sunset meditation

Destroying Control and Igniting Beauty in Costa Rica

The first time I saw “Pura Vida” was completely unromantic. The phrase was in an email signature that I read on my couch—swaddled by my robe, blanket, and cats—a valiant effort that ultimately failed the battle against winter’s warfare.

I had reached out to a tour company about a waterfall hike, two weeks prior to a Costa Rica yoga teacher retreat I booked last summer.

sunset beach warrior

Flying solo, I had two personal goals:

  1. To remember what sunshine felt like in the dead of winter
  2. To get reinspired after a three-year hiatus from teaching yoga

dancer-pose-yoga-retreat

My logical, no-frills goals would later be replaced with two deeper concepts, teased already in the title of this blog post. But, I wasn’t able to see them yet.

relaxing-in-swing

In my typical Type-A fashion, I was absurdly stressed before leaving the grind for paradise.

Crazy how the before and after of travel as we get older, with ever-increasing responsibilities, can almost total an elegant adventure in a collision of our own making.

Anyway, I remember how that email signature stood out to me, overtaking the usual “thanks” and “cheers.”

Even with my survival basics Spanish, I knew what it meant—and how arresting that phrase was…

PURA VIDA

costa-rica-beach-meditation

Pure Life

It isn’t about keeping a city weird, an odd slogan that never caught on in Portland and kind of did in Austin. Pura Vida is about the simple life…legit simplicity.

nosara-beach

I’ve been hung up on Costa Rica since 2011, back when Mr. H and I had a trip booked that we canceled.

That was the year I quit my full-time marketing job to pursue an artistic career, teaching dance while finishing my first book and launching this cute blog. Travel budget wasn’t exactly a thing then.

playa-guillones

My infatuation with Costa Rica never faltered, making me feel like a love-sick teen that got stood up at the movies. I had also been pining over a yoga retreat for many years.

When the two came together, I told Mr. H it was something I had to do. And, he told me to go.

playa-garza-walk

After I booked the trip, I had a silly moment of buyer’s remorse. I was worried I had built up Costa Rica way too much. Others warned me it wasn’t great (always nice to hear when you’ve spent thousands of dollars on a trip of a lifetime, right?).

And when I was on what can only be described as the American party plane from Houston to Costa Rica, I wondered again if I had signed up for a weeklong tourist immersion instead of a mind, body, spirit one.

sunset-dog

But I ignored judgment and apprehension, in favor of a beautiful experience from start to finish.

I love to have soundtracks for trips, new albums by my favorite artists that I haven’t listened to yet. It’s especially travel perfection that Bonobo’s most recent album is called “Migration.”

sunset-biker

Because I’m free of distractions—not playing music while working, for example—I can relish the sounds like no other time. It makes the album even more special, associated with this unforgettable place—suspended gracefully in my memory.

Although we didn’t have bonobos at our retreat, we did have howler monkeys.

The male with the big balls woke us up at 4am sharp the first two days. Then he appeared to accept our group and kept it down until the more reasonable hour of 6:30am.

howler-monkey

So for those that warned me Costa Rica wasn’t great. They did it wrong.

love-nosara

I guess I did it right by flying into Liberia instead of messing with San Jose. I did it right by staying in Nosara, which caters to surfers and yogis. Fresh coconut water for a buck? Yes, please!

coconut-water

I completely disconnected for the first time in many years. WiFi, when available, really isn’t the same. And thankfully it isn’t.

Because who wants high-speed anything when it’s so much sweeter to slow down?

ahki-retreat

Only 700 miles from the equator—the closest I’d ever been—I was refueled by the Pura Vida radiating from the big delicious sun.

