Experiencing Costa Rica’s wild side — and Parador Hotel’s pura vida

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My adventure to a lush tropical jungle with white-sand beaches and brimming wildlife started with a tweet.

The tweet came from the Parador Resort and Spa, a luxury travel destination on the Pacific coast of central Costa Rica. The tweet beckoned me for a visit to see the humpback whales, sea turtles and toucans — three of my favorite creatures. It would end with the hashtag #PuraVida — Costa Rica’s national motto that’s akin to “hang loose” or “aloha.”

A month or so later, I was on a 6-hour flight from Los Angeles International Airport to the tropical paradise of Costa Rica, a destination that I had heard rave reviews from friends and colleagues.

They told me of splendid vacations in the most peaceful nation in all of Latin America with the longest-spanning democracy from the 1950s.

After a brief layover in San Salvador, I arrived Costa Rica’s capital of San Jose at 10:30 p.m. with a driver from the hotel waiting to transport me to the Parador.

He offered citrus-scented cold white towels that set the perfect mood for beginning of my six-day stay in Costa Rica.

A Passenger of the Parador

Often there’s nothing to really see when riding in the dark. But the 2.5-hour drive from San Jose to the Parador was filled with magical moments.

Under the soft glow of the moon and in between bursts of rain showers, I spotted lush jungles hugging the edge of beaches. Equally mesmerizing were the fog and wispy low clouds suspended from mountain tops while speckles of lightning danced from a distance.

And as to put an exclamation point on my ride from the airport, heavy rain poured when we arrived at Quepos, the once-sleepy fishing village turned into the tourism center for the region and just two miles from my resort destination.

From there, it was all literally uphill. In the steady warm rain, we snaked up the mountain filled with restaurants, tour guide kiosks, boutique hotels and other small businesses catering to tourists.

On the end of the road, I grew in anticipation as we entered the stately gates of the Parador. In the still of the night only interrupted by sprinkles of warm rain, we were the only souls except for the hotel concierge who warmly greeted us as we checked me. “Welcome to the Parador,” Mr. Ted. “We have been waiting for your arrival.”

We were then whisked away with suite cases via golf cart on a manicured pathway lined with marble statues and fountains to the newest part of the Parador perched on top a hill with a third floor room that seem to tower much higher.

After almost inhaling a light meal the hotel prepared knowing we were arriving late, I immediately fell into a slumber – anxiously awaiting the vistas of the morning light.

Morning Delight

After a full day and night of travel, my patience was rewarded.

Set on a peninsula, my vacation home commanded a stunning view of the Pacific Ocean with a tropical rain forest jungle in the foreground. Two small islands approximately 300 yards away provided a lush green focal point to the expansive Pacific Ocean.

Besides boasting an ocean as a backyard, the Parador has a neighbor to the side – the Manuel Antonio National Park, one of Costa Rica’s crowning jewels. Ocean and wildlife adventures must wait as my hunger pangs called me to breakfast.

The hotel’s breakfast spread is equally expansive as the its tropical grounds. There are more than 30 choices of American, European and Costa Rican dishes for the complimentary breakfast with thousands of combinations to satisfy the most discerning palates.

I settled for my ultimate comfort breakfast – soft-scrambled eggs and flaky pastries with a twist of the tropics with papaya, mango and pineapple and a cold glass of watermelon juice.

Omlette woman

After hearing rave reviews from other guests about the made-to-order omelet, French toast and Belgian waffles, I had to come back to visit the “omelet lady,” one of the longest working members of the Parador team with a genuine smile that welcomed me every morning in Costa Rica.

Marjorie Godinez, 46, prides herself on starting the day just right for all of her guests with a bright smile and a satisfying breakfast — and she’s done it well for the past 17 years.

My veggie omelet was perfect and — I dare say — even better than my Mom’s version. The vegetables were still crispy and suspended in the tender egg with spectacles of spices. She definitely perfected the dish during her years at the hotel.

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Sustaining Perfection

After breakfast, we set out to discover more about the internationally recognized work of the hotel’s sustainability program. The greenhouse and composting program offered one of many major aspects of the property’s commitment to the environment.

In a meticulous procedure, the grandfather-grandson team of Miguel Mora, 67, and Eduardo Solano, 19, were preparing compost from the hotel kitchen’s unused fruit and vegetable peels into organic soil used to grow microgreens of radishes, basil, carrots and other vegetables and herbs.

