Traveling to Costa Rica is high on many people's bucket lists. Since the Central American country borders on both the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean, cruise ships visit ports on both coasts. Puerto Caldera and Puntarenas are the most popular ports of call on the Pacific, and Puerto Limon is the most popular port on the Caribbean. Most cruise ships transiting the Panama Canal include a stopover in Costa Rica. Ships repositioning between Alaska and the Caribbean also include Costa Rica on their itineraries. World cruises and South American itineraries sometimes stop in Costa Rica.
Unfortunately, most cruise ships only spend one or two days in Costa Rica. These cruise lines include Carnival, Celebrity, Costa, Cunard, Holland America, Norwegian Cruise Line, Oceania, Princess, Regent Seven Seas, Royal Caribbean, Seabourn, and Silversea. Those who wish to cruise for several days on a Costa Rica itinerary should consider a small ship cruise like Un-Cruise Adventures or Windstar Cruises. These small ship cruise lines feature ships that can easily visit the smaller coastal towns of Costa Rica that are inaccessible to larger cruise ships.
Those looking for a more in-depth visit to Costa Rica should consider exploring the country on their own before or after a cruise or taking an organized tour. Some well-traveled friends of mine had done a land tour of this amazing Central American country with Caravan Tours and thought it was an excellent value. Although I had visited both Puerto Caldera and Puerto Limon on cruise ships, I was anxious to spend more time in Costa Rica. One of my bucket list friends, Julie, who I had toured with in Peru and New Zealand, also wanted to visit Costa Rica, so we were off!
This 14-page article details our ten-day tour of Costa Rica. First, we flew to San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica.
Arrival in San Jose for Caravan Land Tour
San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica, is about a 4-hour flight from Atlanta. Costa Rica is in the central time zone, so there isn't much jet lag for travelers from the Americas. The city is at an elevation of about 3,000 feet, so its climate is cooler than you might expect in the tropics.
Costa Rica got its independence from Spain in 1821 at the same time the rest of Central America was freed. Evidently, Spain either didn't want a fight or figured -- why bother? Of course, all these new countries had some struggles (and some still do) with being independent. Costa Rica had some skirmishes (for about "20 minutes" according to our guide) the first couple of years, but not the brutal wars of Nicaragua or El Salvador during our lifetimes. In 1948, the president at the time disbanded the armies and declared that Costa Rica would be a neutral country and save the money it was using to maintain an army. These funds were used to improve education and healthcare for the citizens. Most citizens like this policy and Costa Rica is often seen as more progressive and wealthier than its neighbors. Unemployment is about 6 percent, but the country doesn't have any natural resources worth fighting over--just bananas, pineapples, and nursery plants.
Retrieving our luggage and clearing immigration and customs, we were out of the airport about an hour after landing. We met up with the Caravan Tour representative, and were on our way to the San Jose Real Intercontinental Hotel soon afterward, arriving there about 1:30. Our tour director, Anita, greeted us at the hotel, and we were soon settled into our room. This is a gorgeous 5-story hotel in the suburbs of San Jose, with a soaring atrium, lively bar, and nice swimming pool. After getting settled into the room, we walked across the street to a huge shopping mall. It was one of the cleanest I've ever seen, and since it was a Monday afternoon, not very busy. We walked around the mall, stretching our legs and doing a little window shopping. We found the food court and ate a light lunch. Since the weather was perfect (in the 70's) when we had walked over to the mall, we decided to go back to the hotel and don our swimsuits and sit outside for a while. Imagine our surprise when we found it had clouded up and gotten breezy--too cold to sit outside in a swimsuit. So, we stretched out in the room and rested a little before meeting up the group at 7 pm for dinner.
Dinner was a buffet and was about what we expected--good bread, a selection of salads and main dishes, and desserts. We were surprised to learn that Ticos (what Costa Rica citizens call themselves) usually drink fresh juice with all their meals. Kind of odd to have pineapple or strawberry juice for dinner, but when in Rome . . .
After dinner, we had our first Caravan tour group meeting. Even though Caravan has tours that start almost every day during the high winter (dry) season, we had a bus-full of 42 travelers. About half were from Canada, and the rest scattered throughout the USA. Most were married couples, but there were a few solo women travelers.
Our tour director, Anita, is cute, young, and very enthusiastic for someone who has been leading Caravan tours in Costa Rica for seven years and has been in the tour business for a decade. She walked through the itinerary and told us what to expect the next couple of days. We would spend two nights at each stop, except for the last night in downtown San Jose before we fly home.
