The Happiest Place in the World

Pura vida — that’s Costa Rica. Translated, it means “pure life,” but it is more — it’s like our “cool,” or the Jamaican “don’t worry, be happy.” It means “life is good,” and in Costa Rica, that’s usually the case. You’ll hear the words regularly, as a greeting, farewell, or just a friendly gesture.

The astonishingly lush Central American nation is an idyllic paradise, replete with meandering Pacific and Caribbean coastlines, emerald-green mountainous and volcanic backdrops, and impossibly dense jungles and rainforests. Its people, affectionately called Ticos, are generous with their smiles and joie de vivre — or in this case, pura vida.

After an easy landing at Liberia International Airport in the west, my husband, Mark Rush, and I set off on a beautiful journey (on good roads) with our guide and driver to the rainforest in the Arenal Volcano region, about 3 1/2 hours by car. Our first sighting of the famed volcano was through the morning mist, with the panoramic 33-mile Lake Arenal in the forefront. The volcano, which last erupted in 2010 and is now in a resting phase, towers like a giant, kelly green pyramid over the jungle. This area is a hot tourist destination, with many hotels and inns, but the “grande dame” is The Springs Resort & Spa, owned by a dynamic American hotelier/Renaissance man who has crafted a virtual Garden of Eden.

We splashed, played, and lolled about in the resort’s 23 landscaped hot-spring-fed pools and waterfalls. The property’s adventure park, Club Rio, includes a wildlife preserve (home to pumas, ocelots, monkeys, and more), tubing and kayaking on the Class I, II, and III rapids in the winding river, and horseback riding up the hills, along with a nature walk and a few lovely private thermal pools. One afternoon, we actually fell asleep in one of them, lulled by the sounds of the river, the adjacent waterfall, and the soothing warm water. It all felt like a scene from the movie Blue Lagoon without the bad acting.

The adrenaline-racing highlight of our visit to the Arenal area was the waterfall rappelling (also known as canyoning) rainforest adventure with PureTrek, founded in 2001 and owned by a California woman. Something I never dreamed of doing at home became a reality as we literally rappelled down three waterfalls (the highest at 170 feet) and one dry canyon wall with the help of expert guides and the support of other intrepid travelers. My advice? Never look down!

Like half of all tourists to Costa Rica, we also visited the Guanacaste province’s Pacific Coast, where we stayed at the Westin Playa Conchal, which boasts spacious, gorgeous landscaping and an oversized, exquisite pool. Upon arrival, we were charmed by a mapache (Spanish for raccoon), standing on the terrace outside our room. Throughout our trip, we’d spot more of them, along with cuddly coatimundis (a relation of the raccoon), sloths, white-faced Capuchin and spider monkeys, exotic birds (even a toucan in flight), and numerous other tropical creatures.

Our noses filled with the fragrances of jasmine and the sultry warm night air, and the ocean mist refreshed our cheeks. Sounds of crickets and the din of frogs sang us to sleep each night. Our forays into the rainforest countryside recalled a tropical patchwork quilt. We saw huge fields of sugar cane, with white plumes billowing in the breeze, Brahma cattle lazing in the sun, and lemon, grapefruit, orange, papaya, star fruit, and mango trees. Living bouquets of purple, pink, and orange bougainvillea and hibiscus are everywhere.

Zip lines, or canopy tours, have been around for a long time as a transport system, but their booming success as recreation and tourism adventures began in Costa Rica. About an hour from our hotel on Playa Conchal in Guanacaste lies Adventures Buenavista, which hosts one of the biggest zip lines (10 cables, 11 platforms) in Costa Rica, as well as horseback riding, hot springs, a water slide, 16 bridge aerial trails, and an eco-lodge, all set on 2,000 acres bordering the Rincón de la Vieja National Park. Buenavista offers day packages to those not staying at the eco-lodge, which includes several activities as well as a traditional (and tasty) buffet lunch.

Costa Rica advertises itself as a feast for the five senses. You’ll see, feel, smell, taste, and hear the pura vida in everything you see and do. No wonder the nation won the prize for the “happiest place in the world,” according to a 2009 study conducted by the Britain-based New Economics Foundation. Come and see for yourself!

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