Monday, November 15, 2010

Costa Rica Day 3

We signed up with Desafio expeditions for a rafting tour to the Rio Toro (Bull River).  They picked us up from the hotel and then picked up a group of 5 and we headed to the river, about 1 hr and 20 min away from La Fortuna. Along the way we stopped at a gift shop/cafe to stretch our legs.  Behind the shop was a river with trees along the shore.  We saw multiple large iguanas lounging in the trees and grabbing breakfast at the foot of the river. At the entrance to the river, they gave us some quick instructions and we practiced at the beginning for about 5 min.  With only 7 of us, we only had two rafts.  Our raft had Mike, Kathie and Rick (from Holland) with our guide, Luis.  The other raft had the 4 remaining rafters and their guide, Jonathan. 

The group of rafters

The weather was great, a little cloudy but warm and no rain.  The rafting on the Rio is definitely a lot more exciting than the rafting we've done on PA or WV.  First, since it was only two rafts, we just kept moving through all the rapids without having to wait for the rest of the party to catch up.  Second, the Toro is much more narrow than the rivers we've done in the past and there are a lot more rapids with very few areas of calm waters.  Last, the views are a lot more beautiful with gorgeous vegetation, birds, butterflies, waterfalls, and we saw some howler monkeys in the trees. The water, while cool, was also much less cold than the waters we've rafted in the U.S. since those are generally winter snow run-off.

Halfway through the trip, we took a break at a calm area of the river and snacked on fresh watermelons and pineapples.  Fruit always taste so amazing in the tropical countries, probably because they are picked when they're ripe.

We got to do some fun things during the rafting trip.  There was one area where Kathie got to sit on the very front of the raft and"ride the bull" through some rapids.  She had a great time with that.  Another section, Andrew (the riders switched out halfway through) and Kathie turned around so they were facing backwards while Mike on the right side continued to face forward.  Through the rapid all of us were rowing forward (respective of our positions) and therefore spun the raft around and around while going through the rapids.  Riding the Toro was a fantastic experience and one we would definitely recommend to others, especially using Desafio expeditions.  The whole ride was about 2 hrs long through 10 miles of river.

After the rafting, we were driven to a small cafe and had some delicious costa rican food: rice, chicken, salad, Spanish rice, beans and passion fruit juice.  The food was quite delicious, especially after a couple hours of intense rowing.

After driver took us back to the hotel and we crashed in our room for about an 1.5 hrs then drove to Ecotermales, one of the hot springs spa in the area.  It had been recommended by multiple guides and tourists from trip advisor. It's much quieter and low-key than some of the other spas and only allow 100 people for each 4 hr slot.  Since it's off-season, we didn't see more than a dozen people at the springs.  ecotermales has a series of cascading pools filled with volcanic heated water that was around 95 degrees F.  The water coming into the highest pool is supplied by a stream.  Each cascading pool is a little cooler but even the last pool is still nice and warm.  The last pool then emptied back into the stream which continues downriver.  It is a bit odd to see a hot stream in nature but in Arenal, there are a fair number of the hot springs you can access, including a public hot spring. 

I wish we had thought to bring a camera to the springs; EcoTermales is quite beautiful.  If you ever go, definitely bring a camera with you.  The spa provides locked lockers so you can put the camera in a safe place while soaking.
The spring water is crystal clear and doesn't smell like chlorine, sulphur or any other chemical.  It was so relaxing to just sit in the various pools.  We also bought the dinner option so we had some rice, beans, salad, and chicken for mike and tilapia for kathie.  The chicken was a little bland, the grouper was a little salty but it had very good flavor.  They also have a bar so we each got a drink. Kathie's piƱa colada was the best she ever had, and Mike's rum and coke had lime juice added for an extra flavor.  We stayed at the springs for about 3 hours enjoying the water and relaxing on the loungers.  We really liked Ecotermales because it was so quiet and private.

It was definitely a fun-filled beautiful day for us.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Costa Rica Day 2

We set our alarm but ended up waking early, before sunrise, probably because CR time is two hours later than Virginia time. Our room has a fantastic view of the volcano but it was mostly shrouded in clouds this morning.

View from our hotel patio
We took our time getting ready, then drove into the local town of La Fortuna for breakfast. Even though Arenal is a big tourist destination, and La Fortuna is the only town nearby, it doesn't have any of the usual tourist traps or shops; it's basically just another Costa Rican town (with a couple of tour operators). We picked up pastries at the bakery where the  locals were buying huge loaves of fresh bread, and our breakfast ended up being very inexpensive.

Center of La Fortuna
After breakfast we walked around town for a while. There is a small park in the center, and a large church nearby, but not much else to see. Our main event for the day was the rain forest canopy zip-line tour (for Kat) and gondola ride and nature walk (for Mike). We drove to the sky tour site, and half the drive ended up being very slow, on rough, unpaved, bumpy road.  These were the types of roads that we were expecting based on reviews from other visitors but in general, most of the other roads weren't that bad.

From the gondola we could see much of Lake Arenal, which was created to provide hydroelectric power to CR, and could see the volcano when the cloud cover allowed.  The rainforest was mostly beneath us during the ride up the mountain and we could see the huge leaves, trees, and branches, with a fair number of butterflies flitting about.

Once we got to the top, the tour guides, Katya and Leo gave us a few minutes to enjoy some fruit juice, admire the scenery, and take some photos.

Then Kathie joined the other six zip-liners and we got started.  The first two zip lines are considered test lines.  If you discover you cannot handle it, you can still back out and go back down the gondola.  You have to take the"chicken trail" back to the gondola.  After the first 2 lines, it's time for the real deal.  Once strapped into the line, they given you a gentle push and off you go!  You move pretty quickly down the zip line and have a fantastic view of the lake, trees below and the volcano.  There are 5 "real" zip lines we get to traverse.  The first two lines are practice and the last line is a photo opportunity.  The longest zip line is almost had a mile long and the fastest zip line goes up to 50 mph.  The last line takes you right through the middle of the forest.  The canopy tour with skyadventures was a fantastic experience.  The guides were a lot of fun, stayed enthusiastic and really made the tour enjoyable.  One of the advantages of going off-season is the small number of other tourists doing the same activities.  Leo mentioned that during high season, there can be over 40 people for one trip down the zip lines.

Mike took a small hike through the rainforest with another guide and small family while he waited for Kathie to finish her zipping.  The guide pointed out a few local plants and trees and explained a bit about the Costa Rica ecosystem.

After we both finished, we ate lunch at the small cafe there.  Kathie really liked the fried yucca fries there. They taste a bit like French fries but has a slightly different taste to them.

Since it was on the drive home, we stopped into Arenal Volcano National Park.  You cannot see the lava from the park but there are some nice trails to take to see the forest and the old lava flows.  We took the recommended 5km hike which takes you to the 1992 lava flow area, then a hike through the secondary forest.  We didn't see any monkeys but we did see some toucans, butterflies, hummingbirds, big spiders, and a 100-year ceibo tree that was enormous.  It's hard to believe it's only 100 years old.  We did hear a lot of odd insect and bird calls during our walk.

After the hike, we headed back to the hotel and soaked in their jacuzzi for a while.  A 5km walk is a fair bit for us so it felt nice to relax in the warm water with a great view of the volcano.