Pura Vida (Life is Good) in Costa Rica


Bill Unruh

April 17, 2009, the e-mail read: CONGRATULATIONS! You are the grand prize winner of the " Costa Rica Family Eco Adventure Sweepstakes" from National Geographic and Kidtoons.

Excellent! I just won a trip for my entire family to Costa Rica . After a bit of planning and scrapping our other summer vacation plans, we set up our trip for June. It didn't leave us much time for preparation but our excitement along with our kids running through the house yelling “We're going to Costa Rica, We're going to Costa Rica, We're going to Costa Rica”, made us question at times what we were getting ourselves into.

On June 5 th we departed on our 7 ½ hour flight to Dallas . We were a bit tired when we landed but had arranged in advance for a day room at the airport hotel to cope with our 9 hour layover. We also had arranged for my wife's parents to meet us at the hotel, a surprise to their grandkids. Our time with them came and went and before we knew it we were waiting at the gate for our flight on to Costa Rica . By 11pm we had made it to our next hotel room in the heart of downtown San Jose at the Hotel Presidente. By 4am our alarm clock was alerting us to continue on our Costa Rican adventure. Within an hour we were back at the airport and just after the sun had risen across the tarmac we were on a small commuter flight to Tortuguero National Park on the Caribbean coast. The flight lasted only a half hour and before long we were landing on a very small runway adjacent to the crashing surf of the Atlantic Ocean .

Stepping onto the runway, no need for a tarmac as they only get one flight a day, we were greeted by our guide for the next two days, Cloied. Our itinerary said we had ground transfers which was a little misleading. The only ground we transferred over was when we walked ourselves off the runway down a path to the water. It turns out there are no automobiles (a fact that we never missed at all) in Tortuguero, everyone gets around by boat; a much needed form of transportation as the area is all waterways, rivers and tributaries that lead into the ocean. Along with our guide, we were also assigned our own boat captain, Walter, for the duration of our stay.

Within a few minutes Walter zipped across the waterway and was dropping us off at our dock. Walking to our cabin at Pachira Lodge made us realize we were in the heart of the jungle. The sounds of the jungle were everywhere; birds calling, bugs buzzing, lizards running about, an occasional thunder jolted are bodies as a storm rumbled off in the distance and eventually periodic showers would empty the clouds of their collection. All the rain and moisture left the air heavy with humidity which all the earthy plants and lush flowers loved and rejoiced in.

The next two days were spent on numerous outings on a flat-bottom boat exploring Tortuguero National Park where Cloied and Walter would take us on outings to find any wildlife we could find. Cloied was the perfect guide for us. Not only could he speak English well but also he was able to explain things on our level and even more important our kids level. Cloied would frequently ask our kids what animal they wanted to see next and before long we were off on an adventure to find that animal. Our many water adventures led us to find Spectacled Caiman's. even one with a Julia butterfly on it's head, Mantled Howler Monkeys, Spider Monkeys, White-Headed Capuchin Monkeys, 2-toed Sloth's; a Basilisk lizard (Jesus Christ lizard) actually run on water, Black Iguana's sunning themselves in the tree's and even a flock of Green Macaws feasting in a mountain almond tree and as they ate, the shell's from the nuts would tumble to the ground bouncing off limbs and leaves as they made their way to the jungle floor.

In between our boat trips we spent our time playing in the giant turtle-shaped swimming pool complete with a cascading waterfall or simply walking the pathways, being careful not to step on the occasional monkey poop, around the lodge to see what new wildlife we might come across. The Pachira lodge is in the heart of the jungle with Toucan's calling from the tree's, Howler Monkeys walking on the cabin roof's and soldier ant's marching where they need to go. What made Tortuguero even more enjoyable for me was experiencing all the wildlife in its own home. My Dad taught science for over 30 years and he put together his own animal room at the high school complete with snakes, lizards, rodents, birds and even a White-Headed Capuchin Monkey. I helped in the animal from the time I was a small child until my Dad retired. Being in the jungles of Tortuguero and hearing all the sounds that came at us from every angle, brought fond memories of my childhood back to me. My Dad would have loved Tortuguero just as much as I did.

On our last day, our flight was departing very early and we had to get up at 5am. Turning on our cabin lights at 5am made the Howler Monkeys howl the most we had heard the entire time in Tortuguero. Maybe they weren't happy we woke them or maybe they just didn't want us to leave.

