It’s nearly noon in Costa Rica and the sun is at its strongest, the equatorial heat beckoning us to the waters of Papagayo Bay. We pass manicured lawns of palm trees and overflowing bougainvillea to reach the beach, which is sandy and surfable on one side of the bay; on the other, it’s a bathtub of calm, crystalline waters. Hours later, we are exploring the lush rainforest, stopping to notice the occasional bird or creature in our midst, thankful for the shade provided to us by a massive volcano just a mile away.
This, I learned, is just another day in Costa Rica. It’s no wonder that this veritable paradise has lured travelers for centuries, including Christopher Columbus, who aptly named the country ‘the rich coast.’ And rich it is. This is a place where pristine beaches, immense mountains, arid grasslands and misty jungle intertwine—and that is just the topography. In fact, Costa Rica’s bounty extends far beyond its landscapes, counting a soulful culture and endless adventure opportunities on its list of draws. And while Costa Rica—bound travelers’ intentions are varied—be it romance, an adrenaline rush or simply a deep tan—all will experience the same end result: a tropical magic that is best described as pura vida.
This, I learned, is not the run-of-the-mill vacation glow. On the contrary, Costa Rica’s mantra directly translates to ‘pure life’ and is used most frequently as a greeting or expression of thanks. Hearing these words reminds us that here, the simple pleasures of life are not taken for granted but rather celebrated. This gratitude filters into all aspects of Costa Rican life, starting with the way locals treat their land. The nation is a pioneer when it comes to ecotourism and demonstrates exemplary sustainability programs: 25% of the country is protected by the National System of Conservation Area; and the country plans to be completely carbon neutral by 2021. There is exceptional pride for all things local—the land, the culture, the peace (the nation eliminated its army in 1949)—and for visitors, it is utterly contagious. It’s no surprise that the country has been consistently ranked as one of the happiest in the world.
The best hotels in Costa Rica celebrate the phenomenon of pura vida. The Andaz, for instance, occupies a hilltop perch on Peninsula Papagayo that is almost invisible from the bay: a welcome contrast from the high-rise hotels often seen on popular tropical beaches. The resort was designed to complement, not compete, with its setting, employing local materials and architecture inspired by shapes in the surrounding landscape. There’s a lush and overgrown quality, too: paths are un-manicured and vegetation is relatively untamed (in fact, a government mandate prohibits construction on more than 30% of the peninsula, allowing travelers to savor the natural environment).
Costa Rica’s stunning variety makes it a catch-all of a destination, allowing visitors to experience multiple landscapes in the span of a few days. Beyond the beach, a must-visit location is Arenal, a peaceful inland region set in the shadow of what was once the country’s most active volcano. Soaring 5,000 feet high and dominating the skyline, it provides a constant reminder of the power of nature. It's only fitting that the small town at the volcano’s base is aptly named Fortuna, meaning 'lucky,' having remained unharmed during centuries of eruptions.
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Savvy travelers looking to experience the Arenal region opt for the secluded, adults-only Nayara Springs, which is arguably one of the region's greatest draws. One of the most luxurious resorts in the country, the property is set amidst the humming rainforest with a constant (and welcomed) soundtrack of birds. The hotel's wow factor is its romantic atmosphere: guests spend days horseback riding past secluded waterfalls; indulging in treatments at the world-class spa; doing yoga in the open-air pavilion; and savoring long afternoons spent poolside. Guests sleep in thatched-roof villas that are at once over-the-top (think crystal chandeliers and vibrant woven hammocks) and understated, with fluid, indoor-outdoor layouts leading to private plunge pools fed by hot springs flowing from the nearby volcano.
With zip-lining, horseback riding, hiking, 4x4ing and endless water sports on the menu, Costa Rica has all the trappings of an adventure destination. But the country is, at its core, about slowing down, which is exactly what pura vida can teach us. This is why we recommend spending upwards of four days in the country, which affords ample time to explore and relax: a rainforest hike in the morning, an afternoon cooking class, a golden hour cocktail that could last well into the night—especially if these aperitifs are enjoyed at Nayara Springs’ swim-up bar.
On my last day in Costa Rica, a Nayara Springs employee excitedly announced there was a sloth lounging in a tree (as sloths do) nearby. He led me to the viewpoint and I peered through the forest, admiring the creature and the rainforest canopy above. I listened as the jungle sang around me, alive with the chorus of tropical birds, the subtle humming of insects. I, along with a few other hotel guests, oohed and aahed as he pointed to the creature. It had been a long time since I stopped to simply take it all in.
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