Costa Rica Trip Report

Natural World Safaris

13 May 2015

READ about paul's journey in costa rica 

Our destination specialist Paul Callcutt has headed off to Costa Rica for a taste of the incredible natural world adventures on offer in this diverse Latin American destination. He'll be reporting back with his daily diary from the wildlife rich jungles, simmering volcanoes and palm-fringed Caribbean coast line.

Day 1 - Pacure River

It was an early start this morning as I headed out of San Jose; departing the city the stunning natural beauty of this country begins to become more apparent. The lush volcanic landscape really shows off what Costa Rica is all about and we stopped for a simple breakfast along the way, overlooking coffee plantations. After another hour or so of driving I was certainly looking forward to not being in a train, plane or car for a while and as if on cue we arrived at the truly fantastic Pacuare Lodge.

This really is one of the more stunning places I have visited over the years, surrounded by jungle and nestled in a gorge with the famous Pacuare River flowing by, in front of the lodge. We had time for a quick tour of the lodge which has managed to blend luxury accommodation without sacrificing the nature that you came here to visit in the first place. The huge rooms, designed to let the air flow through, are the perfect place to relax and listen to the sounds of the surrounding jungle, the myriad of indistinguishable jungle sounds are regularly punctuated by troops of howler monkeys that are more than happy to make their presence known!

There are so many things to do here, that choosing how to spend your time you have is probably the most taxing decision you will face. I opted to have a go at something that Costa Rica has made its own over the years; zip lining. A network of cables are strung across the jungle and is the ultimate way to travel rather effortlessly through the surrounding canopy. I am not a great lover of heights to put it mildly but the expert team here are excellent at putting your mind at rest and ensuring that you have an enjoyable time. The zip lining ends on a tall platform high up in the canopy which did leave me wondering how I was supposed to get down. I should have known .... it was rappelling. Fortunately at the bottom of the rope is a bar and a cold beer awaited, which certainly eased my less than enthusiastic approach to heights.

Following a delicious three course meal the troops of howler monkeys decided the quiet dinner atmosphere had been going on long enough and they launched into full voice as the day came to an end. I have, in the past, had a bit of a love hate relationship with the jungle, but that was probably because I was not staying anywhere quite like Pacuare Lodge.

Day 2 - Puerto Viejo

Sadly the time had come to leave Pacuare Lodge which will remain as one of the nicest lodges I have had the pleasure to stay in. However leaving promised be fun as I was wasn't taking the normal road transfer but instead departing by rafting Pacuare River. I am reliably informed it rates among the world's top ten rivers for rafting in the world; not a bad way to leave then. I have to admit to looking on a little nervously as the bag containing all my camera equipment and other electrical items were packed into barrels. I was assured that these barrels are completely waterproof but something just seems wrong about putting all your kit on the back of a raft which you know is about to be slammed through a canyon for the next 4 hours!

Whilst I have been rafting in the past in a few different locations this was certainly a step up in terms of quality. 

Water levels are a little low at the moment as we come to the end of the dry season which raises the technicality of the river, which means we really had to work well as a team to avoid getting stuck on the rocks in the first few sections. As we moved away from the lodge the depth and the flow of the river increased, before we knew it we were happily riding through class 4 rapids, which is about as hard as beginners would ever want to go in the world of rafting. After stopping for a quick picnic lunch looking down the canyon, we continued our way along the river, showering ourselves in a few waterfalls on the way. After around 4 hours of rafting I could safely say that I had done enough paddling for the day and my back was ready for a rest. Perfectly timed we arrive at the meeting point in time for a shower and change before I carried on towards the Caribbean Coast of Puerto Viejo for the night.

Day 3 - Selva bananito

Today was largely taken up as a travel day, making my way to the private reserve that is Selva Bananito. This is a truly fascinating project where the brother and sister partnership of Jurgen and Sofia are working tirelessly to save and protect one of the most important areas of forest in the country. Unfortunately the region has been suffering from far higher than normal rainfall at the moment making the journey there somewhat challenging as the river which you would normally pass when arriving to Selva Bananito is heavily swollen and impassable.

This being Costa Rica there was of course only one way around the problem: ziplining. 

