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Healing waters in Costa Rica

Updated: Oct 10, 2021

It must have been something in the water. Since arriving home from Costa Rica, I haven't felt any of my usual back pain and I'm getting much better sleep. Theoretically a relaxing vacation anywhere could provide those benefits, but I swear I've never felt so healthy after a trip.

Maybe I'm just old enough now to notice more aches and pains, but I have a hunch that soaking in Costa Rica's thermal, rainforest and ocean waters was good therapy.

Hot springs heaven

First were the geo-thermal hot springs at our hotel in Arenal. We had a small hot pool outside our room, and there were two larger sets of spring-fed pools on the property. We spent time soaking in the soothing waters every day during our four night stay. Especially the pool near the bar with drink service.

The thermal springs maintain a temperature of 49 to 50 degrees Celsius and they're rich with minerals like sulfur, calcium and magnesium. Locals claim that soaking in the hot springs provides a whole host of therapeutic benefits. I wonder if the Imperial beer and tropical cocktails boosted the water's healing powers even further?

Waterfall wading

Our first day of adventure in the Arenal area included a visit to the stunning La Fortuna Waterfall. While descending the 500 or so steps down to its base, we heard the the cataract before we saw it. Along the way we had peekaboo views of it through the trees from strategically placed viewing platforms.

The water tumbled down a sheer cliff to a clear blue pool and misted the surrounding rainforest with a cool spray. I could feel it on my face as we walked closer, welcome refreshment in the afternoon heat. At the bottom we waded into the swirling pool. It was brisk; a shock at first, but fresh and lovely once we got used to it.

The closer I swam towards the waterfall, the stronger the current became. It was challenging to swim against the flow while navigating around the huge boulders in the water. Eventually I surrendered. I allowed the current to push me towards the calmer edges of the pool, savouring the cool water, lush views and soft mist on my face. It' possible this waterfall swim was therapeutic too, if you believe in the healing properties of negative ions released by rushing water.

It all sounds glorious, and it was. The climb back up those 500 stairs was not. At least there was some reward for our hard work at the top - our driver had a snack of fresh fruit waiting for us. Simple juicy pineapple and chilled watermelon never tasted so good.

Taking to the sea

It was difficult to choose between the dozens of Costa Rican beach areas. Advance online research suggested Playa Samara on the Pacific side would be lovely, laid back and free of large scale development. It sounded quite perfect, so off we went.

It didn't disappoint. We found a pretty little beach town with a bohemian vibe. A few blocks near the beach formed the centre of town. There were cafes, bars, beachwear shops, tour operators and hostels wedged in between the police station, a doctor's office and a soccer field. Hand-painted signs promoted kombucha, yoga, vegan food and artist's workshops.

hand painted signs in Samara Costa Rica

The social scene and nightlife in Samara seemed dominated by longer-term visitors from Europe and North America; regulars who knew each other and rented accommodations for months instead of  weeks or days. It was a young-ish crowd with lots of single 20-something backpackers in the mix. Activity was focused at different hot spot each night -- salsa night at one bar on Thursday, reggae music at another on Friday night, and so on.

We stopped in at a couple of different watering holes, my favourite being Microbar Samara. They had close to 20 locally brewed beers on tap, including some creative flavour combinations.

Over at Bar Arriba later, I tried a refreshing cocktail made with locally sourced guaro (sugar cane spirits) and coconut water. The bartender explained that the coconut water was from coconuts harvested by hand the hard way - climbing up into the palm trees to pluck them individually and carry them down carefully. He said this produced a tastier nectar than the lazy method of shaking the coconuts down so they crash to the ground. Apparently the impact of a crash releases acids that impact the flavour of the juice inside. The skeptic in me wondered if that was truth or clever marketing talk. But the drink was incredibly good either way.

We had some excellent meals during our stay. There were fish tacos at Lo Que Hay, sizzling fajitas at Coco's and the freshest grilled fish at Mama Gui. Luv Burger's vegan burger with coconut 'bacon' was also tasty, but I have to say not quite as satisfying as its meatier cousins. For a cool midday treat, the artisan popsicles at Pura Paleta were divine. I savoured the hibiscus-orange-honey flavour.

gusto beach club in playa samara costa rica

For beach days we parked ourselves at Gusto Beach where we rented loungers and umbrellas. We had drinks served to our chairs, and for lunch we ambled into their airy beach-side restaurant tent. It doesn't get much better than shady open-air dining with a sand floor and sea views. A perfect arrangement.

The beach itself was a long golden crescent protected by a small reef, making for gentle waves as opposed to pounding surf. The water was shallow for a long way out, and it was the warmest ocean water I've experienced anywhere. It felt like a warm bath. We spent good long spells floating and bobbing in the softly rolling waves, sun washing over us. How could that not be good for us?

playa samara beach on the Nicoya peninsula in Costa Rica

Wellness seekers have been taking to the sea for centuries, and those of us from colder climes still love our winter beach vacations. We mainly seek sun and relaxation, which are beneficial (some might say necessary) to our physical and mental health. But most of us don't really think about the old wisdom promoting the therapeutic properties of salt water and sea air. I'm starting to believe there could be something to it.

Bringing the healing home

Regular jaunts to Costa Rica for a curative dose of hydrotherapy don't exactly fit into my budget or schedule, but I can seek out similar healing environments closer to home. After all, we've got hot springs and waterfalls here. And of course we have plenty of forest, even though it's not the tropical kind.

I remembered hearing about the benefits of a concept called forest bathing. Contrary to any uncomfortable images the name might conjure up at first, your clothing stays on. The ritual involves walking slowly and mindfully through the woods while breathing deeply. The practice was pioneered in Japan and it's now a popular form of health therapy for the country's stressed-out office workers. It's gaining popularity in North America too.

Anyone up for a trip to the mountains?

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