Jessica is back once again to catch you up on her latest travels! In this edition, she showcases her stay at the Essence Arenal Boutique Hostel in Alajuela, Costa Rica, back in February. By all accounts it sounds like a breathtaking experience, so definitely take note if you're planning to hit up Costa Rica!
In the last few years since knowing Ricky, I have become pretty spoiled staying in places like The Ritz-Carlton, Bali and the Hotel Bristol Warsaw. So when my mom told me she'd booked a 3-night stay in a tent in the middle of the rainforest in Costa Rica, I was naturally very hesitant. Admittedly, I had forgotten my roots hostel-hopping and backpacking back in my early 20s; little did I know that I was about to have the experience of a lifetime.
To my surprise, the “tent” that housed my mom and I resembled very little the camping experiences I’ve had in the past. Instead of a dirty camping ground, our tent was actually a bamboo structure built on the hillside and looked very much like a treehouse. Inside was a queen bed and a closet, and amazingly the treehouse had electricity and wifi as well!
The best part of the room was that it had a terrace that overlooked Lake Arenal and the vast jungle which surrounding the property. It was truly immersive within the environment and the perfect place to get lost in a book with a cup of tea.
At nighttime, the heavy rubber of the tents fully insulated us from the rain and wind (February was the wet season around these parts, after all). It was the best of both worlds: I truly felt as if I was sleeping inside the rainforest, yet the same time had access to the internet (millennials, I know). It was really easy to fall asleep to the soothing sounds of the rain falling overhead, and in the morning there's nothing better to wake you up than the sound of howler monkeys and what I can only assume to be a bird's mating call.
Before breakfast, my mom and I attended a sunrise yoga class. We walked along a rather steep tractor path to get to the back of the property, where the outdoor yoga studio was located. We spent an hour meditating with the sunrise. Later on, we decided to take advantage of the Magical Day package offered by the hostel, which included a guided hike of the property, a chocolate-making workshop, and a full spa package consisting of a full body massage, mud wrap, and temazcal – a small, circular sweat lodge made of volcanic rock.
The day began with a hike which was guided by none other than the owner of the hostel himself: Nikko, a German national who had moved to Costa Rica more than two decades ago on a pursuit to find his new home. He journeyed to Costa Rica by boat at the tail end of a 3-month sailing trip, and once he docked in the beautiful Central American country, he just knew that it was the place for him. I'm not surprised by his intuition.
During the tour, it became very apparent that Essence was not simply just a hostel. Rather, it was it’s own little ecosystem located within the rainforest. Prior to being converted to an vegetable farm and a hostel, the property had been used as a cattle ranch.
Nikko explained that the weather and soil within this particular area of Alajuela was terrible for cattle farming, as the grassy fields and irrigation needed for cattle would require vast deforestation. Since then, the area has been replanted with vegetation that is native to the country and transformed into an eco farm which cultivates organic fruits and vegetables.
It included various kinds of palm trees, tomatoes, bread fruit, tomatoes, peppers, as well as a medicinal herb garden. Everything was planted in a way which naturally complemented and supported one another, creating a self-sustaining permaculture farm. Natural pools were sprinkled around the farm to collect algae, which gets broken down by fish to fertilize the vegetation. Vegetables and plants were spaced out and placed beside each other based on the minerals or fruits they produced. Everything was meticulously thought out and planned.
At the end of the hike, Nikko brought us to his small and cozy house, which sat beside the vegetable farm. It had a gigantic window with a brilliant view of Arenal Volcano. There, we began our chocolate-making workshop.
While the whole day was incredible, this part of my day was the most meaningful. In his kitchen, Nikko walked us through the process of making chocolate from start to finish. We began by cracking and peeling the hard casings to expose the rich cacao bean, before roasting raw cacao on his gas-burning stove top. We ground up the beans with a hand grinder and added nuts into the mix. Then, we brought the mixture onto a stove top and folded in milk and butter until it came to a creamy and thick consistency.
The entire process smelled absolutely delicious, and I felt like a little kid waiting to eat her Halloween candy. Finally, after some great conversation while waiting for the chocolate to cool, we were able to make our own chocolate balls. This was some of the best chocolate I’ve ever tasted. It was fresh, had a great bite to it, and was made with love.
Ordinarily, being inside a stranger’s house might've been a very awkward and weird situation; however, inside Nikko’s cabin, I felt like I was at a old friend’s place.
After indulging in way too much chocolate, it was time to be pampered with a massage and to sweat it out in the temazcal.
The opening of the temazcal was covered by a blanket, so it was very dark inside, and at first I found it very uncomfortable. Eban, the friendly staff member, assured me that I can leave at any time, but also encouraged me to push myself so I am able to get the full effect. “It’s uncomfortable until it gets comfortable," he advised.
Once we were settled in, Eban began to tell us about the healing powers of the temazcal. Originating with the indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica, the temazcal was used in ceremonies to purify the body, mind, and spirit. According to Eban, upon entering the temazcal, you are stepping inside Mother Earth.
Inside, Eban wafted eucalyptus leaves, rosemary, and peppermint and threw water over hot stones to create vapours. He guided us through about an hour of meditation and encouraged us to sing and to let go of anything that we no longer wanted to keep with us.
At the end, to complete the purification processes, we jumped into a cold pool to wash away the sweat from our pores. After we dried off, we were rejoined by Nikko and offered warm herbal tea and a blanket and sat around the fire while enjoying the sunset. It was truly a magical day.
Also noteworthy was the food. Everything made by the cook at the hostel was organic and vegetarian. Many of the ingredients came straight from the farm, like the eggs which where harvested from free range chickens. The menu changes daily, and guests were invited to help cook their own dinners with the guidances of the cook.
The area surrounding Arenal Volcano was magical. As a nature lover, it was a perfect place to spend a week hiking, bird watching, and chasing waterfalls. If you plan to embark on a trip to Costa Rica, I highly recommend spending a night or two in the tree-top tents of Essence Arenal. Not only did it have gorgeous views of the surrounding area, the friendly and helpful staff at the hostel made it an unbeatable experience. No amount of hotel points can compare to a $20/night stay inside the rainforest!