If you need water of any kind: rivers, lakes, pools or hot tubs on your holidays but can’t sit around wasting the day away, Costa Rica is the place to go! There are a zillion places that sound great, hard to sift through them all. I’m freakin out! Eventually I realize that maybe I just have to pick a few places, rent a car and go.
First stop, Arenal volcano area (see Part 1.) Tip #1 – driving around. If you are looking for a street and road signs anywhere, think again. Navigate by knowing small town names on the way to where you are going, look for those few and far between signs and you will get to your destination. But I digress…
We end up at Arenal Manoa Resort and Hot Springs. I book a bunch of tours right off the bat (more later…) and off to check out the hot springs! It is literally a regular resort swimming pool. Where is the hot spring part? Well, they dug a well and pump up water heated from the volcano into the pool. Not exactly the “hot spring” I was expecting.
The next day starts with breakfast in the restaurant with a breathtaking, open air view of the volcano. Then we are off to our first tour: Zip Lining and Canopy tour with Sky Adventures! The first adventure is what will become known as a “Tico Massage”, which is code for driving down an unpaved, bumpy road, over hundreds of potholes for miles. In the start of the canopy tour, our guide warns us about the difficulties of the three-hour canopy tour/hike. But when the 75-year-old French grandmother says “I’ve been to Tibet…” and blows off the warning, the rest of us has no choice but to continue! We go over eight raised bridges through the jungle, seeing snakes, spiders, birds, anteaters…and more. It’s a great hike, not a walk in the park, but doable for most.
Next up is the tram to the top of the mountain for the ziplining! We get kitted up and we’re off. Scary and exhilarating, going 50 MPH for a half mile at a time! Great views of the lake and the volcano after you realize you can open your eyes and take them off the line and your equipment. We later hear that one line without a safety line is dangerous. This is one line. Not sure what to believe, but good thing I don’t hear this until after…
Afterwards, an early morning guided volcano hike. Along with another couple from Luxembourg, our naturalist takes us as close to the volcano. Fun Fact #1: it is not lava flow like Hawaii but tiny and large rocks. Apparently, it doesn’t get hot enough to create the liquid. We also get a great view of the lake and learn Fun Fact #2: the lake is dammed and made in the 60’s and supplies 40% of the power that the country uses. It makes a pretty good recreational use as well for boating and kayaking. On the way back from our two-hour walk, we run into a family of white-faced cappuccino monkeys, apparently this is quite rare for this area. Very cool!
After a very quick lunch is canyoning, aka: waterfall rappelling. We previously booked with Desafio and highly recommend them. They pick us up and after another “Tico Massage,” we find ourselves in the deep jungle. This appears very safe. They have a second line and someone else holding your stopping line in case you drop it, so only slightly worried. We go down a test run for 30 feet, but immediately over to a few falls that are 200+ feet high. Scary as the first thing you have to do is turn around, lean back, and trust your equipment with your life. In between rappels, we are also walking through the connecting rivers, jumping into a pool here and there. I see the largest, hairiest spider I have ever seen, in the size of my hand. Conversely, I also see the cutest sloth with her pup. Rappelling is harder than it looks, but exhilarating to have covered the terrain and in that manner.
We meet an Israeli couple rappelling and we are both coincidentally going to Tabacon that night. Tabacon is the high end hot spring resort in the area. USD $60 for a day pass. This is the only place that actually diverts the hot river through its natural property, rather than just digging down for a well and heating up the pool. We are skeptical, but get there and realize it is absolutely spectacular! It is clear that it is not 100% natural, but it mostly is and the rest blends in well. When you are in the various connected pools, there are natural lava rock bottom, not slick pool bottom. There is a waterfall area, so you can sit with the waterfall on your shoulders like a massage or sit back on the bench away and watch the action through the waterfall. Eventually, we meet up with the Israeli couple, have a few fruity, blended drinks, Imperials, food, friends for life (Well, maybe we’ll see each other again…) In hind sight, it’s worth checking in the hotel for a night since you are going to pay the $120/couple fee anyway.
And saving the best for last, I find Exploradores Outdoors which runs trips on the Pacuare – the premier rafting river in the country with class 3 and 4 rapids. Bonus, they pick you up in Arenal area or San Jose at no additional charge, so I have them pick us up in Arenal and drop us off in San Jose. Another bonus: I get to return the rental car and leave the driving to them! Pick up time is 5:30 am because it is a three-hour drive to the river. They start you off with a full Costa Rican breakfast when you arrive and you get ready to hit the river. Another hour drive, following by a 20-minute drive in a 4×4 down to the river. That was the mother of all Tico Massages!
The river is beautiful, winding through a mountainous jungle canyon. I volunteer for friendly man overboard training drill, i.e. jump and try to get back in the boat! Water is slightly cooler than the beach, but still in the high 70s. Hiked up tributary to a nice pool for swim. After a few hours of rafting, we stop at a nice beach and walk ten minutes up a hill and eventually turn a corner and see our beautiful eco-lodge where we are going to spend the night. There is only one way to get there, by raft. There is only one way to get supplies in, by raft. Lunch is delish burritos and I take a nap in the hammock. Dinner is a plentiful dish of local fish, chicken, and rice with bananas and condensed milk for dessert. Two bottles of Chilean cab to wash it all down. Time for bed, but first we have to find our hut in the dark, not so easy, but eventually we get there.
We wake up to an excellent breakfast and Costa Rican coffee. The second day of rafting is even more amazing. Best ever I dare say, with many close calls on flipping the boat, a nice stop for lunch and another short river hike, and we find our destination safe and sound. We’re with a very experienced rafting couple who agree this is one of the best rivers they ever ran. After a quick clean up, long van ride to San Jose.
Need to kill time before our flight, so we ask to be dropped off at the hotel, in a central area with restaurants. The driver suggests the Don Carlos Hotel. They allow us to check our bags at no fee, very nice. I google and find a nice dinner spot nearby in La Esquina de Buenos Aires, which is a sketchy walk through San Jose with my wife telling me every block that if it isn’t on the next block, she is turning around. Anyway, once we get there, the restaurant is teeming with life, great food, friendly people, and lots of good Argentinian Malbecs. After dinner and post dinner drinks, we still have a few hours to kill, so for USD $80, we take a room at the Don Carlos, grab 50 winks, then off to the airport for the long red eye home. As good as the restaurants and hotels are, we are still of the same opinion that 99.98% of people are, which is to minimize your time in San Jose as much as possible, missing it altogether if possible by flying into Liberia or at the very least timing flights to get in or out of San Jose JIT (just in time!)
Overall, Costa Rica is a great blend of relaxation and adventures, come learn why everybody meets and greets with the phrase “Pura Vida” (Pure Life)!