Choose Life Sober Adventures helps nondrinkers experience the best in sober travel. Here’s the lowdown on an action-packed Costa Rica trip.
I’m balanced in a large tube, my legs over the front, leaning back, holding onto two straps as I float down the Rio Negro in northwestern Costa Rica. At times, the tube drifts lazily. Then the river picks up and tosses me over a churning rapid or runs me into a boulder. I get stuck between rocks and have to push off with my hands and feet, then fly backwards down the river again, only to hit the back of my head on a rock I couldn’t see coming. Fortunately, the helmet bounces me off unscathed. The water is cold, and I’m blowing much of it out my nose. At the base of the biggest rapids, local guides help us stay in our tubes—or are they trying to make the ride crazier by spinning us in circles? Is this what sober travel is like?
I’m with seven other sober travelers. We laugh and scream as we experience irrefutable proof of our powerlessness. The river will take us as it wants. River tubing was just one activity in a nonstop week with Choose Life Sober Adventures. We all agreed that our trip was a zillion times more exciting and memorable than drinking by a pool.
Choose Life Sober Adventures
Though only in his mid-twenties, Cole Bressler tried and failed to quit alcohol and other drugs many times before it stuck. “The only thing that I did differently to stay sober this time is to build a community of sober people,” he told me as we sat on my patio at Hotel Naambu in Playa Carrillo, a large iguana listening in.
He’d always loved to travel and grew up in the travel biz, as his parents own a tour company. For Cole, it was natural to combine sobriety and travel. “Many people want to travel, and they’re maybe worried about doing it sober, or they’re sick of doing it with their friends who still drink.”
He suspected that sober people traveling together could quickly bond. In the recovery community, people are used to finding common ground with others who appear different on the surface. “That’s a very easy icebreaker,” Cole said. “It’s a very easy thing to jumpstart bonding with people.”
The trip I joined in Costa Rica was Choose Life’s inaugural public tour. We were nine American travelers, including a yoga teacher, a videographer, and Cole, the company founder. We ranged in age from mid-twenties to mid-fifties. Plus our ridiculously energetic guide Marco Fallas—who frequently imitated howler monkeys or burst out with a spontaneous exclamation of “Pura Vida!”—and Jimmy Aguilar, our excellent driver and good-natured foil to Marco’s pranks. The total capacity on future tours will be 12 to 16 people. Our trip was magical, fulfilling Cole’s hope of quick bonding. Choose Life has more sober travel trips planned for Costa Rica, Peru, and Kenya. The Costa Rica trip was so successful that one of our members signed up for Peru before we got home.
Yoga and Meetings with Sober Travelers
So, what makes sober travel different from an ordinary Costa Rica adventure besides the lack of alcohol? Intentionality, empathy, and an instant support system. Unlike an ordinary social occasion, where people are sizing each other up, posturing, and trying to impress, people in recovery have all made gigantic asses of themselves, usually in public, often with catastrophic results. Since we knew we couldn’t fool anybody that we were perfect people with perfect lives, nobody even tried. The group immediately told each other very personal information, and both extended and expected mutual support.
We started our mornings with yoga and ended the evening with a recovery meeting. The meeting didn’t follow any particular recovery program format. Still, it was more of a sharing circle where everybody could discuss a topic, such as gratitude or setting boundaries. We learned a lot about each other in a week.
Everybody was on vacation, and all the activities were optional, so I expected people to choose their activities, allowing time for solitude and relaxation. Instead, we had a high participation rate. Almost everybody was there for every activity, all day long. Nobody wanted to miss a minute.
Action and Adventure-packed Days for Sober Travelers
It was good that we were sober travelers because a hungover person would not have been able to keep up with all the adventures Choose Life packs into a day. Here’s what we did on our first full day at the Hacienda Guachipelin near the volcano Rincon de la Vieja: Yoga at 7 am, breakfast at 8 am, zip lining at 8:30 am, hike to and swim in the waterfall, lunch, river tubing all afternoon, trip to hot springs, dinner, recovery meeting. And every one of these activities was fantastic, from our outdoor yoga platform with a view of steam streaming from the volcanic crater to an amazing zip line course that shot us over waterfalls and through a narrow canyon.
After spending three days by the volcano, we drove a few hours to spend three nights on the Pacific Coast at the long beach of Playa Carrillo. We had a little more free time at the beach, hotel pool, or shopping in the nearby town of Samara. But the adventure continued, with a morning of stand-up paddle boarding in the ocean and a sea kayaking trip where we paddled to a small island to snorkel.
