How to Roll All the Best Parts of Costa Rica Into One Eco-Adventure Week

Magical sights like this will quickly become normal during your week in Costa Rica
Magical sights like this will quickly become normal during your week in Costa Rica | Benjamin Kempton

Wildlife, adrenaline-pumping activities, volcanoes… there’s so much to see and do in Costa Rica – here’s how to squeeze it all into a week.

As most great Costa Rican trips do, ours started in the capital, San José. Eddie Recio, of Sterctours, gave us a warm pura vida welcome to his country. He would be our guide and resident expert for the next week. He also happened to be an ecologist, which certainly came in handy for spotting and identifying wildlife – it was like having our own personal David Attenbrough. We loaded into the van and set off for the Sarapiqui.

Rusty corrugated roofs transfigured into leafy canopies as we left the hubbub through the Central Valley and began our ascent of the Poás volcano. It was a Sunday, so, given that the country is predominately Catholic, most of the shops were shuttered and the streets of the pastel-coloured villages we passed through were eerily quiet. It was like lockdown all over again.

The van heaved on, traversing up the volcano and into the nimbus clouds. All around us were tropical trees and plants, the type of which sell in East London for hundreds of pounds, some with bedazzling red berries full of coffee ready to harvest. Blue skies turned to grey. The temperature lowered and the atmosphere became damp in the humid high altitude; we were in the cloud forest. Even my vertiginous carsickness from the woozy, windy roads couldn’t ruin how enraptured I was with this Pandora-like world.

My face was glued to the window like a toddler absorbing everything that passed. Skyscraper-high waterfalls; roadside markets selling extraterrestrial fruits and what looked like giant poppadoms hanging from the tarpaulin covers (they were pestiños – sugar-coated, crispy fried pastry); farmers walking alongside cattle pulling kaleidoscopic ox carts, or carreta, that the country is synonymous with. Costa Rica flashed past in an hour-and-a-half drive north that felt like nothing.

A waterfall sprouting from verdant rainforest flora – a common but endlessly beautiful sight in Costa Rica

Scarlet macaws welcomed us to our home for the next few days, Selva Verde Lodge. Its enchanting network of boardwalks through the rainforest took me to my timber-framed room, overlooking the Sarapiqui river in full flow. I’ve been fortunate enough to have stayed in many different hotels, but few – I thought, while swinging in a hammock, looking out at the rainforest river bank where hummingbirds danced in the sky to a cacophony of jungle animals gossiping and the white noise of the water – as special as this.

River rafting with Aguas Bravas awaited us the next morning. In true rainforest fashion, the clouds emptied their bowels and fell on us like a power shower. It didn’t help with the nerves. The river looked angry that morning, and we were about to wrestle with it on a rubber dingy. The calm stretches were a safari of herons perched on rocks, swooping egrets, and howler monkeys up to their shenanigans in the trees. Somewhat more disconcertingly, too, were the circles of vultures overhead. They licked their lips knowing better than we did what was coming up on the river.

At the mercy of the Sarapiqui, we clung on to futile paddles down rollercoaster drops through spewing white water as tough rubber collided with knife-sharp rocks. Two hours passed and by some miracle we were still upright. We took a short break to cliff jump and snack on pineapple, then floated down the chocolatey river on the much calmer final stretch, and disembarked for a hearty plate of cassado.

Despite what my face is saying, I had a lot of fun on the rapids

Zip lining at the Hacienda Pozo Azul followed. In the dense rainforest, up a tree the size of the Eiffel Tower, my vision became disorientated: zooming out like an Alfred Hitchcock shot, from the meandering thread of water miles below. There was no turning back. My body weight hoisted up as the instructor clipped my harness on to the thin metal wire that would be responsible for my life, and I launched myself forward, soaring through trees, dodging and ducking rogue branches as wind pulverized my face. It was exhilarating fun, although I was happy to be back on solid ground at the end. My heart rate needed a rest.

Somewhat exhausted from the past few days, we loaded back into the van and drove north up the Corredor Noratlántico and into Limón state. The landscape became less mountainous and turned into farmland, where heart of palm, plantain and ucha were growing, and the climate turned swamp-like. We were going to Tortuguero National Park, which can only be accessed via boat or plane, so we took our backpacks and loaded on to a long, narrow river taxi at La Pavona dock. Navigating along the winding Río la Suerte, or Lucky River, the vegetation on the banks got taller as we transitioned from private farmland into an overgrown world that looked unchanged since humans first walked the Earth. Crocodiles ominously glided through the brown murk alongside us. Iguanas the size of cats sat motionless on branches. After two hours, we arrived at Laguna Lodge, a small resort-like scattering of wooden huts that felt well and truly in the thick of it.

The river route to Tortuguero National Park is like a mini safari

The next morning, the sun was blazing in the cloudless sky. Meandering through the tropical vegetation, black coffee in hand, I heard a flock of endemic green macaws before I saw them, their emerald feathers with blue-and-green tints bustling up in the tree top, calling a sound that resonated the pronunciation of their name. Through a break in the reffia palms lay a sandy beach that stretched for miles until the misty clouds of ocean spray prevented seeing any further along the shoreline. I sat on some driftwood, perusing the tropical paradise: on one side, the Caribbean ocean, the other, an impenetrable wall of green. The following days consisted of exploring the canals by boat, where we saw sloths, Jesus Christ lizards – aptly named because they can walk on water – Amazon kingfishers, turtles and baby crocodiles. Evenings were spent in Tortuguero’s waterside reggae bar, which was illuminated by multi-coloured bulbs and served ice-cold guaro sours. Time slowed down. Life outside of the jungle was forgotten.

Who wouldn’t want to soak in one of the many natural hot springs in view of Arenal Volcano?

Eventually, though, it was time to leave and make our way to Arenal, the final destination. A day of travelling went by in a flash, sleeping off the guaro hangover until I was awoken from a call of: “There it is!” Emerging from the plateau of rainforest was the isosceles-shaped volcano, smog belching out of its apex. When we arrived at Paríso in Fortuna, I wasted no time and submerged myself in a hot spring, geothermally heated from the magma of the active volcano, and sat, transfixed by the magisterial might of Arenal. It was, really, the perfect rolling credits for a week-long featurette on Costa Rica. In seven days that felt like several months, I truly became infatuated with this otherworldly splinter in the middle of Central America.

Head over to Visit Costa Rica to find out more about this wonderful country.

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