"Como esta?" (how are you?) is the friendly greeting of Costa Ricans when you arrive in their tiny country of approximately 4-million people. Don't reply: "Fine". Just say: "Pura vida!" More than any other two words in a Costa Rican's vocabulary, Pura vida (Life is good) reflects their upbeat attitude.
Being the cruise-aholic that I am, I choose to visit Costa Rica by ship. After transiting the Panama Canal, and spending a full day at sea, I disembarked in Puntarenas, Costa Rica. Puntarenas, meaning 'Sandy Point", is the West Coast port of call that serves as the gateway to the country.
COLORFUL BUILDING IN PUNTARENAS, COSTA RICA
Cruise ships offer their passengers a myriad of shore excursions that allow you to explore this verdant Central American country. Those who wanted to keep their feet on the ground could choose from a visit to a coffee plantation, the Cloud Forest and Poas National Park, or La Paz Waterfall Gardens.
The more adventurous, who like their head in the clouds (or as close as you can get without flying), can choose the tropical forest Skywalk, a series of suspended bridges that form a path through the tree tops. Or they can select a Canopy Tour that is, as far as I am concerned, flying without a plane.
Originally developed to allow scientists to study the biodiversity found in the canopy of trees, Canopy evolved into a popular sport. Where scientists relied on rigging large trees with climbing gear, cables, and ladders, Canopy Centers now provide harnesses hooked to cables for the brave souls wishing to partake.
From platforms located over 100-feet high and up to 150-feet apart, you pump out the adrenaline and swing through the air from one gigantic tree to another. Although Costa Rica is the leading country in abundance and safety of Canopy Tours, being a 21st century Tarzan was not my idea of fun.
For my day in Costa Rica, I had just one question: "Do you know the way to San Jose?" And of course my ship's shore excursion program did. Leaving Puntarenas via roads lined with golden shower trees (cassia fistula), we entered onto the Pan American Highway.
GOLDEN SHOWER TREE
The two and a half-hour journey to the capital city of San Jose took us through four of the republic's seven provinces. We journeyed past vast coastal flood plains, up high mountains, and into the Central Volcanic Valley. There are 9 active volcanoes and 95 inactive volcanoes in the country.
Enroute, our Tica (native born Costa Rican female) guide Lorna held up a shiny orange growth, the size of a large pepper with a shell the size of a golf ball at the bottom of it. When no one could name what it was Lorna said it was a cashew. She went on to explain that there is only one cashew nut (maranon) per cashew. It takes the entire harvest of two trees to obtain one pound of cashew nuts. That is why they are so costly.
LORNA DISPLAYS CASHEW NUT
Lorna also gave us a crash course in buying Costa Rican coffee. "Don't buy coffee in beautiful boxes," she said. "Buy coffee protected by foil bags that you can put in the freezer. When frozen, the whole bean will last for one year, the ground coffee will last for six months. The three best brands of Costa Rican coffee are Britt, Rey, and Volio." If you want to purchase the local "moonshine", or "white lightening" known as guaro, Lorna recommends the brand name Cacique. Costa Rica's national drink, it is made from sugar cane.
Our first stop in San Jose was at the Teatro Nacional (National Theater), also referred to as the Opera House. Opened in 1897, the theater bears a strong resemblance to the Paris Opera House. Approaching this sandstone architectural gem, located on the Plaza de la Cultura, we were confronted with marble statues of Beethoven and the 17th century Spanish playwright Calderon de la Barca. The 1997 bronze sculpture "Flautista" plays his flute in the courtyard, totally unaware that the golden arches of McDonalds serve as his backdrop.
"FLAUTISTA", BACKDROPPED BY McDONALDS' ARCHES, IN NATIONAL THEATER COURTYARD
Entering the baroque interior of the National Theater is an awesome experience. Chandeliers hang from frescoed ceilings, marble statues are surrounded by gilded furniture, and a red velvet valance drapes the presidential box. The second floor Intermission Hall is palatial and the severe damage it suffered in the 1991 earthquake has been repaired.
BAROQUE INTERIOR OF THE NATIONAL THEATER
Our next stop was at the Museo Nacional (National Museum) a showcase of Costa Rican history. Housed in what was once the Buena Vista Fort, the museum displays pottery dating back to 500BC. There is also an extensive exhibit of "Flying Panel" metates, a stunning manifestation of Pre-Columbian art. Dating from 0-500 AD, they are made from volcanic stone. The courtyard of the museum, stunningly landscaped and enhanced with the pre-Hispanic boulders found only in Costa Rica, offers a superb view of San Jose. Little wonder that the original fort was named Buena Vista (good view).
NATIONAL MUSEUM IS HOUSED IN THE FORMER BUENA VISTA FORT
We lunched at Le Chandelier, one of the country's finest restaurants. Formerly a private mansion, on Calle Yoses in the upscale suburb of San Pedro, the restaurant has a private room reserved for Costa Rica's president, and a restroom with a planted black bathtub that remains from its mansion days.
LE CHANDELIER RESTAURANT
Before returning to Puntarenas, we made a shop-stop at the Chaverri Oxcart Factory in the artisan town of Sarchi. Though it is a typical tourist shop, it is also an encounter with Costa Rica's tradition and history. Since 1903, the Chaverri Oxcart Factory has been using the original methods of making authentic Costa Rican oxcarts.
CHAVERRI OXCART FACTORY
Once used to transport products to the markets and harbors, villagers were able to identify an oxcart bysound alone. Each wagon's resonant knock was as distinctive as the voice of the owner. These traditional hand-painted carts are now used to adorn patios, serve as bar carts, or just remind you of a special visit to Costa Rica. At the Oxcart factory, you can also stock up on Costa Rican coffee and molas, the layered cloth sculptures used to adorn clothing.
JANET STEINBERG is an award-winning Travel Writer, International Travel Consultant, and winner of 40 national Travel Writing Awards.