Bite Size Destination Throwback: Costa Rica 2006

This week makes a full 15 years since my first visit to the natural playground that is Costa Rica. Though that trip came at a very difficult time in my life, the mind-blowing beauty of this Central American gem somehow kept most of my attention. The lush rain forest, impressive volcanoes and pervasive scent of flowers are as good a natural remedy for depression as the world can offer, and in my much improved state of mind, looking back is more pleasure than pain

Destination: Costa Rica

Year: 2006

Tabacon Hot Springs, Costa Rica

What Brought Me There

Needing a warm weather escape after a tragedy at home, Costa Rica drew my attention for its proximity, its reputation as a safe destination in an otherwise dicey region of the world, and let’s face it: the abundance of soft adventure opportunities on offer. Nothing like going off to play in paradise to get one’s juices flowing.

What I Loved

Arenal Volcano, Costa Rica

Upon landing in Costa Rica, I felt as if I were in one big, giant, natural theme park – each with its own geological attractions. My highlights were all under the shadow of the massive Arenal volcano. I went rappelling for the first time in a nearby canyon, took my lumps on the roughest whitewater rafting trip I’ve encountered to date, and spent a glorious day soaking in the paradise-like waters of Tabacon Hot Springs.

This is not to say that the rest of the country was a bust. Carrera National Park was a trove of wildlife encounters, and despite my negative headspace at the time, the wild Nicoya Peninsula was just as pretty as advertised.

What I Would Do If I Went Back

Technically I have returned since that first trip, but that was just one day off a cruise ship spent at popular Manuel Antonio National Park. If I could go back I wouldn’t mind seeing the Monteverde Cloud Forest, the beaches of the Guanacaste, and if money were no option, the feather in any diver’s cap: Cocos Island.

Have you been to Costa Rica? Share your favorite moment in the comments below. And if you want a great Costa Rica souvenir, check out the Costa Rica Rugged Country Code Tee in the Custom Travel Art Shop.

An Apology to the 14 Countries I’ve Visited More Than Once Without Doing Them Justice

I’d like to start by apologizing to Mexico. I know it is a country with a rich cultural background, amazing natural scenery, and world-class architecture. It’s just that in the five times that I’ve been there, it was never my intended destination. I don’t mean that in a ‘kidnapped-and-left-for-dead-in-the-Sonoran-Desert’ sort of way. It’s just that my visits (3 times to Tijuana as a day trip from California + two stops in Cozumel via cruise ship where I literally spent 80% of my time underwater) were never about Mexico and I kind of feel bad about that. It also got me thinking about the other 13 countries where I’ve “visited” more than once and haven’t always given them the attention they deserve. So Mexico, and you other countries I’ve neglected, this one’s for you.

Germany

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Castles aplenty in the Rhine Valley, Germany

The first time I visited Germany it was for a few days on my whirlwind honeymoon road trip through Europe. Staying near the famous Neuschwanstein Castle, my visit was certainly deliberate. My return however was a matter of chance. My Lufthansa flight on my way to Zimbabwe had a ten hour layover in Frankfurt, giving me just enough time to rent a car, overcome some terrible directions and taste the flavor of the stunning Rhine Valley (for more on this adventure see the post The Rhine Valley Has All You Need, Unless You Need Directions). I know I haven’t truly gotten to explore this beautiful country as much as it deserves but am open to someday doing so.

Japan

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The neon glitter of Ginza, Tokyo

Few cultures are as dominant and distinct in Asia as Japan. My first trip there – a few day layover after a visit to China – got me to Tokyo, Mt. Fuji and of course, Disneyland. I happened to pass through a year to the day later, this time on my way to Thailand, but did little more than explore Narita Airport and try to get comfy on the floor while waiting for my continuing flight. My apologies to you as well, Nippon. I know you deserve better. Maybe next time…

Spain

This one-time seat of empire boasts far more World Heritage Sites than my own U.S.A. but other than a three day layover to explore the museums and plazas of Madrid on my first visit, my second visit was limited to traversing (with much grumbling I might add) the entire breadth of Barajas Airport for my connecting Iberian Airlines flight, which was inconveniently parked somewhere near the border with France. I know Spain deserves further time and exploration to it justice. Next time I just hope they park the plane a little closer.

South Africa

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Members of the infamous Big 5, Timbavati Reserve, South Africa

My first visit to South Africa was a delightful week in 2009 where we explored the northeast’s animal reserves and traveled the awe-inspiring Panorama Route. My second time didn’t take me to any such places. Instead, I was connecting for my flight to Harare in Johannesburg’s massive airport, shopping at the same airport shops as I did 5 years earlier. Amazingly, it was all the same stuff. Next time Cape Town is calling, even if the souvenirs are the same.

Costa Rica

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Tabacon Hot Springs, Costa Rica

While my trip of 2006 was exclusively to this Central American jewel, my return was for just one day when my cruise ship docked at the shady Pacific town of Puntarenas. At least this time I was able to see something else, taking our rental car down to Quepos and the idyllic Manuel Antonio National Park. It wasn’t the two weeks in the jungle I would love to do, but at least it was better than nothing.

