Traveling to Costa Rica with a Big Group: Our Favorite Excursions & Where We Stayed

Poas Volcano, Costa RicaI’m sure all of you who follow me on Instagram are like yeahhhh I’ve seen enough of this trip thank you very much (pretty sure I ‘grammed like three times a day haha), but I want to share the highlights from my amazing week in Costa Rica with everyone else.

My grandparents on my mom’s side are celebrating their 60th wedding anniversary this year and wanted to get the family together for a big trip–no small undertaking considering they have four children and nine grandchildren. It’s a rare, beautiful gift to have both your grandparents in your life as long as I have, and I’m so beyond thankful for the trip. I hate to get sappy, but it really did fill me with so much gratitude for my Mimi and Papa and the crazy big family with which they’ve blessed me.

Before this turns into an overly emotional hashtag-blessed tumblr rant, let’s get to the travel guide. Hopefully it’ll give you some good ideas if you ever plan a trip to Costa Rica because we did A LOT. My aunt planned the whole thing and did a great job of progressing it from jam-packed days of activity at the beginning to relaxing days at the beach at the week’s end. It was perfect!

Throughout this post, I’ll be linking to the Trip Advisor pages for the hotels we stayed at and excursions we did so that you can read others’ reviews of them as well if you’re considering adding anything to your own travels. Full disclosure, I’m part of the Trip Advisor affiliate program, so if you were to click over to them using any of the following links and book an activity or stay through their site, I’d get like a solid 5-15 cents. Holl-er! :)

Expediciones Tropicales

Because we were such a large group and ages varied from 20 to 83 and we were hopping around to various parts of the country, we used Expediciones Tropicales to guide us through the trip. They provided us with a shuttle bus and Misa, who was THE BEST, acted as our guide throughout the week. I highly recommend them if you’re with a big group (or want to be part of one) and want to hit some of the major “touristy” attractions CR has to offer.

To give you a general idea of our trip, we started towards the center of the country and slowly made our way to the west coast.

Crowne Plaza Corobici

The first two nights, we stayed at the Crowne Plaza Corobici which was a nice hotel in San Jose, but we really just used it as a place to crash at night after a long day of activities outside the city so I don’t have too much to say about it. The breakfast and dinner buffets were great and they had a small casino which was a pretty hilarious scene (picture my 6′ 6″ dad in a touristy straw hat playing poker next to a chain-smoking, 4-foot-nothing elderly Costa Rican woman).

Zip Lining & Rainforest Aerial Tram in Braulio Carrillo National Park

Braulio Carrillo National Park, Costa Rica -- zip lining

Braulio Carrillo National Park was a 40ish-minute drive from San Jose. When we got there for our rainforest adventure, we had the option to go zip-lining or do the Aerial Tram (a gondola that takes you up through the rainforest canopies. My grandparents opted for the tram ride and the rest of us went for zip-lining. I loved it! There are a dozen or so lines throughout the forest canopies, and you hike in between some of them, while you perch in a tree house platform while you hook off and on in between others. The rides start short and the lines gradually get longer and more daring as you go.  Braulio Carrillo National Park, Costa Rica -- zip lining Braulio Carrillo National Park, Costa Rica -- zip lining Braulio Carrillo National Park, Costa Rica -- zip lining

I so desperately wish I hadn’t lost my GoPro on this trip! I luckily had downloaded a few pictures beforehand, but the helmut video footage I took while zip-lining is all lost. :(

Sarapiquí River Boat Tour

Sarapiqui River Boat Tour, Costa RicaAfter zip lining and lunch, we went to the nearby Sarapiquí River for a boat ride. I wouldn’t say this is a must-do, but we spotted some awesome wildlife while slowly riding up and down the river–sloths, exotic birds, massive iguanas, a crocodile. There’s a little open-air building with a bar by the dock where we enjoyed some fresh fruit and coffee afterwards.

We returned to our hotel in San Jose at the end of the day. It was a bit of a drive back–about an hour and a half on the bus. The next morning we checked out and headed out for another busy day of activities …

Doka Estate Coffee Tour

Doka Estate Coffee Tour, Costa RicaWe took off bright an early and (fittingly) started the day with a tour of the Doka Estate coffee plantation and processing plant. They served us breakfast and then gave us a tour of the whole coffee process–from growing the plants to processing them in the wet mill to brewing the final bean. I like learning about stuff like this and seeing how foods are made so I really enjoyed the tour. It’s short and sweet so I’d recommend pairing the activity with another nearby excursion (there are tons in the Poas Volcano region) like we did. Doka Estate Coffee Tour, Costa Rica Doka Estate Coffee Tour, Costa RicaI bought a couple bags of Doka coffee at the end of the tour that I gave as a gift–highly recommend their house blend if you go!

