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Through the lens: a photographer’s diary from Mexico & Costa Rica

Join photographer Kira Turnbull on a journey through Mexico and Costa Rica for a first taste of post-lockdown freedom

After more than a year of lockdown and thwarted travel plans, photographer and content strategist Kira Turnbull captures a sense of ‘pura vida’ while exploring colourful Mexico City, the Costa Rican jungle and the sun-soaked shores of Tulum. Accompanied on the three-week photography project by SLH’s Head of Social & Brand Content, Abi Tottenham-Smith, and Global PR & Communications Consultant turned model Pegi Amarteifio, these photographs are a love letter to the carefree adventures we have all been missing.

Mexico City: a mishmash metropolis

We began our journey at the wonderful Brick Hotel in the hip neighbourhood of Colonia Roma Norte, where we were greeted with aqua frescas of ginger, lemon and a splash of fizzy water – the ultimate antidote to impending jet lag. Brick Hotel is the perfect refuge amongst the hustle and bustle of Mexico City. After a complete transformation a few years back, the space is modern yet nostalgic, with nods to its historic background from the original wrought iron doors in the entry way to the straw brick exterior. Emerging Mexican artists’ works dot the walls and contemporary décor in the guest rooms give the space a relaxing atmosphere. The highlight of the suites is the upper level of the loft-style rooms. Once you ascend this stairway, you encounter a private terrace with a French-style bathtub and chaise lounge adorned with exotic plants and aromatic candles.

Left: Miguel Ayala is Head Concierge of Brick Hotel and Principal of the Mexico chapter of the esteemed Les Clefs d’Or, an elite organisation of concierges from the best hotels around the world.

With only 17 rooms, Brick Hotel felt more like a home away from home, and the Head Concierge, Miguel, made sure of it. Miguel brings a presence to your experience at Brick Hotel like no other. His laugh and smile (even noticeable through a mask) is infectious. He will greet you with your morning coffee on the terrace or personally drop off afternoon tea and piping hot, homemade cookies to you room – there’s nothing he can’t do. Miguel embodies everything hospitality stands for – and even after one of the hardest years in the hotel industry, his enthusiasm for Mexico and Brick Hotel is unwavering.

During the next four days, camera in tow, the three of us explore and take in as much of this colourful city as possible. From the historic centre brimming with Diego Rivera murals and 17th century cathedrals, to the artists’ haven of Coyacan, home to the Frida Kahlo museum, there’s something for every type of traveller in Mexico City. Energy oozes from every nook and cranny here. Street carts are spilling over with fresh mango slices topped with chilli whilst a mariachi band play in the park and the melodic tunes make your toes tap to the energetic beat. It’s hard to walk past a taco stand without the tantalising smell of tacos al pastor and sweet churros dipped in dulce de leche. You quickly become completely immersed in the lifestyle and culture that defines the city.

Our last stay in the city brought us to the historic Hacienda Pena Pobre in the southern area of Tlapan. When visiting, you feel as if you’ve escaped the busy city for a respite in the countryside yet still only a thirty minute drive from the centro historico. The 19th century boutique hotel lies on the footsteps of Tlapan National Park – one of the largest green spaces in all of Mexico City and a stone’s throw away from the famous canals of  Xochimilco.

Costa Rica: a volcanic land of charcoal sands and tropical rainforest

The next leg of our trip took us to Costa Rica. We landed in San José and hopped in the car for a scenic, three-hour drive to Hotel Three Sixty. We arrived just as dawn began to break and the sun crept up behind the horizon. I get to my room and my head immediately hits the pillow, falling into a deep sleep with the sweet sounds of the rainforest in the background. In the morning, it’s as if I’m still in a dream. I pull open the drapes of my balcony to see a pair of parrots flap past with their kaleidoscopic wings and howler monkeys giving a loud yet warm welcome. This area, just south of the small town of Uvita, is a piece of the world that remains untouched. The hotel is aptly named with each room boasting uninterrupted panoramic views atop the highest peak in the area.

The country’s famous saying is “pura vida” or “pure life” – a pursuit of happiness that locals, or Ticos, strive for everyday. It’s used to greet you hello or say goodbye. Costa Ricans value family, nature and community above all else. It’s not hard to see why the country remains one of the happiest in the world and home to the famed Blue Zones – specific areas in the world where people enjoy the longest and healthiest lives.

After a day of photographing the hotel, the next day we head to the picturesque coastal town of Uvita, where we’re greeted by our friendly boating guides who take us to the pontoon launch on the beach. As we walk along the path and the views of the ocean begins to appear, my jaw drops and I’m left speechless by the beauty of this beach. It’s lined with the tallest palm trees imaginable and the sand is a charcoal hue, influenced by the surrounding volcanic area. After a few refreshing coconuts, we hop onto our pontoon in search of bottlenose dolphins.

