This couldn't be the right way. An actual river was flowing across the road in front of our rental car. My girlfriend, Michelle, and I were deep in the wilds of Guanacaste, about an hour from Costa Rica's Pacific coast, when it materialized, like the opposite of a mirage: a not-insubstantial channel of muddy water blocking a distinctly insubstantial muddy road. A dense endlessness of palm-on-fern-on-orchid foliage pressed in from all sides, and every bit of earth and rock seemed to be coated in a sheen of luminous green moss. Aside from the rush of the water, all we could hear was the ha-ha! and hoo-wee-doo! taunts of tropical birds.
When we picked up our rental car at the airport that morning, the attendant had given us a long inventory of pitfalls to watch out for. But a río in the vía was not among them. Did we take a wrong turn somewhere? Our phones had long since lost reception, so we put the Nissan in reverse, retraced our steps, and swiftly confirmed there was no alternative route. "We can't possibly drive through that…. Can we?" Michelle mused, staring again at the rapids ahead of us. I got out and threw a rock into the river, trying to gauge its depth. It sank into the murk with an indeterminate splash. We looked at each other. "I guess let's see what happens?" she suggested as I got back into the driver's seat and fastened my seat belt. "Pura vida!" I replied, repeating the words the rental-car guy had waved us off with, and put the car into drive.
Anyone familiar with Costa Rica knows about pura vida. Something of a national slogan, its literal translation is "pure life." But the expression means much more than that to Ticos (as Costa Ricans call themselves). Pura vida is used as a greeting, both when saying hello and goodbye. It's also used as the equivalent of "cool" or "no worries." The deeper significance, however, refers to an experience of life as it truly is, accepting both the good and bad forces that course through it all.
I'd seen many references to pura vida over the years: artists describing the principle as their inspiration; burnouts wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the phrase. I found the concept deeply appealing, and while I wasn't about to get it tattooed on my neck, I was curious to know what would happen if I were to travel to Costa Rica in search of the pure life. When I ran the idea by Michelle, her response was simple: "If there are sloths, I'm in." If pura vida was my quarry, it was the three-toed perezoso — that cutest, weirdest, and most lethargic of all furry Central American creatures — that lured Michelle on the trip alongside me.
Aside from a lack of sloth sightings, our first day in Costa Rica had pretty much had it all. We'd observed an iguana the size of a grown man crawling huffily from the pavement, where it had been sunning itself, into the surrounding foliage. We'd looked on as emerald hummingbirds levitated before us in midair, before returning to their frenetic pursuit of the nectar contained by flowers the size of bodily organs. And we'd become accustomed to the fact that most trees would, at the slightest disturbance, reveal a group of clamorous howler monkeys or a pandemonium of rainbow-feathered parrots.
Costa Rica is home to a full 5 percent of the world's biodiversity, yet it occupies just 0.03 percent of its landmass. Even if you doubled this diminutive nation in size, it would still be smaller than the state of Kentucky. That compact scale makes it possible to take in a lot in a relatively short time. Still, Michelle and I had decided against getting too ambitious with our itinerary; that seemed contrary to the spirit of the trip. Instead, we planned to drive around the coastal reaches of Guanacaste province in the northwest, then make our way toward the Arenal Volcano region in the country's Technicolor interior, hitting as many hot springs, cloud forests, and waterfalls as possible along the way. But first we needed to get across this river.
Things started out easily enough: our car moved through the current gamely, even as the water grew deeper. We've got this, we told ourselves. But then, for one blood-thickening instant, we stopped. The chassis got wedged on a rock and the wheels struggled to find purchase. Was our engine cutting out? Just as I started getting legitimately freaked out, the Nissan gave a wrenching lurch forward, and in seconds we found ourselves on the far side of the river, essentially unscathed.
It was our first lesson in pura vida: the more challenging an obstacle, the greater the sense of exhilaration gained from overcoming it. Flush with a sense of accomplishment, we waved goodbye to the songbirds and zoomed off in the direction of the coast. The rest of the drive was spent in a state of giddy wonderment. Each bend seemed to open up a new ecosystem, from the wide plains that give Guanacaste province its nickname, La Pampa, to tropical rain forests with fluorescent-hued plants growing into and over and on top of one another. Cowboys still ply their ranching trade in this part of the country, and every so often we'd pass a cattle-herding sabanero on horseback, wearing a typical Costa Rican cowboy hat called a chonete and clasping a lasso or a machete. You could almost see the testosterone hanging over them like some kind of pheremonal mist.
