Sunday, July 9, 2017

Close Encounters of the Wild Kind in Costa Rica

They say good things come in small packages, but “great” hits the mark when it comes to Costa Rica. Comparable in size to Virginia, Costa Rica claims only .03% of the world’s terrain, yet it boasts a staggering 5% of the entire planet’s biodiversity. Still, vacation options seem limitless: over 200 pristine beaches for swimming, surfing and snorkelling; and spectacular landscapes of jungle and waterfalls that plunge down volcanoes. No wonder snowbirds flock to Latin America’s second smallest country!

What to choose? Where to go?
I found my answer by hooking up with Pacific Trade Winds, an exceptional organization based in Costa Rica. They plan and personalize all types of Costa Rican vacations. Through emails and phone calls, they designed a ten-day itinerary that satisfied my quest for adventure minus the adrenalin rush.

Selecting four destinations, I started from San Jose, set my sights on the South Pacific coast, then went inland, and ended up in the northern part at La Fortuna where my favourite excursion brought me 16 kilometres before the Nicaraguan border. Despite several long drives, including a five-hour trip through fog-infested ascents and winding lanes leading to La Fortuna, I never felt tired or fearful. In fact, the entire experience was exhilarating, fun and expertly run.

La Paz Waterfall Gardens and Manuel Antonio National Park

Heading towards the Shangra-La of wateralls – only 91 kilometres north-east of San Jose, we passed near Poás Volcano. 

Its 38 eruptions – the last one occurring in 1928 – produced highly rich sulphuric soil that to this day accounts for the great agricultural activity in the region.


A load of palm nuts

The higher we climbed, the cooler it got. and soon, several coffee plantations came into view – a verdantly lush introduction to our final destination: La Paz Waterfall Gardens.

 “Paz”, meaning peace, is the perfect name for such a tranquil place. Although privately owned, this former animal rescue preserve – is open to the public. Thirty-five kilometres of stone paths lead to various sections, including orchid gardens, butterfly bird, frog and wild cat habitats.  Blue Morpho butterflies landed on me; macaws eyed me, and one hilarious black-bellied whistling duck seemed to want to converse with me.

Sure to impress you are the Gardens’ five loud waterfalls that gush from Poás volcano, but for a softer sound, climb up to Peace Lodge – the most acclaimed rain forest accommodation in all of Central and South America.  Actor, Will Smith has hung his hat here. The 35-acre view from on high will surely give you that godly glow. 

Hard to believe that in 2009, a huge earthquake destroyed La Paz’s 35 acres, taking lives with it. Lovingly rebuilt by all the employees, it’s a treasured cocoon of peaceful beauty.  (

If the Gardens are a gentle introduction to containable wildlife, Manuel Antonio National Park’s 4200 acres offer the opposite.  Hoping to find some of the 108 mammal species hiding here, I followed Andrés Morera, a naturalist who carried a very heavy spotting scope for close-up animal viewing. 
 How he found each creature was another feat; jungle animals shy away from human beings – except for white-faced monkey “gangs” – commonly referred to as the “Monkey Mafia” because they descend to the beach to steal your knapsack in the hope of finding food. 

Lizard names are laughable: the helmet-headed basilist – “the god of lizards: who rules over his brown helmetless relative, A.K.A. the “Jesus Christ lizard.”   Frogs are less reverent; some are poisonous – such as the Gladiator whose spiked thumbs spears predators. But even gladiators must sleep, and when this one does, it turns ghost white. Iguanas were pretty much everywhere.


As for those mammals, I spotted a howler monkey  cradling her baby. 

 I saw a three-toed sloth hanging precariously upside down on a branch. 

                    That made my day! 


                 Into the Water


My snorkeling venture in Biesanz Bay – a cove off the coast of Manuel Antonio didn’t disappoint.  

On the way, dolphins “danced” alongside the catamaran, and once I was in the water – brilliantly coloured angel fish flashed by me. Back on the boat, free drinks and a fish barbecue topped off the day. Then the sun slowly sank behind the Pacific. What a glorious way to enjoy a sunset! (

La Fortuna Excursions
                 It was time to “conquer”  or at least face Volcano near La Fortuna.   According to 
volcanologists, this active volcano spewed enough lava rocks in 1948 to form a highway around the world. Its last eruption was in 2010.


On the lava flow trail, my guide and I were taunted by the weird call of the Motezezuma Oriopendula and surreal plants like the guineo belong in Jurassic Park.

The guineo plant

Before leaving La Fortuna, I visited the Ecological Waterfall of Fortuna River. Climb down its 480 steps (don’t’ forget you have to climb back up), but it’s all worth it. Immerse yourself in the water at the falls and look up at the fall plunging 600 metres from above. It’s unforgettable.

I made it down and then jumped in

Now I have to climb back up those stairs


                                               Cano Negro
The most exciting excursion took me into the wetlands of Caño Negro River. Launching from Los Chiles, (where we later feasted on a classic “gallo pinto” meal), we meandered up the murky Rio Frio near Nicaragua. Garnets, herons, blue flycatchers and other amazing birds clustered alongside its banks.

On the Cano Negro boat



White faced monkeys eating palm nuts
by the water’s edge were as thrilling as hearing the loud roar of a huge howler monkey nearby. Then again, that caiman was pretty scary too! Bring your binoculars.



Two Wonderful Words

“Pura Vida” – is the catch-all phrase constantly used by Costa Ricans when greeting and bidding adios to one another. It’s a sweet reminder for everyone to enjoy life in the purest of ways – protecting, preserving and cherishing the bounty this stunning country offers the world.
Pacific Trade Winds customizes your vacation to include airport pick-up, hotels, all breakfasts, several lunches, entrance to parks, guided nature tours, excursions with travel in luxury mini-vans. Hassle-free, you pay before you go. (

Where to stay and Eat
In San Jose: Don Carlos Hotel; a traditional huge mansion with authentic wall art. There are American style luxury hotels, but Don Carlos has the culture. Conveniently located for shopping and visiting the gold museum. (
In Manuel Antonio: Mandarina Hotel; fabulous hospitality. Enjoy eating breakfast under the trees with monkeys swinging nearby. (
Eat at Emilio’s across from the hotel. Nutritious dishes with fabulous salads, miraculous cakes, served on the terrace overlooking the Pacific.
Café Milagro for their award-winning coffees. Mixed menu with heavy Cajun flavouring
In La Fortuna: La Fortuna Hotel; ask for room # 404 (volcano view). Eat at Don Rufino; Astounding gourmet meals. Try the risotto chicken with shrimp. (




1 comment:

  1. Thank you Nancy for a well written and informative account. E