Paradise Found? Hanging Out in Costa Rica’s Blue Zone
Since I was already in Mexico, I swung by Costa Rica to stay with a close friend who had just moved into some sort of gated community for gringos in a remote region of the Nicoya Peninsula, a Blue Zone.
Thing is, I have the pasty white skin of an East Coast city girl. Frolicking beachside as a carefree, sunkissed coconut girl does not come naturally to me. Good weather is supposed to be earned and enjoyed within a short window after months of surviving brutal weather, the reward. I am suspicious of the concept of paradise, the leisurely lifestyle people fantasize about having in retirement where they do nothing but lounge around in hammocks, fruity cocktails in hand. After the novelty wears off, I think living somewhere sunny is just trading one set of problems for another. If you're lucky, the new problems will be less irritating.
But I was curious if paradise did exist for other people. Did they not get bored?
Los Delfines Golf & Country Club
Unless I want to spend all day riding a bus, a ferry, and then a very expensive taxi ride, the best way to get to Los Delfines Golf & Country Club is by a precarious, hour-long ride on a 10-passenger plane to Tambor Airport. From the airport, which is basically a shack, I get picked up to the private estate where the houses are mostly inhabited by snowbirds. During the pandemic, more young people, especially families, moved in to escape lockdown life.
Here, in the middle of nowhere, you must be content to live simply. The only instant gratification is derived from access to nature (I am woken up daily by macaws and howler monkeys). Ubers, DoorDash, Amazon Prime, and other modern conveniences are out of the question. I had to bring my friend a ration of cosmetics from Canada. Even buying groceries is an ordeal that requires driving half an hour to the nearest town. There are no cafes and the lone restaurant on the beach is never open when I want it to be. The only food delivery available is pizza. If you crave any other types of food, you have to chase down the ingredients and make them yourself. (One neighbor wanted tiramisu but wondered if marscapone cheese could even be found, and if it was, whether it is worth whatever crazy markup it's sure to be.) All the appliances here are at least twenty years old. So are the cars, which are in sparse supply. In peak season, they rent for $8000 USD a month.
"Pura Vida," Costa Rica's catchphrase meaning "pure life," is heard everywhere. Locals say it as a way of greeting and acknowledgment. My friend's husband starts using it bitterly. Dropped phone call? Pura Vida. Power goes out? Pura Vida. Newly bought car leaking gas? Pura Vida.
Because the community is so small, everybody knows each other. Inevitably, gossip is rife. I make peace with the fact that everyone will know stuff about me. I don't mind because I am only a guest star on their sitcom. My friend likes to talk, and I learn everything about everyone often before I even meet them. Many are Canadian, so burnt out by the rat race that they quit their jobs, Airbnb out their houses, and moved here to decompress.
We joke that it's like The Beach since residents have to take turns going into town to get supplies for the community. They have a Whatsapp group to borrow things: "Does anybody have a flathead screwdriver?" It's a quaint, old-fashioned lifestyle where neighbors frequently drop by unannounced. Kids roam around the streets like the stray cats that come by to drink pool water (we start leaving out bowls of water and cat food in the backyard). But inviting a few people over on a Saturday night could mean hosting a raging house party where middle-aged parents, strung out by chasing after their kids all day, let loose by drinking cheap sangria out of boxes and jumping fully clothed into pools.
I skip these parties and instead hole up to work on a new short story...and mostly failing. But I like going to dinner parties. I attend one where the hostess tells us about a slutty college friend who keeps trying to contact her. She slept with any man who crossed her path. I am fascinated by promiscuous women and lean in with questions. Did she do it for pleasure? Power? The hostess said her friend had daddy issues, a cliché that almost disappoints me. I remark that it sounds like this woman is trying to extract energy from the men she sleeps with. Kind of like a succubus.
There's not a lot to do In Los Defines, but sunsets on the private beach are truly magical. Floating in the ocean is better than being in a sauna. I learn I can stay in the water for hours and not get bored. A big highlight of people's day is volleyball. I play once, badly. "If we miss going to the beach, it feels like we wasted a day," a neighbor tells me. I am amused that going to the beach has become a form of accomplishment. But slow living is not devoid of other dramas, serious or small. Someone gets stung by a scorpion. Another almost step on a snake. A family's minivan falls into a ditch. A child goes missing but is found napping in his bed underneath a pile of blankets. A woman's eye gets scratched by a twig, and she has to take a day trip into civilization to visit the optometrist, who tells her, inexplicably, that the solution is prescription eyeglasses.