We hit the ATM in the hotel for about $50 in Costa Rican money, deciding it was easier than always trying to do the currency conversion in our heads. We also bought $10 calling cards to use to call home occasionally.
After the meeting, we went back upstairs and were in bed early. The next day, we were to visit the very active Poas Volcano and the Britt Coffee Plantation.
San Jose - Poas Volcano and Coffee Plantation
Since Costa Rica is at the far eastern edge of the central time zone and hadn't gone on daylight savings time at the time of our March visit, the sun was up by 5 am. We had a delicious breakfast (loved all the fresh fruits), and were on the bus by 7:30 for the 2-hour drive to the Poas Volcano National Park. The volcano has been very active the past 200 years, with the last big eruption in 1989. Although on a clear day, you can see Poas from San Jose, the road to the top is very winding and narrow, so the distance to the top is further than it seems. Our bus driver, Alvaro, did an excellent job, switching back and forth on the curving road as we climbed over 5,000 feet up to the top of Poas, which is above 8,000 feet.
We got lucky. Only about 30 percent of people who travel to the summit of this active volcano actually get to see it on a clear day. As we stood on the edge of the crater, we could see the opposite side almost a mile away and the huge lake in the bottom of the crater easily. What a view! Smoke was rising from the crater, and I got some good photos. Like the rim of the Grand Canyon, you really can't get a sense of the magnitude of the place, and friend Julie refused to scale down the edge of the cliff to provide some perspective for my photos.
After gawking at the main crater for a while, we hiked about 30 minutes to a lake higher up the flat, wide volcano. It's erupted many times over the centuries, so it doesn't have the conical shape seen in other volcanoes. Both Julie and I were very winded after climbing for 15-20 minutes to the lake/lagoon, but we made it. Walking back down the hill, we took a short detour back by the main crater. In the hour we had been away from it, the clouds had started to come in and you couldn't even see the opposite side! How lucky we were to have gotten up early. We then walked back to the visitor center and were back on the bus by 11:30 and on the way to lunch.
Our lunch stop was at an open air restaurant on the side of the volcano that overlooked San Jose and the central valley. Julie and I both got the grilled fish (we had pre-selected fish, chicken, or beef). The fish was accompanied by rice and beans (Ticos each rice and beans at all three meals), salad, squash, and rice pudding for dessert. Fresh strawberry juice accompanied the meal. Very tasty, but would have preferred iced tea. We were introduced to the Lizano salsa, a sauce that Ticos use on all foods. Julie and I both loved it and doused it on our salad, meat, and veggies. While we were waiting for our food, three young Costa Rican students entertained us with music and dance.
Leaving the restaurant a little after 1 pm, we stopped at a Britt coffee plantation for a tour and tasting before returning to the hotel. The two employees who did the tour were hilarious. It made the facts they were presenting much more interesting. The coffee bean harvest in Costa Rica was over at the end of February, so the plants were bare. The Britt facility only does organic coffee, taking in beans from dozens of small farms in the area. The guides explained how they use natural methods to fend off the nematodes and the flies. My coffee-loving friend Julie tried all the samples, declaring them excellent. She even volunteered and got selected to participate in a demonstration of how the quality control technicians test the coffee. After the tour, we browsed in the gift shop while a huge rain shower poured down outside. Glad it waited until late afternoon! We were back at the hotel by 4:30, and Julie and I walked back to the mall to see if the grocery store had some of the Lizano salsa for us to take home. We found the sauce (less than $2/bottle) and Julie bought some Britt coffee. (She couldn't decide what to buy when at the plantation, and the grocery store was a little cheaper than the gift shop.)
Back to the San Jose hotel for an early dinner at 5:30. The hotel was packed with tourists and business travelers, and so the meals have to be spread out. This dinner was even better than the night before, especially the salads. One was a lettuce salad with apples, smoked salmon, and walnuts; and the other was with hearts of palm and asparagus. Yummy. We also had fish and pork. Julie stopped after the salad, but I tried the pork and a brownie for dessert.
We finished our packing for the trip the next day to Tortuguero on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica, where we would be staying in a rustic lodge accessible only by boat. We had to pack a smaller bag (they told us in advance to bring one along) to carry to the lodge since the boat can't transport our big bags. The big bags stayed with the bus and driver. We hoped to see wildlife in the rain forest since we hadn't seen any at the Poas Volcano. We did see dozens of bright green birds (like small parrots) in the palm trees outside our third-floor room at the hotel.I was sure that we'd see all sorts of wildlife on the way to Tortuguero, our next stop.
