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 wouldn’t 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, then added: ‘I’m sorry for losing my temper.’
I chuckled then, and again 48 hours later when — as I enjoyed 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 way!’ Welcome home.
The only thing Costa Rica shouts about, as I learned in my fortnight there, is its easy-going ethos. ‘Pura vida’ — ‘pure life’ — is the national motto, and you’ll find it plastered on posters and holiday brochures. But it is far more than a marketing gimmick. The Ticos and Ticas — as the locals call themselves — say it when greeting friends and proclaim it to strangers in the street. Moreover, they live 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 this country tops the Happy Planet Index, a ranking of nations that ignores soulless metrics like GDP in favour of ‘sustainable well-being for all’. Britain languishes in 34th position.
I read about the index before setting foot in Costa Rica, and I was sceptical. The world’s happiest country? Not first thing in the morning, I’ll bet, or when the trains are cancelled.
Not so. Even the slightly unattractive, traffic-clogged capital, San Jose, had a cheerful buzz. Reggaeton blared from car windows, mothers hurried giggling children along the streets, road workers toiling in 30C heat laughed merrily.
I took to quizzing cabbies, tour guides and bar staff about Costa Rica’s status as the planet’s most contented place. The replies were eerily unanimous. ‘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. This further explains its supremacy in the Index.
The final factor is environmental. Instead of spending billions on defence, Costa Rica safeguards its natural wonders. More than a quarter of the country is national park, nearly all its electricity comes from renewable sources, and it aims to be entirely carbon neutral by 2021. When it comes to plastics, it is streets ahead. Recycling is taught in schools, and the bars and bathrooms of its many eco-hotels are free of plastic straws and little bottles of shampoo. How can that not make you happy?
Its good-natured human residents certainly proved to be a highlight, but like most visitors I was lured to Costa Rica by the rainforests and animals these environmental policies help protect. After a night in San Jose, I made tracks for the wilderness.
My first stop was Tortuguero, a four-hour journey east by minibus and water taxi — or 25 minutes if you fly. I chose the latter, a mildly frightening experience that saw us skirt a volcano before touching down on a tiny rain-swept runway squeezed improbably onto a narrow sandbar; river on one side, Caribbean on the other.
The island is home to a small village, and there are a handful of resorts nearby. Beyond that, for many miles, there’s nothing but 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 that gave the town its name — turtles.
Four species, including leatherbacks and greens, come to lay their eggs on the beaches of Tortuguero, 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 a few hours, helped by an eagle-eyed guide, I saw a basking boa constrictor, an alligator guarding a mud bank 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, hidden from all but my guide, was a boat-billed heron — colossal of beak — and I marvelled at the gruesome close-up drama of a tiny green vine snake trying 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 birdwatching walks introduced me to colourful trogons and toucans, noisy woodpeckers, and — my favourite — the Montezuma oropendola, which makes a sound like a dial-up modem and strips bark from trees to find insects before depositing it on the twitchers below. In a creek behind the property I spied a basilisk, dubbed the Jesus Christ lizard for its ability to dash across water. On the underside of a tree I stumbled across dozens of dozing long-nosed bats.
Best of all was a surprise meeting with Costa Rica’s poster boy: the three-toed sloth. I peered out of my bedroom window for the whereabouts of a particularly vocal howler monkey and instead found one of these beautiful but buffoonish creatures hanging from a branch barely 20ft 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. It stayed put, for my viewing pleasure, for hours.
Sloths 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. I joined them in Monteverde, a mountain town north-west of San Jose.
Birdwatching is tricky for rank amateurs. Even with binoculars and a patient leader pointing out note-worthy critters, you can squint forever at the dense foliage and see nothing. Fortunately, most guides carry a telescope and tripod. Without ours I’d have seen little, but with his help I witnessed dazzling toucans, orange-bellied trogons, nervous little redstarts, all manner of hummingbirds and the main attraction.
Quetzals nest high in rotten tree trunks and the experts know where to look. If they don’t fancy showing their faces you might leave disappointed, but 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. For a few minutes it preened itself before flying off in search of lunch (wild avocados, apparently).
Not all of Monteverde’s wildlife is so elusive. One morning at my hotel I rose to the pitter-patter of little feet — a family of capuchins were chasing each other around the roof of an outdoor seating area. For an hour, we guests, most of us still in dressing gowns, craned our necks in delight.
Costa Rica also offers 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 me, though, was a stroll in the forest. Then came a trip to a hot spring, where birds and bats flitted overhead.
Many trips finish on the sweltering Nicoya Peninsula, where swanky beach resorts offer swim-up bars, private sands and couples’ massages. But what I recall with a smile is the monkey I spotted, in deep thought, above the entrance to the hotel 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.
Where to stay
• Hotel Grano de Oro (hotelgrano-deoro.com), occupying three wooden buildings from the turn of the 20th century, is a characterful option in the heart of San Jose. Doubles from Dh585.
• On the outskirts of San Jose is Xandari Resort and Spa (0091 94474 14344; xandari.com), with fine views of the city, a pool, delightful gardens, and walking trails and waterfalls on its doorstep. Doubles from Dh510.
• Tortuga Lodge and Gardens (tortugalodge.com) offers rustic, comfortable lodges in a dreamy setting, with pool, good restaurant, walking trails and resident iguanas. Doubles from Dh460.
• Highlights at Monteverde Lodge (monteverde-lodge.com), run by the same company, include a butterfly garden and jungle views. Doubles from Dh500.
• Nayara Resort (arenalnayara.com), in Arenal Volcano National Park, offers first-rate luxury, with private villas, a wonderful spa, restaurants and its own sloth reserve. Doubles from Dh1,000.
• Hotel Punta Islita (hotelpuntaislita.com), on the Nicoya Peninsula, is good for beach relaxation. Rooms come with a private outdoor Jacuzzi or plunge pools. Doubles from Dh590.
What to pack
Clothes for all weather. Locals joke that it never stops raining in Tortuguero, it can get very hot on the Nicoya peninsula, and it is decidedly chilly in the cloud forests of Monteverde. Binoculars too: your guide will lend you theirs, but far better to have your own.
Oliver Smith travelled with Journey Latin America (020 3131 7374, journey latinamerica.co.uk). A 12-day holiday, including two nights in San Jose, two nights in Tortuguero, two in Monteverde, two in Arenal and three on the Pacific Coast, costs from Dh6,970 per person, excluding flights. Other options available; check the website for full details.
The Daily Telegraph