By Anja Mutić
Curled up on a tree steps away from where I stand rests an eyelash pit viper. Just a look through a telescope at this super-venomous snake, also known as bocaraca, or "kiss of death”, gives me serious chills. Yet I am strangely entranced by its perfectly camouflaged body. A stone’s throw away as we move down the jungle path, a family of white-faced capuchin monkeys, known as the park’s mafia, makes ruckus in the canopy above our heads. Next up we spot a three-toed sloth precariously hanging off a tree branch, scratching and moving at its typical speed-neck pace, five times faster than a snail.
It’s my first day in Costa Rica, and I’m spending my afternoon in Manuel Antonio National Park, a small but beautiful tract of rainforest, mangrove and beach that hugs the country's central Pacific coast. In just a couple of hours of walking around with a naturalist guide amazingly skillful in catching the slightest movement of the tree branches, I am lucky to see a multitude of animals, some downright scary, others utterly adorable.
After my fill of fruitful animal-spotting, I walk along Playa Espadilla, a stunning 1.2 mile-long beach with natural rock outcroppings protecting warm tide pools. I have caught the tail end of the rainy season; it poured for days before my arrival. En route to my home for two nights, Arenas Del Mar, I pass puddles aplenty, climb over a few rocks and arrive to Playitas, a cozy stretch of sand right below this beachfront and rainforest resort.
My ocean-view superior room offers an enticing view combo, of the rainforest and the Pacific Ocean. It also showcases all the upscale trappings, including high-speed Internet, cable television, mini-bar, a king-size bed and a spacious bathroom with organic and biodegradable toiletries. What I love the most is the private deck where I spend most of the time, taking in the soundtrack of pouring rain, crashing waves and rainforest hum: a standout of my stay at Arenas del Mar.
Another highlight is the sustainability tour led by the charming sustainability coordinator Silvia. Silvia explains the resort’s water purification system, points out the beach and pool chairs made of recycled plastic and the bamboo flooring at the spa, and shows me the resort’s composting and recycling center and plant nursery. She tells me that only paper recycled from coffee, banana, lemon and bamboo is used at the hotel, that electric cars on the property reduce sound pollution and carbon emissions, and that the resort is developing a new butterfly farm and small museum. I love seeing such great and thoughtful effort in ensuring the least damaging and the most positive impact on the environment.
After Arenas del Mar, my next stop in Costa Rica is Finca Rosa Blanca coffee plantation and inn just outside San Jose, Costa Rica’s capital. This gorgeously whimsical property surrounded by nine acres of tropical gardens crowns the central highlands of Costa Rica 4000 feet above sea level, in an area of misty cloud forests, towering volcanoes, wild rivers, rushing waterfalls and national parks with the rare quetzal, tapirs and peccaries. All the elegant yet quirky suites here come with Jacuzzi baths and mini bars as well as private verandas overlooking the valleys below and volcanoes above. The artistic sensibility of owners Teri and Glenn Jampol, who live next door and run the inn with a loving hand, is palpable throughout the interiors, which feature lush Costa Rican hardwoods, hand-painted murals, odd-shaped windows, and heaps of tropical foliage.
Every moment of my sojourn at Finca Rosa Blanca is a delight, but what steals the show is the tour of the inn’s organic coffee plantation. With my knowledgeable guide and experienced barista Leo, I spend nearly two hours wandering the 42 acres of tree-shaded coffee plantations. Located on a temperate plateau with lush volcanic soil, they provide an ideal environment for producing some of the world’s best coffee. Finca Rosa Blanca’s coffee is certified organic and sustainable, grown without any agrochemicals, pesticides, herbicides or fungicides. Instead, the farm applies the rich compost from their worm beds and from the organic refuse at the hotel and uses only natural remedies for the fungus and pests which often plague coffee.
From Leo I learn that conventional coffee plantations are replacing wildlife habitats at an alarming rate, and as a result the population of songbirds across North and South America is in significant decline. Coffee grown under the shade of tall trees, which is the traditional method of coffee farming, offers a promising alternative. Not only does it taste better, because the natural sugars increase and enhance the flavor of the coffee, it’s also healthier, since it’s free of chemical use. It also provides bird habitat and greater biodiversity and helps sustain rainforests.
As we stroll the dreamy lanes zigzagging through the coffee plantations, Leo tells me stories about how coffee was discovered, traded and consumed, and explains the entire process of organic cultivation and harvest (which at Finca Rosa Blanca takes place during between October and January) – the cleaning and drying of the berries, and roasting them at the farm’s own roasting and packing house.
We then sit down for a coffee cupping at the inn’s El Tigre Vestido Restaurant, during which Leo shows me how the experts discern and rate gourmet coffee. It involves smelling two different kinds of ground coffee beans and then, paired with lots of loud slurping, tasting them and trying to nail down the flavors and fragrances. I walk away with a great taste in my mouth and with Leo’s words still echoing in my mind: "This tour is for our guests to know that coffee is not to be taken for granted. We grow organic because we have a much higher purpose, for our future generations."
