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A Hike, Hot Springs and a Spa Treatment

Destination: Arenal

I woke up and practically bounced out of bed. Today, after a volcano hike, I would head to Baldi Hot Springs and, finally, to a highly-awaited and much anticipated spa treatment at Montana de Fuego's En Gadi Spa. I felt like a kid in the weeks leading up to her birthday: nervous, excited and more than ready for it to be time already.

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The bus picked me up at 8:15 sharp, and I introduced myself to my friends for the day, two Italian men and a family of four from California. I hadn't had many opportunities to speak with families traveling through Costa Rica, so I asked them what they thought of taking kids around the country. Connie, the mother, told me that it had been surprisingly easy -- many hotels, restaurants and attractions cater to families and their children. She classified Costa Rica as being unequivocally kid-friendly, but added that renting a car is an important part of the equation.

We bumped our way over the gravel road leading to El Silencio, and parked in the same parking lot as the previous night. Before beginning our hike, our guide, Gerardo, spoke to us about the history of Arenal Volcano. At just 7000 years old, it is considered a very young volcano. Before 1968, it had been dormant for hundreds of years, and people regularly hiked to and camped in its crater. In 1968 however, it erupted not out of the existing crater, but from a new one on its western side. The eruption killed many, and destroyed two small towns which were flooded and are now located at the bottom of Arenal Lake.

At just over 1,800* F, Arenal Volcano's lava is considered to be quite cool. Its relatively low temperature makes for thicker, more solid lava. Since the volcano erupts everyday, "cool" lava rock accumulates on a daily basis, and the volcano grows almost 10 feet per year. Over the last 41 years, a second cone has grown up next to the previous, and today, Arenal sports two volcanic cones. In fact, the older, dormant cone is only 4921 feet above sea level, while the second, newer cone is 5,250 feet above sea level, and growing taller each year.

On our hike we came upon an unusual plant known as a sleepy mimosa. This mimosa is similar to its North American counterpart, except in one amusing aspect: when you touch its leaves, that section of the plant goes completely limp, as if it were sleeping. In fact, the sleepy mimosa has structures which hold the leaves open; when the plant feels threatened, the leaves relax. No matter the reason, it's just plain fun, and our group spent five minutes touching each of the plant's leaves.

As we stepped into the shady forest, the sound of cicadas overcame my senses. Have you ever seen a cicada shell stuck to a tree? That's the exoskeleton of the cicada larvae, which hatches already full grown. After storing up plenty of energy, the cicada sheds its outer shell and buries itself underground, where it spends the next 17-18 years growing into its adult form. When complete, the adult cicada emerges to look for a mate. Male cicadas make the infamous chirrup to attract females, which are attracted to the loudest, strongest song. Tragically, some males sing so loud that they literally explode from the effort. Those that are lucky will live as adults for approximately two months -- after attracting a female, the cicada couple mates, the female lays eggs and both insects die.

The next animal sighting was the famous eyelash palm pit-viper, my third in as many days. This specimen was of the green variety and lay curled up on a giant tree root, warming itself in the afternoon sun. We took turns snapping photos, and the highly venomous snake barely batted an eyelash, as if it were used to the attention. I didn't forget it's lethal poison though -- eyelash palm pit-vipers, which come in six distinct colors, live close to the forest floor. When people reach out to steady themselves on a branch or tree trunk, they are often bitten by the viper, and the venom, which enters the veins in their arms or legs, travels quickly to the heart. The bite can be fatal if not treated immediately.

Our next stop: Baldi Hot Springs. Walking in, I was struck by the size of the grounds. There were more than 20 pools, which were divided into three sections: the restaurant and pool bars, the party springs where music played, and the silent springs. I had been looking forward to Baldi's water slides, but they were unfortunately closed for the day.

I started toward the top of the springs, in the silent area. Parents should note that no children are allowed in these springs. A huge, three-tiered waterfall tumbled to the ground, with several benches placed directly below. My shoulder muscles were sore from hiking with a heavy camera, so I positioned myself just below for a hot water massage. It was perfect for relieving the aches and pains in my muscles, and I lingered under the waterfall for five minutes before moving on.

