Located in Central America (south of Nicaragua and north of Panama) Costa Rica is an enchanting country with friendly people, tasty cuisine and exhilarating adventures. Costa Rica is considered to be one of the most bio-diverse regions in the world with about 30 percent of its land protected by national parks, wildlife refuges, and preserves. It’s among the few places where you’ll find volcanoes, waterfalls, rainforests, rivers and beaches all within miles of each other.
Bordered on the east by the Caribbean Sea and the west by the Pacific Ocean, Costa Rica is a natural adventure land composed of volcanoes, rainforests, rivers and waterfalls. Zip lining, rafting, hiking and biking are among the many eco-friendly ways to explore Costa Rica.
I was thrilled to visit Costa Rica for the first time last fall. Along with a small group of journalists, I had the opportunity to experience many of Costa Rica’s top adventures from white water river rafting to hiking a volcano. We covered a lot of ground in our van to experience a range of terrain and activities. Before long, the popular local phrase “pura vida” (full of life) became part of our daily vocabulary!
From San Jose to the Pacuare River
In the capital city of San Jose in the Central Valley region, I met my fellow journalists and our hosts for the week: members of Rios Tropicales, Costa Rica’s award-winning eco-tourism adventure company, and staff from the Costa Rica Tourism Board (ICT). I love traveling with locals because they’re experts on history, culture and the best places to eat and play. Not only did they plan an exciting itinerary for us, but they were very accommodating, and eager to share the beauty of their homeland.
Along the way to our first adventure (rafting), we stopped at the Basilica de Nuestra Senora de Los Angeles, in Cartago, Costa Rica’s most respected church and where locals come for worship and healing.
The drive continued by grazing long-eared cows and agricultural fields growing coffee and water squash. During a rest stop at the Bocadit Del Cielo restaurant, we sampled cheese tortillas that tasted like fried cheese.
A trip highlight for me was rafting through rapids (including class III and IV rapids!) on the scenic Pacuare River, the country’s longest river. Rios Tropicales offers one – six-day rafting trips. We took the two day adventure, which I would recommend for families. It gave us plenty of time for rafting and playing in the jungle. Minimum age varies depending on season and river conditions.
On our first day, we paddled for a few miles, stopping for a picnic lunch and a hike through the jungle to a small waterfall. Our terrific guide, Rey, is experienced and playful. I couldn’t have hoped for a better guide. He directed us how and when to paddle, played games that had us jumping into the river, and took photos for us. Parts of the river were very technical, and when the rapids were especially strong, Rey instructed us to sit inside the raft and hold on tight while he did all the paddling as water gushed over us.
Rey was also our chef during our overnight stay at the cozy Rios Tropicales Eco-Lodge in the jungle. There we walked on a suspension bridge, swam in a natural pool and explored the jungle. An authentic Costa Rican meal of chicken and rice was served on a patio overlooking the river. Each of our rooms had river views, and I loved falling asleep to the sound of the Pacuare.
The next morning, after a filling breakfast of eggs, rice and tortillas, we continued rafting. Some sections were wild, as we paddled around boulders and waterfalls. Where the river was placid we jumped in and floated between towering canyon walls. The team work required for rafting is not only essential for safety reasons, but it solidifies a group’s camaraderie.
Arenal Volcano National Park
Situated in the northern lowlands region, Arenal is home to two volcanoes (the active Arenal and the dormant Cerro Chato), hot springs, and LA Fortuna waterfall.
We did the strenuous half-day Cerro Chato hike. You can do this on your own, but it’s nice to have someone experienced lead and point out plants and wildlife, like toucans and blue-jean frogs (they have a red head and blue legs) in this lush rainforest. Climbing up the muddy trail, we hoisted ourselves up tree roots and vines. I was the slow poke in the group but Freddy, from ICT) and Rey, helped me over the rough spots. Rey even carried my backpack for me. The summit views of the crater’s emerald pool and the adjacent Arenal Volcano were worth the tough hike. A couple of the guys in our group hiked down to the crater pool, but said the climb back up was brutal.
After we hiked down (and took a breather), we walked to the La Fortuna waterfall trailhead. Plummeting about 200 feet from the jungle into an emerald pool, the waterfall is a majestic sight. To get to the falls, you walk down about 300 steep steps. I was glad I wore my bathing suit because we took a refreshing dip in the cool water.
While staying in the Arenal area, home-base for us was the Arenal Paraiso Resort and Spa, where 14 warm hillside pools are fed by natural spring water. We tried several of the pools, each varying in warm temperatures. The closer to the top of the hill, the warmer the water.
Our journey continued with a bike riding tour. I’d like to think I struggled because my legs were wiped out from hiking. At home I ride my bike up and down paved hilly trails. But on this rocky road, my legs wimped out shortly after starting. I joined the van driver and followed the cyclists, who one by one succumbed to the van as well. Along the way, we stopped for a picnic by a stream. Rey and our bike tour guide prepared a delicious meal of copped veggies, beans, cheese and avocado served with tortillas.
Blue River Resort
That evening our weary group checked into the secluded Blue River Resort located on the north side of the Rincon de la Vieja volcano. The tropical-themed resort is a beautiful property with four natural hot spring pools, a fresh water pool with a bullet water slide, botanical gardens, and a natural mud bath. Each of our specious rooms had a private balcony with a hammock. After a long day outdoors, it felt good to unwind with drinks and dinner at the Tiki Bar & Restaurant.
After a good night’s rest, we explored the property, walking through the botanical gardens, home to blue morph butterflies. Especially fun was a mud bath. First we sat in a sauna, then slathered mud on ourselves, even doing a mud train dance to rub the soft gray substance on each others’ backs. After the mud dried, we rinsed off in one of the pools.
Zip Line Tour
Zip line tours are offered throughout Costa Rica. After all, this is where zip lines originated. A surprise change in our itinerary offered the option to zip line, one of several adventure tours offered by the Blue River Resort. I was thrilled! Although I’ve done several zip lines before, I wanted to experience it in Costa Rica. A 15-minute ride in a truck brought us to the first of nine zip lines. The lines were nice and long and soared over rivers and waterfalls. After the last line we climbed to a high platform and jumped off on a Tarzan swing, dangling back and forth over a river. Pura vida!
Knowing we hoped to get some beach time, our gracious hosts brought us to the Papagayo Peninsula for our last stop on this trip. We had day use of the facilities and beach at the Casa Conde del Mar, a beautiful oceanfront resort. After a lunch buffet, we just lounged at the beach, enjoying the calm water and bursting with pura vida from our exhilarating visit to Costa Rica.