Pura Vida: Fortuna and Beyond

DISCLAIMER: This is a personal account of my travels in Costa Rica and what Pura Vida means to me. It’s also a little lengthy so you might want to grab a bevie or two and some snacks before you embark on part one of this literary journey…
Costa Rica. Every day that my feet stood on her soil, I cried. Not so much out of sadness but more out of love. A country full of raw, unfiltered beauty. Her land, the people, the animals (though I am partial to the sloths), the food, the beer that is conveniently available ‘to-go’ at the airport at 6 o’clock in the morning… there wasn’t a part of her that I didn’t fall in love with. That love for her brought out the deepest love for myself.

Two days leading up to our departure, it seemed as though I would not be getting on that plane. For weeks prior I had been suffering from severe back pain. At one point, it landed me in the ER for pain control and even caused loss of all feeling and mobility from the waist down. Numerous doctors visits, an MRI and over $1000.00 in medical bills later, it was confirmed that I suffer from severe lumbar stenosis or compression of my spinal cord in my lower back. Things became dark and disconnected. The constant pain began to bring up my past – the I can’ts and you shouldn’ts; I just didn’t see how ‘Shine On’ was going to happen. My yoga practice was non-existent and the pain became unbearable at times. I felt like the weakest link… but that fiesty, sassy side of me was not ready to say good-bye to an opportunity I knew would be life changing. I needed this and my heart knew it. But there was also the lingering question: What was Pura Vida? What did it mean? I would just have to find out for myself.

Getting There
Traveling instills an independence and love in me like nothing else can. The moment our plane took off from Charleston, I instantly felt better about everything. Well, almost everything. Lugging around my 2 carry-on bags and yoga mat proved to be more of a workout than I bargained for. I’ve always said that I have two speeds: slow and slower. So it seems, I may have found a new ‘slowest’ mode on this trip with all of the extra baggage. Saaarrryyy friends.

After the impeccable timing of our connection that barely allowed the purchase of ‘The Economist’ in one of the ATL airport stores, we were on our flight to San Jose. Per the usual, it was anything but uneventful. From the persnickety stewardess, complimentary gin and tonics (thanks to our generous travel companions) and the shark scare that almost turned into a tray table disaster – it’s fair enough to say that I laughed, a lot. What an amazing way to start a trip; laughter is some of the best medicine. One movie, a few small cat naps, a pack of Starbursts, laughs and a libation or two later, we touched down and said “HOLA!” to San Jose, Costa Rica.

Stepping off the plane and turning the corner down the corridor to the terminal, I was greeted by a large mural of a sloth. These always smiling, sometimes awkward looking, gentle giants are my f a v o r i t e and for some reason it had completely slipped my mind that there were sloths all over Costa Rica. (Ever seen Kristen Bell’s sloth video? You’re Welcome. I almost had this same reaction when my eyes found that mural but I had a quick “Hey Kristen. Reel it in,” internal pep talk so I didn’t create a scene.) As I waited for my heart rate to lower, post 2D sloth sighting, we got in line to go through customs. When I got up to the officer, she immediately assumed that I was proficient in my Spanish speaking abilities and began a full fledged conversation with me… until she saw my face twisted into a look of confusion and uncertainty. Clearly my Spanish minor in high school was going to be put to the test on this trip. The officer took a step down to my level and simply asked, “Habla español?” “Un poquito, ” I replied. She let out a small laugh and spoke much slower the second time around. Moments later, with my broken Spanglish, she wished me “Pura Vida” and I was officially allowed into the country. These little legs and big heart started soaking up every single moment.

Before departing for our first destination, a stop to the restroom was absolutely necessary. Here is where I was bound to make an ‘error’ throughout my time in Costa Rica… You see, due to fragile sewage lines, toilet paper is thrown away and not flushed. Yeah. I know. If my eyes didn’t connect with those cute little signs reminding me about this new trend, forget it, the paper was in the bowl. I swear I tried my best to remember, honest. My first time with the new potty routine was a success; we won’t keep count of the rest.

