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Pampered In The Wild 

Costa rica: it’s about rustic eco-lodges, isn’t it? It’s a world of deep virgin rainforests and shimmering black sand beaches, where the "driftwood" tossed up like toothpicks by the raging surf are the massive trunks of mahogany trees. It’s about three-toed sloths, and their two-toed cousins, world-class sport fishing and erupting volcanoes.

This untamed land of giant, prehistoric lizards that walk on water, and cobalt blue butterflies with six-inch wingspans, is also defined by its lush coffee plantations and raging whitewater rivers. In its misty cloud forests, one century merges uneventfully into the next.

All this wildness is the reason I keep returning to Costa Rica. I always pack good socks, bug repellent and binoculars. But never, before now, have I packed a cocktail dress.

I last visited Tabacón Grand Spa Thermal Resort, at the foot of the lava-spewing Arenal Volcano, nearly a decade ago. Back then, it was a simple lodge with a simpler name. But it nestled on the site where boiling volcanic springs merge with icy mountain streams to create a steamy natural phenomenon of waterfalls, mineral-rich thermal pools and lagoons that many consider to have magical healing powers.

On that trip, my teenage daughter, Sarah, and I hiked for miles, returning to soak our aching bodies in Tabacón’s bubbling lagoons. We savored generous helpings of the national dish, gallo pinto (rice and beans) and other native "Tico" food. And we marveled at the red molten river flow down the peak of Arenal before collapsing gratefully into deep sleep.

Adjectives to describe those days might include "sweaty," "exhilarating," "adventurous" and "educational." But certainly not, as travel and spa gurus are now reporting, glamorous or luxurious. Some are calling the newly rejuvenated five-star resort one of the most sensuous eco spas in the world.

So here I am for another look—this time around with my sweetheart and my little black dress. The chauffeured vehicle we’ve reserved for our two-hour drive from the airport provides our first clue: a new SUV with uniformed driver, air conditioning, muffler and—can it be?—shock absorbers. Then, the delicious passage through the gates of Tabacón, drenched in white ginger and burgundy banana blossoms and luxuriant vines punctuated with purple and yellow blooms. And finally, a gracious reception with two chilled glasses of mango-infused libation.

Nothing about our romantic suite, with its exquisite hand-carved Costa Rican wood furnishings, beautiful tiles, designer bath amenities, Wi-Fi and a high-tech entertainment system, resembles my first Tabacón experience. At one end is the sumptuous marble bath with vaulted ceiling showcasing an enormous Jacuzzi tub; at the other is a wall-size vista of Arenal Volcano and a rainforest cloaked in mist.

We can sign up for some amazing adventures … a night excursion to view the lava flows, a birding expedition, a zipline canopy tour through the treetops. We could go whitewater rafting, horseback riding to La Fortuna Waterfall; take a volcano trek or a guided wildlife hike. And of course there’s the spa, a series of exotic, open-air bungalows hidden deep in the lush vegetation among the lagoons. Its menu evokes every spa fantasy, from the Piedras Calientes (hot stone) massages to warm chocolate wraps and volcanic mud masks. The resort’s signature spa experience is the Temazcal Ritual, a traditional Mayan and Native American journey of detoxifying, purification and spiritual rebirth guided by a real shaman.

But for now, our Jacuzzi looks extremely tempting, and soon it’s time for dinner in the signature restaurant, Los Tucanes. The intimate, torch-lit dining room, open on three sides to views of the volcano, glamorous pools and the rainforest, exudes sensuality. While the dress code varies from Abercrombie & Fitch jungle-chic to dinner-for-two elegance, one thing is consistent: All the couples appear to be on their honeymoons. Los Tucanes has that effect.

There are no beans and rice on this menu. After our delicate yellowfin tuna sashimi with lemon vinaigrette, Ron goes for the salmon trout on truffle oil-infused pureed potatoes with asparagus and a creamy white wine horseradish sauce, while I savor plump roasted scallops on seaweed salad, marinated with sesame seeds and topped with a froth of black mussels. Both are paired with excellent wines.

For dessert, we linger over rich Costa Rican coffee and lighter-than-air chocolate mille feuille filled with a hazelnut mousse. The night dissipates without our noticing. Perhaps we’ll skip that 5:30 a.m. birding hike.

But sleeping in is not to be. With the dawn comes the enraged bellowing of elephants reverberating through the jungle canopy outside our window. Or so it seems. It’s Costa Rica’s famous howler monkeys, barely larger than house cats. Their morning symphony echoes for miles.

Homemade French and Costa Rican pastries, individually prepared omelettes and a rainbow of tropical fruits await at Los Tucanes, but it takes half an hour to stroll the hundred yards to our table. Every turn distracts us with a breathtaking display of flowering jewels. During breakfast, we’re so enchanted by the two-foot-long, jade green-plumed basilisk lizard feasting on a chunk of papaya that we almost miss our ride to the hanging bridges of Arenal.

