Central America

Travels through Costa Rica and Panama with my Sister

The View From The River

Our adventure continues with a rafting excursion, a wildlife hunt, excessive sunscreen and sunburns, and a whole lot of public transit.

We departed Arenal bright and early for a 5:45am transfer to Pacuare River, where we’d be white water rafting for the day. Pacuare River is the best river for rafting in Costa Rica and is rated #5 in the world for best white water rafting! Along with many class I-IV rapids, the river is incredibly scenic.

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We had a huge rafting group on the day we went, and true to the rest of the trip, when the guide asked the bus who was from Canada, more than half of the bus raised their hands. So if you’re wondering where all the Canadians have gone recently, it’s Costa Rica. We also met two girls from Newfoundland who are making their way through Costa Rica and Panama as well – making them the first Newfoundlanders we’ve met while traveling!

We had an excellent team on the river and managed to keep everyone in the raft throughout the entire day, even through some of the more challenging rapids. Emily was one of our raft captains in the morning and we switched after lunch. The river is incredibly scenic and is surrounded by rainforest on both sides. We saw tons of birds and got out to swim a few times along the way. It was definitely the warmest rafting water I’ve ever swam in!

My favourite part of the day was near the end when the river narrows and flows through a canyon, with huge rock walls surrounding you on both sides. There’s several waterfalls flowing down into the gorge and it was just the most beautiful setting in which to end the day. The only downside was it was a challenge to reapply sunscreen and we both got some pretty bad sunburns.

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Overall the heat has been unreal in Costa Rica and I feel as if I’m constantly fighting a losing battle with the sun. Between the sunscreen and sweat, I’m always coated in an extra 5 layers of grime, so we’re looking forward to our beach time coming up!

After Pacuare we made our way to remote Tortuguero National Park. This was a logical nightmare that eventually paid off, but involved a lot of hours on uncomfortable transit.

Tortuguero is a National Park on the far north Caribbean Coast. It gains it’s name from the 4 species of turtle that travel there every year to lay their eggs on the same beach from which they were born. As such, it is incredibly remote and involved taking a bus to the middle of nowhere, followed by a long boat ride up the river. The park has a number of canals running through it on the interior and borders the Caribbean Coast. The water was really warm, but the most we could do was dip our feet in due to the dangerous riptides offshore.

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On our first night in Tortuguero we took another night walk in hopes of spotting some frogs and lizards. We would have loved to see a turtle of course, but sadly we visited just before leatherback turtle season and were unable to see any. We did see several lizards though, including the Jesus Christ lizard, named for his ability to run across water, and my favourite, the Emerald Basilisk (see picture), who we managed to avoid eye contact with! We haven’t seen much for frogs yet, but we did see a female Gaudy Leaf Frog who is 7 different colours and has red eyes.

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We had another early morning in Tortuguero to do a canoe ride through the park. Morning is the best time to see animals and we certainly saw a lot! Mostly we saw birds, including many types of herons and kingfishers, but we also so several iguanas, caimans, spider monkeys, and crocodiles. We both loved the spider monkeys, who were extremely active, jumping around from tree to tree.

We left Tortuguero via a different route, but it still involved another long boat ride followed by bus. It was definitely a pain to get there, but it was very peaceful and serene and we loved seeing so much wildlife.

We’re currently south in Cahuita and l we’ll soon be making our way to Panama!

Love Maria

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Hiking Volcanoes

After an eventful visit to Monteverde, we got a transfer to La Fortuna to see Arenal Volcano. The transfer included a 1.5 hour bus ride, followed by a 1 hour boat trip across Lake Arenal. It was an incredibly scenic trip! We quickly left the rolling, forested hills of Monteverde and traveled through valleys and fields on our way to the lake. It was a perfect, clear day, and we were all thrilled when the volcano appeared on the horizon.

