“Pura Vida” translates to “Pure Life.” It’s a saying Costa Ricans use and has a deeper, more special meaning to them. My husband and I had the pleasure of visiting the beautiful country of Costa Rica, in Manuel Antonio specifically, a few weeks ago to celebrate our 6 year anniversary. For this particular trip, we knew we wanted a beach but we didn’t know which one. After lots of research, we decided on Costa Rica because of it’s close proximity so we didn’t have to take up one full day of traveling and because there was more than a beach – there was the rain forest and lots of outdoor activities to do.
I haven’t been to a significant amount of beaches but some of the beaches I have been to include Puerto Rico, Cancun, Los Cabos, St. Lucia, Canary Islands and I have to say, nothing compares to beaches in Cancun. I realize that it is very Americanized but the beach there is stunning and on top of that, the service is impeccable. And so with no doubt, I always compare beaches to Cancun and although Manuel Antonio had a beautiful beach, it wasn’t what made Manuel Antonio a great place to visit.
So what made Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica so special? The people are happy and sincerely nice, the earth is so lush and there was more development than I thought – but in a good way. (oh and there were lots of monkeys hanging out!) In a short 5 days, this is my overview.
TripAdvisor is the number one travel app I use for researching hotels. When the Gaia Hotel and Reserve came up as the #2 hotel in Manuel Antonio National Park, with 5 and half stars and over 700 reviews, I began to do further research to see if this was a property that would suit us. What I like about it was that it was a 5 star luxury boutique hotel, with only 20 rooms and adults only. I’ve stayed on large resorts before and the unfortunate thing about resorts is that you feel trapped (at least I do) and to explore outside of the resort can often times be more trouble than it’s worth. In addition, this was a trip for just my husband and I and so if we were around families we might begin to feel guilty that our children didn’t come with us.
Let me start by saying that this hotel has outstanding service. People like Fabio, Alexander, Josh, David… all were so incredibly nice and just happy people. When people love their jobs, that passion naturally comes out in the way they serve their clients. The employees of Gaia love where they work and what they do – and this was very clear. And the food was incredible! Breakfast wasn’t just included, it was a gourmet breakfast with a wide variety of meals that you could order in or eat at their beautiful restaurant, La Luna, that overlooks the forest and ocean. I ate like a Queen and took advantage of the fresh tropical smoothies. Given that there are only so many rooms, we often had the 3 tiered infinity pool to ourselves and ate at the swim up bar. The views were just beautiful.
Although all this sounds great (great service, delicious food, incredible views), it wasn’t the reason I loved the Gaia so much. I love the Gaia because of the land it sat on. When we arrived in Quepos, I was a bit surprised to see how much development was happening on the road leading to Manuel Antonio National Park. Real estate is hot and there were restaurants and hotels lined up on the main road. When we turned into Gaia, off the main road, it seemed as if we were driving into a little rain forest itself. Gaia sits on 14 acres of land and the owner could easily make so much money building on this acreage but he has chosen to conserve the land and it serves as a refuge for many endangered wildlife. Every morning we woke up to beautiful exotic birds singing or monkeys playing in the trees and one day, a sloth carrying her baby from tree to tree. Although staying in a luxury boutique hotel, I felt very connected to the earth and her beauty. It was refreshing.
Development but not Americanized
One of the most unfortunate things about Cancun is how “Americanized” it has become. I love Cancun, don’t get me wrong, but the strip feels a little bit like Vegas and it almost seems as if the culture of the Mexican people has not been preserved there. In Manuel Antonio, I was surprised to see how much development is happening in that area. There are a lot of Americans that have relocated their families and have settled there. But the difference is that these Americans have immersed themselves into the Costa Rican culture. There aren’t any high rises, probably due to the strict limitations on what you can build in that area, and there aren’t flashy restaurants or hotels. I honestly thought that we were going to be in a more remote area initially but was pleasantly surprised to see that there were a lot of restaurants right outside the Gaia property.
Although we really enjoyed the Costa Rican food, later in the week I wanted to see if there might be an Italian restaurant nearby. The concierge recommended a place called Victoria’s so we took a short taxi ride down the street to this Italian restaurant. We sat on the patio and although really dark, you could see monkeys playing in the trees under the moonlight. And there was a guitarist playing right next to us. It was a really nice environment to be in. As we were eating, an American man came by our table and started speaking to us in Spanish, asking how everything was. Turns out he was from North Carolina and opened his restaurant 5 years ago and named it after his 5 year old daughter. He was incredibly nice and accommodating.
Another experience was visiting a store that sold some jewelry and other Costan Rican artifacts. The store was clearly run by an American woman and either the boy with her was her son or grandson. Both spoke Spanish perfectly and were very nice and helpful. I was really surprised and actually so happy. It is no surprise to see people move here because of the beauty of Costa Rica and Manuel Antonio specifically and how affordable it is to live there. It is a surprise, however, to see people move here, learn Spanish and integrate themselves into the Costa Rican lifestyle. It made my heart so happy to see this.
The People are Warm
As I mentioned in previously, the employees of Gaia were amazing but it wasn’t unique to just Gaia. From Quepos to Manuel Antonio National Park, everyone we interacted with were so accommodating and welcoming. On our first day there, we went down to the beach in the complimentary shuttle offered by Gaia. We were dropped off at Marifer’s umbrellas and chairs, a little tent set up to assist visitors. We were immediately escorted to chairs and an umbrella and given a menu for beverages and snacks. And the service continued all day. I have not received service like that since Cancun. I remember visiting St. Lucia and sitting on the beach or in the pool and always having to go ask for something. Although it was a public beach and it wasn’t footsteps from our hotel room, I never felt like it was trouble because were so well taken care of.
One of the tours we went on was an “adventure tour” through the forest that included a series of zip lining, rappelling, down a caving ladder and a free fall into a waterfall. It was a lot! And to get to our very remote location, we took a hummer up the mountain to get to our campsite where we put on all our equipment. We had been zip lining in St. Lucia but this was so different. It was in a very remote area, only a group of 7 plus 3 tour guides. I have to admit, I was nervous. But the guides were not only assuring but they were funny and made us all feel so comfortable. They also took the time to teach us about certain plants or insects we came across. You could tell they cared so much about their forest. I remember seeing one of the tour guides spot a bandaid on the ground and he immediately picked it up and said, “Just cleaning up my office.”
One day we went to the town of Quepos to walk around and explore. We ended up having a few cervezas at the local bar and then went to the boardwalk to people watch. There were fishermen and farmers arriving in truckloads to set up their stands. Little boys were helping their dads and uncles set up. Although Quepos is not far from some of the nicest real estate in the area, many people live in very simple conditions, a dirt floor and tin roof, and everyone was so happy with life. You could see that the rich earth around them gave them pure happiness. I think this what “Pura Vida” means.
Gaia Hotel and Reserve – http://gaiahr.com/
- Before you book through a hotel reseller, contact Gaia and ask about room discounts.
Victoria’s Gourmet Pizza – http://www.victoriasgourmet.com/Victorias/Welcome.html
- Who knew you could get amazing Italian food in Costa Rica? (my husband said it was the best pizza he’s ever had!)
El Arado – http://www.tripadvisor.com/Restaurant_Review-g309274-d2258089-Reviews-El_Arado-Manuel_Antonio_National_Park_Province_of_Puntarenas.html
- The best Costa Rican food. Small family owned restaurant, where the owner greets you at the street and cooks your meal. The garden was literally next to our table.
Ronny’s Place – http://www.ronnysplace.com/
- The best seafood and sangria! It’s a hidden gem with spectacular views of the ocean.
Till next time Costa Rica!