Beautiful, bio-diverse Costa Rica is a nature-lover’s dream vacation
I knew the rain was coming. Of course rain was coming. It had rained almost nonstop every day since I arrived at the eco farm in the foothills of the Arenal volcano, El Castillo, Costa Rica. But what did I expect? We were in the rainforest and it was the beginning of the rainy season, or as the good folks at the Costa Rican tourism board like to refer to it: the “green season.”
But this is why I came. It’s not often you get to stand in a primary rainforest, raindrops drilling down onto the canopy overhead, oversized leaves channeling water onto your face causing droplets to form at the end of a painfully sunburnt nose. My legs were aching and weak from crouching for what seemed like hours—although in reality, it was only minutes—to watch a procession of leafcutter ants haul bright green chunks of leaves carved from the surrounding foliage, each one the size of a mini-van compared to their tiny, herculean bodies.
I was having my own David Attenborough moment, standing alone, facing the sublime, subtle power of nature. In the distance the low grunts of howler monkeys gave me reason to not venture much further into the forest, despite my drive to push further down the narrowing dark corridor formed by encroaching ferns the size of oriental rugs.
That moment marked the end of my visit to Costa Rica. My first few days were wasted wandering aimlessly around San José, the country’s spectacularly unremarkable capital before I escaped on an exceedingly affordable public bus headed for La Fortuna. There I hired a taxi onward to spend the rest of my time at the eco-farm in El Castillo called Essence Arenal.
The farm, and El Castillo itself, were pastoral and captivating to the point of being dreamlike. The landscape around Volcan Arenal is steep, with jagged hills covered in oversaturated green grass and astonishing biodiversity.
Although Costa Rica is only about the size of West Virginia, it is said to possess the highest density of biodiversity of any country in the world. Approximately one-fourth the country is a protected wildlife preserve, with habitats ranging from steamy tropical forests to upland moors.
The grunts and roars of howler monkeys and a chorus of insects ensured I never slept past 7 a.m., regardless of how much the Cacique Guaro liquor from the previous night fought to keep me down.
A rooster-sized scarlet macaw would fly in from the forest every morning to eat sunflower seeds from the mouth of Martin, the resident vegetarian chef and self-proclaimed shaman.
Spiny-tailed iguanas were as common as NYC street cats and exotic birds drew photographers with appendage-like lenses to capture their improbable colors, patterns and shapes. The forest around the farm hosted flowers that reeked like rotting cadavers and tiny blood-red frogs whose toxins once tipped indigenous warriors’ arrows.
One foggy morning I decided to go for a hike in the mountains. After a brief conversation in broken English with one of the farm’s interns I set off, confident in the directions I was given.
After climbing the main road that seemed to have been purposely cut steep enough to deter visitors from climbing it without rappelling gear, I veered off on what I thought was the trail recommended by the intern. An hour later I realized my “hiking trail” was actually a cow trail leading me through pastures, across narrow hilltop passes and through property guarded by horned bulls whose gaze cut through me like a serial killer off his meds.
But this was the most awe-inspiring part of my entire Costa Rican trip. After about an hour’s walk, I stood at the top of a ridge, the narrow cow trail cutting a one-foot gash across its lush green top like a angry pencil scrawl.
Lake Arenal spread in front of me, unbroken by boat traffic, and painted before my eyes in dreamscape-like colors. Bright blue, red and yellow birds swirled around me in small flocks and the air was thick, yet crisp and sweet. I will never forget that moment.
Having an adventure does not require ziplining at over 100 kph dangling 200 meters above the forest—although I did do that. An adventure does not need to include swimming in brackish waters 50 yards from crocodiles (I did that as well).
Adventure can be the breathtaking awe and sense of the sublime while standing in ageless forests basking in the exultation of being there…being a part of something bigger, being a part of real nature. Costa Rica did that, too.
For information about Costa Rica, visit the Costa Rica Tourism Board’s website, visitcostarica.com