Appreciating Pura Vida in Costa Rica’s Jungle

The Arenal observatory lodge
The Arenal observatory lodge.

A Costa Rica Adventure: Pura Vida in the Jungle

By Paul Shoul
Senior Writer

A refreshing dip in the Pacuare River in Costa Rica. Paul Shoul photos.
A refreshing dip in the Pacuare River in Costa Rica. Paul Shoul photos

Every adventure I take starts long before I arrive at my destination with my pre-trip preparation and the people I meet on the way to where I am going. This trip to the white water raft and hike in the Costa Rican jungle was no different.

I read some history, scoured the web for recent travel articles, looked at the CIA reports on safety warnings, called my travel doctor about required vaccines, checked my camera gear, and updated my wardrobe with quick-dry moisture-wicking clothes for the sweat-fest that I knew would await me in the tropics.

On the plane from Atlanta to San Jose, I met three people: an American ex-special forces construction consultant who lives with his Tico wife in San Jose, A Costa Rican web designer, and finally, a young engineer who designed machines for a diaper manufacturing company. Doubling their output to 20,000 diapers a day, he was truly a man devoted to cleaning up the environment.

horses on the beach
Horses for rent on the beach in Manuel Antonio

Love of Costa Rica

All were eager to express their love of Costa Rica, painting a similar picture. It is beautiful, there is a national pride and commitment to protecting the environment. It is politically stable, with no standing army, good roads, and a great health care system.

But with a fast-growing economy, tourism, and an expanding middle class it is starting to get a little expensive in comparison to its neighbors. That’s the problem with paradise, everybody wants to be there. On the other hand, everything works and you can drink water right out of the tap.

Costa Rica is blessed with lush jungles and rainforest, incredible biodiversity, long rivers, waterfalls, spectacular volcanoes, and palm tree-lined beaches on two coasts that rival any in the world. It is a comfortable, evenly paced culture, with genuinely friendly people.

White water rafting Rios Tropicales
White water rafting Rios Tropicales

I was traveling with a group from Austin Adventures. I am not a tour group kind of traveler and generally wing it on my own. Austin does travel right, much as I would do it, and maybe even a little better. Their pre-trip communications included readings on history, cultural facts, pre-trip preparations, and a packing list that rivals my own.

Our guide “Tex” not only seemed to know every person in Costa Rica, he knew all the wildlife as well. He possessed a vast knowledge of the cultural and natural environment we traveled through, pointing out life above and below us that I never would have seen on my own.

Austin likes to spread the tourist wealth around. No all-inclusive foreign-owned hotels, no American fast-food chains. Their goal is to show you not only the adventure of a lifetime but also to rub elbows with real people, real Costa Rica culture, and to taste its real unadulterated natural cuisine.

White river rafting and jungle lodge with Rio Tropicales

Arenal Volcano from the window of the Arenal observatory
Arenal Volcano from the window of the Arenal Observatory lodge

The rain forest is not a quiet place. It is serene and magical, but the cacophony of wildlife sounds and the rushing of the Pacuare river is constant yet soothing. On our first night at Rio Tropicales Ecolodge, after a dinner of fish and local fruit, our merry group competed with nature’s music with our own song of success.

Raising glasses of Guaro, (a tico sugar cane fire juice), we spoke in unison the traditional Costa rican toast, “Arriba, abajo, al centro, al dentro!” ( “Up, down, to the center, to within!). We had been bonded by the communal act of the 8-kilometer white river rafting to get here.

Rio Tropicales eco-lodge was built in 1985, the first eco-lodge on the banks of the world-renown Pacuare river. With class 3 and 4 rapids, it is beautiful and perfect for white water rafting. The lodge has its own hydroelectric power plant and is as sustainable and “green” as you can get.

It has comfortable rooms, hot showers, great locally sourced food. Located on over 2000 acres of private reserve, they offer zip lines, nature hikes, horseback riding, canyoning, and just the mere pleasure of laying in a hammock in the jungle. Every precaution is taken for a safe river experience with personal training and up-to-date equipment. Their rafting guides are top-notch. This is was a fantastic experience.

