Costa RicaCosta Rica

Day 5: White Sand Beaches, A Canopy Tour & Vanilla Dreams

Destination: Manuel Antonio

Playa EspadillaThe beaches of Manuel Antonio are some of the most beautiful in Costa Rica. Wide stretches of white sand and gentle surf beckon sun-lovers and surfers. My bronzing days long over, I sought the shade of a sprawling almond tree and relaxed with a good book. Vendors set up tables on the sidewalk selling beaded necklaces, sarongs and other trinkets along Playa Espadilla Norte, the main beach in town.

The skies were a deep azure blue. A cool breeze rustled through the palms above me. I watched boogie boarders tackle the waves while sipping on a cold young coconut juice. Listening to the roaring surf, I sank back into the soft sand and drifted off for a few minutes. I wondered how I had let seven years pass between visits to this sublime place. Even though Manuel Antonio is a hot spot on the tourist trail, the town's public beach was nearly empty. And if it filled up, three secluded beaches waited just inside the park.

Beach chairs on Playa Espadilla

Across the street from the beach were outdoor cafes, souvenir shops and the local association of licensed tour guides. Visitors can hire their own naturalist guide for around $20 per person to tour the national park. A great deal considering the guides are well-versed in native flora and fauna and the income helps support the local economy.

It was the perfect sort of day for chilling on the beach -- the sun was shining and beautiful surfers made for excellent people watching. But I would have to return another day, as Vincent and I would be zipping through the rainforest with Dream Forest Canopy tours. One of the country's most popular adventure sports, canopy tours are an exhilarating way to experience the rainforest and dispel any fear of heights. There is no upper age limit, and kids as young as three are welcome to join in the fun.

SurfingI confirmed our afternoon adventure with Oscar, one of the helpful staff at Dream Forest Canopy. If you're ever visiting Quepos / Manuel Antonio and want the inside scoop on where to eat, sleep or party, then Oscar is your man.

Today we had a small group, just us and a nice couple from Ohio. With two guides and Dream Forest's photographer, we drove a few minutes to the rainforests of Villanueva. There, our guides outfitted us with harnesses, helmets and special leather gloves designed for braking. I was a little nervous about the whole braking process but was assured I wouldn't crash into a tree.

Beach merchandiseWe climbed up to the first platform where we were immediately clipped in to a safety line. Our guide Walter carefully outlined body positioning and instructions on how and when to brake. Our first cable was short, enabling us to get comfortable flying through the trees. A guide would send us off and another would be waiting, giving us hand signals to brake as needed.

We took turns flying from one platform to another, zooming through the jungle at fantastic speeds. The braking system turned out to be a no-brainer -- simply enjoy the ride and brake at the very end (the tree rushing toward you is your clue). The canopy tour had seven zip lines in total but my favorite was the 2000-foot cable dubbed the "Dream Line". No fear, no stress -- just pure adrenaline as I flew above the treetops for nearly one minute.

Manuel Antonio zip lineOur guide spotted a sloth sleeping in the trees and pointed out native flora like alligator trees and fig stranglers. Thomas, Dream Forest's professional photographer, got some great shots which were available for purchase on a CD.

After the tour, our guides took us to a small soda (a simple eatery serving local food) where we snacked on tropical fruit and freshly-baked empanadas. Filled up on tasty goodness, we bid goodbye to the Dream Forest Canopy crew, thanking them for a spectacular afternoon.

Tonight, our last in Manuel Antonio, we'd be staying at Villa Vanilla, an organic farm brimming with rainforest spices such as cinnamon, black pepper, allspice, cacao and vanilla. The farm is a tropical laboratory for biodynamic agriculture and sustainable practices. It is the sort of place a spice-lover and foodie like me could learn a thing or two about organic farming and stock up on aromatic spices and pure vanilla extract.

Moon over QueposSet on 150 acres in the pueblo of Villanueva, Villa Vanilla is lovingly owned and operated by Henry Karcyzinsky, former Peace Corps volunteer and vanilla visionary. We joined Henry in one of his rustic guest cabins on the farm and chatted about his passion for vanilla, the only edible orchid of more than 30,000 species.

After a couple of unusually wet years in 95 and 96, much of Costa Rica's vanilla crops were wiped out. As vanilla was Henry's primary cash crop, he searched for alternatives to conventional agriculture and decided to diversify the farm- planting native trees, ornamentals and other rainforest spices. By using biodynamic farming techniques, Villa Vanilla focuses on composting, recycling farm inputs and permaculture -- all sustainable practices.

I kicked back on the front porch of our three-bedroom cottage while a storm brewed in the distance. Tomorrow Vincent and I would join Henry for an early morning hike to an enormous Ceiba tree and then explore the spice plantation on a farm tour. A gentle rain outside our rainforest cabin lulled me into a blissful sleep; tonight I would have sweet vanilla dreams.

Day 5: White Sand Beaches, A Canopy Tour & Vanilla Dreams in Pictures

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