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It was a little chilly in Monteverde due to the high altitude, but the heat returned in full force in Arenal. In La Fortuna we stayed in the fanciest hostel of my backpacking experience. It’s called Arenal Backpackers Resort, and it is definitely more resort than hostel. The resort has a huge pool and bar, with tons of hammocks spread out around the property. The pool was glorious after a long hot day in the sun!

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On our first day in La Fortuna, we visited the National Park for the volcano. Arenal is now a dormant volcano, but it’s only become inactive in recent years and once upon a time tourists flocked to the area to see the sparks regularly flaring at the top of the volcano. Interestingly, the side of the volcano facing the town is still completely forested, it’s only on the far side that you can see the lava flows from previous eruptions.

There were two primary eruptions in 1968 and 1992, both of which you can visit. We decided to do a two hour hike of the 1968 lava flows. The hike goes around a small lagoon that was created in a crater from the eruption. Its quite peaceful now and a huge bird habitat. From there we hiked up through the old lava flows to a viewpoint that looked up at the volcano and out over Lake Arenal. Like Monteverde, the park was surprisingly empty, so we had a great time learning about the volcano and looking out at the beautiful surrounding landscape!

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May is shoulder season in Costa Rica, so there are a lot less tourists around than usual, but I swear half of the travellers here are Canadian! We’ve met a lot of Canadians in our few days here. Our hostel had a board to write where you’re from and Canada made up a huge section, with almost every province represented. We met two girls from Toronto on the bus who were celebrating the completion of their medical degrees and decided to go hiking together on our second day.

The volcano is still too dangerous for hiking, but there is a second, much older volcano right next to Arenal that is popular for hiking. The hike is called Cerro Chato – it goes up the side of the volcano and then descends steeply into the green lagoon that was formed in the center of the crater.

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There were many warnings that Cerro Chato is a strenuous hike and they were definitely well placed. The hike ascends steeply into the jungle and has many technical sections as the trail navigates around trees and roots. From the top there is an awesome view of Arenal and you’re able to catch a small glimpse of the green waters of the lagoon in the crater. Here the trail drops very steeply into the crater and was definitely the most challenging part of the hike. It’s a near vertical climb down to the lagoon and we were all sufficiently covered in mud by the time we made it to the bottom!

The scenery is incredible though and it was well worth it to finally reach the bottom and swim out into the lagoon to clean off. There’s a little beach area, so we spent an hour at the bottom, enjoying the view and eating lunch before heading back out of the crater and down the volcano.

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We had a few snake sightings along the way. We were able to identify the first snake as venomous (although I can’t remember the name of it now – it was red, black and yellow). The second snake was a small green snake, but he was poised in the middle of the path with his head raised as if ready to strike something (we don’t think it was us though). He looked pretty foreboding and we decided to wait him out, but after 10 minutes he still hadn’t moved. We tested the water by throwing a few rocks in his vicinity, but with no reaction to this either, we decided to slowly pass him and fortunately we all escaped unscathed! He started to move off after we passed him, so he likely wasn’t much of a threat.

To finish a pretty much perfect day we stopped for beers from an enterprising local halfway down the volcano and then hit up some of the natural hot springs in the area to relax our weary muscles!

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The area is practically swimming with commercial hot springs, all of which are incredibly fancy and have a pretty large price tag attached. We got a tip about the free public hot springs and decided to save money and visit there instead. I’ve never been to a totally 100% natural hot spring before and I didn’t realize it’s basically just a hot river. There were tons of little pools that had been created and some small falls from the rapids. It was nothing too fancy, but super nice after hiking! At the hot springs we met two more canadians who had just graduated engineering and were surprised to discover we all had mutual connections! So it’s a big country, but a small world!

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An Introduction to Costa Rica

Happy to say our trip is off to a busy, but fantastic start! Unlike our last trip, there were no travel surprises and I landed on time in San Jose. We didn’t plan much time in San Jose in favour of more time in Costa Rica’s national parks, but we did really enjoy our short time there.

