This article was originally published in a 2020 print issue of Canadian Traveller magazine.
In North America, we are barraged with the many options and opinions of what constitutes living a healthy, well-rounded life. We take bizarre workout classes, follow online wellness influencers and jump on every trend from Keto to cannabis. So, when the opportunity to visit Costa Rica and immerse myself in a wellness adventure came across my desk, naturally, I accepted.
In Costa Rica, I’d learn wellness is about immersing yourself in nature – no Goop guide necessary. The approach is different than North American, marketable wellness; it’s about relationships, eating from the land and authentic spirituality.
Yes, there were juice bars. And while yoga studios, vegan food trucks and smoothie shops have a purpose and a place in the evolution of its cultural landscape, my mission was to understand the people native to Costa Rica, how they thrive and what makes them some of the healthiest, happiest people in the world.
HERE’S SOME INTERESTING TRIVIA about Costa Rica that might help you understand just how peaceful this country is at its core; Costa Rica has not had an army since 1948; 30 per cent of Costa Rica is made up of protected natural land; and the Nicoya Peninsula hosts the largest Blue Zone in the world.
WHAT IS A BLUE ZONE? A Blue Zone is a region in which the inhabitants commonly live past the age of 100. There are only five of them in the world. In addition to the Nicoya Peninsula there is also Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy; Icaria, Greece; and the Seventh-day Adventists in Loma Linda, California.
I ARRIVED IN SAN JOSE by way of Mexico City and was instantly greeted with an I-can’t-believe-I’m-already sweating humidity hug. I wasn’t complaining; my trip was scheduled smack in the middle of the rainy season. Lucky for me, I got to spend my first hour in Costa Rica taking in the sunshine and marveling at the lush greenery enveloping the highway out of Alajuela and into the city of Naranjo.
A hairpin turn off the highway and up a steep driveway, I arrived at Chayote Lodge, perched on what felt like the top of the clouds. The lodge sits on a coffee plantation, overlooking a sprawling farm, framed by a far-off city skyline. I was led to my accommodations, one of 12 little cabins punctuated by large windows and a private deck overlooking the property’s acreage.
Chayote Lodge (Recibidor Suite)Chayote Lodge (Recibidor Suite balcony)Chayote Lodge (Restaurant)Chayote Lodge
For dinner, the lodge’s restaurant served classic and comforting Costa Rican fare in beautiful, generous portions; arroz con pollo, heaping scoops of beans, rice and, of course, fried plantains. It should be noted for the modern traveller that the traditional Costa Rican meal isn’t much to look at. Instagrammability isn’t a cause for concern; the key here is balance.
ON MY FIRST FULL DAY in Costa Rica, post-yoga and coffee farm tour, I visited Doña Elida’s house: a sweet old woman who opens her door to tourists who are interested in learning how to bring local cuisine back home.
In her kitchen, I shuffled around the wood-burning stove, learning how to make a traditional Costa Rican lunch in broken Spanglish, taking turns making rice, frying plantains and prepping the salad. The simple afternoon was a perfect manifestation of the values of Costa Rica’s generous people: time spent together, working with your hands and sharing a nourishing, balanced meal.
NEXT, I SAID GOODBYE TO Chayote Lodge and loaded into a van headed for Nosara, Costa Rica’s beach, surf and yoga epicentre, perhaps best known for coining the famous Pura Vida catchphrase.
Something to digest before travelling to Nosara is that Pura Vida should not be confused with a marketing slogan. Translating directly to “the simple life,” Pura Vida is also a greeting. It’s a thank-you; it’s a gesture; it’s a mindset that drives a way of life so beautifully different from North America. It’s no wonder so many tourists visit and then stay. When visiting Nosara, let Pura Vida roll off your tongue every chance you get; you’ll be better for it.
After a five-hour drive from Naranjo to Nosara (a highlight is crossing the Tempisque River, surrounded by Palo Verde National Park), I arrived at Lagarta Lodge, greeted with a eucalyptus steam towel and, of course, a soothing “Pura Vida.”
Lagarta LodgeLagarta Lodge
Lagarta Lodge is one of those places I thought I’d only ever see on my Instagram explore page. From the hotel’s restaurant overlook, I drink in a view of the sweeping ocean at Playa Guiones and, just a few steps below the property, a nature reserve owned by the folks at Lagarta Lodge. In the centre of the property are two glorious infinity pools, best enjoyed with a side of Nosara’s electric sunsets. The soundtrack at Lagarta Lodge comes courtesy of the resident monkeys – they’re cheeky things, I discovered. Be sure to lock the doors to your suite or you might wake up to a monkey trying to invite himself in like I did.
At Lagarta, I got serious about wellness. I practiced forest bathing with my guide, Manuela Siegred, took morning yoga classes and, led by one of Lagarta’s wilderness guides, floated gently down a river in a kayak.
Lagarta Lodge (Yoga Studio)Lagarta Lodge (Panorama Room)Lagarta Lodge (Flor Blanca)
In Nosara’s quaint beach town, travellers can take a stroll through artisanal boutiques, grab a bite at a café or raw vegan food truck, pop into a yoga class at one of the world-renowned studios (my Yin class at the Harmony Hotel was a divine experience) or snag a pint of craft beer – at a surf shop, no less. I dined at La Luna for gorgeous Mediterranean fare, a welcome break from gallo pinto. Steps from the La Luna patio is the beautiful Playa Pelada; in the evening, the crashing waves are the only music the restaurant needs.
Wandering the main strip made for a nice afternoon, though I couldn’t ignore that Nosara, quite obviously, is a melting pot of locals and expats. As a visitor working consciously to decolonize my travel, I was conflicted in seeing just how much obvious whiteness had weaved into Nosara’s culture. There’s a pizza place next to a boutique selling $200 bikinis, an artisanal store run by locals next to a pricey surf shop. It was an arresting experience that I hadn’t witnessed at such volume in any other Latin American country. I wondered whether Costa Rica’s irresistible prescription for Blue Zone vitality carried with it a side effect: appropriation.
But what I learned from my brief window of observation is that in Costa Rica, in contrast to the other Latin American countries I have visited and lived in – Peru, Argentina and Chile, to name a few – is that the residents and the newcomers share a mutual respect like nowhere else: a deep care for the environment and a commitment to keeping Pura Vida just that.
Throughout my trip, I felt a nurturing sense of safety in this country. Everywhere from the sodas (small, traditional restaurants) to the dance floor at a local haunt, the people were warm, gentle and eager to show me what it means to enjoy life.
On my last night, back in Alajuela, I unplugged and reflected on the week. Wellness in Costa Rica, as it occurred to me, is about taking care of Mother Earth and all her inhabitants; the simple life, indeed. If you’re looking to refuel, reset and get in touch with the natural world, Costa Rica and the Pura Vida are waiting for you.
When you go
1. Add your reusable cup, metal straw and bamboo cutlery to your packing list; Costa Rica is committed to reducing waste and as a visitor, you should be too.
2. Insect repellent is your best friend. Pack generously.
3. Costa Rica’s dry season runs from late November to late April and coincides with its visitor high season. Travelling between May and mid-November means fielding tropical showers, but the landscape radiates in hues of emerald green.
4. If you’re flying home out of San Jose, treat yourself to one last night of serenity at the Asclepios Wellness & Healing Retreat in Alajuela. The Mediterranean theme at Asclepios is unique from most other places you will visit in Costa Rica. The goal here is relaxation, sans cell phones. Rooms don’t have Wi-Fi for that very reason, so unplug and indulge in a Turkish steam bath.