Costa Rica: the happiest country on earth

Costa Rica: the happiest country on earth

781
5
SHARE
An eco-lodge on the Pacuare River offers an unrivaled opportunity to see the jungle up close, left, and this toucan is one of several varieties of wildlife. LAUREN KRAMER PHOTOS

This travel story comes with a caution: if you’re visiting Costa Rica for any reason other than its nature, don’t bother.

Don’t come for the food, which is easily forgettable. The most popular dishes are gallo pinto, which is rice-and-beans, and fried pork skins known as chicharrones. While local Costa Ricans love this food, if you’re not from here you might well be mystified by its appeal.

Don’t come for the driving conditions either, as the winding back roads leading to the coastlines and volcanic regions inland can be perilous, with bathtub-sized potholes and no streetlights out of the city.

But if you’re coming for the natural beauty of this small Central American country, you won’t leave disappointed.  A tropical jungle filled with lush palms, massive ferns, strangler fig trees and unexpected bursts of bright heliconia, it’s a scene straight out of a Tarzan movie, complete with howler monkeys swinging shyly from the drooping vines and sloths cradled sleepily in tree branches. A quarter of the country’s landmass is protected from development, and its verdant beauty is nothing short of spellbinding.

We were grateful to leave the dense bustle of San Jose, Costa Rica’s capital and a city unremarkable but for a handful of colonial-style architectural buildings easily seen from a bus on the way out of town. Our destination was the Pacuare River, two hours east, where we’d signed up for a whitewater river rafting adventure, one of the hallmark tourism experiences in Costa Rica. Over the course of two days we’d travel 30 kilometres over class three and four rapids, spending a night at an eco-lodge where we’d be hushed to sleep by the thrum of rushing water.

The rafting was thrilling, with adrenaline-pumping rapids around every bend and between them, a few serene, calmer stretches where we could hop overboard. With one hand on the raft we’d drift gently in the soft current, watching the iridescent turquoise wings of blue morpho butterflies as they flitted across the river. By early afternoon we reached the eco-lodge, a series of rustic treehouse-style rooms located on the river bluffs. Once we’d swapped wet clothes for dry, there were hikes we could venture on, but it was prudent to exercise caution, our guide Jonny warned us. “There are snakes around here and they get active this time of day,” he said. “Just a few days ago I killed a very poisonous one outside the dining hall.”

As evening fell we gathered at candlelit tables in the thatched dining hall for dinner with other travellers. The air was thick with moisture, the jungle was shrouded in misty clouds and a steady rain made the palm fronds glisten in the fading light. It felt magical spending a night on the river banks, surrounded by tropical jungle and just a two-hour hike from the Cabecar Indians, the closest isolated indigenous community. “We have an arrangement with them,” Jonny explained. “They allow us to stop along the river and prepare meals for our rafting guests, but if there’s any food left over, we leave it for them.”

I wanted to spend Shabbat in San Jose, which is why we headed back to San Jose on the dusty Costa Rican roads a few days later. We’d been invited to spend the night at the Hotel Presidente, an establishment owned by the Mikowski family, third generation Jewish Costa Ricans.

Read: A HOLIDAY GETAWAY NOT SO FAR FROM HOME

“My great-grandfather left Poland in the 1930s and somehow ended up in Costa Rica where he sold clothing door-to-door,” said Daniel Mikowski, 41. Daniel’s late father Jaime was the architect behind the hotel’s expansion and before his death in 1998, designed another hotel three hours northeast. Tabacon, located on the slopes of the Arenal Volcano, started as a 30-room establishment with beautiful gardens and hot springs fed by the diversion of thermal water to the property. Today the five-star, 100-room property is in high demand and known to be the best accommodation in the area.

At dusk we made our way to the Centro Israelita Sionista de Costa Rica, a massive complex whose high security walls include administrative offices for various Jewish agencies, the Jewish museum and an impressively grand Orthodox Ashkenazi synagogue. I’d sent my passport and filled out a questionnaire months prior to arriving for Friday night services, but security was tight, passports were inspected and I was still questioned by an Israeli guard before being waved through. Later, at the Shabbat table of the gracious local Jewish family I’d been invited to join, I asked if there was any hostility towards Jews that might justify such high security. The adults at the table shrugged. They couldn’t remember any instances of anti-Semitism in Costa Rica, a democratic country that prides itself on its high literacy rate, its emphasis on conservation (25 per cent of the land is protected and 11 per cent is national parks) and the fact that it has no army.

