Volcanoes, Tropical Islands and Jungle Paradise – 10 Days in Costa Rica

There was a definite sense of arrival as daylight slowly started to fill the casita and the unmistakable sounds of jungle life filtered into the room. It was an awakening made easier than your standard Thursday morning thanks to a combination of early morning light, jetlag and anticipation. That, and the 1600 metre volcano rising out of the lush forest visible from the window.

Taking an early cup of coffee out onto the balcony in the warm, still air, a pair of toucans came and perched on a nearby branch. It’s clear we weren’t in Heathrow anymore.

This is how we began our 10 day wildlife and adventure holiday in Costa Rica with Not In The Guidebooks, and it set the tone for an unforgettable trip that took us from the mist-shrouded cloud forests of Monteverde to the pristine rainforest and golden-sand beaches of Corcovado.

In this blog, we will do our best to get across the highlights and the hidden gems of this unique country, in the hope that it inspires you to take the plunge and see for yourself why this country that’s a fifth of the size of the UK takes its place as one of the most compelling travel destinations on earth.

Volcanoes, Waterfalls and an Introduction to Costa Rican Culture

arenal volcano costa rica

Our group of 8 had arrived at San Jose the previous afternoon, and were met immediately by our driver as well as our host, Roberto. As we made our way to the minibus that was to take us to our first accommodation, Roberto made sure we had no questions about his home country left unanswered, that we had his details should we need anything over the course of our stay, and stocked us up on a couple of essential items – Costa Rican chocolate and Golden Rush liquor…

A three-hour journey from hectic San Jose traffic led to winding single track roads through thick forested hillsides, before eventually dropping us off at our first stop just outside the town of La Fortuna.

Fairly exhausted after a long-haul flight and a drive through the darkening evening, we were taken to our individual casitas, before enjoying the kind of meal you take on when you’re acutely aware that your body is taking on at 4am. By the time we went to bed, the hulking silhouette of Arenal, lit up against the night sky by intermittent flashes of lightning, was the only clue as to what the views may hold in the morning.

The views across a lush jungle valley, with Arenal itself looming over hillsides carpeted with life didn’t disappoint. After a morning exploring the stunning complex of quiet paths running through dense jungle, from quiet meditation corners to heated pools, we were picked up by our guide for the day, Carlos, who took us out into the countryside surrounding La Fortuna.

La Fortuna Waterfall and Arenal Volcano

First stop, dramatically cascading waterfall and lagoon surrounded by rainforest. Tick. A quintessential tropical experience was ticked off immediately as we made our way down to La Fortuna Waterfall, where a beautifully cool dip was awaiting, relief from the unfamiliar heat and humidity.

la fortuna waterfall in costa rica

After luxuriating in the pool, made choppy by the sheer power of the waterfall, we headed to a quiet family-run restaurant beside a small lake. Soaking up the hospitality of our chefs and the views of tropical birds landing on the veranda, we had our first introduction to the iconic Costa Rican dish – Casado.

Casado, directly translated as ‘married’ in English, has its origins rooted in stories as wide ranging as it gaining the name thanks to only workers in the fields with dedicated wives having such feasts for lunch, to simply a reference to the mixture of rice and beans being such a match made in heaven.

Frankly, no one seems to know the true roots of the name, and frankly, I couldn’t care less. The love that was clearly poured into the creation of this combination of rice, beans, chicken, vegetables and plantain was evident in the taste, and a clear indication of why casado takes its place as Costa Rica’s national dish. And to complete the picture, Carlos pointed out the sloth taking a rest in the shade of a tree canopy round the back of the restaurant.

This most memorable of lunches over, we then made our way to the area surrounding Arenal volcano, and the unique lava fields that were created by violent eruptions in 1968.

Arenal volcano in costa rica

With life beginning to take hold again, this eerie landscape was brought to life by Carlos’ passionate retelling of the dramatic changes the volcano brought to the local community, as well as his fascination with the smaller details that you would never pick out as a tourist wandering alone.

Rio Celeste and Rainforest Walks

The following day began with an hour and a half drive to Tenorio Volcanic National Park, a drive made all the more entertaining by the sight of a sloth fairly racing across the tarmac ahead of us.

It was in this small moment that we also glimpsed an insight into the importance the Costa Rican place in their environment and wildlife, as our driver slammed on his breaks, leapt from the minibus and proceeded to halt the oncoming traffic from both directions, until the three-toed sloth had made his steady way to safety.

Arriving at the entrance to Tenorio National Park, our guide, Rebecca, gave us a brief lowdown on some of the wildlife that lives within its confines. Then, she led us into the park itself, Costa Rica yet again providing an otherworldly landscape of thick jungle, bubbling hot springs and technicolour lagoons.

celeste waterfall costa rica

The highlight was, undoubtedly, the renowned Rio Celeste waterfall, rushing into a pool set amongst dripping vegetation and coloured turquoise due to the sulphurous water. After a day discovering wide open views of distant hills and learning about the intricate way each insect plays a vital part in the ecosystem in the park, it was time to enjoy another casado and some free afternoon time in preparation for our journey to our next stop, Monteverde.

