I have a long, loving history with Costa Rica, and I’ve traveled there more than 20 times in the past 12 years. When I fly over San Jose and see those rolling rich green peaks and valleys, my heart leaps. When I step into a rainforest, I feel like I can really breathe, like I’m home. I love it. Strangely, Costa Rica called to me.

When I was in my late thirties I started to get the feeling that I needed to go to Costa Rica before I turned 40. The feeling wouldn’t leave me. It kept popping up into my mind, even though I knew absolutely nothing about Costa Rica. None of my friends had been there, and I didn’t even know exactly where it was. I started researching it, and I was really drawn to the rainforest. I just HAD to be in the rainforest. But I was a self-employed, single mom who was barely making ends meet. I couldn’t even afford to take my son to the local beach for a weekend, so Costa Rica seemed far off indeed. Still, it kept calling. Then one day I got a nice tax refund. There were a lot of practical things I needed to use that money for, but I found myself walking into a travel agency where there just happened to be a great package deal for two that was almost the exact amount of my tax refund. Without a moment’s hesitation I bought the tickets. My mother thought it was a foolish waste of money. My son seemed torn between excitement and worry, since some people around us seemed to think I was taking him to a place where he might be sacrificed by cannibals. I knew it would be great.

casado joyful heart travelFinally the day came. We flew into Liberia, Costa Rica, and we were shocked to see acres of dry, brown, even burned-out land. What? Where is all the green stuff we were expecting? I shook it off, and we met our guide, who took us and eight other people to a local restaurant for lunch. There were no walls in the restaurant, and this alone made it feel exotic as the warm, humid air enveloped us. I tried out my Spanish and ordered a casado — a typical local lunch of either chicken, fish, or beef surrounded by rice and beans, salad, a tortilla, and a sweet plantain. I couldn’t stop smiling. I was so happy to finally be there. Collin seemed a little apprehensive, but as we left the dry area of Guanacaste behind and headed east into the beautiful green landscape that we had seen in photos, he started to get excited.

costa rica joyful heart travelAs we traveled, our guide, Alejandro, entertained us with the history of Costa Rica, pointed out interesting plants, and stopped whenever there was an exotic animal in view, which was fairly often. We spent our first couple of nights in a rustic eco lodge in Arenal. Our cozy room had beautiful dark wood walls and ceilings and a tile floor. We had our first mango batidos there (mango and milk whipped up in a blender), and that is still my favorite Costa Rican drink. Collin made friends with some other kids in the group, and he stayed up late playing pool with the locals. Alejandro took us on a hike in the rainforest, and it was even better than I imagined. There was so much oxygen in the air, and I felt so at peace. We learned so much about the plants and animals and their symbiotic relationship. Everything was fascinating. The next day we went horseback-riding, and Collin was thrilled that they let us gallop. He was definitely having fun.

costa rica joyful heart travel costa rica joyful heart travel

costa rica joyful heart travel

After two nights, we moved to a little casita with a view of Arenal volcano. We were lucky and saw the flow of glowing red lava on our first night. I mentioned that I was going to get up around 6:30 and do yoga on the lawn in front of our room, and Alejandro said, “That’s probably OK. Most of the snakes will be gone by then.” (I decided to do yoga on the tiled patio instead.) Around 5:30 in the morning we were awakened by what we thought was some kind of lion. A cacophony of birds joined in, and we jumped out of bed, excited to see what was out there. We went out to our porch and saw the majestic volcano. A toucan flew by. How cool is that?! The lions continued to make a racket, but we couldn’t see them. It turned out that they were howler monkeys greeting the day. Everything was so alive here. It was thrilling!  We looked forward to our Costa Rican breakfast of Gallo pinto (a tasty rice and beans dish), the most delicious pineapple, mango, and other fresh fruits, and wonderful Costa Rican coffee. We loved trying fruits that we didn’t have at home: cashew fruit, granadina, rambutan, guanabana, guava, lemons that looked like limes on the outside and oranges on the inside. We tried everything that was different. We went zip-lining, flying high over the rainforest on a wire, and we went on a raft trip where we saw an incredible number of different species of birds, monkeys, etc. We rode horses again, but this time to a place where we could hike to a waterfall. Later we soaked in warm, natural hot springs surrounded by beautiful vegetation. This trip was turning out to be a great bonding experience, and Collin got to see my more adventurous side that he probably didn’t know I had. We noticed that we hadn’t even thought about TV, computers, or cell phones since we got there. Being surrounded by nature and beauty and having conversations with new people was much more entertaining. Every day we learned more about the natural world, and more about the lives of Costa Ricans.

costa rica joyful heart travel costa rica joyful heart travel

Somewhere along the way we got into a traffic jam. There must have been an accident ahead, because traffic was not moving at all. Once we realized we weren’t going anywhere, Alejandro turned towards us with a big smile, and started asking questions to get to know us better. Other Costa Ricans were getting out of their cars, chatting and laughing with the others who were stuck. It was like an opportunity for an impromptu party. No one was honking their horns or getting impatient like we do at home.

costa rica joyful heart travelUp until now we had stayed in small lodges in the center of the country that had a lot of Costa Rican charm and were surrounded by nature. Everything seemed so natural. But for the last leg of our journey, we were going back to Guanacaste to stay in an all-inclusive hotel near the beach. This hotel was a massive compound. Our room was nice, in a chain hotel kind of way, and there was a huge pool and entertainment in the evenings. It was all you could eat and all you could drink, but there were long lines of people for everything. The beach was nice, but we were back in the dry area of the country. You really couldn’t leave the hotel on your own because there was nothing around, and we couldn’t see anything outside of it. We could have been in Florida for all we knew. They offered day trips to Arenal, San Jose, etc., but those involved 8-10 hours of round-trip driving in one day and very little time to enjoy. We had fun, but we both agreed that isolated, all-inclusive hotels were not the way to see another country. For us there was no point in flying all the way to Costa Rica just to stay in a hotel, so we were glad that we got to experience what the rainforest and countryside had to offer. We loved Costa Rica — it seeped into our bones and long after we returned home we kept dreaming of that great green jewel of a country. I had no idea then that we’d go back again and again.

I have a lot of information on specific areas of Costa Rica, so please read my other posts. If you have any questions, leave them in the comments section.


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