A few hours of the tour go by with no luck at spotting these gentle creatures until one of the guides sees a splash off in the distance. We speed up with great haste to find a pod of these beautiful mammals. We follow them for quite some time as the mother and baby calf play in the boat’s waves. Fully satisfied with our incredible dolphin adventures, we stop at the local watering hole, Fernando’s, for some thirst-quenchers and bites of patacones – these are smashed and fried green plantains piled with mouthwatering spice chicken, fresh black beans and a copious amount of their homemade salsa. A must-visit after a day of exploring the area.

An earthy, jungle-infused palette gives each room at Los Altos an immersed-in-nature feel.

The rest of our Costa Rican adventure was filled with bucket-list moments and memories to last a lifetime. We traversed through the coastal rainforest of Manuel Antonio in search of brilliant scarlet macaws, followed by a lovely stay at Los Altos Resort & Spa in one of their Penthouse Suites, with beautiful views over the ocean. Days can be spent at the infinity pool or even at the hotel’s exclusive beach with a cocktail in hand. The best part about this hotel is that it is sat right next to the jungle and the staff organise rainforest walks with a private guide who is constantly on the lookout for wildlife. We luckily managed to spot monkeys, macaws and a few lazy sloths relaxing in the trees.

We were then ferried across to the Puntarenas Province to visit Hotel Nantipa in the bohemian beach town of Santa Teresa. Hotel Nantipa houses just 15 beach bungalows, making your hotel experience as intimate and bespoke as can be. With only one unpaved beach road, Santa Teresa remains a hidden treasure for those seeking the pura vida life filled with surfing, yoga and hiking. The small town is speckled with surf shops, smoothie shacks, and funky beach bars. It’s easy to see why expats have been flocking to this corner of the world for decades in search of slower living.

Barefoot beach vibes radiate throughout Hotel Nantipa and its bohemian surroundings.

The final destination of our Costa Rican trip was the iconic Tabacón Thermal Resort & Spa in the foothills of the Arenal Volcano. The beating heart of the hotel is the world-renowned wellness spa which connects visitors to the healing powers of the volcanic hot springs. We spent hours getting lost amidst this jungle oasis going from one hot spring to the next with the ubiquitous sounds of wildlife all around us. It’s the ultimate place to relax and unwind after days filled with adventures and activities in the surrounding areas like ziplining and horseback riding.

On our last night, the wonderful Sales & Marketing Manager, Melania, treated us to a surprise picnic on the shores of a small island in the centre of the mighty Arenal lake. Although we couldn’t escape the impending thunderstorm –  as we were on the cusp of the rainy season– it was the dreamiest way to end our ten-day Tico experience. We poured champagne and watched kingfishers flit about as the rain pelted down on our backs and we laughed until our faces turned crimson red. It’s moments like these that make a journey an unforgettable one and why travel has become my lifelong career and passion.

Tulum: laid-back luxury overlooked by mystical Mayan ruins

Beachfront dining to the soft sound of the waves at El Pez.

At the airport, it was time for Pegi to head back to London as Abi and I took off to Tulum to finish the last leg of our trip. We had a packed itinerary of photographing four hotels in four days but were ready for the challenge. All four hotels including El Pez, La Zebra, Mezzanine and Mi Amor are owned by a wonderful boutique hotel group called Colibri, which focuses on small intimate experiences and services for their guests. Each hotel has its own unique seaside charm and design ranging from palm thatched bungalows with private balconies at El Pez to the upbeat and eccentric style of La Zebra – which has a renowned beach club and cocktail pop-up created by New York’s The Mulberry Project.

Top Left: Neutral hues and natural materials keep guests at El Pez cool on shaded cabanas. Top Right: Early morning light at La Zebra. Bottom: Sway to a relaxed rhythm at Mezzanine.

The attention to detail at all of Colibri’s hotels is what makes these hotels stand out from the Tulum crowd. At each hotel, every morning and evening you’re greeted with delicious and piping hot Mexican coffee or herbal tea, and a sweet treat – all served in handmade wooden cups and pitchers. The intimacy at Mezzanine is unparalleled with only nine rooms that have recently been renovated into bright and airy suites with amenities like hand-woven sandals and an optional flower bath created by General Manager, Laura.

On our last night in paradise, Abi and I stayed at Mi Amor, an adults-only slice of paradise. We had finished the remaining photos from our shot list and decided to celebrate with a much-needed margarita overlooking the rugged cliffs and the turquoise blue waters beyond. We sat cross legged and barefoot on the deck as the hues of the summer sky changed from a bright orange to a soft, pastel pink. It was the perfect moment for us to take in what an incredible adventure we’d been on for the last three weeks. Travel is about not only reconnecting with yourself but also discovering the vast world around you. After a year of uncertainty and sadness, this journey made me realise that we are resilient creatures – and the beauty of travel reaffirms that with every sun that goes down, another beautiful one rises back up and there’s another extraordinary experience waiting for us.