Tortuguero - Canal Cruise
The bus left San Jose at 8:45 am and fought the rush hour traffic around the city as we headed from our hotel in the west part of town towards the Caribbean coast in the east. After about an hour, we were out of town and in the central mountain range that is Costa Rica's continental divide. Only one major highway connects the San Jose metropolis with the main Caribbean shipping and cruise ship port at Puerto Limon, so we had dozens of trucks all around our big bus on the road.
Costa Rica has the lovely Braulio Carrillo National Park that stretches for miles along both sides of the Caribbean highway. For such a small country, Costa Rica has many national parks, with over 25 percent of the entire country under protection. We had great views of the high mountain scenery and foliage (like the poor man's umbrella, a huge plant with large leaves as big as an umbrella). This park is named for one of Costa Rica's early past presidents of the nineteenth century whose dream was to build a road connecting the capital and the Caribbean. Because of the high mountains, the road wasn't completed until the 1980's.
After driving across the continental divide, we arrived at a butterfly farm about 10:30, where we had time to see the butterflies and have a nice lunch. The restaurant had a good set up. Anita gave us 1 1/4 hours to do both, which was plenty of time. We all ran around inside the butterfly room snapping photos and trying to get a picture of one of the iridescent Blue Morpho butterflies that Costa Rica is known for. After oohing and ahhing over the butterflies, we enjoyed another good buffet meal, with salad, rice/beans, shredded beef, grilled casava, a delicious squash casserole, etc. Julie and I managed to top everything with our new favorite Lizano sauce.
Back on the bus at 11:45, we soon turned off the main Caribbean road onto a dirt road that would take us to the boat landing. Given that the area gets over 200 inches of rain each year, the road was in good condition and had almost no traffic. We passed through miles and miles of banana plantations and farms with large fields of cattle and horses. We stopped at a Del Monte banana processing plant to watch the action. I've seen banana fields before, but never dozens of people working in a large open warehouse-type building to sort and clean the bananas. They had the Caribbean music playing loudly, but it was repetitive work washing, sorting, and packing the bananas.
The bus arrived at the Cano Blanco boat landing after over two hours on the dirt road. Long drive, but the interesting countryside and so different than we had seen the day before. Very flat. Tortuguero is a national park that is only accessible via small plane or boat. Costa Rica has an intra-coastal waterway that stretches about 50 miles from Puerto Limon to the small village of Tortuguero and the park. Since we met the boat at a point further north, we didn't have to ride as far on the boat.
The boats used to transport tourists to Tortuguero is just like a bus. Covered, with two rows of two seats with an aisle down the middle. Forty-four seats--now I know why our 48 passenger bus only had 44 passengers! We donned our life jackets and were off for Tortuguero. The first section of the journey was for about 15 minutes on the Parismina River, followed by a short trek on the California Canal. This canal is very shallow and the outboard engines were almost out of the water. Melvin (our "Captain") took quite a while going along this canal, which has been silted up since the Limon earthquake of 1991. He kept saying we were going to have to get out and push, but we finally got through and were into the Tortuguero Canal. This was much deeper and we zipped along seeing many water birds and a few monkeys. The guide said that this ride was only a transfer and that we wouldn't stop unless we saw something really exciting, saving our sightseeing for the next day.
After about two hours, we arrived at Pachira Lodge, a really marvelous wilderness hotel/lodge. We were greeted with a snack of a cheese sandwich and a cake--tasty after our early lunch. Of course, it was accompanied by fruit juice. The lodge has a lovely pool and bar right on the river/canal. It's amazing that the Caribbean is just a short distance away. The large grounds are lush and beautiful, filled with tropical vegetation. The cabins each have 4 rooms, and there are 88 rooms, so there must be 22 cabins/cottages. Our cabin had a nice porch with rocking chairs and big windows, but no air conditioning. We did have a ceiling fan and clean, basic bathroom. We didn't miss the air conditioning--after all, we were roughing it!
Dumping our stuff in the room, Julie and I explored the grounds to stretch our legs since we had been sitting most of the day. We had about 1.5 hours until our pre-dinner meeting at 6 pm. There's even a sister lodge next door with its own separate pool, and a spa shared by the two properties. Julie and I grabbed a cold drink (Imperial beer for me, water for her) and sat on the boat dock and enjoyed the late afternoon breeze, chatting with our new Caravan friends.
