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Austin’s family plans an annual New Year’s vacation to bring all of us together, and this year we landed on Costa Rica, a country I’ve long wanted to visit for its one-of-a-kind landscape, wildlife and culture. Austin, his mom, step-dad, brother and I joined up for an amazing 10 days in this ecological paradise.
We caught a New Year’s Eve flight to San Jose, Costa Rica, arriving in town just in time to ring in 2015 with family. We opted to spend a few days in San Jose on the front end of the trip before heading way south to the lush Caribbean Coast. We reasoned that we could drive from San Jose to various sites — in retrospect, we probably would have stayed right in Arenal and closer to the hot springs, but travel is all about learning!
Our first day in town, we picked up our rental car and made our way to the Finca Rosa Blanca for a tour of their biodynamic coffee plantation. Pablo, who runs the front desk, was so gracious and accommodating with my questions as I emailed with him leading up to the trip. The plantation was something out of a movie set — the property and its buildings thoughtfully designed to interact with nature. We hiked the vast plantation, winding through the coffee trails and learning about their biodynamic growing practices. After our hike, we retreated to the incredible facilities for a cupping ceremony and lunch overlooking the rainforest and mountains. I can’t think of a more perfect place to begin our travels in Costa Rica.
Aside: Don’t rent a car in Costa Rica unless you have the world’s best driver in your party. I’m so grateful for my step-dad-in-law, who commanded the wheel expertly the entire trip and kept us safe on narrow cliffs, in crazy traffic situations and over one-lane bridges. This is not driving for just anyone.After lunch, we packed up in the care for a scenic (nail biting!) drive through the winding mountains to Poas Volcano. The fruit in Costa Rica is like nowhere else (I’ll get to this in-depth a bit later) but on the way, we stopped in a little mountainside town for the freshest, sweetest little fresas and moras I’ve ever eaten. Poas. Where to begin? There are places on earth where you just feel attached to something greater. Poas is such a place — in the middle of the misty clouds 9,000 feet in the sky, staring at the vast crater below, surrounded by lush rainforest — you feel something stir inside. I forever will remember that haunting.We wound our way back down the mountain, arriving exhausted in San Jose at dusk and tucking in at a local restaurant for dinner. We awoke early the next day for a stunning drive to Arenal/La Fortuna, each turn through the mountains more breathtaking than the previous. We laughed at the speed bumps expertly placed in front of every soda, forcing you to slow down and smell the intoxicating foods.
Aside: A soda, in Costa Rica, is a little hole-in-the-wall family-run restaurant offering traditional plates of food, drinks and snacks. They dot the Costa Rican countryside at every turn and serve up reliably delicious food.
After navigating the world’s most potholed road, we made our way to Arenal for a cloud walk — literally, a hike through the rainforest treetops along suspended bridges. Photos cannot explain how cool it felt to be standing at the tip-tops of ancient trees looking over the volcano. Our guide, Mainor, expertly led the way with his toucan walking stick, pointing out waterfalls, flora, fauna and creatures in our path. A third of the way into our hike, the skies broke open into a rain shower, but the sun eventually returned bathing everything in a warm glow.
On Mainor’s recommendation, we ended up at Paradise Hot Springs, which he recommended over dozens of hot springs in La Fortuna (such as the infamous Tabacon) for its intimacy and lack of tourists. We could have spent hours unwinding in the hot pools and I’m pretty sure my mom-in-law wanted to end our vacation plans right there in a hot spring paradise!
On the way home, a massive cluster of cat-sized animals were crossing the narrow road. We later learned that these adorable beasts were coati, a species native to Costa Rica.I’ll admit, this drive home through the inky fog was terrifying. I’m so grateful we had a measured, experienced driver at the wheel, because anyone else would have taken us off a cliff in those conditions.The next morning, we woke early to explore San Jose before heading south. We ventured through the main square and then to the Mercado Central where my brother-and-law and I bought all the strange fruit we could to sample. (“What’s that?” “I don’t know!” “Let’s get it!”) Late-morning, we hit the road for the three-hour drive to Puerto Viejo de Limon. At the half-way point, we stopped of an an incredible little roadside restaurant called Sol y Luna for our first real taste of Costa Rican Caribbean food — rice & beans slow-braised in coconut milk and jerk spices, sweet plantains, slaw and melting braised chicken. We washed it down with some delicious moras (blackberry) bebidas, a drink of blended fruit, milk and ice that’s popular through the country.
