costa Rican architects who built it were educated in Europe at the time and brought back the best of every nation to design the country’s first national building for everyone to enjoy. Inaugurated in 1897, less than fifty years after the country’s full independence, this building is a potent symbol of the country’s capabilities and a gift to their people. At the time of construction, the government wanted to create a place that would be available for all, rich and poor. Even today there are free shows so that the whole population can attend cultural performances. The symbolic nature of the building is just as attractive as it is inside.
The ceilings are painted by different Italian artists, the wall decor is of Baroque style, Rococo statues are in the staircases, this building is an eclectic mashup of the best European techniques. Influences from France, Spain, and Italy are clearly identifiable throughout this astonishing theatre that can sit up to 931 people. A must see overall, and fortunately, the price of the ticket comes with a guided tour. Next time, we will need to attend a concert!
Contemporary Art can be found at the Museo de Arte y Deseno Contemporary (MADC) in a cool looking building just outside the center of town. An exhibit from Costa Rican artist Moises Barrios denounced the destructive nature of the banana business in the country’s fertile tropical land. The exhibition was an eye-opener which we later witnessed personally while driving through the many fields of banana plantations. Tragic of course but the satiric art was an unusual way to be introduced to the subject.
The most contemporary looking building in the city was reasonably where the Museum of Jade is located. Built in 2014, the structure was inspired by the stone of which the hall was created for. The history of the natives who lived in the area was also revealed through the permanent exhibition. Also, we visited the temporary exhibit of Costa Rican artist Herberth Bolanos which we loved. We also toured the Gold Museum which showcased a variety of handcrafted Pre-Colombian era of gold pieces. The amount of gold in that room was impressive!
Folk, contemporary and artisan artwork was widespread throughout the city which was lovely to enjoy. Many hotels and restaurants presented different local and national artists who displayed their pride in the manner. The handmade woodwork is also noticeably part of their traditions and available to purchase in various formats such as jewelry, home decor, and kitchen tools.
For food, the city’s restaurants do not disappoint when you know where you are going! From Argentinian influence establishment, La Esquina de Buenos Aires which was crowded with locals mid-week to bohemian artsy style restaurant Cafe de Los Deseos – the food was delicious. You can tell that there are varied cultural influences in their gastronomy but you could still easily find the common “rice and bean” plates. It was an urban hub with quality choices. Our hotel, Hotel Aranjuez served a homemade organic breakfast every morning which also helped us have a favorable opinion of the dining experience.
Santa Cruz, Cartago Province, Turrialba & the people
Outside San Jose, the vibe was even more laidback than in the capital. Turrialba had stunning views but was quite scary to get to through the twisting roads. Horseback riding near an active volcano didn’t startle the locals who were all accustomed to seeing thick dark smoke blowing out of the crate. It was exciting to be high up in the dense tropical mountains riding an animal we did not entirely control.
Our experience with Costa Ricans who lived there was nothing but authentic, warm and pure. Greeted with hearty food, comfortable housing and a pack of rescue dogs, everybody seems to be happy living with what they have. Pura Vida – the trademark sentence of the Costa Rican people which means pure life. It is a commonly used for all kinds of situations. As we understood it, it meant¨enjoy the simple things in life that are around you and forget the rest¨. Well in Costa Rica, it is quite easy to do so!
Costa Rica’s Carribean Coast – Cahuita & Puerta Viejo de Talamanca
The Carribean coast has a slew of beaches ranging from black to white sands. It is nice to see the shoreline just as nature made it with little human changes. Playa Chiquita, Playa Blanca, Playa Negra, Playa Uva, and Playa Cocles to name a few – were all fun to explore and swim in even though there was often a powerful current. The seafood in the area was nothing but delightful. Being so close to the ocean why not indulge in the fresh caught red snapper, lobster, sea bass, shrimp and plenty other varieties to choose from. The unique touch was the Carribean flavorings which had a strong taste of garlic, seasoning, and tomatoes. It had its own flavor we weren’t used to which made it that much more pleasing.
In Cahuita, we stayed at the border of a National Park at Alby Lodge. We were practically in “‘the jungle.” Howler monkeys making their morning and evening calls, a cayman in the lodges’ pond, monkeys jumping from tree to tree, toucans in the sky, yellow crabs crawling on the ground – this is how I imagined a Costa Rican utopia. Nonetheless, the white nets over our bed made it clear that we also had to be careful of being bitten by the many insects that crawled the area. Ouch!
Puerto Viejo is the most significant town around the area. It is lively and happening day and night. Many shops and restaurants are bustling with people, mostly foreigners enjoying the beach town vibe. We were able to purchase some beautiful folk art and artisanal crafts that were unique to the area. It was a great time to learn more about their ecosystem with many rescue centers around providing care for wild animals in need.
We also got to learn more about cocoa agriculture and how it became part of the most cherished sweets around the world – chocolate. From the fruit itself to the dry roasted bean – we tasted the distinct aspects of the process down to the final form, chocolate. Thank you to Alan from Finca La Isla who invited us to try different fruits, spices, and plants from around the world that were grown in the vast botanical gardens. It was a unique and cherished experience. One thing was for sure – we had to avoid the dangerous army ants that were roaming the area! If you looked up though you could see numerous hummingbirds enjoying the nectar of different flowers all around us. What a stunning sight it was!
Bocas Del Toro – Panama
Even though Costa Rica has enough to visit, we decided to make a quick trip to Panama! Walking over a 300m bridge after an hour car ride – we crossed the border into a new country. To get to Bocas Del Toro’s main island, you need to take a 30-minute water taxi cab as well. The adventure to Bocas was a little longer than we had hoped but overall worth it. The area we reached englobes dozens of small islands each with their own unique attributes. We visited “sloth island” and saw four of the slowest mammals on earth. Fury and cute, they are a sure crowd pleaser. Then we experienced the Zapatillas National Park that is, in fact, two islands. Isolated from the world, it has its own ecosystem where sea turtle preservation is at the core of its identity. The turquoise water and giant palm trees made this place picturesque and soothing.
At night, Bocas was animated with many tourists looking for places to eat and party. Vacationers came from Spain, Germany, USA, Canada to name a few. The “going out ” options were numerous and luckily all quite pleasant from our experience. From Japanese sushi, Carribean seafood, to Indian curry, the variety was incredible. We even met some foreigners who immigrated to Bocas after falling in love with the remote haven.
Meeting Argentinian visual artist, Soledad Duran who owned a shop with her husband was a real treat. She sells her abstract storytelling original artwork and her husband’s graphic designed apparel in a shop that they own called Black Cat. It was a funky, artsy and after talking to her for almost two hours, we were sold on her and her artwork! A refreshing moment it was to connect with someone only by exchanging anecdotes relating to the characters of each of her artworks. She was a genuine and engaging artist that rightly expressed her passions.
Our sweet trip in Central America was perfect for freeing the mind, heart, and spirit. Pura Vida is at the center of how I will remember this vacation. As cliché as it might sound, Costa Rica makes it easy to enjoy the little things in life which are often the most important! The nature around you, the food in your plate and of course, the people you surround yourself with – if those things don’t make you happy – what will?