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Friday, March 1, 2024
Hometown Traveller: Blending adventure and tranquillity in Costa Rica



Forget everything you think you know about a vegan yoga retreat in Costa Rica.

The trip isn’t what you might think, and so much more than you could imagine.

Costa Rica was high on my travel bucket list, so I’m committed from the first whispers of this excursion and easily enlisted my husband to join. My yoga teaching friend Ashley Blake is pursuing a travel-advising career under the brand Live Love Yoga Retreats and this is her pilot project; we’re more than willing to offer ourselves up as guinea pigs.

Paying the deposit close to a year in advance we’re armed with so much preparation, anticipation and expectations about the upcoming vacation, but none of our preconceived notions do the actual experience any justice.

In the early hours of Sunday, Feb. 2, a group of 14 marginally acquainted travellers gathered at Pearson International Airport to hop a plane to San Jose, Costa Rica.

The next seven days are a blend of tranquillity and chaos in a whirlwind of adventure, mindfulness, new friendships and unforgettable moments.

Stepping off the plane after about a five-hour flight, our group follows fearless leaders and tour guides Blake and Eric Martin, comically referred to as “Mom and Dad” for the week, to claim our bags and secure our rental vans for the stay. We accept the family vibe and become one solitary unit throughout the trip.

Costa Rica runs on its own schedule – much more laid-back than Toronto. So, it’s no real surprise when we bounce from one baggage carousel to another and then back again to track down our belongings. A laissez-faire mindset is evident; diligent organization and strict schedules take less precedence in the Central American country.

But when in Rome, err, Costa Rica, right?

Pura Vida.

With a bit of confusion and lots of patience we eventually collect our bags, board our rental vehicles and carve our way through the countryside from San Jose toward the small surf town of Dominical, Puntarenas. During our entire day of travel, we soak up the remaining daylight and incredible mountain views through the windows of our two large vans, and finally arrive at Ville Ambiente, our home for the week.

Gorgeous doesn’t begin to describe the open mansion tucked away in the mountain surrounded by the flourishing jungle and far-off views of the Pacific Ocean.

I’m not vegan and neither are more than half of us on the retreat, but we are willing and eager to try new things. I’m the type who vacations for the food, so I am more than thrilled when I take my first bite of our incredible vegan meal prepared for us on our first night. The food is so delicious, flavourful and filling I could easily forget there’s any other way to eat.

And though our breakfast each morning and three dinners throughout the week are expertly prepared vegan spreads by Uvita’s The Private Chef company, we are also encouraged to check out local restaurants and “Sodas,” which are little markets and cafes, to discover meals that speak to our taste buds. There’s ample opportunity to try the local fare.

The highlight is our sunset, ocean-view dinner at El Avion restaurant in Manuel Antonio. The restaurant is built in a converted CIA-operated, C-123 surplus military cargo plane, which was integral in the Iran-Contra affair in 1986, or so the story goes. As to how the plane became the setting for a sunset-view dinner on an ocean bluff in Manuel Antonio?

“If we tell you … we would have to kill you,” El Avion’s website warns.

Whatever the restaurant’s origins – after a long day exploring Manuel Antonio National Park, playing peek-a-boo with white-headed Capuchin monkeys, trying to spot a two-toed sloth and soaking up the sun while lounging with iguanas on the beach – an early dinner at El Avion is exactly what our group needs.

While savoury food and breathtaking views vie to steal the show this trip, I most look forward to our two yoga classes beginning and ending each day back at the villa. Afterall, Dominical is home to the Envision Festival, a week-long immersive experience celebrating sustainability, music, movement, spirituality, health, art and education, which begins one week after we leave. What better setting to connect with ourselves through yoga and meditation?

An hour-long Hatha Yoga class at sunrise amidst the Costa Rican jungle to a soundtrack of howler monkeys in the distance is only matched by the tranquillity of soothing evening yoga and jungle sound meditation under the stars to close out each night.

Our week is a well-thought out and carefully planned mix of quiet downtime and adventurous excursions. And while we take the opportunity to truly revel in the serenity of our secluded villa peaking out over the mountainside, we’re fearless in our desire to seek out new experiences.

If you ever find yourself in Costa Rica you’d be doing yourself a disservice to skip the six-kilometre hike up to Nauyaca Waterfalls. Reading mixed reviews beforehand about appropriate footwear for the hike, I opt for sandals, and sometimes bare feet, though admittedly the journey may be easier with running shoes.

Equipped with snacks and water, we power hike for more than an hour; hot, exhausted and triumphant when we reach the top. We’re met with the offering of a fresh, cold coconut for purchase at the end of our climb, and I’m certain nothing has ever tasted more nourishing and refreshing. A quick break to drink coconut water and snack on the “meat” is all we need to rejuvenate ourselves before continuing our climb down the man-made stairs toward the waterfall.

Of course, if the combined 12-kilometre hike isn’t for you there are also truck and horse-back tours available.

Upon reaching the waterfall we are blown away by its natural beauty. A few steps farther down, those who love ice-cold water are welcome to swim at the foot of the waterfall. I’m content staying dry while capturing all I can through the lens of my camera.

And if the idea of intrepid adventures and stunning waterfalls excites you – Uvita Waterfall is another must-see. Though again, I choose to view the excitement perched on a rock with my camera, many brave the steep climb to slide down a natural waterslide.

Our last day is bittersweet with unscheduled down-time in Dominical. Surfing lessons are popular and several of the group take to the seven-foot waves for a few hours of instruction in the morning. My husband is newly converted and I’m certain I’ll be fighting off his imminent purchase of a surfboard.

I spend my last few hours being enchanted by Costa Rica and wandering the beach road in solitude while my husband falls for the waves. The town looks to be gearing up for the upcoming Envision Festival; a shop boasting “Free Art” has been open for less than a month and with the smell of incense surrounding the laid-back, friendly shop owners sitting on the floor, the setting embodies everything I imagine the festival to feel like.

The end of the week comes too quickly and soon we are driving back toward San Jose, windows down, hungrily soaking up the last of the warm sun before boarding our plane back to Toronto.

Keeping those surf-town vibes close to my heart as I ease my way back into real life, I’m already daydreaming about another blissful stint back to Central America where my soul comes alive and my heart is happy.

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