Costa Rica Wildlife
One evening, as we drove on the dark road from the hot springs, Jimmy suddenly stopped the bus. “Grab your camera!” Marco yelled at the videographer. Of course, we all tumbled out of the bus to see what was happening. The headlights caught a coral snake in all its red, black, and yellow glory boogying across the road. Since I’m fascinated yet fearful of snakes, I was thrilled by my first-ever glimpse of this beautiful, highly venomous snake in the wild. It has such a small mouth it can only successfully bite a human between your fingers and toes. Still, when turned sharply to slither in our direction, I instinctively shoved others out of my way as I shrieked, “Get back on the bus!”
Olive Ridley Turtles
Wildlife is everywhere in this biodiverse country. We saw all the monkeys—spider, howler, and capuchin—on walks in the forest and driving around on the bus. Snorkeling, we watched parrotfish and spotted eels. But the biggest thrill was seeing an arribada or turtle arrival. That was a bonus since you can’t plan for it on an itinerary. On our last full day in Costa Rica, we got up at 2:30 am and rode for two hours in the dark to reach Playa Ostional for sunrise. Thousands of olive ridley turtles were clambering up the shore, buildings nests, and laying eggs.
Our middle-aged guide, Maria Aviles, has been working on local turtle conservation since she was ten. “My grandfather started with the project,” she told us. “That’s why it’s in my heart.” She told us that the turtles go into a trance while laying eggs so we could get up close and watch the process. Best reason ever to get up at 2:30 am.
The Hacienda Guachipelin, where we sober travelers spent our first three nights, is a huge property in the tropical dry forest adjacent to Rincón de la Volcano National Park. It includes a 79-room ecolodge, seven waterfalls, many miles of trails, hot springs, and the adventure center that took us ziplining and tubing. The grounds are beautiful, with gardens full of tropical plants everywhere. But it’s not all cultivated—the wild gets in. During our stay, we saw a worker relocating a large boa constrictor away from the hotel restaurant.
My room came with its own hammock outside. Inside, the large room was wood-paneled with a red tile floor and giant paintings of a rooster and a dog. The dog resembled the family of fat, friendly cattle dogs hanging around the property.
We spent our beach nights at the Hotel Nammbu, a swanky resort with separate thatch-roofed buildings containing multiple units. The higher floors had views of the ocean. I didn’t have a sea view, but I had a wonderful patio with a loveseat, hammock, flowering plants, and two gorgeous resident iguanas to keep me company. The room was huge and strangely empty, devoid of artwork and with an almost industrial modern feel.
My favorite part of Hotel Nammbu was the pool, which has an ocean view and is long enough to do laps in. One evening I swam while watching the sunset. Magical.
Dining for Sober Travelers
We ate breakfast from buffets at our hotels. The hacienda had an especially extensive buffet that started with fresh fruit and granola, progressed to a long row of hot dishes, and ended with sweets. For lunch, we usually ate in restaurants called sodas, small, family-run, open-air places. Some catered more to tourists, and a few to locals. The most traditional lunch is called Casado, which means “marriage” and refers to the intimate relationship between rice and black beans. A plate of casado includes rice, beans, salad, fried plantains, and some meat. The sodas (typically small, open-air restaurants) had homemade blends of chilies and pickled vegetables to add as garnish. We ate dinner at the hacienda the first few nights and then at restaurants in the nearby town of Samara once we moved to the coast.
I’d heard that Costa Rica was a meat-heavy country. So as a vegan, I packed a big bag of snacks. I brought most of my snacks back home. Since the restaurants don’t usually cook rice and beans with animal ingredients, I had plenty to eat. Marco arranged for extra vegetables, pasta, and even mock meatballs and plant-based sausages for the vegan. Overeating turned out to be more of a problem for me than starving.
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Sober Travel Takeaways
Sober traveler Nicole Kale of Charleston, South Carolina, says this is a trip for people who like to go outside, be active and connect with other sober people. “It’s a kind of go with the flow sort of trip,” she said. “Everything is perfectly planned and works out amazingly. But you’re not going to know what you’re doing on day four necessarily on day one.”
Weather and logistics dictated the schedule. Nicole enjoyed letting go of the reins. “Just tell me what to wear, when to be there, and what I need to bring.”
For Nicole, the trip’s highlights were the turtles and seeing the jungle from multiple perspectives—ziplining, tubing, and hiking.
It was the kind of trip that ended with a zillion hugs and promises to keep in touch. “I can’t even put it into words,” said David Smith, a sober traveler from Dallas. “I have been telling my friends it’s the trip of a lifetime for me. It really is. I’m doing things I never thought I would do.”
For David, these included getting drenched by a rainstorm while hiking a volcano and learning to standup paddleboard. “I’m having more fun as a sober traveler than I ever thought was possible.” Let Wander With Wonder be your guide when planning your next trip to Central America or an outdoor adventure somewhere else.