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Return to Rincon la Vieja

Destination: Rincon de la Vieja

It was the salad that first gave it away. I remembered that, six years ago, the salad had consisted of a pile of shredded and vinegary cabbage hidden under my grilled chicken. But this time, someone had painstakingly carved a flower out of a carrot and a cherry tomato and placed them in the center of the plate - as garnish. Something had definitely changed.

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I was at Rinconcito Lodge, a pastoral slope of green dotted with cows and crowned with three rustic cabins where my then boyfriend and I visited nearly six years ago. Now engaged, we had agreed two nights before to return to this little-known spot and relive some of the butterflies, both the morpho and the stomach kind. But can you ever really return? Especially in a place where tourism is developing as rapidly as Costa Rica?

Thankfully, besides the salad, and a brand-new restaurant where it was served, the lodge seemed not to have been altered much. We were still picked up in Liberia by the owner in his Trooper that seemed to run on the white dust blanketing the road out of town. His sly grin and laconic answers still gave him away as a cowboy dabbling in the hotel business. We were again ushered into a cabin of rough-hewn logs that creaked with the night winds. And we delighted in seeing the familiar face, the lines set just a bit deeper, of our old horse guide sitting with a beer in his hand at the new restaurant.

We sat down to eat and discovered that with the new restaurant came a new manager. The manager was polite and made jokes. He spoke excellent English, had lots of ideas for improving and expanding the lodge and had studied tourism. He also tried to book a tour before offering drinks, but we took care of that in no time.

The next morning we were up early, excited that we had booked a horseback trip with the same guide, Alfrin, and that we would visit some new spots as well as some of the ones we remembered. Rincon de la Vieja Park is truly a natural marvel, filled with amazing wildlife (we spotted a coatimundi and a boa constrictor), fantastic horse trails and thrilling views. And of course, there are the mud pots and hot springs. Rincon is very volcanically active, and a great deal of the gas escaping from the vents and pools is sulfur. We joked that our first tour had been a trip from one stinky hole to another.

This time, however, Alfrin led us to a new waterfall that the lodge owner's son had discovered, complete with swimming hole and the cerulean flashes of morphos catching the sun. We then rode to a hot spring, dyed white and light blue from the minerals and, yes, reeking of eggs. But it was a wonderful, relaxing soak.

At the end of the day we galloped back to the lodge and dismounted, tired but happy. The new restaurant welcomed us with twinkling lights and we couldn't resist having a beer before heading back to our cabin. As we clinked bottles and watched the setting sun, we realized that the pace of change in Costa Rica is fast and unstoppable. But that, yes, you can return to places of magic.

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