It wasn't all manly-man vibes though. The region's famed corteza amarilla trees were in bloom, lighting up the landscape with their acid-yellow flowers. When we finally hit the Pacific Ocean, around an hour later, little butterflies that looked a lot like corteza amarilla petals were fluttering in the breeze over the turquoise waves. The air smelled like honey and coconut body lotion and boutiquey botanical herbs (was it ylang-ylang, or jasmine, or some bespoke combination of both?).
We were spending the next few nights in a beach community called Las Catalinas, a forward-thinking, car-free utopia being hewn from the hills between the Papagayo Peninsula and the well-trodden beaches of Potrero Bay. Las Catalinas is a small town (population 325, in high season) with a grand philosophy. Its guiding principle is that humans take pleasure from being immersed in nature — whether observing butterflies that mimic flowers, spotting a resplendent quetzal alighting in a tree, or simply not running over a dinosaur-size iguana. Guests can rent or buy villas, or breeze in for a drink or a bite, or just revel in the dramatic surroundings. The place also has a new, exquisitely designed boutique hotel called Casa Chameleon, perched on a rocky outcrop high above town.
The whole of Las Catalinas, and everyone in it, seems intent on redefining the meaning of living well. Juan Carlos Avelar, the town architect, told us more about his vision that evening, over passion-fruit cocktails made with Cacique Guaro, a local sugarcane spirit. "The idea is for people here to not feel isolated or have to get into a car to do whatever they need to do," he explained. Although it will take decades before Avelar's vision is fully realized, when I half-closed my eyes, I could picture what Las Catalinas could one day become — its residents free to step outside their swish, modern beach houses, interact with their neighbors, and have everything they need within walking distance. "To us, pura vida means enjoying nature and giving the best of ourselves to others," Avelar said.
The following morning, Michelle and I set off on an adventure with the mountain-bike team from Las Catalinas called — what else? — Pura Vida Ride. We'd selected a beginner course, thinking it would be a pleasure ride along a cleared trail. Instead, it ended up being a perilous jag up and down a narrow cliff-side path strewn with boulders. "The first time I came up on this trail, I fell so badly I couldn't walk for weeks," cackled our hyper-fit guide, Esteban.
Michelle and I are not hotdogger off-road mountain bikers, and to make matters worse, Michelle had picked up an eye infection and was having trouble seeing properly. After several terrifying near-misses in which she almost slid down the hillside and into the sea very far below, I suggested we walk our bikes for a while, maybe just admire the view and take in the song of the curassow birds. Though Esteban tsk-ed at our timorousness, the ride was another reminder that travel means taking the positive with the negative — that not every excursion works out the way you think it will, especially when you're having as many wild experiences as we were.
Our choice of activity was decidedly more low-key at our next destination, the lush rain forest around the Arenal Volcano, a couple of hours' drive into the center of the country. To shake off the last of the Pampa dust, we decided to try out the popular Costa Rican pastime of relaxing in hot springs while contemplating the grandeur of Arenal. The temporarily dormant, 5,450-foot stratovolcano has not erupted since 2010, but seismologists warn that it could start spewing lava again at any moment.
We first tried hot springs the traditional way, in a public spa called Eco Termales. Taking the waters in a social setting was entertaining, everyone drinking cocktails in their bathing suits as steam rose into the humid jungle evening. But at our hotel, Nayara Springs, our villa had its own private plunge pool complete with volcano views, and it was even more fun to walk out onto the porch and slip into the magmatic water in the nude.
Having skinny-dipped to our heart's content, we were ready for some nightlife: the after-dark rain-forest walk at Arenal Oasis Wildlife Refuge, a 10-minute drive from Nayara Springs. It wasn't long before we realized that a jungle at night is an unsettling environment for a stroll.
At every turn our flashlights were met by sets of spooky green animal eyes, shining back at us through the leafy gloom. Trying to repress a host of creeping phobias, we took cues from our guide — a laid-back local naturalist — and eventually found it was indeed possible to relax in the presence of bristly, striped-legged tarantulas, blue-jeaned poison-dart frogs, and venomous yellow snakes.
