My 'eco' paradise: Ruby Wax goes green in Costa Rica
The jungle bursts with wildlife, the hotels recycle their leftovers and the yoga lessons are out of this world
Saturday 11 December 2010
I never thought I'd use the word "eco" in an article: it's so not me.
Costa Rica was practically the nation that invented the prefix, and I immediately thought: "Here we go, we'll all have to eat our young to keep that recycling thing going," because it turns out most of Costa Rica is protected. Don't even think about picking a tree: you get five years in jail. Pick a flower: you're dead. In Costa Rica you can look but not touch something like 21 mammal species, 830 bird species, 1,080 types of fish and 344,000 arthropods (bugs to you and me). There are also 10,000 plants, 1,600 of which are orchids. The people you can do what you want with.
Now I've swallowed my words, because I've learnt they too are biodegradable. This is Paradise Found. The landscape of Costa Rica is based on Pandora as seen in Avatar minus the giant blue people. Every tree, every flower is lush, dripping and gigantic. The jungle creatures look like they're in drag or performing in Vegas: frogs wear bright orange tops and purple bottoms; lizards go for fluorescent green with aqua flashes and red eyes; the toucans, butterflies and parrots are wearing every colour known to man. Who are these animals hiding from? Everyone – including passing aircraft – can see them. The word "camouflage" has no meaning here.
I flew on Continental Airlines a quarter of the way around the world to arrive in Costa Rica, which might not be eco, but it's a lot more comfortable than the gruelling test of endurance on what is laughingly called a road after you land in San José. Let me just say: potholes the size of the moon's craters. When your brain is being slammed against the sides and roof of your 4x4 you wonder: "Why are they doing this to me?" And the answer is that the only reason Costa Rica remains relatively untouched by fat tourists, monster hotels and food chains is because many of the roads have never been paved. That's what's keeping them out. It's a bit like getting to the top of Everest: only the dedicated survive; the others fall by the wayside.
My favourite place in the whole country was Nosara on the Pacific coast. It has one street (a potted dirt road, most of it washed away due to rainy season) but it's the coolest street on this planet. On either side is that Avatar jungle, with bulbous, well-hung flowers and fruits so fecund they're slightly obscene. If you walk off the road for 20ft there's a long white beach, with perfect (and warm) waves reaching 8ft high.
Here are the most perfect human bodies you will ever see congregated on a strip of sand. In Nosara everyone is thin, young and dazzlingly beautiful. I tried to block out any thoughts that I might be the oldest person in the area, and using the art of self-delusion I felt I blended as well as a purple- and chartreuse-dotted snake does in the jungle. The beauty of their beauty is that they all say hello, they smile with their eyes, and they seem to have no awareness at all that they are walking works of art.
The babes who don't spend their days riding the pipelines (a surfing term I just threw in there) go to one of the many yoga schools scattered among the vegetation. To find the Nosara Yoga Institute you hack your way through the jungle, passing 100ft-long hanging vines, continent-sized palm leaves and dinosaur-leg tree trunks until you reach a staircase leading up to a sky made of azure tiles.
When you reach the top through the clouds you're at the school: an open pavilion. While you do a yoga class you look down at the jungle canopy and watch howler monkeys jump from branch to branch while strange birds sing arias at one another and cicadas perform a symphony.
Try to picture me in the expert yoga class with girls who tie their legs over their head for a living. I was there, dripping in sweat, surrounded by taut, perfectly toasted, tan-smooth bodies, with long, dangling golden-blonde hair. Each of these nymphs was clad in a G-string and wore a single thread for a top, usually finished off by a fully tattooed arm or back, often in the form of a dragon. Imagine how good I felt among them. I'm not gay but I would stare gormlessly, reaching out to touch their skin to see if it was real, as they assumed positions previously known only to Play-Doh.
The resting position is called "downward dog" which means your behind is pointed in the air, held up by your wrists and toes. We were told to hold in what sounded like our "makampianiatna" and then release the "pukatnajaminna". I assume that meant suck in your stomach.
You could hate them for their flexibility alone but these girls are incredibly savvy world travellers: young, but never boring. My teacher told me as she gave me a massage that she had a friend in Utah who one night met a guy. He happened to describe his fantasy of a perfect woman. The friend said she had just the girl, she brought him to Nosara, they met, fell in love and married six days later, exchanging their vows while they surfed. When she finished the massage I asked how much I owed her. She said, "It doesn't matter: you have a cool soul."
The boyfriend, who looks like a god, asked if I wanted to join them for dinner. You cannot imagine how excited I was, as I was not a popular child when growing up. I changed my clothes three times. My kids eventually said I couldn't go as I was on holiday with them and should act like a mother. Bummer. It didn't matter, because you run across everyone in town at some point.
We bumped into the newlyweds at their wedding party at Il Basilico, my favourite restaurant in Nosara. It's just a few tables made of polished tree trunks under a tin roof. The fabulous shrimps are served with love by a Costa Rican mama. Afterwards we moved with the wedding party to La Banana. Again, there were no walls. But there was some blaring salsa, which means throwing your hips, feet, shoulders and head in opposing directions while your partner throws you between his legs.
Another place we all congregated was at the Gilded Iguana. They have amazing hamburgers served by someone who makes Antonio Banderas look like a dishrag while a wild woman sings like Janis Joplin. The wedding party were wearing crowns on their heads and almost nothing except their tattoos. They shrieked and gyrated until morning. I told my kids, after a lifetime of nagging them to do their homework, that actually I was wrong: this was the life we all should be lucky enough to have.
