Week 10 – La Fortuna and Monteverde, Costa Rica
Hi everyone! I’m sat writing this in the airport as we wait for our flight to Belize. We’ve had an awesome week in Costa Rica, with volcanoes, spas, zip-lines and tree-climbing.
Today we woke up early and enjoyed a typical Costa Rican breakfast of rice and beans at our hostel. They seem to have it for every meal!
In the morning we’d booked onto a chocolate tour at a family run farm around fifteen minutes from La Fortuna. We were led around by a father-son duo, with the son acting as a guide while his father prepared us different tasters. We were shown their tropical fruit trees, and given fresh pineapple and papaya. We were also shown their sugar cane. They demonstrated how they use a manual machine to crush the cane and release the juice. We tried some of the sugar cane juice, which was sweet and refreshing, and then tried an alcohol made from it, which was very strong!
It started to rain, so we were given umbrellas to continue our tour. We were taken to see the chocolate trees. Cocoa pods are huge, and they start off red before ripening and turning yellow. The guide opened one of the pods. Inside it looked really strange. The cocoa beans were covered in a white fleshy layer. Apparently monkeys like eating this layer and then throwing the bitter beans away, so when humans started trying it they did the same thing. Think of all the potential chocolate wasted! We were each given a bean to suck on. The white fleshy part tasted quite nice, a bit like the tropical flavour of guanábana.
We were taught that chocolate trees are susceptible to a fungus that spreads really quickly. If one pod gets infected, all of the pods on the tree will be affected within 12 hours. The farm hire a man whose sole job is to walk around checking each tree four times a day and cutting off affected pods. I found one and felt like I’d saved a tree’s worth of chocolate from destruction when the guide cut it off.
After we were shown the trees, we were taken back to try some tasters. The cocoa beans are fermented for a few days and then dried out, which enhances their flavour. We tried one now, and it was bitter but recognisably chocolate flavoured. They then showed us how the beans are cracked and ground down, before being added to sugar. We tried some samples which were 10% cane sugar and 90% cocoa. It tasted so good, a bit like a rich chocolate brownie. I particularly enjoyed it because I’ve only just restarted eating chocolate after giving it up for 2017!
Finally, the guide made us all hot chocolate from their ground cocoa. There was a table full of things we could add to it – vanilla, cinnamon, sugar etc. It tasted really good.
We got back to La Fortuna in the early afternoon and rested for a couple of hours before going out for the evening. La Fortuna is a town at the base of Arenal volcano, and it has natural thermal rivers. We decided to splash out and go to experience these at one of the 5* spa resorts in the area. Tabacon Spa was doing an evening offer which included dinner and four hours in the thermal pools.
It was INCREDIBLE. The dinner was a very fancy buffet, with steaks cooked to order, a big salad bar and lots of other choices. They even had a ‘make your own ceviche’ station. Ceviche is essentially fish and seafood that is ‘cooked’ in lime juice rather than with heat. It was so good. The buffet also had an amazing dessert selection. They were all quite small so we felt justified trying out all the different things on offer!
The pools were amazing. Tabacon Spa had tried to keep the river as natural looking as possible, although they must have done some work on it to create all of the small pools and waterfalls that were there. You could enter the river at various points, which meant that everyone was quite spread out and it didn’t feel too busy. There were plants growing along the side of the pools, with lights in the greenery, and we could hear frogs in the trees nearby. The water was 38 degrees so it felt like a warm bath. We loved it.
Today we had booked onto a two volcano tour. We were lucky with the weather – so far the days we’d spent in Arenal had been cloudy and rainy for at least part of the day, whereas today was quite sunny. We were driven to the base of the Arenal volcano to begin.
Arenal volcano is a ‘young’ volcano (a mere 7500 years old), that has been dormant for 7 years following an active period of 42 years. It’s a stratovolcano, meaning it is made up of lots of layers of hardened lava and volcanic ash. Up until 1968 the volcano had been considered silent, and lots of people didn’t even realise it was a volcano, thinking it was just a mountain. The 1968 eruption buried three villages. La Fortuna was renamed from El Borio, because they considered themselves fortunate to have escaped destruction.
We started our tour by walking through the forest, around a lagoon that was formed when the 1968 lava flow cut off the course of a river. We were told not to leave the path and not to put our hands on the trees to steady ourselves, because the forest was full of deadly snakes and spiders. We were very careful after that! We walked through the forest for about an hour up an incline, until we reached the edge of the old lava-flow.
The view of the volcano was stunning, and we could see Lake Arenal in the distance. You can’t actually climb the volcano because the sides are so sandy and unstable. It’s a very typical conical shape, and you can see the paths that the lava took down the side.
