Snuggled between the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, Costa Rica is located in Central America — one of the isthmus countries that connect North and South America. A mere 10 degrees above the equator, the country is the size of the state of West Virginia and home to 5 million people. I discovered these people, who refer to themselves as Ticos, are what make Costa Rica exceptional.

I was in the country only a few minutes before I learned Costa Ricans revere the Spanish expression “pura vida” (pronounced poo-rah vee-dah), which simply translates to “pure life.” But for Ticos, the colloquial term for the people of Costa Rica, pura vida carries profound meaning. 

Ticos describe pura vida as a reminder to live life light-heartedly, gratefully and to the fullest. The phrase is used as a greeting; as a goodbye; as a response to “How are you?;” and as “You’re welcome.” If visitors to Costa Rica grasp this concept, they’ll discover an inherent part of one of the world’s happiest countries. 

Lush canopies

The towering elevations of Costa Rica’s four mountain ranges provide a variety of microclimates, from tropical rainforests to cool cloud forests.

Our group’s driver led us through winding tropical rainforest passageways near Jacó Beach on Costa Rica’s Pacific side. A sunshiny clearing in the thick led to Rainforest Adventures, an exciting attraction that encompasses aerial trams, sky-high zip lines, a Serpentarium and waterfall climbing. Two Tranopy Tour guides greeted us upon arrival for a zip lining overview. 

Our group chose a combination tour that included a guided aerial tram ride and 10 zip lines. The tour began with the tram portion, a larger version of a ski lift that carried us to impressive heights above kapok trees, strangler figs and among the greatest diversity of any ecosystem; a space of 2 acres contains more than 90 species of trees. 

At the end of the tram’s path, a glistening waterfall greeted us near the first zip line’s platform. After a deep breath, I volunteered to go first. One of our guides connected me to the line, and with a leap of faith, I raised my legs as a cue for my release. 

And then I was moving. Fast. Incomparable to a car, plane or a rollercoaster — the sensation was exhilarating, like flying through a new, green galaxy. Our group soared through 10 lines total, each providing a different rainforest perspective many only seen on TV or in a travel guide. 

Zip line guide, Rainforest Adventures, Costa Rica
Zip line guide, Rainforest Adventures, Costa Rica Credit: GTM/Cortney Erndt

Between zips, we saw remarkable wildlife, including notoriously hard-working leaf-cutter ants parading on the mossy forest floor, and charming white-faced Capuchin monkeys grunting and whistling their hellos in the flora near our platforms.

Diverse wildlife

According to the Embassy of Costa Rica, the country contains nearly 6 percent of the world’s biodiversity, but covers only 0.03 percent of the earth’s surface. In other words, wildlife flourishes in Costa Rica. 

Associate Editor Cortney Erndt with sea turtle egg, Costa Rica Credit: GTM/Cortney Erndt
Associate Editor Cortney Erndt with sea turtle egg, Costa Rica Credit: GTM/Cortney Erndt

Our group visited the Pacific beaches of Ostional National Wildlife Refuge in the province of Guanacaste to learn about ways volunteers can help protect vulnerable Olive Ridley sea turtles. In the tropical heat, we helped dig one square meter of sand about 16 inches deep. The activity felt like digging for treasure, and fascinatingly, we found the delicate jewels: dozens of sea turtle eggs — ping pong ball-sized fragile spheres waiting to discover the ocean’s mysteries. 

We learned that volunteers perform this same task to mark where the eggs are for better protection and data collecting. Under the sands of the entire Ostional beach are hundreds of thousands of developing reptiles. But according to the Sea Turtle Conservancy, only one in every thousand sea turtles survives to adulthood. There is no question why some volunteers stay at the refuge for up to three months; witnessing the species’ population rise as a result of the refuge’s efforts is nothing less than rewarding.

Another vulnerable species in Costa Rica is the scarlet macaw, now extinct over most of Central America, including the entire Caribbean coast. My group took an up-close look at wild macaws on the property of Restaurante Mi Finca in Abangares. The strong wings of incoming macaws flapped heavily over our group before majestically landing on nearby fences and trees. We admired the colorful birds as they flocked to chomp down on peanuts and greet visiting guests.

Associate Editor Cortney Erndt and macaws, Costa Rica
Associate Editor Cortney Erndt with scarlet macaws, Restaurante Mi Finca, Abangares, Costa Rica Credit: GTM/Cortney Erndt

Inhabited waters

At 200 million years old, the crocodile is one of the world’s most successful predator species. The aquatic reptiles are highly populated in the Tárcoles River, where nearly 60 percent of all Ticos live along its basins.

Our group wanted an up-close look at exactly where many of these dinosaur-era creatures live. We chose The Original Canopy Tour Tárcoles, which provides guided 1½-hour boat tours through the Tárcoles River’s extensive mangrove ecosystem. 

Due to sediments and pollution from San José, the river’s color is a mucky brown — making it nearly impossible to spot crocodiles if they are in the water. We boarded our 25-passenger boat with no guarantees we’d spot a crocodile.

We should have had more faith; we saw at least a dozen slithering into the mucky river and basking on banks. Seeing such a dangerous (yet amazing) predator up close was awe-inspiring, and yes, adrenaline pumping.

Baby American crocodile, Tárcoles River, Costa Rica
Baby American crocodile, Tárcoles River, Costa Rica Credit: GTM/Cortney Erndt

Not only did we see gigantic American crocodiles, and a baby one, but our boat driver and informative guide also pointed out many species of birds, like snowy egrets, blue herons, boat-billed herons and roseate spoonbills.

We learned the mangroves present important nesting grounds and shelter for birds, as well as nutrients for the many fish and invertebrates that inhabit the river.

And most importantly, we learned how important it is to respect the ecosystem. In fact, Costa Rica enforces laws that prohibit the feeding of wildlife, as this disturbs their environment and food chain. Perhaps it is the true altruistic appreciation of nature that make Ticos extraordinary. After all, more than 25 percent of Costa Rica’s land is protected by national parks and reserves. Costa Rica runs on 100 percent renewable electricity and has pledged to become 100 percent carbon neutral by 2021. Pura vida! 

Visit Essential Costa Rica at visitcostarica.com.

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Cortney Erndt oversees the marketing of all Group Tour Media operations, from corporate products to custom publications. With a background rooted in journalism, she has contributed to all company publications since 2015. Cortney has lived all over the United States — Michigan, Florida, Nevada and Texas — and will never say “no” to a new travel opportunity. Her favorite destinations connect cityscapes with captivating culture and good coffee, like Seattle and New York City.