My Memorable Costa Rica Trip

Nanci Browning in Costa Rica jungle
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Costa Rica may bring visions of rainforests, volcanoes and beaches.  Or if you are critter-obsessed, sloths, birds and monkeys may come to mind.  In planning my recent trip to Costa Rica, I was most looking forward to seeing wildlife.  To balance out the trip I planned on partaking in thermal spas and water activities.

My trip began in San Jose, and true to the rainy season, I was greeted by a late afternoon downpour.  I was met at the San Jose airport by our representative and was given a goodie bag with thoughtful provisions of snacks and beverages, plus a Costa Rica cap for the sunny days to come.

I needed a good night’s sleep because the next morning I was going on my first wildlife quest.  I had a comfortable stay at Grano de Oro Hotel, a small boutique hotel in San Jose.  Early the next day I was picked up for my day of touring.  I had hoped to visit the Poas Volcano, but we had to scratch that from the itinerary because it was too active to visit.  It is home to a variety of bird species, but I was going to have to look for them elsewhere.  Fortunately, we were headed to La Paz Waterfall and Gardens, which is in part a sanctuary for Costa Rica animals not fit for the wild.   

I got a big dose of wildlife at the Gardens.  This is where I saw my first sloth, and although only his limbs were visible from his enclosure, I was hooked.  Not far from him were capuchin monkeys, an ocelot, puma and jaguar.  I spent time in the butterfly house, with snakes and frogs, and in the hummingbird garden with, yes, hummingbirds.  There were also beautiful toucans and macaws.

After visiting the impressive La Paz Falls it was time to go back to San Jose for one more night.  I met up with my group for dinner, and I had a great stay at Real Intercontinental with a spacious room.  The next morning after I had enjoyed an abundant breakfast buffet, and after exploring the beautiful grounds of the Real Intercontinental, we set off for the Arenal region.

In Arenal I was excited for my hanging bridges tour.  This was my next chance to see wildlife.  Although I was a little afraid of a tour called “hanging bridges,” I knew I would be up in tree canopies and close to where monkeys and sloths live, and I was bound to see wildlife.  As I was learning, sloths are rather elusive.  Our guide warned us we may not see a sloth, but we remained hopeful.  On the paths between bridges we saw a viper, poison dart frogs, a tarantula, countless varieties of birds and spider monkeys.  The hanging bridges were impressive, and I was only moderately afraid of the height and suspension.  I could hear monkeys all around us – both spider and howlers.  When we stopped on the paths between the hanging bridges the spider monkeys made their presence known overhead.  My small group stopped and watched them swing from branch to branch until our guide had to move us along.

As much fun as it was to see the monkeys and to be wowed by being three feet from a viper and tarantula, there were no sloths in sight.  Our guide knew we were disappointed, and he didn’t want to leave us without a sloth sighting.  He and our driver were well-connected in sloth scouting and there was word that one was hanging out not far away – just off the main road.  Rhetorically he asked if we were interested in going on a sloth hunt.  Sure enough his sloth sources were spot-on, and we “found” one high in a tree.  Sloths are notorious for not moving, so our guide gave his best eagle call to get a reaction from him, and the sloth moved – ever so slightly.  OK, full disclosure, we needed binoculars to make out what the lump high in the tree was, but we felt fulfilled.

Now that I had seen my sloth in the wild, it was time to experience the hot springs and spa of Tabacón.  The only natural network of thermal mineral spas in Costa Rica can be found at Tabacón Grand Spa and Thermal Resort. The magma from the Arenal Volcano heats the river water and the resort has several pools along the river with varying temperatures.

Tabacón is set on 900 acres of a lush tropical reserve.  The rooms and suites are set above the hot springs, and a shuttle is available to take you up and down the hill in case you are too hot and tired to use the stairs.

The 103 guest rooms and suites were remodeled in 2016 and have an earthy palette with splashes of color.  My room was spacious and had a balcony.  I didn’t spend a lot time in my room, however.  I had plans to explore the thermal pools.  After walking the meandering paths which connect the pools and waterfalls, I found Shangri-La.  Adult hotel guests have access to this quiet and exclusive area of the thermal pools, which has cozy day beds and a bar.

