Finding the Real Gold in Costa Rica by Linda Ballou

After nine days of non-stop fun on a multi-sport adventure with Active South America in Costa Rica, floating belly-up in a secluded cove at Playa Coyote gave me a chance to savor the journey. A morning swim in placid waters beneath pastel pink heavens soothed muscles put to tests that included mountain biking, white water rafting, pony trekking, hiking in rain forests, kayaking across blue-green depths to a picnic on a palm-studded island, and a night patrol with turtle conservationists along a strand of deserted beach. These were just a few of the high points of this holiday designed for those who want to breathe deeply of the landscape.
Our group of ten seasoned travelers included two high-flying “birds” from London, four laid-back Californians, a couple in love from Texas, and two solo female professionals. We left San Jose in a comfy van with panoramic viewing windows ready for action. Carlos, our driver and local guide, weaved through traffic as we made our way past foreboding walls capped with rolls of barbed wire guarding the well-kept residences inside a city that seems not to care about outward appearances. Yannick, our lead guide, of Belgian descent, fluent in five languages with seven years of adventure travel and a degree of biology under his belt, kept his band of thrill-seekers on track throughout our 11 day loop in Costa Rica.


We switch-backed our way through well-tended fields of pineapple, tomatoes, papayas, and coffee plantations interspersed with bright green cattle pastures to our first hike. Turrialba Volcano at 11,000 feet is the fourth highest of the nine active volcanoes in a country that is about the size of West Virginia. Carlos veered to miss a wooden cart drawn by the ubiquitous Brahma bulls. Children with sweet faces and inquisitive brown eyes waved to us as we navigated through their world. Even the most humble cottage was decked with a Merry Christmas on the door or a reindeer on the roof. December, the dry season, is the most favored time to explore this region.


The hearty in our group sprang up the stiff climb to the lip of the volcano then vanished in lush foliage on their descent into the depths of the crater. Feeling the affects of altitude, I opted to trot sprightly up the mountain aboard a trekking pony to view the smoking cauldron of the live volcano. Crisp, scintillating air brought me to life after the long flight and noxious fumes of the city. I marveled at the splendid aerial view of the green valley far below, resting beneath the purest blue sky. Back at our remote, mountain lodge sitting atop a green knoll, a “typical” Costa Rican meal of shredded pork, sausages, fresh fruits, black beans, rice and vegetables awaited us.


Costa Ricans, or Ticos, have embraced eco-tourism as a major source of income. So many opportunities for adventure and cozy quarters are offered throughout the country it is impossible to explore them all in less than two weeks. Active South America gives you a sampler of the best the country has to offer at a price that could not be duplicated by the independent traveler. More than 25% of national land is protected in 27 national parks and 8 biological reserves, as well as 63 wildlife refuges. There are 27 private refuges that serve as biological corridors for wildlife. The country itself is a land bridge linking North and South America. Although Costa Rica covers only .03% of the earth’s surface, it provides habitat for 4% of the world’s estimated 13-14 million species of flora and fauna. Multiple changes in altitude and temperature create micro-climates that are responsible for the country’s renowned bio-diversity. Each day brought fresh discoveries and new challenges.


Nominated one of the top ten rivers in the world to run by National Geographic, the Pecuare River winds through dense, primal rain forests, allowing the visitor to see the world as it was when man was just a sparkle in the creator’s eye. This adrenaline-spiked ride took us through towering buttresses shaggy with ancient trees draped in heart-shaped vines, monster tree-ferns, mosses, orchids and purple bromeliads -all hangers-on in the eternal quest for light in the jungle of foliage forming layer upon layer of luxuriant green.


Over eons, symbiotic, parasitic, and epiphytic relationships have evolved in the forests. Hollow trees harbor colonies of ants that protect the tree against insects in exchange for safe harbor. There are trees growing upon trees, like the strangler fig or killing tree, which envelopes its victim in sinewy ropes then sucks the nutrients from the host tree until it is left standing alone. The sloth sleeps in higher elevations of the trees and has a metabolism so slow that he only comes down from his sleepy perch once a week to make his organic deposit at the base of his tree, ensuring its long life. Other fascinating partnerships formed in the forests are those of pollinating bats, hummingbirds, hawk moths and butterflies.

The Class III to IV rapids on the Pacuare River- Rapids on the Pacuare-Ticos River Adventures


The Class III to IV rapids on the Pacuare River keeps paddlers’ alert.
“Okay, pay attention. This set of rapids starts with a double drop to a stepped series that can get ugly,” came from our expert guide, Roberto, who has been running this river for the last 30 years. “I’m not kidding. We are rafting 25 miles today, and this kind of water makes me a happy man.” He beamed from his perch at the rear of our rubber raft.
High overhead the tropical sun poured down warming rays between billowing snow-white clouds as we floated past the idyllic Pecuare Lodge, detailed by Real Travel Adventure Editor, Bonnie Neely, in a May 2006 article. With Roberto at the helm, we expertly navigated foaming rapids and entered a gorge where waterfalls tumble over lava rocks worn smooth by pounding cascades. Robert maneuvered us behind a white curtain of water spilling over the lip of a gorge. In the heart of the chasm still waters allowed us to swim in the refreshingly clear water. This was the moment I came to know the meaning of the Costa Rican greeting: Pura Vida, or Pure Life.


