Christopher Columbus was one of the first tourists to visit Costa Rica and apparently he made such a lasting impression, the country named the currency after him. Costa Rica has been the poster child for Central America for several decades as it seemingly earned the perception of being more stable and safe then it’s neighboring countries. I hadn’t been to this country in 25 years and I decided to pop in this week and see what all the fuss was about.
Turrialba volcano erupted recently and media reports led me to believe I might step off the plane into a pool of hot liquid magma. As is usually the case with the news, the volcano was far from the international airport and there were no signs of disruption anywhere. San Jose is the kind of city that doesn’t have many lingering tourists. Kamikaze drivers and a lack of interesting sites drives most adventurers westward; which brings us to the first choice that all travelers to Costa Rica must make: Caribbean or Pacific?
The majority of travelers opt for the Pacific side since it’s a little more accessible and has almost three times the coastline. The tourist infrastructure is more developed westward and you’ll find more shops, restaurants and “civilization”. There’s great surfing, lots of hotel choices and many who choose that direction, never make it the other way. The Caribbean has much more of a West Indies feel with a large population of African-Caribbean people and more English being spoken. So, where should you go and what is there to do? We just had a few days, so we headed towards one of Costa Rica’s most visited attractions, Volcan Arenal.
Volcanos in Costa Rica are never boring and there’s lots of fun things you can do hanging around a town like La Fortuna. The town got renamed (“The Fortunate” in English) after it became the only place remaining when the the Arenal Volcano blew up in the late 60s. It just happened to be in the right spot at the wrong time and today it thrives as a tourist mecca . You can set up lots of adventures in the area and easily spend a week playing around the semi-active volcano. Here’s a list of five fun things to do if you only have a few days:
Ziplining– There’s lots of “canopy tours” or zip lining scattered throughout Costa Rica. The key to a great experience is to find a well-reviewed company with a good safety record and an interesting course. Zip-lining is sometimes sold as part of an eco-tour since there’s a chance you might catch a glimpse of a monkey or get bitten by a giant ant, but it’s really more about flying through the trees and pretending to be Tarzan. Don’t let anyone tell you any different. Your guides start your adventure by snapping you into a harness that you wear throughout the tour, then hook you to a “waiting line” (that keeps you from slipping off the platform prematurely) or the the actual zip line that connects you from one tree to the next. You hold one arm up to keep from spiraling out of control and the other to slow your speed when you get to the end.The longer the line, the bigger the thrill. Most of the tour guides are happy to snap pictures and take video of you screaming like a little girl on your first run. If you’ve never zip-lined, you need to try it at least once. It’s usually very safe and has a very high thrill/minute ratio.
Horseback Riding– horseback riding can be great fun (if you’re not the horse) and can help you get an appreciation of what people had to deal with before Henry Ford came along. Typically tours are 2-4 hours long. Costa Rica is a much more exciting choice than riding in some place like Utah or New Mexico since you’ll likely see some interesting animals and sites along the way. We were ambushed by a couple of families of howler monkeys that seemed to enjoy scaring passing tourists with their insanely loud simian calls. We joined in the revelry with our best monkey impersonations and whipped them into a frenzy. Lots of giant iguanas and other lizards were lounging around watching us inquisitively.The horses knew where they are supposed to go, so equestrian experience is not required.
Spas– Many travelers opt for a spa hotel or just treat themselves to a session after a day of hiking or horseback riding. The natural springs combined with the thermal volcanic activity creates the perfect natural hot tub. Many large hotels have created a resort around these watering holes, improving upon nature with cold drinks and pampering. A few miles west of Fortuna, there’s a public hot spring creek that tourists and locals frequent. It’s free if you can find it.
Nature Walks– One of my favorite activities in a flora/fauna rich country is a nature walk and Costa Rica does not disappoint. Eco-tourism is the buzz word for every activity in the country but some places are definitely more eco-friendly than others. It’s not uncommon to find an eco-park which is really a renamed zoo. The upside is you’re guaranteed to see a lot of animals. the downside is they’re there because they can’t escape. One of my favorite places to visit is an under-rated wildlife park called Ecocentro Danaus that has a good grasp of eco-tourism. The area has attracted animals that are there because it’s so awesome there and well, they do feed them. In a short hour walk, we learned lots of interesting facts about the birds, butterflies and strange creatures that congregate in the jungle. We saw a three-toed sloth, amazing frogs,
Surfing– Two words: Endless Summer. If you ever watched this iconic surfing movie, you’ll recognize Tamarindo Beach as the place where it all started. The Nicoya Peninsula on the west coast has some of the best surfing in Central America and the locals are all set up to rent you a surfboard, get you a drink, and give you surfing lessons.
Costa Rica isn’t really a place for shopping, visiting museums or exploring old churches. It’s treasures lie in its jungles, animal preserves, volcanos and beautiful coastline. If you want to get away from it all, Costa Rica might be just the place you’ve been looking for.