When visiting a new country, can you avoid museums, churches and shops and still soak up the culture? Especially if it’s Costa Rica, especially if you’re a teenager.
Four boys and their grandmother went on Road Scholar’s “From Monkeys to Macaws: Colorful Costa Rica with your Grandchild” tour. In doing so, they showed that it is quite possible to absorb culture from a suspension bridge, river raft or zip line.
Add in interactions with sloths, crocodiles and bats, and Costa Rica openly reveals itself.
FROM SEATTLE TO SAN JOSE, COSTA RICA
My nephew Wes and I joined three other teenagers and their grandmother. Ivan was our engaging and informative guide. Tonio, our equally interesting bus driver, led this group from one side of the Costa Rican continental divide to the other.
We arrived tired in Costa Rica’s capital, San Jose, after a 21-hour door-to-door journey from Seattle. Wes began the acculturation process while enjoying bacon cheese grits at our airport in Charlotte, NC.
In San Jose, Wes found it amusing that traffic was so slow that street vendors parked their stalls in the middle of the street. He then left the Museo Nacional San Jose and the gold and jade museums to a less adventurous traveler.
GO ON OUR COLORFUL ECO JOURNEY TO COSTA RICA
After spending the night at the Radisson in San Jose, where we gave a presentation on Costa Rica’s biodiversity, we headed off to our first stop. This was the waterfall garden of La Paz at the foot of the Poas Volcano. There we saw jaguars, boas and capuchin monkeys chasing each other.
Then we ascended to roaring waterfalls in a misty green area where clouds and rainforest meet. Both Poas and Arenal, which we visited next, are among the five active volcanoes.
TRYING TO SLEEP IN THE RAINFOREST
By settling into Selva Verde Lodge along the Sarapiqui River, we were able to immerse ourselves in the rainforest that sloths, toucans, and basilisk lizards call home. Another name for basilisks is Jesus Christ lizards because they move so fast that they walk on water.
The crackling of bikadi, the howling of howler monkeys and the cries of birds enlivened every moment in the ever-quiet forest. The evenings offer no respite, as thunder roars through the canopy as rain pours down from the sky.
Adventure, frog and chocolate
The next day, Adventuras del Sarapiqui took us rafting on the turbulent Sarapiqui River. We saw huge owl butterflies, black vultures and plenty of cormorants as we paddled past the mangroves. Neither went dry, but the thrill of unexpected drops and crashing waves was worth it.
The afternoon was spent at the chocolate farm, where the boys made thick chocolate milk and powdered sugar from sugar cane. In the evening we took a night walk in the forest where we found leafy katydids and small poison frogs in many different color phases.
Blue Jeans frogs are no bigger than a fingernail with a red body and blue legs, green and black spots, and red-eyed tree frogs that can be a fingernail and a half long.
RIVER AND GARDEN LIFE
The next day we went to Puerto Viejo for a boat trip with Oasis Tours on the Sarapiqui River. We saw a variety of birds including ibises, kingfishers and great blue herons migrating to the beaver dam in our Seattle neighborhood.
The afternoon took us on an ethnobotanical tour of the garden, where we explored the relationship between humans and plants, dabbed our bodies with achiote (a red plant dye), and sampled the plants that make up many herbal remedies.
BIRDS AND BRIDGES
On the way to the Arenal Volcano, we visited a macaw sanctuary and fed rescued green and red macaws that were near extinction. Now these birds are repopulating the rainforest and regrouped when the reserve owner invited them.
After lunch in La Fortuna, we tested our fear of heights on the suspension bridges of Mistico Arenal. They charged into the cavernous valleys over which the bridges hang. A stop at a neighborhood commune gave the kids a chance to make cheese and patacones: fried plantain beans and cheese.
Costa Rica has two seasons: rainy and dry. We were there during the rainy season. The rain showers came and went, which was very convenient as no tours were canceled due to rain.
ERUPTION AT ARENAL VOLCANO NATIONAL PARK
We stayed at the Arenal Moana luxury hotel. The mineral springs pool and its poolside bar appealed to teenagers, but not as much as the daily zip line activity of Sky Adventures.
Without hesitation, the boys screamed about the 200-foot drop into Arenal Volcano National Park below. Wes said he was more exciting than he expected.
DISCOVER THE RICH CULTURES OF LEAKOS AND COSTA RICA
Arenal Vida Campesina, which we visited the next day, is a cultural education center where we made tortillas, walked among organic plants and danced. While the plants interested the boys, they weren’t nearly as interesting as being able to dance with the girls, who were performing a selection of local dances.
On our way back we stopped at the Meso American Animal Rescue Center to see a rescued sloth and then the open air restaurant in La Fortuna where the iguanas roamed. In the dark hours of the evening we followed the bats in Night Winds.
There we study bats up close and learn about their impact on the ecosystem by eating insects, pollinating flowers and scattering seeds.
THE BIG BATCH IS FINISHED
It was not easy to leave the Monoa Hotel, but we had to cross the continental divide and go to the Punta Leona Hotel on the Pacific side. Although we were mainly in the Central Valley, we had spent most of our time on the Caribbean side of the canyon.
We visited Taracoles River with Crocodiles Safari. We saw many crocodiles here as well as roseate spoonbills, frigate birds and egrets.
TYPICAL COSTA RICAN FOOD
Some of the food we enjoyed was a typical casado dish consisting of rice, beans, salad, potatoes and meat. Rice and beans are included with every meal, as well as refreshing fruit drinks. These include guanabana (also called soursop) and pinolillo, a mousse of corn, milk, ice cream and chocolate.
Plantains came in many forms, including crispy potato chips. We tried the creamy jacote and lychee nuts, both sweet and soft. We also enjoyed the perfectly ripe golden pineapple and papaya snacks we’ve found in many places.
Our latest boating adventure was with Jaco Outriggers in the coastal town of Agujas. We paddled with our outriggers from Playa Agujas to Limoncito Playa where we snorkelled and had a picnic lunch.
TRAVELING TO COSTA RICA DURING COVID
Traveling has been difficult due to COVID-19. The protocol was to take your temperature everywhere, wash your hands and wear a mask. The temperature was at least 80 degrees and the humidity at least 80% every day, so the masks only added to the sweltering weather.
Since we all had vaccinations and health forms two days before, we ended up with a short opening with no travel restrictions.
We also had to get extra insurance in case we were quarantined and had to stay in Costa Rica for two weeks. If we pass our COVID test two days early, we can leave Costa Rica. The group passed and we had mixed feelings as we left the charming country for our own, still concerned about the pandemic.
FINAL THOUGHTS ON OUR ECOTOURISM IN COSTA RICA
My nephew’s favorite memory from our Costa Rica ecotourism adventure was sipping mango smoothies in the mineral pool at the Arenal Manoa Hotel. His least favorite was being in the dark rainforest. All in all, we left with the full impression of pura vida, the Costa Rican greeting that means life is good.