Once we found our way outside to the curb, Taylor did a little bargaining with a driver, Alan, and we piled into his little red taxi en route to Fortuna. The first thing I learned after being on the road for no more than 5 minutes is that there are no traffic patterns in Costa Rica, nor is there a designated left lane and right lane. You have the road and the vehicles making the game every man for himself. Being born and raised outside of Boston, it almost made me feel right at home… almost. Our 2 hour ride took us through the most beautiful mountains. The land was incredibly green and lush, lots of los bacos (cows) and a few roadside stands here and there. Those hills paired with Alan’s freestyle driving were an immediate recipe for motion sickness and I don’t typically get car sick. All I could think was “Praise Jesus” when we finally stopped for lunch and the car came to a full stop. Alan pulled into a little place on the side of the road that also doubled as an animal rescue. They had over 300 cats, dogs and horses they were taking care of and in honor of those animals, their menu items were strictly vegetarian… and delicious.

Our group, Taylor, Martin, Bethany and myself, having arrived in Costa Rica a few days before the rest of our Shine On Family, provided the opportunity to get to know the country on a more intimate level (Taylor had been multiple times before and now filled the shoes of our official tour guide/interpreter/yogi extraordinaire). We called Backpackers Hostel our home for the next couple of days – it was a beautiful place and it felt good to walk in and drop our stuff.

We made it!

In walking around the town, I found things to be so simple. There was nothing extravagant about the little Supers (grocery stores) – I loved looking at all of the different fruits and vegetables and playing the ‘Taylor, what is this?” game. Mangoes, papaya, starfruit and a dozen other things that I can hardly remember the names of. And then there was the $40.00 bottle of champagne… who knew?! The small restaurants were nothing special at first glance but once you sat down, it was clear that the owners were passionate about their service. The food was also simple and maybe that’s what made it so good. I have never had more delicious ceviche in my 29 years of living. Later that night we hitched a ride to the Chodin hot springs. It was pitch black as we walked into the woods down some very steep stone steps to the springs. Using the light from an iPhone, we tossed our clothes up onto the rocks and with a death grip on Taylor’s arm, I managed to follow the crew and maneuver my way toward the more calm pool of water without being swept away. It was unbelievably warm and we were in the company of a little lone lightning bug. The air smelled pure and very earthy from the high mineral content of the water. Standing under one of the little ledges with the water falling on your shoulders acted like a free massage courtesy of mother nature. But it’s all fun and games until debris gets stirred up and then touches your legs making you think its some kind of Lochness monster trying to attack. Yes, we shrieked and maybe even ended up completely out of the water at one point. It was so worth the laughs. Our fingers and toes pruned beyond recognition, we made the trek up and out of the springs and back to our hostel. Sandwiched in the backseat, I couldn’t think of anywhere else that I would want to be in the moment. Gently setting one hand on my chest I felt immense gratitude for honoring my own hearts desire and making the trip.

My first morning waking up in Costa Rica and I was already a changed woman. Girl be drankin’ her coffee black from that morning forward – and I’m not upset about it one bit. Sitting under a little tiki hut in the early morning hours of sunlight, I was blessed with the company and conversation from two of my best friends while the other was still catching some serious Zzz’s. There was no fluff. It was real, honest, loving conversation. There was also some recollection from the night before when ingestion of the sleep aid, Ambien, led to some very entertaining, bedtime conversation.  We laid our yoga mats on the ground outside our door and while Taylor, Bethany and Martin flowed, I stretched. My first time back on my mat since everything with my lower back had transpired a month earlier. It wasn’t a full asana but it was something; progress. Part of me wanted to be upset that I couldn’t get into a down dog. Pushing that nagging feeling aside, right then, I made the decision that I wasn’t going to attach to what I couldn’t do or what didn’t feel good. My big girl, Central American pants were officially on, no more negativity.


