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Exploring the Lesser-Known Side of Costa Rica

Located between Nicaragua and Panama, Costa Rica is known for its unspoiled beaches, lush rainforest, colorful wildlife, and multitude of outdoor activities. A top destination for travelers from the United States and Canada, this relatively small country in Central America attracts nearly two million people every year. With several mountain ranges, waterfalls, and active volcanoes, and coastlines on both the Pacific and Caribbean, Costa Rica has so much to explore. Combined with its relaxed way of life (and what I, prior to going to Costa Rica, thought was a tourist phrase, pura vida is actually a way of life adopted temporarily by travelers that truly encompasses the feel of the country and the pride of Ticos) this country holds a special place in many foreigners hearts.

Whether it's the close proximity to the U.S., its good rap in terms of safety, or activities and accommodations to fit virtually anyone, it's unsurprising the response I received when mentioning Costa Rica to friends and acquaintances was admiration for the country (followed by a shocked look and, "you haven't been to Costa Rica!?" as if I'm an anomaly). Although I tend to seek out off-the-beaten-path destinations when I travel, I also know there is value in places visited frequently. Largely, places that are popular and deemed touristy are that way for a reason—and Costa Rica is no exception.

The reality is, one can never truly experience all corners of a given place, and there are always places within a country that fly under the radar and have yet to have hype around them. So, when the opportunity came to travel to Costa Rica with Clark Kotula to tour properties sticking to the not-as-touristy side of Costa Rica, the Caribbean side, I quickly jumped on it. And I'll just say this: I get it now. The hype surrounding this country makes total sense.

Let me take you through these three incredibly different properties in three distinct locations of the west side of Costa Rica. Each property had something new and fresh to discover, and all with entirely different vibes (for lack of a better word).

After two around three-hour flights with a layover in Mexico City, I arrived in San Jose, and for the night, stayed at Hotel Grano De Oro, a beautiful 4-star boutique hotel in an old Victorian home. The hotel has turn of the century decor with antique furniture and paintings, rich wood paneling, and stain glass windows. The hotel's French Mediterranean restaurant, Restaurante Grano de Oro, is popular among tourists and locals, and the food and service was exceptional. Hotel Grano De Oro is a beautiful place to rejuvenate after traveling and en route to other places throughout Costa Rica.

The following morning we traveled west to the Limón Province to our first official destination, Pacuare Lodge, a luxury eco-hotel on the Pacuare River in the Talamanca Mountains. My initial excitement (and slight fear) about this place came when hearing that we arrive by white water rafting to the property. The Pacuare River is known for its white water rapids, and this means of transport to and from the property—although not obligatory—is truly unique. It became apparent that a stay at Pacuare is not short of adventure, but it is also true that this adventurous, nature-filled spirit comes hand-in-hand with luxurious accommodations. And the fear about white water rafting eased up when on the water because it was so fun.

Pacuare Lodge consists of a string of individual treehouses that are spread across the rainforest canopy with the river rushing below. The expansive grounds are covered in tropical plants and flowers with mountainside views, and you're completely surrounded by the sounds and layers of nature. Each of the 20 treehouse suites have nearly 360º view of the jungle and were constructed sustainably. The architecture is inspired by that of the local indigenous group, Cabécar, and the suites are spacious with a natural design. Each suite has a private terrace with a hammock and seating area, and screen-lined doors that fully open for an indoor-outdoor experience. The villas also include a spring-fed plunge pool, a daybed in the living room, and both an indoor and outdoor shower.

On the property you can get around by foot or golf cart, and there are endless activities to get into during the day. We went canyoneering and repelled down rocks and a waterfall, hiked to waterfalls, took in the serene views from the treetops while zip lining, went on walking nature tours, and sat down for a number of multi-coursed meals in picturesque places. Other experiences at Pacuare Lodge include birdwatching, cultural tours, and treatments that integrate the wisdom of ancient cultures and their traditions of spirituality and healing at their spa, Jawa Juü.

I truly can't say enough amazing things about Pacuare Lodge, and specifically how welcoming, vibrant, and enjoyable the staff and guides are. Being sad to leave this dreamy place, but also curious to what is in store next, we made our way north and to the coast to Tortuguero National Park. Due to the excessive amount of rain and the river too high (something that I was told doesn't happen more than 10 days per year), it wasn't safe to white water raft on the way out. A transfer by pickup truck, large van, and a boat when arriving at Tortuguero National Park, we arrived at Tortuga Lodge & Gardens.