By the time we visited Arenal's La Fortuna waterfall the next day, we were so relaxed we had no problem signing a release form required by the wildlife refuge, acknowledging that the hike down would bring us "in direct contact with nature which can pose implicit dangers…including death." Cooling off in the pool beneath the 250-foot-high falls, we could feel the immeasurable energy pouring into the frothing water around us.
During our time in Arenal, we realized that confronting one's fears is in itself a form of pura vida. This understanding hit me at Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridges Park, where I faced my long-standing dislike of heights by walking over a series of rickety bridges suspended high above the forest canopy. Michelle, wearing a wicked smile on her face, had described the activity as a "trust game" — knowing full well how intense my vertigo can be. While I was certainly nervous, I also managed to surprise myself by loving almost every minute of it. It was strangely calming to stroll across bridges spanning an unsortable mess of flora, above trees drenched in epiphytes strangling one another in a death embrace and leaf-cutter ants marching by in solemn parade, carrying off their phyto-remains. Everything was either eating something or being eaten by something. Despite being so high up, we felt like we were deeply immersed in the circle of life of this incredible place.
Our final activity of the journey was also our most anticipated: the time had come to meet the sloths, the poster animal for pura vida indolence. We had signed up for a volunteering session at Proyecto Asis, a wildlife-rehabilitation and education center not far from La Fortuna. There was only one hitch: they had no sloths in the sanctuary at the time of our visit. We fed cubes of papaya to tie-dye-billed toucans and ornery peccaries and monogamous macaws. But no sloths. "We often get injured sloths in here," the coordinator, Adriana Aguilar Borbón, explained. Sloths in these parts often get burned when they mistake power lines for tree branches. Once their wounds have healed, the team at Asis sends them back into the forest, where they belong. "It's actually good news that there are none at the moment, as it means they all got better," she said.
Over dinner at Nayara Springs that evening, our last in Costa Rica, I consoled Michelle about the fact she hadn't been able to hang out with any sloths. After our meal, as we crossed the sky bridge over the forest that connects one section of the resort to another, we noticed something shifting in the trees, just a few feet away. "A sloth!" Michelle cried. "A sloth!" I cried. The creature looked back at us, curiously, with its robber-bandit eyes. Symbiotic algae camouflaged its back. Entire colonies of insects appeared to be thriving in its fur. That sloth was an ecosystem, all of Costa Rica reduced to a single shaggy-coated tree dweller. In that moment, sharing a gaze with that amazing creature, we'd found what we came for: Michelle got her sloth, and I got a richer lesson in pura vida than I could ever have imagined.
The Details: What to Do in Today's Costa Rica
Both Las Catalinas, in Guanacaste province, and the Arenal Volcano area are within a few hours of Liberia International Airport, which has nonstop flights from major North American cities like New York City and Los Angeles.
Casa Chameleon Las Catalinas: An adults-only boutique resort with 21 exquisitely designed private villas. Each infinity pool has a view that is incomparable — and highly Instagrammable. doubles from $495.
Nayara Springs: Bask in your own mineral-water plunge pool while looking up at the majestic Arenal Volcano at this romantic property. You can also enjoy the tropical flora and fauna — including sloths — and feast on local culinary delights at Amor Loco, the hotel’s fine- dining spot. Arenal Volcano National Park; villas from $850.
Café y Macadamia Lago Arenal: Stop here on the way to Arenal and pick up delicious baked goods for the remainder of the trip. Try the banana-and-macadamia muffins — made with nuts from the café’s own trees — which pair splendidly with the Costa Rican coffee. Laguna de Arenal.
Soda y Restaurante El Estero Azul: This shack on the beach offers fresh cooking and incredible views of the Pacific Ocean sunsets. Have the morning’s catch alongside guacamole with fresh shrimp. Playa Flamingo; entrées $6–$13.
Surfbox: A stylish beach-adjacent breakfast and lunch spot that offers açai bowls, avocado toast, and Montreal-style bagels—a nod to the owner’s Québécois roots. Playa Flamingo; entrées $8–$12.
Eco Termales Hot Springs: These natural volcanic hot springs are open during the day and in the evening. No matter whenyou visit, a soak is one of the most relaxing ways to pass the time in the Arenal area. La Fortuna.
La Fortuna Waterfall: It’s 500 steps down to the falls. A dip in the chilly waters is the best way to cool off from the hike, so make sure to bring a bathing suit.
Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridges Park: This wooded refuge has walkways suspended high above the rain-forest canopy, each with a bird’s-eye view of the greenery below.