Poás Volcano

Poas Volcano, Costa RicaPoás Volcano was a smelly hike (the sulfur from the volcano smells like farts) but worth it–the view was amazing! From where you park, it’s a quick walk up along a paved path to see the main crater. From there, you can continue the hike into a forested area up another 15 minutes or so to another beautiful view of a lake formed out of another volcano crater. Poas Volcano, Costa Rica

If you take the hike to this second spot, it doesn’t smell like farts. Important information, I know.

La Paz Waterfall Gardens

La Paz Waterfall Gardens, Costa RicaLa Paz Waterfall Gardens are one part hike through the jungle along several waterfalls and one part zoo. There are bird cages you can walk through, a butterfly garden, and bigger animal exhibits. La Paz Waterfall Gardens, Costa Rica La Paz Waterfall Gardens, Costa Rica La Paz Waterfall Gardens, Costa Rica

By the animal exhibits is a big dining area where we had a buffet-style lunch. The food here was more “Americanized” and less authentic (french fries and pizza instead of rice and beans) but there were some healthy options to be found as well. From there, you can take a hiking trail along the several nearby waterfalls. La Paz Waterfall Gardens, Costa RicaSick of looking at pictures of me and Joe standing in front of things? Too bad. From here we traveled to our second hotel where we’d stay two nights …

Hotel Arenal Manoa

Arenal Manoa Hotel & Spa, Costa RicaLike our first stop in San Jose, Hotel Arenal Manoa was really just a place for us to rest our head at night. We didn’t spend too much time at the resort because we were so busy with excursions, something I actually regret looking at the reviews of this place on Trip Advisor–why the hell didn’t I take advantage of that pool?! The suites are spread throughout Hotel Arenal’s grounds in a sort of duplex set-up. The rooms were spacious, although a tad outdated if I have to be critical, and each had a backyard. The restaurant/bar area was also spacious and open to the outdoors which made for an awesome atmosphere. Arenal Manoa Hotel & Spa, Costa Rica Arenal Manoa Hotel & Spa, Costa Rica

If you want a lot of nature and a quieter vibe, this is the place for you.

Arenal Hanging Bridges

Arenal Hanging Bridges Park , Costa RicaThe Arenal Hanging Bridges was the only activity that we all agreed we could have done without. Not because it was bad–we’d just already done similar activities the day before. Located in the Arenal Volcano National Park, it’s a nature hike through the rainforest with a dozen hanging bridges throughout the trail. At one point there’s a waterfall you can walk down to, and there’s an opportunity to see wildlife, although we weren’t so lucky. Crossing the longer bridges was really cool (they sway and rock as you all walk across them), but I wouldn’t say this is a must-do activity. Arenal Hanging Bridges Park , Costa Rica Arenal Hanging Bridges Park , Costa RicaArenal Hanging Bridges Park , Costa Rica Arenal Hanging Bridges Park , Costa Rica This took up a good chunk of the morning and we followed it up with a lunch organized by our tour company.

Tabacon Grand Spa Hot Springs

Tabacon Grand Spa Thermal Springs in Arenal, Costa Rica.I think this was my favorite afternoon of the whole trip! The Tabacon Thermal Resort was located right by our hotel. Although we weren’t guests (I’d imagine this would be a heavenly place to stay if you travel to the Arenal area!), we had wristbands through our tour group to access the spa for the day (anyone can purchase a day pass). Naturally heated by the nearby Arenal Volcano, Tabacon Spa is an enchanting, sprawling garden of hot pools, rivers and small, cascading waterfalls weaving through what can best be described as one-part jungle, one-part resort pool area. You can wander along the paths until you find a calm spring to soak in, or you can treat the maze of springs like a jungle gym, swim/climbing from one to the next. I did my fair share of both! Tabacon Grand Spa Thermal Springs in Arenal, Costa Rica Tabacon Grand Spa Thermal Springs in Arenal, Costa Rica

In addition to the natural springs, there are several small (manmade) tubs and one larger pool area equipped with a waterslide and swim-up, tiki-style bar. At one point in the afternoon, it started raining so we huddled under the bar roof sitting in the warm water and sipping on frozen margaritas. It was perfect! Tabacon Grand Spa Thermal Springs in Arenal, Costa Rica Tabacon Grand Spa Thermal Springs in Arenal, Costa Rica

WEARING | Crochet High Neck Bikini Top by Bettinis c/o Shopbop

We also had dinner at the spa which was was a sprawling buffet with plenty of healthy options. After dinner, we spent a final night at Arenal Manoa Hotel. The next morning, we headed to the coast (a 5-hour drive) to finish out our vacation at the beach.

