Loud as foghorns, the braying of howler monkeys erupted from the jungle to the right of our pontoon boat. Our eyes whipped across the verdant rainforest jungle. Something moved in the thick verdant wall of trees and vines along the riverbank. Five yards above the dark green river, half a dozen primates were stripping leaves from branches. A baby monkey stretched thin arms and legs around its mother as she leaped between trees. I was experiencing Costa Rica’s Pura Vida.
“Pure life” is the literal translation of Pura Vida, which in Costa Rica is a standard greeting, an informal national slogan, and a reminder to enjoy tranquility and nature. My wife and I had chosen to visit Costa Rica because we had read that it is a premier location for ecotourism and nature tourism. Would the country meet my high expectations?
Spotting Wildlife Along The Rivers
Costa Rica delivers. Chances of seeing wildlife are high, especially along its vivacious waterways. Only the blind won’t spot wildlife, but they would still thrill to the caiman’s throaty growl echoing across a watercourse, feel the invigorating moist fogs wafting through cloud forests, and smell the rain falling through the jungle.
According to the United Nations Development Program, Costa Rica, smaller than West Virginia, harbors 4% of the world’s biodiversity. Citizens and government officials across Costa Rica are promoting ecotourism and nature tourism. That is what attracted my wife and me to Alajuela Province, where we chose river tours.
Balsa River Rafting Trip
Costa Rica Descents’ tour bus picked us up in the morning. We chatted with Argentines, Mexicans, Germans, Swiss, Costa Ricans, and others. Arriving at a muddy plain, all of us walked through puddles and a stream until we came to a mighty river of churning white water. Lime-green rubber rafts and tanned, burly guides waited for us on big rocks next to the Balsa River.
Our no-nonsense Costa Rican guide first warned us about the dangers of smashing into rocks and drowning. Second, he checked that we were correctly wearing our helmets and life vests. Then, he instructed us how to paddle and how to respond to various commands.
Finally, we pushed the raft into the water, jumped aboard, and paddled. The river moved our raft like a drifting leaf. The gentle stretch disappeared in an instant. The muscular river lifted, twisted, and bounced us over and around midstream rocks. Our raft spun in a circle. Water flew into our faces. We jammed our feet into foot braces. Over the roar of the river, our guide barked commands, and we obeyed. As a result, we safely passed through the gauntlet of the first falls.
Costa Rica teems with biomass, and the rivers are the veins of all that life. The river pulsed. It shot us downward. Then, we cruised slowly enough to look at the green forest canopies, to listen to our guide’s tales, and to jump into the river and drift with the raft.
Halfway through the journey, all the rafts pulled onto a bank. Guides turned over one raft. It became a table. We feasted on locally grown juicy pineapples and sweet watermelon. Large brown cows ambled over. I joyfully handed watermelon rinds to the bold cows and tossed others to the shy ones.
Then, we returned to the water and more adrenaline-pumping river exploration. But now we more confident. Too soon, the river made a broad curve. I saw the bus. The bus driver waved to us. Before boarding, I took a last look around. On the opposite bank, a thin waterfall plunged into the river. Wild banana plants laden with fruit bent downward. I heard a hawk screech and saw it circle above the canopy.
On the return journey, we enjoyed a buffet lunch on the grounds of an organic farm managed by Costa Rica Descents. Touring the grounds, we saw football-like cacao pods growing from cacao trees, fields of sugar plants, and plots of medicinal herbs. Our guide taught us how local farmers produce sugar, and he served us shots of fiery home-fermented tequila-like Costa Rican alcohol.
Cano Negro Pontoon Boat Tour
In contrast to river rafting in Costa Rica, a pontoon tour moves at a slow pace, providing more to hear, see, smell, and feel the environment. To allow guests better opportunities to see nature, the boat captain moved forward, backed up, zigzagged, and brought the boat to the river’s edge. Our guide was a professional naturalist who quickly identified wildlife and told us where to look.
From our boat, we cruised near howler monkeys, spider monkeys, and white-faced capuchin. We also saw a caiman, iguanas, sloths, tarantulas, basilisks, vultures, hawks, toucan, and more.
Early that morning, Canoa Adventura’s van picked us up and drove north toward the border of Nicaragua. The Cano Negro is a wildlife refuge of wetlands that harbor endangered plant and animal species. The tour is a full-day trip from the town of La Fortuna. The route passes through small villages and large swaths of parkland.
Vultures eating roadkill in the middle of one road forced the bus to wait. That was okay with everyone. I have never seen more bird species than I did along the route to Canon Negro. Lunch at a quiet riverside restaurant was pleasant. Multicolored butterflies flew around red and orange flowers growing near outdoor tables. We returned to our hotel in the evening feeling utterly satisfied with the entire day.
What to Do
Visitors can select from a broad range of relaxing or stimulating river, lake, and sea activities almost anywhere in Costa Rica. Besides rafting and pontoon tours, horseback riding, zip-lining, canoeing, canyoning, and other exciting adventures await you. For those who love the slow life, visits to coffee and chocolate farms might be suitable activities. Don’t forget soaking in the numerous hot springs of Costa Rica.
Where to Stay
An abundance of choices ranging from cheap guesthouses to luxury hotels makes deciding where to stay a fantastic conundrum.
We booked rooms at the tiny (only seven rooms) Roca Negra Inn, a hotel with a bird sanctuary. Lying in a hammock on the front balcony, we peered through ferns, fruit-filled banana trees, and colorful hanging orchids to the cloudy top of cone-shaped volcanic Mt. Arenal. Hummingbirds, toucan, and dozens of other birds and multitudes of butterflies chattered, flew or fed on fruit and flowers near us. Located a few kilometers from the quaint town of La Fortuna, we enjoyed peaceful solitude at the inn while being near restaurants, galleries, cafes, and tour agencies.
Finding and Booking Tours
Probably all hotels in La Fortuna assist guests with booking tours. Arriving in La Fortuna in early August, the start of the low season, we bargained at tour agencies and received substantial discounts. Prices vary depending upon the season.
Deciding When to Go
We arrived in early August at the start of the slow season. Tourist numbers plunge because the rainy season starts in August. Early August rains, though, are not so heavy. Our guides told us that long lines and noisy crowds disturb animals and detract from the natural beauty during peak season. The beginning of the low season turned out to be a wonderful time to enjoy Costa Rica’s Pura Vida.