The tiny two-prop plane weaved and bobbed on an updraft as it began its fluttering descent onto the runway. From the tiny windows, the scenery during our 50-minute flight from San José had been spectacular…lush green hillsides and meandering rivers, and few population centers to speak of. (Costa Rica claims the highest density of protected, reserved, and national park land of any country, home to a half-million species of plants and animals.)
As the plane tottered to a stop at the end of the runway, the passenger in front of me (12 of us stuffed like Vienna sausages in a small can) muttered a soft “Pura Vida” and swiftly brushed a sign of the cross over his chest.
Early mornings spent lazing in the hammock.
It was the same phrase used by the airport desk agent in San José after weighing my luggage, when he motioned me to join it on the scale. “We need to know your combined weight.” Then, seeing the look on my face, “It will be our secret.”
Pura Vida is a catch-all phrase in Costa Rica…hello, goodbye, thank you, you’re welcome, have a nice day, who cares, don’t let it bother you. Literally translated as “pure life” or “good life,” it pretty much means, “everything’s great.”
And that “don’t-worry-be-happy” state of mind is absolutely what we were after on this trip, our first seaside vacation since well before the pandemic. Our mission: To kick back, relax, and do nothing more than explore as many as possible of the dozen distinct bays and beaches tucked along the Gulf of Papagayo between the hilly headlands of the Santa Elena Peninsula to the north and Cabo Velas to the south.
Out of the airport and into our rental car, we beelined for the nearest beach, Playas del Coco, a short and easy 25-minute drive away. We were soon in our beach togs and digging into plates heaped with calamari and shrimp-fried rice, at the waterfront El Ancla restaurant, ice cold cervezas in hand.
In the sport of people watching, this front-and-center viewpoint didn’t disappoint. Smiling locals with happy kids swinging Tarzan-like from the vines of a huge Banyan tree, rosy-skinned tourists in sunhats and flip flops, expat residents with misbehaving dogs…all out to soak up the warm sunshine and pretty seaside views.
“Pura Vida,” said the waitress as we left. Next up, a stop for supplies…dark roasted Costa Rican coffee and some fruit for breakfast, and cheese, crackers, beer and wine for stargazing.
Set back from the beach, the town of Coco is the commercial and nightlife hub of this stretch of the Gulf of Papagayo, a small part of the 400-mile Pacific coastline along the Nicoya Peninsula otherwise known as Costa Rica’s “Gold Coast.”
After collecting the keys to the superluxe condo we’d call home for the next five days, we headed up the hill. Up, up, up a winding, rutted road we drove, at what seemed at times like impossible upward angles, thankful we’d rented a 4×4.
“Pura Vida,” said my husband Dan.
The drive—which at least one of us secretly enjoyed—more than paid off with the super-sized, can’t-look-away view from the condo terrace. Miles and miles and miles of the bluest-blue ocean, a smattering of small verdant islands off in the distance and beyond them the Santa Elena Peninsula and even farther, a hazy Nicaragua.
It was hard to tear ourselves from that never-ending view. Early mornings were spent lazing in the hammock and late afternoons in the saltwater infinity pool we had all to ourselves. Most evenings found us nursing a bottle of wine, mesmerized by the sinking sun.
A couple of times, though, we did manage to get out and catch the sunset view from a beachfront table at Father Rooster’s Bar and Grill, the only real commercial enterprise at Playa Ocotal, just five minutes down the hill.
With black volcanic sands that sparkle like tiny diamonds in the sunlight, Ocotal is a designated “Blue Flag” beach, meaning it’s one of the country’s cleanest. There are barely any waves here, perfect for wading and swimming, especially if—like me— you’re not a fan of pounding surf.
Nearly all the beaches along the Gulf of Papagayo, in fact, claim this kind of languid, lazy-wave persona. For surfing beaches, you’ll need to venture farther south along the Nicoya Peninsula, to Tamarindo, Nosára, and Sámara.
Lusciously green (in the rainy season) tree-covered cliffs wrap their arms around Ocotal’s small crescent bay, with rocky outcroppings on either end that, at low tide, expose small tide pools busy with tiny fish, crabs, sea stars, and more. At high tide, this makes for excellent snorkeling, and you can rent gear from a local guy on the beach…when he’s there, that is.
Don’t miss Father Rooster’s for sunset cocktails. And stay for dinner. Candle-lit tables on the sand, fresh ceviche, yummy coconut shrimp or the catch-of-the-day, cold cervezas or fresh-squeezed fruit juices with a splash of rum or gin…accompanied by a soothingly calm, jazzy soundtrack…
I opted for (what else?) a Pura Vida Fizz—watermelon and lime juice splashed with gin. And what did the waiter say as he parked it on the table? Yep. “Pura Vida.”
By then, we were easing into this beach life thing quite nicely. Scientists say it’s a proven fact that being near the ocean increases happiness and puts you into an altered Zen-like meditative state. It’s something called “Blue Mind.” And we had it.
We did, though, rouse ourselves from the hammock long enough to do a bit of exploring. Some of the nearby beaches, including a few of the smaller white-sand beaches, are difficult to access by car. But we were able to drive right to the edge of the popular Playas Panamá, Hermosa, and del Coco. Wide and expansive, with honey-colored sand, these ooze local flavor. Families barbecue and picnic beneath the shady trees lining the sand with few worries about their kids playing in the warm, gentle surf.
Plenty of small fishing boats bob the shallow waters here, too, waiting for anglers in search of yellowfish tuna, marlin, and trophy-rated sailfish and roosterfish. Fishing is good here anytime, we were told, but particularly during the dry season (and high tourist season) from December to April.
The secret, though, is that rainy season is the best time to visit—from May to November. Rain is sporadic and often at night…only once did it come down during our visit. Rainy season is when the hillsides turn flush with greenery and you literally can’t see your neighbors or any of the impressive homes and condos tucked into the hillsides for all the growth. Shrubs and trees blossom with flowers and pop with delectable fruits you’ve likely never seen before. Rambutans—called mamónes chinos in Costa Rica—were in season during our visit. We bought a kilo of the red spiky fruit from a roadside vendor for 1,000 colones (about $1.50).
The rich foliage brought colorful (and not at all shy) birds to the trees off our terrace. And twice during our stay, a family of Howler monkeys joined us for Happy Hour, flitting among the green branches and entertaining us with their antics and their very loud roars. Did we find Pura Vida? Most definitely.
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