Yep, as cliche as it sounds, I was about ready to become an expat like all the rest of them. It was like hitting a reset button I didn’t think I had anymore.

sunset-savasana

There’s just something about:

  • Seeing “buterfly” misspelled in a poster ad for a park at customs.
  • The feeling of waking up in another country.
  • Getting used to “Tico Time” where everything moves at a glacial place on purpose.
  • Our driver, Rico, slamming on his breaks to miss various animals: a monstrous iguana/dragon crossing the road, a herd of cows trotting with determination, a daring horse illuminated by the headlights.
  • Swimming twice a day at a minimum.
  • Salty hair and skin.
  • A cold Imperial beer, anytime.
  • The white cows and horses that make the countryside even more luminescent.

costa-rica-jungle

Top all that off with the purpose of this trip, a yoga teacher retreat with 30 hours of anatomy and practice, tucked away in the jungle above the Pacific Ocean at Ahki Retreat.

Our small group had this gem to ourselves, with Chef Daniela, who made three fresh, organic healthy meals each day that were both energizing and inspiring. We practiced yoga in an open-air studio overlooking Mother Nature’s Central American handiwork.

yoga-retreat-outdoors

At Ahki, the relaxation nudge was masterfully executed. Sacred thought went into every architectural detail and inescapable peace happened the second you wandered in.

jungle-hammocks

hammock-music

Then top all THAT off with great people and great conversation, new friends that give life new meaning. The stories you never thought you would hear.

Someone finding yoga after recovering from cancer. Someone going deeper into their practice after losing their spouse, much too young from a heart attack.

Then, there were the meditations… (Holy shit, I know!)

sunset-meditation

I cried during the first meditation in the treetop shala. The repetition of “let go” always does me in.

sand-meditation

I smiled during frequent morning meditations on the beach, where we could sit as long as we liked before exploring other meditative forms…walking, running, swimming.

playa-guillones-sunset

I found myself during a fire ceremony under the stars in the cool sand. We each had to write down something we wanted to destroy and something we wanted to ignite, then burn those pieces of paper.

I won’t share what others tossed in the fire, since they were personal. But, I already shared mine with you guys. I chose to destroy control and ignite beauty.

Without knowing this would happen to me all week, I embodied these deeper concepts. I couldn’t help myself in Costa Rica.

sunset-surfers

From the first hello to two strangers that would become my roomies, and by the end of the week, my beautiful friends.

pool-bar-nosara

coconut-stand

To the last day, when I decided to face one of my fears and go ziplining for the first time.

I was terrified, as it was the second longest ziplining course in the world. What’s great about having so many legs on one course is that you start to loosen up.

costa rica zipline

So, eventually I released the death grip, lay back, and spun around while gazing at the blue skies. Below me was the canopy and a river. Off to the side was a waterfall and the ocean.

The last day on any trip is always fragile and precious. To end it with flying over the jungle is all too fitting for the themes of less control and more beauty. This poignant memory is still so damn lovely in my mind and I know I’ll never forget it.

A place like Costa Rica can be misunderstood when people try to turn it into something it’s not—or force a contrived experience that will never play out the way it did in their mind.

sunset-runner

Pura Vida is about leaving your expectations behind, relinquishing control and welcoming beauty in the wildness of simplicity. Every local I met was a complete nature nerd, and they want you to appreciate and enjoy it like they do. In fact, they expect that.

praying-mantis

Costa Rica will challenge you with its vibrant Pura Vida anthem. You may not get it when you’re there, and hopefully you’ll find it elsewhere someday. Or you’ll accept it body and soul…and stay forever, like many do.

ahki-retreat-pool

Me? I came home. I’m writing this post from my couch in dreary Portland, once again swaddled by my robe, blankets, and cats.

britt-coffee

But, I took a piece of the Pura Vida with me. I tucked it inside the jungle of my wild heart, and I’ll always keep it there.

nosara-costa-rica

37 thoughts on “Destroying Control and Igniting Beauty in Costa Rica

    • Britt Skrabanek says:

      It was SO tough to leave. Almost told Mr. H to pack up the cats and come on down.

