Finding Adventure in Everything we Do

costa rica honeymoon reflections....20 years later

In honor of our 20th wedding anniversary, I dug through some boxes and found the old school travel journal I’d written in the days long before online blogs. Back in April 1999, we spent 10 days traversing the tiny country of Costa Rica, falling in love with the people and the dense jungles full of sights and sounds unlike anything we’d ever seen. We’d return 12 years later with our kids and again just this year for my 50th birthday celebration but for now let’s take a trip back in time to our first experience living the Pura Vida! 

Our first trip to Costa Rica started with a night in San Jose after flying into the international airport, followed by three nights in Manuel Antonio National Park, three nights in the Osa Peninsula, and two final nights back in San Jose as a base for rafting the Pacuare River. This itinerary ended up being a great introduction to a country that quickly become one of our favorites. 

one night in san jose

day one- from new orleans to san jose

After a relaxing evening at the Windsor Court we head to the New Orleans airport to begin our journey to Central America. Nine hours later we arrive in San Jose, the capital city of Costa Rica, and home to around 330,000 people. After being on a plane for the better part of the day, we are more than a little ready to relax in the tropics. We deplane and the humidity hits us in the face like a boxing glove. In this country, muggy is a gross understatement and even this toughened Louisiana native is in for a rude awakening. What little make up I am wearing melts off within seconds. 

We hustle along the open-air terminal toward customs, rifling through our paperwork to ensure all is in order. Turns out it didn’t much matter. The guard takes one look at us, laden down with camera gear, straw hats and newly purchased hiking boots and decided we don’t pose much of a threat to national security. Two stamps in our passports later and we’re off to collect our bags. 

Bags in hand, we proceed through the throng of people outside the gate toward a young Costa Rican holding a handwritten sign that says “Young” in hopes there are no other Youngs traveling today. The Tico approaches us with a barrage of Spanish spoken way too quickly for my loose command of the language and excitedly grabs for our bags. The smattering of Spanish I’ve retained from a distant semester in college has yet to kick in. Hoping for the best, we follow along and are quickly escorted to a van and are onour way into the city. 

After a 15-minute ride through the streets of San Jose, we arrive at our hotel, the Hotel Grano de Oro, an early-20th-century mansion filled with tropical plants and friendly staff.  We check in and walk the dozen or so yards through the outdoor courtyard to our room. After quick calls to the folks to relay the news of our safe arrival, it’s off to dinner and our first taste of Costa Rican cuisine. We grab a courtyard table and order a couple of drinks and some dip made from hearts of palm and cheese. We also get a “boca” or appetizer of beef, onions and peppers served with homemade tortillas. The dip is a bit too “authentic” for me but the bocas are outstanding. Tired from a long day of travel we call it an early night. 

day two- on the road to manuel antonio

We awake to a beautiful day in the capital city and enjoy a breakfast of macadamia nut banana pancakes and Costa Rican omelettes in the courtyard.  Our four-wheel drive rental is soon delivered and we load up for the trek to Manuel Antonio. Although our luggage is bigger than the backseat we are soon to discover the distinct advantage of a small, maneuverable vehicle on the winding mountain roads. Our adventure begins as we attempt to find our way out of San Jose. After three wrong turns we end up on a road that Roger proclaims “good enough” and start making our way up and down and around the mountains toward Quepos. 

By now, Roger is one with the locals as he flies along the Costanera Highway, passing at random, dodging potholes, and passing on blind curves as I hold on for dear life, silently cursing myself for not bringing any motion sickness medicine. We pause for lunch at a hilltop restaurant where Roger spots his first iguana. 


day three- hiking in manuel antonio

We awake before dawn intending to get an early start for our hike in the Manuel Antonio National Forest.  Armed with the knowledge that we’re more likely to see animals early in the morning, we excitedly grab our gear and head down to breakfast at 7:00am where we are promptly greeted at the door with…..nobody!  Turns out Costa Rica doesn’t do the whole daylight savings thing and it is only 6:00am. Resisting the temptation to head back to sleep we hang out by the pool peering through binoculars at the rain forest below where I spot my first monkey swinging through the trees. Of course, Roger disputes my sighting but I know a monkey when I see one!  The smell of food drifts by and the monkey is quickly forgotten as we head off for breakfast and then drive down the road to the trailhead. Fending off the countless Ticos trying to solicit money in exchange for safeguarding our car, we make it to the trail and begin our hike in the smallest, but one of the most popular, parks in Costa Rica. 

