Visitors walk across one of eight hanging bridges in the Monteverde Preserve, Costa Rica. © Kerrick James
Originally published January/February 2016
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Prepare to smile
It’s not just the awesome scenery in Costa Rica that will light up your face.
By Kerrick James
Most Americans know Costa Rica from images of its Jurassic Park-style rainforests. What fewer people know about is that democracy flourishes here, since its founding 135 years ago, and there’s not been a national army since 1948. The secret to Costa Rica’s peaceful history, and the highlight of my recent trip, is pura vida, literally translated pure life, an optimistic and genuine expression of grace, balance and joy. Costa Ricans both speak of and live out this way of life, making it one of the most hospitable destinations in the world.
One can explore Costa Rica by private car, but the endlessly weaving highways and backroads can be less than comforting. For the sake of pura vida, I chose instead a group expedition, with 20 folks from the U.S. and Canada, in a spacious motor coach.
This trip traversed the nation—from the verdant hill country north from San Jose to a Pacific Coast beach resort, east to a mountainous temperate rain forest, and finally a riparian ecosystem on the Caribbean side, plus a luxurious respite below a slumbering volcano.
Just an hour from the capital of San Jose, we stopped at Doka Coffee Estate. As a coffee lover since age 15, I delighted in seeing the green coffee berries that would be ripened to red cherries, roasted, ground and brewed. Superb coffees throughout my trip never quite matched Doka peaberry. Of course, I brought some home.
Several hours’ drive brought us to the Gold Coast, known for surfing and resorts of all prices and amenities. We rested up for two nights at the Riu Guanacaste, a newish all-inclusive luxury resort nestled in a sheltered bay. The surf is tame on these dark volcanic sands.
The tour includes free time—no tours, no meal times, just relaxation by whatever means we chose—and I spent it reading and watching from my balcony as schooners of rain-rich clouds cruised in from the azure Pacific. If I had been hungry for local food, or people-watching, a variety of nearby restaurants and bars were available. For those of us who traveled far, this was a welcome respite, before we got physical in the mountains.
A ruby dawn comes early, and after a sunrise stroll on Matapalo Beach, I sadly say adios to Guanacaste, as we trade the beach life for the misty mountains. The winding road to Monteverde ascends through meadows and forests of Columbian emerald hues, and from sea level to more than a mile high. Chris Mata, our expedition leader, described the famous birds and wildlife we hoped to see, and some that are elusive, like the puma. “Thirty two puma roam these mountains, and are tracked with radio collars, a healthy population here,” Mata said.
Monteverde translates green mountain, and that day it was wreathed in mists and low clouds. In the early 1950’s, an American Quaker family moved here, so their sons wouldn’t be drafted for war, and they’ve thrived, building a cheese factory and branching out successfully into ecotourism. Visitors come from around the planet to experience this cloud forest, and we took an afternoon jaunt to search for the endangered quetzal bird. A drenching rain squall soaked the forest, but an hour later the clouds parted and sun beams sliced though the mists and upper story of the trees, a transcendent sight that lasted for mere seconds. No quetzal sightings that day, but this healthy forest throbs year-round with life, birds, reptiles and a variety of trees and plants, many with medicinal properties.
Lightly soaked, we rode back on a rough track and checked into El Establo, the premier property in Monteverde. That night was marked by a fantastic rainstorm and lightning display, but dawn light came with a clear sky and the cleanest, most fragrant air you can imagine. Built in the 1990s and still growing, this plush property has commanding views, far out to the distant Pacific.
Next morning we ate a hearty breakfast, and rode out on muddy roads to Selvatura Park, a privately owned enclave of protected rainforest. First we spent an hour with the butterflies, which flitted inside the conservancy dome, and learned about the 14,000 species of moths and butterflies that thrive in Costa Rica. Flitting seems to me a word perfected for how these creatures dance about, and one Blue Morpho alighted on my wrist—seeking what? I wondered. My favorite is the Malachite butterfly, bearing rainforest colors of green and brown—an elegant creation and one I’d never seen before that day.
Close by the butterfly dome is the hummingbird buffet line, sugar water feeders in a courtyard, which are thronged by aggressive gem-like hummingbirds. There are perhaps three dozen here, vying for the space to sip deeply of an energy drink. One green beauty rested briefly on the hand of our guests, utterly delighting them with this momentary connection.
Before lunch we took a much-anticipated walk through the heart of the cloud forest, made possible by eight suspension bridges, up to 180 feet above the canyon floor. This 1.5-mile trail and the Treetop Walkway afford a wholly different view of the cloud forest. On this day the mists swirled wraithlike through the trees and rain obscured detail but it felt like I was walking through a Japanese watercolor. I also was reminded of the Jurassic Park movies, and understood why the story was set in Costa Rica.