The Pachira guide discussed what we would be doing the next day prior to dinner, and then we ate another good buffet. The best dish (in our opinion) was a casava root/beef/cheese casserole, but it was all good. After dinner, we checked our email--they had free WiFi on the porch of the office--and enjoyed the evening air. Here we were, in the middle of nowhere, and there's WiFi. By the time we got back to the room, it was cooler and we both took cool showers and slept well. Our group was to spend another night at Tortuguero, and Julie and I were going ziplining the next day.
Tortuguero - Cano Palma Cruise
Our full day at Tortuguero was great and packed with activities. Although we expected to be awakened by the howler monkeys, we weren't. It's kind of funny. Although we were awake (mostly from people chatting as they walked by our open-windowed cabin), the noise that we heard for several minutes was the guy pushing a rattling coffee cart down the sidewalk! It's a nice gesture--you ask them to bring you coffee/tea at a certain time, and the "coffee-boy" knocks on your door as a wake-up call and gives you a cup of either coffee or tea. Very nice, but the sound was a little annoying. We certainly knew when he stopped the cart at our door at 6 am!
We had buffet breakfast at 7:00--the usual fresh fruits, pastries, cereals, scrambled eggs, sausages, and rice/beans (or is it beans/rice? Our guide Anita told us the two dishes are different, but I think she was teasing). Here at Pachira Lodge in Tortuguero, the rice/beans at night are cooked with coconut milk, but at breakfast they are not. Interesting difference.
Our group was in the three small boats (about 15 in each boat with a guide and a driver) and on the water by 8 am. Caravan required us to wear life jackets, so we could easily spot the other Caravan boats since no one else seemed to wear them. We stayed on the intra-coastal waterways, exploring small backwaters in search of wildlife. I can see why the fishing is so terrific here, although I think you'd need a guide to figure out where to fish. It all looked the same to me. Plus, although we saw some signs pointing out the different canals, you could get easily lost for days! The weather was a little overcast, but not as hot as I feared it might be. When we were back in the canals, there's no wind, so it got muggy. However, we saw lots of wildlife in our two-hour tour. Since many of the creatures were a little distance away and you needed binoculars to see them well (which we had), the "action" wasn't as exciting as I've been lucky enough to experience elsewhere, but it was good. Everyone in our boat deemed it a great experience (including me).
What did we see? Much more than I thought, although if we hadn't both taken binoculars, we wouldn't have seen some of the fascinating creatures. Our first sighting was a large iguana on a limb out over the water. You sometimes forget how camouflaged they can be. We also saw several "Jesus Christ lizards", who got that nickname because they can walk (really run) on water for about 20-30 yards at a time. They scamper very quickly! We also saw about a half dozen different types of herons, some really up in dense trees over the water. We couldn't believe the guide Willis could find them until he told us that they are very territorial and often stay in the same trees during the day (and hunt at night) for long periods of time. Anhingas (diving birds who often are drying their wings) were also frequent.
I was surprised to see an otter, but he certainly had many of places to hide in the roots of trees along the waterways/rivers. It just seems too warm for furry creatures (although I know they are out there). I guess the white-faced monkeys were the biggest hit with our boat. There were dozens of them in the trees at one spot. We quickly determined they were trying to steal the eggs of a large turkey-like bird called a Great Curassow. It was fun to watch the monkeys scamper along the tree branches, but you still needed binoculars to get a good look. Very cute. The Great Curassow was doing a good job of protecting her nest, but I'm not sure if the odds were in her favor--50 monkeys vs 1 bird doesn't bode too well.
After a couple of hours, we returned to the dock for a pizza and fruit juice snack and potty break. At 10:30, we re-boarded the boats and crossed the river over to the town of Tortuguero. We first stopped at the Sea Turtle Conservancy to watch a short film about the conservation efforts here. Leathernecks and green sea turtles come ashore on the warm black volcanic beach. The first sea turtle conservancy was at Tortuguero, and now they are worldwide. Those who are fascinated by sea turtles can even volunteer to work at a sea turtle reserve in Costa Rica!
After watching the video, we walked out on the Caribbean beach. The volcanic sand was very fine and really stuck to our shoes and feet. The surf was rough and the undertow was very bad here, so no swimming. We walked down the beach to the little town of Tortuguero, where everything has to be brought in via boat or plane. It's a 25-minute flight to San Jose, but flights are iffy because of the frequent bad weather, so boats are used most often, even though it's a two-hour ride on a boat, followed by another two-hour bus/car ride to any towns.
