Finding Wellness and Bravery in Costa Rica

As soon as I stepped out of the airport I was greeted by the familiar, thick, warm air.

I've been to Costa Rica a few times before and the country has begun to feel like a second home to me. Its people are friendly and kind, its scenery awe-inspiring and diverse, and its food... well, that's a separate article all on its own. 

Each time I come here the experience is different. It's something I've come to love about this place. Of course, depending on the time of year the weather will change—that's to be expected. But, the takeaway, the impression it leaves, is what's most appealing to me. 

I've always loved the way traveling and new experiences can transform you, but it's not often that you can return to the same place again and again and still come out feeling like a different person each and every time. Costa Rica does that for me. 

On this visit, I was getting more than just a feeling of returning home (and a vacation) out of Costa Rica. I was here to explore the wellness-focused side of the country. For the week, I was immersing myself in the culture, nature, food, and lifestyle. This also meant I was catapulting myself out of my comfort zone—something I'd written about and done on a small scale, but never experienced quite like this.  

The Nature

Costa Rica has such biodiversity. Pristine beaches (some with black sand!), tropical rain forests, jungles, mangroves, volcanoes, and mountainous terrain—no matter where you go, you won't be disappointed. Now, imagine practicing yoga in any of these environments and try not to let a peaceful, day-dreamy 'Ohm' slip from your lips. 

Living in New York, it's pretty common to be woken up in the morning by a car alarm, a passing train's horn, or police sirens. At Iguana Lodge, "an eco-chic resort" in Puerto Jiménez, I was greeted each morning by nature's alarm clock—howler monkeys. Truthfully, the first day, it startled me, jolting me awake. After that though, I came to welcome it, and now that I'm home, I miss it. 

With only screens on the windows, the sounds of the ocean, monkeys scrambling through treetops, and birds singing were the soundtrack to my visit. It was a sort of peaceful chaos—the sound of the morning hustle—and I appreciated it much more than the familiar sounds of Long Island morning carpool honks and trains rolling through town. 

I felt connected to, and quite literally surrounded by, nature. At night I'd sit on the beach with my notebook and reflect on the day, writing until the sun went down. In the mornings I'd sit outside and soak in the morning light over breakfast. Costa Rica houses this incredible energy, and a healing environment, and while I can do these things at home—write on the beach, eat breakfast outside in the morning—it's not quite the same. This country evokes an emotional, spiritual, response from me that simply cannot be duplicated. 

While in Puerto Jiménez I also visited an incredible family-run farm, Rancho Raices. I was able to see first-hand the way in which these farmers embrace nature each and every day, living off the land, cultivating and harvesting their crops. Which leads me to...

The Food

I know I said the food deserves a separate article all on its own, but it also deserves a nod here, too. After all, what you put into, and fuel your body with, is an integral part of wellness. 

My visit to Rancho Raices left me with a greater appreciation for homemade and homegrown produce. Having the chance to make my own—outrageously delicious—chocolate straight from the cacao fruits grown on the property left me wondering if store-bought chocolate would ever satisfy me again (I'm pretty confident it won't). It also left me with a greater appreciation for family. For lunch, we all sat together eating food sourced from the farm. I loved the sense of community and togetherness, and they explained to me that in rural areas (like the one in which Rancho Raices resides), families still dine together for every meal. 

On my first night in Costa Rica I had the opportunity to visit Pura Vida Retreat & Spa. Though I wasn't staying there for the week, I was fortunate enough to dine there as those visiting for a yoga retreat would. 

Traveling as a gluten-free vegan can be difficult, but I found no issues here (or throughout Costa Rica, for that matter). The first thing I noticed: a glass jug offering alkaline water. Best. I was impressed with the selection of organic, mindfully, and locally sourced meals. Everything was so incredibly fresh, and despite having filled my plate more than once, I was left feeling light, satisfied, and grateful for such thoughtfully chosen dishes. 

"Bravery is acknowledging your fear and doing it anyway." – Cheryl Strayed

The Experiences 

On a hike in Pérez Zeledón, my guide Francisco was talking about wellness. A strong, exuberant, happy guy proud of his recent weight loss explained his take on it. "Wellness isn't about being skinny," he explained, "it's about finding that wellness center inside of you." I loved this. 

This trip instilled in me a new understanding of wellness, and what it truly means to live, and be, well. Francisco was right; it's not just about an outward appearance. In conjunction with treating yourself and your body with respect and eating well, wellness is also very much about experiences, pushing your boundaries, finding your center, and reconnecting with yourself—recognizing who you are, who you want to become, and what you want to accomplish. 

A lot of fears were faced and conquered, on this trip, and a lot of firsts were achieved, too. On the morning before I boarded a 12-seater plane (a HUGE fear, and a first) Real Simple sent a Cheryl Strayed quote to my inbox: "Bravery is acknowledging your fear and doing it anyway." It couldn't have been more perfectly timed. I kept those words in mind as I flew in that mini plane, and again when I surfed for the first time, and when I kayaked through crocodile-inhabited mangroves, too. For the first time in my 27-year lifetime I actually felt brave. 

The Pura Vida Lifestyle 

Translated literally, pura vida means "pure life." I've heard it used in so many ways—as a greeting, a way to say goodbye, and a way to say thank you or express gratitude. But, as I've come to find out (because I asked, of course), to many Costa Ricans it's an undefinable term and more of a feeling, an attitude, a way of life, and a way of being, that can't really be explained.

Everyone's answer is different. For me, 'pura vida' is about embracing new adventures, connecting with nature, diving head first into fear and coming up stronger, challenging yourself, living freely, happily, authentically, and honestly. It's about community, wellness, finding yourself, and learning how to simply be—which may be the hardest task of all. 

Maggie peikon bio

Maggie is a New York native, writer, and sufferer of insatiable wanderlust. An avid endorphin seeker she has a constant need to be moving, seeking adventure in all she does. She is a lover of travel, daydreaming, fitness, thunderstorms, and her dog, Finley. Despite the fact that she has to take medication daily due to a thyroidectomy, Maggie still believes that laughter will always be the be...READ MORE