By Mark Bradley
Waking up in a lush, green, tropical paradise in February should be reward enough for a Midwesterner used to ice, snow, and wind chill readings on his birthday but I had come to expect more in Costa Rica.
The previous night I had arrived at the luxurious Hotel Parador near the entrance to Manuel Antonio National Park just in time to witness the sunset of a lifetime. The entire sky appeared to be on fire with a crimson color unlike anything I had ever seen and with the rustling of palm trees in a gentle breeze and a chilled drink in hand I thought it couldn’t get any better.
But it did.
I celebrated my birthday in style the next day with a breakfast of freshly picked tropical fruit on a veranda overlooking the sparkling blue Pacific followed by a hike through oceanside rainforests with spider monkeys swinging from tree to tree in the canopy overhead. As I came out of the jungle to a secluded white, sandy beach and frolicked in the gentle surf I again pinched myself to see if this was actually happening.
My trip had begun three days earlier when I arrived in San Jose, the boisterous capital of Costa Rica. I arrived at night and as the plane circled the city preparing to land the twinkling lights outlined the city below situated in the mountainous Centra Valley.
My personal tour guide greeted me at the airport and suggested we have dinner at Le Monastere, a restored monastery perched high in the foothills with a magnificent view of San Jose. An illuminated green cross marked the restaurant as we ascended from the valley floor through the suburb of Escazu and upon arrival we were seated at a table by a waiter dressed as a monk with a breathtaking view of the city.
The food and wine were as fine as any menu and wine list available in the US. I enjoyed a freshly caught sea bass along with a glass of Chilean wine and thought to myself that this would be a birthday trip I would long remember.
I began the trip by exploring the Museo Nacional, the National Museum of Costa Rica. It is situated in an old fort in downtown San Jose. Its battered walls are riddled with bullet holes and missing masonry and authentic cannon in the courtyard remind visitors that Costa Rica did not always enjoy the peaceful existence it is known for now.
But don’t fear, Costa Rica’s armed forces were disbanded shortly after World War II and today their government is the most stable in Central America.
The Museum served as the perfect orientation with a chronological flow of exhibits and art tracing the country’s history and culture from pre-Columbian through the Spanish colonialization and into the modern era.
Nearby, on the 11th floor of the INS building is the Marco Fidel Tristan Jade Museum which constitutes the only existing pre-Columbian jade museum in the Americas. The various artifacts and jewelry are skillfully backlit and positioned to offer translucent views making it well worth the modest price of admission.
With my appetite to explore this fascinating country sufficiently whetted, I couldn’t wait to see firsthand the rest of the country and enjoy its natural beauty.
Eco-tourism is Costa Rica’s biggest draw and for good reason. Twenty five per cent of its land mass is protected in National Parks and its flora and fauna is among the most diverse in the world. Active volcanoes form a fiery spine down the center of the country separating the Pacific region from the Caribbean yet it is possible to have breakfast on one ocean and dinner on another.
My guide suggested we head to the Pacific Coast as the climate is best there in late February. She suggested autumn as the best time to visit the Caribbean side of Costa Rica so I happily took her advice and we piled into her SUV and pointed it west.
Manuel Antonio, near the city of Quepos, is a must see and the most popular with locals and foreigners alike but I elected to indulge in the more exclusive, less crowded resorts as well.
So after two days at El Parador we traveled north up the Pacific Coast to Boringuen Resort near Liberia in the province of Guancaste. The journey itself was an adventure as we stopped along the way to sip chilled coconut milk directly from the coconut through a straw from a roadside vendor and then had lunch at a small restaurant on the Corobici River run by Swiss immigrants.
The owner insisted we return and he would guide us personally on a float trip down the river which flows gently from the Tenorio volcano and meanders 25 miles out to the Gulf of Nicoya. The Corobici is bordered by a tropical forest including towering trees like the Ceiba, Palm, Mahogany, and the national tree, the Guanacaste . Strictly enforced national law prohibits any cutting of trees or vegetation along the river here and throughout Costa Rica.
Boringuen Resort and Spa is situated on a high, grassy plain several miles away from the ocean and offers a very different climate and scenery from the rainforests below. It is an exclusive retreat for the well heeled visitor featuring private hillside casitas and as we arrived at sunset I observed the entrance to its claim to fame- volcanic mud baths.
To begin the next day we decided to take a horseback ride to a natural waterfall on the property. Intrigued by the calls of the nearby howler monkeys the previous night, we soon saw them on our ride as well as the ever popular toucan whose distinctive call gave away his spot in the foliage.
But the real fun was about to begin as we left the stable and changed into our bathing suits for our mud baths.
As we walked down the path to the mud pits we encountered the “Mud” family. They appeared absolutely aboriginal covered from head to toe in hot, thick dark mud as they dried in the midday sun. As it turned out they were merely a harmless vacation family from New Jersey and after removing the dried mud appeared quite normal.
