Volcanically-heated thermal pools are part of the soundtrack playing during spa treatments — Photo courtesy of Tabacón Thermal Resort & Spa
Deep in the jungle primeval, at the base of a volcano where toucans roost and howler monkey cries are heard for miles around, the ancient rainforest has given rise to a modern spa treatment unlike anywhere else in the world: a massage using locally brewed beer at the Tabacón Thermal Resort in Costa Rica.
Almost 20 years ago when I left the United States for the first time in my life, I was in search of something I’d only seen in the old copies of National Geographic a family friend had gifted me as a young, wildlife-obsessed child. I knew 50%-66% of the world’s biodiversity was awaiting in the tropics, so my dream of encountering creatures in the wild brought me and my sister to Costa Rica, thanks to our generous dad.
We ended up at Tabacón under the then-active Arenal Volcano, chasing lizards between the naturally heated pools peppered throughout the jungle while watching white lava spew from above.
Returning as an adult was an exercise in nostalgia and affirmation. Even after two decades, a lot was familiar about Tabacón. Clearly, renovations had been made at the hotel and the hot springs, but as a kid, beer wasn’t on the menu for me in any fashion, diversifying the options for my visit as an adult. Instead of simply drinking it, however, I opted to have the resort’s signature brews rubbed all over my body.
Where guests relax before getting slathered in beer — Photo courtesy of Tabacón Thermal Resort & Spa
“The spa is always looking to create new experiences that utilize tropical ingredients, local products and align with industry trends. We decided to explore the idea of [bringing] beverage innovation to the spa,” explained a Tabacón representative when I inquired as to why beer was the product of choice for this treatment. My assumption was that there are endless other ingredients that would make more sense for nourishing human skin, but little did I know.
Tabacón is split into two distinct parts: the hotel and the thermal pools, the latter of which hosts the spa. After changing into a robe at the spa’s central location, I was led down a stone path through the jungle, lizards darting out as I focused on keeping my robe closed. Once at the massage table, housed next to a deep Jacuzzi tub in a palapa, and shielded from prying eyes by the dense jungle foliage, I relaxed and let the Kapi Kapi beer – and my massage therapist – do their work.
Tabacón’s secluded, relaxing spa bungalows — Photo courtesy of Tabacón Thermal Resort & Spa
The Kapi Kapi Treatment, the name of which is derived from the language of the local Indigenous Maleku people, begins with a body wrap. “Aloe is the vehicle and the beer is our main ingredient to hydrate and moisturize skin,” I was informed. My entire body was coated in this gel-like substance, which smelled as hoppy and malty as the double IPA tastes, though not as strong.
Having the gel massaged onto me was extremely pleasant, especially with the surrounding rainforest playing its unique soundtrack around me. A light rain fell, lightly tapping on the roof and enhancing the sensation of being within nature’s embrace.
After rinsing off whatever my skin didn’t absorb in the Jacuzzi tub, I returned to the massage table, face up this time. The second part of the treatment includes a facial using a toner, mask and cream also infused with the Kapi Kapi beer. Even following the wrap I was nervous that I was about to be doused in beer, which I could have done basically for free by going overboard at my local dive bar.
Tabacón’s other proprietary brew — Photo courtesy of Ali Wunderman
Fortunately, Tabacón takes their spa services extremely seriously, and would be doing no such thing. “All of [the treatments] have different percentages of beer,” I was told, and although I was never made privy to the exact specs, the facial components of the treatment seemed to go a little lighter on the beer. From the aloe body gel to the facial scrub, the resort essentially replaces water with beer..
Entirely too soon, my first beer massage was over, but I was sold on beer as a legitimate skin-hydrating ingredient and wellness tool. In that giddy headspace which typically follows a good massage, I decided I could get used to the pura vida lifestyle. Or, I could go get a beer.