Where can you rappel from waterfalls, zip in a harness across the top of a rainforest canopy, mountain bike around an active volcano, kayak, take a ride in an ultra-lite plane, enjoy hours of class four whitewater rapids, explore caves a mile and a half underground and have world class meals? Costa Rica. Not only can you choose from all these activities, but you can afford to bring your family along for an adventure that teenage kids would love. Or the trip makes for an active, romantic adventure for lovers.
The auction for a “High adrenaline Costa Rica adventure” by Vacation Superdeals on Skyauction.com’s website offered all these activities, plus accommodations, some meals and a rental car for eight days. The thought of rappelling down waterfalls made my stomach a little queasy, but the price was attractive enough that I felt I could skip rapelling if it was too extreme for my sense of adventure. Surprisingly, the rappelling was not very intimidating and turned out to be really exciting.
We booked our travel for Thanksgiving week and flew from San Jose California to San Jose, one of two main airports in Costa Rica. In preparation for our adventure, we hiked up a mountain in Los Gatos the week before leaving, only to develop poison oak over our entire bodies. We went to see doctors and were given steroids and told it would be better in four days. This proved to be wrong, and we scratched the entire trip.
The travel guide books had said not to spend a lot of time sightseeing in San Jose, which proved to be good advice. We drove north, around the west coast of the Nicoya Pinensula, in the Guanacaste province. The itinerary had said that the drive would be about 100 miles and would take five to six hours, which it did. The most adrenaline we felt on the entire trip was while driving. Between the potholes, the winding roads and slow trucks, getting to our first destination, Playa Samara, was like driving on an obstacle course. The first tip should have been when the rental car company explained that lots of accidents happen, and if you have an accident, don’t move the car from where it happens, call 911. Since my Cingular mobile service worked in Costa Rica (for sixty cents per minute) I didn’t rent the phone from the rental car company. We passed two semis which had gone off the road, likely avoiding head on collisions from cars passing blindly, stopping traffic. We passed (or had pass us) ten ambulances, though none had sirens on. We had to frequently guess which way to go on the roads, as the maps had street route numbers labeled, but the roads rarely had names or numbers posted. Frequently, a road would go from paved to dirt, or reach a fork, and you would have to stop and ask where the road went.
Our accommodations in Playa Samara were at the Flying Crocodile, a resort purchased by a German family fifteen years ago because it had a runway to operate an ultra-lite plane. Built around the runway is a beautiful resort, with unique bungalows and a friendly family-style environment. Finding the Flying Crocodile was a challenge, as we drove several miles down a dirt road in total darkness, only to run into a river which we could not cross—our would not attempt to cross. We stopped and approached a house on the road that had a light on, and the owner told us that we could go back and go a different way, or “just cross the stream in your car”. Luckily, I was fluent in Spanish, which really helped. We backtracked and eventually found the resort. The next day, in daylight, we did cross the river, which was at least a foot and a half deep, in a Toyota Echo, following a local who assured us that we could make it. This was not the only stream we crossed during the trip.
Our next day’s schedule included a kayaking adventure and a ride in the ultra-lite plane. We kayaked to a beautiful island, taking time for a swim in the temperate water. We ended up taking the ultra-lite plane trip the next day, as the pilot wanted perfect wind conditions. The trip was a graceful experience, offering scenes of the beautiful beaches and crocodiles sunning along the riverbed. The accommodations, guest and staff at the Flying Crocodile were friendly, and the food was excellent—served family style.
From Playa Samara, we headed up to the volcano area, Arenal. Again, we were told that the trip should take at least five hours. The roads were equally challenging and we arrived into the Arenal area at dark. We had to drive almost a third of the way around the magnificent lake to get to the town of Fortuna. The roads were rough and dark, and we were fortunate enough to stop at a Real Estate office and ask for directions. We were directed to drive another hour to get to the town. It was with great relief that we found the town, which was a small tourist town at the base of the active volcano, Arenal. The volcano is beautiful, erupting constantly with thunder-like sounds, with debris and smoke shooting from the top. The locals had just thought the volcano was a mountain until 1968, when it erupted, wiping out a town at the base, and all the people in the town.
We checked into our bungalow, met up with another couple traveling on the same itinerary, and went into town to have our “feast” at the La Choza de Laurel restaurant. And what a feast it was! Six different types of seafood, arranged family style on a platter for four. La Choza means “the hut” in Spanish, and the restaurant is modeled after typical Costa Rican bungalows, where the family activities happen on the lower floor, and sleeping accommodations are on a platform above. The food was excellent, the service good and friendly. The waitresses wear dresses representing different regions daily. We ended up coming back two more times to this restaurant, as the food was as good as any top U.S. restaurant, and the prices very attractive—dinner for two was $20.
