Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Costa Rica enchanting by nature

Countless attractions for lovers of outdoors

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Birds, butterflies, monkeys and sea turtles are among the many creatures visitors can see in this welcoming Central American country.

I thought it was a brown shoelace, until it moved. When I opened the door to our room to alert my sleeping husband, the snake slithered inside. As my husband pondered what he could use to extricate it from our quarters, it exited voluntarily.

The men at Rinconcito Lodge, near Rincon de la Vieja, were convinced the reptile was the venomous fer-de-lance. (Later, after seeing the photo I had taken of our uninvited guest, a snake expert reassured me it had not been poisonous.) This first little encounter was just a taste of the nature we would meet during a three-week vacation in Costa Rica.

We arrived at Liberia Airport and departed from San Jose. In between, we stayed at two bona fide ranches and visited two beach towns. We saw monkeys, bats, sloths, iguanas, crocodiles, snakes, a tarantula, and many birds and butterflies. We swam in waterfalls and the ocean. We walked on beaches and in national parks. We even zip-lined through a forest.

Rinconcito Lodge was the first place we stayed. We were delighted when we saw our spacious room, set on a small hillside with a magnificent view of the surrounding trees, flowers and sky.

The food at Rinconcito was reasonably priced and tasty, and the employees were gems. We chose the lodge because of its proximity to the Rincón de la Vieja volcano and because it was inexpensive. (We paid US$60 for the room; breakfast was included.) Also to cut costs, we did not rent a car and usually ate out only for supper, preferring to prepare our own lunches.

Both sectors of Rincón de la Vieja Park were wonderful. For the Santa Maria Sector, we hired a terrific guide. He pointed out several animals we would not have seen on our own: a white-nosed coati (a member of the raccoon family with a long black tail and white nose), a crested guan (a large bird), the difficult-to-photograph flitting blue morpho butterfly, as well as the intriguing leaf-cutting ant and mimosa plant. The plant folds into itself when you brush it lightly with your fingertips, while the ants deposit the pieces of grass inside their anthill, then wait for the grass to decompose and eventually nourish themselves on the mushrooms that grow out of the decomposing grass.

Our guide also showed us the appropriately named Catarata Bosque Encantado, the Waterfall of the Enchanted Forest. Another highlight was the Aguas Termales, a small, green-coloured thermal bath surrounded by white rocks and a ring of thin trees high above, which I noticed when lying back in the water.

The Las Pailas sector of the park, which we explored on our own, was full of otherworldly sights. The well-marked trail took us past fumaroles: bubbling and steaming grey mud pots reminiscent of a scene from a Harry Potter movie. According to the sign, the temperature of the fumaroles reaches between 75 C and 106 C. We also saw hornillas, which are holes in the ground hidden by the mass of steam above them.

A hike on the Ficus Trail of the Rinconcito Lodge led us to a small waterfall in a sunny clearing. Blue morpho butterflies flitting about were our only witnesses as we peeled off our clothes and went skinny-dipping.

Carolina Lodge, near Tenorio Volcano National Park, about 31/2 hours away over windy, bumpy roads, was our next stop. The driver from Rinconcito took us there for $45 each. Our room was simple, but adequate. If you go, I would suggest booking one of the property's small houses, which cost just a few dollars more than the rooms. Horseback riding is included in the rates.

Carolina Lodge has 31 horses, all trained and maintained under the watchful eye of Alejandro Parilla. Under Parilla's tutelage, I became increasingly confident with each ride we took, even permitting my horse to trot on the last few rides. Parilla is also a knowledgeable guide. He took us and a handful of other guests to Tenorio Volcano National Park, known for its river that is part blue and part green (caused by the intersection of two bodies of water), as well as a waterfall and hot springs.

Just about all the food at Carolina Lodge is homemade, and meals are plentiful and delicious. Guests dine together while exchanging names and travel tales.

At night, the long tables are candlelit. Candles are placed on the paths throughout the grounds -- even to the riverside hot tub.

We left the ranch part of our trip and headed to the beach, opting to take public transportation to Playa Carrillo on the Pacific Coast. While it involved several transfers and took almost all day, including a two-hour stop, the trip cost a mere $18 each.

Playa Carrillo is lovely and can be walked from end to end in about 45 minutes. The beach curves around gently, palm trees provide shade and the waves are just right for frolicking. Just stay out of the estuary on the edge of the beach: There is a "beware of crocodiles" sign, and we spotted three while peering down from the bridge. Oy vey!

Our room at Cabinas El Colibri was comfortable and came with a functional kitchen.