After we landed back in San Jose , Henry, our trusty driver from Transtobella, picked us up and we headed to La Fortuna and the Arenal Volcano area. On our way to the Arenal area we drove through Monte Verde cloud forest. The roads were very windy and the area met up to its name of cloud forest as we were driving through clouds nestled in the mountains. All of the highways we were on only had two lanes. The highways seemed to be in good condition which was a relief as we had heard the roads left quite a bit to be desired. The real problem, however, was that there were no shoulders along the narrow windy roads. That would not have been so bad if it weren't for the fact that the highways seemed to also serve as the national sidewalk for locals walking, riding bicycles and pushing baby carriages, this made us love our drivers abilities even more!

Arriving at the Mountain Paradise Hotel we were dropped off at the front office and greeted with a tasty welcome cocktail. The hotel lived up to its name fully. It is a paradise perched on a hillside on the flanks of the very active Arenal Volcano. The tranquil setting is complete with Tuscan-style Villa's (each with its own waterfall shower and Jacuzzi) dotted on the lush grounds of green grass, lizards scampering about, hummingbirds feeding on the flowering tree's, and of course bunnies hopping about and stopping for an occasional petting from our 3-year old and 7-yeard old. At every step you take on the property, you get a perfectly framed view of the steaming Arenal Volcano complete with Vultures flying overhead and boulders periodically tumbling down the slope. The tranquil yet possibly menacing setting was a perfect place for Alfred Hitchcock to film a movie.

At the Mountain Paradise, the staff was extremely nice to us. They even provided a customized menu for our family in the open-air dining room that also has perfectly framed views of the Arenal Volcano. We found out that some of the staff thought we worked for National Geographic which may have been the reason for such royal treatment. But then we were treated so well everywhere we went that maybe it was just the thing to do in Costa Rica and live Pura Vida (life is good).

The Arenal Volcano area is very popular with the more adventurous traveler. The area is full of hikes, water rafting, fishing, hot springs , volcano lava viewing and the list goes on. The activities we took part in included hanging out at Baldi Hot Springs with its super-fast water slides and varying temperatures of hot springs; walking around the town of La Fortuna; visiting a private butterfly garden and hiking the suspension bridges at Hanging Bridges Park. The best activity we did in the area by far was the breath-taking; I mean this literally, the Sky Tram ziplines that traveled over 2 miles of various lengths of ziplines on the slopes of the Arenal Volcano overlooking Lake Arenal at tits base. As we zipped down the cables at over 50 miles an hour, our screams drowned out the occasional Howler monkey howls coming from the canopy below. Even our 7-year old son was able to partake on a ride down the ziplines, something he enjoys in telling to his classmates. Experiencing all the activities always ended the perfect day back at the Mountain Paradise with the friendly staff, heated pool and swim-bar with seating for 5 serving the national drink, the very refreshing Guaro Sour.

Before we knew it, our time at Mountain Paradise was over and we were on the road with Henry heading toward the Pacific coast, our next destination. Five hours later, it should have only been four but we came across a traffic accident and some road construction, needless to say we were happy to have a driver again, we arrived at the Parador Resort. Located on spectacular bluffs, the Parador Resort sits on a Peninsula of land overlooking the Pacific Ocean . The friendly resort staff escorted us to an incredible Junior Suite that was virtually brand new. We even had a welcome gift of a fruit and cheese plate, which the kids opened immediately, and a bottle of wine, which the adults saved for later. Our suite had a sliding glass door onto a lanai with our own private Jacuzzi and fabulous views looking onto the Pacific with a few small islands close to shore. Just outside our door and down a few steps from our suite was a Three-Toed Sloth sleeping in the crux of limbs in the top of the tree, who would take a peak at us when he heard the kids' voices.

The Parador also has a pool with swim-up bar and was a favorite with our family and the drinks (Guaro Sour) they served. Our 3-year old daughter Megan was even able to wrestle the local Crocodile, although she did have some apprehension at first that it was real. Frequently the wildlife could be seen throughout the property. Just before you enter the front door to the resort they have proudly painted “Pedro's Residence” over a drain emptying onto the front dive where a large Black Iguana lizard, Pedro, lives and can be frequently seen sunning himself right outside his front door. Our kids made us visit several times to tell him Buenos Dias, Hola Pedro or just to say hi.

