Much of Costa Rica is undeveloped, green, and lush. My boyfriend and I thought it would be a great place to test the boundaries of our new relationship. Last summer I came across a great deal to the untamed country on Gilt, the flash deals website that spun off their travel arm, calling it Jetsetter (recently purchased by TripAdvisor). For $1,600 the deal included:
- Round-trip airfare from NYC to San Jose
- 2 nights at Kioro Resort & Spa in Arenal
- 4 nights at Tango Mar Resort in Tambor
- 1 night at Real Intercontinental in San Jose
- 4×4 car rental for duration of our stay including insurance
- Daily breakfast at the hotels
- Rainforest zip-line tour in Arenal
- Romantic candlelight dinner for two at Tango Mar
- Horseback Riding tour at Tango Mar
We jumped on the deal! And boy, did the trip bring us closer together, but not at all how we expected.
1. Long Scenic Drives
Nothing brings you closer together than three to four hour-long drives, and driving in Costa Rica is an adventure. First, take away the comfort of any street signs, addresses, speed limits, and stop lights. Then toss in hairpin turns on narrow, unpaved roads, fog, and sharp vertical inclines. Our only saving grace was that we opted to pay extra for a GPS. The treks from the airport to Arenal, then Tambor, and finally to San Jose gave us plenty of time to have those deep, meaningful conversations. They also instilled trust in me concerning his driving skills (because the 4×4 truck was only available in manual, which I can’t drive). You know you trust someone when you can fall soundly asleep while they’re traversing the side of a steep mountain.
2. A Meal to Remember
Toward the end of our drive to Arenal, we stopped by a busy, roadside tavern. The small kitchen was perched precariously on the side of the mountain and about eight tables neatly lined the outside of the place, many filled with locals eating heaping plates of casado (salad, rice and beans, plantains, with beef, chicken, or fish.) We ordered the house favorite and our starved appetites did the rest. Well… Within 15 minutes of licking the last crumb from our fingers, our stomachs began to rumble. He headed first to the bathroom that was only separated from the outside dining area by four tin walls. I couldn’t be embarrassed by the chorus of sounds that emerged, because I knew I would be singing the same tune next. With all pretense and diffidence now stripped away, we climbed back into the truck to complete the first leg of our journey.
3. Climb a Volcano
Shortly after that bonding experience we arrived at Kioro Resort & Spa which sits at the base of the Arenal Volcano. Until 2010, it was Costa Rica’s most active volcano, spewing copious amounts of lava, gas, and ash on a regular basis. Unfortunately, we arrived two years too late. However, the volcano is still an amazing, imposing site, and the next day after a good night’s sleep, we set out to hike the trails to the lookout point on the side of the volcano. The trouble began when he handed me the trail map… (He didn’t know yet that I’m not great with a map, and he also didn’t know that I would pretend like I was!) Well I lead us about 30 minutes in the wrong direction, and only acquiesced to his suggestion to turn around when we ran into a thick jungle of bushes and a wide rushing stream. We eventually made it to the right path but by then climbing the sharp, jagged, black lava rocks under the beaming rays of the sun was double the challenge. We only made it half way up before I pulled the plug on that exploit.
4. Canopy Tour
The next day I headed to our next undertaking in La Fortuna–the town near Arenal– with renewed vigor! I had been zip lining before so I assumed that nothing could go wrong. As the tour guide strapped us into our harnesses my excitement mounted as did my partner’s (this was his first time!) The Arenal Paraíso Canopy Tour is made up of 12 platforms connected by steel cables ranging between 40 and 1,400 ft. in length, and nearly 300 ft. off the ground at it’s highest point. The views, including rainforests, pastures, hillsides, streams, as well as birds and monkeys, are spectacular. The first several lines were exhilarating, but trying to remember the combination of tucking and gripping started to take it’s toll on me. On the longest line, I gripped too hard–slowing down my speed–and ended up stuck in the middle of the line dangling over 250 ft. high. I had to keep my whits! I swirled around and had to pull myself several feet to the platform. When I arrived completely flustered the boys were laughing at me! Shame!
5. Horseback Riding
After another long but scenic drive and a relaxing ferry ride to Tambor, we arrived at Tango Mar–a sprawling resort on the beach. The resort needed some updating, but overall the place was nice and low key. On the grounds, they offered guided horseback riding tours. Horseback riding along the beach at sunset sounds like a romantic experience in theory. But add in the swarming flies and mosquitoes, and straddle a trotting horse for an hour, and the result is itching skin and a sore derrière. Don’t get me wrong–my boyfriend said the best part was the view of my backside! But boy did it hurt the next day. The tour, however, was a great way to see the wild life, from monkeys and crabs, to birds and lizards. That night, while we rubbed each other down with Cortizone, we did recall the beautiful scene of the deserted beach with the crashing waves and setting sun.
Two days before we were due to depart Tambor and head to San Jose, I suggested that we seek out some kayaks that I read could be found at nearby Cabo Blanco Nature Reserve. As promised, there was an leather-skinned man there with a truck full of kayaks facing the sea. He pointed to two islands in the distance, shoved a map into my hand, and told us we had to be back in three hours. First let me say that the surf on this particular beach was not calm nor was the water that beautiful, transparent turquoise color.
On the contrary, the waves were big and the water was dark. My anxiety mounted once again as the boat flipped for the second time as we tried to climb in. After getting our balance and righting our oars, we heading to the island that couldn’t be more than a few 100 feet away. Well… our arms began to ache after 20 minutes of rowing and we were not even half way there. We envied the people that flew past us in motor boats (they had the nerve to wave!) When we finally washed up on the shore of the small island I wanted to kiss the sand. We agreed to chill out for an hour and then embark on the return trip.
The return was worse! The sun was on full blast by then, the waves were much bigger, and there were no clear landmarks to identify where we had come from. Once again, with the map in my hand (he had not learned!) I lead us 20 minutes in the wrong direction! And once again, my lover coaxed me into seeing reason and I agreed to change our course. But by then I was sure I was hallucinating. Was that a huge shark circling us under that ominous water? No, it was my imagination running wild. I was brought back to reality when the boat flipped onto the shore. That night, as we rubbed each other down, this time with aloe vera for sunburn and massaged our aching arms, we quietly thanked God that we made it back alive.
7. A Stroll in the City
Our trip concluded with one day in San Jose, the country’s capital. Our hotel was about 20 minutes outside the city near the high-end Multiplaza Escazu, an American-style mall. We hopped into a cab in the late afternoon and headed downtown. The traffic was pretty bad as we approached the corner of Avenida 10 and Calle 1, so we asked the driver if we could just walk the few remaining blocks to the Melico Salazar Theater, a beautiful neoclassical building erected in 1928 that I hoped to take some pictures of. To our surprise, the driver said no, that the walk would be too dangerous! Suddenly as I peered through the windows the city took on an edge that I hadn’t noticed before. Once he dropped us in the square across from the theater, we felt like what I imagine European tourists would feel like being dropped on 135th street in Harlem. We clung together as we walked briskly on Av Segunda from Melico Salazar to the National Theatre and then to the Plaza de la Democracia and the open-air crafts market on it’s western flank. The market was full of wares, from t-shirts and paintings to wood carvings of all kinds. I bought a stunning carving of a woman’s body and we hightailed it out there before dark fell.
For this pair of star-crossed lovers Costa Rica played the role of the drill sergeant hell-bent on wearing us down before building us back up. All jokes aside, the trip was an amazing experience and did bring us closer together. It revealed who we really are as people and made us decide whether we can except those flaws along with the good. As it turned out Costa Rica is for adventure travelers and for lovers!