By day I'd go to a café called Robin's, which was – perhaps surprisingly – run by Robin. Despite the fact it had tables but no walls, it was somehow stylish. As I said, everyone here has a story: Robin used to be a cordon bleu chef in Paris. From there she joined a monastery in Japan and became a Zen master. At some point she went to visit a friend in Nosara and moved there. Now she makes ice cream and chicken wraps in a Zen kind of way.
I stayed at the Harmony Hotel, which is where I plan to retire and is just as cool as the rest of Nosara. It's part of the Cayuga Sustainable Hospitality chain, which means you get to walk down white mosaic paths, which curl through banana trees, past parrot flowers, palms, ponds with shrines and lily pads leading to the yoga studio and healing centre. You can't escape it: you will do a back bend before you leave or they'll break you in half.
The open lobby/dining room/bar is made of bamboo and dark wood; light-coloured sofas face a perfect pool. If there was a Michelin star for pools I would give it to this one, which is hugged by manicured jungle and orange flowers, with an island of expansive palms in the middle. Surrounding the pool – and this is the most vital part of a holiday for me – are the guests, all bright, humorous with fantastic life-stories. I couldn't get happier. I told my kids: "This is where God lives." They said: "Shut up."
OK, now comes the eco part. All the water used from the showers, kitchen, sinks and sewage goes directly to a water-treatment plant. Then the water is used to irrigate the garden. The soap, shampoo and conditioner is biodegradable and made with native plants, so you're basically washing with coffee, honey, pepper and mint. All leftover food goes into compost and is taken to a worm farm where they feed it to the worms and their excreta is used as fertiliser. (Goodness knows what happens to mine.) Solar panels heat the water and food leftovers are donated to a pig farm. I didn't believe it, so I checked out the worms, the pig farm and the water plant. Yup: I was in the heart of eco.
When we left, my husband had to drag me out by my ankles as I clawed the ground. I tried to kiss the pool goodbye; it's very hard to do that.
After Nosara we went to Santa Teresa on the Nicoya Peninsula, another cool surf town dotted with bars and filled with beautiful pierced and tattooed people. My people. We stayed at Latitude 10. (It's 10 degrees north of the equator, you see.) There are five bungalows with no glass in the windows. It's just you, your bed, a chair, lanterns, shutters and the tropical forest. The shower and toilet are out there among nature (always an interesting experience when it rains).
The best part of Latitude 10 is the manager, Gabriel. Born in Montréal, he started to work in hotels at the age of 19, then came to Costa Rica to find the perfect wave. He is still only 30, yet his love for his job is almost religious – and you catch his enthusiasm like an infection. His wife is equally fascinating: she left a job in Canada at Cirque du Soleil to join her now husband. All Gabriel seemed to desire in his life was to make my family and me happy, so I let him.
He took my son surfing, he found us quad bikes, he brought in a French chef to make us dinners, he took us to clubs where the locals go to get crazy. We bonded and I made him promise he would never love any other guests as he loved us.
Our last stop was Arenal in the north. Again, after a drive of death you are rewarded by God, who gives you not just the rainforest but also a volcano. The Arenal Nayara Hotel and Gardens is a bouquet of flowers and palms with sensational modern rooms. On the patio you have an outdoor bath facing a wall of jungle. The spa is 100ft down a mountain where you can sit in a Jacuzzi staring up at the stars. At breakfast I screamed that there was a UFO in the sky, but then someone kindly pointed out it was the top of the volcano, which was shrouded in clouds. The tip was almost as high as the sun.
Arenal has what must surely be the world's longest zip wire. You jump off a cliff and soar 2,700ft over rapids, waterfalls and a billion tops of trees with vultures, hawks, macaws and toucans circling you. Why take drugs? Just do this, it's the same high.
If you don't want to hang from a wire you can walk over the trees on the canopy walk, which involves rope bridges 45 metres high.
We ended the holiday back at San José, where we stayed one last night at the Corteza Amarilla Art Lodge and Spa: another jaw-dropping experience. You enter the hotel and quickly realize you're in Alice In Wonderland. In the brochure they describe the décor as art nouveau, deco and baroque, with touches of oriental. Here's the reality: gilded gold chairs hang from the ceiling among a forest of crystal chandeliers. Everywhere the eye can see are merry-go-round horses, giant puppet heads, dummies of Spanish women made of straw, flying unicorns, cages of parakeets, frills, tassels, Cleopatra-type headdresses, shoes studded with crystals and stained glass ornaments. The walls look like Dr Seuss, Salvador Dali and Frida Kahlo went crazy with a paint brush.
If I didn't have photos of Costa Rica I'd swear I was making the whole thing up. Let's hope they never pave those roads.
Travel essentials: Costa Rica
* Bales Worldwide (0845 057 0600; balesworldwide.com) offers a 15-day, self-drive holiday in Costa Rica from £2,250 per person. The price includes return flights from Heathrow to San José via Newark with Continental Airlines (0845 607 6760; continental.com), two nights at the Corteza Amarilla Art Lodge & Spa in San José, two nights at the Arenal Nayara Hotel & Gardens in Arenal, three nights at The Harmony Hotel in Nosara, three nights at Latitude 10 in Santa Teresa, two nights at the Arenas Del Mar in Manuel Antonio, breakfast on each day, car hire and private transfers.
* There are no direct scheduled flights between the UK and San José.
* Costa Rica Tourism: 00 506 2299 5800;
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