Tropical Escapes

Discovering there is never a dull moment in Costa Rica
By Tara Bradley
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Outside our beachside villa, my friends and I fill the air with the stories, mystery and scandal that only lifelong friends can create. And since I have know these friends – Trish and Anne – for over half of our lives, there is a lot to laugh about. We have decided to escape from our homes on opposite coasts and meet in Costa Rica — where lo que pasa, pasa (whatever happens happens). As we sit in our hideaway at Octocal Beach Resort, the anticipation of our upcoming adventures adds to the excitement. But our voices are soon overpowered by the beat of drums through the night breeze. We follow the sound along the string of stone steps curving up the mountain that rises beside our villa. Higher and higher we go. The beats become louder, the rhythm more pronounced. Then we see it. Adorned in bright purple and orange with grand headdresses covered in sequins, beads and feathers that reach the wooden roof above, dancers move in a rapid rotation -- their feet stomp to the band's restless drums. Sweat glistens on their bodies as they pulse through the faint glow of the nearby lanterns. We have happened upon a local wedding. This is our first glimpse of pura vida.

While watching the locals celebrating with wild abandon, time gets away from us until we remember we have a dive boat to catch in the morning. We make our way back down to the shore. The water rushes over our bare feet, the phosphorescence causing purple sparkles against our toes. A boom sounds overhead, followed by fireworks filling the sky. We haven't seen daylight yet and Costa Rica has already given us a royal welcome. The next morning will mark the first open-water dive for my friend Anne, and I can already tell the trip will be anything but uneventful.

They're nervous. As we jump aboard PADI Gold Palm IDC Octocal Resort's dive boat with PADI Dive Instructor Flaco, the usually talkative Anne is quiet while the rambunctious Trish jokes to relieve the tension. Anne has just completed the PADI eLearning course, and within minutes of descending the line at Turning Point, her rising comfort level becomes evident, so Trish and I leave her to finish her skills with PADI Instructor Phillipe.

As we fin along the reef of Turning Point with Flaco, the open mouths of green and chain moray eels appear out of what seems like every coral head. Their scorpionfish neighbors try to seem less obvious. Nearby, a pufferfish family of 10 bounces off one another like fragile bumper cars. In the shadows of a coral head, an eight-foot whitetip reef shark slumbers on the sandy floor. Careful not to wake it, Trish and I slowly approach it for an up-close-and-personal look before we head back to the surface — Trish's eyes twice their normal size.

Our surface interval brings us to a place Flaco has affectionately named Flaco's Beach, after himself.  Side by side, we float on the surface as Trish retells the story of her first shark encounter, the size of it growing with each new version. And with her check-out skills behind her, Anne is ready to join us on our next day of diving — and to check out the shark tales she is sure we have fabricated.

That night at Octocal's rooftop restaurant Roca Bruja, we join our friend Sisinio for dinner and are greeted by our waiter Jose, who smiles as he stretches out his bearlike arms in greeting and says, "Pura vida girls." When he sees our confused faces, he says, "It means good things — you see something beautiful you say, 'Pura vida.' Life is good." Later, as we dine, we begin to understand what he means as we share what becomes our favorite meal in Costa Rica — fresh ceviche.

After dinner we sign ourselves up for the nest day's Costa Rica Adventure Tour. We are told we will go tubing from the base of the La Victoria Waterfall through the rapids of Rio Negro, rappelling through a large canyon by the Blanco River and horseback  riding through the dry forest trails of Hotel Hacienda Guachipelin. And although the mai tai's at the bar are tempting, we make our way back to the room so we are ready for whatever form pura vida will take on the following day.

The helmets should have been a sign. Our tubes float us atop the cool water that slowly carries us — but not for long. The first rapid looks fiercer than we had imagined. Not able to slow down, I go with the current and fly out of the tube like a rag doll only to be dunked underwater and tossed like a toy in a washing machine. When I surface, the looks on Anne's and Trish's faces are of complete fear. One by one they topple over the waterfall and into the crashing water below. A hint of excitement starts to show in their eyes, and with no other option, we get back on our tubes and are forced to surrender ourselves to the river — forever to be known as the "Category Five Rapid River of Death."

