Costa Rica: From Mud Baths & Volcanoes to Culture & Food

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Kensington Tours private guided tour Borinquen Guanacaste Costa Rica

There are many reasons I loved my week-long private guided tour of Costa Rica. Shortly after Jose picked me up in the Guanacaste region of Costa Rica, we drove along Carillo Beach, an inviting beach if there ever was one. As we drove past a coconut seller on the roadside, I asked my guide Jose to stop. We got out and while buying fresh coconuts to drink there, on the perfect beach, Jose struck up a conversation with the woman in Spanish — and Jose turned a commercial exchange into a rich cultural experience.

Kensington Tours private guided tour Guanacaste Costa Rica

Jose and Itzel discussing the coconut business in Costa Rica

Itzel is a strong, wiry woman who hacks open coconuts with a machete while a cigarette dangles from her lips. Jose learned that she and her partner Andrey, boyish and athletic, have permission to pick coconuts from the palm tress that line the beach and sell them in return for helping to keep the public beach clean. Itzel’s hard-worn looks belie her enthusiasm and charm. “I’m so blessed,” she gushed, “Some tour buses stopped and I have already made my money for the week!” Then Andrey showed us how he climbs the palm trees and hacks down the coconuts — and was patient with me as I video-taped it!

It was a small moment, and a precious one, and I knew I was going to have a great week, touring gorgeous Guanacaste with Jose. In this video, you can see Andrey demonstrating his palm tree climbing prowess.

A week of adventure

Kensington Tours private guided tour Tamarindo Guanacaste Costa Rica

Beach near Cala Luna, Tamarindo, Costa Rica

After settling into the Cala Luna in Tamarindo, on the Pacific coast, Jose and I set out for our first adventure. We drove inland, and north, to Rincon de la Vieja volcano and the Borinquen Mountain Resort and Spa. As we drove, Jose told me the legend of the volcano whose name translates to “woman’s corner of the forest.” Once upon a time, Curubanda, daughter of a chief, fell in love with the inappropriate Mixcuat.

They ran away to the forest, but were found by Curubanda’s father and Mixcuat was killed. She lived the rest of her life in a remote corner of the forest and became a renowned natural healer. Tribal people would go to her for healing, saying, “We are going to the corner of the old lady.” Jose added that the people still believe her soul reappears at Easter time.

Kensington Tours private guided tour volcano Guanacaste Costa Rica

Rincon de la Vieja volcano, Guanacaste, Costa Rica

During our day at Borinquen, we rode horses deep into the forest to several hidden waterfalls, had lunch on the verandah of the resort and I spent the afternoon frolicking in the natural sauna, hot springs and mud baths. I fell in love with Borinquen, and felt transported back in time by the dark wood villas and bungalows spread across the extensive property. The decor and forest setting were reminiscent of a safari lodge from a long-past age.

It was at Borinquen that I began to appreciate the style of a Kensington private guided tour. The customization and hand-picked activities did indeed make me feel that I had been transported back to the Golden Age of travel, and the atmosphere at Borinquen helped.

Kensington Tours private guided tour Borinquen Guanacaste Costa Rica

The villas of gracious Borinquen Mountain Resort & Spa

Bird watching on the Rio Tempisque

The next day, Jose and I headed out for another adventure, and had a great day driving around Guanacaste in a comfortable SUV that helped smooth out some of the bumpy roads. We stopped on the way at a “hidden” outdoor restaurant that served up delicious, fresh local food in an outdoor setting that had just the right amount of comfort. And then we picked up our boat captain in a village on the way to the Palo Verde National Park and Rio Tempsique.

The Rio Tempisque, a remote wetland sanctuary, is one of the best places for wildlife and bird watching in Costa Rica. It’s the most important migratory bird site of the Mesoamerican Pacific and is home to one of Central Americas largest concentrations of aquatic birds.

I loved our boat ride up this river, and deep into the park, just the captain, Jose and me. They had timed the boat ride so there were no other boats on the river, and at times I felt I was truly miles away from human civilization, and there were moments when I could hear the music from that old Humphrey Bogart – Katharine Hepburn film, The African Queen, playing in my ears.

I lost count of the birds I saw — various herons, egrets, storks, kingfishers — and the number of crocodiles basking on the banks. I also saw several huge green iguanas, small bats asleep along a tree trunk and of course the natural vista of think jungle, green water and bright blue sky.

Kensington Tours private guided tour Palo Verde crocodil Guanacaste Costa Rica

Crocodile in the Rio Tempisque

On the way back, we had one more adventure, though this time of the cultural kind. We stopped at Guatil, a potter and artisan’s village, where I met the father and son team at Willy’s Pottery. The people of Guatil are descendants of the Chorotega Indians, who lived in western Costa Rica in pre-Columbian times. They continue to make pottery using the traditional methods and materials, handed down for generations, and try to preserve their culture in the face of modernism and Spanish-influenced Costa Rican culture.

Kensington Tours private guided tour Guatil pottery Guanacaste Costa Rica

Guatil Village Pottery

I learned how they make the pottery by hand, out back of the store, and even something about the symbolism of the pre-Columbian designs they still use:

  • Monkey: good luck
  • Crab, butterfly, frog: fertility
  • Toucan, iguana, crocodile, parrot, owl: beauty

One of the most interesting aspects of the pottery making, to me, was learning they mix clay with “iguana sand” — the sand an iguana digs up when it makes its hole in the ground. I also learned there was a traditional Chorotega belief in reincarnation, and that people would do ceremonies to find out what animal they will be reincarnated as in the next life.

Kensington Tours private guided tour volcano Guanacaste Costa Rica

Kayaking and coffee

My final adventure experience with Jose in Guanacaste was kayaking among mangrove swamps on the Tamarindo estuary. There is nothing like being in a kayak, at eye level with crocodiles and feeding herons, to make you feel you are experiencing nature!

It was a great way to end a fun week in Guanacaste — which of course included playing in the surf, swimming in the private pool of my villa, and enjoying fresh food and the local drink, Guara Sour, poolside at Cala Luna.

Kensington Tours private guided tour Finca Rosa Blanca coffee Guanacaste Costa Rica

Wonderful and whimsical Finca Rosa Blanca, Costa Rica

From the tiny airstrip, surrounded by farmer’s fields, I flew back to the capital, San Jose, in a 10-seater plane, over mountains, lakes and volcanoes.

Kensington Tours private guided tour Finca Rosa Blanca coffee Guanacaste Costa Rica

My guide, Ulysses, on coffee tour

Kensington Tours private guided tour Borinquen Guanacaste Costa Rica

Hot spring pools at Borinquen Mountain Resort & Spa

Kensington Tours private guided tour Guanacaste Costa Rica

A “sabanero,” or Costa Rican cowboy of the Guanacaste savannah

Kensington Tours private guided tour Borinquen Guanacaste Costa Rica

My horse, Tormento, at Borinquen

Kensington Tours private guided tour Tamarindo Estuary Guanacaste Costa Rica

Mangrove trees in Tamarindo Estuary

Kensington Tours private guided tour iguana Guanacaste Costa Rica

Male green iguana, on a brach overhanging Rio Tempisque

Kensington Tours private guided tour Palo Verde National Park Guanacaste Costa Rica

Great Blue Heron, Rio Tempisque