Costa RicaCosta Rica

Travel Photography Exposed

Destination: Ciudad Quesada

A free room and spa treatments at a four-star resort were hard to come by for an ESL teacher on a meager salary such as mine. So when my friend Sasha, a freelance writer for the The Tico Times newspaper called to see if I'd accompany her to El Tucano Resort near Arenal Volcano as an unofficial photographer, I jumped at the chance. I had done my share of shoestring travel. Sleeping in noisy hostels and embracing the "plate of the day" at local dives was the norm for me; I was aching for some pampering. Sasha's promises of decadent massages and soaks in the hot springs were all the convincing I needed.

We hopped into her trusty Ford Fiesta and were on our way to Ciudad Quesada, an easy two-hour jaunt from San Jose. Along the way, Sasha explained the premise of her article. Back in 2001, a tourist and their naturalist guide were killed by poisonous gases while hiking too close to the Arenal volcano crater. Though they were hiking in a prohibited area of the park, news of the tragedy had spread and travelers were wary of the vicinity. Hotel El Tucano was a safe alternative located in the San Carlos plains -- far away from any danger, but with great volcano views, natural hot springs and a newly remodeled spa.

We checked into our rooms and quickly abandoned our bags to explore. The resort's lush grounds were dotted with two Jacuzzis, a sauna built from river stone, and a large, thermal swimming pool. My favorite feature was a secluded swimming hole fed by the hot springs. We exhausted ourselves in this picturesque river and reveled in the alternating steamy and ice-cold temperatures.

I woke up the next morning refreshed and eager to earn my title. I photographed guests frisking in the swimming hole and a two-toed sloth sleeping in a nearby tree. Arenal Volcano could be seen in the distance, a near-perfect cone peaking through the clouds. After breakfast, the hotel manager led us to the spa. He encouraged me to enjoy a complimentary mud wrap of volcanic clay and a massage. Finally, a chance to indulge in my hedonistic tendencies!

At the time, the resort offered a variety of spa treatments all administered by Romanian staff, contracted for their expertise in the healing arts. Mud treatments are done in the buff, and my spa therapist, a stout woman named Olga, was intent on covering every inch of my body. Not the shy type, I mugged for the camera while Sasha snapped a few head shots. While the wrap was warm and soothing, I noticed how quickly the mud was drying and worried how I'd get it all off. Thirty minutes later, Olga returned sporting industrial rubber gloves, a plastic apron and carrying a fireman's hose. She followed me into the shower and instructed me to spread eagle. Any fears of lingering mud were blasted away as I contorted my body into various unflattering positions. Olga was unsatisfied until I was as slick as a newborn baby.

Her massage was firm yet invigorating. I would categorize it as the deep-tissue type, complete with karate-chops and extra skin pounding. The glaring fluorescent lights added to the intensity of the experience, and I left the spa feeling like a new, much cleaner person.

After returning home to the Central Valley, Sasha assured me that the article would be published in a month or so. Weeks went by and I all but forgot about my experiences at El Tucano. I was busy teaching English to my adult students one evening when my boss burst into my classroom and reminded me. She had that glazed look in her eyes -- disbelief I'll call it. A fresh copy of The Tico Times was in her hand and I graced the front page. Actually, my naked, mud-covered chest and face were what caught my eye. And a larger 12x14 version on page eleven. How could this be? I was the photographer and surely didn't submit this photo for publication. I was going to kill Sasha. But first I had to visit every shop in town and buy out their newspaper supply. The photo left nothing to the imagination and I was teaching young professionals, mostly males. It turns out my "free" room and trip to the resort weren't without cost after all!

Travel Photography Exposed in Pictures