This was a long awaited trip and out of all the options available, Costa Rica seemed to be the most recommended and easiest to get to. I’ve never been to a tropical rain forest, so was really looking forward to being there. I was prepared for extreme humid conditions, lots of rains, difficult hikes, good food and running into some wildlife I’ve only glimpsed upon on Discovery Channel. Frankly, I’m not too much into either the birds or bird photography, for which the places I was going to are famous for but doing this the first time was bound to be fun and something I could check off my list. For the same reason, the second half of the trip was more about hiking on top of a crater, which is something I was bound to love, or so I thought.
Day 1: The journey
Flight from Seattle to LA(2.5 hours), 2 hours stopover and then LA to San Jose (5 hours). I booked an overnight one to avoid wasting a day. The plan was quite successful apart from me ending up severe sleep deprivation. Took longer than expected to get the car from the rental place but 2 hours after I landed, I was on my way to the first destination: Selva Verde. The drive took about 4 hours with a short food stop. There were three main stretches of road to reach there. First from the airport to the main highway (45 mins), the highway(2.5 hours) and from highway to the lodge(45 mins). The first and the last one have a completely two lane road which occasionally converges into a single one on a bridge or narrow passes. The highway is a smooth ride with ample space(not quite like the 6 lane freeways, but decent enough). Had to be extra careful with long trailers and daredevil truck drivers who were cruising at 80 MPH on narrow roads. The views were quite amazing as the highway crosses the mountain range that divides the east and west parts of the country. Lush green forests, rain and a constantly changing landscape because of extra low clouds.
The lodge is straight in the middle of a forest reserve. Basically one stop shop for all your wildlife-viewing requirements with a bar and good food. This is right on the banks of river Sarapiqui.
On the agenda for the first day was the two hour ‘night walk’, which was definitely meant in a non-romantic way. Apparently, rain forests are most alive at night which, then, is the best time to see a lot of wildlife in action. But this means that you absolutely should have a well informed guide with you who makes sure you don’t touch that tiny colorful frog you just saw, which by the way, has enough poison to kill 20 people. We were into the forest at about 7PM, which doesn’t seem like too late but without the flashlight, I wouldn’t have known if a snake was about to kiss me.
To enter the forest area, we had to cross the river using a narrow suspension bridge. The first impression upon entering the reserve was that it was LOUD. I’m not exaggerating. There were noises of insects, croaks of toads or frogs, birds rustling through the trees and what not. Thanks to the guide, I ended up seeing bullet ant(s), tinamou, red eyed tree frog, blue jeans frog, bull frog, armadillo, glass frog, a huge bird-eating snake that I can’t recall the name of, huge crickets, brown grasshoppers, giant spiders in the middle of their meal, bioluminiscent piece of wood, water snake(s) and more sleeping birds. Should’ve taken down notes afterwards to remember the names. There was ample stuff to see for two hours and I was happy to be back to the lodge for dinner after this. End of day 1 and slept like a log that night.
Day 2: The jungle hike
Had a different guide for this and I’d told him to take me for the longest hike we can. Ended up with a 5 hour stroll in the forest that was nothing but amazing. I got the sense of real tropical weather 5 minutes into the hike. I was already sweating like crazy and on top of it, just brought a litre of water with me. The day was beautiful, no rain, no sun, just cloudy with a slight breeze. The breeze was gone the moment we were into the forest though. Had to cross the same river again, this time managed to get a picture.
I usually hike on the mountains, sometimes the ones with forests, but this is very different. The mountains are quite, maybe some noise due to winds or squirrels hopping around. Here it was active. The noises weren’t as much as the night before but they were still there. We didn’t see as much animals during this hike as the last time, mostly because they doze of during the day. But in the morning, you could see what the forest looks like. Except for a narrow trail, everything was covered with dense flora. And I mean dense. We saw this guy right on the trail and when the guide tried to move him away, it disappeared in a second.
This is called ‘far de lance‘ and humans are supposed to keep a good distance from them. Read the wiki page for more details about why. Saw a few other non-lethal species of snakes but they were too quick to be captured with a camera. Also, a point-and-shoot cam is not a good tool to have here if you really want to take decent pics. Not much after this. We just kindof wandered around on the trails and I was educated on the variety of trees, ants, insects and birds that we saw on our way. Clicked this on near a small stream, which was the only space with direct light.