After a few days at Finca Rosa Blanca, my journey continues overland to Nicaragua, the rising star on Central America’s travel itineraries. I spend the next four days in heaven at Jicaro Island Ecolodge, a new eco hideaway on an islet smack in the middle of Lake Nicaragua. Every moment is a treat: enjoying bird song on early mornings, as the sun starts to bathe the Mombacho Volcano looming on the shore, with a cup of organic coffee in hand, sitting on the wooden deck of my private casita on the edge of the lake.
There’s also the feel-good factor about staying at Jicaro, a sustainable retreat where buildings are constructed of tropical timber reclaimed from trees blown down by hurricane Felix in 2007 and water is heated with solar panels. Everything about this lodge, from inception to the experience of staying, is done with utmost respect to the environment and the people. Jicaro hires local staff, uses ionization to purify lake water for the swimming pool, and features all biodegradable organic toiletries, bamboo fiber sheets and bathrobes, and paper made of recycled banana trees.
Among the 365 islands – one for each day of the year – of the Isletas archipelago formed 20,000 years ago after a volcanic eruption, Jicaro offers a true escape, yet just a quick boat ride from the gorgeous colonial town of Granada on the mainland. Its natural soundtrack presents gentle winds rustling the leaves, bird song, hum of night insects... Native trees of the subtropical rainforest, like panama, jicaro, chilamate and bananas, surround the nine private two-floor casitas. I love the early mornings with fresh coffee, tea or chocolate delivered to my deck, and late afternoons lazing in the hammock on the edge of the lake.
I also love the food at Jicaro. All products are organic and local, and the fare is light and healthy. My days start with warm oatmeal with sun-dried fruit, butter and honey or the huevos nicaraguenses (Nicaraguan eggs), served with gallo pinto. This national dish of Nicaragua – onions with smashed red beans and rice – is also available for lunch in the shape of gallo pinto burger with banana ketchup and ginger coleslaw. Other dishes include roasted beet and ayote (local acorn squash) salad with basil and honey citronette or the local fish like guapote and mojarra. And I can’t get enough of the dragonfruit juice, with its almost fluorescent purple color.
There’s so much to do in the area that it’s easy not to notice the lack of high-tech trimmings – there are no TVs on the island nor is there air-conditioning. During my stay I enjoy a dizzying number of fun activities and excursions. I hike the forest trails of the cloud forest of Mombacho Volcano nature reserve, a short drive from Granada, and see a single tree with 35 plant species, including orchids and bromeliads – more than an entire forest in England or Switzerland, my guide tells me. I zipline through the canopy using harnesses and pulleys along approximately 2,000 feet of cable that stretches between 17 platforms situated up to 100 ft. above the forest floor.
A highlight is a sunrise kayak jaunt on the lake, when I paddle out with Fabian, Jicaro’s sustainability coordinator and naturalist guide, to explore the diverse ecosystem that surrounds the lodge, a combination of wetlands and dry forest. We glide through water lily-covered canals, spotting howler monkeys, an occasional lake turtle and a multitude of birds. The islands showcase no less than 83 species, including neotropic cormorant, tiger heron, northern jacana, great-bellied whistling duck, green-backed heron and the rare limpkin.
One windy afternoon we take a wavy boat trip to the Cedric Martin School on the mainland below Mombacho Volcano, in an impoverished farming community of Costa Sur. Jicaro supports three schools in the islands, with Cedric Martin as the main focus. The kids are out for their school break but it’s great to see the new classroom that Jicaro is building and hear of their plans to teach the children responsible environmental practices, a high priority in this fragile area.
There’s also the fantastic alfresco yoga class that I take with American-born instructor Warren one early morning, when he teaches me a number of great postures for lessening my back aches. And there’s the fusion massage I indulge in on a late afternoon in one of two open-air treatment rooms at the lakeside wellness center.
When it’s time to leave Jicaro, withdrawal symptoms kick in. Still, there is one more place to discover on my Central American journey: the gorgeous colonial showpiece of Granada. The boat drops me off on the mainland and I check into my hotel for one last night, the colonial-style Hotel Plaza Colon on the main square. I then head out to explore the grid of Granada’s pastel-colored streets. I quickly see why this oldest colonial city on mainland America, established in 1524, is considered one of the prettiest in Latin America. From the air, it’s even more stunning, I note after I climb the bell tower of Iglesia de la Merced for amazing city and lake vistas. I end the night at the city’s most creative restaurant, Imagine, a colorful place owned by a friendly American called Kevin. The sampling of his culinary concoctions is the perfect finale: organic lamb chops, sesame-encrusted ahi tuna, teriyaki chicken, fillet mignon with gorgonzola cheese, and the restaurant’s famous dessert, the sweet mango bread made with fruit from Kevin’s own trees. On the ride to the airport the next morning, I’m already scheming my return.
IF YOU GO
Arenas del Mar: www.arenasdelmar.com
Finca Rosa Blanca: www.fincarosablanca.com
Jicaro Island Ecolodge: www.jicarolodge.com
Careli Tours: www.carelitours.com
Hotel Plaza Colon: www.hotelplazacolon.com