Discovering Costa Rica with a Small Group Tour Experience

By Carly Blatt:

Full disclosure: I’m not often a group tour person. When I set out to plan a recent two-week Costa Rica adventure, my original plan was to do it solo.

My goal was to create a trip that involved ample opportunities to see wildlife, along with a strong focus on outdoor activities and adventure sports. As I began my research, I learned that GAP Adventures’ Costa Rica Adventure tour visited many of the areas I was considering – La Fortuna, Quepos/Manuel Antonio National Park, Monteverde, Puerto Viejo de Talamanca and Tortuguero – but with one unusual addition: it included time in an eco-reserve called Rara Avis, a spot that I knew I’d never visit on my own due to the challenging logistics of getting there.

Another highlight was that it didn’t encompass what normally steers me away from group tours: Large numbers of people, meals at restaurants that are pre-selected by the tour company, big coach buses and an unwritten rule that everyone must stay with the group at all times. Rather, their brand of tour included accommodation, transportation on boats, vans, buses and even tractors, and a leader who organized everything but didn’t treat the group members like sheep who couldn’t think for themselves.

Our journey began when we met up with our fellow group members and our tour leader at a hotel in San Jose. My group included a collection of both solo travelers as well as pairs traveling together, ranging in age from 23 to 62. For some, it was their first time out of their home country. Others had year-long round-the-world adventures under their belt.

PUERTO VIEJO DE TALAMANCA: LIVING THE LAID-BACK LIFE BY THE CARIBBEAN

Our first stop was Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, which we reached by taking a coach bus from San Jose. Resting on the Caribbean side, the town felt like we’d been dropped on an island 40 years ago. People walked with almost deliberate slowness, and drove recklessly as if to make up for it. We learned the layout of the land within hours, befriended a few locals and quickly began to recognize the local dogs that lazily padded down the main drag.

The hotel rooms boasted porches and hammocks, befitting the laid-back nature of Puerto Viejo. Since I was traveling on my own, I was paired up with another solo female traveler to have as a roommate. There was an option to pay extra for my own room, but I was happy to share.

During the trip, there were travel days and free days. We quickly fell into a pattern of acting lazy on travel days, and going full force on free days. Since our first day in Puerto Viejo was a travel day, a bunch of us spent the afternoon walking along the beach underneath drooping palm trees, tasting local beers at tiki-themed bars blasting Bob Marley songs, checking out tiny vendor stands, and chatting with the numerous ex-pats who’d made their home there.

JAGUAR RESCUE CENTER

During our free day, we ventured to the nearby Jaguar Rescue Center to get up close and personal with both two-toed and three-toed sloths, see a red-eyed frog, hang with toucans, learn about Costa Rica’s snakes, and play with howler monkeys. For the monkey encounter, small groups headed into an enclosure and young howler monkeys proceeded to climb on top of us. The staff told us to pick them up by the tail, which seemed odd to me at first but was what the monkeys preferred. I had one monkey sit on my head for a good minute. One tip if you go: Be sure to give your camera to a friend who isn’t coming in with you to snap pictures, since cameras aren’t allowed inside the enclosure. (Monkeys fancy themselves aspiring photographers.)

The group split up following the rescue center. Some opted for a visit to a chocolate factory and a Cahuita National Park hike, one woman went on a solo bike ride, and others headed to the beach. There was no pressure to do what other members of the group did just to “go along” with the group, and I appreciated this.

TORTUGUERO: HIKING AND ANIMAL VIEWING

The journey to our second destination of Tortuguero included a multi-hour boat ride with a naturalist guide, which was another highlight of the trip and one I likely wouldn’t have bothered organizing had I been traveling alone. Our small, open-air boat cruised gently down canals, passing by sloths hanging in trees, herons perched in easy viewing distance, playful monkeys goofing around, turtles sunning themselves on logs, and crocodiles and caimans chilling on the side of the water. The abundant greenery was a feast for the eyes, and the miniscule number of boats we passed made it feel like our own private waterway.