Arenal Volcano and Hanging Bridges

Rios Tropicales founder Fernando Esquivel at his eco lodge on the banks of the Pacuare river
Rios Tropicales founder Fernando Esquivel at his eco-lodge on the banks of the Pacuare river

Lying on my bed in Arenal Observatory lodge I woke up to the deep haunting calls of Howler monkeys bellowing out across the rainforest. Joining them in a morning
concert, the over 800 species of birds in the area seem to be singing all at once.

Outside of my window, The Arenal volcano rose front and center. At 5,358 feet it is postcard-perfect and one of the world’s top ten most active in the world. The lodge, originally a Smithsonian institute observatory, is located close enough yet slightly uphill from the volcano and safe from any lava flows.

This is a special place, with comfortable rooms, a swimming pool, restaurant, and observation decks. It is a ringside seat to nature and a good base from which to explore all that the Arenal Volcano National park has to offer.

Arenal Hanging Bridges

A short drive from the lodge, the Arenal Hanging bridges are located on 250 Hectares of tropical rainforest. Designed and built by civil engineers, it is a trail complex of 16 bridges, six of which are suspension bridges, that offer a fantastic chance to stroll through the treetops. The trails are well maintained and easy to walk.

The Arenal Hanging bridges

This is a thriving, alive place. We hiked for two hours and observed a plethora of wildlife: blue jean poison dart frogs, toucans, leaf cutter ants, orange billed sparrows and Howler monkeys were just a few of what we encountered. Although this a family-friendly place and you can hike at your own pace, this is a tropical rain forest, make sure to bring good shoes, rain gear and be ready to sweat.

Kayak Jaco and Manuel Antonio

Along the way, on our journey from Arenal to Manuel Antonio, we stopped off near Punta Arenas at Jaco beach for a fantastic lunch of freshly grilled fish at Casa De Donya Miriam and a three-hour sea kayak and outrigger tour with Kayak Jaco.

From their central office equipped with showers and changing rooms, we prepped for the trip. We were given lifesaver vests, packed our nonwaterproof cameras into wet bags, and made our way to the beach for a quick lesson on kayaking and outrigger paddling.

Just like white river rafting, paddlers take direction from the guides on how to steer the longboat through the surf and individual kayakers got a safety lesson. Although there are plenty of surfers riding the waves, once past the breakers the ocean was calm and beautiful as we glided past the rocky cliffs along the ocean.

Capuchin monkey in Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica.
Capuchin monkey in Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica.

This is a no experience necessary all age appropriate activity, suitable for young children. If you can paddle, you can do this. The boat’s destination is a long beach where you can swim, snorkel and enjoy a fresh fruit buffet in the sun.

Manuel Antonio

Listed recently by Forbes Magazine as one of the “12 world’s most beautiful National parks” Manuel Antonio is the iconic tropical paradise. The white sand beaches are pristine. Crashing waves flow into rocky coves, lush rain forest bulges to the water’s edge.

The park is home to an amazing collection of wildlife. White-faced monkeys roam the canopy sometimes venturing down to rifle through your bags for food.

Big iguana.

Wild deer roam the trails, and birds wing through the air, The diversity of plant life is staggering. From the town, your walk through the jungle to the beach where you can swim and picnic can be a leisurely stroll on your own or a detailed investigation of this impressive ecosystem if you hire a skilled guide.

Austin Adventure’s guides are held to a higher standard. One of the tests to complete guide training includes the ability to lead a two-hour tour along only 200 meters of Jungle trail. There is that much life out there if you know what you are looking for.

The town itself is packed with bars, great restaurants and a full range of lodging from the basic to luxury 5-star hotels. We stayed at Si Como No, resort and spa, and wildlife refuge.

Built on the side of a hill overlooking the ocean, It is a multi-level beautifully constructed complex with swimming pools, two bars, two restaurants, and 58 smartly designed rooms, from the economical standard to deluxe honeymoon suites.

There is a saying in Costa Rica that is quintessential and wraps up the Costa Rica experience in a neat little package, Pura Vida. Its literal translation is “pure life” but it means more than that and you hear it everywhere as a greeting, a goodbye or just an exclamation point of a shared appreciation of this wonderful country.

It means “full of life”, “everything is going well”, “I’m OK”, “thank you”, and “this is living!” Pura Vida Costa Rica!

This trip was taken with the assistance of the following:

Austin Adventures

Kelty: Hiking, backpacking and outdoor gear.

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