The road to Mal Pais is dusty. It’s so dusty that the torso-sized leaves arcing over the road are gray-brown shapes against the blue sky. From the back of our taxi, Costa Rica looks little like the impossibly green jungle pictures in my travel book. In the rainy season, the road from the tiny Tambor airstrip to Mal Pais [Pie-ees] is a washed-out rut of waterfalls and fluorescent flora—hard to believe as we bump along down the stoney lane.
Everyone here has a cough, but many locals would take dusty lungs over paved roads, which equal tourists, accidents, new construction and an extinction of the gracious pedestrian/stray dog right of way. What to us might be an annoyingly slow, bumpy road is to the locals a moat around the Nicoya peninsula, protecting it from gringo monoculture. A moat that’s about to be paved over.
The road dips steeply towards the Pacific, a sweep of azure fringed in white and gold. Between the beach, jungle and wildlife, you’d be hard pressed not to find an easy connection to the natural world here—the perfect antidote to city-worn eyes. But Costa Rica is more than beaches and babes. It’s a country teetering on the edge of a cultural abyss. As a turista, every choice I make about what I eat, where I stay and how I choose to spend my day is vital to the local way of life. With more bird species than all of North America’s countries combined and a tradition of environmental protection and its cousin, eco-tourism, Costa Ricans know the importance of conscious consumerism.
Go local: There’s an eerie lack of fruit at supermercados here. Why? Everything’s exported! Even bananas are scarce despite hundreds of surrounding plantations. Sadly, the only dried papaya we found was from Thailand (gasp!) via Maryland (gasp! gasp!)—even though they were in season and grow everywhere, abundantly au naturel. Read the package and buy local. When buying coffee, look for fair-trade, shade-grown. Café Altura is good.
Get out: Cabo Blanco Nature Reserve, Costa Rica’s first national park, is just a few kilometers from Mal Pais. Your $8 entrance fee helps protect a gorgeous jungle microclime that cradles a wealth of rare flora and fauna.
Bike: Casa Zen rents bikes for $10/day. Sacrifice your need for speed, forget the ubiquitous two-wheeled A.T.V. cruisers and take a beachside ride up to Manzanillo—your thighs will thank you! Manzanillo’s pristine beaches are deserted and you can bob around in the calm, warm water without swallowing gallons of salt. Taste the best local dorado ceviche (Mahi-mahi) on earth at Atacedero Dora Restaurant, where you can watch las ballenas (whales) breech on the horizon while sipping coco de sueno.
Bus: Public transportation is easy and ecologically responsible. Ride to Cabo Blanco, Montezuma or even the airport for an eighth of the price of a cab (plus you get to meet people, and keep the adventure in traveling).
Surf: Fun doesn’t get more emissions-free, and surfboard sunsets are the best. But before flinging yourself into high tide, find out where the rips and rocks are. Take a lesson from the Mal Pais Surf Camp (Lessons start at $35) or grab a local—surf gurus abound here. Playa Carmen’s consistent and friendly break is perfect for beginners. Rent a board for $10/day at one of the surf vendors along the beach.
Eat Local: Buycott the gleaming, air-conditioned resorts offering mozzarella paninis for $15 and sushi for $50. Choose one of the small roadside sodas (inexpensive, local “tico” eateries). Soda La Amistad is my favorite. Try pinto gallo con aguacate for $2.50 (rice and beans never tasted so good). The best smoothies: sandia con agua (watermelon) and banana con leche. Best local beer: Costa Rican Pilsen or Imperial with lime. Organic food is rare, but local is still eco. Hoof it up the dusty road to Santa Teresa’s Pacifico: a surf shop by day, organic restaurant by night. Find the local fishmonger (look for the red truck) on Tuesdays and Fridays, or rent a boat and catch your own. Casa Zen’s Oscar will grill your fresh-caught filets with red curry and fresh veggies. There’s a farmer’s market on Saturday by the beach at 3 sharp. You’ll find veggies, fish, homemade chocolate, hummus and sustainable clothing. Most food is gone by 3:15, so don’t be late!
Learn Spanish: Open your ears to the sounds of Spanish everywhere…and take a class. It’s the best way to travel. Casa Zen offers Spanish privates for $15/hour, $20 for groups. Then you can ask how that fish got to your plate!
Eco Resorts: The Mal Pais area has countless places to bunk, from private bungalows (I recommend Disfrutalo) to eco resorts (Star Mountain). My fave is Casa Zen, an Asian-y beachside home-away-from-home with rooms for $12 and up (!), fresh food and iced coffee to die for.
What to bring: Fashion divorces function…bring goggles and a surgical mask for dust protection. Sunscreen costs an arm and a leg here, so bring from home.
Caroline Treadway is an avid rock climber, journalist and photographer. She’s also a big schweetey. Congratulations on her admittance to Boston University’s top-ranked journalism grad school!