      The pre-trip time can be stressful, absolutely! I always end up laughing at myself when I’m on vacation though, thinking how unnecessary most of that stress was. 😉

  1. Carrie Rubin says:

    Sounds like a rejuvenating trip in so many ways. Meaningful rest, contemplation, and fulfillment does a body and mind good. Oh, and did you ever think you’d be typing this line: “The male with the big balls woke us up at 4am sharp”. 😄

  2. eden baylee says:

    Sooooooo amazing, all of it! Thrilled you found your Pura Vida, Britt. It’s been a long time since I was in CR, but I used to go annually for about 5 years and loved it each time. There is nothing like traveling somewhere new (or old) and experiencing it with wide eyes.

    Obviously, you created something beautiful for yourself. I’m a firm believer that we attract what we feel, so you attracted peace, harmony, and adventure.

    Loved the pictures and thank you for inviting us along.

    xox
    eden

    • Britt Skrabanek says:

      That’s awesome that you were such a Costa Rica regular, Eden. Surprised you didn’t end up staying down there “by mistake”…seems like that same thing happened to the other expats. Oh, you know…we just decided not to fly back home this one time. 😉

      I know you went on a similar type of spirit quest to Bali. That’s definitely on my list still!

  3. Roy McCarthy says:

    What a great post Britt. You are the sort of person that is already primed to make the very most of that experience. I wonder if everyone can ‘let go’ in the same way or are they pushing back, fidgeting, wishing they could get a decent phone signal?

    I wonder as I was chatting to a friend over a beer the other night. He leads an Overseas Aid trip every couple of years, taking a group of volunteers off to poor, remote parts of the world to carry out a project. Of course it ought to be uber-rewarding for the volunteers as well, but on the last trip a couple of youngish-women wouldn’t engage at all and found it a miserable experience.

    Yes I bet Costa Rica seems far away right now.

    • Britt Skrabanek says:

      Thanks, Roy! You know, the push-back was happening with everyone the first day or two, I’d say. That’s why it’s so important to take a week for a trip like that, so you can acclimate to the slower pace. If you rush a vacation in paradise, you’ll be on your way back home too soon. Defeats the purpose.

      Spring is around the corner, thankfully! Saw WAY too much snow here for my own comfort, so Costa Rica was well-timed.

  4. Kate Johnston says:

    We wanted to make a family trip to Costa Rica for Thanksgiving last year, but time (and money) got away from us. We’ll try again later–but so lovely to read of your experience. Shame on anyone who tries to warn anyone away from a vacation destination. Silly and selfish to assume that one’s experience would be the pilot program for someone else’s experience. I’m glad you had a splendid time. And holy shit, what I wouldn’t do to meditate in a place like that!

    • Britt Skrabanek says:

      Yeah, I hear ya! That’s what happened to us a few years ago with the same trip. Costa Rica isn’t necessarily a cheap date either, unlike some other less ex-pat locations.

      Yeah, it’s funny when people say things like that. I guess they’re trying to help? Not sure.

  5. Les Petits Pas de Juls says:

    Fantastic, my darling! Absolutely fantastic! I’m so happy for you and read those delicious words from you and Costa Rica. Enjoy being back in Portland, in spite of the cold, and keep radiating your beautiful self!
    xoxoxo from the beach on Holbox island, Mexico!
    Jul’

  6. Sheila says:

    I feel like I traveled with you there a bit. Thank you for taking us along on such a beautiful adventure. The music was perfect to listen to while reading and trying to jump into the pictures. The ziplining sounds amazing too – and perfect for letting go. I’m sure you’ll carry all that sunshine with you while lighting up Portland with it now. Yay for Pura Vida!

    • Britt Skrabanek says:

      Yay! Glad to have you as my Costa Rica stowaway, love. Bonobo is one of my favorite musicians…I’ve listened to all of his albums religiously for years. Very cool music, especially for the escapism.

