Hotelier Jen Millar On Balancing Mind, Body And Spirit In The Costa Rican Jungle

The New York-raised, Costa Rican-based hotelier Jen Millar talks sun salutations, health-supportive cuisine and things that go bump in the night

A tan dog lies sleeping in the shade of a papaya tree. The thermometer reads 32ºC, but this being the steamy coastal jungle of Costa Rica's southwestern Osa Peninsula, humidity at 70 per cent, it feels hotter. At new, 15-key eco-lodge Nereus Retreats, the communal areas are empty - some residents cooling off in the waves of the Golfo Dulce, others out on a kayaking tour through the mangroves. Even the howler monkeys are quiet as they navigate through the leaf canopy above.

In the big open kitchen, though, it's a different story. Long braided hair held back under a floral cotton square, founder Jen Millar is in her flow, whipping up sweet-smelling gluten-free banana bread and toasty coconut granola for the following day's breakfast service. Between now and then, Millar also has an Ayurvedic medicine class to teach, via Zoom, to 24 Colorado-based college students, a scheduled call with her business partner in the online college of metaphysics the pair co-founded in 2020, and two new guests - arriving on the first, 6am Sansa flight from capital San José for a week-long retreat - to welcome.

Nereus Retreats, Costa Rica

Osa Peninsula flora, left, and Millar practicing yoga at the retreat

Ask her how she does it, and the integrative nutritionist and functional health teacher might put it down to the evening yin yoga session she'll also find time to attend (in the rainforest-ensconced studio she designed herself) - yoga being something she credits as having contributed to her near-miraculous recovery from a broken neck in 2017. Or to her 10pm bedtime. Or a bulletproof coffee, at first light. But the lifestyle Millar models here goes far deeper than savasanas to a soundtrack of cicada song and adding butter to your first caffeine fix of the day. Nereus Retreats is the physical embodiment of a life's work in teaching, community-building and empowering people to be the best version of themselves possible through the food that they eat.

Over trays of cooling granola, Millar talks to us about how she got to the jungle from upstate New York (via opening the café, in St Andrews, Scotland, where Prince William and Kate Middleton met) and how ancient wisdom works best when applied through a modern lens.

In conversation with sustainable hotelier and nutritionist Jen Millar

You grew up in New York… What brought you to Costa Rica?

Having made a detour to the UK for 10 years, and then back to New York - by then I was married and had children - we got into the usual paradigm of working hard and running a company and raising children and feeling like life shouldn't be so much about those things. And so we sold everything - our company, our home - packed up four children, ages five to 12, and moved to the jungle, built a house and started again.

Yoga is a central pillar of Nereus Retreats. Has it always been a big part of your life?

By the time we moved to Costa Rica in 2010, I'd been dabbling in yoga - treating it like fitness, you know - but in the jungle, you didn't have all of the mod cons of the shiny gym. What we did have was a beautiful yoga community, and I really fell in love with it then and began studying in earnest.

We offer a variety of wellness retreats. Not every retreat is yoga-centered, but most offer a morning yoga class. We have a combination of our own programmes and guest teachers who bring their own groups - we have an art teacher bringing two groups in July. We also have a series of events, including the Archetypal Goddess Retreat, led by my great friend and partner in Hidden Truths College, Dr Frances Yahia.

We always say we're guests in nature, and we're constantly trying to live in harmony with it

The yoga shala - a white, contemporary raised studio overlooking emerald-green forest on three sides - is a touchstone of days at Nereus. Can you tell us a little about what went into its design?

We wanted something that could handle different weather and climate so it isn't entirely open - you can close it with sliding doors, either screens or glass. We have 12 powerful fans to keep the air moving - it does get very warm in the jungle. We also have bamboo floors, bamboo being, of course, renewable and sustainable. Our cork yoga mats are produced in-country and the bolster cushion covers are made by a local seamstress. But, yes, what really makes it beautiful is that three of the walls are basically these giant green screens, the jungle alive outside.

Living in the jungle must bring its own challenges…

We live a simpler life with fewer things. Living in this environment, we always say we're guests in nature, and we're constantly trying to live in harmony with it. With Nereus Retreats, we're trying to provide all of the comforts that people expect, but behind the scenes, every day, the conversation is, is the electric stable? Is the water running? We have a very complex water filtration system, and a very, very complicated green septic system, with bidet systems in every toilet in order to minimise paper consumption.