A neighbor's house is haunted. The previous owner is a woman who removed her dog's voice box because she didn't like the barking. The man currently living there tells me recently he woke up to the voice of his wife only to find her fast asleep. "Strange things are happening over there," he says, rubbing his worried face. One day, another family came over for dinner, and the teenage girl of the family passed out in what sounds to me like a possession attempt.
On another day, while bobbing in the ocean together, the girl recounts the full story to me: she felt the room spin and go black before she fainted. Her father, who is usually tough and stoic, cried out in terror as he jumped up to catch her before she hit the floor. He shook her back to consciousness, screaming her name. Before they left, they could not find their house key, even though they were sure they left it on the entryway table. They searched everywhere, gave up, and had to break into their own house by climbing through a window. The next day, the key is finally found in the haunted house, inside a box on top of a shelf. Nobody could have put it there.
I give up on trying to get any writing done. Even though there's little to do, a lot seems to happen, too many domestic dramas and weird stories to take in. I can't think here. I can't even read. When I carve out time alone, I surrender to doing nothing. My big project would be to sit on the beach and tan my white stocking legs—I'm talking lockdown pale. I get a sunburn. Mission accomplished.
Montezuma is a cute little beach town half an hour south of Los Delfines Golf & Country Club, also in the Nicoya Peninsula. I visit with a group of women on a day trip. The dirt roads along the way are winding. I get a little car sick and feel like a child.
At Sano Banano Restaurant, we have lunch. I'm disappointed I can't try out the food-related Spanish vocabulary I picked up in Mexico because the waiter is so proud of his good English. Spanish is not really needed in Costa Rica, and I resign to being lumped in with the gringos. (Whenever I'm in a different country, I like to mingle with the locals and learn about their culture, but there is too much of a divide between Ticos and expats/tourists from what I've witnessed.)
The town is nice, but I don't feel much affinity with it. There's a cluster of stores, bars, and restaurants. We browse a shop where the flimsy clothing is made in Thailand and the saleswoman regards us with weary indifference. The beach is postcard-perfect but I am melting and the sand is too hot to walk on. We get ice cream and cool down.
On the drive back to Los Delfines, I'm more nauseous and wonder if I'll have to puke soon. When I'm home, the women check up on me via their group chat. "Is it the banana pancakes?"
Later, I make some tea and discover I have been drinking laxative tea for the past four days. I had bought a box of "Senna Leaf" tea from the convenience store thinking it was a calming and pleasant tisane. My friend freaks out because she thinks she might have bought the same tea to an afternoon tea and scones event for the community's women. She texts the community chat, but luckily, she'd brought a non-laxative tea. Now everybody knows about my big tea fiasco. "Poor Annie," someone texts with a string of cry-laugh emojis. I think all this is funny and find the close-knit community endearing. In Toronto, as much as I want to share the details of my bowel movements, nobody would care.
Along with two other families—the one from the haunted house and the other with the daughter who almost got possessed in the haunted house—we pack up to spend a few days in Tamarindo, which is a three-hour drive north. When we arrive, they are wide-eyed and excited at the abundance of shops, cafes, and restaurants.
Tamarindo is a bigger beach town known for surfing and partying, accessible by the Liberia airport. I'm too busy worrying about where I can take a PCR Covid test and receive the results in time so I can be allowed back into Canada (this was in mid-December 2021). To my relief, I immediately find a doctor's office across the street from our Airbnb and pay a hundred dollars for my nostrils to get poked with a stick.
Despite how touristy it is, how dusty the unpaved roads, we all like it here. My friend even arranges some appointments to look at real estate. It's got enough of the modern conveniences along with the usual hedonistic beach-front living, albeit with gringo prices. Everything is in US dollars, and with the exchange rate, it's just as expensive as Toronto.
At the Airbnb, we cool off in the pool, play chess, and have cozy chats. The only work I get done is sending out an email. One morning, I am finally able to sit alone in a cafe and read a book (Garth Greenwell's Cleanness). I also get a chance to poke around the shops. They are all local businesses, although I can't find any bikinis that are not a series of strings. In the chicest store, Diamante Boutique, I buy an expensive pair of Italian-made linen pants and proceed to lose them by the end of my trip.
On the last night here, we have a girl's night, eating dinner at Rumors and visiting the night market, which is lively and fun. A mommy vlogger, who my friend connected with on Instagram, joins us for a drink and gives us the ins and outs of life here as a self-proclaimed "housewife of Tamarindo." I try to figure out whether she is an interesting person. She is friendly enough with the wide, face-consuming smile of Cameron Diaz and the social skills to work the room. She name-drops the celebrities her husband is playing video games with and knows which millionaires are investing in which towns in Costa Rica. "All these celebrities and rich people are hiding here!" she says. I conclude that she lacks originality.
