There are few phrases in the English language that make me more uncomfortable than let's all sit in a circle... I never hear the words that come next, deafened as I am by the sudden onset of minor panic that comes, for me, with forced intimacy with strangers, but it doesn't matter: The kumbaya-style sharing part is always implied.
And so it was that I found myself in an ouroboros of eight or nine women beneath the thatched roof of a pavilion that could only be described as magical—its screen "windows" revealing the sun beginning to set over the damp garden in the foreground, the lush green foothills of southern Costa Rica's Mt. Chirripo in the background; a cluster of basket pendants overhead casting a warm glow of light upon a woven carpet cluttered with brass singing bowls, chimes, wooden flutes, and the various other musical and spiritual instruments associated with sound healing—gathering my courage to speak my intention. And so it was that I found myself, in a room full of women I had only just met, about to air my greatest momentary source of angst: "I want to let go the anxiety I've been carrying surrounding my upcoming 40th birthday."
Sound healings, as well as yoga classes, are held in El Morén, the open-air pavilion at the center of the Mandala Garden.(Chloé Hennen)
Such moments of inner-personal candor always fluster me. Why couldn't I have just said something generic? Like, my intention is just to be present in this new experience. You know, the kind of thing Silicon Valley New Agers say just before their first session in psychedelic therapy. But I am honest, often to my own chagrin, and with just a week to go before a milestone birthday that had me in knots, I was feeling heavy with life's big questions, and not a few of its disappointments. No matter how many of my friends have posted empowering #thisis40 pics, I just was. not. feeling it. Besides, my sister Natalie was sitting to my right—she would know if I lied.
I was relieved when I felt her smile in that gracious way she always does when she knows I've stepped outside my box, and then when Sunny, our new friend and soul sister seated cross-legged to my left, thwacked my knee with her own audible sigh of relief, lightening the serious mystical mood with something like, oh fuck, thank god I'm not the only one. Sunny wasn't about to turn 40—she made it clear that I had a few years on her yet; I let her know I had had not one but two dogs named Sunny—but she was "not a group activities person" either, and she was anxious. Sunny has "issues" like me.
In fact, most of the women in the room had some pretty serious issues of their own, which was, of course, a reason we were all here—except, perhaps, for the braided, barefooted sound healers who, all quiet smiles, appeared to have their existential shit together.
Sitting in this circle was a seasoned travel writer whose chronic panic attacks frequently landed her in remote hospitals and apparently put her at risk of stroke; a 20-something San Franciscan with such a severe thyroid disorder that a large scar on her throat pointed out the partial removal of her gland; a Miami-based publicist who battled mysterious and sometimes debilitating leg pain as well as various autoimmune disorders (autoimmunities abounded here); a New York City–based influencer type who, when she took off her "Woke" cap, revealed a head of hair so bountiful and lustrous that I quietly begrudged her for it until she, a cancer survivor, showed us pictures of her once totally bald head; and two sisters, Natalie and me, whose chronic Lyme disease had upended their normal lives a few years back and replaced it with a seemingly endless and often exhausting quest to discover the next best healing modality and the most flavorful gluten-free snacks.
This is what happens when you host a press trip for writers interested in wellness—you wind up with a motley crew of women with a slew of dietary restrictions and an array of doctors and gurus on speed dial. Kinkara, the luxe eco resort where we were tented up for the next few days, was well equipped to handle us.
The brilliant design of the edible Mandala Garden, surrounded by Lotus Belle tents, is best appreciated from the air.(Courtesy of Kinkara)
We are here: Kinkara Luxury Retreat, Costa Rica
If you're on Instagram and/or obsessed with travel, you've no doubt seen plenty of folks living their best lives while splashing in waterfalls, ziplining through cloud forests, and striking their best yoga poses on the beaches of Costa Rica. But few have yet visited Kinkara, a back-to-nature mountain retreat that opened in September 2018 and is managed by the Cayuga Collection, which operates five-star sustainable stays throughout Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Panama.
Kinkara is set on 800 fertile acres sprouting from the foothills of Cerro Chirripó, Costa Rica's tallest peak, in Pérez Zeledón, a small region in the province of San José and just a short flight from the capital city. At the retreat's heart is the Mandala Garden, a wonder of landscape architecture and a kind of edible labyrinth where visitors can wander and nibble upon the many plants growing in its 120 beds—there is Vietnamese cilantro, cranberry hibiscus, mint, cauliflower, tomatoes, lettuces, turmeric, zucchini—and peek into the tilapia pond or check in on the bee hotel. Beyond this, you may discover (by foot on a pretty day, by SUV when it rains) 12 hectares (about 30 acres) of fruit forest with some 120 varieties such as jackfruit, cacao, mangosteen, and guava; 4,000 native and endangered trees, newly planted; an heirloom seed bank; and organic chicken coop.
The land, which once suffered destruction from the inorganic and thoughtless tactics of the coffee producers and horse and cattle ranchers who once operated here, now bursts with a bounty that can only be called a gift from the team comprised of do-gooder hospitality types, organic farmers, gardeners, chefs, and staff who are nurturing the land back to health through the practice of permaculture and a farm-to-table philosophy; not only does the farm and garden here feed paying guests, it helps to feed (and employ) the nearby townspeople of Saint Elena as well.
You could say Kinkara is the result of a vision quest to return the country to its sustainable roots in the face of rising tourism and industrialization, but in fact this slice of utopia is only a small parcel of the eden the place will one day become—a totally sustainable development of luxury residences and a hotel with Kinkara, the more playful and rustic glamping destination, at its blooming heart.
