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Costa Rica is big on conservation. Like really big. They have made it their mission to keep carbon footprints low. We are instructed not to flush any paper, the straws are all bio degradable, and if you lose your plastic hotel room key, you will pay a stiff fine.

Tortuguara National Park on the Caribbean coast lives and breaths this philosophy.  Accessible only by boat (or small planes) it plays host to eleven different habitats and a host of biodiversity. In the summer months, turtles come to lay and hatch their eggs and the area is over run with tourists who want to watch that happen. Like me, but we’re here in the wrong month.

Our beautiful lodge welcomed us with fruit drinks and four poster beds. After lunch we headed into the tiny town of Tortuguara to see the ocean (the town is flanked by the sea on one side and the river on the other. We were staying across the river), and walk the distance. My pale friends convinced me that I should buy a hat for the open air boat trip the following day and I got a wonderful floppy thing emblazoned with a lizard. I never wore it, but I love it.

In the morning and afternoon the next day, we were treated to long boat journeys along the canals to spot the various wildlife. Our hotel had kayaks with which we could explore the canals as well, but there’s no way we could navigate the winding waterways and find our way back.

We saw so many birds. Just look at a guide to Costa Rican birds and I probably saw 80% of them. Also caiman, sloths, howler and spider monkeys, and a sassy turtle. I’m told that manatees live in the river, but sadly none showed themselves. Yes yes, I know they don’t breach like whales, but it would have been fun to see one. (I’ve wanted to ever since the time I thought I would be swimming with them in the Maldives and it turned out to be manta rays pronounced with a British accent instead. Also – I almost died in a storm at sea that day with the same travelers I’m with now, so there’s that.)

Jaguars and an erupting volcano are on my list of things to see while I’m here that my companions are uninterested in as well. One wild creature we did see was the handsome owner of our hotel, who turned up on Jane’s Tinder account, though, alas, we could not convince her to swipe right.

The next day, yesterday, we jumped the boat for the last time to head upriver and to our next location. Debarking the boat, we were greeted by a loud “Welcome champagne party” and we reunited with our guide  Jorge.

The drive to Arenal and the rainforest included a grocery store stop where we loaded up with wine and tortilla chips just in case our next meal doesn’t arrive (it always arrives). Jorge treated us to the sweet of his childhood, an extremely boozey and delicious chocolate, and with that we arrived at our hotel at the foot of what I’m told is a volcano, but can’t tell, because it is safely hidden behind a wall of fog.

Pura Vida, Mae

We rose early to get our transport to Tortuguera and the real start of our trip.

Jonathan, our guide on the bus, chatted too enthusiastically for 6:30am pre-coffee (for us, I think he had several). He pointed out the sights along the first leg of our journey – an active volcano, white gas shooting out of the top, the far away cloud forest into which we would ascend, and the vast fields of fruit. Dole, Chiquita, and other international brands growing their wares here. Banana farming has a complicated cycle which involves a several year growth pattern and a makeshift railway to ensure that the bunches of deliciousness don’t get crushed in transport.

Jonathan and our driver began chatting rapidly in spanish as the bus pulled over and then reversed for several yards. Jonathan opened the door and announced “are you ready to see your first sloth.” Um…YES!

There it was high up in a tree scratching itself far more vigorously than one would expect of a sloth. It was the three toed variety, but he was too high up for us to see his toes. Back in the van, Jonathan explained that the other variety of sloth was the two toed kind. With that the van screeched to a stop and there, having from some barbed wire, as a two toed sloth.

From there we spied monkeys and many, many birds, before saying goodbye to Jonathan and hello to Luis who took us about an hour upriver to Tortuguera.

Tortuguara can only be reached by boat. The Lucky River merges into a larger river and winds along towards a national park area. In the 60s it was founded as a sanctuary for turtles and other wild life, with the sea on one side and the river on the other.

We learned a bit about the migration habits of the turtles and walked the beach where they hatch, but it isn’t the right season to see them. The town of Tortuguara caters to the tourists who flock here with shops of souvenirs and boot rentals for those who have come unprepared for snakes.

A quick wonder through and we headed back to our hotel for a relaxing night.

