One of our first international trips together, we spent a week in the beautiful, forested countryside of Costa Rica back in May 2007. This journey preceded the days of my trusty travel journal, and was before we could afford some nicer camera gear. Consequently, the brief trip report and photos don’t really do justice to what is an absolutely gorgeous area. However, we still wanted to throw some photos and memories into our blog to document our adventure. As we only visited the Arenal and Guanacaste regions of northwestern Costa Rica, we hope to eventually return and see more of the lush rainforests and spectacular national parks. We would also love to photograph more of the (over 800) bird species that call Costa Rica home.
Surrounded by northern lowland forests, the near-symmetric cone of the 5,479-foot Arenal Volcano rises above the small towns of Tabacón and La Fortuna (90 miles northwest of San José). When we visited in 2007, Arenal was considered Costa Rica’s most active volcano and one of the top 10 most active volcanoes in the world. Prior to 1968, Arenal had remained dormant for nearly 500 years, and many thought the volcano could be extinct. Unexpectedly, in July 1968, Arenal erupted with such power that three new craters were formed on the mountain’s western edge. Highly-pressurized magma was unable to escape the single crater vent and, consequently, lava, ash, and boulders were forced out the side of the mountain, devastating the nearby town of Tabacón.
Since its unpredicted 1968 eruption, Arenal continued to have small, continual eruptions until 2011. During our visit to Arenal National Park, we could hear the regular eruptions and watched pyroclastic flows of searing rock thunder down the hillside. Interestingly, after more than 40 years of consistent flows, Arenal abruptly entered a period of inactivity and eruptions are now rare (none were recorded between Dec. 2010 and Oct. 2012). Because the volcano is young (~4,000 years old) and dynamic, with magma still shifting far below the surface, it could awaken soon. Rather, it’s also plausible that the caldera will remain silent for many years to come.
The centerpiece of the national park, the smoldering summit of Arenal was one of the highlights of our visit. We spent one afternoon on a guided walking tour of the mountain. A two-mile round-trip trail led us through stunted secondary forests, still struggling to rebound following previous eruptions, and to an old lava flow overlooking Lake Arenal to the west. As we stood on the sharp, black rocks of the lava field, we were able to watch enormous, sizzling rocks crash down the volcano’s western slope.
In the picturesque region surrounding the Arenal Volcano, there are countless adventure activities for outdoor enthusiasts. At the top of our ‘must-do’ list was one of the country’s iconic zip-line tours that sent us soaring through rainforests along the Arenal River Canyon. Twelve small, wooden platforms supported eleven cables that zigzagged through the canopy. Sailing over 40 mph along cables up to 1,200 feet long and 300 feet high definitely afforded a unique perspective of the forests.
Another way to enjoy a bird’s eye view of the rainforest is to visit the Arenal Hanging Bridges. A two-mile trail leads you through towering trees and across 16 bridges, including 6 swaying suspension bridges and 10 smaller, fixed bridges. At 250 feet long and 150 feet high, the appropriately-named Arenal View Bridge offers an expansive view of the majestic volcano rising above the lush countryside. One of my favorite parts of the tour, though, was stumbling upon a beautiful ‘blue jeans’ poison dart frog (a color morph of the strawberry dart frog) along the forested trail. Our guide was just amazing (he could spot a camouflaged sloth hanging in a tree from an astounding distance) and I was super impressed when he spotted the tiny, colorful frog buried amongst the leaves. Getting to see one of the striking amphibians was near the top of my list, and I would love to go back for a frog tour, to seek out some of the country’s 180 species in their natural habitat.
We also decided to go on a canyoning excursion through the lush forest at the base of Arenal. A short trail led us through the gorge, where we rappelled down three waterfalls and one rock wall ranging from 45 to 165 feet in height. It was a ton of fun, and they really throw you right in after the instructional briefing, starting with the 165-foot waterfall rappel. I remember feeling my heart race as I held the rope and the guide told me to sit back over the edge and jump. After the expedition, we headed back to the tour company’s office in La Fortuna where we were treated to a delicious, traditional lunch of beans and rice and fresh fruit juice in a beautiful little garden area. During our lunch, we were introduced to Salsa Lizano, an amazingly delicious Costa Rican condiment that’s found on about every restaurant table. It’s a mild sauce, made from various vegetables and spices, and I have been moderately obsessed with it since our visit (thank you, online retailers).
While in the La Fortuna area, we also made a visit to the popular La Fortuna waterfall. Situated within the tropical rainforest at the foot of the dormant Chato Volcano, the waters of La Fortuna cascade over 200 feet down a fertile rock face into a small, azure pool. The site is accessed via a short trail that descends down a steep staircase carved into the hillside, about ¼ mile long. While you can swim here, be mindful of the swirling currents created by the falls and stay well away from the falls themselves. An even better spot for a swim is just beyond the falls. From the base of La Fortuna, the chilly waters flow through a short, rocky stream into a larger, more tranquil pool. Here the calm, turquoise water is enclosed by steep, verdant banks covered with tropical foliage, and the sun barely peeks through the thick canopy, illuminating the transparent pool.
