I had only been in the adobe hut for a few seconds before I started to feel short of breath. The one portal to the outside world was sealed shut, and though we sat in the dark, I was sure the five other people sitting in the circle could see the fear on my face. As the shaman poured water over the volcanic rocks, steam sizzled and rose before falling over me like a cloak, forcing me to take deep breaths and inhale the cedar-like herbs. This traditional Native American sweat lodge, known as Temazcal, is all about being reborn, both physically and mentally, and reflects both the recent renovation at the Tabacon Grand Spa Thermal Resort (tel. +506/2519-1900 reservations or +506/2460-2020 hotel; www.tabacon.com; $230-$360 double) and the Arenal and La Fortuna area's past.
When Arenal Volcano, one of Costa Rica's 120 volcanoes, erupted in 1968, it surprised and devastated locals, who called it Fire Mountain and assumed the black, rock-like lava flow was sand (arenas, from which the name Arenal comes). The eruption killed 87 people and impacted about 90 surrounding square miles, forcing the community of farmers and ranchers to rebuild La Fortuna with colorful storefronts, friendly people, and even a Burger King -- a sign that the volcano, despite its damage, has brought new life to the area.
Tabacon is at the forefront of this new life. Though its origins trace back to the 1980s, the last few years have seen it transform from a resort largely known for volcano views and hot springs (which are still major draws) into an intimate and luxurious 5-star resort. At the helm of the resort's evolution is general manager Uwe Wagner, an outspoken, sarcastic, yet strangely charming German who joined the Tabacon team two years ago. Since his arrival, rooms have been renovated to include huge, mosaic-tile Jacuzzi tubs and flat screen TVs; the resort has become a member of the exclusive Leading Hotels of the World (www.lhw.com) group and received a four-leaf mark for sustainable tourism; and the spa was transformed to become the only one in Central America to be part of the Leading Spas of the World group. Not bad for two years' work, but then again, Wagner recognizes that Tabacon isn't exactly lacking in resources. "It's as close to paradise as you can get," he says. "It offers an active volcano, rainforest, and mineral water springs in one place."
One of the biggest changes is the resort's new Grand Spa, the collaborative effort of Wagner and spa director Rosa Paulina Perez, who worked together to breathe new life into the resort's existing facility. The result is a space that fully utilizes the spa's location, surrounded by rainforest and the natural thermal springs. All treatments are done in one of 11 outdoor treatment rooms (all with their own Jacuzzi), which are found at the end of winding pathways and secluded within walls of luscious greenery. Though the spa is located near the very popular thermal springs, the sounds of jovial bathers are replaced by rushing water, howler monkeys, and birds.
Perez married local customs and resources with Eastern influences when it came to creating the treatment menu and the spa's design. For example, a Buddha statue overlooks the relaxation area, while the welcoming ritual includes a foot bath using a bowl and jug used by the local Maleku tribe. The spa's star treatments, however, incorporate mostly local ingredients. The signature Tabacon Massage (75 min.; $160) starts with light stretching to loosen the muscles, followed by a massage using mud from the Arenal Volcano, which, according to Perez, purifies, detoxifies, regenerates, and exfoliates. The romantic Idyllic Massage (105 min.; $180) is intended for couples and includes a Swedish massage, face mask made with milk and fruit extract, a volcanic mud foot mask, and 25 minutes in the Jacuzzi with fresh fruit, champagne, and chocolate.
Facials, scrubs, and massages aside, my favorite experience at the Grand Spa was the Temazcal ($65 per person; $145 per person private, min two people), which literally means "house of purification." The Grand Spa is said to have the first and only Temazcal in Costa Rica. The ceremony, performed by Shaman Tonatiuh Garcia, is representative of returning to the womb, so it's no coincidence that you leave with a renewed sense of self and your surroundings. Like a child, you crawl into the sweat lodge along the gritty volcanic rock and sit cross-legged on the ground around the fire pit. The hour-long ritual involves four rounds of prayers that coincide with each direction -- east, Great Spirit; south, children energy; west, female energy; and north, ancestors, elders, and self -- but the experience is spiritual rather than religious. Instead of prayers, you state intentions, which incite you to reflect on what and who is important to you.
The volcanic rocks glow red in the dark with their 700-degree heat, and the continuous cloud of steam that arises from the fire pit can be stifling at first. But, as Garcia says, one has to trust in their shaman. "The shaman gives confidence to the people. One should focus on meditation. It's dark, so people look within themselves." While there is a definite emotional experience to be had (at one point I had trouble deciphering tears from sweat), one glance at Garcia's flawless skin, and it's evident that there's something to be said for sitting in a sweat lodge for an hour a day. Aside from exfoliating the skin, the heat spurs the body to go into a fever, Garcia says, which detoxifies, loosens body tissue, and promotes new blood cells. The ritual also stimulates circulation, he says, and clears the respiratory system, making it a good remedy for those battling asthma, arthritis, allergies, and diabetes.
