Costa Rica ranked as the Happiest Place on Earth, on the Happy Planet Index, a survey conducted by the New Economics Foundation. Ecological footprint and a sense of well-being and life expectancy of its population are what is most measured and of the countries in the world, Costa Rica outranks them all.
I had to wonder, “Is it really true?” So I asked every Tico (local term for Costa Rican) I could, “Why do you think Costa Rica ranked as the happiest place on Earth, and is it your reality?”
Some had no clue such a survey existed, some did, and everyone had an opinion to share. Some were poetic:
“We live in this beautiful country, full of greenery and fertile land. Our people are joyous and no daily problem can ever bring us down!“
Some were more realistic:
“Well, I wonder if that survey took into account how the people feel with the recent outcome of our latest political elections. Or if it took into account the lack of quality care and empathy in our socialized medical system.“
But, no one denied that there is reason to be happy, despite the limitations of what my eyes could see while I traveled from the Northern part of the country to its Southern coast.
“Despite the humble homes and rough exteriors, inside are families who, despite lacking the financial wealth of some, have jobs, are able to feed their children, have clean water, fresh crops not infected with pesticides and other chemicals known to cause deformations and disease, and we have access to clean water and air – for free. Inside these homes are families who very often have exactly what they need to make it through every day without concern. That, well, that is Pura Vida.”
I made it a point to embrace this philosophy which was contagious within my family – our children followed our lead and took on every experience with the purest of hearts and the insatiable curiosity and sense of adventure that lives within every child. I can honestly say that we did experience happiness, in various ways, throughout Costa Rica, and quite possibly a change within ourselves and in how we define such things in our daily lives – something so easily taken for granted.
We started our journey in the rain forest of the North, near the Caribbean Sea, in a town called Sarapiquí. This is about a 2.5 shuttle ride from the San Jose airport. We stayed two nights in La Quinta, an eco-lodge which is highly recognized by the Costa Rican Tourists Board with its Certification for Sustainable Tourism (CST). It also works closely with the community and local schools.
Though we were told they offer cooking classes and spa treatments, truth is the location where these would be hosted looked abandoned and in need of attention. In the “spa” we encountered several bats, which delighted my children most, and which we lovingly labeled the “spa bats”. The property itself is in need of care and maintenance, especially when you walk towards the back towards the small hiking trail and gardens they have.
The lodge offers warm cooked buffet-style meals (breakfast and dinner averages at about $15-$18 per person), as well as a la carte for lunch (with plates from $5.50 and up). Most people who stayed here were tours groups made up of nature photographers and the likes and this is because the area is such a wonderful place to nature- and bird-watch.
We enjoyed the in-house butterfly garden and were grateful to the staff who took us around to find the poisonous frogs and watch the cayman feast on lunch. Mosquito/bug spray is an absolute must, at all times. WiFi is available in the lobby and dining area. There are two pools, but the one near the dining area is the best.
We spent most of time here enjoying rainstorms or listening to the howler monkeys while laying in a hammock and slowly acclimating to life at a much slower pace. Despite lacking luster, this was a good kick-off in that it really helped us start with the basics of what traveling through Costa Rica can be like.
This was our first stop and we were still familiarizing ourselves with the area, so unfortunately, we didn’t do much here, but I would highly recommend taking part in the off site tours and water activities hosted at the nearby Sarapiquí River.
We really enjoyed the tour at this sustainable coffee co-op that serves to support the coffee growers in the area. Despite the massive rain storm that landed upon us, we all delighted in learning the process of farming coffee organically and walking through the rain forest where we got to see our first waterfall in the trip. They also have a small restaurant where you can enjoy a typical meal (casado) and a taste of their very own on site grown tilapia, as well as their coffee which is worth purchasing and bringing home – it is so good! The people who work here are very friendly and super laid back, and I am happy that this was our intro to Costa Rica because it set the tone for the wonderful experiences that followed.
Monteverde itself is undeniably one of the most beautiful areas to visit when in Costa Rica. Its Cloud Forest is worthy of endless photos and “oooh! ahhh!’ moments. To get here we took yet another shuttle for a couple of hours, followed by a 30-minute or so boat ride past the Arenal Volcano on Arenal Lake (a really wonderful destination to explore), and another 1.5 hours, up a very rocky, very bumpy road to Monteverde.
The Belmar was a step up from our first stay, the feeling and look of which was much more cared for, well-maintained, and well, beautiful.
Our room at Belmar was nice, with a great view of their vast garden through their wooden French doors and comfortable balcony. Though some rooms have a ceiling fan, ours did not. Another thing lacking were screens for the balcony doors which meant either leaving them open and inviting nature into your room (mostly beetles, moths, and other insects), or closing them out – which made the room hot.