On shore a shy Indian girl waved to us. When the Spanish conquistadors arrived here in search of gold in the 1500s, the indigenous people burned their crops and hid in the impenetrable forests to avoid death or enslavement at their hands. Still, by 1563 their numbers were decimated by European diseases. Today, there are about 40,000 Indians living on preserves, mostly in the wilder, more remote regions in the south. The elite wore gold disks around their necks, bracelets, ear cups and nose rings that led the Spanish to believe there were rich gold deposits here, but in fact their gold was painstakingly panned in the rivers in minute quantities. They were a handsome race of voluptuous women and athletic men. Both sexes were industrious, spending their days perfecting their crafts. An extensive collection of Pre-Columbian artifacts may be viewed at the Jade and Gold Museums in San Jose.

Blue Butterfly-Photo by Ticos River Adventures

Birds were big in the native culture. Bones and feathers were used by shamans to combat negative forces. Costa Ricans are the only culture to imbue the vulture with mythological nobility. These birds circle high overhead in vast numbers. They were considered intermediaries from the physical to spiritual plane, taking messages from earthly shamans to the gods. The feminine counterpart is the immense, neon-blue butterfly often seen wafting on a sweet breeze. While on the river, I spotted Amazon kingfishers, tiger herons, numerous egrets and big blue herons, as well as green parrots and the hanging nests of orioles. With over 850 species, which includes migrants, colorful, exotic birds are found in all parts of Costa Rica.


At La Fortuna- Waterfal in Arenal Volcano Region-photo by Mike Grayford

At La Fortuna, the adventure capital of Costa Rica, nestled at the base of Arenal Volcano, we split up. The stalwart embarked on a six hour hike through the cloud forest along the Rio Celeste River topped by a swim in a frosty crater lake. Others went for a chest-thumping eight-run zip line glide through the lime-green tree canopy. I did a bit of birding on an intermediate hike to a lava flow that took place in 1992. One of the beauties of this trip is that people with disparate interests and different energy levels can find the perfect option for any given day. We reunited in the afternoon for a plunge at the base of a staggeringly beautiful waterfall, capped off with a soak in an elaborate labyrinth of pools ranging from polar plunge to 102 degree melting pot at Baldi Hot Springs. By all accounts by those who made the big hike, it was daunting, but worth it to spend the day immersed in green.


I finally found the bicyclists high on a run with easy ups and heart-thumping downs on sweeping curves of the less-traveled road that traces Lake Arenal. A brisk, cooling wind blew off the man-made reservoir that provides clean drinking water for all. I flew through the forest of ferns, elephant ear and frilly trees with yellow blooms, past rivulets cascading to the shimmering lake below. I hit a traffic jam when a family of Coati, raccoon-faced critters with monkey-like tails, came out of the forest to beg shamelessly. The next stop was to check out a group of Howler monkeys making a huge racket in the tree canopy. When threatened these monkeys are known to hurl feces with great accuracy at intruders, so I made sure not to overstay my welcome. After fifteen kilometers, I turned my bike in and joined the others in an open air café where I enjoyed talapia, a tasty white fish caught in Arenal Lake, grilled to perfection, with fresh veggies and rice.


No trip to Costa Rica is complete without a stop at the famed Monteverde Cloud Forest. Carlos expertly navigated the narrow, rutted road to the top of the world making stops to point out wildlife along the way. Seemingly with eyes on four sides of his head, he spotted an ornate hawk-eagle, a Paca, a pig-like rodent with spots on his rust-colored coat like that of fawn, and a pair of mating iguana. To our right the Pacific glistened, and to the left the cone of the mighty volcano Arenal poked through azure skies. In 1968 Arenal volcano came to life, killing 87 people. Since then it has been continuously active. While in La Fortuna, I awoke to a puffing sound and jiggling tremors. From my room, I witnessed the eerie sight of molten lava oozing down the sides of the foreboding mountain.


We arrived at the Sunset House, overlooking the tiny hamlet of Monteverde, just in time to watch the sun drop into the sea shining in the distance. Those who had taken the Rio Celeste hike and missed the thrill of zip-lining through the canopy were given a second chance to experience Costa Rica’s answer to bungee-jumping. Being suspended in a harness from a 2,000 foot cable over gaping chasms was not for me, so I opted for the walk on a series of hanging bridges spanning the forest canyons that allow a close up and personal look at the fantastic array of plant life in the tree canopy. In this most famous of birding hotspots not a Resplendent Quetzal or even a common brown thing was in sight. Our naturalist guide told us it was because we were here at high noon, but I think it was the yelps of humans flying overhead at 50 mph that kept the birds in less frequented parts of the forest. I took consolation in viewing the hundreds of hummingbirds flashing through the green, stopping to refuel on crimson blooms called Hot Lips.
We were greeted at Playa Coyote on the Nicoya Peninsula with warm rolling surf and a burnt orange sun floating above a pink sea. While Yannick and Carlos pitched our tent camp beside a beach café where the owner was preparing us a meal of fresh, giant, shrimps, ten adventure-sated travelers plunged into the embryonic brew. This was our rest stop, where we were given a free day to wander.

Our Last two Days- Second Growth Forest-photo by Mike Grayford

Our last two days spent at Curu, a 200- acre private refuge behind guarded gates resting on a sheltered bay, were filled with water sports; kayaking, snorkeling and scuba diving in aquamarine depths. An easy amble through second growth forest on well-groomed trails garnered many bird sightings and a glimpse of the Agouti, the largest rodent in the world.


Sunset Playa Coyote-Linda Ballou

Though all of our days in Costa Rica, literally the rich coast, brought new discoveries, for me time stood still at the long sweeping strand of deserted shore at Playa Coyote. Here I was lulled by the sound of crashing surf, cooled by a sea-scented breeze, and mesmerized by a golden sunset as I rocked in a hammock strung between palms beneath a sign that said, “A Seafood Restaurant and Much, Much, More.”