Day tripping in Guanacaste, Costa Rica: Part 3

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If there is a heaven on earth, it’s probably the Tizate Wellness Gardens Hot Springs and Spa in Costa Rica’s Guanacaste province. Located at the edge of the Tizate River and near Rincon de la Vieja National Park, the facility features natural thermal-water pools and open-air massage rooms where therapists will work you over using natural fruit oils. But even better, you can ride horses, hike through the forest and zip-line over the tree tops.

Margaret, my co-traveler, and I arranged our one-day visit to the Wellness Gardens through Swiss Travel. We were the only two people on the tour and had the entire facility to ourselves. We arrived at the spa, crossed over a swinging bridge (shooting photos all the way) and left our bags of necessities in the women’s locker room near a huge, hot spring pool. Our first activity involved riding horses up a steep hill in slippery mud. Both were tough, ranch horses, except Margaret’s steed breathed hard going uphill. “I’m not that heavy,” she insisted. But the poor guy didn’t sound good. costa rica 285costa rica 279

When we arrived at the first of 10 zip line platforms, my immediate thought was “How can I get out of this?” But our two zip-line instructors (Walter and Enrique) boosted my confidence. They rigged me up, gave me a pair of large work gloves and presented me with a safety helmet that appeared to be made from an old plastic milk bottle. Off I went, braking with my right hand all the way down. That was a killer.

The second run was more fun, and I started to loosen up. But I don’t see how this adventure can be called was a “canopy tour.” You go so fast that you can’t “tour” much of anything. At some points, we had to be at least 10 stories high.

When safe and sound and on the ground again, we enjoyed the solitude of the hot springs pool and revived ourselves with daiquiris. After an hour, we had a lovely multi-course lunch prepared in an outdoor kitchen. Soup, salad, an entrée, a dish of spaghetti (?) and bright purple dragon fruit ice. It was a lovely day. No stress. No rush. Never looked at a clock. Just like every day should be.

If you want adventure, relaxation and pampering, Tizate Wellness Gardens Hot Springs and Spa will fit the bill. Bring your bathing suit, sunscreen lotion, hat, a fresh change of clothes, camera, insect repellent, rain gear, sandals, sun glasses and cash for gratuities and incidentals. Most recently the per-person price to visit the spa was $180 with a four person minimum, $195 with a three person minimum or $200 each for two people. by Pat Pape

Day tripping in Guanacaste, Costa Rica: Part 2

At 5,437 feet, Costa Rica’s Arenal Volcano is one of the 10 most active volcanoes in the world. It formed about 7,000 years ago and has remained busy during its long life. In 1968, Arenal exploded and killed 87 people, and until the summer of 2010, minor eruptions with smoke and lava were fairly consistent.

Since that time, however, the volcano’s activity has decreased significantly, although scientists insist Arenal is merely taking a snooze. Today visitors won’t see flowing lava, but they can enjoy its grandeur and spend time hiking nearby rainforests or swimming in hot springs pools.

The drive from my hotel on the Gulf of Papagayo to Arenal took more than three hours (about the same amount of time it took me to fly to Costa Rica from Texas). Thankfully, the tour through Swiss Travel was broken up by several side excursions. After the first hour, our group of four travelers, plus our guide, Meyer, stopped at a commercial coffee operation to sip delicious cappuccinos and see coffee beans growing on genuine coffee bushes. I bought bags of ground coffee (the best bargain of the trip).

After the second hour, we arrived at a giant wind farm, which is a source of pride for Costa Ricans, according to Meyer. Currently, 80 per cent of the country’s energy demand is met with hydro and geothermal power. During the dry season from December to May, when hydropower units operate at a partial load, the wind turbines provide electricity almost continuously, helping to reduce the need for diesel-fueled generators. Costa Rica plans to source 100 percent of its power supply from renewable energies by the year 2021.

A howler monkey demonstrates his  howlilng skills.
A howler monkey demonstrates his howlilng skills.

Continuing the drive, we came upon a Costa Rican family on the side of the road feeding a pack of white-nose coatis, also known as hog-nosed coons, pizotes or “snookum bears.” The family generously shared slices of white bread with me so I could feed them, too, an act that may be illegal though no one dissuaded me. The initial cuddly appearance of these raccoon cousins belies their aggressive behavior and sharp teeth. Some South Americans reportedly keep them as pets and train them to use a litter box. But after they teetered on their hind legs to catch pieces of bread and snapped at me a few times, that idea didn’t seem appealing.