The Westin Playa Conchal The Westin Playa Conchal, Costa Rica

The Westin Playa Conchal is an all-inclusive resort on the western coast of Costa Rica. We all LOVED it. The resort is sprawling–there’s a golf course, tennis courts, a (small) gym, little shops, multiple restaurants and buffet-style dining areas, two huge pool areas and, of course, the beach. After the go-go-go pace of the first half of our trip, lounging at the Westin for three days was the PERFECT way to end our vacation.

The Westin Playa Conchal, Costa Rica The Westin Playa Conchal, Costa RicaWEARING | MIKOH Banyans String Racerback Bikini Top c/o Shopbop

The food. All inclusive can be hit-or-miss, but I was beyond impressed by the food at the Westin. First of all, 24/7 room service is included and the menu is delicious. I had the portobello mushroom wrap delivered to the room like four times in the three days. Judge me!

Next up, the restaurants. They don’t seem to have names (they do, but I don’t know what they are), everyone–staff included–refers to them by the cuisine: The French Restaurant, The Italian Restaurant, etc. You have to make reservations to eat at these, and it seems they limit this each night (do it in advance!), but the meal is also included in your stay. Everything I got was amazing. The portion sizes are on the smaller size, but you are getting top notch dishes. We ate at the French place one night and the Italian place the other–both get an A+. The Westin Playa Conchal, Costa Rica

The main buffet dining area that’s open for breakfast and lunch is huge–plenty of options to satisfy you regardless of dietary preferences. They have this one area called “Superfoods” that is pretty hilarious–picture random bowls of healthy foods that have nothing to do with each other (baby carrots, raisins, quinoa)–but they also have non-comical healthy options. :)

The pool & beach. The main pool area is huge. I don’t know where mid December ranks in tourist season, but it didn’t feel overcrowded at all. There’s a swim-up pool bar (get a frozen mojito!) and an area with ping pong and other games next to one of the lounge chair areas. From this pool area, you can walk onto the beach. The Westin Playa Conchal, Costa Rica

The beach feels somewhat separate from the resort. You walk through a fence by the pool area and then down a little path to the beach. Along the path are local vendors selling trinkets out of their trunk and offering cheap massages (GET ONE! $20 for an hour long massage on the beach–and it’s a GOOD massage). The beach is a secluded cove so the water is calm and perfect for swimming. If you want to surf, do a day trip to Tamarindo, a nearby surf town. The Westin Playa Conchal, Costa Rica The Westin Playa Conchal, Costa Rica

This sounds weird to mention, but the only downside to the resort is how slippery the pool area is. I felt like I was going to wipe out every time I got out of the water. Also, the drinks are weak, but that’s to be expected at an all-inclusive resort. 😉

The rooms. LOVED the rooms. Each two-story condo building is divided into eight (ish?) suites. You walk onto a deck and then through big glass doors, which open up into a living area with kitchenette, dining table, couch, desk, ottoman. Up a couple steps is an elevated bedroom section that looks out over the couch (kinda pictured below). I had all these cool wide angle pictures of the room but … RIP GoPro.

The Westin Playa Conchal, Costa Rica WEARING | MINKPINK Indigo Waters Halter Dress c/o Shopbop (currently on sale!!)

And that was the trip! I had been to Costa Rica once before in high school (Mal Pais area) and really love the country. I can’t recommend it enough for your next vacation!

Have you been to Costa Rica before? Where’d you go? What’d you do?

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A Circuit Workout from Team SCA’s Trainer

Workout with Team SCA's TrainerIf you follow me on the ‘gram, you already saw little snippets from my trip to Newport for the Volvo Ocean Race with Team SCA—it was so much fun! On Thursday, Sarah and I actually got to compete in the Pro Am race with the team, and it gave me a whole new respect for sailing. That sh*t is tough.

Also tough was the workout we did with Team SCA’s trainer, Santi Casanova, the day before. I would compare it to a CrossFit-esque circuit and thought it’d be fun to share the routine with you all so you could get a sneak peek into what the training for this round-the-world race looks like.

I found it particularly challenging because I rarely workout using weights this heavy. Dead lifting 90lbs and rope climbing my entire bodyweight?! Woof. But I loved it. It’s always good to shake up your usual workout routine and challenge your body, which is exactly what this circuit did.