We walked through the town and did a little "window" shopping, but I only bought a diet coke and Julie bought a coconut with a straw to drink the coconut water. Lunch was at 1 pm, so we could stay in town until 12:30, but Julie and I decided to go back for a swim in the nice turtle-shaped pool before lunch, so we were back at Pachira Lodge by noon. While walking back to our cabin, a group of howlers was making a ton of noise, and we got a good look at them. We donned our swimsuits and bobbed around in the refreshing water some before putting our regular clothes back on for another good lunch.
Soon it was 1:45 and time for Julie and me to do our optional tour--zip lining. Caravan doesn't endorse any optional activities, and our guide was not allowed to even discuss them. However, all the hotels do have optional tours, and the zip lining from Pachira Lodge did not conflict with our scheduled afternoon boat tour at 3:30. So, we signed up, along with 14 others from our group. It was only $30, about 1/3 the price I've paid elsewhere. We rode in one of the boats to the zip line center.
The zip lining experience was about the same as I've seen elsewhere, but we only had one cable to be attached to instead of two like I've seen elsewhere. Plus, we had to climb a very long ladder (about 75 feet) up a tree to start the zipping. We had a "safety" wire attached, but not sure how it would have kept me from falling. Third, the platforms did not have any type of rails surrounding them although we were continually hooked up with our carabiners to the wires.
Climbing the ladder was by far the scariest part for all of us. The zip guides were very personable and eager to practice their English. The zipping went smoothly and they had interesting swinging walkways connecting the stations. The course also had a place (very high up) where we were hooked up and swung like Tarzan out over the jungle. The first time I had ever done that! Each one of use swung back and forth from the station, with one of the guides pushing us back out and everyone yelling "take your hands off". Great fun.
The only thing bad about the Tortuguero zip line course were the millions of mosquitoes. We sprayed down good, but it was very disconcerting to look at a whole bunch of skeeters covering the back of the person in front of you. We did enjoy seeing the dense rainforest (jungle) from the heights. Most of us bought a CD with our photos for $15. All agreed it was fun. (Good news is that none of us suffered much from the bites.)
The three boats from our morning tour came to pick us up at the zip line center at about 3:45. The others in our Caravan tour were already in the boats. I'm sure Anita (and our fellow group members) were happy to see our merry team of zippers!
Whereas the morning tour had gone to the national park, the afternoon boat tour took us to a wildlife reserve. We saw two more types of monkeys in large groups--howler monkeys and spider monkeys. The spider monkeys are very large. We saw many of the same birds, otters, and lizards from the morning. The one animal we all wanted to see but didn't was a sloth, although one woman in our group got a great photo of one with a baby in a tree at our resort. Unfortunately, she couldn't find the tree again or the sloth moved. Since the resort is very large and spread out, it's not surprising that she couldn't retrace her steps. Here's a list of what our boat saw in the morning and afternoon tours.
- herons (at least a half dozen types)
- great curassow
- white faced monkey
- Jesus Christ lizard
- a funny-eared lizard (my description, didn't catch the name)
- vine snake (very long and thin and green--looked JUST like a vine)
- howler monkeys
- spider monkeys
- jack hanna bird
- snowy egret
- Montezuma oriole
- great egret
- yellow warbler
All in all, a good wildlife viewing day. And, we had NO rain and relatively good temps (not too hot).
We were back at Pachira Lodge by 5:15 and didn't have dinner until 7 pm, so I went back into the pool (after showering off the bug juice). We all joined in the fun around the pool, where we had live music and cold Imperial beer. Lots of dancing and laughing.
Soon it was time for dinner--another good meal with both a potato/hamburger casserole, beef, and chicken cooked in Lizano sauce. The juice was tamarind juice, which neither Julie nor I had ever tasted.
After dinner, we checked email using the free WiFi and were in bed by 10 pm. Our Costa Rica tour group would head to La Fortuna the next day.
Tortuguero to La Fortuna - Canal Cruise and Pineapple Plantation
The next morning it was raining in the rainforest. What a wonderful smell and feeling in the air! Since we always have the windows closed at home, I sometimes forget how nice screened windows, fresh air, and a wrap around porch are. The rain doesn't blow in, but the cooler air does. (Not that I'm ready to trade in my air conditioning, but I was happy that we would get to see this part of Costa Rica the way it usually is -- damp.) I could hear many frogs, birds, and even a growler monkey in distance. Daylight comes early to Costa Rica, with first light before 5 am. The rain seemed to stimulate more activity in the jungle.