Tents are neither spartan nor overly opulent, with plush beds, organic cotton linens, solar-powered lighting, and natural views.(Courtesy of Kinkara)
Checking in: Kinkara gets glamping right.
If sleeping in a tent on a farm doesn't sound like your idea of luxury, rest assured you will slumber in peace and bathe in total comfort here. Placed around the Mandala Garden, Lotus Belle tents, designed to sleep two to four, all have jute carpeting, comfy beds dressed in organic cotton linens and warm blankets, locally crafted hardwood furniture and, yes, even daily housekeeping. Fear not, netted windows let in the moonlight at night (though mornings can feel warm and stuffy), while heavy duty canvas and a zip-plus-velcro closure keep out the bugs and elements. All tents have solar-powered lighting, USB charging stations, and WiFi.
Hot shower? The men's and women's bathhouses are as nice and sparkly as any spa—though how many spas offer rainfall showers with a private view into an actual enchanting rainforest? After a day touring the farm or getting pelted with tropical rain, you'll wish you could stand beneath that water and look out on the steamy, tropical fronds forever; don't feel too guilty—that water gets recycled. Bring your own toiletries or partake of Kinkara's organic offering, along with organic cotton towels and hair dryers.
The kitchen plays with Costa Rican as well as international recipes, but two things are consistent: The ingredients are all either grown onsite or purchased locally, and menus are designed to suit your exact dietary needs.(Courtesy of Kinkara)
But Seriously, the Food
Numerous stories could be written about Kinkara's culinary offering. While sustainability mavens will find a paradigm of earth-to-plate eating and seasoned chefs will appreciate the artistry of the compositions—which were a pleasant, urbane surprise way out in the mountains of Costa Rica—wellness warriors (present!) are in for the biggest treat. Rewind to aforementioned dietary restrictions.
Among our group were mostly gluten-free eaters, some dairy-free, some nut-free, some refined-sugar-free, and I think one vegetarian. Aside from the one or two anything-goes omnivores, we were all accustomed to laying down our particular gourmet gauntlets at the beginning of every meal, and as foodies, we are also accustomed to disappointment in restaurants, where it is typically difficult to cater to all our needs. To our unanimous amazement, Kinkara straight-up crushed it.
Family-style meals were served three times a day, and three times a day for the duration of our trip they were devoured with gusto. While keto eaters (hi) might lament the carbo-loaded breakfasts, at least no one had to ask are these muffins gluten-free. Every menu was designed with the utmost concern for our dietary idiosyncrasies, and it seemed that every server and staff member knew exactly who could eat, and not eat, what. For a bunch of women grown used to fussing over food (and trust, there was a lot of table talk about the best nut butters, superfoods, and collagen supplements), the opportunity just to sit and be served a feast of worry-free omnivorous delights—all picked from the fruit and veggie gardens, fished from the tilapia pond, or plucked from the organic chicken coop—was nothing short of heaven. During the day, all was washed down with fresh-pressed juices and delish homemade kombuchas, making the evening's glasses of biodynamic wines all the more enjoyable.
Our visit, on the tail end of the rainy season in late November, was too wet and gray to afford such a view, but we were told the place is famous for its dramatic sunsets.(Courtesy of Kinkara)
Back to That Sound Healing (and Other Activities at Kinkara)
In our few days at Kinkara, we were treated to just a few of the many activities on offer, including yoga classes, a splash in the waterfalls, and really a fascinating tour of the biodiverse gardens and farm led by the farm's director, Melina Hurtado, a delightful Costa Rican woman who once studied permaculture in the Mendocino town of Willits, where she met her husband, who would later become the farm's chief designer.
While most of our group took part in the Temazcal-inspired sweat lodge ceremony, Sunny and I opted to sit that one out (we have issues!). She took a nap in her garden-side tent; I happily disrobed for a late-afternoon massage in El Morén, the breezy pavilion overlooking the Mandala Garden. (Incidentally, my therapist, also a native Costa Rican, found his calling to bodywork after dropping out of the same East Bay chiropractic university my husband attended. The Bay Area, he said, was much too concerned with money and material things.)
But it would be later in El Morén where the magic of Kinkara would truly seep into my weary skeptic's soul, for despite all the talk here about connectedness—to the earth, to one another—I hadn't quite dug in (except at dinner). As the instruments of the sound healing bathed me in their warm vibrations and the song of the healers mingled with that of the birds at sundown, I had my kumbaya moment: I still wasn't okay with turning 40, but at least I knew now with certainty that I wasn't the only woman in the room—all of them dynamic, successful, and with their own challenges to tackle—just trying to hold it all together and keep going, dietary restrictions be damned.
Living our best lives in the chilly water post-hike down to the waterfalls.(Chloé Hennen)
The journey to Kinkara from San Francisco is a commitment: The shortest one-stop flights from SFO to San José are eight to nine hours on United or Avianca. Spend the night at Hotel Grano de Oro, also a Cayuga Collection property, and then enjoy breakfast in the quite lovely hotel courtyard before catching a a 35-minute Sansa Airlines flight to San Isidro Airfield, where your pre-arranged transportation to Kinkara will await. The best time to go is December through April, when Costa Rican summer promises scant rain and high temperatures in the upper 70s to low 80s.
// Starting at $190/night based on double occupancy including family-style breakfast, daily activity, guided Mandala Garden tour, and welcome beverage; Kinkara Luxury Resort, 100m Norte Pulperia la Valencia, Santa Elena, Perez Zeledon, Costa Rica, kinkara.com
Knowing where your food comes from is simple at Kinkara: just look outside your tent. Here, farm director Melina Hurtado (left) gives us a tour of the Mandala Garden.(Chloé Hennen)