Circuit Workout with Team SCA’s Trainer

You’ll go through this circuit as fast as possible four times. When you finish the last exercise, rest for 60 seconds before starting again from the top. It took us about 16 minutes to complete. Enjoy my facial expressions in these photos… :)

5 Deadlifts @ 90-lbs Workout with Team SCA's Trainer

4 Rope Climb Lifts (switch top hand each rep)

Engage your core to keep your body in an L shape with legs outstretched. To modify, keep your heels on the ground and lift up from there (I had to do this the last two rounds). Don’t be fooled by my laughter in the picture…these are brutal. Workout with Team SCA's Trainer

10 Barbell  Oblique Lifts @10 lbs + bar 

Make an arch motion with the barbell. Start holding it at hip height on one side and then lift it up and over to the other side.

Workout with Team SCA's Trainer

5 Toes to Bar

To modify, do hanging knee raises. I would do one sloppy toes to bar each round and then just switch to the knee raises (haha). Workout with Team SCA's Trainer

10 Push Ups push-ups-sca

Up and back: Tire Hops (in and out), Stair Climb (up and down) Workout with Team SCA's Trainer

6 Med Ball Wall Slams (3 each side) @ 30lbs
Workout with Team SCA's Trainer
 wearing Fabletics

 

The Volvo Ocean Race: Newport Pro Am

I’ll leave you with a photo dump from the trip. Best of luck to the badass girls of Team SCA in their final legs of the race!! team-sca-gear team-sca-boat-newport hyatt-regency-goat-island-newport-view

The view from the Hyatt Regency in Newport is really ugly… 

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A little hotel room yoga to start the day

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My ultimate bro get-up screams “I’ve never sailed before!” haha

team-sca-pro-am-before SCANEW15-RT2543_original P1590681_original SCANEW15-RT2498_original pro-am-selfie

Taking selfies mid race…securing the LVP award. 😉

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Sarah & I post-race

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Blueberry cheesecake post-race. Obsessed!

newport-ri-sunset

Perfect Newport sunset to end the trip–man I love calling New England home!!

You can follow the final legs of the race at TeamSCA.com or on social media @team_sca.signature

A Look at What Goes into “Natural” Products & Supplements with NOW Foods (+Blogger Event Recap)

fitfluential-nowPicture from the @fitfluential Instagram

First and foremost, don’t you worry—I did not forget about the fourth and final weekly giveaway. I’m going to post it on Friday because I actually have an INCREDIBLE package from NOW Foods to include in the prize, and first wanted to share all about my trip to see the company.

On Thursday, I got the fun opportunity to travel out to the suburbs of Chicago with a group of FitFluential bloggers to attend a two-day immersion event at NOW Foods. Up until then, I associated NOW with their bright orange vitamin and supplement bottles I’d seen at health food stores, but wasn’t too familiar with the company beyond that. And as I learned, NOW doesn’t just produce supplements. They have personal care products (including essential oils—my favorite!), sports nutrition products and a wide array of foods.

hilton-indian-lakesWe stayed at the Hilton Indian Lakes in Bloomingdale and had enough downtime for me to get a little blogging work done…and practice headstands. :)

Honestly, my first reaction was skepticism. Would I really want to buy foods from the same company from which I was buying shampoo? But—not to sound like an infomercial—I was beyond impressed by NOW’s transparency throughout the trip and by an obvious commitment to quality they have as the foundation of everything they do. I left feeling genuinely excited to use their products.

I think part of my skepticism going into the trip is something a lot of people can relate to—a sort of subliminal association of supplements with drugs (steroids, diet pills, bad chemicals, etc.), and therefore a hesitation to accept them as “natural.” And what I really appreciated was NOW’s candidness in addressing this. I’m going to focus this post on the “natural” discussion (what does it even mean these days??) because I found it fascinating, but if you’re just interested in hearing about the blogging trip, scroll through and read the captions I’ve included underneath all the pictures. :)

fish-dinnerWe had a welcome dinner the first night at Glen Prairie where we got to chat with some of the NOW team. I had a delicious spinach salad and then this phenomenal salmon dish. 

First and foremost, it’s important to understand that “natural” in its perhaps purest definition (for example, an apple grown in organic soil on your family’s farm, plucked straight from the tree and eaten on the spot) isn’t always possible and realistic in today’s world. Supply can be limited, and not everyone lives close to a farm. Developments in science have provided solutions to this. And I’m in no way suggesting you eat an apple made in a laboratory (please don’t)—I am very passionate about eating organic, non-GMO products when possible. I am saying that not all food science is bad. Vitamin supplements can be a great example of this.

workout-post-smoothieFriday morning we got up bright and early for a spin class at Life Time Fitness and a quick yoga session with Amy, their Group Fitness Director. After our workout, we enjoyed some delicious cinnamon chocolate protein shakes.

