Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Costa Rica Day 4: Selvatura Hanging Bridges

After Santa Elena Reserve, we took the short ten minute hike to Selvatura Hanging Bridges. It was a completely different experience to go from hiking within the forests to hiking above the canopy.

Was it touristy? Hell yes. It's an eco-adventure park, with zip lines as its main draw. We did the less popular option, which was just hiking over eight sets of bridges. Every now and then, we'd hear the screaming and the mechanical whirr of someone ziplining by.

Oh well.

It was still beautiful. It's about a two mile trail and only took about an hour and a half.

While I'm terrified of heights, there were only a couple bridges that scared the bejeebus out of me. It's less scary when the treetops are brushing the bottom of the bridge – it's only when they're much farther down that you realize exactly how high you are.

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Saturday, September 26, 2015

Costa Rica Day 4: Santa Elena Reserve

My biggest fear of the trip was going to the cloud forest, and not seeing clouds. When we arrived in Santa Elena, skies were completely blue and it was scorching hot, so it looked like my fear was going to become a reality.

Our host told us not to worry, because the weather in the town didn't reflect weather in the forest, which are in a special microclimate. (However, we did find out that it had been a sunny day in Monteverde, the first one in months. Very glad we ended up going the next day.)

Cloud forests happen when clouds from the Caribbean are blown over to the mountains of the Continental divide, and rest on top. It's perpetually foggy, and everything is covered with layers of mosses, bromeliads, and ferns.

While we came for Monteverde, we decided to go to Santa Elena Reserve. Our host recommended it as the less touristy and "more jungly" option. I will always go for the more jungly option.

Glasswing butterfly

Santa Elena reserve was opened in the 1990s to the public, in response to the crowds at Monteverde. (Our guide jokingly referred to it as "Monteverde Crowd Forest.") It was one of the first community-opened reserves in Costa Rica. 

We went early in the morning (made it to the 7:30am guided hike).

It was a breathtakingly beautiful, spectacular place. It was the first day of the trip that I finally felt like I was in a different world. I don't have the words to describe it. It felt ancient, like a temple, a lost world. Everything was covered in green, and you could almost hear the mist moving through the forest slowly.

We spotted dozens of butterflies, a tarantula, capuchin monkeys (who tried to break branches on top of us), and a tropical king snake.

I highly recommend this reserve. We spent perhaps six hours here, though we could have easily spent an entire day instead.

Roads aren't paved (outside of one of the main short trail), so that's something to keep in mind if you're deciding between Santa Elena Reserve and Monteverde.

Other Costa Rica posts:

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Costa Rica Day 3: Santa Elena Night Walk

On Day 3, we were picked up at 8:30am to be transported to our next destination, Monteverde. 

We took a jeep-boat-jeep (also known as taxi-water-taxi), which in my head I had imagined to be a Ducks Boat situation. Yes, I actually thought there'd be a jeep that would drive us to the lake, swallow its wheels to float across, and then re-extend the wheels and then drive us the rest of the way. (Does this even exist?)

No, it was just a shuttle that dropped us off at a ferry. And another shuttle that drove us to Santa Elena.

It was actually a really great transportation option. We'd heard it takes hours longer to drive around the lake because of the road conditions, and the ferry ride was perhaps only an hour long – short, calm and sweet.

Moments after getting on the ferry at Lake Arenal 
The view from the boat, with Arenal Volcano in the distance

All in all, the trip took about 3.5 hours.

We arrived at our Airbnb (my favorite of the trip!). Our superhost welcomed us with zucchini bread, homemade passionfruit juice (from the vines in her garden), and proceeded to help us plan all of our activities in the area.

We decided to relax that afternoon, and do the Santamaria Night Walk, which was through a transitional forest close to the town center of Santa Elena. Night hikes are popular because most creatures (particularly insects, spiders, snakes) are nocturnal and come alive only after the sun sets.

Leaf-mimicking katydid 
Leaf mimicking katydid – this one is an older, brown leaf!

You really need to go with a guide. They are able to spot things that you'd never see. The have powerful focused flashlights that help them detect the glimmer of mammal eyes, and skills to distinguish walking sticks from sticks and leaf-mimicking katydids from actual leaves (which is no small feat).

We saw fireflies, many insects and spiders, a juvenile hedgehog, and a sloth (which move much faster than I thought!).

Walking stick

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Sunday, September 20, 2015

Costa Rica Day 2: Tabacon Hot Springs

After our hike at La Fortuna Waterfall, we headed straight to Tabacon Hot Springs.

