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Living la Pura Vida

Las Catalinas, Costa Rica

When we left Minnesota in the morning, it was 10 below zero. When we emerged from the plane in Liberia, Costa Rica, just five hours later, it was 85 degrees. Pura vida!

You hear that phrase a lot in Costa Rica, and it translates literally as "pure life." But what it really means is Life is good! You're here in Costa Rica and it's time to relax and get the good vibes going! Whether that means surfing or yoga or sunbathing or mountain biking or hiking in the rainforest in search of sloths, it really doesn't matter. Pura vida means finding your smile.

And our trip to Costa Rica delivered plenty of smiles. After a 45-minute ride from the airport-including a stretch on the so-called Monkey Trail with a small river crossing and the occasional ATV rider-my husband, 10-year-old daughter, 4-year-old son and I pulled into the beach town of Las Catalinas. Within five minutes, we were walking into Casa Sirena, an enchanting four-bedroom home just steps from the Pacific.

The town of Las Catalinas, in Costa Rica's Guanacaste province, was founded in 2006 by Charles Brewer, an Atlanta-based businessman and avid mountain biker who wanted to share his paradise found with the rest of the world. The town includes about 1,200 acres, but Brewer committed to keeping 80 percent of it as protected land, with a network of hiking and biking trails that deliver fantastic views.

The town now has 62 homes or apartments, with more under construction. Planners have combined architectural elements from beach and hill towns around the world-from Central America to Europe and beyond, says Las Catalinas architect Sara Bega. "Structurally, the way we build, it could last centuries," she says. "So we want the architecture to look beautiful for centuries."

Las Catalinas now features a beach club with a restaurant, gym and several pools; a small upscale boutique; the Pura Vida Ride café/shop/outfitter that rents gear such as bikes, kayaks and boogie boards; a day spa; and the beachside restaurant Limonada, which is currently the town's only dinner option-happily, the food and cocktails are really good.

A grocery store is opening this May, and an onsite hotel is expected to open sometime next year. And just up the hill from town is a boutique adults-only hotel, Casa Chameleon, which is independently owned and operated.

The town hugs Danta Beach on the Pacific Ocean, glistening with black and white sand and waves that are perfect for body surfing and boogie boarding. Big iguanas meander across the paths, and you might even spot a few howler monkeys munching flowers and barking in the trees. As with all beaches in Costa Rica, Danta is public-as is nearby Danita Beach, a calmer stretch of ocean you can reach by picking your way along the rocks around a point or walking 10 minutes on a path through the forest.

Every morning, we were met by our "house mom," Jasmina, who made us bacon, eggs, rice and beans and fresh fruit smoothies for breakfast. She spoke no English, and we spoke very little Spanish, but it worked out just fine thanks to Google Translate.

Our days were mostly spent swimming at the beach or Beach Club and exploring the nearby trails. My daughter and I went on a zipline excursion with Congo Canopy Tours, where we flew through the air on 11 different ziplines, most of which started and ended on platforms in the trees. By the end of our two-hour excursion, the friendly guides were calling my daughter Supergirl and had us both flying upside down.

Toward the end of our stay, we ran into Brewer drinking a mocha at Pura Vida Ride, and he spontaneously invited us on a catamaran cruise with some of his friends. Why, yes, we were free! Sitting on the boat, sipping a mojito, watching a dolphin swim nearby and listening to Brewer reminisce about a close kayaking encounter with a whale, I thought I understood why he built this town from scratch. And why families are visiting and moving to Las Catalinas-and other parts of Costa Rica-from all over the world. Simply put? Pura vida.

Where to Stay

There are many resorts along the Guanacaste coast-two of the snazziest being the chic Casa Chameleon (if you're not traveling with kids) or the newly renovated Four Seasons Resort Costa Rica at Peninsula Papagayo. For a homier option, try renting your own condo or house. Las Catalinas lists some rentals on its website, but you can contact the town for additional options or see listings online. 

Where to Eat

About 20 minutes from Las Catalinas is Playa Flamingo, where you can sip Coco Loco's delicious (and strong) drinks on the beach while you watch the sun set. A bit farther is the surf town of Tamarindo, where you'll find delicious Argentinian food at Patagonia, refined Mediterranean fare at Seasons by Shlomy and great burgers at the family-friendly Surf Shack Burgers & Wings

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