Costa Rica might be small in size, but the country is a must-see destination. Located in Central America, just a short flight from the US, the country is bursting with a variety of monkeys, birds, reptiles and amphibians, as well as mouth-watering farm-to-table fare. Whether you’re in search of the indigenous howler monkey, or excited about the array of organic fare, a visit to Costa Rica is a real treat.
Rice and beans are staples in nearly every Costa Rican dish, as well as fresh fruits, vegetables, seafood and sweets. From bananas, pineapples, mangoes and papayas to unique foods such as the marañon (fruit of the cashew tree), to local dishes and gluten-free fare, there are plenty of choices when it comes to Costa Rican cuisine. There are numerous eco-farms to explore, learning about harvesting techniques, and sampling foods along the way.
My first night in Costa Rica was spent at El Silencio Lodge & Spa, a luxury eco-lodge in Bajos del Toro that offers educational activities and thrill-seeking adventures in addition to relaxation. The property’s 500-acre reserve is home to numerous waterfalls, hidden hiking trails, and an adventure park for ziplining and rappelling. In addition, El Silencio offers coffee tasting sessions and tree planting days, as well as wine tasting experiences with their sommelier. My favourite activity was the bird-watching trail, which included a walk through a maze-like garden filled with beautiful flowers and welcoming hummingbirds.
For a true Costa Rican experience, you can also team up with chef Carlos Meléndez González to pick organic vegetables and herbs from the on-site garden, and then prepare your very own traditional Costa Rican meal. If you prefer the chef whips up his own creation, Las Ventanas restaurant — next to the lobby — offers an enticing menu. The modern Caribbean-style dishes contain local ingredients sourced from the resort’s organic mini-farm. I was happy to see the numerous vegetarian and gluten-free options at the restaurant and ordered plantain chips for a starter, followed by the traditional dish, Casado.
My next stop was the charming town of La Fortuna, one of the main tourist destinations in Costa Rica (and all of Central America). The major attraction is the Arenal Volcano, but the town is also quite charismatic, full of restaurants, local artisan shops, exotic plants and howler monkeys.I’ve had a love for monkeys since I was young but I wasn’t very familiar with howler monkeys, which are indigenous to Central and South America. They are among the largest of the New World monkeys and are recognized by their loud howls. (Thanks to an impromptu howl from our local guide, the family of monkeys we spotted had a lot to say). Howler monkeys are considered to be the loudest land animal and according to The Guinness Book of World Records, their howls can be heard up to three miles away.
The Fortuna region is also home to some extraordinary sustainable farms. I first visited Rancho Margot, a 400-acre off-the-grid eco-lodge and education centre located in the heart of the rainforest. I was greeted by the founder, Juan Sostheim, who led a guided tour of the ranch. Sostheim is dedicated to sustainable production and education, and eagerly spoke about sustainable farming, composting and creative recycling. “We like being able to say that we have no wires coming onto the ranch,” stated Sostheim. “Our power is generated through hydroelectric turbines and is delivered through underground cables.” If you’re not an expert on sustainability when you arrive at the ranch, you will be by the time you leave. The second eco-centre I visited was Finca Educativa Don Juan, a smaller ranch positioned at the foot of the Arenal Volcano. Over 50 organic crops are harvested on the property, a few of which I was able to taste. Our guide explained the cultivation methods used on the ranch as we explored the property flourishing with butterflies and birds, and at least one very colourful toucan. La Fortuna is full of surprises, and nestled in the middle of the rainforest at the Arenal Volcano National Park is Tabacon Grand Spa Thermal Resort, one of the leading resorts in Costa Rica.
The eco-friendly resort and spa has received countless awards from numerous publications, including Travel + Leisure, Condé Nast Traveler, Organic Spa Magazine and National Geographic. The five-star property has five naturally occurring thermal springs with temperatures ranging from 77 to 122 degrees Fahrenheit, as well as two main branches of the thermal river that flow through the gardens, and one cold river spring that flows down from the rainforest.
After a dip in two thermal springs, I decided to pamper myself at The Grand Spa (located in a private spot among the gardens) where I relaxed with a tasty fruit smoothie before my massage.
All treatments at The Grand Spa take place in outdoor bungalows made of palm leaves, caña brava (a wild shrub similar to bamboo) and local wood. Whether you prefer a Volcanic Mud Wrap, Chocolate Joy Exfoliation, or Shirodhara massage, the open-air bungalows allow you to experience your therapy amongst the chattering wildlife, fresh air from the rainforest, and the soothing sound of the hot springs. If you’re at Tabacon during breakfast hours, check out Los Tucanes restaurant for an unforgettable dining experience. There are food stations galore, including an egg and omelette bar, pancake and waffle station, tropical fruit juice bar, seasonal fruit selection,cereals and cold-cuts, cheese platters, as well as smoked fish and local specialties.
Travelling in paradise can be quite exhausting, so on my last night in Costa Rica I was happy to sink into bed at Aloft San Jose. This swanky hotel sits in San Jose’s trendiest neighbourhood, 10 minutes from Escazú (a great little area for shopping, restaurants and nightlife), and just six miles from the Juan Santamaria International Airport. The next morning before heading to the airport, I visited a tiny local restaurant called Rancho Mi Tata.The fast food place had tables outside covered with pineapples, bananas, mangos, caimitos (Costa Rican star apples), granadilla (passion fruit), mombín (plums), marañons, pejibaye (vegetable resembling an acorn), and my favourite fruit, the exotic rambutan. Admiring the assortment of exotic fruits and vegetables, I realized it was reminiscent of Costa Rica itself… endlessly abundant and full of unexpected pleasures.