Sunset neared and we arrived at our beautiful Colonial house — us group of five sitting in the darkness taking in the intense rainstorm.
As someone who had never before spent the night smack in the middle of a tropical rainforest, waking to the sounds of howler monkeys and the roar of the ocean was pretty incredible.
We started each morning with a potent cup of Costa Rican coffee and cut into our store of fruits — trying out the starfruit, soursop and an interesting bright yellow variety of passion fruit not imported to Canada.
While the sun was still high, we set out to a cacao plantation down the road to tour the property and make chocolate from scratch — drying the beans, grinding them and cooking them with sugarcane grown on site. My favourite moment was watching my mom-in-law slather herself in the fresh cocoa butter. We smelled amazing! It turns out, a friendly cat came with our rental property — my brother-in-law named her Rasputin — and she would bring us “presents” through our stay. The first was that evening’s dead lizard, presented outside of our bedroom door. After a meandering morning stroll — we were waking very early with the sun — we opted to explore the nearby town of Puerto Viejo. We found a fabulous little place called Soda Isma where we lapped up icy batidos — watermelon, blackberry and mango — in the pounding heat.This was a day of constant and incessant rain — you wouldn’t know it from the blue-sky photo above! It would come in droves and then break into sun — a constant game of hide-and-seek for shelter and reminder we were indeed in a rainforest.It was my brother-in-law’s last night in town, so we opted for a big dinner at Que Rico Papito in Cocles. Our charming waiter, Frederick, got on brilliantly with my step-father-in-law and ended up in one of my favourite family photos from the trip. I love how the happiness of this (very blurry) moment is so perfectly captured by our ridiculous laughter. Austin and I decided on a solo adventure the next day. After bidding my brother-in-law farewell, we caught an all-terrain vehicle into the rainforest, where we would spend the day zip-lining from treetop to treetop — 13 lines in total.
This was my first time zip-lining and I was a ball of nerves before the first run. Adding to my apprehension, right before my run, a girl with us became stuck — she wouldn’t budge — smack in the middle of the 300-foot line, swaying precariously over a 200-foot deep canyon. They had to vigorously swing the line back and forth to get her to move (she was paralyzed with fear, no doubt). When my turn came, I closed my eyes, held my breath, and jumped. It went off without a hitch, thankfully, and I had a blast through the course as we progressed to faster and longer runs. Zipping from treetop to treetop in the lush rainforest was something else — surrounded by toucans, sloths, poison frogs and myriad wildlife — I couldn’t open my eyes wide enough after that first run.
The course ended with a literal Tarzan swing back to mainland — another first as I jumped and screamed and swayed back and forth to the ground and a rainstorm poured around me. We climbed the slippery steep terrain back to safety and inhaled sticky wedges of watermelon and pineapple. Fruit never tasted so good.
Back in town, we met up with my in-laws in Puerto Viejo for a delightful meal of fresh fried snapper at Soda Elizabeth and dessert at Bread and Chocolate, a cult dessert restaurant in town that serves up beautiful sweets made from local cacao.
We spent the next morning at the Jaguar Rescue Center, a short hike from our house. This was an amazing operation — volunteer run and rehabilitating animals back into the rainforest. We got to interact in awe with all these foreign creatures — anteaters, spider and howler monkeys, spectacle and striped owls, alligators, red eye frogs and white face capuchin monkeys, jaguars, pumas… As someone who’s always been suspect of zoos and reluctant to visit them, I was worried the centre would be a glorified zoo, but it wasn’t. The animals’ interests were foremost, and we treaded carefully to observe them at an appropriate distance and listen to their amazing rehabilitation stories.For lunch, we headed in the opposite direction to Manzanillo, a tiny surfing community lauded for its beautiful beach. By pure happenstance, we landed at Cool & Calm Cafe (Andy’s Place), our favourite restaurant of the trip where we would return again. We ate (surprise!) more beautiful fresh fried snapper… it was so abundant and delicious and (surprise!) more icy batidos — this time passionfruit and tamarind.
