This is a guest post by Anglo-Italian journalist Lorenza Bacino. In August Lorenza, her husband and their two children went on a trip to Costa Rica in Central America with Hands Up Holidays. This is the third in a series of articles by Lorenza for Mums do travel about their experiences, and in this post she covers the most adventurous part of their holiday.
‘Volunteering was only a part of what we got up to in Costa Rica, albeit a most important part. We travelled around the country extensively and visited some breath-taking places. Here are some of the things that we did and saw on our travels.
‘There are so many firsts’, said Max, my 12-year-old, excitedly, after our first day in Costa Rica. He was right. Our first tropical storm, our first sloth in a tree, our first capuchin monkey in the wild, the first huge iguana in a bush and the first tropical beach! Yes, Manuel Antonio National Park has it all. Moisture slips off the trees in the rain forest, an ash-coloured mist hangs in the air, it’s unbelievably hot and humid, and unbelievably beautiful. The children fell into the warm water and gentle waves on the idyllic beach at the end of a hot walk through the canopy. Turkey vultures flew overhead and the rainforest surrounded us, enveloping us in its heat and moisture.
Raccoons scoured the beach for touristy tit-bits, and white-faced monkeys lounged in the trees, to the delight of onlookers. You could hear the howler monkeys in the distance. Visitor numbers are restricted here due to the delicate nature of the wildlife, and the beaches within this nature reserve are veritable jewels.
It’s a perfect place for families, with pristine white sand and soft waves. We thought it was a bit ‘Robinson Crusoe’ and wondered how nice it would be to be stranded just a while.
Monteverde Cloud Forest
From Manuel Antonio, it’s a four-hour drive to the Cloud Forest of Santa Elena and Monteverde. But, on the whole, roads are good in Costa Rica, and our lovely driver, Edgar knows the country like the back of his hand. He’s also pretty good at spotting interesting birds and wildlife, which are never more than a stone’s throw away here. We took up the toucan challenge and scoured the skies trying to spot one, with its huge beak and funny wavy flying style. Edgar won the bet, of course, and he was always pulling over and encouraging us to check his bird bible to find out what exactly we’d spotted in the trees.
Selvatura National Park in the Santa Elena reserve was wetter than wet on the day we arrived. But nothing was going to stop us zip wiring three km across 17 zip wires through the canopies. Well, I wavered to be honest, but the children were undeterred and so we soldiered on through the squelching paths of the cloud forest to the zip wire platforms.
There are helpers on hand at every platform to make sure you’re secured safely, mercifully, as I felt incredibly nervous. But it was thoroughly exhilarating – and a touch disconcerting – to see the children disappear into the swirling mist when I had no idea where the end of the line might be!
The final zip wire at Selvatura Park is one km long, and we set off in pairs. I went down with my husband, blinded by the rain and cloud, yelling louder than a howler monkey all the way. An unforgettable and thrilling experience, we all agreed.
Edgar drove us through fields of pineapple, papaya, and plantains on our way to the Arenal volcano area. Hawks and turkey vultures soared overhead. The town of Fortuna was quiet on this Sunday morning. We arrived at the Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridges Park for our ‘hanging bridges’ walk. You get great views of the Arenal volcano from the terrace here, cloud permitting. And what a wonderful, albeit hair-raising, way to experience the cloud forest this is. The children loved every minute, deftly negotiating the wobbly bridges, high above the trees. Max was amazed by the ‘great variety of wildlife round every corner.’ He even spied a tarantula in its hideaway en route. The sound of the cicadas ebbed and flowed over the canopy, almost deafening at times. Monkeys, frogs and myriad bird life exploded in the trees and gorgeous waterfalls are accessible by taking little side paths. Orchids, plants and fungi thrive and grow on top of each other here, it’s so wet and humid – and on we squelched through this impossibly soggy and utterly fascinating environment.
Arenal volcano walk
We experienced a different microclimate yet again, as Edgar walked us through the Arenal volcano park to the foot of the volcano itself. Although no longer active, a warning sign tells you that you are entering at your own risk here. The walk itself isn’t hard, and you’re only allowed as far as the last lava flow, which dates from 1997. There you stop, admire the volcano in front and the lake behind, and just take a break from all the beauty. There are longer hikes you can do if you have more time to spend here.
The Nayara Resort where we stayed whilst in the area offered a complimentary morning yoga session, which I gladly took up, thinking what an extraordinarily beautiful place to do yoga. The session took place on a platform jutting out into the surrounding forest, but I found it hard to concentrate on my downward dog whilst there were so many colourful humming birds and butterflies in the trees, constantly vying for my attention.
Tortuguero National Park is on the Caribbean coast, and only accessible by boat (or small plane). As the name suggests, this is where you can see nesting turtles especially in the months of July and August. It’s also one of the wettest spots in the country and one of the most interesting and unusual. There’s a river on one side, which is the way into Tortuguero by boat. You can’t swim in the river, because of the caimans. On the other side of this narrow stretch of land is the Caribbean Sea. You’re advised to avoid swimming there too, as it’s full of sharks! Needless to say, most people stick to the pools in the lodges, which are super nice anyway.
This is an extraordinary environment with fresh water meeting salt water. We took a small boat for a river cruise (most lodges have them) and we saw an abundance of wildlife including monkeys, birds, Jesus Christ lizards and caimans. The ecosystem here is very delicate, and so park entry, river cruises, and turtle tours are strictly regulated. Tortuguero was declared a national park in 1975 to protect the turtles and the surrounding 190 sq km include dense tropical rainforest, mangrove swamps, lagoons and canals.
Our night turtle visit was one of the most moving experiences of our Costa Rican adventure. Under the cover of darkness we were lucky enough to witness a huge turtle lumbering up the beach to her chosen spot. We knelt in the sand, in a semi-circle, and watched transfixed and silent as this huge majestic animal began to lay her batch of eggs into the nest she’d prepared in the sand. And silently we followed the return to the waves of another turtle who’d finished her job and who was heading back out to sea, leaving her eggs hopefully camouflaged and safe from predators.
This was an outstanding experience for all the family. The children said that the zip wire was ‘an amazing experience we’ll never forget’, and on the turtle night nesting tour Bella said ‘I loved watching the turtles, especially the one laying her eggs and how we didn’t disturb her, because it was a dream type thing’.
We loved the beauty of Costa Rica, the fact that eco-tourism is really important and how volunteering is encouraged as a way of protecting native wildlife. The tropical beaches are to die for and the forests are sublime. There is something for all the family here.’
Lorenza’s family trip was organised by Hands up Holidays which specialises in ‘voluntourism’. Hands up Holidays can tailor-make your trip according to your needs and travel requirements and all trips include an element of volunteering in the countries you visit, depending on your skills and interests.
You can read more about Lorenza’s trip in her previous posts:
Lorenza’s final post about this trip will be coming soon.
Disclosure: Lorenza’s family trip was organised by Hands Up Holidays with the support of the Costa Rica Tourist Board.