Scuba Diving and a Wild World of Topside Adventures
by Ken Knezick, Island Dreams Travel
Costa Rica is a diminutive country in area, commensurate in size to West Virginia. Its total population is just five million. Yet the country is immensely rich in nature, with coastlines on both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, twelve different forest habitats, and a cornucopia of flora and fauna. In Costa Rica you will find a wide-array of National parks encompassing volcanic mountains, various verdant jungle terrains, and marine preserves on both coasts. Spanish and English are widely spoken in this the most politically stable country in Central America.
There are five active volcanoes, and a wealth of jungle, canyons and rivers to provide adventure tourism for people of all ages, interests, and physical abilities. Something as seemingly simple as a hike into the rainforest with a trained guide and naturalist is an overwhelming experience, with exotic birds, butterflies, insects, colorful flowering plants, multiple species of monkeys, and natural beauty flourishing on all sides. Rappelling down a waterfall, or white water rafting run down Class III and IV rapids, will provide heart-pumping excitement not soon to be forgotten.
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The purpose of this report, compiled on a recent visit, is to encourage you to experience Costa Rica for yourself. The reportage focuses on scuba diving and other outdoor activities, to be experienced in different provinces of the country. Should this capture your interest, Island Dreams will assist you to customize your own Costa Rican adventure. Pricing for the tour described in this report may be found here: Bill Beard's Costa Rica. As my initial flight was into Liberia, that is where we will begin. Enjoy the journey! Ken Knezick - Island Dreams
GUANACASTE -- Encompassing 400 miles of Pacific coastline in northwestern Costa Rica, the Province of Guanacaste is known for its beaches and biodiversity. It offers surfing, scuba diving, and various classes of jungle touring. Easily accessed via international flights into Liberia, it is a short transfer to your lodging, with access to a wealth of outdoor activities and at least one dozen different national parks and nature preserves. Rather than coral, Costa Rica's Pacific beaches are predominantly composed of fine volcanic sand, dark in color. There is great swimming, and the dark-tinted sand is very comfortable underfoot.
BOSQUE del MAR Bosque (Jungle of the Sea) Hotel, Playa Hermosa, Guanacaste -- This upscale, family-oriented, boutique resort feels like luxury living within the tropical jungle. Centuries-old Ceiba trees, covered in lush broad leaf vines, tower over the main building which houses a spacious open air bar and restaurant. The immaculately maintained fresh water swimming pool is surrounded by all manner of flora and visited by birds and iguanas. Room-styles include ocean front and garden view suites. Here you will awake to tropical bird calls, and be lulled to sleep by the sound of gentle surf. Overall, Bosque del Mar provides a delightfully peaceful and enjoyable guest experience with a high level of service.
CROSSING the CONTINENTAL DIVIDE -- The three-hour drive from Guanacaste to Arenal Volcano National Park is part of the adventure, thought-provoking and fully enjoyable. It includes a transit of the Continental Divide and moves from what is considered dry tropical forest into a true rain forest environment. Along the way you will see some of Costa Rica's array of electrical generating windmills, and parts of the hydro generation facilities. Passing through a few quaint small towns, the entire route is bracketed in green - ancient trees, banana plantations, fields of pineapple or sugar cane, and always flowering plants of all kinds.
HOTEL ARENAL KIORO -- This superb, contemporary, four-star property was our base of operations in Arenal. The rooms are exceptionally spacious, with a perfect view of the volcano, including while lying in bed, or soaking in the in-room hot tub! Bird-watching is great on the property, and can even be enjoyed while taking breakfast in the hotel restaurant. Property amenities include an attractive swimming pool, spa, and its own natural hot springs. Three or four nights here, to enjoy the broad array of surrounding hot springs, nature, and adventure experiences, is truly a delight.
GARDEN of EDEN -- Strolling through the 27-acre grounds of Hotel Arenal Kioro was like visiting the Garden of Eden, albeit on perfectly manicured pathways winding through a riot of flowering plants populated by exotic tropical birds, butterflies, and moths beyond counting. A casual walk from lodging room to the restaurant is a delightful meeting with nature. You will be glad to know that, though I looked very carefully, I did not see a snake with an apple.
TABACON HOT SPRINGS -- No trip to Costa Rica and Arenal would be complete without a visit to the Tabacon Hot Springs, a place truly unique in the world. These completely natural thermal springs originate in geothermal activity from the Arenal Volcano. At the Tabacon Grand Spa Thermal Resort, the mineral waters have been groomed into a natural setting of multiple, interconnecting pools. Visitors enjoy easy access to spring waters of various temperatures, lushly landscaped soaking pools, and mini waterfalls. The modern bath house, locker room, pool bar, and lovely restaurant make this a truly memorable day or evening experience. Do not miss it.