Arrival at Arenal  

Four miles from the volcano is the town of La Fortuna where travelers can find good food and upscale hotel accommodations or schedule a variety of adventures: zip lining, white-water rafting, kayaking, rappelling, horseback rides or visits to a breathtakingly beautiful waterfall. Our La Fortuna activity was limited to a pre-arranged lunch of tilapia and flan in tidy café. We then drove to a lookout point at a privately owned rain forest to snap souvenir photos of the volcano. As it often is on overcast days, Arenal’s peak was obscured by clouds.

Toting his personal telescope so we could better view the wildlife, Meyer led us on a walking tour down a crudely carved path into the rain forest of 200-year-old trees with roots larger than logs, rope-thick vines, tropical flowers and exotic birds. My favorite memory is that of a spider monkey with a baby on her back. Whenever she moved from one tree to the next, she’d grab a branch with her feet and another with her hands, transforming her body into a bridge for the baby, who scampered across her to the other side. We also saw the Costa Rican version of a turkey, plus a white hawk and a Toucan. Meyer warned us to watch for snakes, but we didn’t spot any.

When we returned to our van, it was raining, and everyone was drenched. No worries. From there, it was off to a natural hot spring spa, the result of Arenal warming the local groundwater. One of several similar spas open to the public, ours featured six separate pools, each one higher up a hill than the next, and all of them surrounded by lush greenery and blooming orchids. Having planned ahead, we slipped into our swimsuits. We then ordered adult beverages and spent the next two hours in wind-down mode.

Hot Springs

After cleaning up as best we could (the hot springs spa had no hair dryer in the locker room), we were transported to a charming hotel restaurant with huge glass windows looking out on Arenal and serving delicious food. Afterwards, our group motored three hours back to the hotel in the dark. Besides the driver, I was the only one who stayed awake the entire time. I was busy planning my next day trip in Guanacaste.  by Pat Pape

Day tripping in Guanacaste, Costa Rica: Part 1

Juan had barely pushed the pontoon boat away from the shoreline when large crocodiles began moving along the banks and sliding stealthily into the Tempisque River. The same color as the cloudy water, they appeared more docile than dangerous to my camera-toting fellow travelers. Moments later, a Jesus Christ lizard appeared, as if on cue, and walked quickly across the top of the water, causing everyone in the boat to either gasp or laugh out loud.

I was in Palo Verde National Park on the Pacific slope of Guanacaste, Costa Rica, not far from the Nicaraguan border. The objective of my visit was communing with Costa Rican nature, but without giving up the luxuries that the region’s tourism industry offers. The trip was arranged at my hotel through Swiss Travel, one of several area agencies that offer interesting day-long excursions. (With no military, Costa Rica is the Switzerland of South America, hence the tour company’s unusual name.)

Though it is possible to rent a bike and cycle through portions of the 72-square mile park, I preferred the boat tour. Like most Swiss Travel tour guides, Juan holds a degree in ecotravel and speaks excellent English. His jungle-trained eyes were quick to spot impish white-faced monkeys and lazy Howler monkeys, which eat all morning and relax in the trees all afternoon. He pointed out a group of almost camouflaged bats attached to a tree limb, which hung over the river. The bats formed a single line with their bodies, and Juan explained that they were trying to make themselves look like a snake so nothing would harass them as they rested.

Small bats form a line on the side of a tree in an attempt to look like a snake.

Benefits for Birders

Birds are a big attraction at Palo Verde. In the “green season” (i.e. rainy season from May through November), the Tempisque floods and creates extensive marshes that attract migrant birds from North and South America. Two of my fellow travelers, birders from Canada, were eager to see the kingfishers, tiger herons, black hawks, ospreys and roseate spoonbills that our boat motored past.

We didn’t glimpse a scarlet macaw or the rare giant jabirus, one of the world’s largest storks, which still live and breed in the park. We also saw no snakes, though pythons are common among the palm trees, we were told. We did spy several green iguanas, which actually change colors. During our visit, the males were morphing to bright orange, indicating their desire to attract a mate.

A Costa Rican croc
A Costa Rican croc

Back at the boat launch, the group enjoyed a lunch that was prepared in an open kitchen and served at picnic tables on a large covered patio. It was a simple but tasty meal: chicken wings, cabbage slaw, corn relish, black beans and rice. We washed it down with a fruity drink that, along with native-grown coffee, seems to be a Costa Rican meal staple. Then we boarded our van for the return drive down a two-lane highway without shoulders. By Pat Pape