San Carlos, 13km west of La Fortuna on the road to Arenal National Park
Welling forth from the incandescent heart of erupting Arenal Volcano, the steaming mineral–rich waters of the Rio Tabacón have been elegantly sculpted into one of Central America's most renowned and unique luxury getaways.
Tabacón Spa Resort is Eden, a tropical grotto watered by these marvelous hot springs, blooming with ten thousand rare and beautiful flowers. People come from all over the world to relax in the healing warmth of this unequalled river, as it courses through a jungle dominated by the perfect cone of Arenal, glowing and grumbling as though to remind those below that the source of this wonder is much more powerful than they.
More than a dozen pools of different temperatures, the highest a simmering 107°F (42°C), the small pool's sandy bottom cradling those who enjoy such divine heights of heat. Then down to the chilly plunge pool in the depths of the forest nearby. All this water is naturally heated (unlike many other area hot springs), but has been landscaped into wet bars, children's pools, more private pools secreted away among the trees, an adult-only Shangri-La Garden, and fine waterfalls offering natural massages as your muscles melt into this profoundly satisfying warmth and beauty.
There's no need to settle for solely such simple pleasures though at Tabacón. Unsurpassable pampering awaits at the truly incredible spa, an opulent oasis of transcendent tranquility that is a centerpiece of Tabacon's appeal and has earned a few awards as one of the best spas in Central America.
After threading the shaded pathways and steaming bathways through Tabacon's glorious gardens, you'll arrive at the soothing entrance of this most exotic of spas. Its many palapa-topped bungalows are secluded, each richly decorated with rare hardwoods, fresh flowers and personal hot tubs (as well as the most modern equipment for facials, pedicures and other treatments). They are bathed with diffused light coming through the idealized jungle, lending to the solitude.
An endless selection of unique treatments begins with a medical questionnaire, herbal teas, and a soak in the subtly lit mineral Jacuzzi area, just part of the "signature spa ritual." Massages, reflexology and other treatments are decidedly delicious; but do indulge in the mud wraps, using earth from the living volcano that is the true heart of this place. A temazcal, or sweat lodge, offers a copal-scented purification ritual led by a Mexican shaman, designed to purify your heart and spirit even as the springs cleanse your body.
The resort, a few hundred meters uphill from the thermal complex, was revamped in 2012 and the number of rooms actually went down as some of the smaller ones were combined into showpiece suites. The more affordable garden and forest rooms are the simplest, but nevertheless luxuriously appointed, in rich earth tones and elegant amenities including king sized beds, 49" flat–screen televisions (and huge DVD library to choose from), a basket of fresh tropical fruit, coffee maker, Internet at the small desk, luxurious robes and slippers, and a plush sofa bed perfect for families. But it's well worth upgrading to a room with a volcano view; though Arenal's glowing lava was, at press time, pouring down the far side of its thickly forested skirts, the imposing and symmetrical cone rising from the jungle is an inspiring site. At night the volcanic glow, showing sparks to rival a sky full of stars, was clearly visible from my garden terrace.
The five new suites are larger than any other rooms and have one or two bedrooms. The Tabacon Suite is more than 1,000 square feet (101 square meters) and has a whirlpool tub in the spacious bath, striking original artwork, a 55–inch TV, and privacy afforded by the adjoining forest. The two Senator Suites are twice as large and have all that plus a second bedroom. The rates on these are quite reasonable compared to say, the Four Seasons on the coast, so this is a good place for a splurge.
The most luxurious Superior Rooms do not offer Arenal views (four new suites, built in 2009, combine these expanded amenities with panoramic volcano vistas), but are instead surrounded with primary rainforest, a wonder to behold from your private porch or enormous marble hot tub that dominates the impressive suites. Expansive and elegant, with handmade wooden furnishing, beautiful lighting and modern entertainment systems, these rooms render the resort truly world class.
As does the elegant and award–winning open–air Los Tucanes restaurant, featuring a wonderful breakfast buffet with volcano views, and a true fine–dining experience every evening. Exquisite dishes come courtesy of classically trained Chef Leopoldo Cortes, who has created a menu of Latin–accented international dishes served with five–star aplomb by the attentive but unobtrusive staff. I opted to begin with the beetroot carpaccio and arugula salad, its slightly earthy base refined with a light oregano and blue cheese vinaigrette that enhanced, rather than overwhelmed, the senses.
Classic gourmet sensibilities were updated with Costa Rican tastes in the palate cleansing sorbet of tropical guava, offering time to appreciate the impressive array of designer tableware, from Villeroy & Bosche, Luigi Bormioli and the Libbey stemware accommodating the excellent selection of wines. Finally the main course was served with panache, the covers lifted simultaneously from our perfectly presented local sea bass over leeks and potatoes — outstanding — and glazed pork chops with an apple compote. Though there was little space left to take advantage of the tempting dessert menu, the chef's sample platter was divine.
There are several other bars and restaurants on the property as well, including the famous Ave del Paraiso, often packed with day–trippers here to experience the springs, but well worth visiting for the overwhelming buffet, featuring an outlandish cornucopia of salads, hot items, and delightful deserts, all enjoyed overlooking the springs. An a la carte menu offers other excellent options, including a recommended casado (the Costa Rican national dish, offering your choice of meat or fish along with several side salads), guacamole mixed tableside, and a spa menu of Indian ayurvedic cuisine, just the thing after a day of healthy relaxation.
Much is made of the fact that the hot springs portion of the resort (not the rooms) is located in a "danger zone," should the volcano erupt; it was actually evacuated in 1992. But you'll agree that Costa Rica's most memorable resort experience is well worth this tiny risk, which after all grants these wonderful waters their magic. In addition to the five–star upgrades that have taken both the rooms and spa to a new level, it's worth noting that Tabacon has also committed itself to sustainable, community–oriented tourism, and was Costa Rica's first carbon–neutral resort; you can help by planting a tree (or simply making a donation) as part of their ongoing reforestation program. Tabacon also provides clothing, bicycles, computers and other important resources to children in the surrounding communities. Eden indeed, in so many senses of the word, enfolded into the skirts of a living, breathing volcano.
Web Address: www.tabacon.com
Total Number of Rooms: 102
Published Rates: Rooms $295–695, two–night minimum
Review and photos by Paige R. Penland except suite photo courtesy of Tabacon, updates by Timothy Scott 2012.