The attention to detail during this procedure even calls for around-the-clock music to be played for the delicate plants to thrive. I was a bit skeptical at first but became a believer after tasting the different microgreens.

The delicate microgreens of radishes and carrots packed a big burst of flavor. It was refreshing yet so full of flavor — and without having to consume the entire vegetable. I was already looking forward to dinner with these pampered plants.

Getting Wild About Wildlife

What I thought was just a tour of the composting grounds soon gave way to the pure delight of my first up-close encounter with wildlife.

The previous night’s rain provided fresh water for the white-faced monkeys on top of the date trees above the greenhouse. It helped that the rain made the date shells softer for these beautiful creatures.

A group of white-face monkeys are intrigued about the humans below them.

A group of white-faced monkeys are intrigued about the humans below them.

My heart raced seeing these cute monkeys drinking water from the tree tops and feasting on the dates — and we didn’t mind the shells falling down upon us.

In all, I spotted more than 15 monkeys without having to move an inch. Some were gingerly eating the dates while others were sleeping perched on top of the swaying branches. I even saw a mother carrying a baby on her back.

Just walking up the steps back to the hotel, I immediately felt the intimacy of nature and wildlife.

I spotted lizards darting across the paths, saw large colorful iguanas lying in the sun, witnessed dozens of different birds darting from tree to tree and felt colorful humming birds whizzing by.

During the light lunch, I enjoyed more of the my newfound favorite drink – watermelon juice — and soaked up the panoramic view of the Pacific Ocean above the infinity pool with adults enjoying the swim-up bar and children frolicking next to the life-like crocodile in the shallow area.

Guests from honeymooning couples and families with young children to hip singles and mature couples were equally enjoying the luxury ambiance and genuine warm hospitality of the Parador team.

I was glad our first day’s schedule was light in order to recover from the day’s travels. But the travel kiosk next to the pool offered all types of excursions and adventures that I knew I couldn’t pass up.

First on List is Bliss

The first vacation task on my list was a full-body massage later that evening. I selfishly reasoned it would help complete my full day of relaxation before the planned active excursions.

Hotel General Manager Jorge Rodriguez recommended that I arrive early to relax at the resort’s Pacifica Spa, a two-level Mediterranean villa surrounded by tropical rain forest.

All of the luxury spas I’ve been to have a music track that contains sounds of nature, but this spa didn’t need it. It already comes with the natural sounds of nature from the jungle just steps away. I heard birds and crickets chirping nearby with the rustling of the trees swaying away with the breeze.

It didn’t take me long to enter my state of personal relaxation after being welcomed with a fresh tropical drink. Soon I soaked up the ambiance in the refreshing pool and hot Jacuzzi. The spa was beautifully lit with flickering candles and appointed with freshly cut flowers.

With dozens of spa treatment options all with natural ointments, I opted for an anti-stress Swedish-style massage with an emphasis on my aching shoulders and stiff neck from sitting on the plane for hours. I’m not sure if it was the sounds of nature or my therapist’s magic hands, I found myself in the ultimate state of bliss in the tropical haven.

After the treatment, the therapist provided a refreshing smoothie and slices of tropical fruit for me to enjoy as I continued to relax before dinner.

Though it was difficult leave, I had dinner that included a culinary treasure of choices from gourmet offerings to fresh authentic sushi and Costa Rican traditional fare.

I ordered the grilled mahimahi with microgreens of radishes freshly pampered in the greenhouse just hours before. The delectable dish was served on a bed of silky mashed potatoes and tender field greens.

The chef’s special use of farm-to-table dishes with the organic microgreens that I saw earlier in the morning made for an appropriate end to my first day in tropical paradise.

On Top of the World

zipline rapple

In addition to experiencing wildlife, you can’t come to Costa Rica without ziplining in the canopy forest. Conquering my deathly fear of heights for the sake of capturing memories, I psyched myself up for the high-flying adventure invented by biologists in Costa Rica to go from tree to tree to study the health of the forest.

After getting picked up at the Parador from the Canopy Safari tour bus, our daring group of eight that consisted of a young family from Detroit, Mich. and a couple of Tucson, Ariz. took a 30-minute ride through groves of palm trees and farm fields dotted with humble homes all with satellite dishes. We crossed through several rivers toward the towering mountains filled with lush trees.

