Adventure and Nature-Based Travel in Costa Rica
A Group Trip Provides a Rich Sampling
Article and Photos by Amy Angelilli
|Orchid garden in Monteverde.
I don’t do tours. In fact, I’ve lost potential travel partners who insist on seeing the world via an escorted motorcoach—with an American tour guide ushering tourists through attractions as if herding sheep.
However, fearing an early demise while trying to navigate an SUV through mudslides in the Costa Rican rainforests, I surrendered. Dutch owned, Ecole Travel, offers a compromise for the independent traveler wary of tours: small groups, optional activities and an authentic travel experience.
Ecole organizes a variety of tour packages including custom trips. My tour was a good option for the first-time Costa Rica visitor as we covered the city, the rainforest, and the beach. It was also a great way to get a feel for genuine ecotourism and responsible travel.
For many, Costa Rica is synonymous with eco-tourism. However, not every trip to Costa Rica automatically fits into this category. In order to experience the true meaning of eco-tourism the traveler sees the local flora and fauna while protecting it and engaging the locals to appreciate it.
Our party of nine did all this and more. Beginning in Costa Rica’s capital, San Jose, we soaked up the culture, art, and architecture. Many travelers often bypass Central America’s cosmopolitan hub and head straight for the rainforest or beach. However, in order to understand and appreciate the country’s politics and commerce, a brief stay in San Jose is in order. The city was built on the profits of coffee bean trade. It’s no surprise because all I had to do was look up from any street corner to see the coffee fields that surround the city. A stop at the Central Market (Mercado Central) is the best way to sample the local coffee while taking in the sights. This maze of food and souvenir stalls is a feast for the senses.
Let’s face it. People come to Costa Rica for the world famous rainforests and wildlife sightings. I am no different. So after more than six hours on winding, narrow, only-in-Costa-Rica roads, our group arrived in Monteverde. This was the Costa Rica in our imaginations. The air hung heavy and wet but the view was the greenest I have ever seen.
We stayed in Cabañas Los Pinos, which reminded me of cabins I stayed in as a kid while on a school environmental education trip. The difference here is that our group was surrounded by the Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve, the Monteverde Biological Cloud Forest Reserve, the Monteverde Orchid Garden, and Selvatura Park, which includes a canopy tour, tree top walkways, butterfly garden, insect exhibition, and a hummingbird garden. There are so many activities to enjoy that the group could have split up without ever crossing paths.
The village of Monteverde was founded in the 1950s by North American Quakers who left the United States to avoid paying taxes to support the military. This is the group responsible for preserving the cloud forests. This is also the group that blocks attempts to upgrade the area’s steep, potholed, dirt road to maintain crowd control with tourists.
After spending not nearly enough time hiking, horseback riding, and zipping through the rainforest, the group headed to our next stop: the Arenal Volcano, one of the world’s most regularly active volcanos, and neighbor to many hot springs.
Another long —but beautiful—bus ride delivered us to the Villas Eco Arenal in La Fortuna, the hub for volcano visitors. Our Ecole rep turned us over to the local guide who walked us through Arenal National Park pointing out howler monkeys, toucans, and butterflies along the way. (For animal lovers hoping to see as much wildlife as possible, I recommend taking a hike with a guide. No matter how good you think your eyes are, they’re not as well suited for spotting as for anyone who calls the rainforest home. Once my travel partner and I ventured out on our own without a guide and the only wildlife we saw was a “wild” pig begging for lunch at the snack bar.) Our guide was not only well versed about the habitat, he was also an ambassador for the wildlife. He advised us never to feed any animals because they become dependent on people and are no longer able to hunt for themselves.
|Butterfly Garden in Selvatura Park.
Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge, my personal favorite attraction, is located just outside of La Fortuna on the Nicaraguan border. Locals claim this is the best place in the country for spotting wildlife. They were right. From the comfort of a boat, (allowing my now callused feet a rest) our group snapped photos of iguanas (known as “chicken of the trees” because they used to be a delicacy until the government named them a protected species), white faced monkeys, and the largest colony of cormorants in Costa Rica.
Even though we had a quick rest, overall we’d been pushing ourselves to the limit with non-stop activities, late nights and early mornings. The next leg of the trip was much anticipated and much deserved. It was time for the beach.
But first, a pit stop for a little white water rafting. Aguas Bravas, a family adventure tour company that guides adventure seekers down the class III rapids of the Sarapiquî River, has a high reliability and safety approval rating by the Costa Rican Tourism Institute (Instituto Costarricense de Turismo). Guides are certified in rescue and first aid, which is something I kept reminding myself of as the raft repeatedly hit—head on—the large rocks near the shoreline.
To say we were happy upon arrival at Cahuita’s Sia Tami Lodge is an understatement. A short walk from Cahuita National Park along the Caribbean Sea, the hotel of 10 Caribbean style houses, equipped with hammocks and mosquito netting for bug-free sleeping, is the perfect antidote for weary adventure travelers. And, the infusion of Afro-Caribbean fishermen and laborers that date back to the mid 1800s make Cahuita one of the most unique—and laid back—villages in Costa Rica. The native English speaking residents, the heat and humidity, and the slow paced village life seduces visitors. Here is where a tour becomes problematic. Without it, I would have parked myself here for a while.
Then, I would have missed out on Puerto Viejo. My fellow travelers (now, my friends) and I showered the Ecole rep with cocktails as thanks for saving the best for last. Puerto Viejo has all the activities of other seaside villages— including world-famous surfing—plus a “downtown” offering international dining, salsa and reggae clubs, as well as eclectic shopping. The local and international bohemians sell their crafts in roadside stalls and small galleries. But, it’s Casa Camarona, a rustic but exotic, small and friendly beach lodge that was the highlight of these last days. In no time we were on a first-name basis with the staff—including the chef from Barcelona who treated us to pitchers of sangria and platefuls of tapas on the beach. Also of note is that Casa Camarona’s friendliness extends to the environment as it has earned a sustainable tourism certificate.
The Cosa Rican Tourism Institute created this certification program to highlight the ways in which tourism companies manage sustainable natural, cultural, and social resources. It’s also a way for the national tourism agency to regulate the often-abused “eco-tourism” industry. When companies showcase their certification they enhance Costa Rica’s image as a “natural” destination and reinforce the agency’s “no artificial ingredients” message to travelers.
As the saying in Costa Rica goes, “Pura Vida!” Pure life indeed.