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Adventures (& Facing Our Fears) in Costa Rica, Part 1

Costa Rica has been on our bucket list for many years. It’s jam-packed with opportunities for adventure, from zip wiring over cloud forests to surfing giant waves to white water rafting along rivers used in movie scenes. Opportunities for adventures and facing our fears – pushing ourselves out of our comfort zones are around every corner!

6% of the world’s biodiversity is contained within this small country. Troops of white-faced capuchins and howler monkeys swung through the trees of our guest houses. Sloths, cuddling babies, relaxed in the garden. We bumped into raccoons, coatis and agoutis on our way back from breakfast. Sitting in deckchairs, we watched hummingbirds, toucans and the beautiful motmot bird fly from branch to branch. Butterflies and moths, the size of birds, fluttered around. Iguanas sunbathed high up in the trees.

The country is well and truly alive!

And when you’re done with adventure, the beaches are stunning, the sun hot and you can rest your weary bones in hot springs.

On top of this, Costa Ricans, known as Ticos, are some of the friendliest people we’ve met. Helpfully for us, they speak Spanish relatively slowly and clearly. Excellent for practising our budding Spanish skills.

Have I persuaded you to book a trip yet?

I don’t think you could find a better location for an exciting family holiday.  

The Plan

Adventures and facing our fears in Costa Rica were high on our agenda. Covid and the numerous lockdowns have taken a toll on everyone’s mental state. I, for one, feel less confident than I once did. More likely to say no. Less likely to throw myself into something that feels a little scary or uncomfortable.

And yet for children (and us), confidence is such an important skill to develop. So, one of my goals this year is to be more courageous – to try and conquer my fears, but also just to do something brave every day. Big or little. I’m hoping in the process to inspire the children to do the same 😊

Harry and I spent a long time researching the itinerary for our two-week trip, narrowing down the many options. My little man doesn’t love ambiguity. He likes to know exactly what to expect and when. And if he doesn’t, he’ll ask a million questions. This can make holidays tricky (can anyone else relate?).

So, this trip, I took a new approach. I asked him to plan it all for us, so that he would feel more in control. He did a fabulous job and presented his ideas to us all! Although we altered a small part of his plan, the majority was as he’d laid out, including the many trips he’d scheduled. It was an excellent learning experience, saved me time and made him feel much more comfortable in the process. Win-win.

This post covers the many crazy adventures we got up to in the Monteverde and Arenal regions. The active, full-on part of our holiday (which was followed by a more sedate week on the Caribbean coast – in a post to come). I’ve done it in a way that shows our daily schedule. Reading other peoples’ posts massively helped our own planning process, and I’m hoping this too will help others design their ideal trip. If you’re interested in accommodation recommendations, skip to the logistics section at the end.

Day One – Zip Lining over a Cloud Forest

After a long 10.5-hour flight from London and a night in San Jose, we were up bright and early on our first morning. Thank you jet lag! Sitting in the sunshine for breakfast that morning felt oh so good.

Our first activity of the holiday was booked for that afternoon in Monteverde, a three-hour drive away.

Planning it this early in the schedule was entirely deliberate. I’m very scared of heights. Like utterly terrified. The prospect of hanging by a wire over the top of a forest, suspended 100m (the height of Big Ben) above the ground was almost too much to comprehend. Doing it early in the holiday would minimise my worry time.

My adrenaline junkies, Rosie and James, were super excited, but Harry was nervous too. Ordinarily these fears would manifest themselves in (many many) questions. But as he’d chosen and booked the trip, he seemed to take ownership of his fears and unusually discussed them very little.

We’d been recommended the Sky Adventures’ Sky Trek tour and they didn’t disappoint. After suiting up and a thorough safety talk, we rode in open-air gondolas to the highest point of the cloud forest. It was a clear day and the view to the Arenal volcano was simply stunning. But as the wind buffeted around our gondola and I looked up to the first zipwire, I suddenly felt very sick…

There are seven zip wires in total zig zagging their way down the mountain side over the beautiful trees below. These cables are up to 100m in height, 750m in length and you travel at speeds of up to 70km/h! I wasn’t sure I’d be able to do it. But the thought of chickening out in front of my kids kept me going.

The rest of our group all seemed completely fearless, so thankfully they were happy for me to go first. This was the only way I could do it. To attach myself, say a little prayer, and just trust. And once I was off, the sense of release and freedom as I rocketed along brought a grin to my face. (That is behind a face mask, which has to be up there as the most pointless wearing of a face covering I’ve ever experienced!)

Harry joined me shortly and his face told me everything. All fear had dissipated to be replaced with a look of sheer joy. Rosie and James looked just the same. As we pootled slowly from cable to cable through the forest, I started to relax and enjoy the excited giggles of the kids behind me. They were having the time of their lives.

Five more thrilling rides followed. And then we reached the last cable.