Roxana and Fernando Carre, the Argentinian-born owners, were both personable and helpful. There was a pleasant pool area, and their popular restaurant, where Fernando mans the grill, adjoins the hotel. They even took us with their young sons to see the awe-inspiring sight of sea turtles laying eggs at Cameronal Beach.

Besides relaxing, there is plenty to do at Playa Carrillo: yoga on the beach; Popo's kayaking tours; horseback riding and local hikes. We enjoyed visiting La Selva -- a wildlife reserve where injured or orphaned animals are rehabilitated. So when I found an injured baby bird the following morning, I knew where to take it. It survived, and I named it Courage.

The nearby Playa Samara was a completely different experience with its restaurants and surf schools lining the beach, as well as people selling jewellery and clothing in stands along the road. After the day trip, we were glad to return to the tranquillity of Playa Carrillo, but if you like more action, Playa Samara may be for you.

For $60 each, we hired another driver to take us to Montezuma, our final destination before heading back to Montreal. We felt at home at the Mariposario Montezuma Gardens, an intimate four-bedroom B&B. The hosts, brothers Ryan and Josh Samuel, were most gracious. The brothers operate a large butterfly garden (that's the Mariposario in the name of their place) and Ryan's tour was funny and fascinating. Best of all was its proximity to the Montezuma Waterfalls. Fifteen minutes down a jungle path led us to a series of waterfalls with small freshwater pools for swimming, jumping and diving. Howler monkeys roaring like lions provided the soundtrack.

One morning, we went for a walk before breakfast and saw about 18 howler monkeys, ranging from toddlers to big daddies, hanging out -- literally -- on two trees on either side of the road.

The Mariposario offers a work-stay program, where participants pay a modest sum and work four hours daily (Monday to Friday) in exchange for basic accommodations, breakfast and lunch. The three young workers we met were delightful, adding to the cosy atmosphere of the place.

To get to the town of Montezuma, we would walk 20 minutes down an extremely steep hill. The Montezuma beach isn't as nice as Playa Carrillo for walking or swimming, but the atmosphere of this small town is fun, with a definite peace-and-love vibe. The town consists of the beach and two small streets of restaurants, shops, hotels and street vendors. Don't miss happy hour at Ylang Ylang Beach Resort.

We went on the Montezuma canopy tour, which felt safe and was exciting, even for a chicken like me. I loved zip-lining over the jungle. Another day, we rented an ATV from Zuma Tours. We drove to Playa Carmen, a surfing town. We made a few stops along the way: at Nena's to buy her mango-pineapple jam; at a humongous fica tree; at the bakery in Cobuya (I'm still dreaming about their chocolate cake); and at the Soda Mal Pais (where our lunches included homemade potato chips).

We used the professional Zuma Tours to shuttle us from Montezuma to San José, the capital city. Compared with the other areas of Costa Rica we had visited, San José was big, noisy and Americanized. For our last night, we stayed at the lovely Hotel Luisiana in Santa Ana, just outside of San José. The room was beautiful and only $60 per night.

Now that we are back in frigid Montreal, the memories of our trip to Costa Rica fill my soul with warmth and sunshine. I can see why people return to this beautiful country time after time.

Pura vida!

-- Postmedia News

IF YOU GO

Where to stay:

Rinconcito Lodge: $60 (all figures in US dollars) per night per room including breakfast. Transport may be arranged from the airport or to the National Park for an additional fee. Visit rinconcitolodge.com. Contact Gerardo Badilla, rinconcito@racsa.co.cr.

Carolina Lodge: $70 to $90 per person per night including three meals, horseback riding and services of a guide. lacarolinalodge.com. Contact Karien Harwell, info@lacarolinalodge.com.

Cabinas El Colibri in Playa Carrillo: Rates vary from $50 to $100 per night, depending on the season. cabinaselcolibri.com. Contact Roxana, colibricarrillo@yahoo.com.ar.

Mariposario Montezuma Gardens, just outside Montezuma: Visit montezumagardens.com. Contact Ryan Samuel, Info@montezumagardens.com.

Hotel Luisiana in Santa Ana: $59 to $79 per night. Visit hotelluisiana.com.

Transportation:

Zuma Tours, Montezuma: Contact Kevin, info@ZumaTours.net; reservations@ZumaTours.net.

Tipping:

Even if you are trying to cut costs, please consider tipping generously, as restaurant and hotel employees work long days and earn approximately $2 per hour.

Spanish is not essential, but it certainly helps.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 8, 2012 D1

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