When I emerged from the Temazcal, there was a light rain making the plants dance. I felt relaxed and inspired. Before heading to the thermal pool to warm up, I laid under the cloud-covered sky, the drops of rain awakening my senses. As I opened my eyes, I had to squint, not only because I'd been in the dark for the last hour, but the colors of everything from the black volcanic rock to the white of the Temazcal's brick emitted a new light, one that made me feel that while I can't get my past back, I, just like the area that surrounds Tabacon, can start fresh.
What Not to Miss at Tabacon
The thermal springs, just a 2-minute walk from the resort lobby, are popular with both guests and the public, who arrive by the busloads. The springs are open from 10am to 10pm, and things can get a little busy from 12pm onward, so I recommend that guests take advantage of their special hours (8am-10am). Access to the springs is included in your stay at the resort, but passes are available to the public starting at $60 adults and $20 kids ages 6 to 11. The springs near the entrance and the bar are the busiest, so escape the crowds by heading to the more secluded pools in the back, where the water temperatures are higher.
Tabacon's romantic private Gala Dinner ($350), held in a bungalow in the resort's gardens, is hosted by a personal server and chef. Rose petals, music, the sound of rushing water, the din of the surrounding rainforest, and candle light set the mood. Save room for the Chocolate Trio dessert.
Starbucks has nothing on the local Café Britt. The Costa Rican and Peruvian coffee is found everywhere, including the resort's restaurants. Try the Tarrazu Montecielo blend and the company's chocolate covered espresso beans and macadamia nuts (they're addictive and about $1 for a small snack-size bag at the hotel gift shop).
While a view of Arenal Volcano is a likely sight during your visit here, it's not the same as getting up close and personal. A hike around the volcano base ($50) can be arranged through the resort with Costa Rica Wonderland (tel. 506/479-7676; www.costaricawonderland.com); request Jose to be your guide if you can. A 2-mile roundtrip hike takes you through gallery and secondary forest, where you could see coatis, monkeys, toucans, termites, and more. The hike rates about 6 on the scale of difficulty, with the last climb up the remnants of the 1992 eruption being the most challenging -- but rewarding -- part of the hike. From the top you have a 360-degree view of the volcano, Arenal National Park, and Lake Arenal.
The creamy guacamole at Ave del Paraiso, overlooking the thermal springs, is made tableside with parrot green-color avocadoes and has the right mix of lime and salt.
Artistic duo Fufu and Arsenio Morera set up shop directly across from Tabacon's thermal springs and sell their handcarved and handpainted masks. The two are Malekus, natives who believe that each person has his or her own animal spirit. Arsenio carves the masks from local balsa wood (eagles, jaguars, etc), while Fufu paints them with detailed strokes and vibrant colors. Pieces are around $35 and up, and only cash is accepted.
Costa Rica is home to 18 different ecosystems, the rainforest surrounding Tabacon being one of them. Don't forget to look around while you're walking the property or sitting in the car heading to a hanging bridge tour. The lush greenery is weaved with crayon-colored plants and flowers such as orchids and birds of paradise, as well as animals such as howler monkeys, toucans, and the cute (but sneaky) raccoon-like coatis, which you can see behind the pancake station at breakfast each morning in the resort's main restaurant, Los Tucanes.
Getting to Costa Rica is pretty easy from all coasts, making it a great long weekend getaway. American Airlines (tel. 800/433-7300; www.aa.com), America West (tel. 800/235-9292; www.americawest.com); Continental (tel. 800/231-0856; www.continental.com); Delta (tel. 800/241-4141; www.delta.com); U.S. Airways (tel. 800/622-1015; www.usairways.com); Mexicana (tel. 800/531-7921; www.mexicana.com); and Grupo Taca (tel. 800/400-8222; www.grupotaca.com) all offer direct or connection flights to Costa Rica's San Jose's Juan Santa-Maria International Airport from the U.S.
The Arenal Volcano and La Fortuna area is 87 miles northwest of San Jose. Tabacon can arrange transport for you, or you can rent a car from most of the major car-rental firms with offices in Costa Rica, including Alamo (tel. 800/462-5266; www.alamocostarica.com); Avis (tel. 800/230-4898; www.avis.com); Budget (tel. 800/527-0700; www.budget.co.cr); National (tel. 800/227-7368; www.natcar.com); Payless (tel. 800/582-7432; www.paylesscr.com); and Thrifty (tel. 800/847-4389; www.thrifty.com). The trip is about 3 hours, and the roads very curvy, so those with motion sickness should be sure to take breaks along the way. You can also fly directly from Tobias Bolanos International Airport (in Pavas, 4 miles from San Jose) to Arenal/La Fortuna via Nature Air (tel. 800/235-9272; www.natureair.com); the flight is 30 minutes.
Head to our Costa Rica Message Boards to talk with fellow Frommer's Travelers.