Beautiful beaches. Fiery volcanoes. Lush rainforests. Fascinating wildlife. Spectacular surf. Superb snorkeling. Friendly locals. The Guanacaste region of northwest Costa Rica truly has it all, and when my family arrived I was determined to give them a real taste of the region. For two weeks we criss-crossed the area doing all the big touristy activities, while ensuring we strayed from the normal path from time to time. No matter where we were or what we did Mother Nature held us enthralled. From the heavenly hot springs of Volcan Arenal to the gregarious raccoons at the Hotel Ocotal, all was vivid and fun.
Some days we strayed far from the hotel and others we never made it past the pool or the decks of Avventura anchored close by. Other days we rambled around the region by rental car, visiting secluded beaches and going on the obligatory Canopy Tour. Perhaps the most unique day of all was our guided tour to Volcan Arenal. The long drive inland cut through vast expanses of open land, various crop fields, and finally climbed into the mountains of the interior. As we sped around Lago Arenal the volcano dominated the scene, rising like a perfect cone above the far side of the lake, and piercing the overcast sky. We paid a visit to the tourist attraction of the hot springs at its base where steamy waterfalls plunged through a picturesque setting of pristine rainforest. Deep in the myriad streams of hot springs the forest closed in around you and the sounds of nature dominated. Birds chirping, the stray monkey howling, and the steady trickle of water rushing onwards set your mind and body at rest and a blissful feeling came over you. The hot springs remain one of the most picturesque places I’ve ever visited.
As night fell we had a delicious buffet dinner at a restaurant beside the hot springs with an unobstructed view of the volcano in the distance. Towards the end of our meal nature’s display began as balls of fiery lava tumbled down the black sides of the volcano and broke apart into little specks and trails of orange. Each new ball of fire brought oohs and aahs from the diners and only added to the atmosphere of the place. After dinner we drove around to a side of the volcano with an unobstructed view of its face, pulled off to the side of the road, and watched as great balls of fire plummeted to their death and broke apart in an awe-inspiring death agony. Standing outside, the cold air of the high altitude sent chills down my body and I thrilled in the beauty of the scene. A swath of stars spread out over our heads as I stood beside my family watching another of nature’s spectacular displays. Before long the cold was too much to bear and we returned to the heat of the van and began the long trek back to our hotel. The tour was well worth it and gave me a glimpse of the Costa Rican interior I otherwise would’ve missed.
On a sun-filled morning, the first beautiful start to a day since my family had arrived, we packed a cooler full of lunches, bought some bottled waters, and set off in search of a nice beach. There was some swell in the water so we headed first for Tamarindo hoping to find some fun waves. Unfortunately there is no direct road to Tamarindo, and after heading inland for thirty minutes the skies clouded over and it started to rain. By the time we arrived at the beach a half hour later the rain was coming down harder than ever. The surf was out-of-control, but there was some nice shorebreak; and not one to miss an opportunity to catch a couple waves, my dad and I were quickly stripped down to our trunks and sprinting across the hard sand into the water. My sisters soon joined us, and we thrilled in the wild elements. Rain slashed our faces as we treaded water, the ocean warm but the rain cold kept us immersed most of the time, and the few waves that came through we rode in together, laughing and having a good time. When we emerged from the water a break in the rain allowed us to walk the beach as we dried off, and things were looking better. Who says rainy season is a bad time to visit Costa Rica?
Then came the drive back to the hotel. Not wanting to retrace our steps, we paid a visit to Playa Flamingo where my father and I had bodysurfed on our visit a few years earlier aboard the Atair. Here the shorebreak was considerably bigger and my dad and I delighted in the poundings we received as the rain slowed to a steady drizzle. Leaving the beach, we stopped for lunch at the poolside palapa restaurant of the Marina Flamingo Hotel (where on the Atair trip dad, Bo Harding, and I had brought Klaus for dinner knowing it was two-for-one Mexican food night and Klaus hated Mexican food), The Monkey Bar and on our way out asked a lady at the front desk if the road between here and Playa del Coco connected. She said it did, and implied it would be the quicker route to take. Thus with just an hour left before sunset and not wanting to remain on the wet roads at night, we set off on the new route home. Big mistake. Before long the pavement ended and the dirt road turned into a muddy slushy disaster. Our full-sized van didn’t even have four-wheel drive, and the wheels began spinning freely at one point as we attempted to climb a steep hill. We reached a plateau halfway up where a few cars were pulled over on the side of the road. One man was waving at us to stop, and when we did so he told us, in Spanish I only partially understood, to turn back, “the road is slippery like soap ahead.” With that he got back in his car, turned around, and began a slow descent of the muddy hill. Dad followed close on his heels, hoping to gain traction by staying in his tracks, but before long the Tico was out of sight, driving like a maniac and clearly used to these conditions. In the end we made it back to the main road and determined to avoid all further “short cuts” in Costa Rica—especially during the rainy season.
Often times a vacation is made great not by the big things you do but by the combination and accumulation of innumerable little things and brief moments of joy. Such was never more the case than in Guanacaste. Here the simple pleasures of drinking a couple beers on the grassy area before my parents’ hotel room and watching the resident raccoons play were enough for me. A short sail to a remote snorkeling spot was more than enough to turn a normal say into a spectacular one; and a daysail across the Gulf of Papagayo to the gorgeous anchorage at Bahia Portrero Grande where my dad was able to catch a wave at famous Ollie’s Point made for some lasting memories. Whether it be one of our many visits to a nameless beach, surfing behind the dinghy at Playa Panama, dinner at a restaurant where the main job of the busboy was to keep the wildlife off the tables, or simply sitting by the pool watching a troop of monkeys play in the trees—life was good in Costa Rica. Always and everywhere the pura vida spirit reigned supreme. Despite the days of bad weather and numerous days of seeming inactivity, in the end I think we parted ways thrilled at what was a fantastic vacation for everyone involved. It was with much sadness that, on the morning of June 15 I said good-bye to my family one last time. They were bound for home via the airport while my voyage had only just begun.