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Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Celebrating Brides in Costa Rica

Back in February 2018, I finally got the opportunity to visit a part of the world made famous to me by Tony Bourdain - Central America.  I’d been invited by one of my oldest, closest friends to attend her bachelorette party at a yoga center in Costa Rica.  Another close friend in the same group was also getting married around the same time, so we decided to celebrate her nuptials by traveling around Costa Rica for the week leading up to the other bachelorette.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

At the time I was still living in Sydney, Australia, so it was quite the trek to San Jose airport, but I was welcomed by a mischievous smile and equally mischievous sign.  I arrived in the late afternoon, so we immediately grabbed our rental car and hit the road as La Fortuna, our first stop, was close to 3 hours away.

This trip required a lot of research and compromise, because we both had little time off work and knew we’d have to end our excursion in Nosara for the bachelorette.  This meant most of the west and southern areas of Costa Rica weren’t convenient, which have some of the best beaches.  We wanted a bit of both adventure and beach relaxation so we decided to spend a few nights in La Fortuna to hike near the Mt Arenal Volcanic National Park and go white-water rafting.

I’d heard the roads would be a bit scary, but we didn't have any problems,with the exception of a “shortcut” we tried to take off the 141 as we approached La Fortuna; it was all big rocks of gravel and holes; I recommend sticking to the highway and a 4-wheel drive SUV and you’ll be just fine.  

We checked in to the Tifakara Hotel quite late (TiFaKara not TiKaFara – I made this mistake a lot and almost thought I’d lost our hotel reservation when I was searching Gmail!)  The place was SO cute; perfect for a reasonably priced honeymoon.  You stay in your own little “villa-like” studio surrounded by jungle with the most heavenly bed.  The only downside was the shower water didn’t want to warm up quite fast enough.  There were also open-air slates in the shower roof which were fun when it rained but not at night when the mosquitoes arrived. 

We were starving so we asked the front desk guy for a local recommendation that would still be open.  He seemed pretty stoned, which meant it took awhile to get a straight answer, but also meant the restaurant he suggested was LEGIT.  Sure enough we walked into Soda Viquez (on Calle 468 between highway 142 and Av 325) to a restaurant filled with locals.  The food is SO cheap and SO good.  I ordered casado, a local favorite - a plate of rice, black beans, plaintains, salad, a tortilla and an optional “topping” of chicken, pork, fish, beef, etc.  Sounds simplistic, but the flavors were complex!  With a Costa Rican Imperial beer to wash it down, I was hooked.

The beer also signaled bedtime after a long day of flying and driving so we headed back to our adorable villa-studio to sleep.

Sunday February 25, 2018

We woke up at 8:30am feeling strangely refreshed.  A homemade breakfast burrito and orange juice were both outstanding and included with our room.  We are notorious for not booking things in advance, so today would be our hiking day, because we woke up too late for the white-water rafting.  I was a little nervous, because the sky couldn’t decide if it was smiling or crying.

We hopped in the car and headed for Arenal Observatory Lodge, the only access to Mr Arenal National Park, which is about 30 minutes from our hotel on the other side of the volcano.  We’d purposely decided to stay near town in case we wanted to hit up the bars and drink, but if you are just coming to hike or spa, it’s more convenient to stay on the other side.

La Fortuna reminds me a little bit of Ubud in Bali, minus the rice paddies – something about the unnatural electric green of the grass and blue of the water.  You feel a bit like you’ve stepped back in time.

There wasn’t a ton of parking, so I recommend getting there early!  It cost $10 each for entry into the parking area, but at least you get a free map!  The map is a bit confusing, so don’t feel bad if you get a little lost (not in a scary way).  Growing up in Oregon, national parks usually involve sky-high trees and narrow dirt paths winding into the grass and shrubs.  This park felt a bit more like walking through someone’s farm – there were even livestock and a barn!

Being a mischievous pair, we headed for the outskirts of the park, because we’d heard there was a trail where you could hike to the top of Cerro Chato, an inactive volcano next to Arenal.  It’d blown along time ago creating a lake in the center of the crater where you can hike down to swim.