This one was so high and steep, and the wind so strong that it required us to go down in twos. So, in rather ungainly fashion, Harry and I wrapped our legs around each other, and kicked off. This was by far and away the scariest. I realised half-way along (it was that long I had time to think…) that I was so terrified I’d stopped screaming, moving or in fact breathing. I was catatonic with fear. Harry however had a ball and chattered away to his mute mummy.

Unlike the other cables, that landed by an opening in the trees (which felt kind of enclosed and safe), this one ended on a pylon. A pylon made of meshed metal, merrily moving in the wind, high above the ground… As we were first, there was nothing for it but to wait for all the others to arrive, hanging onto this behemoth, swaying precariously in the wind (in my overactive imagination), and trying desperately not to look down.

And then, as we took the stairs to the next level down, our guide presented us with two options. One, we throw ourselves off the platform bungee jump style. Two, we rappel over the side. Neither felt like something I wanted to do. I told him I would take the stairs. He smiled at me and said, have a look and you’ll see the stairs stop half-way down; that’s not an option… Oh my days. I was now regretting my decision not to do more research into exactly what the tour entailed for fear it might put me off.

The bungee jumpers went first, so as a worried-looking Rosie and Harry stood behind a shivering Mummy, we watched their Daddy throw himself over the edge, screaming as the adrenaline coursed through his body. They had toyed with bungee jumping, but it was a step too far for this terrified mama. I encouraged them to rappel with me instead. This option, once over the edge, turned out to be fun and nowhere near as scary as I’d thought. Maybe I should have been braver and tried the jump. But then I’d have nothing left to conquer for next time…

The kids were so kind afterwards. Knowing how scared I’d been, they both threw their arms around me telling me how proud they were of me. I know they’d been nervous too, but seeing someone with more fear, made them act like the strong ones.

And so ended our first adventurous encounter of facing our fears in Costa Rica. I hope one day, if they feel frightened by something, they’ll remember this day, say a little prayer and just do it anyway.

Day Two – Hanging Bridges and a Scary Night Tour

The next morning, we arrived early at the Reserva Biologica Bosque Nuboso Monteverde – the Monteverde Cloud Forest. On the ground this time – more my kind of place. Wandering through the cool ancient trees, teeming with all kinds of life, was like a balm to our souls. It’s a beautiful space, one not to be missed.  

At lunchtime, we hooked up with a (Selvatura) naturalist guide to take us for a tour of the cloud forest along a trail linked by a set of hanging bridges, suspended high in the canopy. Viewing the complex forest ecosystems from this height gives a totally different perspective. Hanging out next to the birds’ roosts and peering over to check out the impressive epiphytes wrapped around the trees was a very special experience.

90% of all organisms in a rainforest are found up here. Including me, still struggling with my fear of how high we were dangling but coping nonetheless!

Favourite sightings from this walk: the stunning three wattled bellbird, bats and baby hummingbirds being fed by their mummy! We walked that bit too fast over one bridge, narrowly missing a quetzal twisting in the air behind us.

And just because we hadn’t done enough walking, we returned to the cloud forest that evening for a night tour. Here’s where the fears switched. Snakes and spiders don’t bother me too much, but the kids are not fans. The combination of deadly animals and the pitch blackness of night gave rise to two anxious little children.

The start of our tour didn’t help matters. Our first stop was a hole in the wall, over which, two minutes previously, my legs had been dangling as I waited for the tour to start. We crouched down to see what the guide was showing us. Shining in our torchlights, the image of the long hairy legs of an orange-kneed tarantula shone back at us…

Next on the agenda was the discovery of a parasitic fungus which turns its insect prey into zombies. The spores attach and penetrate the exoskeleton taking over its brain and behaviour. Over time, the insect is compelled (literally) to leave its nest for a spot more favourable to the fungus’s growth. After eating the insect’s insides, the fungus sends a fruiting body out through its head. From here new spores are launched leaving a dead insect behind. Nice!

And just to up the fear levels even more, Harry suddenly spotted a giant bug with orange wings on a lady’s legs. He pointed it out to her, and she jumped around trying to extract it. The guide, realising what it was, sternly told us to stay calm and turn off our torches. In the absolute blackness, stood in the middle of the forest, in a somewhat shaky voice, he told us it was a tarantula-eating wasp.

The guide’s obvious concern was not overly helpful. These creatures have the second most painful sting after the bullet ant… It has been described as “Blinding, fierce, shockingly electric. A running hair dryer has been dropped into your bubble bath. A bolt out of the heavens. Lie down and scream.” Harry remembered it from Deadly 60.

Oh good, so now we’re stood around in the dark with this monster flying somewhere around our legs. We can’t turn on our torches for fear of further antagonising it. The lady who it was on originally is openly sobbing. The kids are clinging to my hands, asking to go home. Everyone is intermittently grabbing at their legs, hopping around. It’s not all bells and whistles this travelling lark!

But we’re having adventures and facing our fears in Costa Rica. We’ve got this! Now it was my turn to be the relaxed one, talking to the children and calming them down. Letting them express their fears and just standing by their side. Being there for them. But not walking away (although to be fair we couldn’t anyway!). Encouraging them to be brave.