We had our bags down on the dock by 6:30 and went to breakfast. It stopped raining but remained overcast. We were in the boat by 7:30 and off for the return to meet our bus, luggage, and driver.
The return trip was cool and uneventful. It rained a little, but the boat was covered, so we didn't get wet. We saw more monkeys and birds on the return. Guess we were getting better at spotting them. When we reached the shallow part of the canal, those of us in the back of the boat had to move forward to help the boat get through. We were just glad we didn't have to get out and push!
The boat ride seemed much shorter this time, but still lasted almost two hours, same as before. Guess we were all busy watching for wildlife this time. We arrived back at the Cano Blanco boat dock before 9:30 and were on the bus after a potty break since there were no bathrooms on the boat.
Our group now faced the two-hour ride on the dirt road back to civilization, passing by small settlements and many farms and banana plantations along the way. Anita had Alvaro stop the bus for us to see a black-headed wood stork, cacao trees, noni juice tree, trucks loaded with palm oil plants, and a flowering tree that is used to produce Chanel No. 5 perfume. We finally got back onto a paved road about 11:30, and were at our lunch spot at noon.
Our buffet lunch was preceded by a "Costa Rican fashion show", another performance by a group of young people like the one we had the first day at the Poa Volcano lunch spot. The costumes were quite cute and demonstrated many things we learned were Costa Rican--toucans, blue butterflies, leopards, etc. Lunch was good again. After lunch, we wandered outside and found that a three-toed sloth was in a nearby tall bush. We all got a good look at it. Isn't it funny that we looked all over the area near Tortuguero and didn't see one, only to find one in a small tree near a restaurant? Its presence was so unexpected, I tried to look carefully to see if it had a collar, but it didn't. The restaurant's name was Kapok, named for a huge kapok tree out front.
We were back on the road by 1:15, driving for La Fortuna, our next stop. At about 2:30 or so, we stopped at an organic pineapple plantation owned by Collin Street Bakery, a Texas company that is famous for its fruitcakes. The pineapple not used by Collin Street is sold to Dole. The guy gave a funny presentation, followed by a taste of delicious fresh pineapple and the best pineapple juice any of us have ever had. It still had the pulp in it and was yummy.
While we were eating pineapple (and taking a potty break), Alvaro got a call that there was a truck accident backing up traffic on the main highway. So, we took a scenic detour on some back roads. It was fun seeing all the pineapple fields (Costa Rica is the #1 producing country for pineapples), along with the palm trees used for hearts of palm salad (which we seem to have most days). It seemed to take us all day to reach La Fortuna!
La Fortuna - Arenal Volcano
We were back on the main road about an hour later and finally arrived in La Fortuna a little after 5 pm. We stayed at the Lomas del Volcan resort, a gorgeous property on the outskirts of town. Each of us had our own cabin, with porches on both the front and back. The rooms are huge with two double beds and a bathroom with a shower larger than our entire bathroom at home! Julie and I had a cabin a little walk from the main building, and I was glad I brought a flashlight. It sure came in handy walking back to the cabin after dinner.
Our happy little group would be seeing more wildlife the next day at the Cano Negro Wildlife Refuge on the northern border of Costa Rica.
La Fortuna - Rio Frio and Cano Negro Wildlife Refuge
The next morning we were up early (as usual), and the fog still hung over the nearby volcano, Arenal. It was a sunny day, so we were hopeful that it would clear off by the afternoon so we could see the summit. We rode almost due north from La Fortuna, passing by miles and miles of pineapple, casava, papaya, and other field crops. After about an hour and a half, we arrived at Los Chiles, which is almost on the Nicaraguan border. It's near the Cano Negro Wildlife Refuge.
Our group boarded a large sightseeing pontoon boat and moved along the river, with the guide pointing out various wildlife. Many of the animals/birds were the same ones we had seen before, but we did see some large caimans, many spider monkeys swinging from tree to tree, and some small long nose bats resting on a tree trunk. The guide was most excited about spotting a great patoo, an owl-like bird in a tree. However, we all went wild when we saw a goldish-red howler monkey with her baby. Howlers are usually black, so this one really stood out against the green foliage. (Our guide said it was an albino howler.) The other things we saw were: anhinga, great egret, kingfishers, white ibis, northern jack hanna, yellow flycatcher, golden hooded taniger, tiger heron, and a black-collared hawk with a buff chest. We also saw the back of a large, male howler monkey sitting over us in a tree. Even I could tell it was a male since his private parts were white and stood out against his black fur.
