Pura Vida? No se.

Pura Vida? No se. | Costa Rica Diaries Vol. 1

Flying into Costa Rica during the beginning of the wet season, which starts in June and goes through early November, the landscape below the plane is lush hillsides and green as far as the eye can see.


I flew from DC, after a weeklong SUP Yoga teacher training in Maryland. Brent came from Los Angeles, and we arranged for a rendezvous at the San Jose airport. He’d taken a redeye and arrived early, around 8AM. By the time my plane landed and I made it through the two hour immigration line, it was after two in the afternoon on Saturday and he’d been up for thirty six hours and no food since the previous nights dinner. I was running on four hours of sleep and sheer adrenaline as we made it through customs and headed for the curb to pick up our rental car.

brent airport

Note to the gentle reader: everything in Costa Rica is muy caro – very expensive. You may find a “great deal” on a rental car online, but once you arrive you will find that the government mandated insurance, taxes, and service fees take your anticipated total to quadruple what you were quoted on the online discount sites. Plan accordingly.

We went through Payless car rental, and had a reservation which quoted $190 for a four wheel drive SUV for ten days – a total steal at $19 per day. Pumped, we arrived bleary but cheery at the rental place, ready to get rocking and rolling on our four hour drive to Playa Negra.

After chatting casually with the customer service agents at the rental place, and discussing our plans to head north to Guanacaste and then travel south along the Nicoya peninsula, we were feeling pretty good about our plans, until the gentleman behind the counter informs us that our grand total for rental car, insurance, and GPS comes to a whopping $779 for the ten days.

“D’esculpa, senor, pero la reservación es por dos ciento dólar. No entiendo porque es mas dinero – ocho ciento dólar es muy caro. No tengo. No puedo rentar aquí si es verdad.”

Excuse me, sir, but the reservation was for two hundred US dollars. I don’t understand why it’s more money – eight hundred dollars is very expensive. We can’t rent here if that’s the true amount.

“Ees mandatory insurance, ees forty dollar per day. We can no make it cheaper for you. Ees GPS, ees fifteen dollar per day. We give you deal for five dollar per day,” Oscar responded politely but firmly.

Armed with a sense of haggling confidence established after many Mexico trips (which is perhaps entirely inappropriate in Costa Rica), I refused to settle for this exorbitant rental cost. This vacation was styled as a surf trip – which means peanut butter and jelly, sleeping in somewhat questionable locations, and definitely keeping costs low overall – not blowing eighty percent of the trip budget in the first two hours.

I’ll spare you the long story, but we haggled for three hours before settling on a price of five hundred US dollars, the GPS thrown in for “free,” and the minimum mandatory insurance, with a fifteen hundred dollar deductible in case anything should happen to the vehicle. I felt totally confident that we would not get into any kind of accident or have an issue with the car. Ha. More on this later.

By the time we got on the road, Brent was beyond starving, and we set the GPS to navigate to Playa Negra. We agreed to get the heck out of San Jose before stopping to eat, and set off on the first leg of our journey.


Right off the bat, we missed the first important turn to get on the highway that would lead to Puntarenas. Instead of turning around, we trusted the reliability of the Garmin GPS to re-route us the direction we needed to go – malo idea. (Bad idea). After about an hour of meandering through the city streets of residential San Jose, we finally came to a highway and shortly thereafter, a toll booth.

As we pulled up to the booth, Brent said with the tone of a dawning realization, “Something doesn’t feel right. Do you think there could be two Playa Negras? Could we be heading to the Caribbean side?” It did seem odd and unfamiliar that we were traversing hilly roads higher and higher, when we ought to be heading through the jungle that leads to the drier coastal region of the northern Nicoya peninsula. “Ask the toll booth lady,” I suggested, knowing that his intuition is usually spot-on.

“Hola – es la carretera por Playa Negra?” he asked politely of the older woman at the booth.

“Noo,” she replied, shaking her head and seeming quite confused.

“Puntarenas?” he asked, hopefully.