Within a two-mile loop encompassing about 500 acres are eight fixed and six mesh-enclosed suspension bridges, allowing otherwise impossible access to primal forest, waterfalls and views more than 190 feet above the forest floor. Raptors and songbirds, monkeys and sloths keep watchful eyes on us as we traverse their personal domain.

Our naturalist guide, Froilan Rojas, spots one of Costa Rica’s tiny poison dart frogs hiding on a decaying log. This one, a bright red Strawberry Poison Dart, is also called the blue jeans frog because of its denim-blue legs.

We had scheduled early afternoon massages, but the orchid-drenched thermal pools are way too alluring. The spa accommodates our change, and we spend the rest of the day soaking in the mineral-rich hot and cold waters to dissolve away the stresses of the world. Narrow paths through the dense foliage and the rising steam create an ambience so peaceful that we barely sense the presence of others. I spend a lot of time perched in a niche of volcanic lava rocks where a pounding waterfall works out the kinks in my neck and shoulders.

Finally, we slip into the cool serenity of the open-air spa pavilion. Our robes are as weightless as whipped cream. His is pale blue; mine’s the color of, well, whipped cream. The pavilion is serenity itself, with tranquil pools, stone sculptures and the faint scent of essential oils. Someone glides in, leaving a tray of fresh fruits on the table between our chaises.

Just before dusk, our therapists, Johanna Perez and Lorena Herrera, appear, to lead us through a maze of narrow paths to a beyond-romantic couples bungalow. Candles are flickering. Pink and crimson flowers float in the Jacuzzi. Two luxuriously appointed massage tables await, side by side. There’s an exotic foot ritual for two. Maybe there is music, or maybe it’s the harmony of waterfalls and night creatures… but the world slowly dissolves, and for the next 90 minutes, it’s all about me.

I think I’ll skip the volcano trek in the morning.

It’s day three, as far as i can guess, and there’s no world outside of Tabacón. Our existence revolves around the cacophony of the howler monkeys and the herbs, sauces and confections whipped up by Executive Chef Imade Budiana. We sleep the deep slumber of the rainforest, and meditate on the appearance and disappearance of Arenal Volcano in its misty shroud.

De-stressed and relaxed, we’re ready for our Temazcal Ritual. From the spa, we’re led through a stone archway to the Temazcal fire pit, prepared by Shaman Jeffrey Fallas and his assistant, Jimmy Palacios. In the center, basalt rocks have been heated to glowing. Nearby is a small domed adobe hut, pristine white, with an opening just large enough to fold oneself through.

Using the four elements: earth, air, water and fire, Shaman Jeffrey will guide our journey of release, detoxification and renewal. We will honor the Greater Power that we believe in. Then we will release resentment, frustration and emotional pain, while the steam, created by sacred mineral water sizzling on the hot rocks, works to clear the toxins from our bodies.

At the entrance, Shaman Jeffrey rhythmically waves a terra cotta smudge pot around the perimeters of our bodies, enveloping us in fragrant smoke. We breathe deeply as he intones his prayers for our healing. Inside, clothed only in swimwear, we arrange ourselves cross-legged around a fire pit as Jimmy shovels in piles of white-hot lava rocks.

Jimmy also brings a pile of fragrant herbs, and onto this, the shaman ladles the mineral water, then closes us off from the world. It’s midnight black inside, and it’s hot, but not nearly as intense as it will be five, 15 and 20 minutes from now as he continues to douse the rocks, keeping us in a smoky steam cocoon. We steam, sweat and feel the connection as a couple, as the shaman guides us through mourning, forgiveness, joyfulness and hope through prayers, clapping, gourd shakers, chanting and laughter.

When we emerge, the daylight is blinding, and we’re lightheaded from the detox. In silence we slip into a coldwater pool, where we float without words, thought or care.

The sunset is particularly beautiful this night. Afterward, the sky turns the most ethereal shade of indigo. Chef Imade’s tempura is as delicate as a snowflake, and the wine the nectar of the gods. We feel completely purified, divinely blessed and supremely pampered in one of the wildest rainforests on earth.




Tabacón Grand Resort Thermal Spa Toll-free (877) 277-8291

Most Romantic Suites

The dreamiest rooms are the grand-scale, sophisticated honeymoon suites, with their oversize Jacuzzis and volcano views; and the more intimate, remote jungle suites—suites 704, 705 and 706—with their romantic tile Jacuzzis and treetop balconies.

Dinner for Two

Celebrations for two (or more, if you insist) are the raison d’etre for the secret dining bungalow tucked into Tabacón’s lush botanical gardens. A personal culinary team prepares and serves a gourmet feast under the bamboo roof. Rose petals, torches and fairy lights, and champagne on ice set a magical tone for a proposal or honeymoon dinner.

Tours and Adventures

For those who insist on leaving the Tabacón cocoon for an authentic Costa Rican adventure, I highly recommend naturalist guide Froilan (Froi) Rojas, with the small local tour company, Costa Rica Wonderland.

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