Tuesday, September 2, 2008

24 Costa Rica

We enjoyed our visit to Nicaragua last month so much that we were very eager for our trip to Costa Rica. August is the middle of rainy season in Costa Rica but it also means the low season for tourism which lends to less crowds and cheaper prices.

No sooner had we picked up our 4x4 Suzuki Ignis from Tricolor Car Rental than the skies opened up above us. Fifteen minutes later, it was a torrential downpour. This was only the first of our road challenges; after the rain died down, we found ourselves on a windy road through the hills of Costa Rica, with huge semis and buses careening around the blind curves. Luckily, all the roads were paved until we got to La Fortuna. As we turned onto the road to our first destination, Volcan Arenal, we got to experience our first of the rocky, pot-holed, dirt roads that surround Costa Rica's main attractions.
Since a major eruption in 1968, Volcan Arenal (pictured above) has earned the distinction as one of the ten most active volcanoes in the world. We witnessed this activity first hand from our accommodations at The Arenal Observatory Lodge. From its perch less than two miles from the base of Volcan Arenal, the lodge is the only hotel on the lava flow side of the volcano. Originally a scientific research center run by the Smithsonian Institute, the lodge is now opened to the public. The rooms are large and comfortable with balconies offering fantastic views. At night, people watch the glowing lava flow from these balconies, the restaurant veranda, or the hotel hot tub. It is an amazing show.

There are a number of trails that start right on the hotel property which sits on a private nature reserve. We were eager to head out on the Old Lava Trail, which takes you to the base of Arenal to see hardened lava paths, steam vents, and other volcano phenomena. Unfortunately, we found the trail roped off with peligro tape--danger! The hotel owner explained to us that Arenal was currently very active, and lava was flowing down that trail. We asked for other suggestions on how to get closer to the volcano, but he explained that the restaurant veranda was the absolute closest anyone could go right now. So to avoid things like dying and death we explored other parts of the reserve area. We found ourselves hiking Cerro Chato, a grueling trail (pictured at right) that takes you up the side of a dormant volcano to the lake that has formed in its crater. We also found our way to a great waterfall. Throughout the day, Arenal would rumble and puffs of smoke would rise from the bellowing monster's peak.

After two fantastic nights at Arenal, it was time to hit the road for our next adventure: the Cloud Forests of central Costa Rica. Though less than ninety miles from Arenal in actual distance, the road to Santa Elena has been purposely left extremely rough by the eco-conscious residents, resulting in a long, arduous journey through the sleepy countryside (pictured below).
Our speed wasn't helped by the entrepreneurial endeavors of townspeople along the way. In Quebrada Grande, we passed an unmarked left turn and one minute later, there was a very helpful man standing in the middle of the road telling us we were lost, that we needed to take that left turn we passed, and that he would sell us a map. As we backtracked, we saw that a sign pointing to our destination had been knocked over. The sale of that map was very carefully orchestrated.

We finally arrived in Santa Elena after four and a half hours on the road. Our first stop was the Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve. Santa Elena (pictured at left) is smaller and less celebrated than Monteverde, and combined with the fact that it was low tourist season, we had the reserve almost entirely to ourselves. We happened upon only two other hikers on the trails that meandered through the rainforest's depths. As we hiked, rain started to fall, and just as Patrick was remarking how well the arching canopy above protected us from getting wet, the skies opened up and we got drenched. We ran the last mile back to the Reserve entrance in full appreciation of rainy season in a rain forest.

We found our way through the rain to El Sol, where owner Elisabeth, as promised, greeted us with big hugs. She set us up in one of the two cabins on the property that she and her husband Ignacio rent to visitors, and arranged for a warm dinner and bottle of wine to be delivered to our door.

When we woke up the next morning, the clouds had cleared and we were greeted with an amazing view of the valley from our cabin window. Elisabeth and her crew prepared an amazing spread for breakfast in the main building, and as we ate, she gave us and the other guests recommendations for the day and predicted good weather for the next two days.

And she was right--for the next two days we enjoyed extraordinarily sunny weather for the rainy season. We hiked through the lush Monteverde Cloud Forest where every plant is growing on another and we studied flowers and trees unlike
anything we'd ever seen. We saw exotic wildlife there and especially at the nearby Ecological Sanctuary--including coatis, agoutis, Morpho butterflies, insects (like the ladybug above), and some crazy birds.

While the main attraction in Monteverde is the Cloud Forest, the main industry is the cheese factory. We didn't have time to catch a tour amidst all our rain forest visits, but we did stop at their ice cream shop, Sabores, for some of the most delicious milkshakes we have ever had. Absolutely not to be missed!