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The ziplining adventure began with a fascinating experience of a butterfly garden and close-up experience with reptiles and snakes.

After some important safety information, we suited up knowing that we had just literally signed our rights away with various disclosure and legal forms.

The first of 10 zip lines was meant to be the bunny hill of zip line ski resorts, but it scared me nonetheless. Not to worry … just nine more zip lines to go along two rappel points, one Tarzan swing and one swing bridge – all hundreds of feet above the ground.

As we hiked higher and deeper into the tropical rain forest, it began to rain. By then, we had all bonded with each other with our professional but friendly tour guides.

As we got higher onto the giant trees, zipping from tree platform to the next, I was surprised how peaceful I felt, especially with the rain pouring down upon us.

We were the only humans around. And the sight of all us on those majestic trees towering above the river with rain falling upon was a magical moment that I will always treasure. I was beginning to understand the famous Costa Rican phrase of “pura vida” or pure life.

Creatures of the Night

If the daytime adventures were not enough, the Parador offers a unique nighttime tour of its 12-acre wildlife property called “Mysteries of the Night.”

We met with one of Costa Rica’s premier naturalist, Elias Mora, who led us on a private tour of the grounds the resort. Armed with a flashlight, we quickly encountered various bats but there was one bat making circles around us.

Elias explained that the bat’s circular motion was positioning the mosquitoes to swarm closer to each other so the bats could efficiently consume them as meals.

At first, the sound of the bat was alarming and touched off nightmares of vampires, but Elias assured me they were harmless even if they are called vampire bats. Several minutes later, we saw other species of bats hanging upside down on trees.

And it didn’t take us long to encounter one of the most charming critters unique to Costa Rica. They were the iconic red-eye frogs right in front of my own eyes – and much smaller in person than from the covers of the National Geographic Magazine and travel guidebooks that feature them.

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I had the chance gently hold them after they landed on the side of Elias’ face, which made for a great tattoo inspiration.

Seeing these colorful gentle creatures brought me more close to nature than I could have ever imagined. Throughout the night, we also saw other frogs and toads that were larger. But the red-eye frogs will always have a special place in my heart.

I never imagined seeing sloths on the night tour, but we immediately spotted a two-toed sloth that was quite active. The slow furry creature had long course hair and was moving more rapidly from tree to tree than I thought possible.

Elias shared with us that the two-toed sloth was nocturnal while its three-toed cousin is active in the day and sleeps at night.

Before his explanation ended, we saw a three-toed sloth wrapped around a tree near the cliff above the ocean sleeping peacefully – so rudely interrupted by our flashlights and our curiosity.

The night tour of wildlife ended with the same refreshing cold towels scented with limes that became an expected luxury during our stay at the Parador. We enjoyed fresh fruit while chatting with Elias under the moonlight sky.

Knowing the tour of wildlife would begin again at daylight with the world-famous Manuel Antonio National Park, we said goodnight and headed to another delicious meal at one of the three restaurants at the Parador.

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Creatures of the Day

I got a tip that Elias ranks among the best naturalist in Costa Rica. But seeing him in action spotting creatures in the night and hearing his expertise and passion about living creates made me feel so fortunate to have him lead me through the country’s smallest but bio-diverse dense national parks.

Within the gates of Manual Antonio National Park, Elias explains to us that the conservation area was created as a last-ditch legislative effort to preserve one of Costa Rica’s most bio-diverse areas from commercial and residential development. I was surprised by the crowds, but then noticed it was a Sunday and there were mostly local families making their way to enjoy to one of the park’s four pristine beaches.

Elias Mora, top right, shares his gift for spotting wildlife, winning legions of fans in awe of his knowledge and passion for the animals of his homeland.

Elias Mora, top right, shares his gift for spotting wildlife, winning legions of fans in awe of his knowledge and passion for the animals of his homeland.

Elias says it’s still a mystery as to the park’s name, but to me it’s no surprise why the national government and its people would want to protect and preserve this special land for posterity.

It boasts 109 mammal and 139 birdlife species along with colorful coral reefs. I immediately was in awe of its sweeping lush landscape with majestic mountains rolling down to the white-sanded beaches.

Armed with a telescope and his intimate knowledge of almost every square foot of the national park, Elias immediately spotted a rare iguana in the tree top.

