Today we are featuring a guest post from our friend, Ellen Hearn. She’s a fellow retiree who is spending much of her retired life exploring the world and enjoying new adventures.
Have you always wanted to see Hawaii, but dreaded the long jet flight and expense? Then consider Costa Rica. This small country has landscapes similar to Hawaii but with a Latin flair and it also offers many great vacation activities.
My travel companion is Sue Johnson and it was through her that I got my chance to travel to Costa Rica. At her husband’s funeral last February, her brother said he would treat her to a vacation in Costa Rica. When she mentioned that to me; I enthusiastically offered to be her travel companion. Months later she called and said, if I was serious, it was time to book our trip. I didn’t need to be asked twice so I quickly made my travel arrangements!
Travel time for me from Chicago, was just a four-hour flight followed by a second one hour flight. I used Avianca Air and I will use them again: great service, real tasty food on each flight and the flight attendants looked fabulous in their bright red uniforms and hats. The cost was equivalent to a flight to Tampa, Florida.
Costa Rica – An Overview
Costa Rica is home a great number of volcanoes including six that are still active. For the past fifty years, Arenal was the country’s most active volcano although it entered a resting phase in 2010 – meaning that its eruptions have taken pause for the time being. However, Arenal is still one of the country’s best-known and most-visited volcanoes. There are, however, many other volcanoes that are worth exploring. Most are caldera volcanoes whose craters are filled with water and rising steam.
Costa Rica possesses the highest density of biodiversity of any country worldwide. While approximately the size of West Virginia, Costa Rica contains four percent of species estimated to exist on the planet including more bird species than all of the United States and Canada combined. Hundreds of species are endemic to Costa Rica, meaning they exist nowhere else on earth. These endemic species include frogs, snakes, lizards, finches, hummingbirds, gophers, mice, cichlids, and gobies.
Costa Rica’s biodiversity can be attributed to the variety of ecosystems within the country. Tropical rainforests, deciduous forests, Atlantic and Pacific coastline, cloud forests, and mangrove forests are all represented.
Although the country is small, it still takes a lot of time to travel from one location to the other. Most main roads are only two lanes. With all of the mountains, it is very difficult to pass slower traffic so you are seldom traveling faster than 40 miles an hour. It takes nearly 10 hours to travel from the southern border to the northern border. Locals typically ignore the no passing zones and pass when the coast is clear. However, if you are caught violating the traffic laws be prepared to pay a hefty fine of $600, which is about the average monthly income of a Costa Rican.
I stayed in Naranjo which is in the central region just outside of San Jose. The location was perfect for excursions to visit beaches, volcanoes and national parks. For a girl raised in Illinois, it was quite surprising to see that it was possible to enjoy living year around without air conditioning, heating or even window screens. It was wonderful being among all those tropical plants and yet with no bugs!
In Naranjo, we were staying with a daughter of the Corrales family who immigrated from Spain to Costa Rica over 150 years ago and acquired most of the Naranjo highlands for growing coffee. They gave us a tour of their farms and coffee processing plant. Here I learned that coffee beans off of the bush are similar to a pomegranate seed: sweet gelatin surrounding the coffee bean. And, at the end of our tour we got to taste some of their coffee. The mild Costa Rican coffee is a true delight!
Next we traveled four hours north to go to the Hotel Hacienda–Guachipelin Rincon De Le Vieja, Costa Rica. The hotel was designed to look like a Spanish Hacienda, unique and beautiful.
From our room we walked over suspended bridges to enjoy a hot mud bath followed by sheer relaxation in the hot springs. The mud bath made my scaly Illinois-winter skin smooth as silk and the hot springs were very relaxing. Plus the setting was beautiful. We were surrounded by tall trees, mountain cliffs and variety of trees and luscious tropical plants.
For $100 we purchased a full-day pass from our hotel’s offering of tours. For our adventure we chose a horse ride, a white-water tubing experience, lunch and finally zip lining.
I have always been a horse enthusiast, so I have been on many trail rides and actually owned a horse for a few years. I was quite surprised to see the caliber of horses for this trail ride. They were gaited Peruvian Pasos, in shades of white, grey and sorrel. All looked quite healthy. They pranced and held their heads up high and proud. They were safe for the inexperienced rider yet responsive for more experienced riders who want to proceed faster than a walk. We rode through the woods with the sun filtering through the trees. It felt like a perfect spring day!