There is a very clear demarcation on where the jungle ends and civilization begins. On one side of the road, there’s a lush green, dense forest and on the other side, farmlands like the one below, where stray cows are the only ‘wildlife’ that is visible.
We were back in the lodge after the walk and it was finally time to laze around. Had a few drinks after lunch, went out to see the town at dinner and packed up for next morning. This was a pretty tiring leg of the journey and I couldn’t wait to get some much needed rest.
Day 3-4: La Fortuna
The drive from Selva Verde to La Fortuna took about 3 hours with me loosing my way by the end for a while. This drive was less strenuous than the previous one and offered nice views from time to time. One thing I noticed was that the the speed limits are rarely followed by the locals but I saw a lot of places where cops were giving out speed tickets. Anyway, something to be careful about, especially when you’re a tourist.
This small town sits at the base of a volcano called Arenal. The volcano is the highest peak around this part so its visible from quite a distance.
La Fortuna is a famous tourist destination but this being the lean season, was less crowded than usual. I was joined by my friend here who was flying in from Seattle too. The idea here was to go on one of the better hikes around Arenal and just relax for a couple of days before heading back to San Jose. We booked the only “long” hike that was available from one of the many tourist help centers. The guy told us it was a 4 hour moderate hike which ends up at Cerro Chato crater lagoon. The description sounded adventurous enough so we signed up.
They picked us up from the hotel next day morning at 7 and half an hour later, we were climbing the crater. Now I have to admit that this thing was quite tough. I hike frequently and run a lot so I thought this won’t be an issue. But this turned out to be one. This climb was steep. That’s it. That’s the only word I have. There are absolutely no flat patches to catch your breath on and its just uphill from the first step. For about half an hour, the trail goes through farms, and then it enters the dense, humid rainforest.
Yes, the views are quite breathtaking till you’re crossing the farmlands and you can see the town from that vantage point, but once you enter the forest, its all about rain, damp ground and lots and lots of sweating. I’m not complaining though. It was amazing. This did feel like a real trek after a long time. Last time I felt so good about a hike was 4 years back in India.
These pics will give you and idea on what I mean by ‘real’ trails. There was a lot of stumbling around, getting hands dirty in the mud, grabbing roots to climb up and down and just trying to find a path across the deep trenches.
I guess we started too early so couldn’t catch a good view of the lagoon as it was all foggy. Google can provide way better pictures than we have. I usually have this compulsive desire to jump into a lake whenever I see one so the blinding fog wasn’t a big deterrent for my swim time. Especially after I’d dragged myself for two and half hours to this place. I was going to take a bath and that was it. Once that was done, the climb down, as you can image, was more than pleasant. I mean it was still a bumpy ride but way better than going the other way. An hour and half later, we were back to the starting point and hogging onto the sandwiches that the guide had brought for us. Best feeling ever.
The rest of the time in La Fortuna was spent in going around the town, trying new food and coffee and relaxing at the resort.
Day 5: San Jose
We headed out to the capital on the last day. As usual, the drive was amazing. I figured Costa Rica is the sort of a place were you can just drive around, stop by random towns, eat and be on your way to the next one.
We took turns and were in San Jose in about 4 hours.
Half of the way was through the forests and valleys which was the good part of the drive and then we hit the highway which, well, was like a highway. Helped us cruise faster though.
Following a lot of recommendations, we had already decided not to spend too much time in San Jose. So this was more like an overnight stay because we had the flight back home early in the morning. We just had an evening there, which turned out to be good enough. This time we stayed at a hostel which was comfy little place right near downtown and the main square. Frankly, this place was more US than US itself. You could be dropped in the middle of the square in downtown San Jose and it’ll be very quite impossible to figure out that its not somewhere in United States. There’s a McDonalds at literally every corner, then the Pizza Hut, KFC, GAP and what not. I realized what people meant when they said San Jose didn’t offer anything unique. Anyway, it still wasn’t a bad place to roam around for a couple of hours on a Sunday evening.
Anyway, 10 hours later, we were on our flight back which was, well, the usual. This was a great trip after a long while. I’ll be back here for the beaches next time around and to see many of the other amazing forests.