What makes him amazing is that he first saw the creature with his naked eye, then set up the telescope for our closer-viewing pleasure.

He did that so many times during the four-hour tour that I jokingly told him that I suspected that his team was placing wildlife – monkeys, sloths, birds, lizards and insects – in their spots just for us.

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In the middle of the trek through Manual Antonio, the Parador team once again delighted us with those wonderfully scented cold white towels, placed beach towels on the gorgeous beach, gave us cold drinks and provided us with a refreshing treat.

After playing in the warm water and snapping photos of the crescent-shaped beach, it was time to go through more lush forest for more Elias animal magic tricks and experience even more picture-perfect beaches and landscape.

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We ended our charming trip to the national park with cold coconut juice straight from the coconut and witnessed from just a foot way an elusive white-face mother monkey caring her sleeping baby.

Coming Back to Luxury

After a fun-filled day, it was wonderful to come back to our luxury rooms decorated with both function and contemporary design in mind.

The room featured one of the most comfortable beds I’ve slept on. The high-thread count sheets provided an extra layer of luxury.

The walk-in shower allowed me to fully soak in the natural light and strong water flow. The large bathroom also had an oversized tub, double sinks and an enclosed toilet.

I also found the closet to be quite roomy with plenty of room for clothes. The room also had two office nooks ideal for writing or reading as well as a dinning table, entertainment area with a large screen LCD TV, a large lounge sofa and comfortable chairs and tables areas. The room also had plenty of electric outlets to fully charge modern travelers’ tech gadgets and free Wi-Fi to keep connected with loved ones and business associates. In fact, the Wi-Fi was available in practically all of the public spaces near the hotel.

My favorite feature was the room’s outdoor balcony area overlooking the private pool, the jungle and Pacific Ocean. I spent quality moments with time and nature passing by.

The outdoor spa is strategically located on the covered balcony to provide privacy while optimizing the view.

Early one evening, I spent almost an hour in the hot Jacuzzi watching a rainstorm dance upon the red-tiled roof tops, the green shrubbery, the azure pool and the expansive Pacific Ocean. That moment was truly heaven on earth.

Last-Minute Discoveries

The last full day of my trip to Parador Paradise was the discovery of a restaurant bar just steps away from my room. Because of the angle of the area and the lush vegetation, I didn’t even know this hideaway existed until one of the staff members pointed it out.

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I snacked on a salad and quenched my thirst with a mango smoothy. It was like was having lunch on top of the trees. The panoramic view from the area was that breathtaking.

The last excursion of my trip to Costa Rica was a catamaran boat tour that included seeing humpback whales and playful dolphins from a distant, stunning views of the majestic sea cliff with the Parador and national park in the midst of the rain as well as the two small islands next to the coastline.

Most of the guests also dove into an intimate cove for a closer view of the colorful sealife. But the fear of jellyfish stings and not knowing how to swim kept me firmly planted on the 60-foot boat. As the skies cleared way, my reward for staying dry was seeing a brilliant double rainbow framing the mountains.

The next morning, I awoke to the grim reality that my Parador Paradise would be over in a few hours. I would have to bid farewell to Costa Rica’s premier eco-luxury resort, especially the warm smiles of its helpful and friendly staff.

The trip to Central America helped me conquer my fear of heights and fulfilled the dream of at least seeing one of the three things I longed most. Humpback whale, check.

The unchecked items give me a good excuse to come back to Costa Rica to see the sea turtles and the toucans and discover more about what “pura vida” means — the good life in the tropical paradise at the Parador.

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  • J Steele

    That was a great summary of a fabulous vacation Ted! I was in Costa Rica in 05 and loved the Pura Vida vibe, beautiful tropics and warm people. Your account makes want to go back! Soon!

    • http://www.tednguyenusa.com/ Ted Nguyen

      Hi, J.

      It was an amazing vacation and I wanted to savor every moment of “pura vida.”

      Hope you can make it back there again soon.

      Cheers,
      Ted

  • http://www.GinaParris.com/ GinaParris

    Wow!! I’m reading this from my treadmill and I STILL have a sweatshirt on to keep warm. I want to go to Parador Paradise! What an enchanting post about a truly magical-sounding place.

  • PaulTran92

    Pictures are breathtaking, and the writeup is awesome. You sure you don’t want to be a travel blogger? =P I have not been to Costa Rica yet, and after reading this I am wondering why not yet!

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