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Life Arts    H4'ed 2/18/13

Costa Rica's Hidden Treasure: Mystica

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An oasis of rainforest green lies tucked among pastures on the southern shores of Lake Arenal in Costa Rica. Mystica Lodge and Retreats is a place where rainbows literally touch the waters and weary travelers can soothe mind, body, and especially the soul.

"It seems Mystica chooses who comes here," owner Barbara Moglia said after I remarked at my good fortune in "accidentally" finding my way to her reception desk. A last minute lodging decision before my first trip to Costa Rica found me closing my eyes and pointing at a list of accommodations posted in an online booking service. I touched the iPad, and Mystica appeared. $135 secured the private villa; complete with a kitchenette, fireplace and an open deck area overlooking the lake and gardens.

Twenty years ago, Mystica began as a seemingly impossible dream. But dreams can offer a blueprint for the future. Barbara and business partner Francesco Carullo incorporated a shared vision with the conviction that it was possible to build a business without destroying all that nature has to offer. Mystica is a magical retreat where simplicity and attention to detail combine with a peaceful vortex of palpable "good energy" and environmental harmony. Soul-warming vivacity radiates from Barbara, quite possibly one of the friendliest people one could encounter while traveling. Originally from Turin, she now lives part time on the island of La Maddalena in Sardinia.

I travel extensively, but there is something about this tropical retreat that grabs one by the heart and will not let go.

Visitors can certainly attribute the positive vibes to the welcoming presence of the owners and their friendly staff. Or if you believe in the power of Mother Earth, look no further than the dominating presence of the sleeping 5,437 foot Arenal Volcano, situated at the convergence of oceanic and continental tectonic plates. Arenal flirts with the observer, hiding her perfectly symmetrical beauty in the clouds, but when she does decide to make an appearance, all eyes stop to watch as she dances gracefully in the mists before retreating behind her veil.

For the holistic energy seeking traveler, there is no more enticing thought than the connection between the dormant volcano and the fiery core of Mother Earth. Arenal may be resting now, but her heart beats strong as she holds court over the recreation paradise of Lake Arenal and Arenal National Park--a pleasant hour's drive from Mystica along the winding perimeter of the lake. The roads are paved, well maintained, and the view is spectacular.

My biggest fear was renting a car and driving unknown roads in an unfamiliar countryside. I was glad I pressed on and did not rely on buses and private drivers. There is freedom in independence and the ability to explore unfettered by time.

Don't hesitate to rent a car at the Liberia airport--a little more than two hours from Miami International. Driving is no more difficult than many rural areas in the States. However, be firm in demanding that you don't rent a wreck. Check the tire tread and don't buy additional insurance unless the vehicle is in pristine condition. I rented from Budget and had to fight to get a good car, but it performed flawlessly.

Arenal Volcano
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Arenal Volcano by Georgianne Nienaber

Lake Arenal's location is one of only 1000 places in the world that offer shelter to migrating birds, and is on the  Ramsar Convention list. Costa Rica has 12 sites designated as Wetlands of International Importance, with a combined surface area of 569,742 hectares (1407863 acres).

But the real prize is Mystica.

Attention to detail abounds and even the fragrant bath soaps are homemade, environmentally friendly, and biodegradable. Dry firewood is stacked neatly in the alcove beneath the hearth at the villa. There is also a main lodge where all rooms open onto an impeccably maintained long deck with fantastic views of the grounds, and a two-bedroom home offers complete privacy.

Mystica is not for those who want the bells and whistles and crowds of a resort experience. Mystica is a quiet, nourishing respite for the mind and soul. Think new age crossed with the Hobbit shire and the retreat comes into mental focus.

A walk on the grounds during the temperate day is a botanical feast. The owners planted every shrub and tree twenty years ago in what was an open cow pasture. Today, the array of planting is stunning and almost miraculous, with mature shade trees providing a gentle screen from the equatorial sun. At 1500 feet, days are temperate-- not as sweltering as Liberia--only an hour and a half away.

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Ceiba Tree by Georgianne Nienaber

Encounters with Howler monkeys are a certainty if you follow the more adventuresome path of yellow arrows pointing the way down steep meandering trails. You will be rewarded with "shouting" simians scampering through the branches of a centuries-old Ceiba tree. Her canopy may have been shorn and battered by mountain winds, but she stands tall and proud, dwarfing all who approach her. It is a forty-minute round trip hike, but absolutely worth the effort to visit this regal and beautiful remnant of the rainforest.

Mystica's excellent Mediterranean restaurant offers dishes made with fresh, natural ingredients. You won't find any pre-packaged substances at the table. Water is triple filtered and recognized as earth's "most important and precious resource." Barbara is fierce in her commitment to save and protect this non-renewable source of "health and well-being." Mystica promotes the philosophy that conscientious and healthy nutrition brings well-being to the soul. Organic waste is fed to animals or used as compost.

After dinner, follow the path to the open-air Sanctuary Terrace yoga platform, lie on the edge overlooking the stream, and watch moonlight filter through the forest canopy. You might decide to stretch out in one of the hammocks and linger while cicadas serenade before heading back to the restaurant and checking your email (if you must) on the solid wi-fi connection. The Wizard Merlin stands to the right of the candle-lit lounge entrance, which is a romantic retreat unto itself. Check it out.

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Georgianne Nienaber is an investigative environmental and political writer. She lives in rural northern Minnesota and South Florida. Her articles have appeared in The Society of Professional Journalists' Online Quill Magazine, the Huffington (more...)

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