It took until the penultimate day of my Costa Rican adventure before I witnessed what passes for a Tico having a tantrum. Crawling at a snail’s pace in a long line of traffic behind a trucker who refused to move aside, my softly-spoken driver calmly said: “This lorry should pull over – it’s not very nice to make us all wait.” He sighed gently, before adding: “I’m sorry for losing my temper.”
I chuckled about it then, and again 48 hours later when – enjoying the sun on a bank holiday bike ride back in Blighty – a red-faced van driver, forced to pause momentarily before overtaking me, screamed out the window: “Get out of the ****ing way!”
The only thing Costa Rica shouts about, as I discovered during my fortnight there, is its easy-going ethos. “Pura vida”, which translates as “pure life”, is the national motto, and you’ll find it plastered on countless posters and holiday brochures. But it is far more than a marketing gimmick. People use the phrase when greeting friends, or bidding them farewell, and proclaim it to strangers in the street. Moreover, they live their lives by it. Don’t sweat the small stuff, stay positive, appreciate simple pleasures – and definitely steer clear of road rage.
“Pura vida” helps explain why the Central American country tops the Happy Planet Index, a ranking of nations that does away with soulless metrics like GDP in favour of “sustainable wellbeing for all”. Britain languishes in 34th.
I read about this curious league table before setting foot on Costa Rican soil, but being a cynical Brit – and a journalist to boot – was naturally sceptical. The world’s happiest country? Not first thing in the morning, I’ll bet, or when the trains are cancelled.
Yet I never saw the facade crack. Even the slightly unattractive, traffic-clogged capital, San José, where UK travellers must begin their journey (but which some guidebooks advise quickly leaving behind), had a cheerful buzz. Reggaeton blared from car windows, mothers hurried giggling children along the pedestrianised streets, the workers we saw digging up the road in 30C heat were laughing merrily.
I took to quizzing cabbies, tour guides and bartenders about Costa Rica’s status as the planet’s most contented place. The replies were eerily unanimous – like the whole country has been brainwashed. “Yes! It really is true,” beamed one resident. “We are different here from the rest of Central America – just go to Panama and see, they are so rude!”
Another explained: “We are happy with what we have, even if it isn’t much – so we are friendly, we don’t argue and we never fight.”
Indeed, pacifism is enshrined in the constitution. Seventy years ago Costa Rica abolished its army and today, as the most populous country on Earth without a standing military, it is home to the United Nations University for Peace and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. Which further explains that lofty position in the Happy Planet Index.
The final factor is environmental. Instead of spending billions on defence Costa Rica has been busy safeguarding its natural wonders. More than a quarter of the country is part of a protected national park, nearly all of its electricity comes from renewable sources, and it aims to become entirely carbon neutral by 2021. When it comes to plastics, a cause célèbre since the scale of the problem was highlighted by David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II last year, it is streets ahead of the rest. The need to recycle is taught in schools, and in the bars and bathrooms of its numerous eco-hotels, plastic straws and little bottles of shampoo are non-existent. How can that not make you happy?
Its good-natured human residents certainly proved to be a highlight, but my fiance Sophie and I – like most visitors – were lured to Costa Rica by the rainforests and animals these environmental policies serve to protect, and after one night in San Jose we made tracks for the wilderness.
Our first stop was remote Tortuguero, a four-hour journey to the east if you opt for a minibus and water taxi – or a 25-minute one if you fly. We chose the latter, a mildly frightening experience that saw us skirt a volcano before touching down on a tiny rainswept runway squeezed improbably onto a narrow sandbar; river on one side, Caribbean Sea on the other.
The island is home to a small village, and within a stone’s throw are a handful of resorts. Beyond that, however, for many miles, there’s nothing but thick jungle criss-crossed by a vast network of rivers, creeks and lagoons. It’s a barely touched playground for sloths, monkeys, big cats and – the creatures from which the town takes its name – turtles. The beaches of Tortuguero are where four species, including leatherbacks and greens, come to lay their eggs while nosy tourists coo from a respectful distance. Alas, nesting takes place in summer and hatching in early autumn, so winter and spring visitors like us must make do with other animal encounters.
A boat trip offered plenty. Over the course of a few hours, and with the help of our eagle-eyed guide, we spotted a boa constrictor basking in the sun, an alligator guarding a mudbank with its mouth agape, a northern jacana, with its impossibly large feet, wading in the shallows, and a troop of white-headed capuchins chasing one another in the treetops. Snoozing in the mangroves, and hidden from everyone except our guide, we found a boat-billed heron – half a metre in size and colossal of beak – and then marvelled at the gruesome close-up drama of a tiny green vine snake doing its best to swallow a gecko.
But some of the most rewarding encounters took place on the doorstep of our hotel. Tortuga Lodge echoed to the roars of howler monkeys and the chirping of red dart frogs. Early-morning bird watching walks introduced us to colourful trogons and toucans, noisy woodpeckers, and – my favourite – the Montezuma oropendola, which makes a sound like an old dial-up internet modem and strips bark from trees in search of insects, before depositing it on unsuspecting twitchers below. In a creek behind the property we spied a basilisk, dubbed the “Jesus Christ lizard” for its ability to dash across water. On the underside of a tree we stumbled across dozens of dozing long-nosed bats.