Within minutes of hiking we are deep into the jungle and suddenly hear a rustling in the bushes as a small group of white-faced monkeys appear and are promptly documented with our assortment of cameras. Of the three species of monkeys living in the park, the white-faced Capuchin monkeys are most common and travel through the forest in groups searching for fruit and insects.    

Further along the trail we encounter a group of hikers staring intently up into the trees. Peering through binoculars we spot the source of their attention- a brown-throated three-toed sloth!  Related to anteaters, all five species of sloths are found only in the Neotropics. Grayish-brown with a distinctive gray and white mask, the sloth was hanging rather motionless, probably busy digesting its recent meal of leaves (a process which apparently takes several days). Roger marvels at the beast who has the ability to hang motionless for hours. He listens with fascination as the guide explains the fastidious bathroom behavior of sloths, who climb down from their tree to deposit their weekly bowel movement on the ground. Numerous theories abound as to why the sloths do so, but biologists are still stumped. I like the theory that it’s to fertilize the base of a particular tree so as to increase the quality of those leaves, but it’s clear that Roger is working up dozens of other theories.

Encouraged by the wildlife spotted thus far, we proceed along the path beneath the giant mangroves until the trees open up to a series of forest-backed tropical beaches. Finding a deserted spot, we swim and relax in the warm waters of the Pacific Ocean. It’s almost hard to believe we are in the same ocean that we’d lived along just a few thousand miles to the north in California and found way too cold to even set foot in. 

Later we hike further up the trail and come upon Cathedral Point, a wedge-shaped piece of land that was once an island but is now connected to the beach by a neck of sand. This rare phenomenon is known as a tombolo, a deposit of sand that builds up over 100,000 years and finally connects an island to the mainland. Come to find out, the Manuel Antonio tombolo is one of the most perfect in the world.   

Returning from our hike, we take a quick dip in the pool, clean up and head into Quepos. Resembling more of a dirty village than an actual town, Quepos is reminiscent of our Mexican excursions just south of Tijuana. Ironically, we stumble upon a little Mexican restaurant, Dos Locos, and enjoy great margaritas and fresh fish tacos. Once a prominent banana-exporting port, Quepos has declined in significance due to diseases that have severely reduced banana crops. African oil-palm has replaced bananas as the major local crop leaving Quepos to position itself as a sportfishing center and closest town to one of the most visited parks in Costa Rica. After a quick walk through town, we buy a couple of post cards and head back toward the hotel, stopping along the way for a sunset dinner at a restaurant overlooking the 

day four- lounging poolside

Our third day in Manuel Antonio finds us lounging poolside for hours, lunching on delicious chicken quesadillas from the Rico Tico outdoor bar and grill.  Later that afternoon, we drive into town for a little shopping. On the way back to the hotel we stop at the El Parador, one of Manuel Antonio’s most opulent hotels. Resembling a Spanish fortress on a hill overlooking the ocean, the hotel comes complete with a priceless collection of 17th and 18th century European art, and castle doors from England, Italy and Spain. At around $180 a room, it’s not exactly over-the-top in price but for a couple of newlyweds with a mortgage it’s fine for a drink before dinner. Moving on, we stop by the same restaurant as last night for appetizers and end up having dinner at Le Jardin for a taste of French food in the tropics and a banana split as a finale.  

Located on the southern Pacific coast of Costa Rica, the Osa Peninsula is a one of the most biologically diverse places on the planet! Lured by the promise of untouched scenery, secluded beaches and tons of wildlife, we quickly added the Osa to our Costa Rican itinerary. We only had time for three days but would have happily stayed much longer!  

day five- getting to the osa peninsula (planes, boats and automobiles)

Today we travel from Manuel Antonio to the Osa Peninsula. The trip ends up being quite the adventure. Our trek begins with a hair-raising van ride down the mountain to the Quepos airport. The airport turns out to be little more than a strip of dirt in a cleared patch of rain forest with a makeshift shed serving as the terminal. Well, we wanted adventure, right? 

