With frothy, churning waters and large smooth boulders just visible beneath the surface, the mighty Pacuare River carves an imposing path through miles of pristine Costa Rican rainforest. The gushing river looks intimidating, but rafting is the only way for visitors to access Pacuare Lodge, one of the most exclusive luxury resorts in the country. Located in the heart of this primordial rainforest shared with jaguars and ocelots, the property opens itself to those that dare to take their chances with the river.
Still, despite the blustery first impression, the journey is not as precarious as it seems. Our guide, who deftly navigates the rapids as we paddle, reassures us that falling into the emerald green water happens only occasionally and is hardly life-threatening, especially with life jackets and helmets in place. Instead, the most common mistake amateur rafters make is to shut their eyes and scream, which means they not only miss out on all the sights, but also put themselves at risk of ingesting water-borne bacteria.
“Keep your eyes open and your mouth closed,” he quips, and off we go. The two-hour sojourn down the river is exhilarating and relaxing in equal parts. The first few rapids are gentler in terms of navigation, akin to a drive on a bumpy pothole-riddled road, but the experience gets more intense as we head downstream. In between bouts of adrenalin-fuelled paddling, there’s plenty of opportunities to gaze into the forest canopy in the company of lazy sloths and curious electric blue morpho butterflies. At particularly calm stretches, we disembark and lower ourselves into the comfortably tepid waters, drifting along with the gentle current.
FINDING HAPPINESS IN THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE
Finally, the palm-thatched villas and bungalows of Pacuare Lodge, carefully designed to blend into the jungle, come into view.
Raising our paddles, we cheer “pura vida”. This local saying is at once a greeting and an expression alluding to the laid-back ethos of Costa Rican life, but its literal meaning of “pure life” permeates many aspects of the country.
In 1946, the government abolished its standing military, choosing instead to redirect this spending to health care, education and environmental conservation. Through its eff orts, 25 per cent of its land has been protected as national parks and wildlife refuges. The results are impressive – although Costa Rica occupies just 0.03 per cent of the earth’s surface, it houses almost 6 per cent of the world’s biodiversity.
While the concept of Gross National Happiness originates from Bhutan, it is Costa Rica that has consistently topped the Happy Planet Index rankings as the world’s happiest nation.
Indeed, the idea of finding happiness in the cradle of wilderness suddenly becomes very tangible, after a zero-impact journey into the heart of a protected rainforest. It certainly helps that there is no need to rough it at the lodge’s spacious villas, which are built with private decks offering sweeping views of the river and surrounding jungle. The king-size canopy beds are dressed in Egyptian cotton sheets; there are heated indoor and outdoor showers; and the larger bungalows come with their own private pools. No wonder Tinseltown A-listers like Matthew McConaughey have been spotted vacationing at this lush retreat.
Adventurous souls can partake in myriad activities to commune with nature, including thrilling zip lines through the canopy, canyoning down a gorge, and peaceful hikes to nearby indigenous communities. Equally transcendent is the opportunity to sit on one’s private terrace with a sundowner in hand as the sun sets, watching the evening mist descend from the clouds to the river.
FROM THE JUNGLE TO THE COAST
From the depths of the Pacuare rainforest, I head across the Osa Peninsula to the Golfo Dulce, one of the most remote regions of the country. Like many other high-end getaways in Costa Rica, the Playa Cativo Lodge, built predominantly with biodegradable materials, is a study in eco-consciousness. It has its own hydroelectric generator and solar panels to generate clean energy, and a purified freshwater pool graced by local wildlife.
The staff too, walk the talk. En route to the lodge, as we cross a crystal blue gulf by speedboat, we take the time to fish out pieces of debris like plastic bottles and styrofoam containers. The accompanying guide apologises for slowing us down, but it doesn’t bother me. Not when there’s much to observe along the way, such as red-footed and brown boobies hitching a ride on pieces of driftwood, colourful corals dotted with schools of tiny fish, and even a pod of friendly spotted dolphins swimming alongside our boat.
The lodge has just eight guest rooms, each one furnished with hardwood furniture and colourful tiles crafted by local artisans. Best of all, the large windows open up entirely to panoramic views of the coast and the forest – ideal for spotting the rare scarlet macaw streaking across the sky.
On this secluded corner of the planet, you don’t have to look hard to discover tranquillity. Use the kayaks, paddle boards, or snorkel gear to chart a quiet escape from other guests. Or take a meditative walk through the lodge’s organic garden, which supplies much of the produce used in the kitchen, to truly appreciate the farm-to-table dining experience.
INTO THE WILD
My final stop is Manuel Antonio, famed as one of the most biodiverse national parks in the world. It plays host to 109 species of mammals and 184 species of birds. Guides armed with telescopes offer informative tours of the park and have a knack for spotting all manner of animals, birds and reptiles camouflaged within the park’s dense foliage.
For an even closer look at the wildlife, book an appointment to visit Kids Saving the Rainforest, a non-profit rescue centre and sanctuary for rainforest animals. Most of its rescues are rehabilitated and released back into the wild. However, former exotic pets too accustomed to human interaction are given life-long sanctuary at the centre. These white-faced capuchins, marmosets, tamarins and two-toed and three-toed sloths can be viewed on a tour of the sanctuary. The plight of these animals, including abused former performing monkeys and a scarlet macaw with a deformed beak due to improper feeding methods by its former owner, make this more poignant than an average trip to the zoo. Fortunately, the tour doesn’t end on a sombre note.
It concludes with us gathering around a playground structure to watch a rescue sloth’s daily exercise session. To ensure the sloth remains as wild as possible, touching or holding the animal is prohibited. Instead, we live in the moment and relish the sight of this adorable animal at play. With its languid movements and unhurried air, this unofficial mascot of Costa Rica charms us effortlessly. It is not long before one and all – tourists and seasoned volunteers alike – are grinning from ear to ear.