To find the “secret” entrance to the trail, go to the far end of the map (Cerro Chato is on the map) and look for a Prohibito sign (yes they made it easy for us).  No, we aren’t super crazy, we’d just been told by locals that “everybody does it.”  It’s about 6 kms to the top and is a hectic hike.  Better make sure you’ve got very good hiking shoes; we slipped and slid our way uphill for over an hour.  We were exhausted and freezing by the time we reached the top thanks to an early afternoon downpour the trees couldn’t fully shield us from.

At the top is a lookout, but unless it’s a completely clear day, you won’t see the lake.  Left takes you down to the lake, right takes you down to La Fortuna.  Turns out that trail takes 2-2.5 hours and is even more intense than our way.  No thanks.  Feeling a bit cheated, we made our way back down the hill, only to run into some very funny looking possums.  We spent 30 minutes stalking them for Instagram ops until our stomachs started to rumble.

The Observatory Lodge, while wildly overpriced, is perfect for those looking for amazing views, food, beers and somewhere to finally sit down.  The place is like a beautiful resort meets high-class summer camp.  The pork sandwich was pretty incredible though.  We’d been hiking for about 4 hours, including our slip n slid up Chato, so we headed to the park entrance (the park closes at 4pm so give yourself time to enjoy it!). 

On the way back to La Fortuna, we passed under an overpass across from Tabacon Spa, to find a bunch of locals parking their cars and wandering down the embankment to the river.  We obviously pulled over for a closer look, only to find a bunch of young people hanging out in natural hot springs, laughing and shouting, beers in hand.  Felt a little sketchy, but just our style.  Unfortunately, as darkness started to fall, we realized we were lacking towels, water shoes (very rocky and slick), headlamps and beers.

After showers, we wandered down to a steak restaurant called La Garrapata.  We were hoping for another great local spot, but instead if felt like a wild west BBQ joint at Disneyland.  The meat was alright, but we left underwhelmed.

Monday Feb 26, 2018

Up early again to be picked up at 8:30am for our rafting trip.  Our guide, Dionis, was hilarious.  There are a number of rivers you can float, but we wanted a more challenging course with some solid white-water so we opted for the Rio Sarapiqua.  It was an hour drive to the put-in and then a two-hour float - about 70-80% of the stretch were quality rapids where you could sit on the front of the raft and “ride the bull.”

What an incredible day.  The weather was warm, the sky was clear and our lunch of chicken, rice, salsa and plantains was fresh and mouth-watering.  We got to try some local moonshine and sugar cane juice which was strong.

After two days of “roughing it,” we were keen to land a massage at Tabacon, which is arguably the nicest spa in the area, but we couldn’t get a reservation so we chilled for a bit before dressing up for our final dinner in La Fortuna at Nene's.  Weirdly enough, we ordered wine and hamburgers, which seems so American, yet they were SO good.  The ceviche appetizer was delicious as well.  We stopped by Nanku, a fun bar with outdoor seating and live music for a few beers before heading home to bed.  It’d be a jam-packed day!

Tuesday Feb 27, 2018

We’d debated back and forth about spending another night in La Fortuna, because we’d had such a lovely time, but the call of unknown adventure beckoned us to packed up our things and head beach-ward.  

We set our sights on Tamarindo Beach as our next destination mostly because the place we found on was too good to pass up.  It took us about 4 hrs thanks to a lot of pit stops for pictures and coffee.  Cafe e Macadamia was the favorite with beautiful views of the lake and delicious coffees and baked goods!

La Ramona was one of the most charming hotels - clean, quiet and high quality, but with personality and an intimacy due to its small size.  It also wasn’t too close to the main town area so it felt remote and relaxing while not being a long walk into town.  There are only a few cabins surrounding a pool inside a walled courtyard so you felt like you own the place!  If you ever decide to stay there #5 is the one with the outdoor bathtub!

Marianna is the owner of the place and was so cute to help me sneakily create a bachelorette crown for my friend.  Little did my friend know tonight would be her 2-woman bachelorette party.  Luckily, I have enough energy in me to equal a whole flock of ladies.
We spent the remainder of the afternoon soaking up rays and watching this crazy woman in one of the other cabins yell at what appeared to be her young Costa Rican lover. Continuing my random Balinese comparisons, I’d say Tamarindo is a bit like the Gili Islands.

After dressing up in the first dresses and makeup of the trip, I gave my bestie her crown and we headed to Seasons for dinner – what a lovely meal of spicy tuna tartar, black miso fish, Mahi Mahi, and cauliflower.  Oh, and a rousing round of applause from the other diners sitting out on the patio for the bachelorette!

