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By Lauren Kramer
For Travel Writers’ Tales

This travel story comes with a caution: if you’re visiting Costa Rica for any reason other than its nature, don’t bother.

Don’t come for the food, which is easily forgettable. The most popular dishes are gallo pinto, which is rice-and-beans, and fried pork skins known as chicharrones. While local Costa Ricans love this food, if you’re not from here you might well be mystified by its appeal. Don’t come for the driving conditions either, as the winding back roads leading to the coastlines and volcanic regions inland can be perilous, with bathtub sized potholes and no streetlights out of the city.

Costa Rica has a well-deserved reputation for its magnificent wildlife, which includes the unmistakable toucan. Photo: Jason Aginsky

But if you’re coming for the natural beauty of this small Central American country, you won’t leave disappointed. A tropical jungle filled with lush palms, massive ferns, strangler fig trees and unexpected bursts of bright heliconia, it’s a scene straight out of a Tarzan movie, complete with howler monkeys swinging shyly from the drooping vines and sloths cradled sleepily in tree branches. A quarter of the country’s landmass is protected from development, and its verdant beauty is nothing short of spellbinding.

We were grateful to leave the dense bustle of San Jose, Costa Rica’s capital and a city unremarkable but for a handful of colonial-style architectural buildings easily seen from a bus on the way out of town. Our destination was the Pacuare River, two hours east, where we’d signed up for a whitewater river rafting adventure, one of the hallmark tourism experiences in Costa Rica. Over the course of two days we’d travel 18 miles over class three and four rapids, spending a night at an eco-lodge where we’d be hushed to sleep by the thrum of rushing water.

A two-day river rafting trip on the Pacuare River offers great opportunities to experience Costa Rica's famous eco-tourism, learn about the country's indigenous people and spot wildlife in natural habitat. Photo: Jason Aginsky

The rafting was thrilling, with adrenaline-pumping rapids around every bend and between them, a few serene, calmer stretches where we could hop overboard. With one hand on the raft we’d drift gently in the soft current, watching the iridescent turquoise wings of blue morpho butterflies as they flitted across the river. By early afternoon we reached the eco-lodge, a series of rustic treehouse-style rooms located on the river bluffs. Once we’d swapped wet clothes for dry, there were hikes we could venture on, but it was prudent to exercise caution, our guide Jonny warned us. “There are snakes around here and they get active this time of day,” he said. “Just a few days ago I killed a very poisonous one outside the dining hall.”

An eco-lodge on the Pacuare River offers an unrivalled opportunity to see the jungle up close. Photo: Jason Aginsky

As evening fell we gathered at candlelit tables in the thatched dining hall for dinner with other travelers. The air was thick with moisture, the jungle was shrouded in misty clouds and a steady rain made the palm fronds glisten in the fading light. It felt magical spending a night on the river banks, surrounded by tropical jungle and just a two-hour hike from the Cabecar Indians, the closest isolated indigenous community. “We have an arrangement with them,” Jonny explained. “They allow us to stop along the river and prepare meals for our rafting guests, but if there’s any food left over, we leave it for them.”

A day later we were back on the dusty Costa Rican roads headed for Arenal, a massive volcano we reached but never saw thanks to heavy cloud cover. Last active in 2010, it’s a picturesque behemoth on whose flanks numerous tour operators lead guests on horseback rides, tubing adventures, hikes and rappelling experiences.

Weeks earlier I’d signed up for an afternoon tour rappelling down waterfalls, hoping to impress my 16-year-old son who loves nothing more than a heart-thumping adventure. But those blue morpho butterflies were already dancing in my stomach as the jeep drove us along those bumpy roads, and by the time we were gearing up with harnesses and carabiners my sense of daring had disappeared. It refused to reappear at the first jump, and instead of rappelling down a 165-foot waterfall I hiked the shortcut on a rain-drenched, muddy, slippery path that was anything but fun.

You don’t have to venture far from the beaten path in Costa Rica to see waterfalls tumbling through ravines densely populated by verdant foliage. Photo: Lauren Kramer

“You do baby waterfall,” our guide instructed, and I acquiesced with relief. At just 40 feet the ‘baby’ sounded a whole lot more manageable. Suspended by ropes I slipped cautiously off the rock face, getting a close-up view at the sheer rock face. A waterfall cascaded over my safety helmet, sending icy chills down my spine, but half-way down I had the sense to looked around, stunned. I had a birds-eye view of the jungle, one ordinarily seen only by the large-beaked toucans, howler monkeys and sloths, - and it was spectacular.



• Rio Tropicales is a long-standing, well reputed tour operator specializing in whitewater rafting adventures on Costa Rican rivers. Info: (866) 722-8273;

• Pure Trek Canyoning is the premier waterfall rappelling outfitter in Arenal and La Fortuna. Info: (866) 569-5723 or

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