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Me, Myself, and My Inner Child in Monteverde, Costa Rica

"Don’t forget to breathe."

Me, Myself, and My Inner Child in Monteverde, Costa Rica

Sitting at a charging station in Liberia Guanacaste Airport, waiting for my very delayed flight back to New York City, I got that all-too-familiar sinking feeling. The wifi wasn’t connecting. My noise-canceling headphones weren’t canceling. Cabin crews shouted things over the speaker system all at once. Across the room from me, tourists clanked tall glasses of beer at a bar decorated with artificial tropical foliage. At a gift shop to my right, a squealing toddler hopped up and down, chubby arms reaching toward the legion of sloth-stuffed animals dangling upside down from the ceiling. My agitation grew, my patience waned, and my drowsy eyes focused on a rotating display stand crammed with license plates that read in all caps, “Keep Calm + Come to Costa Rica” and “Pura Vida!” (pure life).

Courtesy of Hotel Belmar

“Don’t forget to breathe!” my encouraging guide shouted from below twenty-four hours earlier while I was clammy-handed, climbing a ladder to a platform 150 feet above a forest floor. This was not just any forest; it was the impossibly mystical Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve in Monteverde, Costa Rica, which, according to Wikipedia, consists of over 26,000 acres of cloud forest and is home to “2,500 plant species (including the most orchid species in a single place), 100 species of mammals, 400 bird species, 120 reptilian and amphibian species, and thousands of insects.” I wore a helmet that didn’t complement my bushy low ponytail and a harness with a rope attached to it just in case a wasp landed on my face, resulting in complete paralysis. My forest-inappropriate running sneakers squeaked step by step. But I just kept going, face forward, white-knuckle grip tight, barely breathing, internally screaming, a blanket of green gleaming through the space between the ladder bars. Don’t forget to breathe. I made it to the canopy-level platform in one piece, overwhelmed by the cinematically beautiful atmosphere and bucket-list-worthy views, soothingly soundtracked by singing birds and rustling branches. I breathed in an air so clean it made my rusty lungs briefly forget that I smoked a pack a day throughout my twenties and mid-thirties.

During those few hours getting up close and personal with Costa Rica’s famed biodiversity, I wasn’t just present but wide awake. It was one of my life’s most magical moments, right up there with my first concert (Spice Girls, 1998). I crossed semi-shaky suspension bridges and walked verdant trails that ran through the reserve; I watched in goosebumps-inducing wonder as a gang of white-faced capuchin monkeys cackled and swung from towering tree to tree; I spotted so many fluttering butterflies (The Blue Morpho, the Glass Wing!); I Ariana- Grande-squinted through borrowed binoculars at a sleepy sloth curled into a fluffy ball in a sky-high canopy. I was living my full FernGully: The Last Rainforest (one of the best movies of 1992) childhood fantasy. I learned about the variety of plants that grow on the surface of trees (epiphytes), how trees talk to each other below ground via their roots, and so much more thanks to Andrés, my guide for the morning, naturalist, and founder of Savia, a 17-acre private piece of paradise within the cloud forest. Savia, which means sap in Spanish, hosts an array of curated forest immersions, like climbing the hollow interior of a 115-foot ficus tree. Horseback riding through the countryside, pondside yoga classes, sustainability tours, and many more soul-expanding experiences are also available to guests of Hotel Belmar, a luxurious 26-key eco-lodge located five minutes by car from the starting point of Savia’s trails.

The family-owned, award-winning, carbon-neutral property has been a pioneer of ecotourism for over thirty years. On-site features include a locals’ favorite farm-to-table restaurant, a microbrewery replete with a taproom and beer garden, a plastic-free juice bar and tea room, an organic garden, a self-guided walking trail, a soaking jet pool, and more. Roughly a three-hour drive from the capital of San Jose, the luxe lodge is a magnet for tranquility- and adventure-seeking travelers. It all sounded great on paper. Plus, the reviews are exclusively raves. Still, on the final thirty minutes from the airport to Hotel Belmar, I was in a full sweat as I bug-eye stared out the window from the backseat of a van at bucolic vistas amid the seriously steep upward journey. Along the way, my driver smoothly dodged happy dogs crossing the streets with wagging tongues, cows suddenly appearing around a leafy bend, and horses carrying locals casually trotting on by as Karol G’s “Contigo” played over the stereo for the second time. I wondered what I, the annoyingly jaded city dweller, scared of heights, insects, and too much sun exposure, had signed up for.