On our last day in Monteverde, Elisabeth arranged for her friend Manuel to take us on a
horseback ride through the valley. This was Patrick's first time on a horse and we figured the
trail would be pretty tame. But Manuel took us down steep, rocky paths and through waterfalls
and streams. Lots of fun, but not for the faint-hearted! We broke for lunch at a large waterfall at the bottom of the valley and ate on a bed of rocks in the middle of the rushing river. We returned to El Sol several hours later dirty, sore, but with big smiles on our faces.

Shortly after our return it was time to say goodbye to El Sol. Elisabeth gave us our goodbye hugs, and Katrina a parting handicraft gift. But if you stay here, be forewarned that they accept only cash, which caused us a two hour delay as we drove back to town, dealt with stringent rules and signature scrutiny at the bank, and finally returned. Plan ahead!

Our last Costa Rican afternoon was spent on the rugged roads (see video below) driving back to San Jose. We spent the night at the Adventure Inn. The entire hotel is decorated in a jungle theme--amusing if not charming. But if you are willing to bear the tackiness, it is a clean, inexpensive option very near the airport. One added bonus of staying there is they used their local knowledge to book us a steal of a car rental with the aforementioned Tricolor Car Rental.

One final note about travel to Costa Rica: originally, we booked our flights with Spirit Airlines. They offer shockingly inexpensive flights connecting through Ft. Lauderdale to many Central American locations. However, Spirit Airlines changed our flights twice in the weeks after our purchase, including added overnight layovers in Ft. Lauderdale and a 30-minute connection in Myrtle Beach. We decided the price wasn't worth the increasing possibility of not making it to/from our destination, so we canceled the reservation and forked over a little more to fly on trusty American Airlines. We recommend resisting the dirt cheap allure of Spirit Airlines.


  1. Next time you are in Costa Rica you should visit Tabacon Hot Springs. It is in Arenal and quite the treat. Very relaxing and perfect after a day of hiking!

  2. I always struggle with the spelling of Massachusetts. Even now i had to rely on spell check. but this apart excellent blog. i thoroughly enjoyed it. Keep it up.


  3. Going to Costa Rica on Wednesday. Staying the first and last night at the Adventure Inn. Thanks for the info about it. It sure will help with expectations. Enjoyed your Costa Rica writings.
    Will check back.

  4. Thanks for sharing your costa rican adventure story! I plan on traveling there in late november :)

  5. great post. planning my own trip rightnow.

  6. do you recommend staying at el sol? we are 2 travelers (not a couple) so we need 2 beds. did you feel far (driving) from the 2 cloud-forests or did el sol seems just fine and only a little off the "beaten" path?

  7. We loved El Sol. Our cabin had just one big bed, but there was a second cabin in which a family of four was staying...I would just inquire with Elisabeth. Definitely close enough to town for convenience, but far enough away to feel off the beaten path. Good luck!

  8. Can you let me know about driving from San Jose Airport up to Guanacaste (Hilton Papagayo), we will also be driving out to see Arenal. Do we need a four wheel drive? Do you have the email of the car rental company you used? Please email me at kjjjrivas@aol.com Thanks, Kate

  9. very good posting,i liked it.
    thank you for this post.


  10. It's really an impressive posting. I liked it & think that it will be helpful for others. Keep up the good work. Good luck.

    Web Royalty

  11. I'm sure that Costa Rica is a beautiful country and some animals and flowers are amazing. Great post, thanks for the information!

  12. yo visite costa rica hace mucho tiempo por motivo de una cirugia conoci muchos lugares como san carlos en donde hay un hotel que se dedica a costa rica plastic surgery y fue genial

  13. Oh I love horse back riding! You look so happy in that picture! Amazing! What good nature and good rest can do to people right? :) Sounds like an amazing trip guys!

  14. My friend was in Costa Rica, he traveled thorough last minute travel. I saw his photos from there, it is amazing place. I would like to go there in the future.

  15. If you stay in the Arenal Volcano area, I personally recommend Arenal Volcano Inn I had a 3 days stay there, and it was an unforgettable experience.

  16. I am considering taking a similar trip to what you guys took. Could you email me so I could ask some basic questions. Blake.Coston@yahoo.com

  17. My name is Lucy.I'm going to Costa Rica this Sunday for 10 days with my family. I'm Vietnamesse. I haven't got a chance to go back to visite my country since 30 years, but you have been in HoiAn that where I lived. I just found your blog this morning. This is such a great blog. I will spend more time on your blog. Thanks so much if you could give me some ideas which is the best diving site in Costa Rica.
    God bless you.

  18. Patrick and Katrina,
    My husband and I are going to Costa Rica on our honeymoon the first week of September, so your blog was great for us to read. How did you handle carrying money around?


  19. Very informative post and nice pictures of Costa Rica, Thank you for taking the time of sharing your trip info with us.

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