The afternoon rain showers found me in Shangri-La.  The rain didn’t chase me out of the warm pool but my spa appointment did.  After a full day of enjoying the best of Costa Rica’s wildlife and thermal pools, getting a massage in an open-air bungalow with the sound of rain in the background was pure perfection.

After my massage I met up with my group, and we had dinner poolside in our robes and wet swimsuits.  The rain had stopped, and it was a beautiful night with delicious food and drinks.  I didn’t know how my Costa Rica experience could get any better, but I couldn’t wait to see what was next.

The next morning we set off for Rio Perdido, which is just north of Palo Verde National Park.  On the drive we saw capuchin monkeys hanging out in trees on the side of the road.  I was looking for sloths, but my sloth sightings were over, unbeknownst to me.  Monkeys on the other hand, were in abundance. 

Rio Perdido is in a dry forest not far from Papagayo, and it is only about an hour from the Liberia airport.  The approach to the property is a little rustic with the last two miles on a gravel road, but once we pulled up to the entrance I knew we were in a special place.  The lobby has a great-room concept with the front desk, restaurant, and lounge areas all flowing.  The view out the back was over the property’s vast acreage, and the yellows and greens of the trees were beautifully complemented with the blue sky.

After checking in, I made my way to my bungalow, just one of twenty, and was greeted by a monkey in a nearby tree.  Although my bungalow was not in a tree, the way it was situated in the trees made it feel like a treehouse.  I was in a canopy – me and the monkeys.  I changed my clothes and set off to explore the vast grounds. 

Rio Perdido translates to “lost river.”  Winding trails lead down to the river and several thermal pools.  Along the river banks the resort has placed volcanic mud for guests to brush on their skin.  The mud is supposed to clear the skin of toxins, and the idea is you brush it on and let it dry before rinsing off in one of the river’s pools.  The only obstacle to this treatment is the rotten-egg smell of the sulphur mud.  If you can tolerate the smell, the whole experience is therapeutic and fun.

After exploring the grounds there was time for a cool drink at the swim-up bar before dinner, and I decided to take the plunge.  It was another beautiful starlit night, and I could hear the cicadas calling out.  Fortunately I didn’t have to leave Mother Nature for dinner, as the dining tables are open to the outside.  I could enjoy my Costa Rican Casado and sweet acorn squash listening to these wonderful sounds.

Alas, we had only one more stop on our Costa Rican journey, and we were setting of in the morning for El Mangroove in Guanacaste.  El Mangroove is only four years old and is part of the Marriott Autograph Collection.  Even though we were once again greeted by resident monkeys, I was ready to see my share of sea-living creatures.  The afternoon showers kept me out of the water and encouraged me to try out the hammock in my room.  It was a little tricky climbing into the hammock holding a glass of champagne, but as the old saying goes, “where there’s a will, there’s a way.”  We had a group dinner at Makoko, which was one of my best meals in Costa Rica.  I slept well and looked forward to our morning catamaran snorkel trip. 

Leaving El Mangroove aboard the catamaran we saw a school mullet fish jumping out of the water, and already I was in awe of the sea creatures.  Countless dolphins kept appearing, and snorkeling we saw (harmless, I was told) water-snakes, puffer fish and angelfish, and many other tropical fish.  It was a beautiful day on the water, and the boat crew were entertaining and provided a great lunch of grilled fish and chicken.

The only thing better than a day on the water is to follow it with a massage.  My treatment “room” was an outdoor cabana, and so I wouldn’t forget where I was, monkeys called back and forth to each other, and the birds joined in chirping.  It was fitting that my final afternoon in Costa Rica would bring together a spa experience with wildlife.

My time in Costa Rica had come to an end.  With a final breakfast of gallo pinto I would be off to the Liberia airport.  I had a wonderful and incredibly memorable trip to Costa Rica and was not disappointed in my wildlife viewings or spa experiences.  Pura vida, and thank you!  If you would like to hear more about my trip to Costa Rica or would like to plan your own trip, please contact me.

Nanci Browning