Next up, for the four adventurers in the group, was the Canopy Tour, a series of 12 progressively longer zip lines that soar above and through the cloud forest. I’m a zip-line junkie, but my cohorts were new to the speed and drama, and on this day the elements made their debut quite memorable. The heavens let loose with a deluge, so we zipped in the rain, and I somehow found myself singing a revised version of Gene Kelly’s song—“Zipping in the Rain.” Soaked through and through, we laughed at every zip, and then faced the monster run, one kilometer long, downhill and into the wind, reaching 85 kilometers per hour, or freeway speeds, into the downpour. It was like speeding into a green wind tunnel, blurred rain drops stinging my skin, treetops rushing by, fantastically tactile and the wildest zip line I’ve ever experienced—a true rainforest zip, and a day I’ll never forget.
My suite at the El Establo offers endless hot water, and I used it all, warming up, and then our group descended on a very fine Italian restaurant in Monteverde. Despite the small local population of just 4,000, we found fine dining throughout Monteverde, doubtless due to the flow of sophisticated and affluent foreign visitors drawn to this priceless well of bio-diversity.
Next, the volcano lands beckoned, so we boarded a boat to cruise across Lake Arenal. The rain returned but the winds were calm, so we motored near the shore and viewed egrets, blue herons, cormorants, and ospreys, hunting and feeding in the warm rain. The symmetrical cone of Arenal emerged from the grey horizon, cloud-capped, a landmark and symbol of Costa Rica. After a 40-year run of near-constant eruption, the volcano is quiet for now, so we didn’t see lava streaming from the heights, lighting up the night.
A short ride brought us to a beautiful property called Arenal Springs, with hot springs pools and fine dining. That afternoon the clouds parted and I saw steam plumes rising from the summit, turned gold before the sun quit the sky.
The odyssey continued, this time with wildlife as our goal. We rode a couple of hours north through pineapple and sugar cane country, nearly to the Nicaragua border, and boarded a boat to cruise up the Rio Frio into the heart of the Cano Negro National Wildlife Refuge. This ecosystem is second only to coral reefs for biological density. On our two-hour shift upstream, we saw a rainbow collection of lizards, birds, monkeys and bats. The Boat-billed Heron, with its huge thick bill and half-dollar size red eyes, set atop a small squatty body, is remarkably ugly and yet beautiful. And how must we have looked to him, from his tree perch?
Here is life well lived by all, people and native wildlife, and that at last is how I come to understand pura vida—in balance.
Kerrick James (kerrickjames.com) is based in the Arizona desert but loves the creatures of the rain forest.
Costa Rica’s rainy season runs May-November, with the dry(er) season December-April. Visit during the dry season, so your favorite activities aren’t compromised. Still, as is said, there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad gear. So bring a quality rain poncho and hat, plus rain pants and an extra pair of shoes to Costa Rica. Plan for rain, and thrill to the sun when it appears. Also for this trip pack a swimsuit, sun hat and sunscreen. I brought bug repellent but rarely used it. And save space in your luggage for treasures like carved wood art or coffee; you’ll need the room. Finally, no visa is required but of course you must have your passport to travel and to exchange money, although U.S. dollars are widely accepted, as are credit and debit cards.
Standup paddleboarding in the lagoon at the Four Seasons Resort in Bora Bora, French Polynesia. © Blaine Harrington III
By Blaine Harrington III
Airline posters of exotic destinations covered the walls of my childhood bedroom. One especially memorable Pan-Am poster pictured a beautiful Tahitian woman. That poster is selling for $400 and up on eBay. I should have kept it, along with my Beatles trading cards and other long-gone items. At the time, though, the poster had a value greater than money; it inspired me, because Tahiti and the islands of French Polynesia seemed the most faraway places imaginable.
As a married, workaday adult now celebrating my 25th wedding anniversary, French Polynesia seemed like the perfect place for an idyllic escape. I chose for me and wife Maureen the island of Bora Bora. We’d go in July, the so-called dry season, and also the month of Heiva I Tahiti, the annual festival of traditional singing and dancing.
French Polynesia is three hours by air beyond Hawaii. We arrived in Tahiti before dawn, too early to check in for our one night there, so we watched the sunrise from a couple of beach chairs. As the sun lit the sky, we saw the jagged peaks on Moorea just 10 miles across the water.
That evening, after a beachside sunset, we attended the dance festival. Heiva is to Tahiti what Carnival is to Rio, and what Dancing with the Stars is to America. In the small stadium at Place Toata in Papeete, scores of dancers from the islands of French Polynesia tell a story with their movements. On our first evening, judges would select the top acts. We’d be there again a week later, after visiting Bora Bora, to see the finale.
We arrived at Bora Bora’s distinctive lagoon as darkness fell. A private deck ran the full length of our Four Seasons bungalow, and we walked it slowly, looking across the lagoon to Mount Otemanu on the main island. It stood silhouetted against a night sky full of stars. I could think of no more lovely place to be. Seeing the broad smile on my wife’s face, I could tell she agreed.
Swimming with rays and reef sharks is a “must do” on any visit to Bora Bora. The honeymooners on our boat seemed frightened at first, but once in the water, they became comfortable, and swam rapidly in circles, chasing anything that moved.
Our last dinner, served on a decorated deck, coincided with sunset.
