Vacationing with my family in Costa Rica this past December was an awe-inspiring journey of unbridled beauty and nonstop adventure. Located in Central America, Costa Rica is habitat to about 5% of the world’s biodiversity despite its relatively small size. Unlike neighboring countries in the region, Costa Rica is a democratic, peaceful country that manages to protect its abundance of wildlife and ecological treasures while simultaneously promoting tourism. Having recognized the value of preserving natural resources well over 50 years ago, Costa Rica is a pioneer in sustainability and almost 30% of the country is protected natural land. Whether you’re into ziplining through the canopy of a rain forest, soaking in a thermal hot spring, whitewater rafting down a river or lazing on a sun-drenched beach, nature’s bounty awaits around every corner.
We had the pleasure of traveling with Costa Rica Rios, an adventure tour operator that took care of the details so that we could relax and enjoy the ride (pun intended!) After landing in San Jose, our transport took us to Casa Turire in Turrialba, a charming hotel in an enchanting oasis of lush gardens and exotic birds in the central valley of Costa Rica. The following day we embarked on our two-day journey whitewater rafting on the world-class Lower Pacuare River, considered one of the best in the world for rapids and breathtaking scenery. We experienced exciting class III and IV rapids and jumped off rock ledges into deep pools of crystal-clear water at the bottom of secluded waterfalls along the way. The Blue Morpho butterfly with its iridescent blue wings spanning 5-8 inches fluttered alongside our raft and we witnessed a rare sighting of an ocelot swimming across the river!
As if that adventure wasn’t enough, we stopped halfway down the river to spend the night at Pacuare Outdoor Center, a remote open-air ecolodge perched above the river and jungle below. Here we ziplined through the canopy of the rain forest, especially thrilling and fun for all ages! But for the brave at heart there was also an exhilarating Tarzan Swing over the river; this can be compared to bungee jumping off a cliff! The wonderful staff and professional guides made us delicious meals and kept us happy and safe. After day two of rafting, we were transported to Tabacon Thermal Resort & Spa in La Fortuna, home to the best hot springs in the country. This was a welcome respite after several days of intense activity and adventure. The flora and fauna surrounding the hot springs were dreamlike, and we were lucky to spot two enormous iguanas crossing a rocky perch above the waterfall where we were swimming!
We also experienced the rich biodiversity in the mountainous area of La Fortuna on a hanging bridges tour at a private nature reserve. While we hiked on wooded trails and rope bridges suspended over deep valleys below, our guide pointed out “broccoli’’ trees, named for their distinctive vegetable-like shape. Arenal Volcano, which last erupted in 1968 and is now in a resting phase, could be seen in the distance in a halo of clouds. The well-trained guides complete an educational program for naturalist guide certification as well as first aid. Their exceptional ability to spot animals and identify plants is the best way to see wildlife. Binoculars were helpful, but the guide also provided a telescope that allowed us to spy various jungle animals we would not have seen otherwise such as sloths, snakes, bats and anteaters. He also was excellent at using his telescope to capture awesome photos with our phones!
La Fortuna is a quaint town with various small shops and restaurants surrounding a grassy park where locals can be found socializing and relaxing. We found the local adage to be true that in every town in Costa Rica you’ll find a church, a soccer field, and a bar! We had a delicious dining experience at Don Rufino Restaurante as well as traditional cuisine at Tierra Mia, a “soda”, which is the name for a local, family-owned eatery. A Christmas tree was decorated in the center of the park, reminiscent of the tree in our home town in the U.S. Many homes were also decorated for Christmas, even some with blow-up snowmen in the yard, though Costa Rica never sees snow! It was a humble reminder that despite living in very different countries we are all humans experiencing the same rituals and joys that make life meaningful and special.
Our final destination was Manuel Antonio, a beach town located on the west coast, home to our stunning and spacious accommodations at Los Altos Resort. By this point we were more than ready for a few days relaxing on the beautiful beaches and enjoying delicious fish at the area’s many excellent restaurants. Not to be missed is having dinner alfresco at Ronny’s Place while watching the sun sink into the horizon. Playa Espadilla is a popular beach for locals and tourists for surfing and swimming as well as buying artisan crafts such as beautiful wood bowls hand-carved from guanacaste, the national tree of Costa Rica. Our adventure continued with a guided hike through the nearby rain forest bordering the beach in Manuel Antonio National Park – habitat to three species of monkeys – and a successful day of deep-sea fishing with Bluefin Sportfishing in Quepos, catching (and releasing) three sailfish!
Costa Rica is an unspoiled paradise with all the right elements for a spectacular vacation: natural beauty, captivating wildlife, great food and lots of fun! It is a family vacation we will never forget. Whether you like luxury resorts or rustic inns, abundant adventure or relaxing solitude, there is something to please even the most discerning traveler. It is also an easy place to visit for American travelers because U.S. dollars are accepted everywhere and most people speak English. Costa Ricans are friendly, proud and eager to share knowledge of their magnificent country. With a goal to be the first carbon-neutral country in the world by 2021, sustainability is a way of life throughout the country. The primary focus on ecotourism, conserving wildlife and preserving natural resources is something that makes Costa Rica a treasure waiting for all that are lucky enough to visit.