There was a time when a vacation meant laying by a pool and doing the actual least. These days, a YOLO mentality has swept travel (a survey by Expedia found that 68% travelers are planning to “go big” this year), including wellness retreats which were once known as restrictive camps of remediation. Since the pandemic, “wellness” has decidedly dropped the patronizing tone: It is now about feeling your best, whether you’re doing hikes, a digital detox, nightly cocktails, endless foods of every variety, or indulging in a room with a view so epic you hardly budge. Or, in my case, all of the above smooshed together, courtesy of the new Costa Rica resort, Hacienda AltaGracia.
The luxe, one-in-a-lifetime five-star Auberge Resorts Collection property in Perez Zeledon calls itself “an escape for those seeking total well-being and unbridled adventure” and just opened last November 2021. It already counts Emma Roberts among its fans (“the most magnificent setting, the kindest people, the most mind-blowing experiences,” she said in an Instagram caption). There are no food restrictions — in fact, all food expenses are included in the nightly rate and you can purchase alcohol at any time with no shade.
For me, a New Yorker who lives and works in a studio apartment and sleeps with her phone (I know, I know, it’s so bad), a three-night, rule-free luxury wellness escape in the warm, animal-filled forest could not have been a more compelling antidote. My lungs called out for fresh air, my spine cried for movement, and my eyes begged to look at anything other than another screen. I was told I’d literally get to climb a tree and bathe in a river. To Costa Rica I went.
The otherworldly experience really began before we even stepped foot on the property. The pilot met my mother and me at the San José airport in the country’s capital, where we climbed aboard the resort’s tiny two-passenger prop plane. We watched the city below fall away and begin to turn into green foothills. With some bumps and drops along the way, we were already working on our yoga breathing. The three of us cruised through canyons of huge bubbly white clouds for 40 minutes until the propeller finally fell quiet and the plane gently landed on a long grassy field (aka the runway) cut out between hills of grazing cattle. Indeed, it felt like we’d entered a different planet.
At the end of the runway, we were met by our compa (“friend” in Spanish), who was our own concierge throughout our stay — a signature service of the hotel. He drove us up into the mountain-side property to check in. AltaGracia is nestled in the northwestern mountain range Cordillera de Talamanca in an area that is mostly farmland. The resort’s 180 acres are predominantly rainforest, save for the grounds where the individual casitas — each “room” is a detached house with its own heated pool — dot a winding drive traveled by valets in golf carts. If you’re athletic and have that aforementioned itch to experience, you might forgo the golf carts for daily hikes. Everywhere you stand has a view of the valley below that is spirit-cleansing in and of itself.
At the peak of AltaGracia is an enormous greenhouse-style indoor pool and hammam already destined for Amangiri level Insta-fame. The spa is run by The Well, New York City’s beloved holistic health destination, which counts celeb-followed integrative and functional doctor, Frank Lipman, MD, as Chief Medical Officer. This new Costa Rica outpost offers healing modalities such as reiki, Emotional Freedom Technique (aka “tapping”), and sound therapy sessions next to a 700-pound crystal, along with a range of massages and facials. Gwyneth Paltrow-approved healer John Amaral just hosted a “Find Your Energy Flow” retreat there in February. Sure, a few of the healing experiences may give you a hint or two of Tranquillum House, but it’s in a good way, I promise.
“The trend to go back to nature started at least five years ago, but COVID has been the great accelerator,” says Vivianne Garcia-Tunon, vice president of development at The Well. “It forced humans to the great outdoors since that is where we felt safe. It created an overwhelming demand for that connection.”
Here, my two favorite experiences for a YOLO trip to AltaGracia.
Think of it like forest bathing to the extreme: Self-belay yourself to the top of a 100-foot tree to rest in a net built into the canopy. “This adventure is a complete rewilding of the soul,” says Garcia-Tunon. “When you climb 100 feet into the air, you allow your mind and spirit to surrender, to let go genuinely, take a deep breath as you propel to the top, and experience true freedom.”
I met my guide, a highly experienced climber, early in the morning and we hiked down to the base of the tree where a few ropes hung to the ground. When I looked up, I could hardly see where the ropes were fastened, the branch was that far away. You don’t have to be afraid of heights to wonder if you’ll actually stomach it. I geared up with a harness, helmet, and gloves, and then my guide secured the rope, explaining the many safety mechanisms as well as the devices that would triple my muscle strength as I pulled myself up.
I think the make-or-break point was only about eight feet — at which point my brain did almost exactly what Garcia-Tunon described. I just… kept going. I could have stopped at any point — 10 feet, 50 feet, 99 feet — and allowed my mind to picture exactly where I was and how little material was affixing me to anything. But it’s like a tough workout you just commit to. Everything else occupying your thoughts falls away and you are solely focused on completing the next move with precision. Just around the time I thought my arms might be done, we were climbing into the net (a tightly woven lattice knotted together with countless parachute cords), looking out across the quiet valley, a few birds landing on the branches near us.
Despite the obvious peril of the altitude that could totally overwhelm me if I thought about it too much (not to mention the upcoming descent), I kept thinking about how safe I really was, anchored by my main rope and held by a network of cords that could handle thousands of times my weight. If that’s not a metaphor designed for the anxious New Yorker, I don’t know what is. Soon The Well will start offering meditations up in the tree net and it’s not hard to see why: When your feet come way off the ground, your thoughts go with it — you’re sky-high, no drugs needed.
On the other end of AltaGracia’s adventure spectrum is The Well’s River Bath. It starts with a full-body scrub with local coffee grounds before immersing yourself in the river for a very thorough rinse. It ends with a soak in a hot tub heated by a cauldron of wood-burning fire and filled with water straight from the river itself (this is where Emma Roberts posted from). You can also add on a 90-minute massage at the river bed for a full four-hour experience. No electronics. No WiFi or cell service. As someone who sets app timers and no-phone rules that I constantly ignore (my phone screen time can top six hours some days), I couldn't think of a better time to ditch my phone back at the casita and spend some uninterrupted time with my mom.
What I didn’t expect was how much we would love laying down in the cold river. We submerged ourselves in the river’s small pools and dunked our heads under its tiny waterfalls for most of our time there. It felt like the water was flowing through my body stripping away cobwebs of lingering negativity or low energy. I never wanted to get out.
“Research shows that people who consistently bathe or swim in cold water have an improved adaptation to oxidative stress, hence more robust immune systems,” says Garcia-Tunon. “Furthermore, the water pressure acts as a natural lymphatic drainage massage, improving blood circulation.”
I learned there is also something called the mammalian dive response: When we go fully underwater or even when we splash our faces with cold water, research shows there is a vagus nerve reaction and our heart rate slows. It can even halt feelings of panic. In the river, with nothing to really do except navigate across the wobbly river rocks, it’s funny where your mind goes — or doesn’t. Work felt very distant. My mother, whose hand I held while she leaned herself back into the waterfalls, felt very near.
When we popped out and into the fire-warmed tub, hot cocoa and spa snacks awaited us, and a treat I have to admit I really appreciated: Our guide at the river had offered to snap photos to remember our water adventure — the delight of discovery across our faces. While I was happy to be away from the texts and emails and compulsive checking for a few brief hours, we were, after all, at the most photogenic new resort in the world. I’d call it a healthy balance.