After spending each day exploring the volcano, tropical forests, and waterfalls, we would relax at the volcanic thermal springs at our resort, the Tabacón Hot Springs. Set in lush, secluded gardens at the base of Arenal’s northwestern slopes, a thermal river feeds into five natural, mineral-rich hot springs ranging from 77 to 122°F. Here, rainwater accumulates in rocky pools and is heated by the subterranean magma beneath Arenal. A cold river running from the rainforest also flowed through the garden, where you could take an invigorating plunge after enjoying the soothing, hot baths.
In the early mornings, the Tabacón’s flourishing gardens were bustling with hummingbirds and glasswing butterflies, whose transparent wings glistened like stained glass windows in the morning sun. These photos were some of my favorites from the trip – not because they are technically good photos, but rather because I was immersed in a sea of dancing butterflies. One of my [numerous] quirks is a totally irrational fear of moths and, to a lesser extent, butterflies. Growing up, I would beg my parents to turn off the outside lights on summer nights and allow me to just stumble inside in the pitch darkness, as the bulbs attracted swarms of erratic moths. This experience in the garden was the first step in finally attempting to conquer the butterfly fear (still working on the moths, though there has been considerable improvement). In addition to the eye-catching insects, one morning we were fortunate to spot a breeding pair of great curassow scuttling through the dense foliage. The large, pheasant-like birds of Central America are currently considered a vulnerable (near-endangered) species due to habitat loss and hunting.
From Arenal National Park, we traveled about 3 hours (100 miles) west to the Guanacaste region, on the northern Pacific coast’s Papagayo Gulf, to spend a few days at the shore. We stayed at a resort on a lush, green hillside overlooking the black sands of Manzanillo Beach and the sapphire waters of Culebra Bay. The surrounding tropical forests were alive with the echoes of white-headed capuchins and various songbirds. Along the resort’s walking paths, hummingbirds and butterflies flitted around the flowering shrubs. The waters of Playa Manzanillo were calm and small shells and pieces of coral were scattered along the dark sand.
As the grounds felt a bit crowded, we opted for a 15-minute water taxi ride (offered by the resort) to Playa Nacascolo, a private, white sand beach to the southwest. The beach felt much more secluded, nestled in a cozy cove on Culebra Bay. Aside from enjoying the quiet beach and balmy, serene water, we explored the dense mangrove forest that stretched along the shoreline. As we wandered through the sheltered forest, we came upon hundreds of colorful red land crabs littering the sand. Some would venture valiantly across the sandy forest floor, while others would balance timidly at the edge of their burrows, abruptly diving into their individual homes as we passed by.
During our stay on the coast, we decided to dedicate one morning to a private birdwatching tour through the forests of Rincón de la Vieja National Park. We hoped to get a glimpse of some of Costa Rica’s hundreds of native, colorful songbirds and perhaps even the blue morpho butterfly, which is known to frequent the area. The morning was quite overcast, and as we drove over some of the country’s notoriously inferior roads, the rain began to gently fall. By the time we arrived at the trail, it was about pouring. After walking a short distance, we reached a small, hanging footbridge. The small stream that typically flowed beneath was now a raging torrent of water. Due to the unpredictability of the weather and rising water level, which could easily leave us stranded on the other side of the river, we were forced to head back and abandon the tour. Before the washout we did, however, get a glimpse of a couple of birds and also a coati, a diurnal, Central/South American relative of the raccoon.
We were also introduced to a couple of plants we hadn’t previously encountered. Oddly enough, we had never seen a cashew tree and had no idea that the shelled nut dangled from a larger, edible cashew fruit. The oil contained within the shell, however, contains a toxin similar to the irritant found in poison ivy, thus the nuts have to be roasted prior to consumption. Additionally, we came across the ‘sensitive plant’ (Mimosa pudica), a strange little plant native to Central/South America whose touch-sensitive leaves rapidly shrivel and fold up upon being handled. While a definitive reason for such a mechanism hasn’t yet been determined, some ideas that have been proposed include protection from herbivores, a way to displace harmful insects, and improved survival from environmental stress (less energy expended on processes like photosynthesis).
Because our tour was rained out, the following day we were offered a private boat tour of the Tempisque River in Palo Verde National Park. The murky, brown waters run ~90 miles from Guanacaste to the Nicoya Peninsula, and are a haven for birds, monkeys, and crocodiles. Our peaceful float ferried us past dense vegetation where we spotted a handful of bird species. While we did not spot any crocodiles, we did get to encounter a family of playful howler monkeys clambering about the treetops. On the way back to the coast, we made a final stop in Ortega, a quaint Chorotega Indian village. Skillful artisans, many members of the Chorotega tribe hand throw clay pottery using techniques that have been passed down for hundreds of years. Most homes are equipped with a small kiln and studio, and the pieces are sculpted using basic tools and hand painted with traditional symbols.
After eight days of adventure exploring the forests, volcanoes, beaches, and small towns of the Arenal and Guanacaste regions, it was time to head home. I think Costa Rica will always be a special place for us, as it was our first trip abroad together. I know we’d both love to go back, newer camera gear in hand, and investigate even more of the country’s exquisite rainforests and scenic national parks.