Into the Cloud Forest

Leaving the La Fortuna and Arenal region behind, we headed south towards the spine of the country and Monteverde. But with the formidable national park known as the Children’s Eternal Rainforest routing the road hundreds of kilometres further south, we drove straight to the shores of Lake Arenal, where a boat awaited us for one of the more scenic transfers I can remember.

Setting off onto Costa Rica’s largest lake, we were afforded breathtaking views of Arenal volcano looming in the distance, and learned how this man-made body of water is in fact the result of a hydroelectric dam that at one point provided 70% of the country’s electricity supply.

Arriving on the opposite side of the lake, we began climbing into Costa Rica’s highlands, the scenery changing dramatically as the temperature cooled. Arriving into Monteverde and an almost alpine environment and after a free afternoon exploring the atmospheric little town we met our guide, Walter, for an excursion that led us into the Children’s Eternal Rainforest as night fell.

As darkness drew over the jungle, the noise of the insects, frogs and cicadas rose in a cacophony of sound, as armed with torches, Walter showed us the jungle at its most active, showing us where to find, frogs, salamanders, snakes, and how to lure tarantulas out of their lairs…frog in jungle in costa rica

The Cloud Forest Canopy and Coffee

On one of the few mornings on a holiday that I’ve woken up and been pleased to see cloudy skies and after a breakfast soundtracked by birdsong, we were taken up to Selvatura Park, an 850 acre ecological adventure park featuring hanging bridges, a butterfly house, and zipwires hundreds of metres long.

Here, we spent a morning in yet another of Costa Rica’s unique environments, as we zipped from treetop to treetop amongst a canopy of trees shrouded in mist and thick, green moss.

The closest feeling you can get to being the resplendent quetzal gliding through the treetops? Probably being strapped into a ‘superman’ zipline and being sent shooting along a kilometre long zipwire in the cloud forest, before being unceremoniously bounced out of your perch at the end of the ride.

So, after a morning of ziplining and exploring the network of beautiful hanging bridges at Selvatura, our afternoon moved onto the culinary culture and agricultural traditions of the Costa Rica.

hanging bridge in monteverde costa rica

At Don Juan’s coffee farm, we spent time with our incredibly enthusiastic guide, Gustavo, who brought to life the farming process from bean to cup, all whilst leaving no doubt that Costa Rica is responsible for the production of the best coffee in the world.

The unique cloud forest climate provides the ideal conditions to grow the arabica coffee plant thanks to the balance in humidity and temperature, meaning that whether you’re enjoying an espresso at the end of a meal in a high-end restaurant, or a simple styrofoam cup from a roadside café, you can be certain that you’re drinking some of the highest quality coffee you could ever get your hands on.

The tour also included in-depth and hands on experiences with cocoa and sugar cane production, and we came away with a deeper understanding of the relationship between the Costa Rican people and their reliance on the incredibly fertile land that they nurture and protect.

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Pristine Wilderness and Tropical Islands

The next day began with our longest drive of the trip, as we left the cool hills of Monteverde and headed for the tropical climate of the Corcovado Peninsula. Stepping out into the oppressive heat and humidity in Sierpe, any tiredness from the journey was immediately dispelled as we climbed into our boat for the next leg.

sierpe river in costa rica

Just as pootling along the serpentine river flanked by mangrove swamps and palm groves was beginning to make us wonder how long the journey might take, our pilot put his metaphorical foot down and suddenly we were sweeping from the peaceful, murky waters of the Sierpe into the azure blue of the Pacific.

After blasting along the coastline for a little while, which presented itself as your archetypal tropical landscape (golden sand beaches, lush jungle covered hillsides, palm trees reaching dreamily for the horizon, tick), we arrived at our next accommodation in the beautiful Drake Bay.

So called due of the fact that Sir Francis himself once used the bay as a base from which to conduct his raids along the coast, this natural harbour was the site for our next spectacular place to stay.

Stepping off the boat onto the jetty that led up to an open, airy reception and dining area, we were afforded views back over what can only really be described as paradise.

drake bay in costa rica

Treasure Islands and Perfect Beaches

Following a breakfast which was spent mainly gazing blankly at the magical location we had found ourselves dropped in, our first full day in Drake Bay was spent on an expedition to Isla del Caño, a small island some 20km off the coast of the Osa Peninsula.

After a fairly choppy 40 minute ride out to the island, we were handed our snorkel gear for what was to prove one of the most memorable experiences of the entire trip. Despite the waves, the water was clear and was ideal for providing views of the coral beds below.

What followed was a magical time spent floating at the surface of the warm ocean water, taking in sightings of shimmering shoals of fish, sea snakes and eels winding their way through the nooks and crannies of the coral, and sea turtles coming up for air just metres away, before drifting off into the blue gloom.

isla del cano in costa rica

We were then dropped off on one of Caño’s beaches for some free time to explore the forested interior of the uninhabited island which is thought to have been the site for pirate treasure and is indisputably the site of several pre-Colombian artifacts, or simply bask in the sun.

