After zip lining, we power walked to our rooms to quickly change into our swimsuits and hiking boots for a waterfall hike. We only had ten minutes to get ready, because we were already booked for lunch and an afternoon of river tubing, then a trip to nearby hot springs. Everything was optional, but I was traveling with a group of fellow recovering alcoholics who didn’t want to miss a moment of the fun and beauty Costa Rica had to offer.

It was like we were making up for lost time. Oh wait, we were. We all agreed that all those blacked-out hours in our past couldn’t compare to hearing howler monkeys bellow in the trees, watching sea turtles lay their eggs on a beach at dawn or feeling the cold close over our heads after jumping from the top of a waterfall. It was a whole week of moments where we collectively felt: “I can’t believe we’re here! In Costa Rica! Sober!”

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View of waterfall from the top

Choose Life Sober Adventures

Our small group of six sober travelers had all signed up for a week in Costa Rica with the Los Angeles-based tour company Choose Life Sober Adventures. Owner Cole Bressler, professional guide Marco Fallas, and driver Jimmy Aguilar filled our days with activities and made sure we always got where we were going.

Why sober travel? Though Bressler is only in his twenties, he’d attempted to give up various substances many times before it stuck. He found that the trick was forging a strong community of sober people. But when he was using, he never gave much thought to his future.

“There wasn’t much of a life,” he told me. “It was just existing.” But once he finally got sober — the trick, he found, was forging a strong community — “I had all this opportunity in front of me to do anything.” Bressler had grown up helping his parents out with their tour company. It felt natural for him to combine sobriety with travel and start a business of his own.

Choose Life is still small. Right now, the company has three destinations: Costa Rica, Peru and Kenya. Next, Bressler will probably add a domestic trip, possibly to a national park.

View of hotel in Costa Rica

Costa Rica adventures

We explored the northwest part of Costa Rica, flying into Liberia and then spending three nights in the mountains by Rincon de la Vieja volcano and three nights on the Pacific Ocean at Playa Carrillo. It was a good mix of jungle and beach activities. Our days in the jungle at Hacienda Guachipelin were action-packed.

The onsite zip line course was the most beautiful and exciting I’ve ever experienced. We zip-lined over a waterfall and through a narrow canyon. At one point, we jumped off a platform on a Tarzan swing, bouncing around over a chasm. At another, our guides lowered us down to a platform by ropes, then we climbed back up a slippery rock wall. All surrounded by lush ferns, flowers and the sound of rushing water.

Tubing on the Rio Negro was also fantastic, albeit a bit scary. We roared through white water rapids. Some of us flew out of our tubes, all of us drank significant amounts of river water, and as we bounced between boulders, we learned that helmets really were necessary.

At the beach, we stayed at the elegant Hotel Naambu, which featured thatched roofs and unbelievable sunsets. We stand up paddle boarded and sea kayaked, snorkeled and wandered the little surf town of Samara.

For sober traveler David Smith of Dallas, the trip expanded his horizons. “I’m not much of a hiker, so I definitely didn’t plan on hiking through a rainforest while it was raining,” he said. We laughed as we remembered an absolute deluge that soaked through so-called waterproof jackets as we searched the forest for monkeys and tapirs. Instead, the water washed up more frogs and snakes.

Nor had Smith given volcanoes much thought. And he’d never paddle boarded. “I’m doing things I never thought I would do,” he told me. “I’m having more fun as a sober traveler than I ever thought was possible. It’s really opened my eyes to the possibilities and the potential for having fun and enjoying life without having to have a drink.”

Travelers doing yoga on a hotel deck

Recovery, ecology and awareness

We have a lot of distractions in our modern lives, including email, gossip, thinking about what we’re going to eat or wear, social media and every app on our phones. But substances like alcohol and other drugs are some of the biggest. If you’ve ever blacked out or even just got fuzzy on the details, you know what I’m talking about.

Sobriety brings many things into sharp focus. The connections between ourselves and the world around us are clearer, such as our relationships with other people, animals, plants and the planet. If you’ve fought addiction and won (at least for now; it never pays to be cavalier) and find yourself lucky enough to be vacationing in Costa Rica, it’s pretty easy to be grateful.

Our days started with yoga classes taught outside by our private yoga teacher, Ashley Shires of Colorado. Every morning she’d give us a theme to think about during the day, something like community or mindfulness. In the evenings, we sat in a circle and took turns reflecting on the day’s theme. It sounds like it could be hokey, but we all laughed so much and felt lots of bonding and support. It was a lot different than your average group travel with strangers.

The week was full of unforgettable moments. Together, we fell silent waiting for a glimpse of spider monkeys in the forest. We got down on the ground, watching leafcutter ants dwarfed by the chunks of leaf they carried. We laughed till it hurt when a venomous coral snake headed for us and we all ran to clamber back onto the bus. It was good to be alive. It was amazing to be sober.

Images by Teresa Bergen and courtesy of Choose Life Sober Adventures