Another interesting thing we did was go into Nicaragua (a new country for me) on the boat. We had been told to carry our passports in case we got checked, but no one approached our tour boat. We cruised right past the sign that said (in essence) "welcome to Nicaragua", but we didn't go 10 yards before turning around and moving back towards Los Chiles. This crossing is one of the two main border crossing areas between Costa Rica and Nicaragua.
Although we all hated to leave the wildlife refuge, we had another adventure to look forward to -- the thermal baths at the Baldi Hot Springs.
La Fortuna - Baldi Hot Springs
When we got back to Los Chiles, we ate lunch before heading back to La Fortuna. Another good meal. What's not to love about chicken & rice, black beans, potatoes, salad, etc.? After lunch, we returned to La Fortuna on the same road but didn't go back to the hotel. Instead, we stopped at the Baldi Hot Springs, which were only a short distance from our hotel. This was a terrific place to spend a few hours, and the setting at the foot of the Arenal Volcano was spectacular. They have beautiful gardens and 25 pools of varying temperatures, ranging from relatively cool to a high of 152 (according to the sign). Julie and I tried several of the pools during our 2-hour stay. (We had all packed our swimsuits since we knew we wouldn't be returning to the hotel). They also had three big water slides, which several in our group did, but we skipped. It was a very relaxing (and fun) experience and provided good views of the nearby volcano.
We returned to the hotel about 5:30, and Julie and I joined some of our group at the hot tub to soak away a few more sore muscles from sitting so much on the bus and boats. Before we knew it, we needed to get dried off and ready for dinner. We took quick showers, and even had time to try a shot of the Costa Rican equivalent of moonshine called guaro. Julie and I both thought it was better than some shots we have tried. Guess it was good to drink it right before dinner so the effects never had time to sink in on an empty stomach.
Back to the cabin after dinner so we could pack for the next day's adventure -- the Hanging Bridges.
La Fortuna - Hanging Bridges Hike
The next morning, the volcano gods were smiling on our group--Costa Rica's Volcan Arenal was out! It was cloud covered when we got up (bag out by 6:30), but the clouds burned off during breakfast, leaving perfectly blue skies and great photo opportunities. We left La Fortuna and Lomas del Volcan about 7:30 to drive to the Arenal Hanging Bridges trail. We were going hiking for about 1.5 hours, and most of us were really looking forward to it. About 30 of us did the whole circle hike, which passed over 6 swinging bridges and numerous other bridges as we climbed up and over the lush jungle. They put 15 in each of the 2 main groups, while the rest of the non-hikers did either one of the two shorter hikes or just rested in the cafeteria.
The hike was a lot of fun. The trail was "paved" with concrete blocks and was difficult to walk on, but we slowly made our way up and over and around the mountains. Our group got very lucky with spotting the wildlife. We saw parrots, an agouti (a mammal like an otter/ferret), an eyelash palm pit viper (poisonous, but coiled up on a tree branch not far from our group), and a group of coati mundis (kin to the raccoon).
Returning to the bus, we were upset to see that one of our colleagues who had been in the group ahead of us had tripped and fallen on her face about 100 yards from the end of the trail. Her face was bleeding badly in two places and we heard she might require stitches. They had called an ambulance, but it took about an hour to arrive. We all just gawked at the volcano or had a snack while waiting. I think the woman was more embarrassed/mortified than hurt.
The ambulance arrived and a paramedic got the wounds closed and the bleeding finally stopped. A nurse with our group had kept ice and compresses on it before the medic got there. Charge for the medic/ambulance was only $40 cash, which we all thought was a good deal. We were all happy that she did not have to go to the hospital and could continue with us on to Guanacaste.
La Fortuna to Guanacaste
We stopped for lunch about an hour after leaving the Arenal Hanging Bridges, and I pulled out the computer to get caught up. The drive from the hanging bridges to the lunch stop in Tilaran was along the man-made Lake Arenal, which was built in the 1970's to produce hydroelectric power. Soon after we left the lakeside, the scenery significantly changed from wet, lush rainforest to dry, flat savannah. It looks much like California, and wildfires are a big problem since it is SO dry. No more big trees or tropical flowers since irrigation is required. What a change an hour or so makes! We also saw many cattle ranches in the transition area.