Best of all was our surprise meeting with Costa Rica’s poster boy: the three-toed sloth. Peering out of our bedroom window for the whereabouts of a particularly vocal howler monkey we instead found one of these beautiful but buffoonish creatures hanging from a nearby branch, barely 20 feet away, slowly scratching its tummy like a stoned air guitarist. I don’t want to meet the person who sees a contented sloth and doesn’t get a warm feeling inside. For hours it stayed put for our viewing pleasure: relaxing in the afternoon heat, curling into a ball during the evening rains, before finding another tree when darkness fell.
Sloths might raise a smile, but another Costa Rican animal sends people into raptures. Found in just a handful of Central American cloud forests, the resplendent quetzal has such outlandish plumage that bird lovers flock from far and wide hoping for a sighting. We joined them in Monteverde, a mountain town to the north west of San José.
Birdwatching is a tricky business for rank amateurs like us. Even with binoculars and a patient leader pointing out noteworthy critters, you can squint forever at the dense foliage without seeing squat. Fortunately, most guides carry a telescope and tripod to make sure nobody misses out. Without ours we’d have seen very little, but with his help we witnessed dazzling toucans, orange-bellied trogons, nervous little redstarts, all manner of hummingbirds and, to our delight, the colourful star of the show. Resplendent quetzals build their nests high up inside rotten tree trunks and the experts know where they look – but if they don’t fancy showing their faces you might leave disappointed. Thankfully, one did. A male poked his fuzzy green head out, just to make sure the coast was clear. A ripple of excitement spread around the group. Then it moved to a branch to show off its fabulous tail feathers, prompting squeals of joy from the travellers lucky enough to be there. For a few minutes it preened itself carefully before flying off in search of lunch (wild avocados are their favourite snack, apparently).
Not all of Monteverde’s wildlife is so elusive. Indeed, it might even wake you up. One morning at our hotel we rose to the pitter-patter of little feet – a family of capuchin monkeys, including a few rather exuberant youngsters, had taken up residence in the garden, and were boisterously chasing each other back and forth on the roof of an outdoor seating area. For an hour, we – and the other guests, some still in dressing gowns – craned our necks in delight at the mischievous animals. What an antidote to the morning blues.
Costa Rica offers thrills unrelated to wildlife, too. There are zip wires, suspension bridges and serious hiking trails in the shadow of Arenal, one of the world’s most photogenic volcanoes. More “pura vida” for us, however, was a gentle walk through the forest, where we spotted an anteater dashing up a tree trunk and a crested owl in a deep sleep, followed by a trip to a hot spring, where we watched birds and bats flitting above our heads as daylight faded to dusk.
And the country has beaches. Many itineraries finish with a stint on the sweltering Nicoya Peninsula, home to swanky resorts offering swim-up bars, private sands and couples’ massages. But what makes me smile now is the memory of the monkey we spotted in deep thought above the entrance to our hotel’s spa.
With a warm welcome and animals like these, the world’s happiest country is bound to rub off on you – it might even cure your road rage.
How to get there
Oliver Smith travelled with Journey Latin America. A 12-day holiday, including two nights in San Jose, two nights in Tortuguero, two nights in Monteverde, two nights in Arenal and three nights on the Pacific Coast, costs from £1,437pp (flights extra). Other options available; check the website for full details.
British Airways flies direct from Heathrow to San Jose; returns from £314.
Where to stay
Hotel Grano de Oro, occupying three wooden buildings from the turn of the 20th century, is a characterful option in the heart of San Jose. Doubles from £121.
On the outskirts of San Jose is Xandari Resort And Spa, with fine views of the city, a swimming pool, delightful gardens, and walking trails and waterfalls right on its doorstep. Doubles from £105.
Tortuga Lodge and Gardens offers rustic but comfortable lodges in a dreamy setting. There’s a pool, a good restaurant, walking trails and resident iguanas. Doubles from £95.
Monteverde Lodge and Gardens is run by the same company – and has similar strengths. Highlights include a butterfly garden, hiking trails and jungle views. Doubles from £103.
Nayara Resort, in Arenal Volcano National Park, offers first-rate luxury, with private villas, a wonderful spa, several restaurants – and its own sloth reserve. Doubles from £207.
Hotel Punta Islita, on the Nicoya Peninsula, is a good bet for beachside relaxation. Rooms come with a private outdoor Jacuzzi or plunge pools. Doubles from £122.
What to pack
Clothes for all weather. Locals joke that is never stops raining in Tortuguero and they aren’t far wrong; it can get very hot and humid on the Nicoya peninsula; but it is decidedly chilly up in the cloud forests of Monteverde.
Binoculars. Your guide will lend you theirs, but far better to have your own.