The Osa Peninsula's astonishing biodiversity has been well documented - and Nereus Retreats lies within a designated nature reserve. Are guests surprised by the wildlife they encounter here?

Yes! We've managed to have these very comfortable villas right here in the jungle, but the animals are very much around you all the time. It's common to wake up to the eerie call of the howler monkeys in the morning. We also have squirrel monkeys and white-faced capuchins passing through. People think they're throwing things at their roofs on purpose, but actually, it's just, you know, they're rummaging around up there, dropping seeds and branches. And when the land crabs are in season, when you're walking at night on our paths, you'll see those little guys scurrying everywhere, rustling through fallen leaves and scrambling in and out of the sand because we're right by the beach.

Nereus Retreats, Costa Rica
Nereus Retreats, Costa Rica

Local bird life, left, and Nereus Retreats accomodation tucked into lush foliage

Your kitchen is mission control at Nereus, providing three meals a day, served family-style in the open plan dining area. Is the Osa Peninsula a natural fit for the health-supportive cuisine you serve?

Costa Rica is very environmentally-conscious and Costa Rican food is ingredient-driven. We have an amazing variety of beautiful ingredients and a year-round growing climate. In this small country, you also have multiple elevations, so at any time of the year, you can have your salad vegetables from the higher elevations and your tropical fruit grown at sea level. It makes sourcing locally and seasonally easy.

The kitchen at Nereus is a health-supportive, gluten-free kitchen, and the food is ingredient-driven and plant-forward. It's an omnivore kitchen because in my world I work with clients with very complicated health issues, autoimmunity and digestive inflammatory diseases, and 100 per cent plant-based diets don't work for people with some of those more complicated health problems. I have a profound respect for medical systems and science, and systems of healing, but I'm very interested in translating ancient wisdom in a way that makes sense in our modern lives, in our modern bodies and in our modern environments. Basically, guests can expect lots of colour, variety and flavour.

Your first professional kitchen was in the café you opened in St Andrews, Scotland. Tell us about that.

I went to St Andrews University to do a Master's in medieval history, which is where Stu and I met. After graduating, we opened North Point, and it's still there! Even in those days - this was in the late 90s, early 2000s - it was this idea of everything being ingredient-driven, so the values were always there. What's changed in the past 25 years for me is a need for a more health-supportive approach. So drastically reducing sugar consumption, for a start. Now, we focus less on the sweets and more on the bright colours and the integration of flavour with herbs and spices and plant foods.

Nereus Retreats, Costa Rica
Nereus Retreats, Costa Rica

Yoga at Nereus Retreats, left, and a white-faced capuchin

So no Nereus desserts?

Not quite - people get very excited about our brownies. We use organic coconut oil and cacao from a local farm. And they're, of course, gluten-free and we use unrefined raw cane sugar. And our pineapple upside-down cake is also popular. We use local pineapple, and make them in mini loaves, for individual servings.

There was a time when you weren't sure that you'd ever be baking again, following an injury…

Yes. About six years ago, I broke my neck. I'd been travelling - a long way - and I was dehydrated and I fainted from low blood pressure. I fell on a concrete floor and hit my chin at the wrong angle. I was put together again with two titanium discs. And that's caused ongoing health challenges. But my neurosurgeon tells me all the time that he can't explain me, that I'm a miracle, that I shouldn't be alive or should be paralysed, and I'm not. I really put that down to an anti-inflammatory diet - a high-quality, nutrient-dense diet - and yoga.

Other than on the yoga mat, do you ever stop?

Being a double Capricorn, I'm a little bit of a workaholic, but I have to walk my talk. I work in and am running a hotel and retreat centre that's all about mind, body, spirit, wellness and balance. I have to make sure that I'm doing the things that keep me balanced so that I can show up for the students and guests who come here. I make use of the beautiful beach at the end of our garden, with coffee, at sunrise. I adore the sound of the wildlife - the birds and the monkeys. Just being here, every day I wake up and think, how did I get to live here? This can't really be my life.

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