After parking the car out of the way our guides arrived for the final leg of the journey fully loaded with climbing harness, helmets and all the necessary equipment to fire people across a river whilst carrying all their luggage. It is fair to say that I have never arrived at a lodge in such style before, and I am unlikely to again! Jurgen has informed me that the conditions are most unusual for this time of year. Eventually we were loaded into the vehicle on the other side of the swollen river along with our luggage and we made our way for the final stretch to the lodge. While waiting for the rain to stop I spent the rest of the afternoon chatting with Jurgen and Sofia who were happy to share all the details of their reserve and the conservation issues that they are facing. I headed to bed praying for kinder weather the next day.

Day 4 - Selva Bananito

Apparently I did not pray enough as the sort of weather I have only read about in The Bible seemed to descend upon us over night and continue well into the day. I have experienced storms of this magnitude before, but never one that has continued this long. It's stamina is impressive and shows no sign of blowing out any time soon. However after a coffee a break in the rain saw me quickly getting my boots on and heading out to explore what is one of Costa Rica's finest examples of primary rainforest available to see and learn from.

We had walked no more than about 35 minutes before the weather had decided that it had enough rest and was time for another heavy downpour! I had hoped to spend the afternoon horse riding but the weather had other ideas and instead saw me resuming a book reading position. This is a rainforest after all and it has most certainly earned its name today. There is a part of me that is thinking about that river crossing tomorrow that has to be done... are we ziplining again?!

Day 5 - tortuguero national park

Yes... we are ziplining again. Despite the incredible positivity of Jurgen suggesting that we "might be able" to cross the river in the 4wd I could not help thinking that unless his 4wd was an American monster truck we would be stuck. We took one look at the river, which was now far more swollen than before and started to don the now familiar ziplining equipment for the crossing to our car. Once on the road we immediately headed for the famous Tortuguero National Park, rumour has it that the sun was shining there today!

After around three hours of travel we arrived at Manatus Lodge in Tortuguero National Park. Within a couple of hours of arrival I headed out, exploring the canals that make this area so famous. The weather gods had listened and we had a warm, dry and quiet day which was perfect for viewing the plentiful wildlife of this incredible area. Exploring by boat brought with it a silence that we could not achieve when travelling by foot, meaning we didn't disturb the wildlife and within one hour we had seen three species of monkeys, caiman, crocodile, osprey, toucans and more. On a number of occasions we stopped as howler and spider monkeys made their way through nearby trees. My guide offered me a dusk to darkness walk through the forest at the back of the lodge which I highly recommend as the jungle really comes alive at night with sights and sounds you do not see in the day.

Day 6 - TORTUGUERO NATIONAL PARK

An often underused method of exploring the canals of Tortuguero is by kayak, and to be honest I can't really understand why more people don't do it. The kayaks have access to canals that the normal boats can't visit. Kayaking offers a far superior experience as you glide silently through the canals without disturbing the very wildlife that you came to see, resulting in much better sightings. I arranged for a private tour of the canals from the lodge which was fantastic; birds, monkeys and iguanas among other animals are far more willing to allow you to approach them in a kayak than in a boat with an engine running.

I don't wish to tempt fate.... but I think the rain may have stopped!

Day 7 - The Osa Peninsula

An early start this morning and we are heading the for the Tortuguero airstrip. Flights in Costa Rica are short and simple affairs; the first flight was around 40 minutes to San Jose for a quick change of plane before another hour's flight to Puerto Jiminez in the south. The Osa Peninsula is widely regarded as one of the best places for wildlife enthusiasts to visit when in Costa Rica so naturally I was particularly looking forward to visiting this region and will in fact be spending more time here than anywhere else on my journey. For the first two nights I will be staying at Lapa Rios which has an excellent reputation as one of the world's leading eco lodges and it did not disappoint.

Far from having to take a trip out of the lodge to where the wildlife is it would seem that the wildlife here surrounds the lodge itself and on the first afternoon I had seen three of the four species of monkeys from the comfort of the decking outside my room. Macaws fly right past and above you, while you look out over the stunning views of the coastline do make this a hard act to beat and Lapa Rios certainly deserves its high reputation within the world of eco lodges. It is of course not the only option that is available and this afternoon I will be taking a tour to meet the other lodges in the area so we can offer a fair comparison of what each lodge can offer.

