jepo.snake1If Costa Rica had a Zodiac sign, it would be a Gemini. It’s two countries in one: a lush, laid-back retreat for visitors looking for some R&R, and a hub for eco-tourism adventurers.

 The capital city of San José, where many visitors start their trip, is underrated, likely because your first impression is urban sprawl. Tourists typically fly in and stay one night before heading to other parts of the country, but we stayed an extra night at Hotel Grano De Oro and booked a walking tour with Stacey Corrales and Barrio Bird Walking Tours.

 We opted for the culture tour. The architecture is impressive, such as the Neoclassical Teatro Nacional and the Catedral Metropolitan and many public art displays. The downtown core is pedestrian friendly and safe, even without a guide. However, Stacey’s running commentary was both entertaining and educational. For instance, we learned that one theory about why many people in Costa Rica’s Nicoya peninsula (known as the Blue Zone, of which there are four on our planet) live to be centenarians is that the water there contains lots of calcium and their lifestyle is similar to it was 100 years ago — meaning stress-free.

 From San José, we headed to the Nicoya Peninsula to find out just how all those old folks manage to avoid modern-day stress. Although Costa Rica is one of the most developed countries in Central America, the area around Santa Teresa (where we stayed) and Montezuma (where we were headed), looks like it hasn’t caught up.

 But that’s not a bad thing. Latitude 10, our home for three nights, is barefoot luxury. Our casita, one of five private bungalows a stone’s throw from a pristine beach, was nestled amongst beach palms, mangrove and fragrant plumeria trees.CR.Latitude

 It was hard, but we managed to tear ourselves away to meet up with our guide, Jepo, who tells us that a group of Israelis started a kibbutz in Santa Teresa back in the 1970s and not much has changed since, except that the surfboards are slicker. The dirt roads, some parts of which are just wide enough for an oxen cart, clearly haven’t evolved much. But maybe that’s a good thing.

 “Here is Mel Gibson’s house,” Jepo says, as security cameras seem to glare at us as we drive around the outskirts of Malpais, which means “bad land” in Spanish but “surf city” to tourists. We also pass a few funky restaurants and yoga signs; Jepo tells us yoga is as popular as surfing, and so are canopy tours.

 My companion wasn’t too keen on flying through the jungle treetops on wires when she found out that the Sun Trails tour has nine ziplines, 12 platforms and a hanging bridge we had to cross. But Jepo convinced her: “If you can walk, you can do it.” And there was a promise of a deep pool fed by a waterfall. Just as Jepo predicted, we were exhilarated.

 The vibrant little town of Montezuma has some terrific restaurants serving up the freshest seafood (my squid was perfectly grilled) and a funky book store. It’s laid-back because the surfing isn’t so great here — perfect for us.

 The next day, we hired Jepo to take us hiking in Parque Nacional Cabo Blanco. We spotted some macaws and a mess of monkeys (we actually heard the howler monkeys before we saw them — their barking is a bit unnerving). Within minutes, Jepo pointed out several species of birds, most of which flew off before I had time to focus my camera.

 After a while I just gave up taking photos and just used binoculars, which was much more tranquil. “Here is the robin, our national bird,” says Jepo, “because workers in the coffee plantations loved their song.” We walked by a swamp and waited a few minutes near the edge for a small crocodile to surface. Jepo said they grow up to six metres, which made us beat a hasty retreat to the safety of the walking path.

 On our way back to San José to catch our flight home, we decided to spend the night at Finca Rosa Blanca, about a 30-minute drive from the airport. What a mistake — we should have stayed at least three nights. The Gaudi-inspired architecture, everywhere from the rooms to the infinity pool, is truly amazing, and it’s all surrounded by a coffee plantation.

 After a satisfying lunch of chicken quesadillas and an incredibly fresh arugula salad (the resort grows almost all its veggies and all the leafy greens are grown in a greenhouse a few metres from the restaurant), our server clapped his hands together and beamed at us. “And now, ready for some calories?” You must try the organic coffee ice cream.

 There are four Blue Zones, or hot spots of longevity on our planet, and the Nicoya Peninsula is one of them. Costa Rica is also the “Happiest Country in the World,” according to the New Economics Foundation.

 We certainly tapped into their fountain of youth and the “pura vida” (pure life) vibe. If only we could get it bottled and take it home with us. We’ll just have to come back.


 If You Go:

 Hotel Grano de Oro

 Latitude 10 Beach Resort

 Finca Rosa Blanca 

 Barrio Bird Walking Tours in San Jose

 Jepo and Olingo Surf and Nature Tours

 Jepo is a certified, local tour guide. His knowledge of fauna and flora and ecology goes well beyond the entertainment factor. Make sure you find a local tour guide: legitimate companies hire locals and promote sustainable tourism. You will learn about preserving local culture, the best use of resources and sustainable development.