I’m used to daydreaming through rabbinical sermons and this time I had the perfect excuse: it was delivered in Spanish so the possibility of comprehension was non-existent. Still, I loved the familiarity of the Shabbat songs that washed over me during the service, and the warmth of community members who were happy to welcome visitors. After a week of barely mediocre restaurant meals it was blissful to eat challah at a local table, where the menu included kosher tamales wrapped in banana leaves, a labour intensive exercise but a culinary favourite, my hostess assured me.

Over the course of a Friday evening I heard of the kinds of issues that pester Jews the world over. The handsome medical student who drove me to dinner complained there were insufficient Jewish girls in town. Others mentioned that the pews at the large Orthodox synagogue were full only on the High Holidays and that the Jewish day school was more secular than it needed to be.

Still, by all appearances Costa Rica is a tight Jewish community and though many of its young Jewish people head to the United States for their studies, Mikowski said most of his friends have chosen to stay in Costa Rica. At the Friday night table I asked the young parents around me if, given the opportunity, they’d rather live elsewhere. One suggested Israel, but everyone else concurred they were happy staying put. Which makes perfect sense, when you think about it, given that according to the Happy Planet Index, Costa Rica is the happiest country on earth.

  • Yens

    Nice article! Except for the comment about the food in Costa Rica. At my hotel Drake Bay Getaway Resort, the food is excellent. We use local, fresh ingredients including vegetables, fruits, shrimp, fish, beef and much more. Your food experience depends on the type of hotel where you stay in Costa Rica. We are the #1 hotel in Costa Rica in TripAdvisor. We offer personalized meals based on our guests’ special diets.

  • Harriet Logan

    Absurd conclusion. Costa Rica is not the happiest country in the world at all for the 10% of the population that are the 10%+ of the population that are fleeing other countries.

    • María Isabel Pérez

      As a former student in North America and Europe who has voluntarily chosen to come back to my beautiful Costa Rica, I must disagree with you, Mrs. Logan. The fact that Costa Rica IS and HAS BEEN designated as the Happiest Country in the World by the Happy Planet Index and other studies, is not a matter of opinion (much less your personal opinion) but rather a result and conclusions of several studies. Additionally, your figures are absolutely and simply absurd and biased when you mention that +10% of the total of 4.8 million Costa Ricans have emigrated to other countries (which, if you do your math, simple arithmetic of a third-grader shows that you’re talking about roughly +480K Costa Ricans). In contrast, the World Bank figures show that scarcely around 3% of the same Costa Rican population have emigrated elsewhere (which accounts for a total of 127K out of 4.8 million). Source: http://web.archive.org/web/http://hdrstats.undp.org/en/countries/country_fact_sheets/cty_fs_CRI.html
      The emigration pattern of Costa Rican nationales is indeed on of the lowest in the world based on the fact that -whether you like it or not- this country continues to be the Happiest Country in the world.
      Furthermore, the Costa Rican emigration figures are even lower than most countries in the Western Hemisphere. For instance, with roughly 3 million citizen living overseas, the Canadian diaspora represents around 8% of the total population in this country… almost triple of that of Costa Rica and definitely closer to your 10%. See: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/estimated-2-8-million-canadians-live-abroad-1.790218
      U.S. emigration, to mention another example (before the Trump era), at a figure of around 10 million Americans living overseas represents 3% of the total U.S. population (source: https://travel.state.gov/content/dam/travel/CA_By_the_Numbers.pdf ) , although immigration experts in the U.S. as well as overseas have clearly stated that those numbers are not reliable and may be greatly underestimated (see: “Counting the Uncountable” from the U.S. Migration Policy Institute at: http://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/counting-uncountable-overseas-americans )
      The bottom line, Mrs. Logan, it is very simple. If you wish to publish a credible opinion rather than your personal likes or dislikes (some would dare to call them “prejudices”) , it is as simple asa this: back up your statements with credible figures rather than personal and biased information.

  • Tytus Ósemkowski

    Thank you for this article. I always am interested in each article about this country. I am Polaco and have been loving CR since 1988. I carry this web-page in polish http://www.kostaryka.org U can see it at least pictures. Costa Rica is a extraordinary country. I know it through and through with up and down sides but I still claim it is the most fantastic country in the world.