Day 8 - THE OSA PENINSULA

Whilst I would not consider myself a birdwatcher at home it is hard to to come to Costa Rica and not take an interest in the ornithological world happening up in the canopy. With that in mind I booked an early morning (05.30am!) trip with Rodrigo who is the local bird watching expert to go and explore a little further and see what sort of birds we could spot this morning.

In just one hour and a half we had seen over 40 different species of birds, which I am sure you will agree is almost impossible with any other type of animal, a good guide here is essential and exactly when the quality of the guides we use starts to shine through. 

There is no chance that I would have seen and identified even 20 percent of what we were able to had I done this trip on my own.

Now I know that if you want to see scarlet macaws, you have to look in the almond trees, who knew? Apparently Rodrigo did! There is not much about the bird life here that he does not know. All in the name of research I did decide to head to the beach for an hour or two after the birdwatching which was certainly very pleasant. I had the chance to try my hand at surfing or paddle boarding but personally though I was here to see the rainforest so opted to do so this afternoon on horseback.

I do genuinely love horse riding and I find it a great way to explore an area whilst have a little fun along the way, if the wildlife is proving elusive you can always enjoy a quick gallop to make things more exciting! I am pleased to say that the horse riding arranged for me at Lapa Rios was certainly very enjoyable. At times, horse riding can be more of a beach donkey ride, this was not the case today and we were able to have a good gallop along the beach to finish.

Day 9 - Piedras Blancas NAtional Park

Today involved passing over the Golfo Dulce to the quieter side of Osa Peninsula where I was able to visit two lodges alongside the Piedras Blancas National Park. It is certainly a quieter part of the peninsula and well worth the short boat trip of around 20 minutes to arrive from Puerto Jiminez.

My first stop was Playa Cativo (image below courtesy of Playa Cativo; View from the lodge) where head guide Gerrardo was able to take me for a walk through the grounds of the hotel and through the surrounding rainforest. The quality of the wildlife viewing on this side of the peninsula was clearly of the same high standards I had enjoyed elsewhere on the Osa Peninsula with howler monkeys instantly coming to greet us in the forest; their particularly vocal style of greeting could be heard throughout the entire walk.

In the afternoon we were able to pass over to the other lodge for the day which is Nicuesa Lodge which, like Playa Cativo, has its own stretch of beach - something that the lodges on the other side of the Golfo Dulce are not able to offer so worth considering when choosing which lodge to stay at during a visit to the Osa Peninsula. I firmly believe that any good wildlife safari to Costa Rica has to include a visit to the Osa Penisula and the wildlife on this side in the Piedras Blancas National Park is as good as you would find in the more well known Corcovado National Park.

Day 10 - Arenal

Another early start, but I am in tune with these now so no problem! Up and off around 5am in order to catch the 6am flight to San Jose. We had around a four hour drive ahead of us which in itself was an interesting trip as the drive takes you up into a different habitat zone of the cloud forest before descending the other side to the rainforest once again.

As we arrived at Arenal in north-western Costa Rica, the famous volcano itself is obscured by cloud so I am hoping we get a nice view tomorrow morning. Arenal has really become one of the country's most well known spots for tourism due to the volcanic activity which characterises the area. There are a wide range of places where you can enjoy the hot springs and it would make a lovely place to spend a few days following a stay in the jungles of Osa Peninsula. Tonight I am staying in El Tabacon Resort which has access to one of the best of Arenal's hot springs. While there was no time to indulge myself in the hot springs this evening I certainly hope to try them out in the morning before carrying on to Rio Perdido, with a little luck there may be a view of the conically shaped volcano as well!

Day 11 - rio perdido

Today we made our way north to pay a visit to Rio Perdido in the north west of Costa Rica. It was particularly interesting to see, that within about two hours of departing from Arenal the environment changed completely; the landscape went from the lush green of the south to drier more arid surroundings.

The drive from Arenal to Rio Perdido takes around three hours and upon arrival, they waste no time in getting a harness on you and throwing you down a zip line. All in all the turnaround time from check in to zip lining must have been around 15 minutes which is a new record for Costa Rica. Not content with just a zip lining experience the team here have decided to spice things up a bit by adding a pendulum swing and a "Tarzan" swing as well just in case you had started to get used to the now seemingly traditional zip lining experience.