The gate agent/pilot motions us toward the plane- a twin-prop, 15-seater with an open cargo compartment in the rear where you merely toss your luggage upon boarding and secure it with bungee cords. Yup, we’re feeling really safe right about now.

Mumbling what I take to be “Fasten your seatbelts” in Spanish, the pilot revs the engine and we’re off on a bumpy 30-minute ride over the tree tops to the airport in Palmar Sur, the center of the banana-growing region of the Valle de Diquis. Greeted by a second van, we’re off for a 20-minute ride through African Palm Oil orchards and banana fields to the boat dock in Sierpe, a small village on the banks of the Rio Sierpe, about 30 kilometers from the Pacific Ocean. Boarding a boat that looks only slightly more sturdy than the plane we just arrived in, we set off for a 45-minute ride up the Rio Sierpe to Drake Bay. The ride starts off smoothly as we glide through the jungle along lily pad covered channels, all the while scouring the shore for crocodiles. As we approach the point where the river greets the Pacific Ocean, the ride suddenly turns from bumpy to downright hold-on-for-dear-life as we accelerate out of the mouth of the river and slam headfirst into the churning ocean. 

“Video-tape this!!” Roger screams over the roar of the crashing waves. I manage to resist the photographic urge of this Kodak moment and instead use both of my hands to keep a death grip on the railing. Minutes later we break free of the whirlpool of waves and settle in for a less eventful cruise along the shore toward Drake Bay. As we approach from the river, the Aquilla do Osa hotel rises from the rainforest like a scene straight out of an Indiana Jones movie. Situated at the junction of a jungle river and the bay, Aquilla de Osa is an impressive sight. Nestled amid the dense jungle-covered hills, it’s a one of a kind adventure hotel. Consisting of a series of cabin-style rooms situated around a main, open-air restaurant, the property overflows with lush tropical plants. This time we only have to climb a mere 75 steps to get to our room- a vast improvement over the hundred plus steps we climbed back in Manuel Antonio! 

Shortly after arriving, we sit down for an excellent lunch served family style at large, outdoor, wooden tables. We meet the Baker family from Maine who promptly adopt us. Dick, Jenny and their pre-teen kids, Chelsia and Zane, are on their first trip to Costa Rica. Zane asks Roger if he’s a professional athlete. I’m pretty sure Roger offered to let him feel his biceps but my eyes were rolled so far back in my head that I missed it.

After lunch, we hike to the beach with our new friends. This is not a hike for the faint of heart! We trudge through the jungle at times feeling like we are walking straight up and then right back down hanging onto assorted tree trunks and limbs for balance. We arrive at the beach and immediately jump in the water. Although the sand has nothing on the sugar white beaches of the Florida panhandle, the water is a ton of fun. Gentle, but huge, swells of water pick us up and transport us to the beach without ever crashing over our heads. It’s as though we are playing in some gigantic man-made water park with perfectly designed waves that are huge but never really pose a threat. We stay and play in the water for a few hours and then head back to the lodge. During the hike back, we spot a group of spider monkeys playing high in the trees above us. Won’t see that in Florida either! It’s been a beach day unlike any other we’ve ever experienced. 

Back at the lodge, we clean up and relax on the porch where of course Roger takes a nap and I occupy myself bird watching which is quickly becoming one of my favorite activities. Dinner is just as wonderful as lunch and we trade stories of our adventures with our table mates. Exhausted from our big day, and the fact that it gets really dark really early in Costa Rica, we turn in at 7:30pm! 

day six- cano island snorkeling, hiking and a village festival

After joining the group for breakfast, we board a boat for the 12-mile ride to Cano Island for a day of snorkeling. We’d hoped to scuba dive but it turns out they are quite the stickler for proof of PADA certification and since Roger never got around to completing his open water dive it’s a no go on descending into the deep. Turns out we don’t need to dive to see fish and are treated to a vast assortment of sea life, including a barracuda and a giant sea turtle which we’re told is quite rare to observe so close to shore. 