Now it was my turn. I soon transformed myself into a Mud Man and the only telltale signs of my true identity were the bright red circles of sunburned skin around my eyes and hairline giving me the appearance of some fierce warrior in vermilion war paint.
After following directions and baking in the sun for thirty minutes until I turned a crusty gray, I washed away the mud followed by an invigorating dip in the pool and I was ready to take up my new Swiss friend’s offer of rafting.
Floating leisurely down the river proved to be the ideal way to spend the afternoon as a native oarsman maneuvered us skillfully through the gentle ripples of the Corobici. Around every bend of the river there were aviaries of native birds and trees and flowers of every imaginable hue.
There are dozens of crystal clear rivers like this one throughout Costa Rica with varying degrees of whitewater challenge but today this one suited me just fine as I knew we still had a long journey to our final destination- the still active Arenal volcano.
As we drove along Lake Arenal that night my guide suddenly hushed me and in the distance I heard the rumblings and first saw the fiery red tracings of the Arenal volcano as boulders and lava poured down its side. These minor eruptions occur sporadically with no way to predict them she explained. Sometimes people stay for weeks without seeing anything so I counted my blessings once again.
I stayed in the private, luxury cabins of the Montana del Fuego (Mountain of Fire) hotel and gave strict instructions to the desk to be awakened at any hour if the volcano chose to erupt again.
In the morning the towering presence of the volcano dominated the scenery outside my room. Its cone remained covered in clouds which slowly disappeared as the morning wore on revealing its incredible size. I had planned a guided group hike that afternoon nearer its base but first I had been offered the chance to enjoy a newly opened private spa and pool whose waters were thermally heated by the volcano. I had been told Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito, among other celebrities, had helicoptered in to this fabulous site.
I was not disappointed as I entered the family owned ranch and was greeted by the owners. They explained to me how they had designed the resort themselves and how they had built it to be a small, intimate setting for select guests.
Bright orange wild ginger flowers lined the tree covered path to the pools which appeared magically from the jungle as if they were a mirage in the desert. Native stonework walls defined a series of waterfalls which emptied into two large pools of naturally warm water which flowed from underground rivers. It was a veritable Garden of Eden with the privacy and convenience of modern services but with none of the pitfalls.
After spending a glorious morning relaxing, I reluctantly bid my hosts goodbye and joined my group for a hike around the base of the volcano. The guide was informative and the scenery stunning but I wanted a more private, challenging hike. The concierge had arranged a hike for me the next morning with this guide who had been informed that one of us would be joining him tomorrow for a very difficult hike to the cloud forest over an old hunting trail on Cerro Chato (High Hill).
He asked several of the younger men in the group if they would be taking on Cerro Chato with him tomorrow morning and when none of them responded he glanced quizzically in my direction. When I confirmed it was me, a graying 48 year old, he shrugged his shoulders as if to say you’ll never make it.
The next morning at 6am when he met me his body language still seemed to suggest his reservations on taking me to challenge mighty Cerro Chato. As we rode in the van to our destination, my 23 year old guide Geraldo explained to me that the “trail” actually consisted of basically pulling ourselves up the mountainside on the tree roots after he had hacked away the foliage with his machete. Thanking him for the information, I cheerily suggested we get there as soon as possible which surprised him even more.
The climb began easily enough with an approach walk across a pasture carpeted with pink and white impatiens and shaded by tall pine trees. This pleasant scene soon gave way to a steep incline leading through a rainforest with huge, wild orchids and bird of paradise flowers growing alongside the trail. Underfoot, leaf eater ants busily carried away pieces of the tropical foliage unaware of our plodding presence.
We stopped briefly once to see the rare emerald toucan found only at higher elevations. Then, after going nearly straight up for hours, we suddenly entered the cloud forest. Shrouded in mist and markedly cooler we stopped for a snack which Geraldo served on our makeshift tablecloth- a huge green leaf he had lopped off with his machete.
Below us we could barely make out the blue water of a lake formed in the crater of an extinct volcano as we rested for the descent back to civilization. Our reward on the other side of Cerro Chato would be a spectacular waterfall where we would conclude our hike and be picked up by the van.
Going down proved to be just as strenuous as the ascent, as we used an entirely different set of muscles and when we finally emerged from the jungle and onto a smooth dirt road Geraldo looked at me in disbelief.
“Senor, we have set a new speed record for the hike and I must admit my own legs are trembling,” he said. “I have taken many people half your age on this hike who have quit. Congratulations!”
I smiled back at him knowing that I had accomplished something special. But yet this whole trip had been beyond my wildest dreams and so I took it in stride. As we drove back to San Jose to catch my flight back home I knew that Costa Rica would always be my most memorable birthday.