      Doing my best to radiate the Pura Vida! Thankfully we had blue skies and sunshine yesterday. That always helps! 😉

    • Britt Skrabanek says:

      Costa Rica is worth a trip, Audrey! They have some of the most incredible nature on the planet, so it is definitely a must for anyone that can appreciate it. It’s also a great place to truly get away from the fast-paced life so many of us are accustomed to these days.

      You should go and embrace the “Tico Time!” You’ll love it. 😉

  7. Letizia says:

    Thank you for taking us along on your beautiful adventure – the photos are such a contrast to the snowy landscape outside my window. Although I love the snow, all that lushness feels so good!

    • Britt Skrabanek says:

      Love having you along, pretty lady! Snow can be beautiful, but I had my share of it before leaving. Almost didn’t think I would make it out of here with the freeze and city standstill we endured for a week. 😉

      The lushness and brightness are food for the soul!

  8. Browsing the Atlas says:

    I loved Costa Rica. I went on business and stayed an extra few days. I didn’t venture much further than San Jose, but did go to Cafe Britt to see the coffee-making process. I was supposed to go ziplining, but missed it. I WILL go back there someday and explore other parts of Costa Rica. It’s a stunning country.

    • Britt Skrabanek says:

      Cafe Britt! It was funny, because I was surprised that the locals got my name right. People think I’m saying Brett all the time here. But everyone said it perfectly because of the Costa Rica brand (I found out later).

      You’ll definitely want to do a ziplining makeup next time. And, I do recommend Nosara for a different vibe—and flying into Liberia to get there easier. You’ll love it, hon!

  9. roughwighting says:

    I’m savoring your words of Pura Vida and clutching them to my heart. What an adventure! And how brave you were to take it. Like you, the day before a big trip I want to cancel the whole thing. Too stressful getting ready! But once I’m gone, I start to melt. I breathe in the vitality of letting go. I find a spot to do 3 sun salutations. I simplify my worries, desires, and needs.
    Most importantly, these breaks teach us how to live Pura Vita in our daily life. Sounds like your Costa Rican lesson was well learned.

    • Britt Skrabanek says:

      Pura Vida, love! I was more brave when I booked the trip, and then I got kind of nervous as it got closer. But that made the adventure even more special in the end. “I breathe in the vitality of letting go”…such a lovely line!

      So true how these breaks teach us things we have either forgotten or didn’t know about ourselves. xo

  10. Jilanne Hoffmann says:

    Sounds like a wonderful rejuvenating trip! There’s nothing like that place! And yes, whoever said it wasn’t anything special was, well, more than a little wrong. We wandered around the country for something like 6 weeks. The people, the sun, the rain, the ocean, the food, the Osa Peninsula, oh my. Quite the shock, though, when you come home. Our son will be going to CR next year with his class as part of his 8th grade rite of passage. They’ll be doing a community service project and using their Spanish. I’m thinking he’s going to want to stay there. 😀 Cheers, dahlink! Sorry I’ve been so scarce, but I’m really focusing on getting my writing to a level where I can find a new agent. Stay tuned…..xo

    • Britt Skrabanek says:

      It really was, Jilanne! There is definitely a lot to experience in Costa Rica, and I think it is one of the few places that merits 6 weeks of exploration. I definitely will return—that’s something I don’t usually say about destinations.

      Uh-oh…you might have an ex-pat on your hands there! Guess that wouldn’t be so bad (once he gets older, of course). Hey, honey…we’re coming to visit. Three times a year. That’s cool, right? 😉

  11. Jessica says:

    Loved this so much! It really goes to show that one person’s experience may not be the next person’s. It seems it was perfect timing for you to embrace the Pura Vida lifestyle and so glad you relished the experience. And well done on conquering your zip lining fears. That took guts!

  12. Mary Jo Malo says:

    It’s interesting how destroying control and igniting beauty work together. I always look forward to your blog posts…great writing, beautiful photos, personal and positive insights and humor!

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