Clamoring for Light in Costa Rica

Usually I mastermind my adventures, deciding where to travel and what to do there. This time, however, my then-boyfriend Fredo organized the escapade: he decided the destination-Costa Rica-then asked me to choose between five retreat centers. I browsed their websites and selected one that offered a “private evolutionary retreat,” a week tailored to our specific desires from a menu of options. I did not realize that this retreat center was in a cave!
By Jena LaFlamme.

Our guide for the week, American ex-pat Tenasi Rama, met us at the bus station in a small town three hours from San Jose, the capital, and broke the news. “We’ll stay at a house today. Tomorrow morning, we’ll head up to the cave.”

“The cave, what cave?”

“The hub of our retreat center and community is a gigantic cave with a five-star kitchen that sleeps twenty people,” he explained, as our astonished eyes grew wider; this would have to be seen to be believed.

The first night we stayed at a luxurious house made of wood and bamboo with views of rainforest and ocean from its front porch. There was no glass in the windows, inviting the warm breeze to have its sensual way with us, unobstructed by man-made barriers. A pair of toucans sitting on a branch in front of the house accentuated the exotic tone.

“This is your ‘make-believe week.'” said Tenasi. ‘Whatever your tropical fantasy may be, we can make it come true.” Not an everyday invitation.

Fred requested an ocean swim before heading up the mountain. “I’d like to surf,” I added. So after a morning of yoga and tropical fruits, off we headed on a bumpy dirt road to a secluded black sand beach.

Swimming was definitely feasible, but surfing required something we didn’t have-a board. Knowing there would be no rental shack on this out-of-the-way beach, I proclaimed that I’d borrow one from a surfer taking a break.

As we walked along the path to the beach, we saw a father and son carrying boogie boards and I quizzed them.

“How was it?”


“Any surfers?”


O.K., good news, that’s my guy, I thought.

As we arrived at the beach, we spotted my surfer strapping his board to the top of his brand new rental car. This robust vehicle was able to cruise over ditches in the road that we had declined with our rickety car, preferring to arrive on foot instead. I told the surfer I was sorry he was leaving because I was hoping to borrow his board.

“O.K., you can borrow it,” he said. I’ll be having dinner at Tropicano restaurant in the next village. I have a 6pm reservation and will be there until 8pm. Just return it to me there. Oh, by the way, my name is Nick, what’s yours?”

I couldn’t believe how trusting this guy was, offering his board to a complete stranger. Fred and Tenasi looked at me incredulously, amazed by my manifestation.

The board was a perfect fit for my height, the water warm as an inviting bathtub, and the waves just manageable for a beginner like me. I paddled out in search of a connection with the waves, looking to ride the momentum of the sea. Some I harnessed with glee, while others left me in the spray. It was comforting to know that, at worst, I would fall into warm water. Eventually the waves subsided, as if the day’s end signified their own rest. I lay out bobbing on the board, simply floating, taking in what lay around me: A dripping ruby sunset; rainforest presiding regally as far as the eye could see; a strip of coconut palms along the beach. I’d take this fairytale over Cinderella any day.

Once out of the water, we all became ravenously hungry. Below the palms lay our answer: sprouted coconuts. You ask, what is a sprouted coconut? Not at all like alfalfa, these coconuts have sent a root down into the sand and a shoot into the air. The inside turns from water into a sweet, spongy coconut mousse encased in a thin layer of coconut butter-a well-rounded snack. Machete at hand, Tenasi split open the fibrous orbs and offered us this beach delicacy.

As we drove home that night, red crabs streamed across the road from the inland embankment towards the sea. Instinct obliged them to make their nocturnal pilgrimage, regardless of the carnage that ensued. Resisting nature would have cost the ultimate death. At the wheel, Tenasi attempted to dodge them. It was like a living computer game and a reminder of the vulnerability of the ecosystem.

