The colourful toucans of Costa Rica soar and dip and on a wellness break, so does Stephanie Holmes.
I was supposed to be concentrating on my downward-facing dog but my attention was more concerned with upward-flying toucans.
It was my final yoga class after a week of wellness adventures in Costa Rica, and the setting could hardly have been better. We were in the large, breezy conference room of Hotel Arenal Manoa, a sprawling complex set in lush tropical gardens under the shadow of a 1600m active volcano. Floor-to-ceiling windows looked out to the gardens and rainforest in front of us, the summit of Arenal volcano partially obscured by cloud in the twilight.
As I tried my best to focus on our teacher's instructions — her gentle voice acting as a meditation in itself — a chestnut-mandibled toucan flew back and forth between two towering trees. I'd seen what I assume was the same bird hours before as I soaked in the hotel's natural hot spring swimming pool — also facing the volcano — and had been transfixed then by its bright colours and graceful flight.
As I moved through the sun salutations and asanas of this taxing yoga class, I let my mind wander to all the adventures I'd experienced over the past week: ziplining, aerial yoga, surfing, stand-up paddleboarding, rainforest canopy walks on swinging suspension bridges, plus delicious food, plenty of wine and good company. If this is wellness, I'm a convert.
Costa Rica feels like a long way to go for a wellness break, especially when, at first glance, its natural environment isn't too dissimilar to our own — volcanoes, forest, beaches. But it's a biodiverse destination well set up for visitors, with tourism the country's No. 1 industry.
I was travelling with G Adventures, for a preview of their newly-launched wellness itineraries. This new travel style for the Canadian-founded company was announced last October, and the first tours will kick off in June this year.
G Adventures founder Bruce Poon Tip says "Wellness encourages our travellers to slow down, which is important during this time when we're being bombarded by noise and information in our daily lives. Our wellness experiences will allow travellers to take their time to savour not only the healthy food but also the surroundings, the culture, and the time to themselves."
My tour certainly delivered.
It kicked off in the country's capital, San Jose, with an evening get-together to meet our fellow travellers and CEO (Chief Experience Officer), Noelia. A feisty 30-year-old Costa Rican, Noelia is an expert at travel in this part of the world, having first travelled solo aged 18, backpacking through South America. Her knowledge of Costa Rica was hugely impressive. She could fire off facts on everything from the country's political history, to biodiversity, to its export industry, to its food and culture, while still making everything fun and engaging — and her organisational skills kept our group of 14 happy and in line.
Those expecting the tour to be all "ohm-ing" and meditation should be aware that the focus is on "active wellness" — so as well as yoga, you have the chance to take a surf lesson in the Pacific Ocean, stand-up paddleboard on Costa Rica's largest lake, and zipline through native rainforest. Hence finding myself suspended on a tiny wooden platform bolted into a rock canyon wall, about to tarzan swing over the White River, to another tiny wooden platform on the other side.
Ziplining is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Costa Rica, with opportunities to try it throughout the country. I experienced it in Guanacaste, one of Costa Rica's seven provinces, at the Hotel Hacienda Guachipelin in the Rincon de la Vieja Volcano and National Park. It's been a 1400ha working ranch since the 1880s and the owners developed the land into a hotel in the 1980s to provide accommodation and experiences to visitors to the hot springs, volcanic activity, waterfalls, rainforest and wildlife in the area.
With the growing demand for adventure activities, the hotel also added its own zipline canopy tour which takes guests through the White River Canyon on the hacienda grounds.
It's just a short stroll from the breakfast buffet to the adventure centre, where you get strapped into safety harnesses and the group of cheeky guides crack jokes to distract you from any fears.
There were seven in our group and as many guides looking after us, with Harold — "you can call me El Tigre" — taking charge. We were guided through the zip-lines across dense jungle canopy, hanging bridges, the aforementioned tarzan swings over the river, as well as a 20m rappel down the canyon and rock climb back up.
The gorge, canyon and forest canopy were beautiful — we were surrounded by pure nature and peace (apart from our childish screams of delight and exhilaration). At the end of the course I wanted to run back to the start and do it all again. Instead, I took the opportunity to lie in the strong Costa Rican sun by the hacienda's pool as the adrenalin subsided.
There was further adrenalin to be found during aerial yoga classes and surf lessons in the Nicoya province on the Pacific Coast. Nicoya is the only part of Latin America that has been awarded Blue Zone status — an award created by author and National Geographic fellow Dan Buettner, identifing parts of the world where people live measurably longer lives. There is a higher than average number of people living past 100, who enjoy more years of good health. Nicoya is one of five Blue Zones, alongside Okinawa (Japan), Sardinia (Italy), Icaria (Greece), and Loma Linda (California).
Our hotel was perched on a hillside above Playa Carrillo, a sweeping crescent of dark golden sand. We arrived in the afternoon after a long drive and the sky looked as if it might break any second. Clouds, plump and black with heavy humidity, hung low over a lush green mountain range. A wind break of palm trees divided the road from the sand, their fronds glowing vibrant green and yellow in the last of the afternoon light. Black vultures floated high on the warm updraft, not preying, just circling elegantly like silk kites in the breeze. All the while the Pacific Ocean tumbled insistently into shore, the water cool enough to be refreshing, warm enough to be inviting.
The waves were gentler at nearby Playa Samara, a beach town with a more touristic feel than Carillo, and where we enjoyed an excellent dinner at vegan organic restaurant Luvburger. We counteracted the health factor by ordering way too much food and eating until our stomachs hurt. The skies finally broke and torrential rain poured while we ate.
In the morning, the clouds had cleared and after a sunrise yoga session on the sands, a few of us took a surf lesson with local instructors who, as we arrived, were relaxing photogenically in the shade of a banyan tree.
We were guided on the sand before jumping in the ocean to give it a go. Five of us, including three first timers, all had some measure of success and emerged revived, embracing what Costa Ricans call "pura vida" — the pure life.
Back at Hotel Hacienda Guachapelin, during a gentle sunset yoga class, we learned more about the Costa Rican pura vida. The noise of the wind through the trees and the changing light of the evening sky aided in the relaxation (although many of us wished they had stocked up on mosquito repellent).
Earlier Noelia had told us how the volcano Rincon de la Vieja got its name. Translating to Old Woman's Corner, it comes from the legend of an indigenous princess who fled from her chieftain father to be with her boyfriend from a rival tribe. The enraged chief threw the lover into the crater of the volcano and, heartbroken, the princess became a recluse, living the rest of her life close to the crater. She became a witch doctor and used the volcano's natural resources to create her remedies. People would visit to be healed, saying they were going to the "old woman's corner".
As we lay in our final relaxation pose of the yoga class, now surrounded by darkness, our teacher told us to focus on our breath while picturing the colour green. "Think about how this colour makes you feel," she said. "It represents the energy of the jungle, of nature."
She retold the legend of the volcano. "Its energy is surrounding us," she said. "We are taking the old woman's healing energy, too."
Wherever the energy came from, I ended my trip revitalised by all the adventure I experienced. The pura vida spirit is contagious.
An eight-day "Wellness Costa Rica" small group G Adventures trip is priced from $2519pp, including accommodation, some meals, a chief experience officer (CEO) throughout, transportation and most activities. Prices do not include flights. Wellness itineraries are also available in Bali, Thailand, Italy, Colombia, Peru, India, Nepal, Iceland and Patagonia.
United Airlines flies from Auckland to San Jose, via Houston (with code-share partner Air NZ). For fares and schedules see united.com