costa rica, Travel and Adventure

Coast to Costa

I recently celebrated my 25th birthday. Not only was I reminded numerous times that I was a quarter-of-a-century-old now, but I was also chided for not documenting any of my recent excursions. So, before my life slips past me entirely, I decided I would take up the mantle of blogging once again!

After two years of staying country-bound, I was ready for a little trip abroad. Jimi and I began looking for a fun (read: cheap) place to visit for a week in September. We quickly honed in on Costa Rica. Our goal was to hop on an airplane and have absolutely no itinerary for the week. The problem was… well, me. I like planning too much. I started reading my Lonely Planet: Costa Rica travel guide in bed each night, highlighting the best hostels and memorizing maps. We took a trip to REI to determine what backpacks to buy (Sales pitch: We both ended up getting Osprey Farpoint 55 packs and they were possibly the best purchases we have ever made. Unbelievably cool “travel packs” with detachable day-backpacks. Can’t stop talking about how awesome they are). I purchased three different styles of Keens before finally deciding on a pair. I printed up packing lists and bought excessive amounts of bug spray.

Needless to say– we were prepared.

On the flight down to San Jose, we sat next to a native “Tico” who gladly told us how to get to the nearest bus station from the airport. After a cab ride through the crowded city streets and a quick bite at a local “soda,” we hopped aboard a bus headed for Monteverde. The bus sailed out of the city at breakneck speed, which made us optimistic about reaching our destination before dark. Then, we hit the unpaved mountain road. Bumping along at what felt like a fast pace (but was probably only 25 mph or so), we watched as the clouds turned gray and the sky turned black. A tremendous downpour obscured any view of the jungle outside. Water tricked down my window pane, pooling in the sill and splashing onto my lap. Hello, rainy season.

We finally arrived in Monteverde, deep in the heart of the rainforest, at 10pm that evening. As we struggled to put our raincovers on our backpacks, I overheard a group of German backpackers mention the hostel we had planned on staying at.

“Do you know how to get there?” I asked, hoping we wouldn’t have to trudge through the rain for too long. Our new friends showed us the map they were following. I laughed when I realized that they were reading the same Lonely Planet guide in German! Someone decided the hostel must be up “that” particular dark road and we headed off single file up the steep incline.

We burst into the hostel, leaving the rain behind. It was cozy and full, with deep electronic music playing in the background. The hostel owner was a tattooed Texan, who we later learned had dreamed of owning a hotel. While the place was no Hilton, it was cozy, dry, and extremely communal.

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Our hostel, Pension Santa Elena

The next day was beautiful– warm and fresh. We set off early for a tour through the “cloud forest”. The forest was teeming with life: our guide pointed out incredible birds, sloths, monkeys, even a tarantula! We hiked all the way to a beautiful waterfall before circling back to the ranger station.

IMG_1704 2 IMG_1752 2 IMG_1836 2After some delicious lunch at our favorite “Taco Taco” stand, we decided to brave the longest zipline in the Americas (click here for more info). The “canopy tour” featured a dozen different ziplines, the first few being only a few hundred feet to give you a feel for the experience. The final zipline, however, spanned over a MILE long and you had the option to go “Superman style”… aka face down over the forest. I have never felt an adrenaline rush quite like it.

But the adventure wasn’t over quite yet: the grand finale was thee Tarzan-swing. A rope was attached to the front of my harness and I wrapped my hands around it tightly. The small gate in front of me was then swung open and I… stepped off. Soaring straight down nearly 300 feet, I literally felt like a rock plummeting towards the earth. At what felt like the very last second, the rope caught and I swung forward, Tarzan-style. It took me a good ten minutes to catch my breath again.

The next day we took a jeep-boat-jeep ride over to the Arenal volcano. The volcano is still considered active, but was mostly shrouded by clouds. When our ride dropped us at our hostel, I looked a little disparagingly at the chain-link fence and barbed wire surrounding the “Backpackers Resort.” My attitude quickly changed, however, when we stepped inside the gate and saw the pool, slacklines, basketball court, and open-air cantina/check-in desk. The atmosphere was a blast. Every night there were some sort of festivities, whether a movie night by the pool or a beer pong tournament while watching the Mayweather fight.

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First view of the Arenal volcano

We decided to “take it easy” and check out one of the local waterfalls. Unfortunately, nobody mentioned that there were about 1000 stairs leading down to it. With aching calves, I waded into the shallow pool beneath the thundering water. It was stunning– nature never ceased to amaze me in Costa Rica.

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We had two more full days, so we decided to pack in two more big adventures: a volcano hike and a white water-rafting trip. Jimi made a wry face when the guy at the hostel told us the volcano hike was “pretty intense.”

“Debby, are you sure you want to do this?” he asked, with an eerie sort of premonition.

I was too busy planning the day to think twice. “Of course! Then we’ll come back, pack up, leave early tomorrow for the river…” I trailed off, not bothering to give the hike a second thought.

Well, I thought about that decision a few times the next day. Our hike started at 10am– well, the part where we cut through cow pastures under a blazing sun. It wasn’t until our group crawled under our fifth (fifth!!) barbed-wire fence that Jimi overheard the guides discussing the “short cut” we had just taken. We deduced that there must be a fee to enter the park the main way, so they had taken us a back way to avoid paying the toll. Ugh. But, there was clearly no turning back at this point.