Roger and the Bakers decide to make a two-hour roundtrip hike into the heart of the island to see the Costa Rican “spheres.” According to legend, the spheres were used to mark burial sites but how they were made or what they really mean remain a mystery. It’s kind of like their own little version of Easter Island. I forgo the hike in favor of relaxing on the beach with the hermit crabs. 

Once the hikers return, we load into the boat for the ride back to the lodge. Halfway back, we encounter a group of dolphins and circle around to follow them. For a few minutes, they swim alongside the boat, jumping and playing and posing for our cameras. Once we return to the lodge, we all head to our respective rooms for yet more relaxing in the hammocks and another round of sink laundry. When you combine efficient packing with 100% humidity you end up with the need to do laundry on a daily basis! 

Dinner, as we’ve come to expect, is wonderful. Afterward, a group of us accept one of the guide’s invitations to join him for a local festival in a nearby town. Thinking it would be fun to taste a bit of local color we eagerly follow him as he leads us into the jungle. It turns out we are headed to the Isal Festival which is only held for three days once every three years. Talk about timing!

As we make the 15-minute trek through the darkened jungle across a beach at low tide we are very thankful for having brought along 12-year-old Chelsea’s flashlight. We are quickly discovering that getting anywhere in Costa Rica is a big part of the whole experience. As we near an outcrop of three small buildings which our guide proclaims as “town,” we hear the booming sound of music in the air. Could it be? No! Not in the middle of the Costa Rican rainforest! As much as we wish we are hearing tribal drums or native music, the unmistakeable sound of “Eye of the Tiger” is blasting through the trees. Yep, nothing like a Rocky theme song to get the party started. The songs keep playing like a soundtrack straight out of the 80s. Nice to know it takes 17 years for a hit single in the States to reach the depths of the Costa Rican jungle. Smiling to ourselves, we approach the dance hall, a barn-type structure complete with DJ and flashing disco lights. Once again, our pre-conceived notions of Costa Rican jungle village life are challenged as the 80’s music morphs into salsa. As we made our way inside, a nice young Tico approaches Roger and asks his permission to dance with me. Of course he’s asking in Spanish so Roger just gives him a blank stare as I attempt a translation. Relieved he won’t actually have to dance, Roger happily waves his approval and I hit the floor with the locals. 

Just when we’re beginning to think the Rocky song was a fluke, they crank up Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall” and we are once again catapulted back into the 80’s time warp. After soaking up a bit more of the local festivities, Roger and I decide to head back to the lodge early. Barely five minutes into our trek through the darkened jungle we start to wish we’d waited for the rest of the group. Without the benefit of Chelsea’s big flashlight it gets creepy fast as the noises of the nocturnal animals grow louder. We had tried to convince the lodge dog to accompany us back but he was adamant in his vigil to wait for the others. Smart dog. So off into the darkness we go with nothing but a tiny penlight we found in the room. All goes well for the first few minutes as we feel our way along silently hoping we are on the right path. Suddenly, we hear a rustling in the bushes and simultaneously think the same thing……jaguar! Without uttering so much as a single word, we quicken our step and half-run back to the lodge all the while tensed up for an impending attack. Needless to say, we survived and the story didn’t sound nearly as scary when recounted it at breakfast the next morning 🙂 

day seven- hiking in corcovado

Our last morning on the Osa greets us bright and early as we awake to the sunshine streaming through our windows and a symphony of birds. No need to set alarms in the Osa Peninsula! 

After breakfast, we board the boat for our ride to Corcovado National Park. Given our various adventures to date, we had decided to take it down a notch and signed up for the “easy hike” option. We should have known better. Our easy hike begins with a thirty-minute trek straight up a mountain into the jungle. The humidity is unbelievable and within minutes we are drenched. Once again, this Louisiana girl is dripping in a sweat unlike no August on the bayou that I’d ever known. 

After the first half hour, the path levels out and we enter the primary forest. This is pristine virgin rain forest that has never seen an ax. As we walk along, our guide, Oleman, points out the various flora and fauna that we certainly otherwise would have passed cluelessly in a veil of sweat. Hiking Corcovado amounts to sensory overload. Unlike the temperate forests of North America, where there is little diversity with acres of pines, pines and more pines, the tropical forest has unbelievable variety. Oleman points out lots of different species of trees- roughly 1,400 tree species have been recorded in Costa Rica. He explains how this incredible variety generates biodiversity in the animals which live in the forest and how there are several dozen species of fig trees and the fruit of each one is home to a different wasp species. 

