My friend and I, along with our golf cart driver, creep through the bushes, flashlights in hand and breath bated.
Every so often, we stop to stealthily part the bushes and quietly gush with delight. To anyone who might happen across us, our behavior would no doubt appear suspicious, or at the very least, peculiar.
Here, at Nayara Springs Resort in the middle of a Costa Rican rainforest, it is neither. We are on the resort’s nocturnal “frog walk,” hoping to spot the source of the loud trilling we began hearing when the sun went down.
We’re rewarded when Alexander, our driver/guide, trains his flashlight beam on the most beautiful frog I’ve ever seen. Its tiny emerald body is decorated with a cobalt blue stripe on each leg, and it’s staring back at us with bulging scarlet peepers. Alex tells us it’s a red-eyed tree frog, one of many species found on Nayara’s lush grounds.
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I feel like a voyeur, as our flashlight beam has apparently interrupted the female frog’s flirtation with a male in a neighboring tree. After what must seem like an eternity to the courting frogs, our little band mercifully moves on.
Frog-spotting is only one of the delights for visitors to Nayara Springs Resort, named the best resort in Central America by Conde Nast Traveler Magazine.
The property, a 2 1/2 -hour drive from San José in the Arenal Volcano National Park, is a rainforest retreat that engages all the senses. Listen to birdsong in the morning and frogs in the evening; sniff tropical blossoms; feel gentle pop-up rain showers, and above all, see the lush green that surrounds you at every turn.
Checking into one of the property’s 35 villas is your own adventure in paradise. Décor is inspired by the best of the tropics — gauzy mosquito netting around the four-poster bed, local art on the walls, a multi-colored hammock for afternoon siestas on the deck, and two features you won’t soon forget — a two-person outdoor shower that is a tropical oasis in itself, and a private plunge pool fed by natural mineral hot springs.
It might be tempting to spend all your time lounging around your villa, but please don’t — there are too many other things to do, such as the free bird-watching tour (6:15 a.m. Mondays and Thursdays) or the complimentary yoga class (8:15 every morning in the yoga pavilion).
As coffee is so much a part of Costa Rica’s culture, my friend and I signed up for the coffee class (4 p.m. Monday, Thursday, Saturday) in Mi Cafecito. Diana, the manager, took us through the intricacies of coffee roasting, providing us with interesting factoids such as that lava from the volcanoes results in excellent soil for coffee growing, and the darker the coffee bean, the less caffeine it has. Better yet, there is a tasting to accompany your tutorial.
The resort can even arrange for a three-hour private tour to an organic coffee plantation (adults $79; children $63).
Speaking of children, they are not allowed at Nayara Springs unless they are 16 or older; however, families are welcome at its sister resort, Nayara Hotel, Spa and Gardens, across the 250-foot pedestrian bridge through the rainforest.
So much good foood
Eating well at Nayara Springs is a given, considering the sheer number of restaurants scattered throughout the property, offering everything from the freshest of sushi at Asia Luna to romantic candlelit dining at Amor Loco to the newest restaurant, Mis Amores, where you can dine on a deck overlooking the rainforest, with a view of the volcano.
I found the quality of the food at all of the restaurants superb, but my favorite dining experience had to be at Alta Mira, which offers authentic Costan Rican dishes in a casual setting. I opted for one of the country’s favorite comfort foods — casado, a choice of beef, chicken, pork or fish with rice, beans, green salad and sweet fried plantains, served with soft tortillas.
It was so delicious that it was all I could do not to lick my plate.
Nayara Springs’ excellent concierge staff can arrange any number of activities for guests, including zip lining and canopy tours, and Gravity Falls waterfall jumping and canyoning in the Lost Canyon.
Despite my dislike of high places, I had tried zip lining and canopy touring on a previous trip to Costa Rica; as for waterfall jumping and canyoning, I decided they were best appreciated by watching an Indiana Jones movie. Instead, I settled on two tours that offered an opportunity to see the country’s landscape and wildlife up close.
Costa Rica, a nation that is approximately the size of North Carolina, has 100 volcanoes, although only five are active, including Arenal.
On the Lava Walk tour, I discovered that the volcano, long thought to be dormant, blew its top in 1968. No lava has been seen since 2010, but volcanologists think it’s quietly biding its time, waiting to shoot off its next display of fireworks.
You can’t climb all the way to the top because of the potential threat, but you can take a trail about halfway up, stopping at several lookout points.
My second experience turned out to be my favorite — a hike through the Danaus Ecological Reserve. A tapestry of flora and fauna that weaves together a secondary growth forest, botanical garden, butterfly farm and bird sanctuary, it is Costa Rica at its beautiful best.
On our two-hour hike, we saw tiny tree frogs and giant electric blue morpha butterflies; a three-toed sloth inching down a tree, and a caiman (a small cousin of alligators) sunning on a stump in the lagoon; an oversize iguana testing the strength of a spindly tree branch, and a procession of leaf-cutter ants making their orderly trek back to their queen’s hive. We even saw a shy toucan trying to hide its distinctive yellow head in the dense foliage.
No matter which activity you choose, the first place you might want to head when you return to Nayara Springs is its world-class spa. As if the physical setting isn’t enchanting enough — open-air pavilions that allow the rainforest inside, and soaking pools strewn with blossoms — the treatments make use of the area’s natural environment: an exfoliation using grounds of coffee from a nearby plantation; scrubs with volcanic mud, and wraps of chocolate clay made from cocoa beans.
Costa Ricans have an expression — “pura vida,” — meaning pure or good life. A stay at Nayara Springs Resort will definitely have you living la pura vida.
Patti Nickell is a Lexington-based travel and food writer. Reach her at email@example.com.