Breakfast was simple; tortillas, eggs, tomato, cheese and fruit. Simple perfection. The four of us sat in the communal kitchen and it was hard not to be in that moment. My mind wasn’t focused on the searing pain that kept me from sleeping the night before or the ‘how was I going to make it through the day,’ thoughts that continued to bubble up. The joy of being in Costa Rica overshadowed everything else.


Later that morning, my body did something that I never expected. Together, along with one of our ‘Shine On’ family members, Denise, we descended down 525 stairs to La Catarata Fortuna. It wasn’t easy but it was worth it. I’ve seen a lot of waterfalls in my life but nothing compares to La Catarata thus far. In fact, I can’t even find the words to accurately describe the natural phenomenon I found myself standing in front of. The water was refreshing and the current was strong. So forceful that two of us fell victim to her sheer strength and ended up a ways downstream. (We labeled that incident as the first near-death experience of the trip. I’m happy to say that there were only two.) Mother nature is not one to fool with; she is powerful and unpredictable. Imagine if we all approached the unpredictable as empowered beings… how beautiful, right?  Further downstream, in one of the little pools, we all had our share of introspective quiet time. There I sat, on a rock, in the sun, La Catarata at my back and surrounded by the Costa Rican jungle… pinch… Yes, Kristen. This is real life. And then a Blue Monarch butterfly flew by. We all stopped, and just marveled in its’ magic. Transformation, I thought to myself, thats what this trip was about. Slowly but surely my superficial layers were being peeled back to reveal… just me. I’m pretty sure that we could have just laid there, in the little pool, talking and laughing, all day. But those 525 stairs that we came down, they were calling our names…

Lies. It was the bar that was perfectly situated at the top of those 525 stairs. Specifically, it was the mojitos and the guac that were beckoning. Now, I don’t know about you, but if my elementary math skills serve me correctly, that makes it a whopping 1050 stairs that we crushed. (If someone had told me that morning that I was going to climb 1050 stairs, my response would, for sure, have been, “HELL NO.”) In addition to the alcoholic reward following our hike, a monkey also came to join the party. Our first el mono sighting of the trip! I think we gave him the name ‘Pico,’ short for pico de gallo.  Because when in Costa Rica… you don’t need a reason to name all of the furry friends that you meet.


photo credit: T. Harkness




Look closely and you’ll see Pico.

A few mojitos each (a couple of them may have been doubles) and it was time we piled back into a taxi to return to town. It was truly a beautiful day outside. As many times as Taylor had been to Fortuna, he had never seen the top of the volcano due to cloud cover. Clearly, his lucky charms had not been present on past trips because we had the most breathtaking view of El Volcan Arenal on our ride back to town.


The remainder of our time in Fortuna was spent without distraction. We didn’t have a plan. No commitments. Just going with the flow. Walking around town. Delicious food. A bakery with the most delectable chocolate tres leches cupcakes. A search through every pharmacy for Lactaid that proved unsuccessful. Cute dogs. More naps. Laughing. Swinging in hammocks and lots of beverages. (WARNING: If you are ever in Costa Rica and are offered a beverage by the name of a Green Moon, do yourself a favor and politely decline. Trust me on this one.)

San Jose
On Day 3, we said good-bye to Fortuna and jumped on a bus back to San Jose. It was time to meet up with more of our ‘Shine On’ family. Once in the city, we gained another family member, Kati, dropped our bags at the hostel where she and Denise were staying and set off to explore the city. There was an elegance about the architecture that made it breathtaking; from ordinary buildings to churches. Wandering through the city market, it was bustling with activity. The thing with walking around the towns and cities in Costa Rica is that you have to be mindful of where you step. Very, very mindful. The curbs can be anywhere from a few inches to a few feet in height. After a solid rain, you don’t know what you’re stepping off of. Enter the second and final near death experience of the trip… While walking, we came across this rather large storm drain hole in the center of one of the sidewalks. We began to marvel at just how large the hole was; so big that if I had fallen in, you could have considered me gone. Well in an effort to demonstrate how to avoid such a catastrophe, Bethany lost her footing and narrowly missed the hole herself. It was a close call, people. Her life as I know it flashed before my eyes. Once B finally regained her footing and was a safe distance from the hazard, we laughed. Hard. Per the recommendation of a local, we found a spot to sit down for a happiest hour/late lunch/early dinner. And then came the Caipirinhas… a delectable little dream in a glass. Sigh. Things became a little blurry after that…