This region of Costa Rica is called Guanacaste and provides much of the folklore and music of the country. It seemed almost like a desert after the green landscape we had experienced the past few days. We stopped for a short potty break, and most of us also ventured into a grocery store to buy a snack or look around. Soon we were back on the bus and on the way to the JW Marriott Guanacaste. We arrived at the hotel at about 4:30 and immediately loved it. The decor is like a very large Spanish hacienda, with lovely furnishings and a spectacular setting on the Pacific Ocean. The swimming pool area is huge.
We had a nice buffet dinner and wandered around a little. The next day was our free day, with no activities planned. Some people are going snorkeling or zip lining, but we planned to just goof off around the pool. Caravan was paying for all drinks by the pool from 1 to 4 pm, so we knew we would definitely have some icy cold drinks!
Guanacaste - Rest Day!
The next day on our Caravan tour of Costa Rica was a "free day" at the gorgeous JW Marriott Guanacaste Resort. After a week of non-stop touring, the free day came at a perfect time.
I woke up early (as usual) and went and walked around a little on the hotel grounds and beach before having breakfast. We were so spoiled by all the fresh fruit and fruit juices. When I returned to the room, Julie had gone out for breakfast. We rendezvoused in the room about 10 am, donned our swimsuits, and went out to the pool.
Although it was very warm in the early morning, the breeze had gotten up and it was nearly as hot as we feared it might be. Julie and I had one of the pool boys get us an umbrella, and we spent the rest of the day lounging next to (or in) the huge pool. Since we stayed in the shade, neither of us got burned.
We took a break for lunch and then enjoyed having free drinks from 1 to 4 pm, compliments of Caravan. Nice treat. I checked online, and the cheapest rooms in this hotel were $311/night, so Caravan must get a great volume discount. This time of year the company sometimes has four busloads of people at the hotel every day--that's over 80 rooms! No wonder the tour is such a good value.
The buffet at the hotel is very good, comparable to what I've seen on many cruise ships.
After sitting by the pool all day long, Julie took a walk while I returned to the room to shower. We rendezvoused back by the pool in time to watch the sunset over the Pacific. With only a few clouds, we had a great view!
Dinner was at 7:30, much better than the 5:30 the night before. Our big bags had to be outside the room at 6:15 am the next morning, with breakfast at 6:30 and then the bus left Guanacaste at 7:20. On the way back to San Jose, we planned to stop for one last wildlife-viewing boat ride at a crocodile-infested river.
Guanacaste to San Jose - Tarcoles River Cruise
Our last full day in Costa Rica was spent on the bus. We had our bags outside by 6:15 am, ate breakfast, and were all on the bus by 7:30 and on the road.
Alvaro drove the first hour on yet another dirt road, a "shortcut" that connected the Marriott resort with the highways headed south and east. The ride was uneventful, and we stopped once for a potty break at a small cafe. I'll have to say that Caravan did an excellent job of finding pit stops with very clean restrooms. We've been to some very rustic locations, and all had perfectly clean toilets.
We stopped at an open-air restaurant for lunch--chicken fingers, rice & beans, fried plantains (our new favorite), and a nice coconut dessert. Yummy.
After lunch, we rode about 20 minutes to the Tarcoles River, about 20 miles north of Jaco on the Pacific coast. We turned off the highway and drove the short distance to the small town of Tarcoles. From there, we boarded yet another boat for a ride on the Tarcoles River. What a treat! The river was advertised as crocodile infested, and it certainly was. We saw about a dozen crocs in our 45-minute ride, and the boat driver even got out on the bank twice (for each side of the boat) to feed raw chicken to two of the giant crocodiles. What a brave guy! They are certainly ferocious looking.
After the boat ride, we had a short time to shop for souvenirs and be entertained by two men playing a marimba. We were back on the bus by about 2:30, and headed for our hotel in San Jose. It is about 1.5-2 hours from the coast at Tarcoles to the capital city. I'm sure we were all a little sad that our memorable tour of Costa Rica would be ending the next day.
San Jose and Home
We arrived in San Jose about 4:00 in the afternoon, and had a couple of hours to get ready for the farewell dinner. Our group met at 6 pm and were entertained by three young couples who did a selection of Costa Rican dances for us. Very cute. Of course, they made some of us (Julie and I included) get up and dance with them. Dinner followed the entertainment. We stayed at the downtown Holiday Inn and had dinner on the 17th floor. This is one of San Jose's tallest buildings, so we had great views of the city.
What a great trip and this tour would be a great add-on extension to the Caribbean or a Mexican Riviera cruise. Here's a link to information on the tour we did with Caravan -- http://www.caravan.com/tour/costa-rica.