The Parador sits just outside the Manuel Antonio National Park . Manuel Antonio is not very large but it is a great place to visit for the whole family. At the entrance to the park we hired a local guide named Henry (a guide that another hotel guest suggested). Henry spent over 3 hours showing us all around to see the flora and fauna on the various trails and beaches. Henry was great with our kids and knew just what kids their age level wanted to see. It turns out that Henry was a former school teacher, which explained quite bit on why he could relate to our kids so well. Henry caught a Helmet Iguana for Christopher to hold, Megan opted out of this activity; spotted Toucan's and bats and even showed us a large area of forest, bigger than our living room, which was filled with dead plants and tree's but underneath the forest soil was an Army ant nest. When Henry stepped onto the nest and stomped a little, out came the blind soldier ants to attack the intruder, Henry. Henry caught one of the inch-long Soldier Ants and showed our 7-year old son Christopher its large pinchers that it uses to attack intruders and even how it could hold a stick in between its pinchers.

Manuel Antonio had some interesting oddities, such as a raccoon that was on the beach stealing a tourist backpack right in front of us and during the day nonetheless when they would normally be sleeping. The raccoon's, it seems, have adapted to the food source and are now diurnal, awake during the day, instead of nocturnal, awake at night. At one point during our guided hike our son Christopher had picked up a small greenish brown fruit about the size of a golf ball. Henry immediately made Christopher put it back on the ground and then rinsed his hands off. It turns out he picked up a poisonous beach apple. The poisonous beach apples didn't seem to bother the Black Iguana's as they were the food of choice as they ran about the beach. At one point during our hike we came across a group of White-headed Capuchin Monkeys. We were all thrilled to see the monkeys but they were equally interested in us or at least our kids. The Capuchins came within a few feet of us above in the tree's, in front, and behind, and even came on to the ground, they had us entirely surrounded and were very curious about our kids, maybe it was their blond hair resembling their white heads. Megan was very interested in the Capuchins and had no fear of them as she reached her hand out to try and pet one of them but our guide was keeping a close eye and stopped her from reaching any further. Before we knew it we had reached the exit of the park and our time with Henry was over. After having a quick lunch with him, we departed ways and went back into the park to hang out on the beach to look for seashells and bodysurf while the Black Iguana's sunned themselves and ate the poisonous beach apples.

We were right on schedule getting back to the Parador. That day, June 16 th , was Lorrie's (my wife) birthday. Before we left for the day I arranged a surprise for her in the spa for our return. When we arrived back at the hotel I stayed at the pool with the kids while Lorrie went up to our room. When she left I contacted the spa and found out they couldn't get her in at the time I had wanted and the only time was right then. I didn't think it would be a problem as Lorrie was returning right away, at least I thought. After 15 minutes, she made it back to the pool to tell us about another surprise; the hotel had given her a huge tropical flower arrangement for her birthday. After telling us of her surprise in the room, Christopher and Megan told her of her next surprise and off she went to get wrapped in Chocolate like a giant candy bar. The kids and I spent the next hour playing in the pool and visiting the swim-up bar while the resident Osprey swooped overhead. When Lorrie returned from the spa, we each took our turn filling our nose with her chocolate infused skin. Lorrie's incredible birthday ended with a special dinner in the Parador's private candlelit dining room the hotel had arranged.

At the Parador, the local wildlife didn't let the human's take over the area too much, in fact they adapted quite well. There was a resident Osprey who frequently swooped across the pool and perched near the restaurant terrace. Mantled Howler Monkeys, Central American Squirrel Monkeys and White-Headed Capuchin monkeys could be seen at various spots on the property, never on queue or anything, always on their own schedule and doing whatever they pleased to do. The bartender said he even had to be careful of the fruit he put in the drinks because if he didn't watch close enough, the Squirrel Monkeys would come and “help themselves”. Even the Black Iguana's knew of the bartender and the delicacies he kept at the bar; at one point we watched a very large, easily over three feet long, Black Iguana walk down the stairs behind the bar and then knock over the trash can only to eat the fruit peelings that were being disposed of. The Parador Resort gave just as much respect to the wildlife as they did the humans, living harmoniously with nature; it was more or less, like a first class vacation resort for Charles Darwin and the wildlife.

Winning a trip like this will make it hard for us to go on another vacation, how else can we afford to be treated like Royalty? Thankfully my wife had cashed in some miles and upgraded us to First Class for our trip home, a First Class flight to end a First Class trip. Thank you National Geographic, Pachira Lodge, Mountain Paradise Hotel, Parador Resort, Costa Rica Tourism Board, Sansa Airlines, and Transtobella!