Costa Rica was not on my bucket list; Nepal, Dubai, Thailand, and Australia top that list. It was top of another list: places I felt I should have visited by now.
A gem in Central America, it is worthy of a jump to everyone’s bucket list. Similar to its neighbor Panama, it offers beaches, cities, volcanoes, rainforests, and wildlife. Once the plane touched down in Liberia, I could feel the welcoming warmth. I visited at the beginning of the dry season and reveled in 80° daily. Guanacaste, located in the northwest corner of the country, was my home for the week. As I generally do on my first day of travel, I explored the property, had a late lunch, booked tours, and took a nap. Not a bad way to spend a Monday in December.
The sound of howler monkeys woke me the next day – not my typical morning. I felt a breakfast of waffles and ice cream was well-deserved, along with a cup of the renowned Costa Rican coffee. Its ideal conditions, grown at the perfect altitude in rich soil mixed with volcanic ash, do give them bragging rights. It’s seriously good.
Today’s choice was a relaxing day by the pool. On a chaise lounge, with a non-alcoholic fruity drink in my hand, I stared out at the pool. What would I normally be doing on a Tuesday in December? With a knot in my stomach, I recalled a 12-15-hour day in a career that was making me physically ill with an omnipresent feeling of drowning. It is in these moments that I inhale deeply, and repeat my silent mantra, “Thank you God for this opportunity.”
The temperature is perfect and the day ahead is packed with adventure. Apparently, I’m going ziplining through the jungle. I heard myself sign up for it yesterday in the lobby. Have I mentioned I’m afraid of heights? But, you can’t visit Costa Rica and not go zip-lining, right? (Please tell me this is true.)
When we left the hotel, we boarded the bus with strangers and headed off to the jungle. I imagine this is the anticipation one feels when jumping out of a plane. I wasn’t too nervous until I was strapped into a harness. Ok, I’m fine. I began to hike the mountain, and it was a HIKE! Then you find out there are seven ziplines, one being 600+ ft long. Ok, I’ll be fine. One is over water…wait, what? I am not going to be fine. I needed to keep my mind occupied: out of self and into others.
On the way up the mountain, one of the women in our group was struggling and it reminded me of my struggle up Mount Kilimanjaro. Someone stayed behind with me, so I decided to stay behind with her, and we slowly climbed together. Little did she know how much she was helping me.
Then came the fateful moment on the platform when I heard the click of my harness connecting to the cable. In the distance, I could see another platform. The operator was providing instructions, probably crucial to my safety, in the background. “Wait, wait…I don’t know if I can do this,” I blurted out. “Yes, you can, ” he said as he pushed my attached cable off the platform. I let out a rollercoaster drop shriek as I went flying through the air. Don’t look down, was echoing in my head. Then, before I knew it, I had arrived on the opposite platform. I did it; I just ziplined through the jungle in Costa Rica. I was a pro by my third zipline and it was exhilarating!
Next, we had the option of tubing down a steep and winding concrete water slide through the mountain. It had two caveats: you had to climb back up the mountain and you had to wear a leather bikini bottom to protect from concrete burns. I’ll pass.
The highlight of the adventure for me was this next leg. We learned about the culture and customs of Costa Rica, currently and in its past. I love immersing myself in the culture of the places I visit. We tasted flavored coffees, watched sugar syrup being made, and sampled fresh cheeses. An artisan shaped colorful pottery with his hands while we learned how the trade and its tools are passed down through the generations. I was awestruck by the silence of the moving clay and the focus he was wielding. It was only right that I buy a few pieces to support his craft.
The strangers in the group started to become friends.
We laughed during lunch, especially about the tubing escapade. There were lost bathing suit bottoms and false eyelashes to provide comic relief. We also went horseback riding after the cultural piece and that was hysterical. Those who had never been on a horse were brave, and for most of the ride we could hear, “Hey,” “whoa,” “wait,” “why isn’t he slowing down?!” Put girls from Jersey and the Bronx together and we could not stop laughing.
All of this adventure could only be followed by relaxation. We hiked down to a hidden oasis of bright green leaves, rustic bridges, and picturesque hot springs. You open your pores in the sauna, then exfoliate with mud, before relaxing in the hot springs. Simply divine.
Our long bus ride back was no longer with strangers, but with friends. That’s one of the best parts of traveling, those you meet along the way.
As much as I love a group, I am a fan of the private tour: intimate, on your own time, and more flexible. On our last tour day, we headed out to explore more of the country with two private guides. First up: a water safari. I was so excited about this…until we arrived. I saw a sign with the word ‘rapids’ and a picture of people in a raft bounced by white water rapids. Did I mention that I don’t know how to swim? Down by the embankment was indeed a raft and I was handed a helmet. “No. No. Why do I need a helmet?! I am supposed to be gliding on the water looking for crocodiles, monkeys, and colorful birds. There’s nothing about that picture that requires a helmet.” After they talked me off the ledge, well, the embankment really, I reluctantly put on the helmet and stepped into the raft. I was promised smooth sailing and maybe a “tiny” rapid here and there. This is how the Lifetime movie begins.
The water safari was very cool. The guides quickly spotted animals that I would never have recognized in their natural habitat. And certainly, I would have stepped on that big rock to get out of the water, but it was pointed out as a crocodile! And fine, the “rapids” were little bumps in the water and I survived. Can I count this as having gone white water rafting?
Afterward, we ate in a little restaurant tucked into the greenery on the side of the road. We were its only customers. Lunch was a traditional Casado: a homemade plate of fresh deliciousness. I must find this back in NY.
Sloths in the rainforest were next! Sloths are one of my favorite animals; if you know me personally, you know why. I encountered sloths in Panama, but they were housed in a sanctuary. Here I had the opportunity to spot them in the wild. It was incredible. Sloths are fascinating, and well, slow. When you eye one, you can observe it for some time – its movements, how it nurtures the baby it’s carrying, its climbing techniques. I should not short-change the vibrant birds and magnificent butterflies; but, I could have left the rainforest after spending time with the sloths.
My heart was full of gratitude and we spent the remainder of the day basking in the sun on a secluded beach with a graceful yet spectacular waterfall. Iguanas paraded around the sand with their heads held high, suggesting I was a mere visitor in their home.
I was exhausted by my last day, but still eager to make the most of my last few hours. I savored one last gelato and lounged on the black sand beach. In a full-circle moment, I tilted my face to the sky and quietly whispered,