The next day we went by bus to a wooded area about ten minutes away, then hiked into the waterfall area to prepare to rappel down waterfalls. We strapped on our harnesses and prepared to rappel down the first of five waterfalls. We stood at the top of the first fall, which was about 150’ high, then stepped off backwards, sliding down holding on to a rope. It sounds more frightening and challenging than it actually was. We rappelled down five falls, surrounded by lush rainforest jungle. It was an awesome experience, except for the itching from the poison oak. Two Americans started this company (Pure Trek Adventures) and with the idea that this could be safe and fun, and they take great pride in their safety procedures and record.
That afternoon, we went to the volcano, since the visibility was good. On the rappelling adventure, one of the other tourists had explained that over half of the tourists never see the volcano due to cloud coverage. We drove on the rocky road to the volcano lodge observation deck, about a mile as the crow flies from the erupting volcano, and once there, were able to see some mesmerizing eruptions. First comes the rumbling, then the smoke, then rocks the size of school busses come tumbling down the side of the volcano. We hiked to a majestic waterfall, where we swam in the water. We watched the sunset over the beautiful lake, and then ate dinner while watching the hot lava spewing out the top and dribbling down the side of the volcano. The food was mediocre, the view spectacular.
The following day, we headed out again by bus for our horseback ride to the platforms where we would do the “zip line” canopy tour. The tour started at a Hotel Los Lagos, with beautiful grounds, a zoo and hot thermal pools. The zip line uses a harness attached to a pulley and wire, and you “zip” from platform to platform over 100+ feet of rainforest canopy. We zipped from fifteen different platforms, which was scenic and exhilarating. Afterwards, we soaked in the hot thermal pools, drinking Imperial beer at the pool bar. That night, we went to a local pharmacy to get something to help our itching, and we were given injections from a doctor in a local pharmacy. Neither of us were concerned about getting injections in a pharmacy, because our itching was so bad. We had taken Prednisone, a powerful steroid over a week earlier to clear up the rash, along with all types of topical crèmes, but the itching was worse. The injections helped miraculously.
Our next adventure was whitewater rafting on the Toro River. The river was fast-moving, and contained 45 rapids, many class IV. The tour guides were helpful and the rapids better than the great whitewater rafting on the Colorado and Green rivers. Other than our poison oak itching, we had a great trip.
That night we went to Baldi Hot Springs to soak in naturally fed hot springs from the volcano. The resort has 10 hot pools with different temperatures—up to 147 degrees, fed by individual springs, two pool, a restaurant, spa & changing rooms. It was heavenly, except for the itching on our poison oak. The other popular resort containing hot springs is Tabacon. Tabacon is fairly new, and was built in the path of a volcano lava field from a 1975 eruption. For this reason, there are many safety warnings for people who visit that resort.
The last full day of our adventure included a mountain bike tour by Bike Arenal, around the lake at the base of the volcano. The company, run by Americans from Ft. Collins, Colorado, provided Canondale bikes with outstanding suspension. We had two guides, who provided water, food and equipment for the three hour ride. The ride included minor elevation, which novice riders could do, though the most challenging part of the ride was dealing with the bumpy roads. Bike shorts help!!
Our flight from San Jose was at 1:50 the next day, and we decided to drive to San Ramon that afternoon, and then to San Jose the next morning. That turned out to be a good decision, since we ended up at a bridge that was completely closed and had to make an hour detour. At the bridge, there was a sign which said in Spanish “Bridge in bad shape”. We didn’t know how to make the detour and stopped at the first of many gas stations to ask directions. We were told that we should cross the riverbed in our car, though this statement provoked disagreement between the three gas station attendants. We decided not to try to do that, as it looked to be at least two feet deep. Once we determined which roads to take-again no street signs or markings characterized the whole route to San Ramon—we had a beautiful trip on decent roads. We spent a lovely night in San Ramon before returning to the airport to go home.
The trip exceeded our expectations in all areas. While we purchased the trip as a package for about $100 per day per person for hotel, car, adventures and some meals, the cost of the adventures, had we purchased them individually, would have been very reasonable by U.S. standards. The average excursion price was around $55 per person. Upon returning home, I went directly to Skyauction to see if there were more of the same trips being offered. There were indeed, and the trip sold for under $500. I wanted to buy five more, so I could take my teenage boys back. This is one trip they would have loved.
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