Once we reached the base of the rainforest, the incline increased dramatically. Scrambling over tree roots and through muddy trenches, we propelled our way up the dormant, sister volcano to Arenal. Sore legs, deep scratches, muddy feet… there was nothing to do but put one foot in front of the next and pray that we would reach the top before we fell exhausted to the ground.

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Thankfully, we all did make it to the top. The view was incredible. The dormant volcano held a pool of rainwater in its basin that was tinted green from the natural minerals. We scaled the lip of the volcano and took a dip in the cool water before climbing back out and over.

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Our German and British hiking companions

“Hang on,” the guide called to me as I reached a tough section of the climb. He monkeyed up ahead of me before saying, “I saw a pair of coral snakes here yesterday. Just want to take a look before you come this way.”

Oh. Lovely.

We finally began our descent and, as if on cue, thunder rumbled in the distance. Our guide (who channeled more Rastafarian than Tico) calmly explained, “Oh it will take twenty minutes or so for the rain to get us.”

Did I mention we were going down the mountain? We picked up the pace, choosing our footing less precisely as we tried to avoid the oncoming storm.

Jimi asked the brilliant question: “How long will it take us to get down?”

Our Rasta friend grimaced slightly before replying, “Oh, only an hour or so.” With that, he ran back up the trail to find the rest of our group. Jimi and I looked at each other, completely alone now in this jungle with snakes and spiders and spider-monkeys and rain approaching and a steep descent ahead and hours of exhaustion piled up on top of it all…

“I’m sorry,” I said. “This was such a terrible idea.” We both burst out in a helpless laugh before taking off down the trail as fast as we could.

Jimi, carrying our shared backpack, began having a tough time navigating the muddy terrain. He invented the “butt slide approach” while I perfected my “billy goat hop”. We felt the rain first in small patters, then in heavier doses. By the time we reached flat land, it was a downpour. We huddled under a little shelter at the trailhead, waiting for the rest of our tour to meander down.

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When our Rasta guide appeared again he waved us all onward. “Just a few more miles this way!” he called, pointed down the road. Wait, what? You mean we have to walk more? “We will cross the hanging bridges!” he added, as if this were what we’d all been waiting for.

Now, when I think hanging bridges, I think of movies where hanging bridges break. And it was pouring down rain! They were slippery, shifty, and way too high in the air for my liking. We crossed at breakneck speed and finally found our wonderful, glowing van again.

Oh but there was one more stop: several miles down a dark road, the van pulled off on the shoulder. Our Costa Rican guide yelled, “Okay. Leave everything in the van: your bags, your shoes, everything. They will be safe.”

Safe? Very encouraging. But, off we went, barefoot down a rocky path. Through the dark. In the pouring rain.

This, however, turned out to be a great surprise. A natural hot spring awaited us in the glen ahead. We hopped into nature’s own hot tub and relaxed our tired muscles. Our guides dragged out a huge cooler filled with ice and Costa Rican rum. We passed back the cups full of the cold, clear liquid and cheered loudly before downing them. Never has a drink felt more deserved.

Our final day in Costa Rica was the best day in Costa Rica. We took an early shuttle to the very center of Nowhere and stowed our packs in an available locker. We were then herded towards white-water rafts and taught the basics of paddling mere moments before being sent over our first series of rapids.

Jimi was unabashedly nervous, having said to me earlier, “I like man-made thrills. I’ll go on any rollercoaster, zipline, Tower of Terror… but rapids? Water? Nobody has control over that.” After plunging through the first set of rapids I looked over and asked him how he felt. “Well, as long as those were Class 2 or 3, I think I’ll be ok.”

I laughed, then turned to our raft guide. “What class rapids were those?” I asked with a knowing grin.

He chuckled in return, “Those don’t even have a class. Those are baby.”

Jimi’s eyes grew to saucers and I could see his knuckles were turning white on the handle of his oar. “You’ll be fine,” I said, reassuringly as we headed into the next cascade.

White knuckles and all, we made it through the whole day without losing a single person from our raft. A dozen people were thrown from the other rafts in our party, though, filling the air with shouts of “Swimmer!” all day long.

We followed the river for a good four hours, passing through gorges and thick jungle. We caught sight of monkeys, sloths, and even native people peppering the banks. We were unbelievably remote. At a calm section of river, our raft guide yelled “Overboard!” I dropped my oar, flipped backwards and landed with a splash in the cool water. Drifting between two steep canyon walls, I faced the sky and tried to hold the moment as tightly as I could. It’s an image and a feeling and a smell and an energy that I will carry with me the rest of my life– floating down that river in the middle of the rainforest.

It was with great reluctance that we peeled off the river and docked our raft on the shore. A bus took us back to San Jose and we ate pizza on our hostel’s balcony as fireworks exploded to celebrate Costa Rican Independence Day. Our flight took us back to the real world the next day, but those memories will be with me forever.

On a final note: If you are planning a trip to Costa Rica and want packing tips, budgeting plans, or transportation info, feel free to email or message me! We did everything (including flight) for less than $1000 each. Happy adventuring!


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