Because the hot springs raise the body's temperature, it is important to cool off every 15-20 minutes. As I moved from pool to pool, I made sure to spend some time in the cool baths, which felt just like an unheated pool in the summertime. Though I enjoyed each pool, my favorite was moderately warm with a large mushroom-shaped sculpture in the center. A stream of water tumbled down from on top, creating a high-pressure massage not unlike a Jacuzzi jet. Before I finished up with the pools, I tried out the giant Jacuzzi, which Gerardo had recommended. But at 109* F, it was too hot for me, and I gingerly removed my red-tinged legs from the hot water.

I returned to Montana de Fuego relaxed and ready for my spa visit. The hotel grounds are laid out so that each bungalow faces the "montana de fuego," or mountain of fire. My bedroom had floor-to-ceiling windows, so as I reclined in bed, I could see magnificent Arenal Volcano looming directly in front of me. Outside, on my small porch, the view was even better: unobstructed by glass, the volcano looked close enough to touch.

The hotel's En Gadi spa would serve up the Harmony treatment, which includes a deep-cleansing facial, foot reflexology and a deep-tissue massage. Walking into the spa, I was greeted with soothing music, wafting aromatherapy scents and a fluffy white bathrobe. Everyone spoke in whispers, and I quickly checked my nervous energy at the door. After I changed into my robe and spa flip flops, I was escorted to the facial room.

The facial began with a gentle cleansing and exfoliation. Soothing instrumental music played in the background, accompanied by a soft whooshing sound reminiscent of waves on the seashore. Outside, I could hear birds singing and insects chirping. As I relaxed into the facial massage and cleansing, I let my mind drift off, and daydreamed of a huge bed with hundreds of pillows. Next came facial toner, followed by a cool, creamy mix as precursor to the impurity extraction. The mixture would take ten minutes to open my pores sufficiently, but the time passed quickly in the tranquil room.

Once I was blemish-free, Mariska washed my face and applied a collagen anti-aging mask. It tingled, making my face feel warm, but was not uncomfortable. While it worked its magic over 20 minutes, I passed the time listening to the soothing sounds around me. Though it sounds cliche, I truly felt the tension draining from my body. The effect was complete when, after removing the mask, Mariska massaged a collagen cream and sunblock into my face, chin, neck and scalp. The facial was complete, but I was far from being ready: I felt warm and cozy, more comfortable than I had in months, and didn't want to get up.

The massage room was located elsewhere in the spa though, so it was time to switch locations. Mariska applied oil, and began to rub my feet, tweaking each pressure point and reflexology spot as she went. Though I was already relaxed, I felt every last bit of stress drip out of my body, and was soon in a place somewhere between consciousness and dreaming.

The massage oil was made from citrus essential oils, and it relaxed my senses. Mariska made sure that there was plenty of oil at all times as she kneaded each muscle in my calves and thighs. Moving up, she arrived at my back. I was covered at all times by a fluffy towel, which was moved aside to expose only the part of my body being massaged. It had been years since I had received any spa treatment, and this attention to detail kept me relaxed and comfortable.

In the massage room, the instrumental music was very faint. Instead, Mariska had opened the floor-to-ceiling picture window, which faced out into secluded botanical garden. Birdsong filled the room, accentuated by the constant hum of crickets and tiny frog song. Though I had heard the same sounds during the morning hike, in here, it was different. Within the safe, nurturing confines of the spa, everything seemed magnified, blending seamlessly into the peaceful ambiance.

Mariska finished the hour-long massage with a deep-tissue treatment on my aching back. I explained that I suffer from headaches and migraines, and that I carry tension in my upper shoulders. In response, she paid special attention to that area, separating and pulling my muscles aside to treat each one individually. It was painful bliss, but I knew that it would help to relieve some of the stress everyday life had helped to build up over the last few months. As soon as she had finished, a kind of euphoria set in -- I felt high on endorphins, as if my body were swimming, weightless, in a dry ocean. Mariska warned me to get up slowly, and soon I understood why: I was a bit lightheaded, and my leg muscles felt like silly putty.

Before I left En Gadi, I turned in my robe, thanked Mariska for two hours of absolute bliss, and drank down a goodbye lemon-strawberry fruit drink. The Harmony treatment had been very holistic, working to make me both look and feel better for much longer than just the afternoon.

A Hike, Hot Springs and a Spa Treatment in Pictures

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