The real excitement, however, began on the tubing. Our float traversed over 3 kilometers and we splashed through 25 category 1 and 2 rapids! Fortunately, there were some lazy river sections in between the rapids so you could enjoy the sun and relax. Not many people my age are ready for this much adventure! Next up was zip lining!
Imagine zip lining in a forest canyon over water falls and streams. Fortunately, they used automatic breaks so you can enjoy the ride and scenery without worrying about managing your speed. I always felt safe, even when high above the forest floor. The truly adventurous spirits can also consider the option to rappel down the canyon. However, if you go down, you must also rock climb the canyon wall to return to the platform. Most of us, young and old, chose to just stick with the zip lining.
There are many other tours in Costa Rica to enjoy including waterfalls, volcanoes, geography and nature walks. One tour even included milking a cow before breakfast. I opted out of the cow milking; however, I jumped at the chance to sit on an ox towing a traditional ox cart behind him.
If you enjoy the beach there are many to consider on either the Pacific or the Caribbean Coast. Some are white sand beaches, others are grey and black sands. We spent two days at the Playa Hermosa in Guanacaste on the Pacific Coast. (Hermosa means beautiful in Spanish.) It was especially nice because it is shallow and has a stand of trees near the beach so you can enjoy beach views and yet remain comfortable even during the heat of the day. There was also a great beach side restaurant with wonderful red snapper and cold beverages of choice. One drink that was popular was a Canada Dry with lemon juice and salt around the glass. It was like a a virgin Margarita. Very refreshing!
Later in the day we paid $20 per person for a scenic boat ride and snorkeling trip. We visited a beautiful beach with a cave that is flooded during high tide. The water was too cloudy for good snorkeling, because of high winds the week before. However, the views of the caves were amazing!
If you want luxury accommodations, you might want to consider the Hotel Bosque del Mar. We got to peek at the hotel grounds and they are stunning! Unfortunately for us, it was booked up, so we stayed at the Hotel ManGaby which is rated number one by TripAdvisor. This hotel also had beautiful landscaping and an inviting pool. The rooms were pretty standard, but the prices were still cheaper than staying in a hotel in my home town.
I took a bare-footed walk up to a gorgeous overlook with scenic views of the Hermosa coast. Loved the views, but if you go be sure to wear shoes!
Two hours north of Naranjo is La Fortuna which is in the Arenal Volcano region. The ride is glorious with steep green hillsides and blue hydrangea farm fences. Steps are carved into the steep hillsides so the cattle can navigate them safely. This area offers many resort hotels, hot springs and numerous lush green tropical plants.
We stayed in the Hotel El Silencio del Campo, which had beautiful luxury cabins, hot springs and a full made-to-order breakfast. The tropical landscaping, hot springs and birds were spectacular. The reservoir was created after the last eruption. The old village had to be vacated and when the water is low you can still see the cross on the top of the old church steeple. The reservoir provides ample opportunities for a variety of water adventures.
If you want to see a jungle and are not afraid to walk across suspended bridges you need to visit the Mistico Hanging Bridges. You will see wild life, jungle fauna, and a view of the Arenal volcano. The walk is just over a mile, but it seems longer because of the steep inclines.
Before this trip, Costa Rica wasn’t on my bucket list. But after spending 10 days in this beautiful country I’m recommending Costa Rica for the Bucket List of anyone who wants to enjoy exotic tropical scenery, incredible beaches and adventures galore!
References & Tips:
Our tours were arranged by Jorge (Jay) Varela, the owner of Cooltour. He has negotiated rates for hotels and tours all over Costa Rica, so he can provide assistance in finding the tours and locations that best meet your interests. Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his website at: http://www.cooltour.cr
If you are planning a destination wedding or family reunion in Costa Rica you may need a photographer. Our group used Vale Livergood from V Studio for our photos. We were very pleased with the results. Here’s a link to her site: http://valerialivergood.com
We loved our stay at the Hotel Hacienda Guachipelin. Not only is it a wonderful hotel; they also offer incredible tours and adventures!
If you rent a car, be certain it is a four wheel drive. Most driveways and local roads are unpaved, steep and washboarded.