I got to chat with NOW Foods CEO Jim Emme, and my first question was simply where do pill-form vitamins come from? Are they extracted from foods and plants? Are they made in laboratories? And he explained that it totally depends on the nutrient. Some can be extracted from vegetable oils, soy, fish liver oils and other mineral sources. In other cases, a nature-identical nutrient can be made in the lab. These nature-identical nutrients have the exact molecular structure to the nutrient occurring in nature—your body doesn’t know the difference. When NOW can’t use from-nature “natural” ingredients, they use these nature-identical ones in their products.

The example Jim used was vitamin C. Upwards of 95% (maybe more—I forget the exact number) of vitamin C found in supplements is manufactured in labs in China. It was weird to wrap my brain around the concept. On the one hand, swallowing a pill made in a lab in China doesn’t seem very natural. But think about eating a genetically modified orange to get a dose of vitamin C. That orange’s molecular makeup might be slightly different from an orange grown organically in nature because it’s been genetically modified. The vitamin C pill from a lab, however, is identical to the molecular make up of the vitamin C found in that organic orange. Weird to think about, right? :)

touring-NOW-foodsWe got a private tour of the NOW Operations Facility led by Neil E. Levin, CCD, DANLA, Nutrition Education Manager…all while dressed to impress.

Nature-identical ingredients are clearly great from a manufacturer’s standpoint (as well as a consumer’s since they help keep supply on par with our demand), but they come with a whole new set of quality assurance concerns. If I’m buying a banana at the grocery store, I know what I’m getting. Looks like a banana, smells like a banana, tastes like a banana—I’m good. But when I buy supplements, it’s not always as clear. I can’t look at a multivitamin capsule and know what’s inside based on my own personal knowledge—I have to trust that the company I’m buying from has listed exactly what’s in it on the label.

And it’s not necessarily that the company is trying to deceive you—they might have been deceived by their suppliers. Brand X, for example, doesn’t make every single ingredient in their protein powder. They might source one ingredient from a manufacturer in China, another from a supplier in California, etc., etc. Not only does NOW audit their suppliers, but their testing process is rigorous to say the least. And I was shocked to learn that detecting adulterants, synthetic hormones and steroids, and other unnatural ingredients was actually a fairly regular occurrence. It makes you appreciate the effort put into their quality assurance testing!

lunch-dr-wendy After our tour, we heading to NOW Corporate Offices to do a testing of the Ellyndale Foods oils (NOW’s high quality food label). Dr. Wendy Bazilian, DrPH, MA, RD then gave us a great presentation on wellness!

I thought this whole “natural” topic was super relevant given the battle between Food Babe and Science Babe that went viral recently (if you don’t know what I’m talking about you can read more here and the rebuttal here). I’m not siding with either—I think we absolutely do have a right to know what’s in our food and skincare products, but that we also shouldn’t live in fear of every ingredient or process we don’t fully understand (something I’m definitely guilty of at times!).

I saw visiting NOW as a huge opportunity for me to learn about supplements and the manufacturing of “natural” products—two areas I didn’t fully understand, and admittedly was wary of as a result. It was an excellent trip for me. Yes, I now found a brand I feel confident in, but more importantly, I just feel more knowledgeable about the business of “natural” products as a whole and better able to make informed purchasing decisions in the future. You can read more about NOW’s definition of “natural” HERE.

NOW-foods-blogger-event NOW-baking-final We ended the trip with a cooking session with Chef Suzy Singh in NOW’s Culinary Innovation Center. Everything was delicious, but the gluten-free snickerdoodle cookies especially blew my mind (and taste buds).

Since I spent this whole post yapping about “natural,” I’ll wrap up with some important points about NOW Foods. On Friday, I am giving away a MASSIVE package of their products along with some other prizes so get excited!

  • NOW was founded in 1968 by Elwood Richard and is still family-owned today by the Richards. This has been a huge factor in allowing them to stick to their core mission of providing value in products that empower people to lead healthier lives, even as the company continues to grow.
  • As part of their commitment to being “natural,” NOW does not feel GMOs belong in their products. Their foods are 100% non-GMO and so far 75% of their supplements are non-GMO Assured.
  • NOW has four major categories of products: nutritional supplements, sports nutrition, foods and personal care. I know I focused on supplements for most of this post, but guys. Their coconut infusions. So good!
  • You can connect with NOW on Facebook, Twitter & Instagram. They’re also hosting a #NOWGetFit Twitter party on Tuesday, May 12 @9PM.

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Big thanks to FitFluential & NOW Foods–I had a great time!

What are your thoughts on the word “natural”? How would you define it? signature

This post is sponsored by FitFluential on behalf of NOW Foods.