One thing that does set things apart here is that you will be zip lining through a canyon here instead of the forest canopy, below you the famous Rio Perdido is in full flow and that is where we will be headed in the afternoon for a spot of river tubing.

Day 12 - guanacaste

Today the driving continued as we made our way north towards the border with Nicaragua. Our destination is the Borinquen Resort & Spa in the region of Guanacaste.

As we arrived around lunchtime we didn't have enough time to visit the nearby national park of El Rincon De La Vieja which is home to the volcano bearing the same name. 

It is possible to enjoy a full day trip into the national park and up to the crater lakes at the top of the volcano.

Borinquen really does allow you some great views of the volcano and the owners were keen to show off the land that their hotel is located on and as such they decided to take us, not by zip lining for once, but instead by quad bikes. We managed around a two hour circuit of the farm which is a fully operating dairy farm as well which gave us some fantastic views of the national park before returning the hotel. The resort is also home to thermal springs as a result of the proximity to the volcano. Guests here are encouraged to cover themselves in hot volcanic mud before rinsing off in one of the hot springs pools and enjoy a treatment at the spa; personally I will stick to quad bikes and waterfalls but with a little more time this could be a nice way to finish a day of hiking the volcano.

Day 13 - Santa Teresa

Facing the longest drive of the trip so far today, we decided that to leave nice and early, around 7am, so that we could get to our destination on the pacific coast with some time to spare. This being Costa Rica though, the manager of Borinquen Resort thought it was unbelievable that we would be leaving without trying one thing; their zip line course!

The course here was a step up from any of the others I had seen so far and featured zip lining over a canyon at a height of around 200 metres. I should make it clear that heights is the one thing I really have a problem with so please do sympathise with things I do in the name of work! You can see on the video of the course that at the beginning I'm whiter and slightly more shaky than normal - quite clearly terrified.

Anyway, we crossed the ridiculously high canyon and the guide asked me if I had seen the beautiful waterfall to my left. I had not, I was so fixated on where the finish was I had not seen much at all if I am honest! After arriving at the platform I was then advised that we are past the point of no return and not to worry there are only 10 more to go. Another addition that they offer here is that you can do one of the cables upside down, would I like to do this they asked? No. I think I made that pretty clear.

All joking aside, whilst Costa Ricans do seem to love this way of exploring the forest more than any other country I have ever known, it is a truly exceptional way of exploring the canopy of the forest. Halfway through our traverse of the canyon we were treated to a family of howler monkeys who appeared to be watching us, no doubt wondering why on earth we would choose to explore the trees this way.

After arriving back at the hotel the guides, who are also the local cowboys, enjoyed a good laugh about the fact I would not "do the upside down one". So after feeling less like a cowboy than perhaps I ever have in my life we had some driving to do so it was time to head off.

After a long but not entirely bumpy journey we arrived at the beautiful pacific town of Santa Teresa and it really is everything you would imagine a Costa Rican surf town to be. The standard of the hotels is excellent, I will be staying in the delightful Flor Blanca Resort which is perfectly situated outside the main town but still in walking distance. Importantly, from what I can see so far, there is not a zip line in sight... but I have not asked yet.

Day 14 - Cabo Blaco Nature reserve

Today there was a little free time to enjoy the coast after going to meet a number of the other hotels in the area. Not really being much of a lie on the beach person I decided to head out to take a look at the nearby Cabo Blanco Nature Reserve which takes around 45 minutes from Santa Teresa. In my opinion one of the best ways to get there is rent a quad bike and enjoy the remote trail through the forest to the reserve as it takes in a really nice route and is very straightforward to find.

There are two main trails to check out inside the reserve and with a little luck you can find monkeys, coyotes, a wide range of bird species and while there are wild cats to be found here it is very unlikely you will see them. If you take the longer "sueco" trail from within the park then you will eventually come to the Cabo Blanco Beach which would be one of the nicest in the area and a truly remote beach to spend some time if the busier beaches near the resorts are not your thing.

On the way back into Santa Teresa I would highly recommend the Argentine run cafe simply known as "The Bakery" as a nice and relaxed place to enjoy a sandwich before heading back to your hotel for the night.