COSTA RICA WILDLIFE -- Costa Rica is host to so many unusual and colorful species that even casual birders will be in avian heaven. Special sightings on this trip were the blue-crowned motmot, white-throated maggie jay, wild toucan fly-bys, scarlet-rumped tanager, Baltimore oriole, rufous-naped wren, yellow fly catchers, and the national bird, the clay-colored thrush. Animals we encountered in the wild include howler monkeys, white-faced monkeys, a very unusual variegated squirrel, and even a three-toed sloth.
DOES it RAIN in the RAINFOREST? -- Yes. That is why it is so green, beautiful, and rich with life of all sorts. Generally the rain comes in the afternoon and need not impact on your outdoor activities. Simply bring good walking shoes and a lightweight rain jacket. There is so much to enjoy.
EXPERT GUIDES -- As a scuba diving tour guide of 35-years' experience myself, I was particularly impressed with the quality of the various guides we encountered in Costa Rica. All proved to be very professional, immensely knowledgeable, and amiable ambassadors for their country. The nature guides have equal parts of knowledge and love for the creatures they study. They can literally "talk to the animals," faithfully reproducing the calls of birds and monkeys. The adventure guides, who took us zip-lining, rappelling, and white-water rafting, were equally skilled and very athletic young people who took great pride in making such grand adventures accessible to their guests. Whether soaring through the jungle canopy, or careening down Class IV river rapids, we always knew we were in the best of hands. Just be sure you work with professionals who are licensed and certified by the National Bureau of Tourism.
FINE DINING in COSTA RICA -- Of course a good adventure is not just tromping around in the bush. We enjoyed wide-ranging menus that included both local and international specialties, plus all-too-tempting homemade desserts. Options include beef, chicken, pasta, and excellent local seafood. Green salads and wonderful fruits are always available. Many places also feature traditional Costa Rican cuisine with gallo pinto beans, chicken or beef and rice casado, corn tortillas, fried plantain, salad, and an awesome hot sauce made with Panamanian chili peppers. Vegetarian diets are also accounted for. Coffee lovers will appreciate partaking of famous Costa Rican coffee roasted and ground at its source. All-in-all, it is easy to eat well, and healthily, in Costa Rica, though meal prices may seem a tad high relative to other Central American countries.
A WORD ABOUT MONEY -- As a wide-ranging traveler, I've learned to be very careful aboout money, currency exchange, and credit cards in remote places. Costa Rica, however, is an exception. Generally there is no need to purchase Costa Rican Colones in advance. In most cases you can pay in US dollars and receive change in Colon. Refreshingly, this is a country where may also safely pay visa credit card.
TWO SEASONS, NO WINTER -- As close as it is to the Equator, Costa Rica really has no winter. Average temperatures over the year range comfortably from 71-82 degrees Fahrenheit. Rather than summer and winter, there are two predominant seasons, wet and dry. Wet Season, called Green Season for the lush jungle foliage it engenders, is May through November, with the wettest months being September and October. Green Season is also the warmer time of the year in Costa Rica. Dry Season, which is High (Price) Season for tourism, runs December through April. Temperatures are a tad cooler then, and it may occasionally be windy. During dry season the jungle will seem bare as the deciduous trees have dropped their leaves. The Guanacaste region, on the Pacific Ocean coast, has a relatively drier climate. The parts of the country east of the Continental Divide, including Arenal, tend to get more rain.
The SCUBA DIVING -- There are three distinctly different Pacific Ocean diving areas in Costa Rica.
- Cocos Island - Most famous is Cocos Island, which is an open-ocean island a 30-hour liveaboard boat ride west from the coastal city of Puntarenas. Cocos is known for diving with hordes of reef sharks, manta rays, and schooling hammerheads. It's a must-do destination for those seeking big animal adventure, and who can tolerate the long boat ride.
- Caño Island - The Caño region is on the southern part of Costa Rica's Pacific Coast and much closer inshore. The diving there can have many of the components of Cocos diving, without the excessive boat travel. In addition to great diving, it also allows for onshore excursions to various national parks and wildlife areas. Island Dreams has a group tour to Caño Island in April 2018. Find the details here: Island Dreams' Group Tours
- Guanacaste and Ocotal - Located on Costa Rica's northern Pacific coast, the protected bays around Playa Ocotal, Playa Coco, and Playa Hermosa have interesting diving just offshore, plus the potential of big animal encounters and large schools of pelagic fish a bit farther offshore at the Bat Islands (Islas Murciélagos). The following paragraph describes the diving in this area.