After learning a bit about its history, we descended back to the base and had lunch (rice, beans and weirdly spaghetti on the side). The guide found a sloth in one of the nearby trees and trained his telescope on it so we could all see. They’re such funny animals.
In the afternoon, we drove to an area called the Arenal Observatory Lodge. It’s a privately owned nature reserve. We were taken on a walk through the forest, with stops at a waterfall which we could swim near, and a viewpoint that had a vista of Arenal volcano and the neighbouring Chato volcano. It was a nice walk, and we got to see a bit of wildlife along the way, including a hawk, a woodpecker and a coati (which is a bit like a raccoon).
The Observatory had a gorgeous view of Arenal lake, which we enjoyed before being driven to another part of the thermal river we experienced yesterday in Tabacon. This part was free to access. It was quite crowded as there was already another tour group there when we arrived. The water was still deliciously warm but the experience wasn’t quite as luxurious as our spa day! We did get to relax with a drink that they provided though, and Ben and I spotted some fireflies in the nearby bushes which was great to see.
We went out for dinner in the evening and found a place selling coconut lemonade, which is the first time we’ve found it since leaving Colombia. We basically picked the restaurant for this sole reason – not that we’re obsessed with it or anything!
This morning we checked out of our hostel and were collected in a minibus for our journey to Monteverde. On a map Monteverde and La Fortuna look quite close, but there’s a huge protected forest in between them, and by road it takes around six hours to drive from one to the other. We were advised that the best way to get to Monteverde was to take the ‘jeep-boat-jeep’ option, which shortcuts across Lake Arenal instead of having to drive around it.
When we got to the lake it was quite misty, so setting off into the unknown felt quite exciting. It cleared up as the journey continued. We were met at the other side of the lake by another fleet of minibuses to start the final leg of the journey.
The journey on this side was around two hours. At one point we stopped at a rest point that had an incredible view over Costa Rica all the way to an inlet of the Pacific Ocean. It was gorgeous.
Monteverde is a small town which became a big eco-tourism spot because it is home to the Resplendent Quetzal bird of paradise. Its main attractions are the protected Cloud Forest reserves. We’d seen a cloud forest in Ecuador when we went to Mindo, but we were excited to see one again.
We checked into our hostel, which was quite small and really welcoming. We were given leaflets for different tours and attractions. It was still only lunch time, so we decided to go straight out to enjoy the afternoon. We decided to go to see the hanging bridges in the Selvatura forest reserve. The hostel called up for us and the reserve provided a free shuttle bus.
The hanging bridges at Selvatura are a set of eight suspension bridges through the canopy of the forest. They give you a great view of the treetops and an idea of just how big the forest is. Because we’d arrived relatively late in the day we had them almost to ourselves. The longest one was around 170m long and the highest was 60m high. It was a bit nerve-wracking to look down! The entire trail was around 3.5km. We spotted a howler monkey high up in a tree, and on one of the bridges a girl pointed out a tiny snake that looked like the one we’d seen on our night tour, but otherwise we didn’t really see much wildlife. The scenery was gorgeous though.
Selvatura also had a hummingbird garden, where they’d hung up a lot of feeders full of sugar water. There were so many hummingbirds! We got to get a lot closer than we had in Mindo, Ecuador, and they also seemed to be less afraid of humans. If you put your finger near to the feeder then they would alight on it to feed. They’re very light. There were lots of different types. Most of them were green but there were also purple ones that were beautiful and almost luminescent.
Today we followed up on another of Bethan’s recommendations and went to a place called taco-taco for lunch to try fish tacos. This was one of her Costa Rica highlights apparently – and after tasting them we could see why. They were really tasty.
In the afternoon we went to a small nature reserve called the Hidden Valley. We followed their trails through the woodland. Initially we weren’t that impressed – the ‘savage brook’ turned out to be a gentle stream – but then the trees cleared and we were treated to some gorgeous views. We saw lots of colonies of leaf cutter ants and tried playing with the settings on my camera to get a good photo (we failed). We saw an agouti and a coati, and then a beautiful bird that we found out was called a blue-capped motmot. It has really gorgeous tail-feathers. The reserve also had a hammock garden so we enjoyed swinging in these too.
After we left the Hidden Valley we went to a place called the bat jungle. We’d heard good things, but were a bit put off when we got there and were told we’d have to wait because they were in the middle of something. It turns out a group had booked a private tour, so we had to sit on the steps for half an hour before we were allowed in. Still, I’m glad we did wait. The exhibit was essentially one large dark room with a glass wall, behind which were lots of different types of bats. My favourite were the hummingbats, who feed on flower nectar the same as hummingbirds. They kept darting to and from the feeders and fed while hovering. I thought they were really cool.