Tortuguero is best known for turtles hatching eggs during nesting season from July to October, and also features abundant wildlife viewing. Since we weren’t there during nesting season, part of our group opted for an early-morning canoe trip to spot animals while others chose a hike in the Tortuguero National Park. For the hike, we rented boots for $1 because the paths were so muddy.

During the hike, we felt cocooned in the jungle atmosphere as our naturalist guide pointed out snakes in trees, termites, geckos, woodpeckers, and a banana spider proudly creating an impressive web. Once the sun came out, spider monkeys, howler monkeys and a particularly hyper capuchin monkey came out to join the fun. We ventured out to the beach on the way back, where we tasted some coconut juice straight from the fruit. Turtle shells and trash littered the beach, though, and we quickly learned that Tortuguero wasn’t a good destination if your primarily interest is beaches.

RARA AVIS: A SECLUDED NATURE RESERVE
Mention Rara Avis, and many people who’ve traveled to Costa Rica will give you a blank look. It’s not on any typical tourist path, and the voyage to get there is arduous and bumpy and certainly one most sane travelers would probably avoid. But that’s what makes it so special as a destination.

We each put together a day pack containing two day’s worth of clothes and supplies and put our main bags in storage before hopping in a tractor for the four-hour journey to Rara Avis. The tractor ride is one of those experiences that can’t quite be conveyed fully by videos or photos or words. With what felt like deliberate slowness, our sturdy blue tractor climbed its way up a rough dirt road, carefully working its way over boulders, rocks, mud and other obstacles. We bounced with nearly every movement, and quickly learned to enjoy the ride rather than complain. One of my fellow travelers said it was like a “slow roller coaster that had a few screws missing.”

For the last part of the journey, we had the option to hike since the tractor could only pull a limited number of people because the final section was so rocky. We were grateful for the tractor break, and soon learned why we’d all been issued rubber boots: the area around Rara Avis was ripe with mud.

The Rara Avis Rainforest Lodge and Reserve that would be our temporary home felt appropriately rustic, and the only place with lights was the main room where meals were served. Our cabins were small and fit four people each, which presented a good opportunity to bond with our fellow travelers, especially considering we needed flashlights to see. And since there was no civilization near Rara Avis, all of our family-style meals were included at the lodge.

During our free day, some group members opted for a six-hour hike to a waterfall, while others opted for a shorter two-hour hike or simply hanging around in a hammock. A masseuse at the lodge offered hour-long massages for just $30, and there was another waterfall within a five-minute walk of the lodge that many of us enjoyed. The remoteness of Rara Avis, and the ability to spend time swimming at a waterfall without running into anyone else felt rare and special.

LA FORTUNA: HOT SPRINGS AND ADVENTURE SPORTS

Our next stop was in the adventure capital of La Fortuna near the Arenal Volcano, where we spent three nights and two full days. As a minor adrenaline junkie, I was in heaven. The list of activities was nearly overwhelming, but I narrowed it down to canyoneering (aka canyoning), rafting, caving in the Venado Caves, and visiting nearby hot springs.

The three hours we spent at the nearby Baldi Hot Springs served as the perfect way to relax after the long tractor ride. We felt like we were in an oasis, complete with 25 pools, swim-up bars, waterslides, and hot and cold waterfalls.

My canyoneering adventure included rappelling down waterfalls, hiking downhill, jumping into pools of chilly water, and two near free-falls on the rappelling line that provided a welcome shot of adrenaline. I had little previous experience rappelling, but soon learned that canyoneering was an easy sport for beginners as long as you followed the guide’s instructions.

The Venado Caving trip included the opportunity to slither through nearly impossibly small spots, do some light climbing, spot bats, and crawl through wet, dark passageways. Though it wasn’t for the faint of heart or anyone with claustrophobic tendencies, it was an incredible adventure if you can tolerate small spaces and bugs.