We had honeymooned 25 years earlier on the French Riviera. Choosing French Polynesia for this anniversary trip seemed the perfect idea, and it was.
A Jamaican man on the rainforest bobsled ride at Mystic Mountain, Ocho Rios Jamaica. © M. Timothy O’Keefe/Alamy
By Kristi Vaughn
Traveling to Jamaica by air, you arrive in Montego Bay. Long before landing, your AAA Travel agent will have helped you decide where to lodge from among several all-inclusive hotels with picture-postcard views and world-class amenities.
Among your best choices: The Hyatt Ziva, formerly a Ritz Carlton, and next to it, Hyatt Zilara, which retains the architectural feel of the Ritz. The Zilara side is quieter, newer and upgraded. The Ziva side is where you’ll find the restaurants, bars and lounges.
Another recommendation is Secrets, which is two resorts—like the Hyatt. St. James is quiet and Wild Orchid offers dining and nightlife. The rage in hotel design is “sexy bathrooms,” and Secrets is no exception. Glass doors and open tub areas do not offer a lot of privacy, by design. This may be just right for couples, but perhaps less appealing to families or friends traveling together.
An exemption to the “sexy bathroom” craze is in Runaway Bay at the Jewel Paradise Cove. Even so, it is an adult-only property, with either king or two twin beds. The twin beds work for two friends traveling together.
The Jamaican Bobsled Team is famous for its appearances at the Winter Olympics, and Mystic Mountain in Ocho Rios, 94 kilometers from Montego Bay, offers tourists a simulated medal-winning ride down a twisting metal track. Take a 15-minute ride on a four-person chairlift to the top, and board the Rainforest Bobsled, go zip lining, or simply take in the breathtaking view from the summit toward the ocean, or in the direction of the Blue Mountains, where the Jamaicans grow their world-famous coffee.
Whether arriving or departing the island, spend your wait at Club MoBay. The lounge is equipped with air conditioning (the airport AC is underpowered), free Wi-Fi, food, drinks, and a place to sit (the airport is crowded, with few chairs). Relax. That’s why you’re in Jamaica.
By Jeff Mahoney
When Hollywood wants to film a scene with a perfect beach, where does it send its multi-million dollar talent and film crew? For the 2003 film Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl, director Gore Verbinski put Johnny Depp and Keira Knightley on a beach near Samana, on the coast of a bay that encircles the Dominican Republic’s eastern front.
For a beach experience in the Caribbean, the discerning and motivated traveler can pick from a number of choices—more than 700 islands total. But like Hollywood, I would return time and again to the beaches of the Dominican Republic.
The experience I want to repeat begins with arrival in Punta Cana. The airport is open air, with a thatched roof. Yes, it’s often hot, with no exclusive air-conditioned lounge for relief, but the charm of the place overwhelms you. Before you leave the airport, there’s the Dominican “visa”—$10 in U.S. cash (no checks or credit cards please). A short drive later you’re at the beach, looking through crystal clear water at starfish. Take the time to swim with sharks—lemon sharks. (Let a guide help you spot them; that’s a choice you don’t want to get wrong.) This is also an area where you can watch East Coast whales migrate.
Other beaches on other islands may offer clear water, herbivore sharks, whale migrations, and such, but the Dominican Republic presents another advantage. It’s often overlooked, in the shadows of more common destinations like Jamaica. So the Dominican Republic is poorer, but also less expensive, and less crowded. And with fewer tourists, you do not encounter nearly as many solicitors.
For an island known more for producing great baseball players (including David Ortiz, Albert Pujols, and Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez) than for a bucket-list trip, the Dominican Republic is a beautiful bargain.
By Clark Norton
Caribbean islands are often described as “laid back,” but when you emerge from a cruise ship or airport and the taxi drivers or trinket hawkers descend, you may begin to question it. But St. Lucia is truly deserving of the label: no taxi drivers accosted us at the airport, and the driver my wife and I had lined up to wheel us across the island seemed in no hurry to get paid. He first stopped to buy us a liter of water and some cashews, then picked up his daughter and later his girlfriend, and we all drove north to Rodney Bay—a two-hour trip in all, including some sightseeing at a scenic overlook—with the driver’s school-age daughter wedged tightly between us in the back seat. Shy at first, she started to open up along the way, fueled in part by our offer of some cashews—and we learned more about the day-to-day life of young St. Lucians than we would from any guidebook.
Once in Rodney Bay, we gravitated toward the rhythmic beat of a steel drum band, which was playing along the town’s main street. This was no performance for tourists. The onlookers were mainly locals, and the performers were a group of high school girls all wearing crisp uniforms in the British style (St. Lucia is a former British colony). The girls were playing with an infectious joy that had even the worst dancers among us—actually, that would be me—moving our feet. The girls themselves smiled and danced as they played for what must have been an hour, occasionally switching off to let additional girls into the mix, never missing a beat, never looking even slightly bored.
As glorious as St. Lucia’s beaches and scenery are, we would never have imagined that our chance encounters with schoolgirls would form some of our deepest impressions of this truly laid-back Caribbean jewel.