Costa RicaCosta Rica

Day 1: Fairy Tale Mountains of Bajos del Toro

Destination: Zarcero

zarcero topiary gardensAs I transitioned from slumber to consciousness, the memories flooded in -- I was married! After months of planning and giddy excitement, Fabian and I had tied the knot the previous afternoon. I glanced down at my ring finger, a big smile on my face, before flying out of bed. I was ready to scarf down some breakfast, pack our suitcase, and load up the car -- the sooner we were on our way, the sooner we'd begin our honeymoon.

The morning was glorious -- 75 degrees and sunny. From our Heredia home, we made the 90-minute trip along the Interamerican highway and a few mountain roads. As we climbed, the temperature chilled and by the time we reached Zarcero (5,700 feet above sea level), the crisp air was ideal for outdoor explorations. We had planned a stop here before heading onto our final destination of Bajos del Toro, and we ran up the steps to Zarcero's central park to begin investigating the town's famed topiary garden.

el silencio lodge was designed with nature in mindA series of wide arches lead from one end of the garden to the church steps, and I insisted we pose for photos by peeking out from behind them. We weren't alone -- both Costa Ricans and tourists were enjoying the beautiful afternoon, playing and posing among the perfectly sculpted bushes shaped like monkeys, rabbits, elephants and more . We inspected faces carved into the greenery, climbed the church stairs for a birds-eye view, and imagined the stories behind each carved cypress.

By early afternoon, I was itching to drive the last leg of our journey. Sending furtive glances to my new husband -- I still couldn't believe that we were married! -- I saw that he was also ready to go. We piled back into the car and headed east, first climbing higher up into the mountains and then down into a valley. The last two miles of the trip, through Juan Castro Blanco National Park, were along a bumpy dirt road (which locals endearingly deem "a Costa Rican massage").

happy honeymoon!When we finally saw the sign for El Silencio Lodge, I was thrilled. I had dreamed about this hotel from the moment I heard of it -- set on a 500-acre private reserve, it has 16 upscale cabins, each with a fireplace and outdoor hot tub. We identified ourselves at the gate and pulled into the resort. What awaited us was a fairy tale vision: white mist hovered on the mountainside, a river hugged the gravel road, and the landscape bloomed in shades of green.

As we got out of the car, Ronald, our personal eco-concierge, greeted us by name. He would be our guide at El Silencio, helping us with anything we needed. Since it was only 2:30, he offered us some lunch -- three deluxe meals per day are included in El Silencio's rates. We had eaten a light lunch and our stomachs grumbling, so we nodded our agreement and settled in for an afternoon snack. Since the weather had cooled significantly, I ordered a bowl of tortilla soup to stave off the chill. (Chill is relative, of course -- it was about 65 degrees). Fabian ordered a fruit-and-nut salad -- the crispy greens came straight from the lodge's organic garden. I had called ahead with information on Fabian's food allergies, which include lactose intolerance, but in all the excitement, we had forgotten to ask the waiter to hold the dressing. We needn't have worried: when the salad appeared, the waiter commented, "Fabian, the dressing has milk in it, so we put on the side." Such personalized and caring service is the norm at El Silencio, but we felt gloriously special.

riverfront suite #16After lunch, Ronald took us on a quick tour of the facilities -- the river, the trails, and the spa. Finally, we arrived at our suite #16, in this writer's opinion the best at the lodge -- a riverfront paradise for newlyweds. The cabins, which were designed by Ronald Zurcher, a world-renowned Costa Rican architect, are painted moss green and use bamboo, wood, and huge glass panels to complement the lodge's cloud forest surroundings.

Two leather rocking chairs sat invitingly on the porch, overlooking the rushing river. On an adjacent porch, our private hot tub awaited, surrounded by a bamboo privacy fence. I opened the front door to our cottage with barely contained glee, and my mouth dropped. Fabian and I were greeted by a fire-heated room and a hydrangea-petal message that read "Happy Honeymoon." The room was ideally sized -- neither cavernous nor small, it was cozy and beyond romantic. Fresh flowers decorated our bedside tables, a large sofa hugged the wall, and our king-sized bed was piled high with a fleece blanket, down comforter, and down pillows (they must have known I'm always cold!).

the river running in front of our suiteRonald acquainted us with the room -- most importantly, on how to heat the hot tub -- and then left us to settle in. I closed the door to our private retreat, and turned to look at my new husband. Without a doubt, this was the most luxurious and breathtaking place we had ever seen. Not only did everything look unbelievably luxurious, but the lodge's courteous staff and special touches made us feel like royalty.

We spent the afternoon hopping river rocks, reading on our front porch, and lounging by the fire. The hot tub is fed by natural spring water and takes a few hours to heat up, so I turned it on just before dinner. At the restaurant, we were greeted by name once again, and congratulated on our nuptials. For our three-course dinner, I ordered potatoes stuffed with local cheese, homemade ricotta-filled tortellini, and a chocolate mocha cake. Fabian feasted on another homegrown salad, herb-roasted chicken, and a fresh passion fruit sorbet. Every bite was delicious and filling, but not frilly or fancy -- El Silencio's motto is casual comfort.

our private, spring-fed hot tubNights at El Silencio are cool enough to encourage a dip in the hot tub. Back at our cottage, we turned up the fireplace, donned fuzzy bathrobes, and headed out to the bubbling water. The round tub had heated up to a great temperature -- warm enough to cut the evening chill, but not so hot that my skin would turn pink. We relaxed, finally free of wedding stress, and closed our eyes and opened our ears to the sounds of the cloud forest. The river provided gentle background noise, while crickets trilled in the trees and the occasional night bird serenaded us. Lulled into relaxation by the sounds of nature, we made it back into the room with just enough energy to dive under the feather comforter.

Day 1: Fairy Tale Mountains of Bajos del Toro in Pictures