  • María Isabel Pérez

    As a former graduate student in Europe and North America (a Canadian and an Ivy League university included) who has voluntarily chosen to come back to my beautiful Costa Rica, with all due respect I must disagree with you, Mrs. Logan. Contrarily to what it somehow seems to be an impulse of yours to give a slanted opinion, I refuse and disown the possibility of making a personal remark based on evidence that is not factual, actual and real.

    The fact that Costa Rica HAS BEEN designated as the Happiest Country in the World -more than once over the past few years- in the Happy Planet Index biannual ratings and other international studies, clearly is not a matter of a singular opinion (much less your personal opinion), but rather it is the result and conclusions of several international rankings. Additionally, let’s be clear and let’s agree on a fact: your figures are absolutely biased, unreal and simply absurd when you mention that +10% of the total of 4.8 million Costa Ricans are immigrants to other countries (which, if you do your math -really, nothing but simple arithmetic of a third-grader- it will show that you’re talking about roughly +480K Costa Ricans). Plainly and distinctly opposing your personal opinion, which you seem to feel free to unwittingly furnish with no foundation or citation whatsoever, the World Bank shows figures which estimate that scarcely around 3% of the Costa Rican population (which accounts for a negligible number of 127K “ticos”, out of population total of 4.8 million) have emigrated elsewhere around the globe beyond the world’s happiest place. Source: http://web.archive.org/…/country_fact…/cty_fs_CRI.html

    Oddly, either you or the World Bank is mistaken (and -honestly- chances would clearly seem to indicate that it’s not the latter).

    Emigration patterns of Costa Rican nationals are indeed one of the lowest in the world considered in both, proportional and absolute values and that is simply based on the fact that -whether you like it or not- Costa Rica continues to be the Happiest Country in the world and people -Costa Ricans and foreign residents living in Costa Rica- do not show a tendency to emigrate.

    Furthermore, the Costa Rican emigration figures are even lower than most countries in the Western Hemisphere. For instance, with roughly 3 million citizens living overseas, the Canadian diaspora -a real diaspora for such a “small” country in terms of population (since it’s not even the size of California and it is less than half of Germany)- represents around 8% of the country’s total population… Wow! a good 8% of all Canadians living somewhere else… Imagine that, 3 million Canadians, a figure which resembles the total number of the Colombian diaspora -among exiles, refugees, asylum seekers and immigrants- living in the U.S. after a five-decade civil war, 3 million Canadian emigrants which according to the World Economic Forum equals 1/3 of the total number of the Chinese diaspora spread around the world and paradoxically from a country of 1.36 billion people (source: https://www.weforum.org/…/which-country-has-the-largest… ) and a number of emigrants that equals that of Cuba considering all of its exiles, refugees, asylum seekers and immigrants around the world from a country ruled by a marxist-leninist regime after more than 6 decades (source: http://www.migrationpolicy.org/…/international… )… 8% of all Canadians, a figure which in any case almost triples that of Costa Rica and which is definitely much closer to an imaginary 10% that you awkwardly mention. Source: http://www.cbc.ca/…/estimated-2-8-million-canadians…

    U.S. emigration, just to mention another example, proportionally speaking is also one of the lowest in the New World (of course, before the Trump era) at a number of around 10 million Americans living overseas in 2012, which also represents 3% of the U.S. total population (out of a total of almost 270 million; source: https://travel.state.gov/…/travel/CA_By_the_Numbers.pdf ) and which is much closer to those figures for Costa Rica. However, it must be noted that immigration experts in the U.S. and worldwide have clearly stated that those numbers are not truly reliable (since there are no specific statistics for U.S. emigration as there abundantly is -contrarily- in regards to immigration) and as a result of this the real figures for Americans living overseas may be greatly underestimated (see: “Counting the Uncountable” from the U.S. Migration Policy Institute at: http://www.migrationpolicy.org/…/counting-uncountable… )

    The bottom line, Mrs. Logan, it is very simple. You have been clearly proven to be wrong. If your intention is to publish a credible opinion rather than your personal likes or dislikes (some would dare to call them “prejudices”) , it is as simple as this: you’d better back up your statements with credible figures and reliable sources rather than misinforming and using the social media as a means to propagate biased information based on your personal empathies, disdains, likes or dislikes.