Livin' La Pura Vida PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Tuesday, 23 March 2010 21:08

Cancun, Panama City and Miami are some of the traditional university break destination spots, but Costa Rica?

This Latin American country, with its high level of biodiversity, has been a tourist destination for years. Now, with ticket prices cheaper than some domestic flights, its popularity among university students is growing.

For $280 and a passport stamp, the door to a tropical paradise opened for me and my roommates during our UW-Madison winter break. A few weeks after booking our 10-day trip, we realized we knew about 20 other university students who were planning the same vacation.

We arrived a few days after New Year's. After spending a night in Costa Rica's capital city of San Jose, we headed to Monteverde, a town founded by American Quakers in the 1950s who were escaping the Korean War draft.

Straddling the continental divide, Monteverde is surrounded by a cloud forest reserve with more than 100 mammal species, 400 species of birds and tens of thousands of insect species. Zip-lining through the canopy of the cloud forest is the best way to experience it.

Monteverde's Selvatura Park ($35 student, $45 others) has 15 zip-line cables, amounting to about two miles of cable that slice through and above the top layer of the cloud forest's canopy. The longest zip-line, at about 3,280 feet, shoots riders over the top of the canopy.

On our other day in Monteverde, we took a self-guided tour of the cloud forest on paths near the Estacion Biologica Monteverde. These trails are free and open to the public between Dec. 15 and Feb. 20 - the rest of the year they are used by researchers and students.

Next, we headed to the Arenal volcano, which is near the town of La Fortuna and has been active since the 1960s. To our disappointment, we visited the volcano on a rainy night, so our tour consisted of a guide taking us to a bridge and pointing in the darkness to what supposedly was a volcano.

The tour then dropped us off at the Baldi Hot Springs Resort Hotel & Spa. The hot springs are essentially an open-air, heated pool surrounded by a restaurant and bar. While the atmosphere is relaxing, it takes a conscious effort to remember that the heat comes from a volcano, which is what makes the experience unique.

The whole tour package costs $85, including the transportation from Monteverde to Arenal, the volcano and hot springs tour and a night at the hostel. It might be a good investment, but check the weather first. You can also take a hiking or horseback riding tour to see the volcano with various tour companies.

Beach life

With an urgent need for warm weather and to escape the constant rain we had in Monteverde and La Fortuna, a friend and I left our larger group and headed to Tamarindo, a beach town on the northern Pacific coast of Costa Rica. Last year, my sister spent nearly seven months in Tamarindo. When I arrived, I began to understand why: The beach is beautiful, speckled with surfers, sunbathers and groups of kids playing soccer, and there is a party atmosphere, with ladies night almost every night at one of the local establishments.

The town has several bars, with each one taking a turn as the popular go-to spot on a certain night of the week. The Crazy Monkey, with an ocean view and a poolside bar, is Friday night's popular spot; Babylon, an open-air reggae bar, is Saturday's destination. Both had live music when we were there.

Nearly the whole town follows these weekly rituals, as do visitors. I even ran into a friend from my high school, Madison Memorial, who happened to be in Costa Rica at the same time.

Another ritual comes at bar time, when vendors appear with grilled chicken skewers to entice those hungry from a night of dancing. They were so delicious it was easy to fantasize about them the next day at the beach, and they became a big part of our diet.

Apart from the chicken skewers, our diet for the week consisted of gallo pinto, considered the national dish of Costa Rica. It's a fried mixture of beans and rice with spices, onions and peppers. We also ate a lot of eggs, tortillas and plantains, and drank Imperials, a Costa Rican lager.

Hostel environment

The Tamarindo Coral Reef Hostel ($10) housed us for four nights. It had a social atmosphere, was centrally located and was our favorite hostel of the trip. While it would not fit every traveler's needs - the co-ed room we stayed in had no locks and we left Tamarindo with bumps all over our bodies that looked suspiciously like bed-bug bites - it had the relaxed feel we were seeking. Tamarindo Backpackers hostel ($12), a 10-minute walk from the downtown area, had a few more perks, including an outdoor pool and air-conditioned rooms.

Jaco, a Pacific coastal city, was our last stop. Only about an hour and a half from San Jose, it's a popular destination for both tourists and Costa Ricans. The main beach was more crowded, polluted and less picturesque than Tamarindo's, but still nice.

The hostel where we stayed, Hotel De Haan ($15), offered beginner's surf lessons ($30) that one of my roommates took. The lesson, which lasted a few hours, began with a tutorial on the beach to learn how to paddle and stand on the board. The instructor then followed the students into the water and taught them how to identify waves to attempt to surf. Everybody caught a wave and surfed during the lesson and the boards were theirs for the day to practice.

I opted out of the lesson after several warnings that surfers should remember to cover their face when falling to avoid losing front teeth. Lying on the beach was fine for me.

‘Pure life'

While plane tickets to Costa Rica can be a good deal, costs for in-country travel might add up. The public bus is inexpensive, but spending an entire day in transit from one city to the next can have little appeal. The other options are in-country flights, renting a car or private shuttles available for about $35 per trip. The rides through the country can actually be as enjoyable as any other part of the trip - a chance to see the vast variety of landscapes, from mountains to beaches.

Another cost to remember is the exit tax (around $25) that must be paid at the airport before leaving the country.

During our travels, we met mostly Canadian and Argentine tourists. I don't speak Spanish, but I was able to practice my French, to my surprise, with quite a few French-speaking Canadians. Spanish would have been helpful; we met many people who did not speak English. Even so, we were able to move around without any problems.

With a larger budget, I would have visited some of Costa Rica's national parks, such as Corcovado National Park, Tortuguero National Park and Carara National Park, with specialty attractions like sea turtle nesting tours or whale watching. Taking a coffee tour also would have been interesting, offering the chance to visit a local coffee farm to learn the cultivation and processing methods for preparing the beans.

Our short time in Costa Rica was enough to learn the local motto: "Pura vida." The most frequent phrase we heard from Costa Rican residents, it means "pure life."

It was an easy mindset to embrace, helping me to forget the frigid weather and work that awaited back home.