Winding our way along Catarata de Oro (“trail of gold”) in the high-valley jungle of northern Costa Rica, our guide and naturalist, Alan, stops to pluck a small green leaf off a moringa tree. Known here as a “miracle plant” due to its various health properties like reducing inflammation and improving energy levels, I didn’t come here looking for a miracle, but after almost a full year spent in varying degrees of quarantine and sheltering in place, a miracle couldn’t hurt.
Named after the gold specks found in the soil here, as the bitterness of the leaf wears off and we continue our hike alongside howler monkeys, hummingbirds, and yellow-throated toucans who call this rainforest home, the reality of just how long and bumpy a road it had been to get here slowly sunk in.
Earlier in the pandemic, I wrote about how to safely take a road trip cross-country with my partner and our two dogs, but traveling internationally, first to a remote jungle and then to the beach in Costa Rica, would mark our first foray back into the world, onto an airplane, and into my role as traveling-travel journalist since the pandemic began in earnest last March.
It wasn’t an easy or half-hearted decision to travel again though.
But when our “quarantine pod” including my partner and our two close friends who’ve been more like a surrogate family this past year and I were invited to Costa Rica, we had some serious planning and decisions to make. We’d shared everything from socially distant stoop-hangs and parking lot picnics to hikes and camping adventures, but traveling internationally was a substantially more involved endeavor.
As travel writers, the question of where and more importantly how–and even if—traveling to tourism-dependent destinations is ethical right now has been hotly debated over this past year. With restrictions continuing to ease and the rollout of the vaccine ramping up across the U.S. and around the world, we proceeded, with caution, and booked a one-week trip to Costa Rica, where sunshine and social distancing was baked into our daily itinerary.
More than just the warm-weather, we prioritized nature-centric activities and booked hotels that we felt are not only taking the necessary precautions around mandatory mask-wearing in public spaces but also include updated amenities and services from contactless check-in and QR codes to temperature checks, sanitation stations, and outdoor dining outlets.
Wedged between Nicaragua and Panama, Costa Rica, also known as the land of “pura vida” (pure life) has a laid-back surf culture and eco-friendly ethos and was one of the first countries to reopen to international travelers in November. Their government has been extremely proactive in its fight against COVID. Still, we fretted about the lack of requirements. You don’t need a negative COVID test in order to travel there, nor is there a mandatory 14-day quarantine when you arrive. You do need to buy insurance that covers all of your medical expenses just in case you get sick, as well as complete an epidemiological health form which you need to show the gate agent at check-in prior to departure. We decided as a group, out of an abundance of caution, to quarantine in the days leading up to our trip, and also opted to take a COVID-test within 72-hours of our flight just in case.
Our tickets to Costa Rica were not only direct out of Newark-EWR, but they were pretty affordable, around $450 per person roundtrip.
The first stop was to Origins. An intimate seven-room eco-lodge surrounded by nothing but a dense sea of emerald green-vistas overlooking Lake Nicaragua in the distance. The hotel is so remote, it required four-wheel-drive through rural farmland and unpaved roads just to get there.
Once we settled into the privacy of our villas, each replete with a fire-heated plunge pool, indoor-outdoor shower, and canopy bed, watching the free-roaming ponies graze on the valley below our rooms was a welcomed distraction.
The lodge opened in 2018 and seemed almost designed for travel in the COVID-era. We spent the better part of our days hiking to nearby waterfalls, horse-back riding past volcanoes, downward dogging in the open-air yoga pavilion, and feasting on locally sourced produce from the hotel’s on-site agro-farm. The hotel offers a nightly wildlife tour to learn more about the animals that call this magical land home. Origins mantra is about reconnecting with yourself in nature, and after three blissful days, we felt like we were well on our way.
The second half of our journey found us experiencing a wildly different side of Costa Rica at The Four Seasons Costa Rica at Papagayo Peninsula. About a two-hour drive to Guanacaste’s northwestern coast, with more than 180-rooms and residences, this was a far cry from our intimate oasis tucked deep inside the rainforest. Before we were able to check in, we were greeted by an automated temperature check station along with a tray full of coconuts and local Costa Rican Rum (which helped us acclimate to our new surroundings in no time).
Straddling two beaches, our canopy-style suites were perched high along the cliff overlooking the ocean and offered our group separate entrances, each with its own private plunge pool. Every morning we’d be woken by a family of howler monkeys and coati’s (a Costa Rican raccoon) scaling the trees and scouring our balcony for any leftovers from the night before.
It was a strange and exciting phenomenon to see other humans here, many of whom seemed to be around our age–in their early to mid-30s–along with a few families and honeymooners mixing and mingling in the great outdoors. The hotel is home to several on-site eateries each of which features outdoor dining. Everyone was conscientious about the mask policy, which is still a requirement in the airport, hotels, and public areas in Costa Rica.
For the most part, activities on the property are designed with social distancing in mind, and every morning my partner and I would start the day with an 8 a.m. paddle-boarding session followed by yoga or sound meditation with the hotel’s health and wellness ambassador, Beto.
On our last night in Costa Rica, we took a sunset hike from our hotel to neighboring Prieta Beach. After taking our fair share of sunset selfies and reminiscing about a week spent in paradise, I felt re-energized, and for the first time in a long time, hopeful. It was only a few days later after we’d arrived home safely (and COVID-free) that both of my parents received their second COVID-19 vaccination. It’s been a long and winding road to get to where we are today, but as the vaccine rollout continues, and the world continues to reopen to travelers it feels like the miracle we’ve all been waiting for is finally within reach.