I'll start by saying I was skeptical about this part of the trip. Tortuguero National Park attracts tourists during the months of August to November when Green Sea Turtles, Leatherback, and Hawksbill turtles nest and hatch along 22 miles of beach between the Tortuguero River and the Caribbean Sea. This being the main attraction for tourists globally, what would this part of Costa Rica be like on its "off-season"?

This place has soul and I was pleasantly surprised by not only how much there was to do, but the overall look and feel of Tortuga Lodge and the greater Tortuguero National Park. As I mentioned above, Tortuguero National Park is only accessible by boat (and a tiny airport right across from Tortuga Lodge that you have to then hop in a boat transfer). The area is rich in biodiversity and covers almost 300 square miles. Where freshwater meets sea, Tortuguero National Park is an extensive network of canals, creeks, and lagoons, and here you'll find sloths, howler monkeys, river otters, toucans, and caimans.

A place infused with Afro-Caribbean traditions, food, and music, and rooted in community, Tortuga Lodge sits peacefully along the river and welcomes guests to their remote location in newly renovated two-story accommodations. The exterior of the wooden buildings are painted bright colors, and the rooms—all with river views—are clean, elegant, and lively in decor. Each room has a terrace with a hanging daybed and air conditioning. The Green Turtle Restaurant at Tortuga Lodge serves up fresh and innovative dishes with Caribbean flair, and the restaurant is open-aired with sweeping views of the river, which makes for a dazzling experience morning and night. There is also a pool and spa at the hotel.

One thing that stood out to me about Tortuga Lodge is that everyone who is employed there is from the local community. I felt the deep-seated pride the staff had for being from Tortuguero and their desire to share that with visitors. On top of this, the activities in the national park with a naturalist guide were incredibly informative. We saw a lot of wildlife, and the national park limits the amount of boats in given areas of the park, so it doesn't get overrun with people. Just across the lodge and on the other side of the river is a lovely, uninhabited beach perfect for a stroll. The ocean, though, is not swimmable or suitable for any water activities due to the strong current and number of bull sharks in the area.

We also got to hike Cerro Tortuguero to see the views from up above, went kayaking in the small canals where the sediment in the water makes the water black in color and gives off a mesmerizing reflection of the flora aligning the water, and spent time with a local family who lives on a farm near the ocean and they provided us with fresh coconut, coffee, and snacks. We played games and soccer with the kids under coconut trees and relaxed on hammocks.

Even in a season where you're unable to see sea turtles, Tortuguero is worth the visit and exceeded all expectations. An easy 2 minute transfer across the lodge to the airport (and I use airport loosely is basically just a landing strip) to board a small plane to take us south to Limon then by van to Puerto Viejo. The short flight goes along the coastline and was also memorable.

And that brings us to our final place and property, Hotel Aguas Claras, a trendy, Bohemian boutique hotel in the surf town of Puerto Viejo. This property has a collection of Victorian-tropical bungalows and suites among two acres of lush gardens. The property is a brief stroll to the ocean where you'll find their private beach club, Da Lime. Hotel Aguas Claras is owned by a Costa Rican artist and her daughter, and the duo used reclaimed materials and utilized local artists and makers to build the hotel. On the property there's also a pool, restaurant, spa services, a gorgeous outdoor yoga studio, Casa Gandhi, and of course, access to the clear waters & coral reefs of Playa Chiquita. The hotel is oozing with creativity, and I loved its laid-back luxury.

We spent sunset the first night relaxing on the beach, went snorkeling the following day at Cahuita National Park and went on a hike where we saw a bright yellow poisonous snake and, I believe, 12 sloths (I lost count). That afternoon we hopped on bicycles and rode to Punta Uva, a local beach, for sunset, then made our way to town where there are a number of bars and restaurants with live music. Depending on the swell, there's an opportunity to surf in Puerto Viejo, and other activities include cacao tours and more lengthy hikes in the Gandoca-Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge.

It's impossible to pick a favorite from this trip, because each property is so unique and appealing to different interests and needs. A combination of any two of these properties gives you vastly different sides and experiences in Costa Rica. Whether beach towns are more your style, or you're interested in being fully engulfed in the jungle, Costa Rica undoubtedly has something for everyone.

- Kirstin


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