Arenal is known for hot springs – and they're a must-do. There are several to chose from, but there were only two to decide between based on what locals recommended to us: Tabacon and Baldi.

We decided not to go to Baldi because we heard it was "Vegas-like." Tabacon was way more expensive – it was $70 for a day pass, including a meal – but based on photos and reviews it looked much more natural. As in, the grounds were made to look as though you were actually situated in the rainforest.

The pool. (The only non-hot springs part of Tabacon.)

There are twelve pools throughout the property. Each is surrounded by lush greenery, and feels relatively private and enclosed. The hot springs are heated by rivers flowing from Arenal Volcano, and flow down purely by the force of gravity. The pools higher up in the property are actually hotter as the water cools as it flows.

Pro tip: If you come here, do NOT forget your sunscreen. We sadly forgot our sunscreen and a tube of NO-AD sunscreen cost us THIRTY DOLLARS. I'm still a little bitter.

(Note, there are also free hot springs across from Tabacon that the locals go to. I heard that they bring candles and go at night, and that's it's a magical experience. We didn't go because we opted for Tabacon and had no extra time.)

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Saturday, September 12, 2015

Costa Rica Day 2: La Fortuna Waterfall

Our first two nights, we stayed in the town of La Fortuna. It's a very small town, with a church, a few hostels, and a few restaurants. Our favorite was Soda Viquez, which serves typical Tico food.

Only about a ten minute drive away is La Fortuna Waterfall (Catarata Rio Fortuna). It felt a little touristy, as they give you entrance wristbands and a pretty new-looking restaurant greets you as soon as you walk inside. The views were gorgeous though.

There are over five hundred steps that wind down to the waterfall. It took about twenty minutes to walk down. Everything was wet, lush, and green. 

The water was too strong the day we went (it'd been raining a lot), but often people swim in the falls. 

I remember seeing a sign that said – if the water starts turning brown, get out immediately, as it's a sign of a flash flood. Not going to forget that fact anytime soon.

A beauty. I remember the only sounds being running water and loudly humming cicadas.

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Costa Rica Day 1: Poás Volcano

I was in Costa Rica a month ago, in August. We traveled there during the rainy season, which I definitely recommend, since it means that there were fewer tourists around. Yes, it rains, but it's not an all-day downpour – it's more clear mornings and short afternoon showers. We didn't mind it since we were there for the rainforest anyway.

It also meant that we didn't really have to plan our activities or make reservations until we were there. That worked out well in most cases (but there were a few moments in our trip where very careful pre-planning would've benefitted us).

We flew into Juan Santamaría International Airport, in Alajuela. Coco, our driver, picked us up and drove us to Arenal. The route there is usually freeway, with a few stops, but we chose to go a little out of our way and make a stop at Poás Volcano.

Fun fact: in the park, all the vehicles back into their parking spaces. Allegedly, it's for a fast escape in case the volcano erupts. Not scary at all.

Making our way to the viewpoint from the parking lot.
A fascinating plant called Poor Man's Umbrella. We ended up seeing these everywhere in Costa Rica. The leaves can grow up to six feet wide. They're very strong and sturdy.

There's a webcam now that lets you see if the lake is visible before you go. During the rainy season, there's no guarantee that you'll be able to see anything. You can also drive to the park entrance, and they'll tell you if there's clear visibility (but if you go past the gates then you don't get a refund, which I'm guessing people ask for not infrequently).

We were lucky to see the lake that day.

This is Poás crater. It's one of the most acidic lakes in the world.  On a clear day, the lake is turquoise. 
It was not a clear day the day we went. This view is looking inland, towards Arenal.

After making a stop at Poás, we started our drive to La Fortuna. We made a stop at La Paz waterfalls. The waterfalls are actually part of La Paz Gardens, which have paved walkways throughout. The largest butterfly garden in the world is there, along with snakes, poison dart frogs and green leaf frogs (!!). I highly recommend going, even though we didn't. I just didn't realize what we were missing.

La Paz waterfalls, as seen from the road.

Temporary bridge. The original bridge was demolished by a flood and landslide.

What we didn't know was that this area was one of the most animal-laden regions of Costa Rica. The main event of our trip were the Cloud Forests of Monteverde, and I assumed that there'd be similar plant and animal life, but interestingly enough, it wasn't until we left this rainforest region that we realized that we missed out on seeing a lot of animal life, particularly amphibians. We'll be back, someday.

A coati we spotted on the road. They are apparently like the raccoons of Costa Rica.

Other Costa Rica posts: