Friends Take Fun Adventure To The Limit In Costa Rica. For those of us who enjoy active or “extreme” vacations with lots of outdoor thrills and adventure, few countries offer more options at a better price than Costa Rica.
From left, Liz del Sol and Marian Galbraith.
With oceans on both sides and mountainous rainforests in between, Costa Rica has diversity of landscapes and activities within relatively short distances of each other.
Mountain regions offer hiking, river rafting, zip lining, volcano hiking, canyoning, waterfall rappelling, thermal hot springs and wildlife tours, while beach areas, mostly on the west coast, offer snorkeling, surfing, sailing, sunset cruises, sport fishing, scuba diving and more.
Wildlife watching and “ecotouring,” often on horseback, are abundant throughout, thanks to many national parks and refuges.
It’s no surprise then, that Costa Ricans, or “Ticos,” are passionate about environmentalism and conservation, and their national motto, “Pura Vida,” Spanish for “pure life,” or “living well,” is one of the country’s best marketing sound bytes.
Ticos use this phrase for almost any greeting or emotion, including “hello,” “farewell,” “thank-you,” and even “that’s awesome,” so travelers can’t go wrong by adopting it for all occasions.
While many Ticos speak at least some English, especially in the resorts and tourist attractions, the trip gets more interesting if you know some Spanish, too.
Fortunately for me, I happen to be friends with a super talented, bilingual frequent traveler named Elizabeth “Liz” del Sol of Los Angeles, who appears to be on a mission to see as much of the world as possible while experiencing the extremes along the way.
Tropical birds like this scarlet macaw adorn storefronts and retail establishments in Monteverde, Costa Rica. —Photo by Liz del Sol
While I’m not the extreme athlete Liz is, I told her I do enjoy the occasional thrill and gave her the go-ahead to put something together that would be fun for both of us.
Most CR packages include visits to the Arenal Volcano and the Manuel Antonio National Park that is visited by 85% of travelers to Costa Rica, but she had already been to those and our needs and interests were specific.
We both wanted to do some scuba diving and I told her I’d also like to do some zip lining and any other fun stuff Costa Rica had to offer.
After some online research, we agreed on a package of activities at “Extremo Park” in Monteverde along with some diving off the west coast in Playa del Coco.
She found us hotels for a couple of nights in each location, plus a night in San Jose on each end of the trip to access the airport, then added a rental car and pieced together a six-night itinerary.
All the hotels would include a generous room with two beds and breakfast. With rental car and six-night hotels, it came to about $324 per person.
She had enough points to cover her flight from Los Angeles to San Jose with a stop in Atlanta, so I decided to meet her there so we could fly into Costa Rica together. I didn’t have enough points to fly free, but managed to get a seat on her second leg from Atlanta to San Jose for $542 round-trip.
I also decided to drive to Atlanta, rather than fly from Nashville, for roughly $50 round-trip, park at a nearby lot and do a little shopping in Atlanta on my return trip.
The Airport Marriott provided secured parking with round-trip shuttle service to and from the airport for about $6.50 per day.
The way to San Jose
I made it to the airport in plenty of time to wait for Liz at her gate, then we went to the International terminal together. The flight to San Jose was about 3.5 hours and we gained an hour in the process, since Costa Rica is on Mountain Time.
Marian Galbraith, right, and Liz del Sol take in some “extreme” horseback riding as part of our package in Monteverde, Costa Rica
After landing, we were shuttled to the rental car agency that provided stick-shift, four-wheel drive SUVs only, and with good reason. The steep, curvy mountain roads are often unpaved, and the rocks and potholes are enough to destroy the average automatic or sedan.
They talked us into the super-duper insurance policy for $150 with coverage up to $5 million or so, including running over pedestrians. Judging from the streets of San Jose, where pedestrians routinely jump out in front of cars, we thought it was a good idea.
Since one of Liz’s hobbies happens to be race-car driving, I thought I’d let her be the primary chauffeur, especially in the chaotic, crowded streets of the capital city. Needless to say, with her at the wheel, we seemed to reach every destination with time to spare.
The day before she left on the trip, she had also stumbled on a Global Data package through her cellular account that gave her unlimited cellphone data for Internet and GPS navigation throughout the trip, plus Skype phone calls for next to nothing per minute.
My provider, on the other hand, offered the “tourist trap” package, which promised to charge through the nose for every pixel, digit and sound byte.
I opted to keep my phone in “Airplane mode” throughout the trip to avoid being gouged, while Liz was generous enough to share her phone and data with me.
Liiz had warned me about the early nightfall and rain, which could make driving conditions difficult, so we tried to keep sightseeing to a minimum to get up the mountain before the 5 p.m. sunset.
After a few toll booths on the way out of town, we stumbled on a fabulous fruit stand that offered what turned out be our favorite power snack of the week for only about $4 each: a cup of chilled ceviche with plantain chips.
If you’ve never tried ceviche at a good Mexican, Caribbean or Central American restaurant, you don’t know what you’re missing. It’s usually made from fresh fish and/or shrimp, chopped into tiny pieces and “cooked” overnight in lime juice, spices and cilantro.
I was initially turned off by the clear plastic cup and lid, which seemed to be overfilled with broth at the top while the fish had sunk to the bottom, but one taste made me forget all about the presentation.
Liz also turned me onto some fresh rambutan, or “hairy fruit,” which tasted somewhat like a large, pulpy, white seeded grape on the inside after peeling away the “hairy” outer coating.
After this snack, we were energized for the scenic drive to Puntarenas Canton and then up the steep hill to Monteverde.
The drive was beautiful and we stopped at a pub overlooking the ocean along the way, but the last 15 miles seemed to take longer than the rest of the day’s drive altogether.
Steep, unpaved and full of potholes, with no streetlights and no place to take a break, the last 25 kilometers up to Monteverde were slow, painstaking and brutally bumpy, but the reward at the top was a charming mountain village with smooth pavement, trendy shops and restaurants and mountain chalets galore.
Our destination was the El Establo Monteverde, a lodge-style hotel with high ceilings, beautiful views, large balconies with sliding glass doors and a short walk to several restaurants. Our first night we chose one with vegetarian options and dined on black bean soup and a gourmet veggie quesadilla for about $12 each.
The next day would be long, exciting and intense at “Selvatura Park,” with five extreme activities that took place over countless acres of hills, valleys and rainforest.
A van picked us up at our hotel at 7:30 and took us to the stables. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I was pleasantly shocked in the end.
The horses were not huge, but surprisingly powerful and eager to climb and run. Later that day, we heard others say this had been the scariest part of their day, hanging on for dear life as they galloped up and down the hillsides.
Luckily, Liz and I were the only guests on the early morning ride and were given plenty of leeway to set the pace and stop for photos of the beautiful mountain views with our two guides, Pablo and Rafael.
We came to a halt, however, when Rafael spotted a small eagle whose wing had become hopelessly tangled in a barbed wire fence.
Rafael painstakingly freed the bird, sustaining injuries in the process, and carried it on horseback all the way to his nephew’s animal clinic up the hill. When he rejoined us up the trail, he said the bird was okay and would be released as soon as it was fit to fly.
Needless to say, we were duly impressed.
Rafael Angel Cruz rescues a small eagle whose wing is caught on a barbed wired fence during the extreme horseback ride. –Photo by Liz del Sol
After a short but exhilarating race back to the stables, we were driven to the main office for the remaining activities of the day. We were soon joined by vanloads of about 40 more tourists from all over the world: Canada, Europe, Australia and Latin America.
After the staff bundled us up in rain jackets, harnesses and clips, we were split into two groups, English and Spanish, for instructions. I asked Liz to humor me and take the English one so I wouldn’t miss any details.
The rainforest was living up to its name that day with a constant mist and partial fog, but guides said the tour would continue as scheduled unless they saw lightning.
Liz del Sol takes off on a 2.6-mile zipline tour through the cloud forest mountains of Monteverde, Cost Rica.
The ensuing four-kilometer zipline adventure consisted of 13 ascending platforms, cable rides of varying speeds and distances, and hikes in between that seemed to get steeper toward the end.
The final cable was at the top of a fairly challenging hike, but the views and vertical heights were the best yet.
This would be the longest single “zip,” at nearly half a mile, and they hooked us up face-down from our back and ankles so we could glide across like a flying superhero.
The views were to die for, and the speed and distance made this the perfect grand finale of the zipline tour.
Despite the rain jackets, long sleeves and long pants, our clothes were fully damp, the sun was fading, the rain wouldn’t stop and the winds were getting chilly.
Horseback riding was also available on the beach at San Samara for only $5 per half hour person. —Photo by Liz del Sol.
After a hot shower, quick dinner and some souvenir shopping in Monteverde, we turned in early but first made a reservation for a coffee and cocoa plantation tour the next morning. Then we would head to San Samara, a beach town in the Guanacaste province about halfway to our scuba destination.
Soon after we arrived in San Samara, we decided to take a walk along the crescent-shaped beach nearby and were approached by a 10-year-old boy on horseback named Jamison. He offered us a beach ride on the two small horses he was leading beside him for $5 each for a half-hour, and we couldn’t resist the charming young businessman.
He didn’t speak much English but Liz translated his stories and we learned about the area in the process.
Then we drove into town for dinner at a Mexican restaurant and called it an early night again since we had to be up by 5 a.m. to make the two-hour drive to Playa del Coco and catch the 8 a.m. dive boat.
The iPhone GPS generally got us at least 95 percent of the way to most of our destinations, and this was no exception. We got there in plenty of time to pick out our gear, try on wetsuits and grab a quick snack before the walk down to the beach where we hopped into a motorized dinghy that took us to the dive boat.
We were headed for some small reefs off the coast of Punta Argentina, a small but vertical island protruding out of the beautiful Playa del Coco bay.
From there on out, we were treated like royalty by the dive staff. Most of us divers that day were not very experienced, but the guides took care of our every need and watched us like guardian angels throughout both dives.
After instructions from lead guide Guayo on what to expect, they brought us our equipment, helped us get it on, walked us to the boat’s edge, helped us jump in, and then watched our every move underwater.
Each dive was about 80 feet down and the variety of ocean life was delightful. We posed with a sea turtle, spied on a giant stingray and a few white-tipped reef sharks that were resting on the ocean floor and spotted a number of eels, small rays and colorful fish.
In and out of the water the staff seemed to anticipate our needs before we could even ask. After the first dive they helped us back into the boat, took off our tank and BC, cut and served us fresh pineapple, chatted with us and answered questions, and propped us up to pose for photos with our cell phones.
The bill was only $105 per person for the two dives, including all equipment, guides and services. The underwater experience, priceless.
A hungry sea turtle delights scuba divers while searching for algae in the reefs of Punta Argentina off the coast of Playas del Coco. Marian Galbraith, right, is escorted underwater by a guide.—Photo by Matthias Leuschen
After getting back to shore, we spent the rest of the day relaxing and socializing in the clubs and restaurants until our drive back to San Samara, where we collapsed fairly early.
On the way back to San Jose the next day we stopped at a roadside “soda,” one of many small, family owned restaurants serving traditional Costa Rican cuisine of rice, beans, fried plantains and a fresh vegetable with choice of chicken, beef, pork or fish. We both chose the lightly batter-fried fish and had a fabulous, filling lunch for well under $10 each, including the Lizano sauce, a few bottles of which we had to bring home.
So there you have it, an action-packed week in an exotic but friendly culture, just 3.5 hours from Atlanta, for well under $1,500 per person including flight, hotels, rental car, fuel, insurance, activities, meals, and even souvenirs.
Pura Vida, indeed.
You can choose to travel this way if you have the time and patience to do it but the best way is let one of Bill Beard’s agents handle everything for you, from start to finish and please remember, our service is free to you.
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Friends Take Fun Adventure To The Limit In Costa Rica
For those of us who enjoy active or “extreme” vacations with lots of outdoor thrills and adventure, few countries offer more options at a better price than Costa Rica.