The animal could includes both types of sloth, howler and spider monkeys, a toucan or two, several intimidating caiman,  and many species of birds who’s names I don’t remember.

Do you know the way to San Jose

On our first morning, we hit the hotel breakfast buffet for eggs, over cooked bacon, too sweet pineapple jam, and rice and beans with a magical accompaniment called merely spicy sauce.  Also coffee. Costa Rican coffee. Nectar of the gods.

Fortified, we headed into town past commuters on their way to work. Avenenda 0 is a pedestrian walk lined with shoe and clothing stores and dotted with street vendors selling, among other things, the longest phone chargers I’d ever seen.

We came out to a little square with the National Theater on one side, children queueing up for the matinee Alice in Wonderland ballet, and a crew in front transforming the square with holiday decorations. I needn’t have feared being out of town this time of year. Festive is universal.

The National Museum gives a wonderful over view of Costa Rican history from Pre Columbian to current day, with sometimes quite cheeky informational plaques  (the one about Costa Rica’s LGBTQ acceptance noted that it is behind other countries).  One special installation featured ancient myths, nearly all of which were animals seeking revenge on hunters who injured them. “If you’re going to shoot, shoot to kill” they’d say before ripping the hunter to shreds.

From the Museum we lunched at the National Theater cafe – quite lovely – and headed into the Gran Hotel Costa Rica for a quick wee before the walk home. The wee turned into a few pina coladas, but hey ho.

Dinner at the hotel’s restaurant RBG (oh great one) another bottle champers, and out first day was in the books.



The Champagne Party

With the Duty Free champagne chilling and the little bit of work I needed to finish before could fully be on holiday completed I ducked out to explore San Jose before Nicola, Tiffany, and Jane arrived from London. At least as much of San Jose as was in the immediate vicinity of my hotel. And by that I really mean the AmPm the Costa Rican equivalent of my most favorite American store –  7 Eleven.

I love a convenience store and I especially love a convenience store in a country where I don’t speak the language. Rows of chips, cookies, and sugary treats with unfamiliar cartoon characters fruit and vegetable combinations on their labels. I’m in. I rejected the prepackaged ceviche (I wouldn’t get sushi at a 7 Eleven after all), but did grab some salsa, quac, two types of chips (one which turned out to be plantain), and an odd tub of something called Dip con jamon. Dip with ham? Yes please.

Their welcome snacks ready, I watched videos about Costa Rica until my London friends arrived with two more bottles of bubbly for good measure. We were, I was told, dubbed the Champagne Party by Jorge, who is to be our guide for the trip.  I’ve been called worse.




Mystical Tulum

On Wednesday, my last day on this wonderful trip, I went into the little town of Tulum to meet a friend of a friend (one of my favorite things to do while traveling). Laura is a yoga teacher in her 30s who started visiting Tulum about a decade ago and then just chucked it all to move down there. She took jobs at the resorts in exchange for a place to live and eventually got a range in the jungle with monkeys in the yard and a studio where she can read tarot and crystals.

We met at a cafe that would be at home in Brooklyn, only it was better than any in Brooklyn, and she told me her story and about Tulum. Then she pulled out her crystals. She emptied a bag of thirty or so stones on the table and told me to pick the ones that spoke to me. I picked 5 and she placed them in order. Of the 5 stones I picked three were creativity focused and she mused that that was an area I needed to focus on. Even the stone that represented grounding was for me swirled with orange indicating I wouldn’t be grounded unless I created more. Then she pulled bout the tarot cards. The read similarly with a strong focus on needing to turn inward to do work. As I lay the cards on the table initially, she asked me to pick the one I wanted to focus on first. I picked The World featuring a woman, arms open, rising up to the sun. “You like to skip to the end, don’t you” she said. “If you do the work” she gestured to the other cards, “you get this.” I feel very understood. Laura is also a trained psychologist who uses tarot to get her clients talking. It definitely worked on me.

A little wonder about town and I headed for the collectivo, the public bus. It left me at the large  wooded gates of the resort. The guards looked shocked when I knocked on the doors. Not many of their visitors come by foot, and there were several walkie-talkie exchanges before I was cleared to come on the grounds.

