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
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.