I’M ALL togged up and good-to-go in my helmet and harness, so there is no going back. My heart is pumping fiercely with nervous excitement with adrenaline racing through every vein. I hold my breath as I push off the wooden platform and fly along the zipwire, suspended high above the dense canopy of foliage and feeling the dampness of the fluffy white clouds surrounding me. As I begin to exhale, I experience the exhilarating feeling of zip lining along a 300-metre wire at a height of 100 meters. I am now beginning to understand why Costa Rica is one of the world’s most beautiful countries to explore.
Zip lining at El Silencio
We’ve arrived in the afternoon into a humid sunny San Jose, the unremarkable capital city of this peaceful Central American country. Costa Rica is flanked by the Caribbean Sea to the east and the warm Pacific Ocean on the west, and is home to vastly contrasting climactic zones, creating some of the most diverse flora and fauna on the planet. It has catapulted to fame for becoming a world leader in eco-friendly development with more than a quarter of its land protected by national park status.
Heading straight to the Adobe rent-a-car desk, we pick up our shiny 4×4 jeep. Julio helps us input all our planned destinations into the local satnav and issues us with an emergency local mobile phone as a communications back-up. An hour and a half northwest drive takes us along a network of winding roads and hairpin bends, which eventually lead to the sleepy backwater village of Bajos del Toro. El Silencio Lodge and Spa is a luxury ecopark resort, set across rolling emerald hills high up amongst magical enveloping clouds. We opt for the ziplining and horse riding experiences, but aren’t brave enough to attempt rappelling down the rocky face of a steep gushing waterfall.
The dining area at El Silencio
Our bright and roomy lodge, furnished in warming natural shades and textures, reflects the peaceful picturesque charm of its lush surroundings, with the vast outside viewing deck and the secluded heated steaming whirlpool becoming our favourite places to unwind after an energetic day. We indulge in a soothing deep-tissue massage in the natural wellness spa, where the masseuses pummel and release our muscle tension, while we gaze out at the surrounding cloud forest visible from inside the glass-walled conical treatment room.
The interior of a lodge at El Silencio
The kitchen specialises in farm-to-table quality fusion cuisine, using local produce supplied directly from its source of origin. The on-site sommelier and team brew their own local craft beer, which we discover is the perfect sundowner while sitting on the deck watching the sun disappear below the forest canopy.
Feeling completely invigorated by the El Silencio experience, we depart the next morning as the sun rises, heading north to La Fortuna, home to the towering Arenal Volcano and National Park. After passing through the commercialised town centre of Arenal, we arrive at Nayara Springs, a tropical and luxurious adults-only Garden of Eden, brimming with the tallest palm trees imaginable, seemingly touching the vivid blue sky. The imposing trees are the dwelling place for a group of shy three-toed sloths, which prove very difficult to spot as they spend almost all day wrapped around the highest branches of the trees with their brown coat acting as a camouflage.
The elusive sloth (Credit: Maureen Callahan-Shea)
The Arenal Volcano
Ambling aimlessly along the zigzag of beautifully manicured pathways, we arrive at our sprawling bungalow, where we are struck by the imposing view of Arenal Volcano, our naturally heated private pool, and our very own botanical garden. In the centre of the room our four-poster bed is surrounded by vibrant colourful Costa Rican features, including heavily framed paintings, opulent embellished mirrors and ornate stained-glass windows.
A villa at Nayara Springs
Lunch is taken al fresco at the elevated poolside restaurant, from where we admire the technicolor resort from up high. We savour the Mediterranean crunchy salads and over-sized platters of fruit, before the afternoon tropical rain creates the perfect interlude for us to enjoy a Nayara Springs nature-inspired massage. We save the more formal and sassy Amor Loco restaurant for dinner, where we are presided over by the Michelin-starred Quentin Villers, while enjoying the nightclub vibe of live jazz music.
Amor Loco restaurant
One of the highlights of visiting Arenal area is the hanging-bridge tour, where we walk along suspended swaying pathways cutting through the deep rainforest canopy, while our guide expertly points out the sights and sounds of the myriad of wildlife species, and regularly stops for us to view the smallest creatures close-up through his giant telescopic lens.
After a few days immersed within the oasis of the enveloping sanctuary of Nayara Springs, we tear ourselves away to begin a five-hour leisurely drive north towards the emerald seascape of the Pacific coastline. After passing through vastly changing landscapes and many hick town backwater villages, we finally arrive at a boulevard of giant palm trees in the Gulf of Papagayo, which serves as the pristine entrance to the laid-back beach resort of Andaz Peninsula.
Aerial view of Nayara Springs
Andaz Peninsula Papagayo
Our contemporary minimalistic room with simple and modern furnishings overlooks the turquoise sea of the jagged-edged Bay of Culebra. As we step out onto our vegetation-enshrined balcony, a capuchin monkey arrives to entertain us by swinging from tree to tree, wrapping his long skinny tail around the branches as an anchor.
We later stroll down the grassy path to the secluded sandy beach and head straight for the shady area under the draping branches of the trees. We find out that the water sport activities should be enjoyed in the mornings, because of the afternoon tropical rainfall. The next morning we hire a speedboat, heading straight out to sea to view the immaculate shoreline. We spot a couple of romantic turtles doing their thing, before a whale accompanies us for a while with its shiny black fin visibly slicing through the warm water. After sunset we head to the pristine Onda spa for the refreshing coconut scrub treatment, which guarantees a delicious lingering scent on our skin for the remainder of the night.
The swimming pool at Andaz Peninsula
Our first evening is spent at Chao Pescao, the Spanish-themed restaurant, where we tuck into several plates of moreish tapas dishes while being entertained by a group of talented local musicians. The following night we dine in the sophisticated ambience at Ostra, where we enjoy our Peruvian feast created by the talented ceviche chef.
The lobby-lounge at the Andaz Peninsula
At the end of our memorable stay at Andaz Peninsula we decide to avoid the long five-hour drive back south to San Jose by taking a seamless 40-minute internal flight from the local Liberia Airport to downtown San Jose.
Grano de Oro
Our final night in Costa Rica is spent at the cosy boutique hotel, Grano de Oro, located on the fringes of San Jose. Grano de Oro literally means ‘grain of gold’, which is Costa Rica’s term for the coffee bean. This quaint property has been converted from a 100-year-old Victorian mansion into a magnificent urban retreat retaining many of its original features. The hotel’s signature eatery, Restaurant Grano de Oro, is world renowned for its French-inspired Mediterranean menu, prepared under the guidance of the chef Francis Canal. A visit here is a must for anyone visiting the city.
The lobby at the Grano de Oro Hotel
As we depart Costa Rica, we reflect on the local greeting, Pura Vida, which is commonly used by all the locals to infer a pure life. It encapsulates the charm of this spectacular country in which we have become immersed – the unique wildlife, the contrasting scenery and the extreme adventure activities. After all, it’s tough not to fall in love with the Pura Vida of Costa Rica.
The restaurant at Grano de Oro
by Amanda Bernstein