Having finished the “polite” portion of the evening, we ended up at Sharky’s for drinks.  I was intrigued by the name, as a loyal patron of Sharkie’s Hermosa and Manhattan from my days living in Los Angeles, and sure enough it was as fratty as I had hoped.  I might as well have died and gone to heaven when I found out there’s a Costa Rican version of a pickleback called “pepi guaro.”  A couple of those and we were eagerly joining the late-night karaoke sesh with a couple of dads out on a boy’s night during their family trip.  We ended up leaving before the dads at 1am.

Wednesday, Feb 28, 2018

Another debate about whether we should stay another night in Tamarindo, which we loved, test out another beach, or arrive in Nosara a day early (the bachelorette festivities officially started on Thurs). We had a pretty long drive and we’d heard that the roads closer to Nosara do get pretty intense so we decided to hit the road.  The last 1.5 hours of the road was really awful… we basically had to ford a small river at one point, because the bridge was under construction.  A bunch of the girls were already at the center when we arrived because they’d done the week-long retreat earlier in the week. 

Nalu is everything for someone looking to relax in nature.  It’s quite the compound; when you arrive you come in through a high-walled gate to park.  From there, it’s a maze of beautifully-groomed pathways leading to little villas among the ferns.  The villas were so lush.  I was staying in a two bedroom with the bride, her sister and her cousin and we had our own pool and a huge open floor plan kitchen and living room.  Relaxation started seeping into my bones the minute I arrived and continued to massage my brain as we walked down to the beach for sunset.  A homemade dinner of sausage and rice was served and we sat getting to know each other.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Like any good yoga center, we greeted the day with a relaxing yoga practice and then walked down the street to La Casa for lunch.  This place is a must-eat.  The BBQ sandwich was unreal.  Yes, I ordered meat in yoga-ville; may the vegans flay me alive.

I digested by the pool before we dressed ourselves up for dinner and walked the beach to El Chivo – it may have been the ribs, the wet burrito, the fun music or the countless margaritas, but we were quickly interrogating the staff about the after-party location.  Sure enough, a full moon party was in the works and a van was called to carry us to deep into the jungle.

We debated the likelihood of kidnap, but the size of our group and our sense of adventure overruled; we found ourselves being dropped at less of a “bush doof” and more of a “beach club party.” I instantly felt safe, minus the future scar on my shin from some stupid beach fern that night.

The ride back to Nalu was much crazier as we had to pack into four-person human-pedaled tuk tuks.  Pretty sure one crashed and another broken down but we eventually all made it back safely.

Friday, March 2, 2018

The next day was spent lazing around the pool like fancy mermaids, drinking delicious drinks and painting sunhats (one of our bachelorette activities).  A local chef arrived to cook us dinner and we did the traditional “giving of the lingerie” before returning to bed early.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

The bride is all about fitness so we woke to another exciting morning workout – this time boxing at Enchanted Forest with Brenda.  Gotta call out the name of this place because it IS an enchanted forest!  You wander into the jungle and weave through a bunch of brightly colored bungalows before arriving at the gym and boxing arena.

We stretched our tired limbs walking along the beach to look into the tide pools – a couple small crabs and starfish but nothing compared to the Oregon Tide Pools (yes, I’m a little biased).

I couldn’t say “no” to La Casa for lunch again, this time trying the chicken bacon sandwich which was almost as good as the BBQ one, but pretty heavy!  I trudged back to the villa because I knew I had to work on my resume for a job back in Australia for the rest of the afternoon while everyone else continued their vacation.   I stopped in time to shower and dress for our final dinner together at La Luna.  It was a beautiful dinner, right off the beach, watching the sunset as we devoured fish tacos and margaritas.  It was such a fitting end to a relaxing time with great people.

Sadly, I’d spend the remainder of the night finishing my resume so I wasn’t able to partake in the late night drunken pool swim, but I’d had an incredible time in Costa Rica.  While I probably don't need to go back (there's other places I'm more interested in visiting) I was impressed by that feel of relaxation that echoes throughout the country.  The only thing I dock it on a little is that it feels like it's been settled by a lot of Californian yogis.  Granted most of the places I went were not off the beaten path so it might be an unfair assessment.  Anyways, a wonderful trip and a highly recommended, easy place to visit.


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