“Noo, senor,” she said again, handing back our change and pointing the direction we were headed. “Limon.” It was a declaration with finality – dusk was turning to night and we’d just spent an hour driving the wrong direction towards the Caribbean side of Costa Rica.

“Oh shit.” I said, grabbing the GPS and pushing buttons frantically, trying to reset it to the correct coordinates. Brent flipped the car around and we once again set off on the first leg of our journey – now five hours behind schedule and unsure if or when we’d make it to our little cabina on the Pacific Coast.


After orienting ourselves the correct direction, we proceeded (again) to embark on our five hour journey towards the northern region of Guanacaste, and the pumping barrels of Playa Negra. The drive passed by uneventfully, with only a short stop at a roadside fruit market for a much-needed dinner of arroz con camarones and the most delicious watermelon agua fresca I have ever tasted. We wolfed it all down without a second’s pause for a photo, loaded up on watermelon, lychees, and mangos from the fruit stand, and then hit the road again, driving blindly towards the hope of swell and a safe place to rest our weary heads.


Some number of hours later we arrived to the sleepy coastal village of Playa Negra. Our friend Javier over at Pargosadventures Playa Negra was gracious enough to hook us up with a cabina rental not too far from the beach for an astounding rate – only twenty bucks a night. Stoked that we were saving heaps on lodging, we jumped on the offer without much thought of what twenty dollars a night might get us in the jungle. The quality of our lodging was not even on my mind though as Brent and I attempted to navigate the roads to Guanacaste – after two days of no sleep and little food, all we wanted was to find the bed and crash out – and I was terrified that our tardiness would have us locked out in the dark, or sleeping in our rental SUV. Through Facebook messaging with spotty wi-fi, I’d managed to inform Javier that we were running about seven hours later than anticipated. In true Tico style, he replied “No worries, mae. They will be waiting for you. Pura vida!” 

His assurance of hospitality was not in jest – when we pulled into the driveway of Cabinas Marvel, we were greeted by the barking of two happy dogs and a friendly welcome from owner Bob Hay, an ex-pat from the U.S. who has been happily living in Costa Rica since the mid-nineties.

negra baby

After welcoming us and hushing the dogs, Bob grabbed the keys and showed us into our little cabina – a small one room bungalow with a fridge, two burner propane stove, open closet, and private bathroom. Everything had the look and feel of a surf cabin that’s been well used and well loved for quite some time. Unsealed doors and windows were an open invitation to ants, spiders, and geckos. Acclimating to jungle life might be a big challenge for me, considering my total fear of creepy crawlies and things with more than six legs. As we took in our surroundings, I noticed a small sign on the back of the door which read:

Please be careful with your belongings. There have been many thefts in the area. Do not leave items unattended outdoors, and be sure to lock up valuables and lock the cabina when you leave.

This seemingly innocuous note added a thump-bump to my heart rate. We’d seen a similar sign at the car rental place, warning of car-jackers who would trick you by pretending to be stranded motorists, then rob you on the side of the road. It had been two years since I’d visited Costa Rica, and this apparent upswing in crime was kinda sketching me out. When I questioned Bob about the note, he confirmed that though they’d never had a problem on-site at Marvel, the neighbors had been robbed a few times, and it couldn’t hurt to be careful. Brent and I exchanged a meaningful look, wondering whether we’d regret the decision to bring thousands of dollars of camera equipment to document our quest for Pura Vida.

After a quick tour, Bob left us to settle in, with promises of soup cooked by his wife the following day. Once he was gone, we set to securing the premises – locking our valuables in the large hidden concrete safe, and glancing warily around for hidden scorpions, spiders, or things that might go bump in the night. Tension was high and we reluctantly agreed to stay just one night and decide the following day whether this was the place for us.

As we lay down to rest, I said a quick prayer that everything would look brighter in the morning. Next to me, I heard the slowing of Brent’s breath. Closing my eyes, I fell asleep to the sound of jungle birds and the mocking laugh of the ever-present gecko.

Tags: , , , ,

Leave a Reply