Whether you want to sacrifice virgins, toast marshmallows or simply gawk at dramatic scenery, nothing beats vacationing in the shadow of an active volcano, and the Arenal region of Costa Rica is reason enough to risk getting flambéed à la Pompeii…especially when your hotel was rated the No. 1 resort in Central and South America by Travel + Leisure.


Like most places worth seeing, it’s not terribly easy to get to. The flight to San José is painless enough, but then there’s a three-hour drive along a highway with the hairiest of hairpin turns. The scenery is worth it, though. En route, our driver stopped to let a family of coatis cross the road and then pulled over to show us a sloth hanging upside down, apparently unconcerned, munching on a branch above the highway. Equally surprising were the signs in Hebrew for a kosher resort in the heart of the jungle, making me wonder if destination bar mitzvahs are the next big thing.

Like a five-star Siamese twin, the Nayara Springs Hotel and Spa is connected—via a 250-foot bridge spanning a deep gorge high above the tree canopy—to its sister property, the Nayara Hotel and Gardens. The entire place is superlative, but Nayara Springs is adults-only, which makes it uniquely suited to newlyweds, people carrying on torrid affairs and couples seeking some quality sexy-time. Each villa boasts a bathroom big enough to land a plane in, with indoor and outdoor showers fit for a Roman emperor, giant four-poster beds draped in mosquito netting and a deck hemmed in by orchids, birds of paradise and heliconia, with a daybed, a hammock and a plunge pool fed by natural mineral hot springs. And then there’s the view of the volcano.

The temptation to lock the door and order room service until check-out was strong, and it probably would have taken a crowbar to pry us loose were it not for the many amusements awaiting us. We rode horses like we stole them to the foot of Arenal Volcano and hiked down a well-tended but precipitous path to the base of a waterfall that plunged 200 feet into pools so pure you could sell the water for 10 bucks a bottle. On the heart-attack-inducing end of the spectrum was zip-lining nearly 700 feet above anything remotely resembling the earth, although terror quickly gave way to adrenaline as I flew through the treetops like a crazed ape. (For what it’s worth, Costa Ricans claim to have invented zip-lining.)

On the mellower side, there was yoga every morning in a beautifully carved wooden pavilion looking out into the jungle, plus a spa where the greatest disruption to a flawless Swedish massage was the racket of a toucan—that unlikeliest of birds—clacking its beak back and forth, or the distant screech of a howler monkey. We spent one lazy morning in the sybaritic swimming pools of Eco Termales Fortuna, where the bartender performed the unprecedented feat of making a piña colada that was not only drinkable but delicious.

It’s not called a rainforest for nuthin’, and at night the drumming on the roof lulled us to sleep, while the continuously low cloud cover had us wondering, as we floated in our hot tub, whether all the rumbling we heard was thunder or the preamble to a pyroclastic surge. (I’ve wanted to use that term since studying Krakatoa in the sixth grade.)

We gorged on everything from enchiladas to sushi, and every meal was superb; not surprisingly, Nayara boasts the top-rated restaurants in the region. At breakfast, the hotel’s mascot, Carlotta—a brilliantly colored but belligerent macaw—would fly over and give us the stink-eye until we fended her off with a napkin.

Costa Rica is often referred to as the Switzerland of Central America, because it’s had no standing military since 1948. That may or may not explain why the people are so uniformly pleasant. The national refrain is “pura vida” (pure life), which they use to mean…well, pretty much everything. In so many places, tourists are merely tolerated for the contents of their wallets. Costa Ricans seem genuinely jazzed about showing off their country, and their pride is well justified.

As he stamped my passport on the way out, the immigration official asked if I’d be returning.

My answer: “Not soon enough.”

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