Great Adventure

Fly, Flop, Flip: Four Days of Watersport Adventures in Costa Rica

by Amelia Mularz
Sunset Sunset at El Mangroove. Photo by Amelia Mularz.

In Costa Rica, taking a dip means many things: lounging by the beach, wading through mangroves, swimming with the fishes, and bathing at the base of a volcano.

COSTA RICA – I had heard of the “fly and flop” vacation, which is, well, exactly what it sounds like. You fly somewhere beachy and flop onto the sand or into a chaise lounge, only exerting enough energy to reapply sunscreen and lift a piña colada to your lips. But what I really wanted was a fly, flop, and occasional flip — a trip to a relaxing tropical destination with a daily dose of excitement. 

For a range of activities within a relatively limited amount of time, it made sense to head to one of the most biodiverse places on the globe. Costa Rica makes up only .03 percent of the world’s surface but hosts nearly six percent of its species. Over the course of a mere four days, I hit the coast, the jungle, and the magma-rich base of a volcano. I didn’t just fly and flop. I paddled, peered at puffers, pool-hopped, and discovered four of the best reasons to get pruney fingertips on a water-filled escape to Costa Rica.

El Mangroove. Photo courtesy of El Mangroove.
SUP boards at El Mangroove. Photo by Amelia Mularz.

Glow-in-the-Dark Paddle Boarding

Plenty of hotels offer stand-up paddle boards, but few deck them out in LED lights for sunset paddle sessions, as they do at El Mangroove resort. In addition to inventive equipment, the hotel’s big draw is that it’s just twenty minutes from Liberia airport and directly on the Gulf of Papagayo in the northwestern corner of Costa Rica. Within an hour of touching down, I was gliding through the water — slightly knock-kneed and not unlike a giant happy baby, but gliding nonetheless – with two hotel guides and three other guests.

When we set out from shore it was still light out, but after tracing the coastline and catching a waterside view of the area’s lush mangrove trees, we doubled back as the sun began to set. The sky swirled with psychedelic patterns in orange, red, and purple, and I steadied myself long enough to lift my right foot and tap a black button on my board. Blue lights flicked on and reflected off the water around me. I was so mesmerized by the light show beneath my feet — a sort of aquatic disco — that I didn’t notice the rest of the group take off back to the hotel. They beat me by a good twenty minutes, though I’d argue it was the rare instance when lollygagging was absolutely the right thing to do.

Monkey Head Island. Photo by Amelia Mularz.
Snorkeling off Monkey Head Island. Photo by Amelia Mularz.
The coastline of Monkey Head Island. Photo by Amelia Mularz.

Snorkeling with Eagle Rays and Puffer Fish

After a dinner of glazed short rib at El Mangroove’s restaurant, Makoko, and a morning of hammock hanging, I joined one of the hotel’s snorkeling tours and set my sights on underwater exploration. Now, I normally wouldn’t categorize snorkeling as an adrenaline-pumping pursuit, but once we were zipping across the gulf in our speedboat and the captain pointed to our first stop, an isolated rock formation in the distance shaped like a gorilla’s head and called, appropriately, Monkey Head Island, I knew this wouldn’t be a lazy float.

After sidling up to the simian structure, the captain and a guide passed out our gear (fins, masks, and snorkels) and we dove in. My first peek underwater revealed a school of vibrant blue tangs (just like Dory of Pixar fame) as well as a puffer fish. Our guide motioned everyone to swim in his direction, and I made it there in time to see a spotted eagle ray float beneath my fins. About a half hour later at our second location, another pint-sized and deserted island, we checked octopus, starfish, and sea snake off the list before making one final stop at a cloister of caves. Back on board, the captain poured a round of wine, turned on some tunes, and ended the excursion as most great explorers do, with a '90s singalong.

Arenal Volcano. Photo courtesy of Tabacon.
Hot springs at Tabacon. Photo by Amelia Mularz.

Hopping Hot Springs

Heading inland on my third day didn’t mean the end to water fun. My destination: a network of natural hot springs at the base of Arenal Volcano. To get there, I caught a 40-minute flight from Liberia to La Fortuna Airport. (Flights on Sansa airline start at just $65, otherwise it’s about a three-hour drive.) Once in the area, I checked in at Tabacon, a hotel and spa built around the thermal waters.

If hiking is the heightened version of walking, hopping hot springs is bathing with a boost, and Tabacon is the Mount Kilimanjaro of pool experiences (with less danger and much more terry cloth). I had pictured a puddle or two fed with piping hot water, but was amazed to find an entire ecosystem of soaking options. Wrapped in my Tabacon bathrobe, I wandered slack-jawed through a botanical garden with narrow pathways that snaked past more than a dozen secluded inlets, hopping from spring to spring for an entire afternoon, noting that some were naturally warmer than others and some had surrounding boulders better suited for holding my mojito. Occasionally I’d stumble upon a couple lounging in a stream all to themselves, and I’d smile and nod as if to say, "Don’t worry, I'll just snag this waterfall over here!"

The waterfall at Tabacon. Photo courtesy of Tabacon.

Waterfall Massages

“Take this and follow me,” a woman said as she handed me an umbrella. I followed her down a winding path that cut through the jungle. I could see nothing beyond the tropical foliage around me and only heard the steady drizzle of rain against palm leaves. In that moment, I considered an age-old question: If I were stranded on a deserted island with only one other person, who would it be? The answer was suddenly clear: a massage therapist.

The woman leading me was indeed a massage therapist, but we weren’t in the middle of nowhere. It was the last day of my trip, and I had decided to pay a visit to Tabacon’s spa for a Honey Temptation treatment, a full body massage with a moisturizing lather of olives, oranges, and, honey. The spa is made up of a series of private oases tucked into the jungle, each a thatched roof structure open on all four sides to lush natural greenery, yet completely private.

Once inside my oasis, I melted into the massage table and my therapist went to work. The rain picked up, but, even still, I detected a second source of rushing water, a thermal waterfall just beyond the foliage. I was experiencing the authentic version of what every sound machine and relaxation app mimics. An hour later, once I’d been honey marinated into muscular Zen, I was left alone to shower beneath a bamboo shoot drawing from the same thermal source as the waterfall. I wrapped myself in a robe and went back into the jungle, stopping to ogle a lizard and bird of paradise, and taking a moment to appreciate that in Costa Rica, even a spa treatment becomes an adventure.

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