As the afternoon wore on, I debated the temazcal I’d signed up for, but in the end, I figured, why not. I donned a bathing suit and headed to the igloo like structure by the beach. I was ushered in with four mexicans and a swedish woman. Hot volanic rocks were piled in the middle of the room and the door was pulled shut behind us. The shaman started to chant loudly and the swedish woman said “Nope – let me out”. I lasted longer than she did so I figured that was a start. More rocks and more chanting and I was sweating more than I ever had. Ever. But it wasn’t uncomfortable. I was worried I’d feel faint and end up in the fire, but I did’t. There are four doors that he is chanting about, four parts to the ceremony.” the translator explained. As the door opened, I said, how many parts was that thinking we were about halfway through the hour. “That was all” he replied. “You did it.” I felt so good. Especially after a glass of water.

After the temazcal I got a massage. A fish pedicure was included, so I went for it. I’ve toyed with doing them in many cities, but the sanitation as well as animal cruelty issues kept me from it. This luxury setting seemed as good a time as any to have it done. It was interesting and now I’ve done it. No need to ever do it again. The little suckers can bite. Mostly it tickles, but every once in a while, the hurt. And they eat the bits of you they want, not the really dry part I wanted them to eat away.

All in all, my final day proved one thing – I love tulum. Love it. Like LOVE IT. I have never left a vacation more relaxed and energized. I can’t wait to go back.

Three perfect days (and a tarantula)

Sunday was an off day for me, excursion-wise. Which meant I had to try to be, just be, in the luxury. Not a natural state for me.

No yoga on Sundays, but there was 10am stretching class with Victor, one of the very enthusiastic entertainment crew. The class, which was mostly conducted in Spanish, since I was the only English speaker there, was great. I felt pulled in all the right ways and my back felt better than it had in weeks until – pop. I felt it go. Something happened in my left hip flexor that I’d never felt before. It’s better now, 5 days hence, but I still can’t lift my knee higher than my waist (something I could do a week ago). I don’t think it was anything Victor instructed us to do, I think it just happened and I need to deal with it. I finally made an appointment with my doctor to figure out what’s happening to me, but I hear you universe – I need to stretch more.

An hour break to try to figure out what had happened, and I was in the water aerobics class. Old lady exercise felt right, and was a blast as Victor was joined by Anna, one long beautiful muscle, and Ricky a turbaned sunglassed ball of flamboyant energy. at check out we were asked to name our favorite staffer and I can’t imagine anyone didn’t name Ricky. It was a blast.

I spent the rest of the day writing on the beach. It was what I had come to do and there I was doing it. I was starting to believe in the magic of Tulum.

On Monday I was picked up after breakfast to visit a fabled cenote. Cenotes only exist in the Yucatan and are underground freshwater pools connected by an underground series of rivers. They  are generally found when someone steps into a sinkhole. There is a Cenote Segrada at Chichen Itza (the final resting place of many Mayans as well as, spoiler alert, Sully in Against All Odds, a film I have loved since the 80s). Chino, our guide was a shaggy haired millennial hippy who would have fit in as a guide for fishing in Alaska or canoeing in Colorado or just about any other water sport anywhere. He was energetic and happy and his energy was infectious. We first went to a fish filled lagoon to snorkel. Chino was frustrated by the many tour groups disturbing the water with flippers – he has a strict no flipper rule – but eagerly told us about the many varieties of native fish. Then he sent us into a dark corner saying “I won’t spoil it for you,” as we swam over a giant eel which wriggled behind some rocks.

Next up, the cenote. There are hundreds in this area and the one we visited was on private property on land next to, we were told, properties owned by Laura Bush and Nicholas Cage (side note – where doesn’t Nicolas Cage own land?) We drove deeply into the jungle til we came upon a clearing with a ladder reaching down into the ground. We climbed down the mineshaft like opening and waited as our eyes adjusted to the dark. Chino told us about the stalactites and stalagmites that grew tows each other over millennia. “Do not touch them,” he insisted. “You will kill them with your touch.” and we jumped in the chilly water. Chilly for Mexicans anyway. For New Englanders it was rather temperate. The caves were dark and silent, with stunning rock formations, one of which I’m pretty sure I killed as I turned too quickly and had to steady myself on the most stable thing I could find.  I was advised to swim in any cenote I could find and I would echo that advice to anyone headed to the area. It was magical.

