Costa RicaCosta Rica

Day 6: Rainforest Spices & A Healing Massage

Destination: Manuel Antonio

A thick mist covered the rainforest canopy this morning. It was 6 a.m. when we joined Henry for some chili-infused hot chocolate, a blend created by the ancient Aztecs and one of the organic specialties produced on Villa Vanilla's plantation. We fueled up for an early morning hike through primary rainforest to a magnificent Ceiba tree, over ten meters in diameter.

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Standing next to this massive tree, I felt particularly tiny in the world. We all sensed some sort of spiritual connection to this weathered, towering giant. In fact, the Mayan people of Central America believed that the Ceiba tree was rooted at the earth's core and connected the spirit-world to the terrestrial world.

We rock-hopped along a narrow river flowing with cool mountain water. The sunlight barely filtered to the forest floor, so dense was the canopy above us. A quick ten-minute hike uphill led us back to our car and we returned to Villa Vanilla just in time to begin the farm tour.

The tour was completely hands-on, as we stopped to smell and taste aromatic spices and herbs. From the intoxicatingly sweet ylang-ylang, a very female scent, to the peppery aroma of allspice, a male scent- we explored the yin and yang of the plant world. The farm also cultivates a delicately-flavored species of cinammon and spicy black pepper plants.

Of course, the highlight of the farm is vanilla, rated the most popular flavor in the world. Native to Mexico and Central America, vanilla is one of the most labor-intensive crops to maintain. Henry explained that each vanilla orchid is carefully fertilized by hand and usually yields six to eight beans per flower. The beans are then cured for several months to develop that rich, bourbon essence that gives vanilla its unique flavor. The farm exports large quantities of vanilla to the States and to local restaurants and hotels.

Given the amount of work entailed, I was amazed at the low cost of the farm's vanilla products. We visited the onsite Spice Shop where our tour group stocked up on pure vanilla extract, dried vanilla beans, organic cinnamon sticks and some savory chili-infused hot chocolate.

Whether your interests lie in gardening, sustainable agriculture, or rainforest spices, a visit to Villa Vanilla is highly recommended. I left with an appreciation for biodynamic farming and a hankering for all things vanilla.

I couldn't head home without indulging in one of my favorite pastimes: an afternoon at the Day Spa. Nothing soothes travel-weary muscles like a healing massage, and I was in for a treat with massotherapist Walter at Spa Uno.

Located just off the main road between Quepos and Manuel Antonio, Spa Uno features warm-stone massages, cleansing facials, chocolate-mint mineral scrubs and several rejuvenating spa packages. I loved that the spa only uses organic products, all of which were specially-developed by owner, Molly McBride. The "Raw Botanicals" line is hand-crafted in small batches using many local ingredients.

The spa was tastefully-decorated in warm colors with comfortable treatment rooms both inside and out on their treetop observation deck. I melted into warm flannel sheets, ready for my traditional massage. Using organic products that I secretly wanted to eat like almond oil and mango dream cream, my massage was anything but traditional. My therapist gently placed a vanilla-bean pillow across my eyes. Intoxicated by the delicious scent of French-vanilla cake, it seemed my day had a vanilla theme.

Just when I thought my full-body massage was over, I was treated to a papaya facial and banana hair mask -- a little surprise for all guests. Coated in tropical fruits and oils, I smelled (and probably tasted) delicious. Feeling completely relaxed and refreshed, I took a quick shower before thanking my fabulous massage therapist. I would surely return to Spa Uno, and next time for a full day of pure bliss!

Day 6: Rainforest Spices & A Healing Massage in Pictures

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