2011-10-08 00:00

PURA vida — pure life.

In Costa Rica, this simple phrase is a greeting , a way to wish someone well, an answer to the question, “How are you?”, and a verbal manifestation of a way of life in a country that more than any other, has embraced environmental sustainability. It is an object lesson to us all, to better care for our beaten and battered planet.

And what better place to spend an exotic family holiday, in a country that is unspoilt, peaceful, astonishingly beautiful and redolent with life lessons about how every one of us can make a positive difference to the environment?

When I visited Costa Rica recently, taking with me my daughters Angela­ (22) and Kelly (19), we got to do all the wonderful things one expects from an overseas holiday. But we got more than just recharged batteries and delicious cocktails out of the deal: we had a life-changing experience, too.

Everywhere you go, you see why this tiny Central American country — it occupies just 0,03% of the world’s landmass — is a world leader in biodiversity.

Everyone, from school pupils in tiny villages to five-star hotels and lodges, takes care of the environment, by separating out waste, not throwing paper in toilets, preserving endemic fauna and flora, and supporting natural rainforest regeneration.

It simultaneously shames and inspires one; after all, how much do many of us really do to save our planet, beyond paying lip service to the idea of more sustainable living? And how often do we make excuses about the viability of sustainability? In Costa Rica, environmental conservation is the responsibility of every Tico, as locals are called, irrespective of their social or economic standing.

This responsibility shines through in virtually every experience you’ll have in this off-the-beaten-path destination, from the only farm in the world to produce certified organic golden pineapples to the picturesque Pacuare Lodge, a five-star ecolodge that derives its electricity from the methane gas produced by pigs. Yep, green power from pig poop ...

And it permeates your holiday, too. Costa Rica’s biggest selling point is its spectacular natural heritage­, and you get it in spades from the moment you arrive. The most noticeable manifestation of it is the wildlife, including species of cat such as the oncilla, jaguar, jaguarundi­, margay, ocelot and puma, riverine tucuxi dolphins, caiman crocodiles, snakes such as the boa constrictor and the long eyelashed yellow viper, various species of monkey, iguana, water-walking lizards, bats, raccoons, river otters, manatees, exotic birds such as parrots and toucans, and many more.

Also worthy of special mention are turtles — and if you visit the Tortuguero­ National Park in north-eastern Costa Rica between July and September, you have the rare opportunity of seeing these marine giants nesting on the beaches — as well as the poisoned arrow frogs, red-eyed tree frogs and stunning blue morpho butterflies of the Arenal­ National Park, in the north.

This park is also home to (and named for) one of Costa Rica’s several active volcanoes, Arenal. It truly­ is a sight to behold, this rumbling, steaming, smoking peak — especially from the comfort of your room at the Arenal Manoa Hotel — and its tours around its quieter side are fascinating and educational.

In fact, there are unique ways in which one is able to get up close and personal with Costa Rica’s natural surrounds. Most famous of all is the Arenal hanging bridges, more than 20 bridges suspended in primary rain-forest canopy that literally allow you to discover nature, eyeball to eyeball.

And if you like being up in the trees, and would like a little more adrenaline coursing through your body, why not try out the ziplining at the Manuel Antonio National Park along the West Coast? With four kilometres of ziplines, some up to 150 metres above the ground, you’ll fly through the treetops, taking in breathtaking sights as you go, and see how many of the park’s 300 bird and animal species you can spot along the way.

Typically, you will find many other outdoor activities dotted around Costa Rica, such as snorkelling with dolphins, turtles and parrotfish, surfing lessons, mangrove kayak tours, horse riding and white- water­ rafting. And then there are the pristine beaches — and where else in the world would you be able to dip your toes into the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean in a single trip?

Equally compelling to explore is the Costa Rican culture. While English is not widely spoken, Ticos are a friendly and hospitable people, who (of course) love sharing their encyclopaedic knowledge of their surroundings. During a visit to a family-owned heart of palm plantation, the owners readily welcomed us into their home and told us all about this delicacy and how it is cultivated.

And the local cuisine — with its Spanish, Native-American and African­ influences — has to be tasted to be believed. Everywhere we went we found delicious meals in delightful restaurants. A traditional Costa Rican breakfast consists of gallo pinto (black beans and rice), eggs, tortillas and sour cream, with coffee and fresh fruit juice. A typical lunch, known as casado, includes rice and beans, one choice of meat (beef, chicken, pork or fish), salad and sweet plantains. Dinner is pretty­ much whatever you like, fish and seafood are excellent, well-priced and fresh, as are the fruits and vegetables.

Wherever you go, be it a visit to the beautiful 19th-century Teatro Nacianal theatre in the capital San José, on a riverboat tour (which is much like a waterborne game drive), or to soak in the thermal mineral pools at the Tabacon Hot Springs, Costa Rica is a feast for the senses and balm for the soul.

It’s a wonderful education in the art of living, of how good life could be — if only we all subscribed to the simple philosophy of pura vida.

• Theresa Szejwallo is the managing director of Trafalgar, which offers a Monkeys, Jungles and Volcanoes tour to Costa Rica. Rates for this eight-day family tour start from R10 450 per person twin share. For further information, please visit www.trafalgartours.co.za

Everyone, from school pupils in tiny villages to five-star hotels and lodges, takes care of the environment, by separating out waste, not throwing paper in toilets, preserving endemic fauna and flora, and supporting natural rainforest regeneration.

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