For those of you thinking of heading south of the border this Spring Break, I urge you to consider the only country in Central America with no army, where friendly local ticos smile and talk to you, and your dollar will be worth more than 300 colones. Costa Rica is a gem in Central America and a great place to try some eco-tourism.
My husband and I spent two weeks there over the winter break, and can’t wait to go back. While we certainly didn’t see all there was to see, we hit many of the highlights. If you plan to go, I’d recommend the following adventures:
Rafting the Pacuare River
Though I had serious concerns about my ability to raft in a country known for its many seriously challenging rapids, I was happy to learn that even average rafters like myself can get by. We took a two-day trip down this fresh-water river near San Jose that consisted of mostly Class 3 and 4 rapids. We stayed by the river in a shack (and I’m using this term loosely) with no glass in the windows or bathroom nearby. For extra thrills, there was a spider the size of my fist parked outside of our makeshift door just salivating for a bite of a rafter. (Thankfully I managed not to be that rafter.) I did however fall out of the boat on day one in the middle of a Class 3+ rapid, and my husband bravely plucked me from the water to safety. All in all it was great fun, and we saw some amazing inaccessible jungle while we paddled.
Hiking the Monteverde Cloud Forest
Driving to Monteverde is its biggest downside. The roads are teeny-tiny twisty things with an abundance of potholes bigger than grocery carts. My neck was twitching by the time we got there, but the drive was well worth it. The cloud forest is the result of air rising rapidly from the Pacific and hovering over a jungle. It is this moist cool climate that causes an incredible array of wildlife and jungles so dense that plants duke it out for sunlight. Roots on tree branches here grow from 100 feet down to the ground, a process that takes many years and is often in vein when local boys cut them to swing on. We saw everything from toucans to tarantulas, and on our last day caught a glimpse of a bird so rare and beautiful that it is known as the “resplendent” quatzal. If you like to hike (day and night hikes are available, and guides are encouraged) then Monteverde is a must-see.
Soaking in the Tabac¢n Hot Springs looking at the Arenal Volcano
Simply put, seeing lava is always a thrill. And if you’re one of the few blessed individuals who get good weather at the Arenal Volcano, then you’ll see tons of it! The volcano has graced the surrounding areas with hot springs, and the best ones are in the Tabac¢n Resort. There are more than 15 pools of steaming hot water, and one includes a natural waterfall you can sit under for a liquid massage. There is a swim-up bar (a favorite of my vacation amenities) and a slide. You can spend all day soaking, and then see lava creep down the volcano at night while sipping a cocktail. If you’re tired of hot springs or if you’re looking for some true adventure in the Arenal Volcano area, you can go cave climbing. This is (in theory) to admire the stalagtites and stalagmites that grow in the caves, but with those come bats, crickets and a raging river. At one point I found myself on all fours, covered in mud and guano, wondering how I’d gotten myself into such a dangerous situation. (My husband.) To get out we had to climb up what our guide referred to as “The Chimney” which looked alarmingly like its namesake.
On the far western Pacific side is a charming string of beaches. Playa del Coco and Tamarindo were the ones we stayed at. Playa del Coco is blessed with sandy beaches and great diving while Tamarindo is known for its nightlife and legendary surfing. We went for our only expensive dinner in Playa del Coco, which felt eerily like being in the states until raccoons showed up in the restaurant. Boston prices, but not quite the same healthcode standards! Our dives were great despite below average visibility. We saw two sharks, an octopus, eels and a school of fish that was in the thousands. One word to the wise, when snorkeling or diving in this area, beware of jellyfish. I managed to get stung on the lip about ten minutes into our dive!
Manuel Antonio National Park
Manuel Antonio is near the city of Quepos, and it was my favorite stop on our trip. Quepos has an incredible white sand beach and the best sunsets in the country. Though our budget did not allow for it, the sport fishing there is world renown. Many of our friends and family swear it is the best place to catch marlin and sailfish. Manuel Antonio National Park also has amazing beaches that are otherwise inaccessible and fantastic hiking trails. If you’re anything like me and you want to go to Costa Rica to see monkeys, this is the place! Manuel Antonio is crawling with them, and they are used to seeing people so they are friendly. We caught a playful family of white-faced monkeys that jumped all around within five feet of us for about twenty minutes. It was unbelievable!
Pack lots of sunblock, hiking boots and a towel, and you’re ready for a Spring Break to remember in Costa Rica! Adi¢s!
Reprinted from January 27, 2003.