Scuba diving on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica is much different from both Caribbean and Indo-Pacific diving. For some portions of the year, the water is colder than that required for hard coral growth. Thus the diving is mostly around large rock formations, some with a smattering of soft coral growth. So rather than coral, the attraction is the substantial fish population. On this visit, diving from Playa Ocotal, we enjoyed large schools of butterfly fish and sergeant majors in the thousands. The rock tops were populated with guinea-fowl puffer fish, trumpet fish, small snapper, and beautiful Cortez angelfish. A variety of moray eel species inhabit the cracks. We encountered some large southern stingrays, and were treated to multiple fly-bys of spotted eagle rays. A few specific sites had white-tip sharks resting on the sandy bottom. During this visit, visibility averaged in the range of 30-60 feet. Water temperature was 82 degrees at the surface, and 77-78 below the thermocline.
TOPSIDE ADVENTURES from MILD to WILD -- The array of topside adventures awaiting in Costa Rica is truly dazzling, with an array of excursions from mild to wild. During my visit, after three days of scuba diving, we experienced an awesome jungle canopy tour by zip-line. We hiked through rain forest canyons and rappelled down waterfalls. Another day we experienced white-water rafting on Class III and IV rapids. All of this just scratched the surface of the myriad opportunities, with day tours tailored to all interests and abilities. I'll let these photos give you an idea of some of our experiences, but if they are too extreme for your tastes, options abound.
SUSTAINABILITY -- A unique and very welcome concept in Costa Rica is a nationwide drive for sustainable development. Most of the country's electrical power requirements are generated via water, wind, and geothermal production, harnessing the abundant volcanic activity. Recycling is widely practiced, and hotels strive for Certification in Sustainable Tourism (CST). In 2015, Costa Rica served 99% of its energy needs via renewable electricity generation. When a local says "pura vida" (pure life), they really mean it.
PURA VIDA in COSTA RICA -- Costa Rica encompasses a wonderful array of attractions, from luxury beach front resorts, to the most adventurous of outdoor activities. It is a place where intoxicating nature abounds on all sides. I was struck by how much the Costa Rican people love their country. They are actively working to preserve and protect these precious natural resources, and are proud to share them with visitors. Easily and affordably accessed from flight gateways around the USA, Costa Rica is a very progressive and safe country where English is widely spoken. I encourage you to experience see for yourself the meaning of "Pura Vida." Pricing for the tour described in this report may be found here: Bill Beard's Costa Rica. As always, the Adventure Experts of Island Dreams Travel are here to assist you. -- Ken Knezick, Island Dreams
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GETTING to COSTA RICA
Entry Requirements: Passport must be current, with at least six months of validity following your visit. No visa is required for North Americans.
Departure Tax: As of this writing, depature tax is $29 USD. Recently purchased airline tickets may already have that tax included in the ticket price. If not, the tax is paid at the airport before going through airport security. It is payable in either Costa Rican Colones, U.S. dollars (USD), or with Visa/Mastercard.
Air Travel: As to flight arrangements, there are two main airports in Costa Rica.
- San Jose (SJO) received direct flights from gateways around North America on American Airlines, Delta Airlines, Spirit Airlines, Southwest, United, Air Canada, and Jet Blue.
- SJO is the country's main airport as well as the most modern. This airport offers a great variety of services like fast food restaurants, bookshops, souvenir shops, duty-free shops, a small drugstore and several money changing services.
- Liberia (LIR) received direct flights on Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Delta, JetBlue, Southwest Airlines, and United.
- The LIR airport is small in terms of number of flights and services but for those headed for a beach vacation in Guanacaste this is the best choice.
Juan Santa Maria International Airport (SJO), is situated in the province of Alajuela, 20 minutes from the capital city of San Jose.
Daniel Oduber International Airport (LIR), is in the Province of Guanacaste. This airport is located ten minutes from Liberia, the main city in Guanacaste and close to beaches and resorts of the Northwestern pacific coast of Costa Rica, also known as the Golden Coast.
Open-jaw Ticket Option: It is also quite possible to fly in to Liberia at the beginning of your trip, and out of San Jose at the end. This allows greater flexibility in touring options. (In my case, we departed Arenal in the morning, went white water rafting on the Rio Sarapiqui, and then traveled to San Jose, arriving late afternoon. After a refreshing overnight, we flew out of SJO the next morning. KDK)
Driving in Costa Rica: Main roads in Costa Rica are good, but some of the smaller access roads may be in poorer condition. The natural attractions and amazing landscapes throughout the country are definitely worth the occasionally rough ride.
Renting a Car: Rental prices vary depending on the season. Prices can start at about $40 USD/day and $300/week for an economy class car. If you want a 4WD, prices go up to $50/day or more depending on the vehicle type. For those looking for more freedom and adventure this may be an excellent alternative. If you prefer not to drive, a private car and driver/tour guide can be arranged. Island Dreams will assist you.