Other than this detail, the overall stay was more comfortable and the full service restaurant a huge convenience, though I would highly recommend eating in town (about a 10 minute taxi ride – $4-$5) for much, much less expensive food that is really good and really authentic Tico. I recommend two local eateries: Sabor Tico and Tico Rico.
You must visit Selvatura Park, where you can select from a few activities, such as a guiding hike where experts will point out local wildlife and provide you will all sorts of interesting information about the area. Or you can go across the zip line through the Cloud Forest, and finish it off with a jump from the Tarzan swing – both of which we did as a family and had a blast!
Selvatura Park has a restaurant but it’s expensive and the food is really not good. We spent about $80 eating nothing fancy here and were disappointed. But, I say this only as a note of awareness because if you are spending all day at the park – which you can easily do as there is so much great stuff to do – you might not have a choice but to eat there as well.
This was the icing on the cake as far as our eco-lodging experiences go, and by far the most expensive. To get to Lapa Rios we took a few hours on a shuttle to a small airport where we flew for about 50 minutes, and then took another 40 minutes or so to the resort. Deeply nested in the rain forest of Southern Costa Rica, overlooking the Pacific ocean, Lapa Rios was pretty magical. This all-inclusive resort has a varied menu – though whatever the fish of the day is, is what you should have – and a nice list of excursions, some included, others at an extra cost.
The bungalows at Lapa Rios all include ceiling fans, as well as rooms with open windows, covered only in thick nets to separate you from the wildlife surrounding you. Sunrises here will steal your heart away and I recommend requested the 6AM coffee or hot chocolate service so that you can enjoy it from your balcony. Beds come with mosquitoes nets, and there is a seating area for playing games and cards, all of which are provided at the hotel. There’s a great pool as well, and though there is a beach about 15 minutes away by foot, it is a bit too rocky to enjoy a swim in.
After a hot night under the mosquito net, my husband and I decided to open the net up the next night and sleep with it open. All worked out well, except that on our last morning there, we noticed a scorpion (not deadly) had climbed up past me and was hanging on the net right over my head. Yup, it was time to go home, though Lapa Rios was by far my favorite eco-lodge stay.
We stayed here for 3 days and each day participated in one or more of the hikes offered through the resort. From bird watching, to night walks looking for snakes and frogs, to walking through forests in search of the perfect waterfall to jump off of and swim under – we did it all! We will not soon forget the incredible things we saw, heard and experienced here.
We traveled a lot through Costa Rica, but I highly recommend it as a way to see the country. I think it was great we got to stay in so many different levels and types of eco-lodges – and to see that conservation, sustainability and community outreach as a tourism concept can work, though it was clear some are doing a much better job at it than others.
Our adventure path through Costa Rica.
I am thankful for our visit which often times required an open mind and heart. Everywhere we went people were kind and friendly and happy to answer any question and provide any information we needed to further explore the area. The friendliness of the people was one thing that stood out everywhere, all the time, within the hotels and outside of them.
And, yes, the gift of happiness was strongly felt among us. As with every trip I take with my children, I walk away having learned something new about them, seeing a new side of them I never really noticed before. Of course there were moments when the little ones would need a break, but these were so few I came to really appreciate how much they have grown. And of course, bonding with the teen is always precious. My husband and I could not feel more grateful than we do now for the treasure gifted to us by Costa Rica Tourism and the people we met along the way.
When visiting Costa Rica, bring a sense of adventure, bug spray, a bathing suit, sunscreen, a back pack, comfortable walking/hiking shoes, and a willingness to embrace happiness in a totally new way. Only then can you really see the beauty of Costa Rica and experience Pura Vida.
There is a per person departure tax from Costa Rica. We lucked out in purchasing these at the smaller airport when we took the shuttle plane to and from Lapa Rios. If you have a chance to purchase these at a smaller airport, do it. The lines at the major airports can be awful.
Though it seemed getting into the country was a breeze, getting out is another matter. We all got checked, and our bags inspected, at least 4 times throughout our exiting transition. I had items smaller than the 3 oz limit in my bag pack and these were still confiscated, though not for my teen or husband – go figure. To smoothen this process, just pack everything and only carry on the bare essentials.
Always carry water bottles with you, and never drink from streams or running water in your nature walks. Though the water is clean, our bodies are not adjusted to bacteria found and can have an ill affect.
Most places accept dollars, but it is also a good idea to carry colones for cabs and local eateries not often frequented by tourists.
Don’t ever feed animals you encounter in the wild, or blindly grab onto tree trunks or branches.
Night walks/hikes should always be with an expert guide. Always.
Binoculars and flashlights come in handy often. There will be lots of bugs. Of all sizes. Most are not at all dangerous or harmful. It can be pretty unnerving at first, but in it can also be pretty awesome. How you choose to experience it is up to you.