Costa Rica – A Ten-Day Trip
Twenty-seven years ago, Costa Rica was a little-known tourist destination. Other than the Pan American Highway, the majority of roads beyond San Jose were bumpy dirt roads. We bounced along, reveling in the landscape, a color of green that I named Costa Rica Green. My map consisted of a simple wire-bound book with “clear” directions that ensured one was always paying attention: At the red school house, turn right; at the football field, turn left, then left again at the green bridge, etc.
Fast forward to 2022.
We spent the first night of our visit in the historic heart of San Jose.
The Gran Hotel, built in 1930, is a historical landmark. Situated on Central and Second Avenue adjacent to the National Theater, it overlooks Plaza de la Cultura. Over the years, its reputation for fine dining, first-class service, and prime location attracted foreign businessmen, dignitaries, locals, and tourists alike. The patio overlooking the plaza was always abuzz with people chatting over a meal, cup of coffee, and pastries. Nabbing a table was a triumph.
In 2016, restoration began on the hotel. It reopened in July 2018 as part of the Hilton chain of hotels.
The fifth floor boasts a stunning glass-enclosed restaurant, bar, and lobby with breathtaking views of the city against a backdrop of mountains cloaked in rain forests and puffy cotton wool clouds. Unfortunately, there is no longer a vibe on the once lively patio, which is now home to a fast-food chain eatery.
The Balmoral Hotel, also located in the historic downtown, faces Central Avenue pedestrian promenade, five minutes from Plaza de la Cultura.
The prices are very reasonable, and the rooms are clean, comfortable, air-conditioned, and tastefully furnished in unfussy décor. It has a gym, free parking, and a restaurant – Restaurante el Patio – that opens onto the outdoor promenade and offers a wide variety of dishes.
From San Jose to Sarapiqui and the Selva Verde Rainforest is supposedly a two-hour drive. Although there’s now a two-way paved road through mesmerizing forest scenery of waterfalls, ferns, massive trees – their trunks carpeted in vines – and fan-shaped leaves the size of dancers’ twirling skirts, there are also trucks! Mega trucks galore transporting produce and merchandise in both directions. Therefore, two hours morph into three.
Arriving at Selva Verde Lodge, situated amidst a tropical rainforest, is arriving in nature’s paradise of ultimate peace and tranquility.
In the 1980s, five hundred acres of virgin rainforest were up for sale.
The most likely buyers were loggers or farmers. Thanks to the tenacity of one woman, Giovanna Holbrook, a naturalist and pioneer of ecotourism, who succeeded in purchasing the land, the forest and hundreds of species of birds, butterflies, insects, animals, and unique creatures have multiplied and thrived. Three hundred acres of primary forest (a forest that has never been chopped or cleared and two hundred plus acres of secondary forest (a forest that is recovering from chopping and clearing) make up the treasure of the Selva Verde Rainforest Reserve. Spending several nights in one of the comfortable, spacious suites, surrounded by the rainforest, is indescribable. It’s as far from the tumult of city life as one can imagine.
The lodge has covered walkways open to the forest on the sides, so one never has to bother with rain gear and umbrellas. However, rainproof gear and ponchos are advisable for walks through the forest.
The breakfast room and buffet dining area, enclosed in glass, have a wraparound veranda with close-up views of the birds and animals that inhabit the forest. I could spend hours on that patio reading and watching as different species came and went.
I also had a bird’s eye view of the Sarapiqui River rushing past.
The ground level has a terrific Italian Restaurant- La Terraza.
There are also self-guided forest trails and a swimming pool that nestle within the lodge grounds.
In addition to the restaurants at the lodge, there are several restaurants just a few minutes down the road. We enjoyed Pollo Assada – where they prepare chicken on the spit in a brick oven. When you exit the lodge, turn left. It’s five minutes away on your left. We also paid several visits to Rusti Ticos – eight minutes away. It’ll be on your right
The front desk can arrange Zipline tours of the forest canopy, White Water Rafting, Horseback Riding, a Boat Safari, Massages, Guided nature walks in the primary forest at dawn, at night, and during the day, and many more activities. All their tours are operated by superb, experienced guides who focus on your safety while making the tour an unforgettable experience.
If you only have time for one tour, don’t miss the guided rainforest tour. It begins on the grounds of Selva Verde Lodge and then crosses the swirling Sarapiqui River on a swaying bridge leading to a locked steel gate. Only visitors accompanied by a guide can gain access to the Primary forest, where plants and vines wrap themselves around the sturdy branches of hulking trees; ruby red and bright turquoise poisonous miniature frogs hide in crevasses; champagne-colored mushrooms cling to knotted ancient wood; rain-drenched leaves carpet the forest floor where snakes take cover; and the patter of raindrops, the chirping of insects, the song of birds, and the occasional voice of howler monkeys, make up the choir of the rainforest.
Naturalist lectures are given every day at no charge. They last approximately thirty minutes
Arenal Lodge, located on two thousand acres of tropical forest, offers several types of accommodation with fantastic views. The newer Panoramic Chalets that perch on a hill are filled with natural light. We opted for one of the original Junior Suites – where our balcony was beside the rainforest. From our outdoor rocking chairs, we could view the howler monkeys, birds, and coatimundis (pizote) – a member of the raccoon family – feeding on the fruits of the forest.
