Bird, Costa Rica. Image by Sarah Duff

If anyone has life sorted out, it’s the Costa Ricans, who are ranked as some of the happiest people on the planet. Their national motto, “Pura vida” (the most spoken two words in the country), is literally translated as “pure life”, but ranges in meaning from “life is good” to “everything’s going great”. It’s invariably uttered with a big smile many times a day, even to passing strangers on the street.

It’s not hard to see why they’re so happy. Their tiny country, which lies in the heart of Central America, sandwiched between Nicaragua and Panama and flanked by the Pacific and Caribbean Oceans, is one of the most peaceful in Latin America. Costa Rica disbanded its national army in 1949, has had a stable democracy for decades and is home to the University of Peace.

Then there are the nation’s natural treasures: half a million plant and animal species – everything from jaguars and three-toed sloths to poison dart frogs and over 900 kinds of birds – 4% of the world’s total flora and fauna species. Not bad going for a Switzerland-sized country that has less than 0,1% of the world’s landmass. On top of that, Costa Rica’s dramatic and diverse landscapes, which encompass mountains, valleys, forests, volcanoes and wetlands – are nothing short of awe-inspiring, in the true sense of the word.

The hardest part of a trip to this pocket of Eden is deciding how to fit it all in. I took the broad-sweep approach – covering the widest range of places and activities – starting with the waves of the Pacific Coast, at a small, laid-back village called Nosara on Nicoya Peninsula. Nosara is the kind of place that makes you think about relocating there on your very first day of arrival. In fact, many of the villagers are people who went there on holiday and just never returned home.

Nosara couldn’t be more idyllic if you’re the kind of person who likes beaches flanked by dunes and not by high-rise hotels: there are strict rules on development, so there are no buildings on the beach, nor are there any big resorts. Instead, the main beach of Playa Guiones – a long, wide curved stretch of golden sand – and the area around it are pristine. In the village there are surf shops, organic restaurants, juice bars and open-air yoga studios surrounded by jungle. Most people get around by golf cart, quad bike and bicycle, their surfboards strapped to the side. Surfing is the big attraction in Nosara – there are consistently good breakers and it’s one the best places in the country for beginners, like me. I quickly got into an easy rhythm of life in this beach heaven: waking up to a natural alarm of howler monkeys growling in the trees, spending days having surfing lessons in the warm ocean and yoga classes to stretch out my surf-tired muscles, followed by evenings on the beach, watching sunsets and discussing the Zen of surf with new-found friends over a couple of cervezas.

While it was hard to say “adios” to Nosara (I’d even started looking at property adverts in estate agents’ windows), Costa Rica’s interior beckoned. I rented a Suzuki Jimny and bounced along winding, potholed dirt roads as I headed inland to the Monteverde Cloud Forest.

It’s obvious why the forest is on pretty much every visitor’s itinerary. Named by National Geographic as the jewel in the crown of the world’s cloud forest reserves, Monteverde feels like a natural cathedral, its mist-wrapped trees, canopy of 50 shades of green covered by a sea of clouds and swathes of thick fog inspiring deep spiritual reverence. I soaked up the magic of the forest by staying in a tree-house, walking for hours along suspension bridges hanging in the clouds, being fanned by the wings of iridescent hummingbirds, hiking in the dark to discover a pumpkin-orange tarantula and a sleeping sloth, and whizzing through the misty tree-tops on a zip wire, past magnificent birds like the jewel-coloured resplendent quetzal.

Adventures like canopy zip-lining are always just around the corner in Central America’s adrenaline capital: you’re never far from some kind of action-packed fun. Under the conical hulk of Arenal Volcano, in a thickly forested gorge that felt like the set of Jurassic Park, I spent an afternoon canyoning, which involved abseiling down sheer rock faces, hiking and jumping into cold pools and swimming in waterfalls, feeling like a small child on a sugar high unleashed in a natural playground.

Costa Rica Sarah Duff

Tortuguero National Park.

The area around Arenal, one of the most popular spots for travellers, is full of the kind of 100-roomed resorts that require you to wear an armband for the breakfast buffet. Not one for the package tourist option, I instead chose to stay at Rancho Margot, a carbon-neutral, self-sustainable organic farm on reforested land. In the late 1980s, when Costa Rica pioneered ecotourism, private reserves and eco-conscious lodges started up, catering for travellers wanting to lessen their impact on nature. Rancho Margot is just one of the many places to stay in Costa Rica where you can be sure your tourist dollar goes towards a truly beneficial project.

My last stop, on the Caribbean Coast, was Tortuguero National Park, a 19 000ha protected area of cappuccino-brown canals and rainforest next to the ocean with a 30km stretch of beach forming an important nesting site for green, leatherback and hawksbill turtles. I was lucky enough to be there during nesting season and joined researchers from a local conservation group on the beach at midnight, seeking nesting turtles for recording and tagging. After patrolling the beach for a few hours, a 500kg leatherback turtle slowly pulled herself up the beach from the sea and began plopping big, silky eggs into a sandy hole. It was a magical experience to witness, like watching a living dinosaur in action.

Costa Rica by Sarah Duff

People gathering to watch the sun set over the Pacific Ocean on Nosara’s Playa Pelada beach.

As the trip drew to a close, I realised that what I admire most about Costa Rica aren’t its beaches, volcanoes, forests, adventure activities or even the all-pervasive “don’t worry, be happy” philosophy: it’s the country’s commitment to conservation, something you can’t help but learn about as you travel around there. One-quarter of all land is protected, while in the past 30 years, Costa Rica – which is ranked as one of the greenest countries in the world – has reforested 26% of its lost forest areas.

Travelling to a place that values its natural assets the way they deserve to be cherished – as irreplaceable treasures – is the true pura vida.

Words and photographs: Sarah Duff (@SarahDuff) 

This article appeared in the December 2015 issue of Sawubona magazine. Download here for free.

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