Back to the hotel for lunch and beach time and by mid-afternoon, I decided it was time to try the temazcal, the Mayan sweat lodge, which had a shaman come in to lead ceremonies every other day. Turns out, you can’t just wander over and be welcomed in. You need to reserve in advance and be accepted in. Not a great lover of saunas or middle aged men in loin clothes and feathers, as the shaman was, I figured temazcals weren’t for me. Still I signed up for the one on Wednesday, thinking it would be 50/50 if I showed up. And with that zumba with Ricky and Victor it was. I’m very uncoordinate, but good golly zumba is fun.

If it’s Tuesday, this must be Coba. Coba is a Mayan ruin deep in the jungle. There is a little town of Coba, and then you get to the site, which requires a long walk through the jungle to a row of pedi-cab, “Mayan limousines” our guide told us. We rode a couple kilometers and then had to walk through the jungle to get to the temple. “STOP” someone said as we made our way over roots and rocks. I froze and followed his finger and just to the right of my right foot was a tarantula, the SAME SIZE as my foot. The gigantic spider was making its way through the jungle and showed little interest in us, so we walked around it (way around it) and kept going. The pyramid at coda is 120 uneven stone steps high. It was important to the Mayans to rise above the tree line. I took a deep breath and, a little concerned that I couldn’t take large steps with my left leg, started up the staircase. It was grueling, but only took about 10 minutes to get to the top. From their the view was both amazing and kind of dull. It was tree tops as far as the eye could see. There was a dog in a little cage up top. No idea how that happened, but we all took pictures. I held tightly on to the guide rope on the way down and did some of it on my bottom. Down is always scarier then up, but especially in this case, when you could see the long fall ahead if you missed a step.  I love an ancient temple and I’ve seen a lot of them – Machu Picchu, Ankor Wat, Taj Mahal, the Vatican – but I’m thrilled to add the Mayan temples to the list. One of these days I’ll get to Egypt.

That night, I ate at the hibachi table in the restaurant. It was just three of us, two women from the Mexican town of Merida, and aunt and her niece, and me. We delighted as the chef put on a full show tossing shrimps, onion volcanos and all. The niece told me that she was the mom of a 10 year old with autism and her aunt had offered to take her on a much needed break. It was the first time in 10 years she’d been away from her son. She cried as she told me the story and it was clear how much she both loved him and needed this break. Her aunt was about my age and unmarried, which, according to Esperanza, the niece, was the shame of the family, but Patty, the aunt, said not in this life would she marry. I loved them.

Tulum is magic.

We’re going to need a bigger boat

At 5:45 am I joined father and son Ronald and Freddie, and family James, Sarah, Gracie and little Oliver, in a van back towards Cancun.  About 20 minutes before we arrived, and after a quick stop at 7/11 for coffee – oh how I love 7/11 – Pablo, our guide explained what would happen next.

“I don’t want to give you anxiety” he led with. And then he said a lot of things that gave us anxiety. So much so that Gracie, near tears decided she would not participate.

We go on a small the eight of us got on a small boat manned by a captain and our designated swimmer and headed out towards open water to swim with whale sharks, the largest fish in the sea.

The last time I headed out to open water, to swim with manta rays in the Maldives, it did not go well, but todays weather was clear and the sea was calm. We reached a small gathering of boats and within seconds dorsal fins surfaced and large spotted backs breached the water. We were each give two chances to jump in with the massive creatures, two at a time and with the swimmer who pushed us towards them and occasionally pulled us back.

It went so quickly. We sat on the side of the boat as the captain got us into position and suddenly JUMP JUMP JUMP they’d yell. We jumped in practically on top of the sharks as they’d swim towards and then past us. The first jump felt frenzied and chaotic, but by jump two, we were all able to swim alongside the fish for a minute or two (only one for me) before they’d glide out of reach.

Exhausted, we headed to Isle Mujeres, the Island of Women, for lunch and a glorious swim in the crystal water. We toasted our bravery with beer and relaxed on the bow of the boat as we headed home. The ride back to the hotel was as snoozy as the ride to the hotel. We were very proud of ourselves.

Tonight is a nearly full moon and I’m writing this on a lounge chair on the beach.




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