I’m not outdoorsy. I don’t do “weekends upstate.” I’m not even a beach person. I’ve politely declined many press trip invites to dreamlike destinations, mostly because I saw “water activities” like “swimming with stingrays” on the itinerary. I don’t own a bathing suit. I’m into electrifying destinations (Tokyo, Hong Kong) where I can always find a dimly-lit gay dive on Google Maps in which to disappear. That brings me peace. Sometimes. The past few years have put me through the wringer, particularly with the loss of The Wendy Williams Show, and I’ve finally fully arrived at the slow-down and be-present phase. In other words, I’m in my, gasp, late thirties. I’ve been quietly tiptoeing out of my comfort zone. I’m perpetually on the peace, love, and happiness prowl. However, finding the latter in NYC is as infrequent as coming across an excellent Jennifer Lopez film. I rarely can go on an iced coffee run free of sidewalk encounters with former flings, individuals inexplicably screaming at the sky, or clipboard-clutching humans with Pennywise smiles.

Three nights at Hotel Belmar, hidden away within the misty mountaintops, were just what the doctor should’ve ordered. If only I lived in Japan, where forest bathing is embraced by doctors for its health-boosting, stress-relieving benefits. This topic arose during my meditative hike with Andrés, where I found myself petting the trunks of oak trees hundreds of years old and wearing a face-creasing smile as I looked up at the sunlight filtering through the immense green plumes. Memories of my formative years came in waves throughout my trip, reminding me of when my favorite places included the local aviary, the front seat of a rollercoaster, and family vacations spent in a tiny cabin tucked away in a small town in Pennsylvania’s heavily wooded (and aptly named) Elk County. Apparently, I had accidentally packed my curiosity-driven inner child in my carry-on luggage. I’m so glad I did.

From the first moment I opened the door of my Alpine-chalet-inspired room, it was love at first sight. I stood frozen as a freshly Botoxed forehead, my jaw on the floor, my carry-on abandoned in the hallway. Complete with a wood-paneled ceiling and walls, shiny hardwood floors, a freestanding bathtub across from the king-size bed, a walk-in rain shower, a mossy green armchair, and a remarkably stocked minibar, my anxieties departed. My Zen-luxe solo staycation began when I spotted the private terrace, offering unrivaled views of the cloud forest mountains and surrounding valleys, the Gulf of Nicoya hypnotizing in the distance on cloudless days. Every morning, I sat outside in silence for a few minutes, soaking in the pretty-as-a-postcard views and the enlivening breeze (rooms are air-con-free but come with overhead fans and screen doors) while sipping a cup of coffee I made the traditional Costa Rican way, using the provided chorreador pour-over cloth filter to brew coffee grounds sourced from the hotel’s carbon-neutral farm, Finca Madre Tierra. I’d marvel at the vocal, jewel-toned macaws, motmots, and omnipresent hummingbirds in mesmeric shades of green and blue. I’d also take a lot of selfies. Sometimes, the clouds loomed over and curled around the treetops like a fog machine at a performance of Wicked, but never for long. I’m pretty sure the sun knew I needed it.

Restaurante Celajes

Courtesy of Hotel Belmar

I’m certain my tastebuds’ lives were forever changed downstairs at Restaurante Celajes, Hotel Belmar’s moodily lit culinary haunt that extends onto an elegant cloud forest-facing terrace. Dishes I’m still dreaming about included homemade pancakes with local strawberries, bananas, mint, and sunflower seeds, drizzled with lavender and sugar cane syrup for breakfast, and veggie-stuffed tortellini in a creamy kale sauce for dinner. Don’t get me started on the killer cocktails made with garden-fresh herbs, fruits, and grains. Chef Alvaro Rodríguez’s menu prioritizes sustainable practices and sourcing ingredients from local foraging, the hotel garden, and Finca Madre Tierra, located a twenty-some minute car ride down the mountain.

One wonderfully sunny afternoon, Memo, my contagiously warm and energetic guide at the sprawling farm, introduced me to the friendliest free-range cows, horses, goats, and chickens, then walked me through Finca Madre Tierra’s rambling landscape, which supplies the hotel with organic produce, shade-grown coffee, artisanal cheese, free-range eggs, and seasonal favorites like avocado, guava, and mango. I gathered beautiful arugula, kale, tomatoes, and herbs with Memo before we took a break to grind sugar cane stalks and quench our thirst with its juice. Seated solo under a picturesque garden-side gazebo back at the hotel an hour later, I indulged in a private multi-course farm-to-table lunch, including a salad made with my aforementioned freshly-picked produce and a chuggable passion fruit dressing. This was followed by a sustainably sourced sea bass that melted in my mouth like a magic trick.

Costa Rica’s restorative “pura vida” lifestyle is something I could get used to, a notion particularly present when I was trying to get comfortable in my aisle seat on the plane back to JFK Airport. Don’t forget to breathe, I remembered, releasing my clenched teeth. Flight attendants darted up and down the aisles for the final crosscheck, their frenzied pace recalling the hummingbirds I observed from my hotel room’s terrace during those few mornings full of pure, unmatched peace.

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