Following a disappointing week at the beaches of the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica, I hopped on a bus back to San Jose, where I met up with a group of people for a nine-day tour. As an independent traveler who wanders with no set schedule, I have never been on an organized tour, however this past December I won a tour of Costa Rica with gAdventures so I decided to try it out. The itinerary began and ended in the capital of San Jose, with enough free time see the city center and shop in the local markets, then continued on to La Fortuna/Arenal, Monteverde/Santa Elena, and Quepos/Manuel Antonio National Park, returning to San Jose on the final day.
In La Fortuna, the town that squats at the foot of Arenal Volcano, I found little in the way of local culture. In part, this may be due to the 1968 eruption that completely wiped out the original town. Only a handful of locals were willing to stay following the devastation and those that did rebuilt with tourism in mind. Today the streets of La Fortuna are lined with tour operators who hawk river rafting, rappelling, canyoneering, mountain biking, stand-up paddling, wind surfing, zip lining, horseback riding and hanging bridge walks.
La Fortuna Waterfall
Our bus rolled into town and stopped at gAdventure’s preferred operator, Desafío Adventure Company, even before we checked into the hotel. I scanned the menu of trips and found only two that might be considered cultural in nature, a visit to a sloth rescue center or a local organic farm. Unfortunately, the sloth center had closed and the organic farm tour was not available so I settled for a boat trip in the Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge the following day, which guaranteed sightings of wildlife. Then, uncomfortable with the prices for these add-on tours, I separated from the group and headed out on my own. Rather than pay $55 for a four-hour combination horseback ride and hike down to La Fortuna Waterfall, I grabbed a taxi for $6, paid the $10 entry fee at the park and hiked down by myself.
Kingfisher in Cano Negro Wildlife Refuge
Two days later we motored across Lake Arenal and boarded a bus for a ride up into Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve, where we stopped at El Trapiche coffee and sugar cane plantation. Following a scrumptious lunch prepared by the owners in their personal kitchen, we strolled through the coffee fields and production facilities, sampled brown sugar made from their sugar cane, and whipped up a batch of our own fudge with huge wooden paddles. Later that evening, I opted for a night nature walk at Finca Santamaria to see the nocturnal animals. Our guide pulled apart low-lying shrubbery branches, revealing a vivid lime green pit viper curled up within the bush and fascinated us with facts about thousands of leaf-cuttter ants trooping in and out of giant mounds, but the highlight of the evening came when he shone a high-powered flashlight high up into a tree, illuminating a slow-moving sloth. Fascinated by this second-laziest of all creatures, the next day I spent an hour watching another sloth hang on for dear life as strong winds buffeted the high branches of a tree behind our lodge, Las Cipreses Hotel.
Green Pit Viper on night nature walk in Monteverde Refuge
Perhaps because Monteverde has retained its cultural heritage despite being a prime tourist destination, this was my favorite part of the tour. Rather than book adventure activities, I wandered around the charming mountain village of Santa Elena, chatting with locals about the history of their village. The Monteverde area, which encompasses a series of small burgs including Santa Elena, was founded in the 1950′s by Quakers from the United States who chose Costa Rica because of its commitment to a non-militaristic economic path. Though they were farmers, the Quakers quickly recognized the need to preserve the rare cloud forest and today the surrounding mountains are a natural wonderland of butterflies, hiking trails, waterfalls and moss-draped trees that begin many Continue reading