The tide was a bit rough, but that didn’t stop us from our first beach afternoon, sipping coconuts, tossing a frisbee about and watching my ambitious husband and father-in-law frolic deep in the frothy waves. The next day, we opted to take a guided tour to the Tortuguero Canal. Our guide, Katrina, was born in Alsace and moved to Costa Rica 22 years ago — splitting her time between France and the Caribbean (dream!). We tucked into a little motorboat and spent hours along the canal, snacking on tiny ladyfinger bananas supplied by Katrina as she pointed out dozens of otherwise invisible to us wildlife — smiling sloths, howler and spider monkeys, blue heron, white egret, kingfishers, Jesus lizards, caymans and crocodiles — inches from our boat.
As someone who does not consider herself to be a naturalist by any stretch, I was surprised by how taken I was with this wildlife paradise. It was incredible to see the life teeming in the trees — and has made me so much more cognizant about looking up and around each day. From the canal, we departed for Finca Filadelfia, a banana plantation for Del Monte — one of Costa Rica’s largest exports. This was a favourite part of the trip… seeing the immense banana palms, the hyper-efficient processing facilities juxtaposed against the amount of labour that goes into our $0.79 a pound grocery store bananas. Indeed, it took me back to the banana plantations of my beloved Garcia Marquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude. I tried not to romanticize. The Caribbean coast is dotted with fruit stands along its narrow highways, and it’s impossible not to stop and grab a treat. We pulled the van to the roadside, where fresh coconuts were cracked open from the tree and we bought more super-ripe ladyfinger bananas. I had been planning the next day from the moment we decided on Costa Rica for our first trip of 2015. The Sloth Sanctuary of Costa Rica is a renowned animal rehabilitation facility and the world’s largest and most famous sloth sanctuary. I didn’t realize this until I casually mentioned it on social media one day, and several friends/acquaintances who are wildlife biologists nearly knocked me over with their enthusiasm. They were right. The sanctuary is a sacred place for these animals. Guided by Marco, we toured the property, visiting sloths in rehabilitation who were brought the the centre from far reaches of Costa Rica. We visited the newborn unit, where we met tiny sloth babies the size of a palm. And we were greeted by Buttercup, the matriarch sloth of the sanctuary, who presides over the grounds from her hanging wicker chair. Watching their slow-lapse movements was mesmerizing, as if watching a video replayed at half-speed. Back in Puerto Viejo, we lunched at Soda Caribe, where we got a taste of a meal on island time. Nonetheless, the traditional plate of beans and rice, snapper or jerk chicken and plantains was delicious. I picked up a ginger cake from a stand to tuck in my pocket for later.
From there, we headed toward Manzanilla to the beautiful Punta Uva — named one of the five prettiest beaches in the whole Caribbean. Austin and I set out for a walk along the hazy shoreline. After spending the morning with sloths — learning about their temperament, their reluctance toward humans and how they rarely leave the treetops (just once a week to defecate) we were shocked to happen upon a fallen sloth on the beach. We looked on from afar, horrified as beachgoers posed for selfies with the frightened animal, poking and prodding it. You could see the fear in the animal’s movements as it moved as quickly as possible to retreat to the trees. My mother-in-law and I watched from a distance as he got himself back into a tree to safety.
That evening back at our house, I lay in the hammock looking out to the sparkling, just rained-on forest — in wonder as hummingbirds flitted about, two massive vultures dried their wings of rain, howler monkeys swung in the trees, a wild turkey shook his crimson gobble and a tiny squirrel tucked his face deep inside of a fallen cracked coconut, lapping up the sweet flesh. It was a perfect culmination of our time in the rainforest.
The next morning, we made the four-hour drive back to San Jose for our flights home. Costa Rica was an otherworldly place, but one where I became closer to the earth than before.
Planning Your Trip
Cocles: Que Rico Papito
Manzanillo: Cool & Calm Cafe (Andy’s Place)
Mercado Central San Jose
Arenal/La Fortuna: consider spending a day or two here for the hot springs
Gecko Trail Adventures: this was a great little company we used to book zip-lining, a canal tour and banana plantation visit.