It’s my first date in Costa Rica and Pm nervous as I contemplate a much-anticipated liaison. This beautiful country has topped the Happy Planet Index three times in a row and the Costa Rican joy of life is reflected in a much-favoured saying for all things good: pura vida. I’m hoping my date will be just as joyful. But will he like me? Will I measure up? Casual or chic? Long pants or shorts? What to wear is a dilemma, but the clock is ticking. A knock on the door and I’m soon heading to our rendezvous at chic boutique resort Hacienda Alta Gracia in the south of the country.
Seconds tick by as I turn the corner, and there he is: a four-year-old chestnut named Milonga after the traditional tango halls of South America. “He’s a gentle horse, just let him know who’s boss,” says our caballisca (horseman) who leads the way along a picturesque trail amid beautiful Poro trees bursting with vivid orange blossoms. Eagles soar over the lush forest and dainty hummingbirds flit from tree to tree.
Ecotourism pioneers – After two hours of riding, I welcome our picnic stop beside a stream strewn with smooth white rocks. Lunch is a traditional farmers’ lunch of chicken, rice and black beans wrapped in banana leaves and a sugarcane juice. I pray for a smooth ride home, but Milonga has different ideas and bounces me around at pace on the roughest track he can find. I’ve fallen under the spell of this tropical Central-American country, however, and the stunning scenery distracts me. Costa Ricans are justly proud of their conservation efforts, with more than 25 per cent of the country proclaimed as protected parks. A leader in eco-tourism, Costa Rica represents close to four per cent of the total biodiversity on Earth and operates on clean, green principles.
Adventure on the doorstep – Back at the palatial stables, home to 40 horses, I farewell Milonga and he trots off for a shower, shampoo and rub down – it’s a five-star life at this world-class equestrian centre. Pm equally spoilt, relieving my burning muscles in a Jacuzzi overlooking the spectacular Valle del General, a large green valley studded with flowering trees and great birdlife. The stunning mountain resort, part of the Auberge Resorts Collection, is set on 350 hectares with 50 standalone casitas with spacious bedrooms, bathrooms and living areas, terraces with panoramic views, luxury touches and bespoke decor. It’s definitely one for the bucket list.
Its location, close to the Cerro Chirripo National Park and Los Cusingos Bird Sanctuary, makes for excellent excursions including Whitewater rafting, ultra-light flights, ziplining and horse riding at a cost, along with complimentary forest hikes, meditation, tropical fruit tasting, garden walks and horse feeding. Its manicured gardens, thatched pavilions and hammocks invite guests to really take time out and smell the tropical flowers.
Dining is an adventure. Start with happy hour at La Cantina with a Rainforest Martini, then head to the terrace with its romantic fire pit to watch a glorious blood-red sunset streak the skies. Later, settle in at Ambar and watch the chefs at work in the open kitchen as they prepare fabulous dishes using produce from the sprawling San Isidro farmers’ market and the resort’s own sustainable farm, La Huerto. The ceviche, chargrilled lamb cutlets and vanilla tart with tropical fruit, banana bread and coconut ice-cream are standouts. At breakfast, try the typical Costa Rican dish, gallo pinto with scrambled eggs, homemade tortilla, sweet plantain and ‘tico’ cheese.
The Auberge Spa, the largest in Central America, offers pampering at its best, with treatments ranging from relaxing massages to coffee scrubs. Leave time to take a dip in the spa’s indoor pool, find a cosy corner to read a book or watch a film in the Casa Grande and, if you are lucky, catch a horse show at the indoor arena, El Picadero – it really is all about pura vida.