Day 15 - crossing the gulf of nicoya

I was allowed a rare treat of a late start today as we did not have to leave until around 9am to make our way south to Manuel Antonio National Park, my penultimate destination on this trip. This journey would normally take around 5 hours including a short ferry journey to cross the Gulf of Nicoya, the drive itself is a relatively scenic journey from Santa Teresa to the ferry port where we encountered a slight problem. It seems that despite arriving around 45 minutes prior to the ferry departure it was already full! This in turn meant waiting for the ferry to cross and come back again and addeding around 4 hours to our journey.

While not ideal, it did ensure that we got to see the most beautiful sunset when we were crossing the gulf so all was not lost. 

Arriving quite late at Parador Resort & Spa quite late there was just time to grab something to eat before heading to bed, ready for the following day when I head into the national park, known for it's extensive hiking trails, white sand beaches and wildlife; including both brown-throated three-toed sloth and Hoffmann's two-toed sloth.

Day 16 - manuel antonio national park

Despite its relatively small size, Manuel Antonio National Park has an excellent reputation in Costa Rica and remains one of the most visited parks in the country. As with all jungle wildlife the sightings can be fleeting but here in Manuel Antonio there was most certainly a lot to see.

The trick here is to get into the park nice and early, it opens at 7am and this is when I would recommend to get here, popularity with visitors does of course mean that there will be many people on the trails if you leave it until later. Arriving early paid off nicely for us as we were able to see howler monkeys (well you ALWAYS hear them first!), squirrel monkeys and white faced capuchins within the first hour of being the park. 

It is however the beaches that occupy most people's time here in Manuel Antonio and with good reason as they are among the nicest I have seen in Costa Rica.

You can choose to walk to remote beaches for the day within the national park or learn to surf at the local beach, among many other ocean based activities you can choose to do here. I spent some time today visiting a number of lodges in the area but I have to say that Arenas Del Mar really stood out as the place to stay for wildlife enthusiasts as it really has a jungle feel to it and the birdlife throughout the grounds is incredible. All of the monkey species seen earlier in Manuel Antonio can also be seen here on their private reserve and within easy reach of the luxury rooms they have on site.

We are now approaching the end of the trip and leave tomorrow to search for one of the most emblematic birds of Costa Rica, the Quetzal, I will let you know how that goes!

Day 17 - san gerardo de dota

Departing Manuel Antonio we made our way south toward San Gerardo de Dota which is famous for being the best place on Costa Rica to see the Quetzal. It is a great drive which takes you to a completely different zone in terms of climate, vegetation and wildlife. Gone are the tropical temperatures that we have enjoyed so far as we climb over 2000 metres and everything changes. This is the first time on the entire trip so far that my jumper has been used and I am glad I packed it!

The road from the coast continues to rise and rise until you reach the tiny town of San Gerardo de Dota. I took the time to look in on three lodges that we use in the area, all of which were very good great. We arrived at Trogan Lodge a little before dark and I had some time to talk through the area with the team here at the lodge. These are the guys that will be be taking me out tomorrow morning to try and see the all important Quetzal. Whilst this area does not have the monkeys and sloths that characterise the lowland and more tropical areas there is more to see here than just Quetzals. Just on the drive into the lodge we were able to see a number of flycatchers, robins and a pair of woodpeckers that in the absence of the howler monkey have become the dominant sound of this area! For now it is an early trip to bed as I will be up at 5am to try and see the Quetzal.

Day 18 - SAN GERARDO DE DOTA

Early starts are becoming the norm now so it was no problem in getting up at 5am (although there is always time for a coffee) to meet our group for the next hour or so. The beauty of this area is that you do not have to go far in order to find the habitat of the Quetzal. They eat the avocados that grow all around the lodge and at this time of year the males have their long tail feathers on display (this can be seen from around December to June) and show off their bright blue/green colours.

You certainly do not need to be a pure birdwatcher to enjoy this sight, even at this time of the morning. Try as I might to snap a decent photo of the Quetzal it proved a little too difficult to get a shot of the male with all his plumage on display, I have managed to get a shot of the female out feeding whilst the male guards the eggs in the nest.

It was a good way to end a fascinating trip to Costa Rica and now it is time for one more drive; this time back to San Jose where I will head back to the airport.

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Comments

Will

18/5/2015 9:30 AM

Great read - hope the rain lessens up and you get a chance to dry out!

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