It means “pure life” and you hear it everywhere in Costa Rica. Because the ethos of the warm, easygoing Tico people is to be positive, appreciate nature’s wonders… just live.
And after visiting their peaceful and breathtakingly beautiful Central American country, I understand why.
Costa Rica was once a banana republic famous for fine coffee. But 72 years ago it abolished its army to spend defence funding on education, healthcare and the environment and is now one of the most eco-friendly, biodiverse nations on the planet.
It’s a slice of paradise where tourists can marvel at cloud forests, rainforests, mangrove swamps, 142 volcanoes, hot springs, amazing beaches, eco-lodges, swanky resorts, fascinating culture, fab food and drink and thrills aplenty – all in an area the size of Denmark.
That’s before you even get started on the wildlife: half a million different species including 926 types of birds, 240 mammals, 300,000 types of insect and incredible plants.
And, of course, they have sloths – the lovable, languorous, hairy tree-hangers I’d dreamed of seeing in the wild.
We flew into the capital, San José, and spent our first night at the Xandari Resort and Spa at nearby Alajuela. The 40-acre former coffee plantation has lovely villas furnished with traditional art and mosaics and the most incredible views.
We set off early the next morning for the quaint town of Sarchi, famous for its handicrafts and brightly coloured ox carts.
And after a stunning three-hour drive up through the Central Valley, we arrived at the Senda Monteverde eco-hotel – the first of three “sustainable luxury” resorts we would stay at, all part of the Cayuga Collection (cayugacollection.com).
The stylish lodges set in lush gardens were the perfect base from which to explore the misty magic of the cloud forest and we set off straightaway for a night walk.
Standing in the pitch dark listening to the creaking, croaking and screeching all around was wonderful.
An expert guide with a powerful torch and a scope pointed out an array of fascinating birds and animals with colourful, evocative names…three-wattled bellbird, orange-bellied trogon, violet sabrewing hummingbird, rufous-eyed stream frog, side-striped palm-pit viper.
And then we spotted her – a two-toed sloth, dangling from a tree with a baby hanging on to her belly. Another tick on the bucket list.
Sadly we never got to see a resplendent quetzal, the dazzling green bird with long tail-feathers that twitchers consider one of the most beautiful in the world.
They’ve rarely been bred in captivity and locals believe they die of a broken heart if caged. No wonder the free-spirited Costa Ricans revere them.
The next day we got to marvel at the forest canopy from above, on the brilliant Sky Trek zip-line tour.
A cable car took us 5,250ft up one of the highest mountains in the Central Divide from which, without the thick clouds, we’d have seen the Pacific coast on one side and the Caribbean on the other.
For two adrenaline-filled hours, we zoomed for miles along 11 different lines, screaming our heads off. It was fabulous fun.
Throughout the holiday we had a superb driver, Willie Quiros, and guide Vinicio Viquez from Il Viaggio Travel. Vini is a biologist with an encyclopedic knowledge of and infectious passion for his country’s wonders.
And there are few sights more wonderful than watching olive ridley sea turtles hatching on the beach at dawn.
We visited the Ostional Wildlife Refuge in Guanacaste Province – one of 28 national parks – during the mass migration that sees up to 20,000 females coming ashore to lay eggs.
Vini explained that the heat of the sand determines the babies’ sex. They hatch after 45 days and find their way to the ocean, picking up mineral “directions” from the sand. And the apparently arduous journey is essential to develop the muscles in their flippers so they can swim.
After the early morning trip we returned for breakfast at our next hotel, The Harmony, on the surfers’ paradise beach at Nosara.
It’s set in lush greenery where you mingle with hummingbirds and monkeys and can enjoy yoga classes and spa treatments. And the food is fantastic – as it was everywhere we ate in Costa Rica.
Ceviche – raw fish or shrimps marinated in lime juice – is a national speciality, as are patacones – crispy fried plantain with various toppings.
And who knew you could get a pork scratching salad? The crunchy morsels are called chifrijo, and are absolutely scrummy.
From Nosara we headed to the Nicoya Peninsula, one of the world’s five “blue zones”, which boasts one of the highest human longevity rates in the world. Experts say it’s down to their plant-based diet with lots of locally-grown fruit and the relaxed “Pura Vida” attitude.
In a cafe we met Roy, 80, who looked about 50, who put it down to eating corn tortillas and dancing.
Our last stop was at the beautiful little beach village of Santa Teresa, where we checked into the chic but wonderfully laid-back Latitude 10 Resort.
I stayed in one of the five gorgeous open-air casitas set in a shady rainforest and could step out of bed and walk a few steps on to the long, sandy, deserted beach.
I made friends with a huge iguana who hung out on a tree next to the front door and watched Big Bird, the resident tiger heron, strutting her stuff.
My huge four-poster bed was draped in mosquito nets to keep the little critters away and we were told not to leave any food out as coatis – white faced racoon-like animals – tended to come in and help themselves.
It also has the best sundowner spot I’ve ever experienced and sipping a chilled glass of wine while staring at the glorious red and orange sky was just heaven.
Next morning we spent four hours quad-biking – a thrilling experience exploring the beaches and forest and crossing rivers.
And in the afternoon as my pals had a surfing lesson (I’m a rubbish swimmer) I went horse riding through the surf.
Returning to Latitude I had a dip, another sundowner and an excellent massage.
Then we all tucked into a fantastic dinner and some delicious wine in the Clubhouse Restaurant.
The next day I took a stroll along the beach at sunrise, then headed back for a leisurely shower in my amazing outdoor bathroom.
The howler monkeys were just waking up too and calling in the trees above me.
And I’m sure that they were screaming “pura vida” too.
British Airways flies from Gatwick to San José, Costa Rica, from £463 return (ba.com; 0844 493 0787).
Rooms at the Xandari Resort and Spa start from £174 (xandari.com).
Rooms at the Senda Monteverde hotel start from £201 (sendamonteverde.com).
Rooms at The Harmony hotel start from £240 (harmonynosara.com).
Rooms at the Latitude 10 Resort start from £224 a night (latitude10resort.com).
More info at visitcostarica.com
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