I first fell in love with Costa Rica after watching an episode of The Jeff Corwin Experience. I had seen it so many times that I could recite the line, “It’s time to go from a quadruped to a biped in search of a no-ped!”
The country is famous for its gorgeous reptiles, and he was referring to snakes. In the episode, he travels from the cloud forests of Monteverde to the secluded shores of the Caribbean, encountering nesting sea turtles, a troop of Capuchin monkeys, a silky anteater, and a Bushmaster serpent along the way.
I was mesmerized, and just had to visit this magical, critter-filled world. Years went by before I could realize my dream. It was only after a breakup that I decided to pack my bags and head south from the concrete jungle of New York to the rainforests of Costa Rica.
I signed up for the Intrepid’s Classic Costa Rica 15-day tour and, in the footsteps of my favorite TV host, I fearlessly ventured into the jungles and rugged shores, in search of not just exotic wildlife, but a new perspective.
Here’s what happened and what it was like…
Endless beauty, for everyone to enjoy
The country is small, but it’s abundant with natural beauty, boasting 28 National Parks, three of which are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The parks range from lush rainforests to complex freshwater and marine ecosystems that preserve natural resources and diverse animal population. Ever-present clouds give Monteverde National Park a sense of mystery, while turtle heaven, Tortuguero National Park, is perpetually bright with sandy shores and sunshine. Manuel Antonio, the crown jewel of Costa Rica, located in the Central Pacific Coast, is the smallest, yet most biodiverse National Park in the country.
Natural hot springs, warmed by the volcano’s underground magma, make Arenal Volcano National Park another must-visit. Just the excitement of seeing these incredibly unique sights was enough for me to forget that I was newly single. And it was all the better to be in the company of fellow nature lovers on the Intrepid Tour who came from all corners of the world, from North America to Australia.
With more than 2,000 species of plants, 320 bird species, and 100 different types of mammals, Monteverde is a wildlife lover’s paradise, but I was more drawn to the suspension bridges. These hanging bridges, that gently swayed above deep ravines and verdant virgin forests, allowed me to walk amidst a mist-covered canopy, surrounded by the cacophony of bird calls and monkey chatter.
Going North to Arenal Volcano National Park, one of the most recognized attractions in the country, I stood in awe looking up at the Arenal Volcano sending off a puff of white smoke. The imposing, dormant volcano rises 5,437 feet over pastured green hillsides and provides ample opportunities for hiking and exploring. Nearby, I enjoyed the benefits of soothing natural hot springs at Tabacon, courtesy of the volcano’s geothermal activity. The hardest decision was choosing which natural pool to swim in!
Animals, everywhere – but safety nonetheless
On our first night in Manuel Antonio, to my delight, a 20-foot-long boa constrictor crawled from the nearby jungle onto the front yard of our hotel. As the security guard gently held this non-venomous creature to move it away, I admired its ornate layers from a distance.
It turned out that it wasn’t the only reptile I would encounter. Sunbathing iguanas rested on the sidewalks as I made my way around the property. On one of the hikes, our guide pointed out an eyelash pit viper, a venomous beauty with, you guessed it, long eyelashes curled up on a branch. I took a picture of it through the lens of a telescope. Even though there seems to be wildlife everywhere, it’s best to admire from a distance.
The easy trail running through the park in Manuel Antonio was perfect for our tour which encompassed all physical levels and ages. On our short hour-long hike through the park, my Intrepid group witnessed two and three-toed sloths, colorful land crabs, iguanas, toucans, and monkeys. Our excitement only doubled when we discovered the white sand beaches at the end of our hike. At Playa Manuel Antonio and Playa Espadilla Sur, the rainforest plunges into the turquoise seas and offers picture-perfect vistas and a refreshing break.
Tortuguero, on the North Caribbean coast, is home to 13 of Costa Rica’s 16 endangered animals, including manatees, ocelots, and jaguars. It’s also the nesting grounds for green sea turtles, which come ashore between July and October to lay eggs on the sandy beaches. I will forever cherish quietly walking along the beach, holding onto my fellow travelers in complete darkness in search of turtles digging in the sand to leave their precious eggs. They then waddled across the beach and disappeared into the water, never to meet their offspring. Afterwards, we all sat in the sand under the cloudy sky, giggling with excitement over what we had just witnessed.
Calm, serene beaches can be found on the Caribbean side, but some of the Pacific beaches are known to have riptides. Beware of signs with warnings, and use caution when venturing out to the sea. At Playa Espadilla at Manuel Antonio, it was refreshing to jump into the water after a hike, and I made sure to stay in waist deep waters, within sight of rest of the group.
Countless opportunities to meet people
Thousands of tourists travel to Costa Rica seeking adventure, relaxation, and the pura vida (pure and simple) lifestyle, and I was no exception. Everywhere I ventured, I was greeted by friendly locals and like-minded travelers. Being part of a friendly tour group provided an instant community.
Having a homestay with a local family in Santa Rosa de Pocosol, near Juanilama agricultural community, allowed us to meet locals and learn more about everyday life in Costa Rica, and practice Spanish. It was also a pleasant surprise to run into fellow New Yorkers at Tabacon Hot Springs in La Fortuna. We sipped cocktails in a swim-up bar overlooking Arenal Volcano and talked about the wonderful experiences we’d had.
From the moment I landed in Costa Rica until my flight home departed, I was grateful for the opportunity of new experiences. My heart felt lighter and my mind reawakened from being around such pristine wilderness. I made new friends and memories that would last a long time, and this was just the beginning of many future trips to this captivating country.
Ready to explore the endless delights of Costa Rica? Check out Intrepid’s range of small group tours.
(Image credits from top to bottom: Lavanya Sunkara x2, Intrepid Travel, Lavanya Sunkara, Intrepid Travel x3.)