MONTEVERDE: CLOUD FORESTS AND ZIPLINING

After saying goodbye to La Fortuna and the magnificent Arenal Volcano that we were fortunate enough to see without clouds, we headed to Monteverde and Santa Elena by taking a boat ride across Lake Arenal followed by a drive on a dizzying road full of switch-backs.

Monteverde and Santa Elena are perhaps best known for cloud forests and ziplining, and we made those our top priorities. The trip I booked included a guided tour to the Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve, and I found myself again thankful that we had a naturalist guide with us. Had I been on my own, I probably wouldn’t have paid extra for a guide, and yet our guide in the cloud forest was invaluable in helping us spot hidden animals like sloths, tiny birds and reptiles. The weather on the day of our tour was exceptionally clear, so we didn’t have the experience of seeing clouds although the side benefit was that it made bird spotting easier. We spotted toucans, and even the difficult-to-find quetzal bird. We knew we had a uncommon experience after seeing our guide’s thrilled reaction to spotting the colorful bird.

Throughout our trip, we’d been told by locals to wait until Monteverde to go ziplining since that’s where the flying adventure originated, and we followed their advice. In Monteverde, eight members of our group opted for the Extremo Zip Line tour, since we’d heard it was one of the most intense experiences and it included the option to do a kilometer-long zipline Superman-style. How could we resist?

We were harnessed up, given a safety talk, and learned how to brake using our leather-covered gloves. The first zipline was short and simple, and I began to wonder why Costa Rica was known for it. The third zip line, however, gave many of us goose bumps: a 1410-foot-long line far above the canopy, which ended on a platform too far away to see with the naked eye. And that was short compared to the 1275-foot, 1800-foot and 2250-foot-long cables we’d later experience.

The zipline adventure featured 21 platforms and included a tarzan swing, a 90 foot-long freefall rappel, and the mind-blowing freedom of the final Superman line. For that, we were hooked up by a harness on our back and our feet were tied above us. We spread our arms and sped into the open air, gazing at the trees and landscape below, and experiencing a flying sensation I hadn’t felt since hang gliding. Hands down, the time on the Superman zipline was the adrenaline high of the trip.

QUEPOS/MANUEL ANTONIO NATIONAL PARK: SUNSET CRUISES, BEACHES AND WILDLIFE
Our final stop in the Quepos and Manuel Antonio National Park area gave us an opportunity to enjoy more wildlife and catch a tan before our adventure ended. We all joined an optional sunset catamaran cruise when we arrived, and spotted the secluded beaches of Manuel Antonio from the boat. Our boat guide showed us a second beach that many people miss, and we headed there the next day during our visit to the Manuel Antonio National Park.

Monkeys were abundant in the park, and often hung out just steps from the beach. We also spotted toucans, sloths and numerous birds. The actual beach in Manuel Antonio felt like something out of a Corona commercial: gently lapping waves, quiet beaches, warm water and a general attitude of no rushing.

The public beaches in Queops were the opposite: bigger waves, lots of commerce and plenty of people. For surfing and body boarding and restaurants, the public beach is the choice; for a quiet, peaceful experience, Manuel Antonio can’t be beat.

HOW TO GO

The 16-day Costa Rica Adventure trip I took is listed under the code CRA on GAP Adventures’ website. If you’re looking for a similar but shorter trip, check out the 9-day Costa Rica Quest trip. Both trips are run year-round and have guaranteed departures. My experience was that GAP provides enough structure for newer travelers who like organization, but also offers enough freedom for seasoned travelers who may wish to venture off from the group at times. I chose a Standard service level trip, although a cheaper Basic option and a more inclusive Comfort option are also available. Learn more at GapAdventures.com.

American Airlines has daily flights to San Jose, Costa Rica from Miami and Dallas, Delta Airlines flies from Atlanta and Continental has flights from Houston and Newark.

WEB RESOURCES

NOTE: This trip was sponsored in part by: Gap Adventures.

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