Recently, we went to a cocktail party at the Explorer's Club for a screening of a new PBS documentary by Richard Bangs in conjunction with Amigos De Los Parques Nacionales. In the film, Bangs, a kind of eco-conscious Indiana Jones, embarks on a journey to find out the meaning behind Costa Rica's maxim pura vida. After the screening, he made a few poignant remarks. We wanted to share them here.
The first time I came to Costa Rica — to speak at a travel conference — I didn't stay at an eco-lodge. I stayed at the Hotel Presidente in San Jose. I had flown not just from Los Angeles, but all the way from India. I'm not good with jet lag, but this was especially bad. And when I arrived, my hosts asked me to join them at the bar for a drink. I did, and after downing a margarita I found another on the table. Then a third. I vaguely remember dancing at some unknown hour before stumbling to my room and falling naked into my bed.
Sometime in the deep of night, I awoke and headed for the bathroom. I think I still thought I was in my hotel in New Delhi as I headed straight down the hall, opened the door, walked a few steps, and heard a click behind me. I spun around, rubbed my eyes, and found I was naked in the hallway of the Hotel Presidente.
That's where ecotourism is in most countries today. It thinks it's in one room, when in fact it is in an entirely different one. Many places think they are layered in green, when the paint is really just a thin, peeling coat. Not Costa Rica, which offers up a hall of double helixes, creating life as the hanging moss, the fairy chains of orchids, and the woodland umbilicals swing. Costa Rica offers up a room full of wildness — a chamber full of magic. A place to get deliciously lost. A hallway to find something called pura vida.
This, then, is the Quest for Pura Vida. What I hope this film shows is the power of narrative — of the romance, mystery, and the danger of wild places, as these attributes argue, often subliminally, for preservation, and visitation. Most people won't be compelled to take an adventure because the lodge uses certain light bulbs, or soap, or low volume toilets; or hires locals; or uses carbon offsets, though these are necessary and good practices.
What most travelers seek, I believe, are the unfathomable shadows where the wild things are.
Too many travel experiences have become internment centers mapped and planned with no blank spots. Trails are overly marked and monitored. Buses are built for absolute comfort. Around the world at eco lodge poolsides and lobbies, visitors watch — from a safe distance — ethnic spectacles and performances loaded with Post-it Note mysticism. The deep, rich cultures and traditions are too often reduced to dinner shows for the mobile rich, exacting themselves on the inert poor. In these brief, one-sided encounters, there is little chance to understand the people behind the music, and no real celebration of a vibrant, living culture. Visitors are offered the bread crumbs on the floor beneath the big table of cultural apperception. In these dynamics, there is little room for true discovery.
Yes, throughout most of the planet the wilderness is vanishing, cultures are fading. What saves them are not dry statistics and doomsday scenarios, but rather the emotional sumptuousness and connection that comes from visitation to an authentic wild place. Costa Rica, more than any other place, celebrates the witchcraft of wilderness. And once so touched, travelers become the most passionate advocates for preservation, as the trees, and rivers, and wild things are as family.
If a place can be unmediatedly wild, without the requisite security and compliant spaces, without adult supervision, it is then faithful to our childlike imaginations of wilderness. It is, as Nick Kristof said in The New York Times, "a rare space of utter democracy," where the youngest and oldest, poorest and the richest, share the same views, experiences, and risks.
The natural sublime, which is exquisitely articulated in fewer and fewer places, is as much about awe as vulnerability: the peril of avalanches in the Alps for the Romantics; the risks of the rainforests in Costa Rica. The sublime attracts like moths to a flame. We feel most alive when we can imagine our own demise.
Travel ought to be the great, original quest, an individual tale of privation, courage, constant vigilance, and risk. Done right, it is a journey undertaken with only a fragmentary map constructed out of a patchwork of accumulated local lore and the occasional milepost marked "here be dragons" — or, in Costa Rica's case, crocodiles.
Travel in many places today has become too circumscribed. There is a powerful quality in being open-ended, vague at the borders. Of being sufficiently unpolished that a visitor can expand upon it in his own mind, projecting himself into its narratives.
Too many destinations today are like unctuous butlers of the imagination, ready to serve every need or desire as it arises; they don't leave anything implied, unstated, or incomplete. They don't allow us to get lost.
The room we want to be in is the one Costa Rica has so divinely built — one that gives ready and vivid access to wonder, wisdom, and breathtaking beauty. It's simply the magic of an accidental discovery in a wild place, a flitting moment and the resin drop of revelation transformed by luck and alchemy into amber. It is a place of Pure Life. It is Pura Vida.