Dodging the evening rain, we made our way back to the hostel to meet up with Jamie and Chynna. Our shiny family was growing as was my excitement. There were quick ‘hellos’ and hugs while the last few traveling details were ironed out courtesy of the wifi and then Taylor, Martin, Bethany and I grabbed our bags and hopped in a taxi to Alajuela. We were staying in a hostel closer to the airport as our flight to Golfito was very early the following morning. Upon arrival, there was the dropping of our bags on the floor and bodies on our beds. We officially said ‘farewell’ to sleeping in beloved air conditioning and ‘hello’ to our skin glistening with sweat 24/7; let’s call it the ‘Tico Glow.’ Somehow I had managed to climb up to the top bunk where I was convinced my body would lay motionless for the next 8 hours or so… until we got word that another group of our shiny sisters had arrived in San Jose and were hanging out only a few blocks down from us. More new faces to meet and hearts to connect with was about the only thing that could have peeled me up off that bed.

It was a short walk across the park and down a small alley to the girls’ hostel. As we walked in, I could hear the laughter before I saw their faces and that made me light up instantly. There were hugs all around with Emily, Rebecca, Laura, Jodie and Cristina. Our stay was short but they needed not fear because we were all on the same ass-crack of dawn flight to Golfito in the morning. That 4am alarm was going to come all too soon. We said our ‘goodnights’ and walked back to the hostel. Climbing back up onto the top bunk was hard and so was sleeping. I think sleep and I finally found each other in frog pose with at least two of my limbs hanging off the edge of the bed. And it wasn’t long after that I awoke to a very obnoxious alarm.

To Golfito and Beyond
Oh 4am. You were not my favorite that morning. By 445 we were back in a taxi en route to the airport. Coffee. That’s all I wanted. At that point, it was the only thing that was going to make me feel semi-human. Post check-in and security scan, BAM! coffee was in hand. Kirstin joined in on the fun and our shiny little group of yogis waited to board Nature Air. Just when I thought that things couldn’t possibly get any better, Laura rounded the corner with beers, yes, beer(S) in hand. What better way to start a morning than with coffee and an ice cold Imperial. It was at that very moment that I knew we were going to be the best of friends.

Beers downed. Bags in hand. Tickets out. We all boarded a rather tiny plane, one of maybe 12 seats… 14 if you include the pilot and co-pilot. Like I said, small. It was a short flight. But what it lacked in duration was made up for in magnificent views. For several minutes, I sat gazing out the window at the world below. The land, her land, was impressive in its austere beauty.


photo credit: R. Santelia

photo credit: R. Santelia



Before long, we landed on what I can only describe as a small paved landing strip in the middle of a tiny jungle town. And it was HOT. Remember that Tico Glow I was telling you about? Let’s just say that we were all glowing as we stepped off the plane in Golfito. Our taxis were ready and waiting for us. First stop: a little Super. Necessary items purchased: one bottle of water and two bottles of rum. (I speak only for myself here. I was in Costa Rica and I planned on sharing. Judge away.) A little hour and 45 minute off-roading taxi ride landed us in Punta Banco, not far from the Panamanian border.

I didn’t have any expectations going into the trip and I’m pretty sure that even if I did, the above memories of the time that I spent in Costa Rica, just leading up to our Shine On Retreat, exceeded them.

To be continued…

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