Back in 1997, my wife and I were married in the sunny glass-covered atrium of the Don Carlos Hotel in San José, Costa Rica. The hotel provided a musician who played keyboards and a notary public who handled the paperwork and shared with us the bottle of champagne the hotel included in the wedding package.
Then we hit the road for a 10-day drive around the country in a little four-wheel-drive SUV.
It is still one of the most memorable trips of my life.
I learned the right way to get lost when my wife introduced me to the concept of taking off in the morning without a set destination—or even a particular route—just a general direction. I’m obsessive enough that this was a tough one for me, but worth it. It served me well in the years to come.
I learned what four-wheel-drive vehicles are really for. Back then, Costa Rica didn’t have the lovely coastal highway or the well-engineered route from San José in the central highlands down to the coast. We spent considerable time on what the locals referred to as “monkey roads.” After being on a few of them, I figured they earned the name because the packs of howlers swinging over them in the towering trees above were making much better time than we were actually driving them.
I learned what a real surf shack was. We stayed in more than a few in the little towns along the Pacific coast that were—and still are—meccas for board jockeys catching the perfect waves in the jungled half-moon bays that rim the broad sandy stretches the ocean has sculpted all along Costa Rica’s Pacific coast. Think moonlit nights around fires on the beach with ice-cold beers, listening to the crashing surf. Yes, it was just as incredible as is sounds.
I also learned that Costa Rica got rid of its standing army in 1949. That the country made a conscious effort to preserve its astounding natural environments and base much of its economy on sharing those environments with the rest of the world.
And in the ensuing years I learned that the groundwork Costa Rica was laying back when Suzan and I were starry-eyed newlyweds wandering through its lush landscapes had paid off in spades.
Today Costa Rica is a country that regularly tops polls of the most energy efficient, most environmentally aware, and happiest places on earth.
And I’m reminded of this every year, because Costa Rica is also one of the most popular places for people from the U.S. and Canada to retire, which means that every year, Suzan and I get to go back for the annual International Living conference in San José.
Some people like to renew their wedding vows every now and then. For Suzan and me, these yearly International Living events in Costa Rica are like reliving our wedding and honeymoon on an annual basis.
Costa Rica has only improved in the years since we were married, and we can mark that improvement every time we go back. I mentioned the new coastal highway—it has opened up the entire southern part of the country and put it within a day’s easy drive of the capital. The country is now nearly carbon neutral in its energy production. It has diversified its economy to include financial and high-tech businesses along with its thriving tourism industry. It has one of the most affordable and progressive public healthcare systems in the Western Hemisphere.
And it still hasn’t been involved in a war—of any kind, with anybody—since 1948, the date it became a democracy.
I’m glad I have a chance to return to Costa Rica as often as I do. Every year I marvel at the place Suzan and I were married, and every year I wonder if this is the year we decide to stay. There are a couple places in Costa Rica where I fantasize about having a little farm or seaside condo and finally making this country home for a while.
I’ve been fantasizing about this ever since Suzan and I left the Don Carlos hotel in that little SUV and saw all the things Costa Rica has to offer. Maybe someday. Maybe today?