One of the highlights of our hike is climbing inside a giant garlic tree where we can see hundreds of bats hanging upside side inside the hollow center. As the day progresses, we spot all three kinds of monkeys indigenous to Costa Rica- white faced, spider and howler, along with a tiny poison dart frog, a coatimundi (member of the raccoon family) and the ever crowd-pleasing toucan. Overhead, the rare, endangered scarlet macaws draw our eyes upward with their majestic red feathers. 

Later that afternoon back at the lodge, we take turns swinging off of a big rope and launching ourselves into the bay.  We’d come to expect great food and tonight’s feast is no different although this time we pass on the jungle party and opt for sleep as we have a big day of travel ahead of us tomorrow back to San Jose!

day eight- back to san jose

We pack up in anticipation of our return to San Jose. Thankfully the boat ride back up the river isn’t nearly as hair-raising as the trip down. Unfortunately I can’t say the same for the flight as we once again toss our bags in the back and buckle ourselves in for the quick, but fairly nerve-racking, ride back to San Jose. Back at the Hotel Grano de Oro, we are too tired to venture out into the city and instead settle down to watch reruns of Friends, too exhausted to mind that it’s in Spanish. 

day nine - rafting the pacuare!

Our last day in Costa Rica proved to be our most exciting. We’d decided to raft the Pacuare River, considered to be one of the top five rivers in the world for unrivaled scenery, thrilling rapids and the chance to spot wildlife. We awoke bright and early to get ready for the van that arrived at 7:00am to transport us to the river. Located on Costa Rica’s Atlantic slope, the Pacuare River borders the Talamanca mountain range, home to native Cabecar Indians and an incredible variety of wildlife.

Before departing San Jose, we made a couple of stops to pick up the fellow tourists that were to be our rafting partners for the day. Among them are a couple from the UK who proceed to tell our group how tragedy has followed them on every trip they’ve ever taken. They’d been in Iran when the American hostages were taken as well as a number of other locations where some sort of drama unfolded or an otherwise safe trip turned dangerous. We sarcastically thank them for joining our rafting trip, silently praying they end up in a different raft. Little do we know that near tragedy was to befall us long before we ever reach the river.

Halfway to our destination, the driver stops in a remote mountain village to get gas. Taking advantage of the opportunity to stretch our legs, we all pile happily out of the van. A few folks head inside to get a drink while the rest of us congregate on the sidewalk chatting. What happens next is still a bit of a blur. Suddenly there’s a deafening crack and bright flashes of light stream around us as scatter off in various directions. There’s a loud boom and dirt flies everywhere. When the dust settles, I realize I’m inside the gas station huddled together with the British couple and Roger is nowhere to be seen. Shaky and disoriented, we emerge from the gas station to the sight of two huge electrical transformers lying criss-crossed in the middle of the road amid a tangle of live wires. It turns out an eighteen-wheeler was barreling through town on a route that is clearly not designed to accommodate large commercial vehicles. The top of the truck had caught the electrical lines running over the road and consequently snapped the two huge wooden posts sending the transformers on top crashing to the ground. One of them landed squarely in the spot where our group had been standing just seconds before. How everyone managed escape without a scratch is amazing. Roger and the others emerge from behind the gas station to join the rest of us. Dazed, we all make our way back to the van and stare in amazement as the severity of what could have happened seeps in. We decide to turn near tragedy into a fantastic photo opportunity and begin taking pictures of ourselves in front of the wreckage. 

Safely back in the van, we continue our journey to the river. After the requisite safety talk, we embark upon several hours of fantastic rafting deep in the heart of densely vegetated gorges, and past gushing waterfalls. After lunch on the river, we enter the more adrenaline-packed part of the trip and run the class III and IV rapids. Tired,  but exhilerated, we enjoy an event-free van ride back to San José and promptly fall asleep in anticipation of our 6:57am flight out of San Jose tomorrow morning. Until next time Costa Rica! Pura vida!!