Jamaica

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Dunn’s River Falls, Jamaica

 
My first trip to Jamaica was on a FAM (familiarization trip) trip through Sandals resorts. For $50 agents were flown down from a snowy NY to Montego Bay, so as to experience firsthand a Sandals Resort before being flown back home later that afternoon. I took the occasion to lose my group, sit at the bar, eat like a pig, drink like a fish and nap on the beach before it was time to go home. I’m proud to say that my second visit- this time via cruise ship – allowed me even more time to visit amazing Dunn’s River Falls and drift the White River before I was again compelled to leave the country after less than 24 hours. One of these days I’ll stay longer Jamaica – I promise.

As for you, Italy, Canada, Puerto Rico, the Bahamas, US Virgin Islands, Greece & Vatican City, I’ve had my reasons for coming and going and was not disappointed by my experiences there. Keep an eye out for me, as I just may return. And to you Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong, get ready for my return in November 2016. I will try to do you justice, but just in case, I apologize to you in advance, as I have for these countries here.


Have you traveled to the same country more than once – perhaps just passing through? Share your thoughts by commenting below.

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Pura Vida in Costa Rica

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Colorful Costa Rica

If nature opened an amusement park I know exactly where it would be. Just before the North American continent tapers down to the narrow isthmus that is Panama, lies the jewel of Central America: Costa Rica. Translated, pura vida means: Pure life, which aside from being the national motto, aptly describes the philosophy of this tropical country that is nearly the size of the entire state of West Virginia.

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Paradise Found at Tabacon Hot Springs

Arriving at the outskirts of the capital San Jose, it became readily apparent that my theme park analogy wasn’t all that off the mark. On the plane and on line through customs, conversations with my fellow arrivals had them heading off to various corners of the country as if they were different sections of an amusement park: Steamy Tortuguero, the beaches of arid Guanacaste, and the lush mountains of Monteverde and Arenal. The latter was my first stop, and after an adventurous three hour drive spent leapfrogging slow-moving vehicles around impossibly curving roads, our party arrived at the tourist hub of La Fortuna. The town itself is hardly an attraction. Rather it is its location alongside the imposing Arenal volcano that places it on the tourism map. Dominating the landscape and visitors’ itineraries, this volcano is no sleeping giant. It is and has been continuously active for some time. In fact, a highlight of my visit was standing outside our rental car at night on the far side of the mountain and watching spurts of glowing red appear and dissolve in the darkness. It is, admittedly, a bit disconcerting when every so often a rumble reverberates through the jungle, but somehow visions of Pompeii are little deterrent to nature lovers the world over who come to see Costa Rica’s biological bonanza up close and personal.

Though my itinerary was filled with active interests such as rappelling down a jungle gorge and rafting the wild whitewater of the Rio Toro, it was our time spent relaxing at Tabacon Hot Springs that made the greatest impression. Situated west of town and at the base of the northern slope of the Arenal volcano, this highly-manicured collection of natural hot springs and secluded man-made pools convey a sense of Eden—especially for those who splurge on the pricey spa treatments available. Soaking in the sometimes scalding water, once again the theme park analogy popped into my head, with the names Relaxland and Paradiseland the frontrunners for its moniker. And just like a theme park, when the sun went down and the brilliant colors of hanging heliconia plants faded in the dusk, the discreet lighting around the cascading pools emitted an ambiance of an all-natural Disney World. Pura vida indeed.

With the adrenaline still fresh in our systems, our party set off to immerse ourselves in the abundant wildlife to be found, and our destination of choice was Carara National Park—a swath of rainforest hugging the picturesque Pacific Coast. To our delight the encounters started even before we arrived. Crossing the TarcolesRiver, we were greeted by the sight of clusters of crocodiles ranging from 4 to 12 feet long lazing along the banks of the muddy water. At the park entrance we opted to hire a naturalist guide, and in hindsight this was the best decision we made the entire trip. Had we not done so, I’m convinced that we would have missed 90% of the things we saw, from an adorable family of capuchin monkeys to dozens of birds to a vividly-colored poison arrow frog.

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Zip-lining near Montezuma

After all that activity we found it necessary once again to rest, and for that we headed to the laid-back, somewhat Bohemian beach town of Montezuma, located at the tip of the unspoiled semi-arid Nicoya Peninsula. Pura Vida echoed in my head every morning as I awoke to the sound of raging surf and playful monkeys clambering through the trees outside my window. Popular with surfers, the Nicoya Peninsula is more than just a great place to catch some waves. A half hour hike brought us to magnificent MontezumaFalls and its refreshing pools. The next day I got to see them from an entirely different perspective while on one of the many canopy tours available, though ‘tour’ is hardly the right word since the entire experience involves zip-lining across stretches of the upper levels of the rainforest. There is truly very little to compare with the experience of soaring from treetop to treetop on a cable several stories off the ground while watching the menagerie of the jungle whir past your feet. Let’s see a theme park beat that.

As with all good things, my time in Costa Rica eventually came to an end. I had come to taste the pure life, and found that the taste was indeed as sweet as advertised. And as the plane lifted high above the green mountains and steaming volcanoes I mused that Costa Rica was one theme park that was certainly worth the price of admission.