In less than six hours, I’d be checking off another country on my travel bucket list. But when I boarded the plane in Washington, D.C., I had no idea where I was going or what to expect when I got there.
When a friend invited me to her wedding in Costa Rica, I was ecstatic. I had never been to the land of pura vida—pure life—let alone Central America, and my mind was immediately filled with visions of kayaking, snorkeling, zip-lining, and riding horses on the beach.
But a few things happened between booking my flight and touching down on Costa Rican soil. Life got busy. My guidebooks remained stacked—unopened—neatly on my desk. I made a reservation at an eco lodge on Playa Pan de Azúcar in the Guanacaste region, on the country’s Pacific coast, but had no time to look into the activities it had to offer or the must-see sites around town.
So when my flight took off, I had no plans for the next five days. Normally at this stage of a trip I would be reviewing my itinerary, reading the last chapters of someone else’s travel memoir. As I watched the tiny plane on the in-flight tracker inch closer and closer to my final destination, I saw Costa Rica’s volcanoes and lush coastline come into view, the turquoise waters lapping against the green and brown land.
My heart raced. My hands were sweaty. How was I supposed to experience pura vida if I didn’t have a plan?
But as palm trees and tiny tin roofs came into focus, I thought of a Henry Miller quote I had once heard: “One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” I closed my eyes and made a decision. Instead of going out to see the Costa Rica that I wanted to see, I would let its pura vida reveal itself to me.
Little did I know I was an unwitting participant in what is now known as the “slow travel movement.” Much as the slow food movement overhauled international discourse on how we get our sustenance a few decades back, the slow travel movement is challenging travelers to think twice about how they go about exploring the world. In part a reaction against a more acquisitive approach, slow travelers embrace the idea of traveling to one place and staying there for longer periods of time–placing emphasis on depth of experience, not breadth.
Slow travel advocates argue that, often, the pleasure of traveling is diluted in the process of whittling down a “bucket list” (an act of which I had been more than guilty). Going to London? Check off Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, the London Eye. Traveling slow in London? Sleep in and ask the people you meet on the street about their favorite tea shop, or where they go to escape the hordes of tourists that overrun their city each summer.
The first morning I woke up in Costa Rica, I stepped outside my bungalow and was instantly enveloped in a rush of warm, Pacific sunshine and the strong smell of fig and rosewood and salt water and clean, pure air. I stood there for a moment and heard something rustle in the bushes. An iguana, a gecko, a crab, I didn’t know. Howler monkeys growled above me in the palm trees.
I ordered the “Costa Rican Breakfast”—rice, beans, homemade corn tortillas—at the resort’s open-air restaurant and sipped locally produced coffee while I listened to the people sitting next to me make plans for catamaran trips and canopy tours and volcano hiking and driving into town.
Instead, I took a book and a bottle of sunscreen and walked to the beach in my bathing suit. I sat under a coconut palm and watched local families enjoy picnics on the cove. I stared in awe at hundreds of pelicans dive-bombing for fish. When I reached for my camera (which is usually tucked closer to me than my passport), I realized it was still in my room. I thought for a moment about going back for it, but resisted the temptation, returning my attention to the iguanas and shore birds. I sat there until the sun hung low on the horizon, casting orange and red and purple into the sky, and the monkeys came out again.
I did this for five days.
On the last day, as I was watching an iguana negotiate his way down a palm tree, the lodge manager asked me if I was interested in joining any activities.
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As I considered my response, a white-throated magpie jay ruffled his feathers as he bathed in a pool of water while a green-breasted bird looked on, eyeing his competition for the cool reprieve. It was then that I realized travel shouldn’t be about a check list–or taking thousands of pictures of zip-lining and horseback riding and volcano climbing.
Travel isn’t about how many places you see; it’s about the lens through which you see them. And watching these beautiful birds, listening to howler monkeys, and eating the local fare was the perfect lens for me.
I smiled at the manager and told her I couldn’t imagine being anywhere as beautiful and relaxing as where I was right then—eating homemade pico de gallo, drinking the local guaro (perhaps a bit too much), and watching the tide roll in and out, with the seawater breeze on my face.
“Ah, yes,” she said to me, gazing out at the ocean. “This is pura vida, no?”
Jeannette Kimmel is the editorial business manager for National Geographic Traveler magazine. Connect with her on Twitter @jeannettekimmel.