The next morning we ascended on foot through the rainforest to the cave, our bags slung over a horse. Rainforest is so vigorously vibrant that I feel extraordinary when I’m there, my body tugged into greater aliveness by these tendrils and leafy branches. The forest filled me with motifs that spoke straight to imagination, compiling strata and depth. I could see, all at once, mountain peaks at a distance and a flowering tree before me with sturdy white blossoms that promised succulent, crimson fruit; a palm with a ridged trunk and a cluster of baby palms under broad frons; leaves like sails atop robust flowers that resemble toucan beaks; huge boulders that invite exploration of the waterfall behind them; and giant trees that offer arbor for countless species year round. I turned my head and saw more foliage framing a vista that reminded me of gazing down passages in the finest Museums of Europe, so like a gallery is the view.

Finally, we arrived. Reverently named the Cathedral de Piedro, the cave was not the stereotypical narrow tunnel, but a bright and airy spacious ledge ten times the size of the average New York apartment. A gigantic overhanging rock face served as its decadently high ceiling. Not only was there a slick kitchen, dining tables topped with stone slats, Flintstones-style, and enough beds for a sizeable tribe, but there were also proper showers and flushable toilets. It came as no surprise that Tenasi had formerly been an engineer for ten years.

Immediately adjacent to the cave was a waterfall-my preferred shower, no soap of course-and in 3D Imax fashion, the thriving jungle: vines, palms and big trees, never silent but ever peaceful.

In the five more days that remained to create our fairytale, Fred and I sought both relaxation and challenge. One of the first stops was the well-cultivated organic garden. We strolled its pathways and picked more than a dozen plants, some to eat and others to drink as teas. Our first meal was a “13-greens salad” with a dressing of fresh coconut pulp, avocado, lemon and chili, puréed in a hand-powered blender. I didn’t know such a thing existed. Later in the week we gave back to the garden, weeding and planting seeds, contributing to the abundance from which we had been nourished every day of our stay.

Once a day we were instructed in yoga, qi gong and meditation by Tenasi in a smaller cave that neighbored the Cathedral de Piedro. To cool down in the midday heat, we had our pick of waterfalls and natural rock pools to bathe in. We felt spoiled by the exquisiteness. Rising and setting with the sun, life simplified, we found that purely existing in that environment was thrilling unto itself.

As a climax, Tenasi invited us for a look around the land-on horseback. I had only once before ridden a horse, and that was half a lifetime ago. Here Tenasi was suggesting that we ride around the mountainous terrain of their 100-acre sanctuary. I was petrified but assured, “you’ll be fine,” so I put fear to the back of my mind and endeavored to unite with the beautiful white horse that Tenasi presented to me. “Breathe through the fear” are the teachings yoga, and that I did. My horse was aptly called Gitana, or Gypsy. She was fairly well behaved and happily took the lead to compensate for my naivete. We immediately departed up a series of hairpin paths, quickly gaining elevation and reaching vaster and broader views.

It was an epic journey, through hillside pastures and dense jungle path alternately, one moment riding through long grass, the next with vines swinging in our faces. A few times the horse surprised me and jumped or turned sharply and I screamed and held on more tightly than ever.

The journey made me think about the symbolism of horses. The Chinese see the horse as the one who bounds ahead to investigate new things, paving the way for other animals to join. They are considered the openers of portals, bringing new work into the world. And as much as they love to laze and eat in the meadow, they aspire to serve the people who care for them.

I will not forget my ride with Gypsy, through a spectrum of greens that far surpasses a conifer forest, an array of color unlike any other ecosystem. In rainforest the green seeps into us, oozes into our pores and transfers its optimism to us. Leaves grow up and out by nature, just like the journeys we intend to make.

Jungle life teaches us about exuberance, and about ourselves. Each plant clamors for its share of the sunlight, ingeniously expressing its unique form just as we seek our unique means of self-expression in this world. The rainforest’s diversity is an inspiration; harmony maintained as a multitude of life forms, species and colors live side by side. Spend enough time in the rainforest and life is bound to germinate within you in new and refreshing ways.

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