CROCS AND CANYONING: Exploring Costa Rica’s highlands and Pacific coast
SAN JOSE, Costa Rica — Osama bin Laden lurks in the murky brackish waters of the Tarcoles River near the Central Pacific coast of Costa Rica.

And despite being the oldest crocodile in the river, the 80-year-old reptile is quite the dodgy creature.

“Sometimes he disappears. That’s why they (tour operators) call him Osama bin Laden. He’s always hiding,” guide Edward Sanchez says with a chuckle.

On an overcast day, the massive greyish-green reptile gives us only a glimpse of his ridges peeking out of the muddy waters.

Osama joins the dozens of American crocodiles with celebrity nicknames like Shakira, Madonna and Mike Tyson that are the star attraction of our boat tour in the town of Tarcoles, about an hour drive’s west of San Jose, near Carara National Park.

While most of us are enthralled by dodgy Osama, the birds proved to be quite the show-offs on this tour.

The barrage of plumage from some of the 58 species of birds that frequent the river vary from the colourful to the earthy-toned.

Some can be quite ostentatious, like the roseate spoonbill, whose peculiar appearance is best described as a cross between a flamingo and a duck. Others are quite muted, like the bare-throated tiger heron with its silvery grey feathers blending seamlessly with the dirt.

While we’re in the midst of the rainy season in Costa Rica, the soggy September weather doesn’t put a damper on our adventures through a country that’s considered a global biodiversity hotspot and a natural playground for outdoor enthusiasts.

From rappelling down a waterfall to a serene dip in a hot spring, the best way to enjoy what our guide Sanchez calls the “green season” here is to embrace it and simply get wet.

LA PAZ WATERFALL GARDENS

A little over an hour’s drive north of San Jose and up in the cool central highlands region, La Paz Waterfall Gardens provides a misty backdrop for showcasing more than 100 species of the country’s wildlife on the slopes of the Poas Volcano.

The park’s 3.5 kilometres of paved trails wind through 28 hectares of defined spaces such as an aviary, a butterfly conservatory and a hummingbird garden, as well as five waterfalls that are tucked in the park’s dense cloud forest and rainforest.

Many of the park’s animals such as the macaws, monkeys and jungle cats that are in enclosures are rescued from people keeping them illegally as pets.


LA FORTUNA

From the waterfalls garden, we head about a two-hours’ drive northwest to La Fortuna, a tourist town that’s best known for activities like hiking, zip lining and canyoning, and hot springs with waters heated by the towering Arenal Volcano.

A four-hour canyoning trip with Pure Trek takes us on a bumpy ride in a 4×4 up a mountain to their facilities where we get a safety briefing and are suited up with helmets, harnesses and gloves.

The trip down includes four rappels with the first one being the most formidable — a 50-metre descent down a waterfall, which is about the equivalent of going down a 14-storey building. A short hike then takes us to the heart-stopping “monkey drop,” which aptly describes the 15-metre zip line and controlled plunge to a shallow pool of water. After that, it’s an easy-going three rappels — shorter ones — 27 and 23 metres down two waterfalls and a 15-metre rappel down a cliff in between hikes.

Though canyoning may seem like an activity for those with a bit more extreme sports experience and nerves of steel, there really isn’t much to fear for a beginner as a Pure Trek guide at the top holds a safety line while another at the bottom assists at every stage of the descent.

To soothe our sore muscles, we spend the rest of a rainy afternoon lazing at the hot springs at Tabacon Thermal Resort and Spa.

Nestled in the heart of the tropical rainforest, the resort’s pools and cascading waterfalls form the largest natural network of hot springs in the Arenal region.

While several hot springs are located near the thermal Tabacon River, what makes this resort unique is that it doesn’t pump the river’s mineral-rich water mechanically, but lets it cascade down naturally through its waterfalls and volcanic rock-lined pools that are designed to blend in with the property’s natural surroundings.

MANUEL ANTONIO NATIONAL PARK

Popular with locals, this park in the Central Pacific coast is a bit of a crowd-pleaser that’s packed with a variety of natural attractions — even if it’s one the country’s smallest national parks.

Located just south of the small town of Quepos, the park encompasses a mangrove and rainforest area as well as three beaches.

Manuel Antonio is popular with locals because it’s one of the few national parks where people can bring their own food, with a few restrictions.

Among the animals that call the park home are whitetail deer, two-toed and three-toed sloths, raccoons, and three of Costa Rica’s four monkey species: Capuchin, howler and squirrel.

Our guide Sanchez tells us that it’s best to arrive at the park early during the high season, preferably right when the park opens, as the rangers limit the number of visitors to prevent overcrowding.

Visiting the park with a tour group or hiring an ICT (Costa Rican Tourism Board) certified guide is recommended as they have specific knowledge of the wildlife and know where to spot them.

If travelling without a guide, admission tickets (US$16) can be purchased at the Coopealianza office just outside the park entrance.

GOLFO DULCE

While a light drizzle kept the howler monkeys hidden at Manuel Antonio National Park, a troop of them come out in full force the next morning, roaring away during a yoga class at Playa Cativo Lodge (playacativo.com) in the South Pacific coast.

Perched high up in nearby palm trees, the mischievous primates peer down at us and hoot and howl away as we sweat through our downward dogs in the naturally humid, hot-yoga-like climate that’s typical of this lowland region.

Howler monkeys aside, the most friendly mammals in the gulf by far are the playful bottlenose dolphins that swim near our boat during a dolphin and whale-watching tour provided by the lodge.

Seen from afar, the humpback whales are understandably more preoccupied with feeding off the tropical fjord’s nutrient-rich waters.

According to Playa Cativo guide Javier Mendoza, the humpback whales travel between April and December from North and South America to the gulf where they mate. The calves are then born and nursed in the gulf’s tranquil waters.

SUMPTUOUS STAYS

Just because a lodge is eco-friendly doesn’t mean it can’t be luxurious.

And since Costa Rica means rich coast in Spanish, our adventure wouldn’t be complete without a stay in an exotic lodge on the Pacific coast.

Playa Cativo Lodge started off as a humble, sustainable farm and is now a sprawling, off-the-grid retreat that generates its own hydroelectricity through turbines and supplements it with solar energy from panels during the dry season.

The super-secluded beachfront hideaway is accessible only by boat (a 30-minute trip up the coast from Golfito or across the gulf from Puerto Jimenez) and backs into a 404-hectare private reserve and the neighbouring Piedras Blancas National Park.

The lodge’s 18 open-air suites feature spacious Spanish-style bathrooms with his-and-hers sinks and double showers with views of either the gulf or the surrounding lush rainforest.


SUSTAINABLE TOURISM

Considered a world leader in sustainable practices, one of the biggest environmental initiatives Costa Rica has taken involves promoting businesses in the tourism industry that have low ecological impact.

Under the tourism board’s Certification for Sustainable Tourism (CST) program, hotels and tour operators are rated on a scale of zero to five based on efforts made to minimize their negative impact on the natural environment.

The higher the rating, the more these companies are featured by the tourism board. In return, the companies can use the CST program’s green leaf logo to promote their business.

For more information about Costa Rica’s sustainability efforts and for help trip-planning, go to visitcostarica.com.