Late at night, Rumors turns into a club. I drink a French 75 and feel strange that after a year and a half of lockdowns, I'm in such close proximity to a bunch of strangers—accidentally touching someone's sweaty back, the waitress brushing my arm with cold fingers—but I remind myself that I'm double vaxxed and the Covid case counts here are extremely low. There's a curfew, and all the bars and restaurants promptly shut down at 11 pm. Apparently, Covid only comes out after 11. All the partygoers are pushed out onto the sidewalk. "Where do we go now?" a stranger asks me, eyes bleery from booze. I shrug. "I don't know. Walk around the block?"
Actually, I do attend an impromptu after-party, tagging along with a small group to the mommy vlogger's modern apartment that's within walking distance. Her husband is away on business and her kids are deep sleepers so we can talk as loud as we want. She offers us special cookies. I decline but an older woman sitting across from me accepts.
Apropos of nothing, the woman starts advising me to never get fillers, only botox. "Fillers stretch out the skin," she says, adding that if celebrities haven't figured out how to look good with fillers, it's not going to work well for the rest of us. I say that I haven't considered doing either. She insists that once I get to her age, 46, I'll want to do it too, then proceeds to tell me about her gastric bypass surgery. She pulls up pictures on her phone from her fat days and says that now that she's thin, she is getting more clients as a real estate agent. I try to commiserate by telling her I'd gained weight during quarantine, but I had lost it due to a recent mishap with laxative tea.
Her guy friend, who probably doesn't know her for long, is horrified to learn she places so much stock in her looks and starts insisting that real beauty comes from the inside. The woman waves away such banalities and pleads with me to get my generation to change the beauty standards. I inform her that there is a body positivity movement that currently consists of conventionally attractive women trying to get attention by showing off a couple of belly rolls on Instagram in exchange for likes and praise for being "brave." But with Photoshop, filters, social media, and capitalizing on the personal brand, young women are more obsessed with their looks than ever, and on the whole, things are probably worse in the body dysmorphia department.
During this trip in Central America, people seemed keen to tell me about their cosmetic procedures. In Mexico City, a woman told me she had her boobs done because they hung down to her knees after breastfeeding two kids. She also had liposuction because there was a little pouch of belly fat, also from pregnancy, that wouldn't go away no matter how much she exercised. She had to be careful not to eat too much now. I wondered what would happen if she did. Would she risk exploding? She showed me before and after pictures of her veneers. She was very pretty and I asked her if she was a model, thinking that was a reasonable explanation for her need for physical perfection. She said she was a chef.
At our Tamarindo Airbnb, my friend casually mentions that an acquaintance of ours, who I have hung out with on numerous occasions over the years in Toronto, has breast implants. I feel bamboozled. It does change my opinion of her because now it seems she solicits the attention from her cleavage instead of it being an incidental inconvenience.
The mommy vlogger had made an appointment in San Jose to see about a tummy tuck. Maybe a breast lift too. I realize I am completely naive about cosmetic surgery. Unless the results are monstrous and obvious, I wouldn't know people got it unless they told me, as the real estate agent is telling me now. She says she harbored a lot of emotional pain from being fat and disregarded as a human being. "But I cut my pain away," she says sadly. "That's so poetic!" I exclaim, grinning enthusiastically. Probably an insensitive reaction since she is on the verge of tears.
The group starts complaining about Canada's vaccine mandates. I dread getting into conspiracy theories, but luckily it's so late that we have to go. There are no Ubers, just unlicensed taxis, so we decide to walk back at 2 am. During the pandemic, I forgot to miss spontaneity on nights like this and having random conversations with people I'll likely never see again. I remark that it's weird that I will be getting on a plane and going back to a slow-laden Toronto, to wearing heavy winter layers and snow boots. I had gotten used to walking around all day, every day in a bikini top. "But you live here now," someone says.
For a moment, I imagine what it would be like to live in Costa Rica. I'd walk around barefoot with black sand in my crevices. I'd definitely learn to surf. I'd spend evenings soaking in the ocean. The years will roll by until my skin is tawny leather.
No. This is someone else's dream life, not mine. But I do harbor delusions of my own utopia. I want to live in the gothic and romantic parts of Scotland or drink cappuccinos and Aperol Spritzes on terraces in Florence, Italy. I'll probably keep making the mistake of conflating vacation with real life, and one day I might just pack up and reach for my brass ring.
Right now, it is time for me to leave, disappear back into the cold gray anonymity of the city. There, I can live beside neighbors for years and never talk to them or even see them. But it's where I want to be, at least for now, so I can keep moving forward in life. At the Liberia airport, my friend bursts into tears. I hug her goodbye, leaving her to her version of paradise.