Since were mostly doing adventure activities in the rest of the country, we opted to learn a bit about Costa Rican history and culture and did a walking tour of San Jose. We spent a fair bit of time exploring San Jose’s many parks. I’m so glad we did the tour on a Saturday because the park was packed with locals and we met some fascinating Tikals and Tikas (the local name for Costa Ricans).

Almost as soon as the tour started, I was excited to notice some people walking around with hula hoops – one of my favourite hobbies! We soon stumbled upon a whole group of hoopers and our guide told us that the city used to run free programs every Saturday in the park. There would be yoga at 8, dance at 9, hooping at 10, etc. Unfortunately the city eventually stopped the program, but the hooping lady loves to hoop so much that she continues to bring hoops to the park every week to teach people to hoop! I was thrilled to join in for a bit and see many of the same tricks I know.

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At the next park we stumbled across a local festival celebrating entrepreneurship, which had several different exhibitions on. They were showcasing local community initiatives and providing free food and smoothies for the festivities, so we decided to join in! It was great to see so many Costa Ricans interacting together in public spaces on the weekend and it really gave the city a lot more character.

In fact, our guide was fantastic at pointing out some of the interesting (and funny) eccentricities of the city. He showed us a sun dial that reads the wrong time, but instead of fixing the sun dial, the government posted a convoluted table explaining how many minutes to add or subtract from the sun dial based on time of year to get the correct time. He also pointed out a mural of a monkey that was originally painted smoking a cigar, but was modified to be drinking a brain out of a glass with a straw to be less offensive. Funnier still is that the monkey is painted next to a gate that regularly rolls across the graffiti and makes it look like the monkey is behind bars.

So our short stop in San Jose ended up being much more exciting than anticipated, except maybe when we almost missed the only bus to Monteverde for the day – but we made it in the end!

Monteverde was a totally different scene than San Jose, but we were thrilled to get into nature. Monteverde is a cloud forest nestled in the highlands of Costa Rica. It’s one of Costa Rica’s top attractions and boasts an impressive amount of wildlife. There are tons of adventure activities – from ziplining, to bungee jumping, and rafting – but we opted to check out the biological reserve instead.

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The reserve is a protected area with several kilometres of walking trails. It was a cooler morning, so I opted to go for a run after breakfast, along some beautiful mountain views I might add. We thought it was going to be packed at the reserve due to our late start, be we were surprised to find that thanks to the number of trails, the reserve felt virtually empty! We had our first animal encounter only a few hundred meters into the trail when an agouti stumbled on to us as we were putting on bug spray. We mistakenly identified him as a capybara at first, so if you’re wondering what an agouti looks like – now you know.

We hiked about 7-8 kilometres of trails in total. This included hiking up to the most amazing viewpoint. The trees are so tall that you’re under the canopy for most of the trails, but at the viewpoint you can look out over the rolling hills of the reserve for as far as the eye can see! We also hiked out to Monteverde’s famous red suspension bridge and caught a glimpse of a few of the many, but elusive, birds. We could constantly hear the birds up in the canopy, but it was hard to catch a glimpse of them down below.

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We finished off our time in Monteverde with a night walk in the forest. I was skeptical that we would see much, but most of Costa Rica’s wildlife is nocturnal and boy, did they prove me wrong. Our first sighting was a poisonous tarantula, followed by an armadillo! The armadillo was easily my favourite because I really did not expect to see one. We went on a lengthy search for a sloth and eventually found one hanging out on the road where we had started. Our guide was totally thrilled to discover there were actually 3 sloths in one tree! Sloths are solitary creatures, so you rarely see them together and our guide couldn’t believe to find 3 in the same tree.

We also saw a sleeping keel billed toucan, a side stripped palm pitviper, and another sloth, bringing the total up to 4! We really couldn’t believe our good luck and finished our time in Monteverde feeling thoroughly accomplished!

Next stop is Arenal Volcano!

Love Maria

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