We also had a full-on view of Arenal Volcano. Unfortunately, the volcano is no longer erupting. When we visited twenty-seven years ago, it was spewing lava constantly. What a magnificent sight that was, especially at night when the red lava leaped into the black sky.
Glass-enclosed Volcano’s Secret Restaurant serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner with an unobstructed view of the volcano.
We set out early each morning in the rain for walks in the forest – an idyllic way to start the day. The lodge is just minutes from Arenal Lake and a twelve-minute drive into the charming, bustling town of La Fortuna. The helpful staff can arrange horseback riding, a walk on the hanging bridges, zip lining, white water rafting, visits to the hot springs, and more.
After hours of exploring and time spent in the Hot Springs, we tried two restaurants in La Fortuna for late lunches, Lava Lounge and El Corral de Garra-Pata. Both were good and had a casual, lively ambiance. Arenal is renowned for its Hot Springs. Several of them require you to reserve in advance to avoid becoming overcrowded.
Here are a few reasonably priced good ones:
(a) Ecotermales (Reserve in advance.)
(b) Baldi Hot Springs (No need to reserve.)
(c) Free hot springs – set in unspoiled nature. No frills: Park on the side of the road near the gate of Tabacon Springs. You can’t miss it as cars are always parked beside the road. Walk down a little hill along the path, and you’ll arrive at the hot pools.
Take a towel and leave everything else in your hotel.
Arenal to Monte Verde
Lake Arenal, the largest lake in Costa Rica – nineteen miles in length and three miles in width – is home to rainbow bass, 120 species of mammals, and 300 species of birds. From mid-December to April, when the winds are reliable, it’s a popular destination for windsurfers.
The road to Monte Verde hugs the lake for several miles as it climbs and meanders through a landscape soaked in lush green foliage – dotted with exotic, brightly colored flowers and charming, picturesque villages.
We were pleased to discover that some things have remained the same. As one climbs higher and higher into the clouds and fog, the road is almost as it was twenty-seven years ago. Instead of a bumpy dirt road, it’s now a bumpy pot-holed road.
The lively little village of Monte Verde has a variety of eateries, coffee shops, bakeries, supermarkets, and stores selling local arts and crafts.
We stayed at the Monte Verde Lodge and Gardens. A property designed to stage its beautiful setting. Wrapped in walls of glass, it gives the visitor a feeling of being immersed in nature.
Our bedroom on the second floor – a Motmot Balcony Suite – looked directly into the forest. A short but gorgeous forest trail begins next to the front entrance and ends at the gardens and the swimming pool, which is artfully designed to blend in with the landscape.
Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are served in El Jardín Restaurant and bar overlooking the gardens. The food is of a high standard, and the presentation artistic and elegant.
The staff is warm, welcoming, and super-efficient.
A five-minute walk from the hotel, a shopping mall houses boutiques, gift stores, a supermarket, and several restaurants. We enjoyed Mar y Tiera for dinner (make sure to book a table) and both The Green and Choco Café (behind the mall) for a late lunch.
In the village of Monteverde, the Open Kitchen has a great breakfast menu in addition to a wide selection of Middle Eastern and European dishes available all day. A ten-minute drive from the village, Bon Appetit serves excellent Italian fare. (Not French as its name would suggest).
Arenal, Selva Verde, and Monte Verde all offer zip lining, white water rafting, horseback riding, and forest tours.
Note: A cloud forest is a high-elevation forest with low levels of cloud cover.
For horseback riding, we contacted Equus Horse riding and Farm Tour.
The two-and-a-half hours of riding led us through unforgettable terrain: From narrow cloud forest paths to hilltops, past grazing cattle, and through coffee plantations. The guide was excellent. The horses were well trained, and the saddles incredibly comfortable. When the ride ended, we were given a tour of the sugarcane facility and were shown how liquid sugar is extracted from the plant and made into sugarcane candy.
Monte Verde Cloud Forest
Curi-Cancha Reserve is part of the greater Monte Verde Reserve.
It’s a secondary forest, as sections of it were cut and cleared in the 1950s by the Quakers. They created pastures for their animals and built homes and dairy-producing facilities. In 1970 the concept of forest conservation was introduced, and reforestation began. As it takes hundreds of years for a forest to regenerate, Curi Cancha is less dense, and its paths are wider than the primary forest, which makes it easier to spot the animals, birds, and butterflies that inhabit it.
We had an excellent, knowledgeable, private guide who had a remarkable ability to see, hear and identify the creatures that blend in with their surroundings. His fee was a fraction of that quoted by some tour companies and hotels, and we had him all to ourselves.
For reservations and to book a guide, call : (+506)2645-6915 or (+506)8694-0436
Note: in addition to the guide’s fee, the reserve charges an entrance fee.
Disclosure: The photo of the volcano erupting was not taken by me. It was purchased from a photo website.
The photo of the original Gran Hotel is courtesy of Wikipedia.