Today we revisited the Selvatura reserve. We started by going to the herpetarium – a reptile and amphibian exhibit. We were given a tour around their snakes, lizards and frogs. The snakes had just been fed. They get given live rats, so it was a bit sad as we saw one that had just been bitten and died as we watched. However the snakes only eat once a week and we understood that it was nature – the snakes had to eat. It was quite interesting seeing them feed because some of the snakes in particular looked far too small to fit a rat inside them. Their jaws open wider than their body, and then essentially they use their muscles to pull the food inside and towards their stomach.
Some of the snakes and frogs we saw were so camouflaged, it was no wonder we didn’t see anything when we went walking around the forest! The guide challenged us to find the red-eyed tree frog in his enclosure, and after a minute we gave up and he showed us how the frog was sleeping on the underside of a leaf. Even after he’d pointed him out he was still difficult to see. It was amazing.
We learnt about some types of poisonous frogs. We found it really interesting that the poison dart frog is only poisonous if it eats fire ants, as it somehow builds up the chemicals from these animals in its skin. They were very brightly coloured. There was one called the ‘blue jeans’ frog because it was red with blue hind legs.
After our tour finished, we went back to the reception to get kitted out for our next activity – zip-lining! Selvatura has a 15 line course that goes through the forest canopy, including a line that’s a kilometre long. Considering that Ben isn’t a fan of heights I was very impressed when he agreed to come with me. We were given a safety briefing before the first line and taught the correct position to minimise the chance of you spinning around or slowing down too far before the end. We had big gloves on so that we could brake using the line if we needed to. The guides were really funny and friendly, so they helped us to feel confident on the first line, which was a short one to get you used to it. Ben and I both really enjoyed it!
The different zip-lines were of varying length. Some of them we did individually, but a few of them we were allowed to do together. Ben would hook his feet under my arms or around my waist and then we’d travel down the line at the same time. It was great fun!
The most scary bit of the tour ended up being when one of the guides decided to hide behind a tree and push a branch out across the path as we walked past. I nearly jumped out of my skin thinking it was a snake! The zip-lines themselves were really fun, and gave us a great view of the top of the forest as we flew over it. I’d definitely do it again.
Today we had to leave Monteverde to head back to San Jose, ready for our flight to Belize in the morning. Our bus didn’t leave until the afternoon, so we decided to use the morning going to see a large Ficus tree that had been marked on our map and recommended by our hostel.
Ficus trees are really weird but awesome. The seeds are deposited via bird droppings in the branches of a tree. The roots of the Ficus then grow down towards the ground, engulfing the tree. When they reach the soil they effectively take over the root system. The original tree dies and rots away, leaving a living Ficus tree that’s completely hollow. This root structure is like a lattice, meaning they’re quite easy to climb up the inside.
When we arrived we met some people who had just climbed up to the top and back. They said that the trunk was hollow right up to the top branches, meaning you could get out and sit at the top. I decided to climb up part of the way, as towards the top there were other plants and soil inside the trunk and I got worried that I’d put my hand on a snake or a spider! It was still awesome to get up as high as I did though, and a very bizarre experience to be right inside the tree like that. It was really fun.
Our afternoon bus journey took about five hours. Luckily Ben had downloaded some podcast episodes, and I have the ability to fall asleep pretty much anywhere, so we passed the time ok!
Today was a travel day. We were travelling by plane from Costa Rica to Belize, via El Salvador. We were a bit worried about our connection because it was only 45 minutes, but we’d been assured by our travel agent that this was doable. It turns out that we didn’t need to worry at all! El Salvador is one of the smallest airports I’ve been in. As soon as we got off the plane, we walked through a door and were immediately at the boarding gate for our next flight. We didn’t even need to pass through security or anything. We were at our gate with about 40 minutes to spare.
Our plane from El Salvador to Belize was tiny. There were only about four steps up to the door, and only four seats in a row. The engines had propellers, and the wings were above the windows, rather than below as I was used to from previous flights.
We arrived in Belize City, and were a bit thrown by the fact that everyone was speaking English, their official language. It took us a while to stop saying “gracias” to everyone, which shows how quickly we’ve become accustomed to being in Spanish speaking countries! We had a quiet night at a hotel in downtown Belize.
Tomorrow we’re heading to the island of Caye Caulker, about an hour offshore. I’ll let you know in my next post what we got up to!