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Stress-free in Costa Rica

by Julie Baxter | 31 January 2018

As I relax into my massage at the Andaz Peninsula Papagoya resort, the masseuse's skilled hands seem to do more than melt the tension away, they take me on a journey back through the last 10 days I've spent in Costa Rica.

I've opted for the volcanic hot stones massage at Onda Spa and as she lays the therapeutic heated rocks along my back, images of the majestic Arenal volcano emerging from behind wispy clouds float into my mind.

I’d spent four nights opening my curtains each morning to the sight of the volcano, based just outside La Fortuna, the volcano’s gateway town. It is a honeypot tourist destination at the heart of Costa Rica’s travel industry; a lucrative soft adventure magnet that has helped this destination rise from the ashes of the 1968 volcanic eruption which killed nearly 80 unsuspecting locals who had no idea they were living on the slopes of a volcano.

The therapist runs a soundtrack of rainforest noises as she works and they conjure up the lush tropical landscapes I’ve been exploring around the now serene and peaceful cone. Completely quiet since 2010, the volcano is now an ever-compelling backdrop to ziplining, biking and kayaking tours, birdwatching and nature hikes.

The noises of Costa Rica kind of say it all. There’s no doubt its wealth of bird, frog and jungle species offer splendid chances of sightings - from vibrant butterflies and cheeky monkeys, to lazy iguanas and sleepy sloths - but even if you never step beyond your hotel balcony the sound track of your stay instantly places you in one of the most biodiverse destinations on earth. Howler monkeys call to each other, frogs and toads croak their chorus and the tweets and squawks of hummingbirds, paraquets, soaring vultures and an absolute plethora of bright and colourful feathered friends have twitchers up at dawn, wide-eyed at every turn.

Just two and a half times the size of Wales, Costa Rica has distinct and diverse natural attractions neatly linked together by UK tour operators, combining the beaches and national parks of the somewhat edgy Caribbean coast, with the tropical jungle heartlands around Arenal, Monteverde famed for its Cloud Forest Reserve, and then over the Continental Divide to the distinctly different draw of the Pacific coast.

As the hot stones are pressed deep into my calves and thighs, the muscles scream out memories of my hike along the lava flow to a scenically stunning sunset over the vast Arenal Lake (33 sq miles), and another among the tree canopy negotiating the wobbly suspended pathways at the Hanging Bridges attraction.

Friendly and knowledgeable local guides had shared insights into the ingenuity of the larger-than-life flora and fauna thriving in the most unlikely spots, and of species great and small - not least the tireless leaf-cutter ants whose non- stop teamwork is hypnotic to watch and leaves a lace-like trail of intricately patterned leaves in their wake.

As she works around my neck and back the tingling of my skin speaks of the subsequent four days on the Pacific coast where the blazing sun has left its mark as I practiced a little stand-up paddle-boarding in the glass-still waters of the Papagoya Gulf and kayaked just after dawn to spot multi-coloured fish in the clear waters and over 70 vultures gorging on a fish breakfast conveniently washed ashore for them overnight.

The occasional rumble of my stomach reminds me of the groaning Andaz breakfast buffets I’ve consumed, the Costa Rican cerviche class I’ve attended and the many local culinary specialities and tapas interpretations I’d experienced across the resort’s three restaurants: Rio Bhongo, Ostra and Chao Pescao.

My trip had comprised just three stops. A quick flit through the capital San Jose where I first discovered the smooth flavours of Costa Rican coffee at the delightful cafe in the historic Nacional Teatro, and marvelled at the skills of indigenous tribes in the contemporary Gold Museum - they mastered exquisite jewellery making long ago, melting and moulding spectacular adornments from the glistening rocks they found in the rivers and streams.

After a few days beside Arenal I swapped the daily volcano view for expansive coastal vistas at Andaz Resort, part of the Papagoya Peninsula development which also includes a marina, golf course and Four Seasons and Exclusive Resorts properties - all sitting across the water from Secrets and Occidental reseorts.

30 minutes from Liberia airport, Andaz is a low-impact development complete with significant green credentials, set along two neat beaches and connected by a 15-minute shuttle to a newly-opened Beach House on one of the peninsula’s best beaches. Here, wild white-face monkeys mingle daily with the guests and are about the only thing to pull your attention from the beautiful gulf views, other than the cocktail menu and perhaps a little light lunch.

Resort life is easy. Poolside lounging is an art form here, with flip flops and sun hats, sun creams and cold towels all complimentary and abundant, attentive staff readily and cheerfully at your every beck and call, delivering complimentary fruit one day or chilled aloe to sooth your insect bites or sun burn another. Its two infinity pools (one for adults only) run like ribbons along the edge of the resort with the volcanic sand beaches set below offering complimentary paddle boards, kayaks and snorkelling plus jet skis for a fee. It calls itself a lifestyle resort and the lifestyle it offers is relaxed, easy and gorgeously picturesque.

My massage ends and I prepare to return to reality beyond the treatment room, but it’s this lifestyle that I’m more than happy to embrace for a few days more, before returning to a wintery UK.

Read a full review of the Andaz Peninsula Papagayo Resort here.

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