First, let me say there's no such thing as too many monkeys. Among Costa Rica's more famous ambassadors are the howler monkeys I first encountered on a previous visit. Their vocalization is dramatic, with a nod to Tarzan and nearly impossible to mimic. For little guys, they pack powerful lung capacity. But more about them later.
Costa Rica sits between Nicaragua and Panama with water on either coast. Its population is about 4.5 million, yet they have no military. During one tour our driver saw a gathering of vultures.
"Look," he said. "It's the Costa Rican Air Force!"
The country is slightly smaller than West Virginia. Since rural roads can be gravel, narrow or washed out — and sometimes all three — anyone planning to drive there needs to factor in extra time. The tropical weather can also be rainy.
I met three honeymooning couples while I was in Costa Rica, and they all mentioned the two-vacations-in-one aspect as their deciding factor for choosing this Central American country. After jungle-trekking and monkey-viewing, it's an easy transition by car to the more traditional beach holiday on the Pacific side.
Thankfully, we had a local driver from the Liberia airport to our destination at Tabacon Grand Spa Thermal Resort. Due to a night arrival and seriously winding road, it was a prudent plan. The total drive time was close to three hours. The last segment followed the shore line of the Lake Arenal, hence the curves.
Arenal volcano was within sight during our approach to the resort, but darkness shielded it from view. I was eager for daylight to see the postcard-perfect specimen, but I also wanted to explore Tabacon — a luxury oasis perched in the jungle and remarkably peaceful, although we did hear howlers in the distance. From the pool area, as well as many hotel rooms and suites, the volcano presides overhead, but a clear view of the top is not always likely due to cloud cover. Arenal is considered active, but we saw only a wispy bit of smoke seeping from the very top.
Thanks to its wide variety, breakfast at Tabacon was a treat. They offer a wide selection of tropical fruit, so I tried a different juice each morning — even watermelon. My husband opted for their traditional fare: rice and beans.
Tabacon is a splurge kind of place. I can especially recommend the couple's massage that features a rub with volcano mud. After the procedure, participants can jump into a secluded shower to sponge off the brown stuff. Our skin felt wonderful, and we were able to cross off "be naked in the jungle" from our bucket list.
The spa and thermal springs sit slightly apart from the hotel. Tabacon has a convenient shuttle service and a sidewalk that follows the same path as the road. Close to the spa and springs are an open-air restaurant with a good selection, lockers, regular swimming pool and swim-up bar.
The hot spring water from the volcano works magic on aches and pains that result from jungle-trekking. Nighttime is the best time to sink into the water since the thick tropical foliage and lighting along the terraced pools make the entire atmosphere captivating.
From Tabacon one possible excursion is Hanging Bridges. It's a jungle trek of about two hours or slightly longer, and the starting point is only a 20-minute drive from the resort. The adventure consists of traversing metal bridges that are suspended in the air. They sway as one walks and get progressively higher. I felt the need to clutch the railings for reassurance on each bridge we crossed, but overall it was an extraordinary experience.
Our group was barely over the first bridge when we spotted a howler monkey. Nearly everywhere along the trail, leaf-cutter ants marched in formation, like dedicated foot soldiers with a never-ending mission. We saw two tarantulas and an array of birds. Toward the end, the guide pointed out an eyelash pit viper, a small venomous snake. A local guide is an absolute necessity to fully explore the grandeur of the jungle.
Our second half-day outing was a river float trip on an inflatable raft. The hardest part was getting into the vessel; otherwise, the water flow was gentle. Life jackets were, of course, required for the ride. The guide sat in back and paddled as he talked. Howlers were again frolicking overhead for our viewing pleasure, and I was happy I'd remembered my binoculars to get a better view. They prefer the higher sections of the trees, so close-up photos require the proper lens. The final exciting sight on the float trip was a baby crocodile lounging on the river bank — as if the howler monkeys hadn't been enough.
WHEN YOU GO
For more detailed information on Tabacon Grand Spa Thermal Resort, visit www.tabacon.com.
Continental Airlines flies from Houston to Liberia, Costa Rica. From the Liberia airport it is about a one-hour drive to the northern Pacific coast of Costa Rica.
Photos courtesy of Tabacon Grand Spa Thermal Resort in Costa Rica.