A final snorkelling session followed, then we skimmed our way over the waves back to the mainland and the lodge. Just one of the many lovable features of our accommodation was the fact that just a 10 minute walk along a sandy trail to the west, lay Cocalito Beach, a beautiful stretch of perfect golden sand running into the warm, tropical ocean.

cocalito beach at sunset in costa rica

And watching the sunset as scarlet macaws go squawking overhead is no bad way to see out your afternoon and early evening.

The Most Biodiverse Place on Earth

Whilst creative liberties may have been taken with this subtitle, Corcovado National Park is in fact known to be one of the most biologically diverse places on earth, with half of all Costa Rica’s species living within the confines of the 424 km² tract of untouched primary rainforest.

On our final day on the Osa Peninsula, we were once again picked up from the jetty of the lodge, and whisked along the coastline to the entrance of the National Park itself. Disembarking amidst the crashing waves took a fairly considerable amount of skill and timing, but once ashore we found ourselves on the fringes of the last tract of primary rainforest in the whole of Central America.

corcovado national park

Immediately, we spotted spider monkeys swinging leggily from branch to branch in the trees above us, a site that excited our group considerably, but barely stirred the park rangers who sat in the shade of their veranda.

Our guide, Gabriel, then led us along the coast and into the jungle along narrow, sandy tracks, expertly picking out tapir tracks, monkeys in distant canopies and finding bats that spend the daylight hours sleeping under large, fanlike leaves.

After spotting a tapir lumbering its way through the branches and an energetic family of coati, a racoon-like animal, we were taken inland to a lagoon that lay beneath a waterfall deeper in the jungle.

Again, this proved one of the most memorable experiences of our time in Costa Rica, as we luxuriated in the coolness of the pool after walking through the pressing heat of the jungle, surrounded for miles around by nothing but pure wilderness.

lagoon in corcovado national park

Close Encounters and Costa Rican Cooking

Leaving Drake Bay behind, our transfer back to Sierpe began in dramatic fashion as we navigated the meeting of the Rio Sierpe and the Pacific. Thankfully, our pilot expertly navigated what was essentially a tidal bore, and we were soon speeding our way back up the river towards the town of Sierpe.

On arrival we disembarked and pretty much immediately hopped onto another vessel to explore the river in a little more detail. On this tour of the mangroves and waterways of the Sierpe, we had some of our best wildlife experiences we had ever encountered.

river cruise in sierpe costa rica

Spotting the small, delicate looking squirrel monkeys up ahead, our pilot steered us close to the branches they were nimbly moving about. Here, we spent time just feet away from this enormous family of incredibly cute monkeys, before enjoying a similar experience but with a large troop of white-faced capuchins.

Testament once again to the way the Costa Rican people have embraced ecotourism, these monkeys were acclimatised to people, without recognising us as a potential food source. Therefore, we were witnessing animals displaying completely natural behaviour at close quarters, an experience that, once you think about it, is incredibly rare particularly for intelligent animals such as monkeys.

This hidden gem of a tour also helped us spot numerous tropical birdlife, a young crocodile hunting, as well as a number of far more menacing looking adults go darkly slipping into the water as we drew close.

Manuel Antonio National Park

Our final stop on our Costa Rican adventure was Manuel Antonio, a town situated on the Pacific coast that boasts a number of stunning beaches and an accessible yet beautiful national park.

After eating enough casado to sink a battleship over the trip, it only seemed right that on our last full day we would turn our hands to making it ourselves. Our group headed to a beautiful rural farmhouse not far from the town, where we met a local family who would introduce us to the secrets of Costa Rican cuisine.

After a thoroughly enjoyable morning getting to grips with exactly how to make the various elements of casado (the right way), we enjoyed lunch before making time for one final national park tour.

homemade casado in costa rica

Meeting Mau, our guide, at the entrance to Manuel Antonio National Park, he helped us pick out sloths, squirrel monkeys, the fascinating little potoo bird, and we were treated to another close up showing of Capuchin antics.

On our way out of the park, as the numbers of people thinned and the evening drew in, we spotted white-tailed deer crossing the jungle path ahead of us. As we walked towards them they stopped and appraised our little group, before turning and wandering calmly into the darkening jungle until they were lost from sight.

Here at Not In The Guidebooks, we work hard to ensure that our holidays and experiences get you to the very heart of the destination you are visiting. That means making the most of the natural attractions and draws that a country has, but it also means getting off the beaten track, discovering hidden gems and most importantly, connecting with the people that live there.

On this adventure and wildlife holiday in Costa Rica, each experience was enhanced incalculably by the enthusiasm and the expertise of each of our guides. From the small titbits of information that your average tourist would never learn whilst travelling alone, to the magic of the country being brought to life by the passion on display, our guides and hosts turned what would have been an amazing holiday in its own right into an unforgettable 10 days that will love long in the memories of all who experienced it.

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