We wake to a cacophony of tropical birds cries and the deep-throated roar of howler monkeys. I leap out of bed and rush to the window. The room looks out on a lush garden paradise bursting with palms and ferns and brilliant flowers in crimson shades. We are in Costa Rica!
We arrived last night in the dark. From the airport, we were bundled into a taxi-van and driven through narrow, winding streets into the low lying hills on the outskirts of the little town of Alejuela. Our hosts greeted us kindly despite the late hour and, perhaps sympathetic to the toll of our long flight or a desire to get to bed themselves, quickly ushered us to our rooms with best wishes for a good night’s sleep and extra towels.
Now, in the light of day, we hurry to shower and dress, eager to start this first day of our trip. We meet our two travelling companions in the dining area of the guest house for a quick bite and a cup of fresh Costa Rican coffee. Our hosts drive us to the town center just as the sun rises above the forested hilltops. The Parque Central is a pretty, tree-filled square with a pavilion and a fountain in the middle. On the eastern edge of the square sits a classically styled Spanish cathedral made of white stucco and a red tiled roof. We wait, curiously eyeing the residents of Alejuela who are also out early. Industrious shop keepers and small business owners bustle by the homeless, the beggars, the winos and the remnants of last night’s party-goers.
The river rafting guide van pulls up, easily spotting four gringos loitering on the sidewalk. With a cheery greeting, one of the guides leaps out to introduce himself and tosses our backpacks into the back of the 12-passenger van. We clamber inside and greet the driver. They are both Costa Rican, or Ticos, and speak perfect English, putting our halting attempts at Spanish to shame.
The van winds its way out of town and onto a two-lane road heading towards the mountains. The countryside is astounding. We pass coffee plantations and tropical plant nurseries, each growing their prized plants for international export. We climb higher with spectacular views of the valley floor spreading out behind us. Further out, we enter a national park straddling the spine of an active volcanic mountain range. It is bursting with thick emerald jungles, plunging canyons and cascading waterfalls.
Costa Rica enjoys a huge ecological diversity all crammed into a small strip of land sandwiched between the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans. Despite it’s tiny size, it has designated an impressive 25% of it’s land mass and off-shore reefs as protected national parks. As a result, eco-tourism is a big part of their economy, and we plan to take full advantage of it. Our itinerary includes river rafting, horseback riding, hiking, a rainforest canopy zip-line tour, boogie boarding, swimming and beach time.
A couple hours into the drive, we stop at a roadside restaurant and small store selling souvenirs and groceries. Seated at picnic tables out in the front yard, we eat our second breakfast of the day, a hearty meal of huevos rancheros, frijoles and tortillas. We eat with gusto in anticipation of our river rafting exertions ahead.
River rafting is a thrill. It is a daredevil ride in a rubber raft along a churning, frothing river that would like nothing better than to swallow you whole. Our guide is a delight – funny, enthusiastic, energetic and daring. Recognizing our comfort with water and physical activity and our keen interest in being terrified, he immediately aims our raft into the most treacherous rapids.
The next couple hours are a blur of adrenalin-fueled paddling through giant swells of water, around enormous rock protrusions and swirling maelstroms with names like “La Furia Del Diablo” and “El Abismo Del Infierno”, intended to drive fear into the hearts of those willing to test their fate. In one of these whirlpools of death, we are trapped against a rocky cliff along the river’s edge. The side of the raft rears up under the crush of the water, our bodies pinned against the cliff, our paddles dangling uselessly above the water. With a shout, the guide instructs us to lunge toward the high side and push away from the cliff. The raft shudders and groans under the torrent of water. In a desperate effort, we lunge and lean with all our might, and in the last instant, when capsizing is all but a certainty, the raft breaks free and hurtles forward into a cascade of foam.
We pull over in a languid section of the river to rest, snack on fresh tropical fruit and take turns jumping off a cliff into the water below. We push on, ready for more terror. Our raft is accompanied by a handsome young Tico with bulging forearms and a cheeky smile who enjoys performing tricks in his single kayak on the most perilous of rapids.
Totally drenched and utterly thrilled, we complete our rafting expedition with a large lunch and dry clothes. Back on the road, we continue our scenic journey through the mountainous jungle. Eventually, the van turns and bounces along a lengthy dirt driveway. We peer out the windows to get a first glimpse of our lodging for the night; Lomas del Volcan near the Parque Nacional Arenal. “How did you find this place?” another passenger marvels. We sigh with pleasure at the sight of a generous grassy compound and lush gardens nestled at the foot of the volcano. Adorable hardwood bungalows peek out amongst the tropical foliage, each with a private porch overlooking the rainforest and the volcano looming above.
That night we revel in the excitement of the day. We enjoy a delicious dinner and Chilean wine in the open-air dining room. We sink our weary bodies into the healing waters of a hot tub located under the stars and watch for the molten orange glow of lava flowing from the active volcanic peak.
A perfect first day.