Best Vacation EVER
Pura Vida! That’s the Costa Rican lifestyle – the pure life. They use it similar to Hawaii’s “aloha” to mean hello, goodbye, that’s cool, life’s good… The simple life was definitely what we were looking for on this vacation, and the Chachagua Rainforest Hotel and Ecolodge delivered.
The room we booked was actually a cabin tucked away off roads that nearly thwarted Google Maps’ ability to find. We landed in San Jose, the largest city in Costa Rica, and drove over two hours to the Alajuela Province just a few miles shy of La Fortuna and the Arenal Volcano. Arriving was like driving up to your Grandmama’s house – there was no parking lot, no curb service… you just sort of pulled up to the front porch. We got out and were greeted – right there on the porch – by an enthusiastic local man who continually interrupted the check in process with things like, “Well, so-and-so is sick, so I’m just filling in,” and “If you decide on a night hike, you’ll be with the best guide in the entire rainforest.” Of course, it took him maybe three seconds to point back at himself, “Me, Juan Diego!” (So it’s just like your Grandmama’s house, and that’s Granddaddy bragging about his prize bull or the fish he caught last week.)
Anyway, Juan Diego is a great ambassador for the place. He eventually got us checked in with keys to the cabin, directions to get there, notes about the various trails we could hike, and … he added a special surprise. As he likes to say, “I know everybody here, and everybody here knows me.” By ‘everybody’ he is referring to the monkeys, owls, snakes, sloths and numerous varieties of frogs, crickets, birds, spiders and grasshoppers that he enjoys showing off to tourists. So, before we left the front porch, he pointed to a potted plant in the corner. “You know what’s in there?” We shook our heads “no” even as we walked to it, and he picked up a red-eyed tree frog (which we would later learn is sort of emblematic of the region) who then jumped out of his hand and just glued him/her???self to the side of Juan Diego’s face! And… And… all this happened while a couple of geckos were on the wall deciding which way to chase bugs and chattering with the geckos out on the gravel paths and gardens surrounding the porch. Then he literally sent us over the river (nope, not a bridge – hope you have 4-wheel drive – proceed through the actual stream and up the bank on the other side) and through the woods to our house.
Thus began our immersion into the jungle. We woke up each morning to a trio of toucans that rivaled Larry, Curly and Mo each morning at 5:30 AM. They would chirp back and forth, peck at windows – how could they help it with a one-inch window sill and four-inch beaks – and pester each other on tree limbs just two feet from our window and our porch.
Yes, we had a porch. Our cabin was a spacious king bed cabin with a table and chairs, nice bathroom with a walk-in shower that had glass walls down to about chest height so that you could watch the hummingbirds outside the window as you showered. (Yeh, it rocked.) The porch was big enough to have a couch, a rocking chair, a hammock and a bar with stools that we used to whoop one another in cards. (Mostly I did the whooping – don’t tell my wife I said that.)
Back to the crazy Collared Aracari toucans… they were a pleasant wake-up call each morning and much more entertaining than the predictable, rhythmic cicadas. All of the sounds were amazing – we heard so many bird calls we couldn’t keep up and the soft rains and thunderstorms and insects and geckos… If somebody wants to make a sleep sound machine, spend a few nights there. Even though they’d often wake us up early, it was quite easy to either transition into watching the Women’s World Cup – on early in Costa Rican time – or just smile, roll over and go back to sleep.
We took morning hikes sighting magnificent flowers, bushes, trees, lizards, frogs… We sat by the pool or on our porch and read books. We got to know the friendly staff at the restaurant and practiced (well, she doesn’t need the practice – that’s me) our espanol.
Our second day there, we drove into La Fortuna. We wanted to check out the distance because some of the hikes and excursions we were interested in were closest to there. I got a cool Pura Vida! hat, and we made note of all the roadside “sodas” we wanted to check out. In Costa Rica, there are many signs for “soda 500 meters ahead.” They’re like outdoor cafes – operated often by only one or two people, at least in the rural areas we were driving through. So over the course of a week, we stopped at four of them. The food there is simple, clean and fresh. I’m pretty sure the majority of ingredients came from the back or side yard of the establishment where we were.
Of course, we were not going to miss our opportunity with the best rainforest guide, and we did a night hike with Juan Diego that lived up to the hype. We saw over 10 varieties of tree frogs alone: the red-eyed tree frog, the leopard frog, the dancer frog, the miniature glass frog… We saw snakes and birds and frog eggs and pregnant spiders and crickets and grasshoppers 2+ inches long!
We left early one day and headed to Desafio Adventure Company in La Fortuna. We had enjoyed many creeks and lagoons where we were staying, and we had seen numerous creeks, ponds and rivers as we were driving. On this day we wanted to be in the river. We went on a white-water rafting adventure with a really fun couple from LA and an enthusiastic local guide named Jimmy – who continually switched between Spanish and English. (That just meant that his instructions to paddle, paddle-left, back-paddle and stop were sometimes not obeyed – that is, I don’t sit up and respond to “alto” like I do to “Stop!” which I’m sure was ingrained in me at a very young age.) The four of us tourists were in it together though, and throughout our trip, whichever one of us figured out what were supposed to be doing informed the rest. The first half had some pretty rough rapids, but the second half was what they refer to as the “safari tour.” It was pretty much like tubing slowly down the river. There was the option to get out and swim or stop on a sandbank or just enjoy looking up into the trees to spot sloths, monkeys and iguanas. It was fun, exciting, gorgeous, relaxing… a good time.
Once off the rafts, we did a li’l glute workout hiking up a hill to the buses and vans. Then we were off to another outdoor lunch – this time buffet-style. It was great with fresh produce and three types of salsa to mix in with salad, soup, meat or rice. Since local, clean food is the standard throughout the Alajuela province, salsa and pickled vegetables are definitely the most spiced/flavored additions to a meal.
We wanted a hike through another portion of the rainforest, and we chose the hanging bridges hike near the Arenal Volcano. What gorgeous views! This volcano has been active as recently as 2010, and the lush forest around it is teeming with life. We captured sounds of cicadas, birds, waterfalls and streams while walking through the canopy. Since we weren’t on a mission to run a marathon or check off a to-do list, we meandered and really took in what was there. Yes, we got in a workout, but we also really enjoyed it – just had to drink extra water.
Driving through rural Costa Rica, we had seen time and again signs for the La Fortuna Waterfall – tours and hikes and guides – it has a reputation. A buddy of ours at the Chachagua Rainforest Hotel had clued us in to the fact that it’s a park, so no one needs a guide or a tour. We paid our park fee and were set free to descend 500+ steps to the waterfall’s pool. (You know where this is going, right?) It was gorgeous. There were more types of moss on the natural stone and tree lined pool than I have ever seen. The rate of flow down that waterfall was spectacular; the water was fresh, clear; and the background of the jungle sounds (think howling monkeys) fit seamlessly.
Now… about those 500+ steps….
They are not shallow, gradual steps.
They are steep.
It was 88 degrees and 99% humidity…
We survived. We made it back out and to the ecolodge where we applauded ourselves for having combined a legit workout and a lovely sight-seeing adventure. Another day well spent in Costa Rica. It was a perfect last day in the rainforest and representative of every day we had been there: good food, gorgeous views and great exercise. We’ll definitely be back. Pura Vida!
Note: I highly recommend this trip, and NO – not a single person or establishment mentioned here gave me any compensation – money or otherwise. I just enjoyed this relaxing vacation and wanted to share.