After we dry off, the guides hand us weathered gloves, hook us onto zip-lines and secure the straps of our harnesses. And just like that we're off — from bridge to platform and platform to waterfall, we swing through the air overlooking the river below — so clear that it's nearly impossible not to notice the details of the fallen leaves lying on the rocky bottom. With each new platform, we are guided deeper and deeper into the dark green of the forest. When we reach the last line, Trish surprises us with a confession: She's afraid of heights.

Following one adventure with another, we let a group of horses carry our fatigued bodies to what will be our final reward — a mud bath followed by hot springs. Our somewhat leisurely gallop along emerald valleys offers us the chance to take in the incredible beauty — all further enhanced with the hint of wild mint on the wind. No matter how worn out we may be from our earlier adventures, it is hard not to enjoy the view — simply pura vida.

The next morning, animals are everywhere. We wake to howler monkeys dancing on our roof, catch a bright red crab trying to scamper into our room, have breakfast under the pleading gaze of a hungry raccoon, and dodge iguanas and other lizards lurking around almost every corner. As we walk toward the dive boat at Octocal, I look back to see a white-throated magpie jay perched on my chair, attempting to eat my leftover pancakes.

Animals are everywhere underwater, too. Newly certified Anne is ready to find the sharks we've been talking about, so we set off to explore Shark Channel. The name alone had her worried. Beneath the surface trumpetfish align like swords on the wall of an ancient Renaissance fortress. An octopus gives itself away as it skirts from crevice to dark shadow, its colors changing from white to purple to pink. I tug Anne's fin to get her attention, and we watch as the octopus performs its rainbow of costume changes. And like a stage curtain, a thermocline — signaling of a drop in temperature — glistens in the water column. Ahead, Sisinio flashes the shark sign followed by the number "three." The girls and I slowly approach as three sleeping white-tip reef sharks come into view. Disturbed by our presence, they circle one another, and then us. We sit motionless as they disappear and then return. Two, three … six laps. Their graceful movements begin to hypnotize us and our breathing begins to stabilize. When they finally settle, we leave them in peace as we ascend through a school of brown damselfish, blue chromis and yellowtail snappers. When we surface, it is Anne's turn to exaggerate. And by the time we are back at Octocal waiting for our rental car, the whitetips have grown from eight feet to 12.

For our final dry day in Costa Rica we decide to take a road trip from Octocal to Tamarindo — one of Costa Rica's notorious surf towns. It is only eight in the morning  and we're already hit a roadblock as a group of cows is herded across the road. And almost as if on cue, the nearly forgotten Chicago tune "Saturday in the Park" comes across our rental car's radio on Radio Dos — Costa Rica's station of choice. Throughout the week, everyone we meet admits to tuning into Radio Dos. After the last cow has cleared the way, we drive through tire-threatening, potholed roads lined with skyscraper-size pejibaye palm trees. As we pull into town, the dust settles on the road and the colors begin to unfold. Shops decorated with hammocks in reds, greens and pale yellows line the walkway accompanied by table after table of homemade jewelry, bongos and bikinis. In the distance, the salty air leads to the shore. Off the road a hand-painted sign reads "Surf Lessons $25." Within minutes, we're riding above the water we have been submerged in all week. Hours pass before lightning begins to show its fierce face, and we make our way back to the sandy shore and our worn-out rental car.

We have crashed through the "Category Five Rapid River of Death," danced with the whitetip reef sharks that seemed to wait for us on every dive and ridden the waves of Tamarindo. We wanted an adventure, and from the looks on the sunny faces of my friends, it has been another one for the books. We've created new tales will be told when we find ourselves reunited again, ready for another adventure. But the stories aren't the only thing I'm taking back with me. The two little words that have been following us around all week are with me too. Pura Vida. And the best part is knowing that it was with me all along.

Published: 23 Nov 2007 | Last Updated: 1 Apr 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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