Because if they hadn’t, they would have missed the troop of cute kinkajous swinging in the trees above us; or the bioluminescent mushrooms shining from the darkness; or the bright red bottom of the summer tanager sleeping in the tree (have you ever seen a bird sleeping before?).

And that’s the thing about facing your fears. You could sit around at home too scared to venture out. But then you’d miss some of the most precious moments possibly of your life. And once you’ve pushed through something difficult, you’re far more likely to do that again. At some future unknown moment, when you’re called to be brave again.

Day Three – Tree Climbing and Horse Riding

On the morning of day three, we booked an arboreal climbing experience with Sky Adventures. A posh name for climbing some giant trees. Although there were some nerves, the kids loved it. They particularly relished the challenge of the last couple of trees, which were seriously tricky to scale. But they managed to ring the bell at the top of each one.

In the afternoon, Harry had selected a horse-riding experience: one of the highlights of the trip. We booked with Marvin at Horse Trek Monteverde. A character, with a clear passion for animals. He talked us through a brief instruction, where he told us to forget everything we knew about horse riding. Instead, we opted for “cowboy-style” riding. Feet forward in the stirrups and only one hand on the reins. The bridles had no bit and yet the horse responded to the lightest of movements. It was possible to steer with one finger.

I have to admit that this is a much more fun and relaxed way of riding a horse than the rather stuffy English alternative. The ride was spellbinding, over the tops of the mountains with stunning views across the country, and down into the valley for a bathe in the river. And to James’ delight, we saw a toucan at close range.

Day Four – Sloth Hunting & Hot Springs

On day four, we drove from Monteverde to La Fortuna in the Arenal region, through ever changing countryside. One minute we were surrounded by towering peaks, the next out onto an open plateau with rolling hills, and then following the contours of a sparkling lake.

The impressive Arenal Volcano

After three hours of driving on potholed roads, we arrived at our hotel, checked in and headed out. Our destination: the Bogarin Trail.

OK so there were no facing our fears on this day. Apart from the moment Harry wandered off into the bush only to be urgently called back by the guide. Apparently, the deadly fer-de-lance pit viper snakes are found here, hidden from view in the undergrowth. Other than this small incident, it was my favourite activity of our holiday.

A small reserve rewilded by the owners over the last 20 years, the wildlife has started to return in abundance. We were hoping for a sighting of a sloth. We were gifted with ten! Many of them mothers with babies slowly moving through the trees. So very special.

Our guide William (the owner’s brother) was superb. With eyes like a hawk, he spotted the little bundles of fur snuggled into the crooks of branches. Fixing them with his telescope, he showed his eager group these precious sightings. He also found poison dart and green frogs; many different brightly coloured birds, such as the red-legged honeycreeper; termites’ nests; a rubber tree and chocolate trees, weighed down by their pods.

The tour ended with a freshly picked pineapple, as juicy and delicious as I’ve ever tasted. If you’re visiting La Fortuna, you can’t miss this special place. And ask for William!

In the afternoon, we relaxed back in the hotel in their divine hot springs against the background of the towering Arenal volcano. How can you not fall in love with this country?

Day Five – Waterfall Rappelling, the Monkey Drop, and White-Water Rafting

For day five, we booked another adrenaline-filled day with Pure Trek.

A 4 x 4 truck picked us up in the morning and drove us through the rainforest deep into their canyon. After gearing up and a short instruction, we walked along the beautiful rainforest trail to the first rappel. From here, we were to descend 55 metres down the waterfall into the canyon below. I waited nervously in the queue and watched with an anxious heart as my two babies kicked over the edge.

I needn’t have worried. They bounced down the sheer cliff wall like they were in some sort of spy movie, reaching the bottom with a big flourish. Then it was my turn. The waiting was worse than the doing. Once I’d backed my big bum over the edge and there was no going back, I found myself smiling again. Concentrating hard but loving it. After the zip lining, this felt easy. So much so that I could relax and take in the stunning surroundings.

Now on firm ground, we wandered through the forest to the next challenge: the Monkey Drop. This was in essence a bungee jump but disguised slightly by an initial short zipline out over a pool. From here you were dropped straight down 25 metres. I’d previously sworn never to do a bungee jump. But after giving up at the end of the zip lining, this was my chance to be brave. I was terrified. As were my children but they’d merrily thrown themselves down it. So, I decided to release control. To sit back, pray again and let myself go.

For a brief moment, I felt free as a bird soaring over the forest. And then gravity took over and I hurtled towards the ground. All sensible thought left me, and I forgot all the instructions I’d been given. My legs flailed outwards with the rope wrapped between them. Although I was oblivious to this. I was too busy screaming. According to James, the guide at the top shook his head in despair! But I made it to the bottom and with shaking legs, wobbled out to greet my kids. We’d faced our fears and come out grinning.

From here, we continued on short trails from waterfall to waterfall through the canyon, rappelling as we went. Harry had so overcome his fears by this point, that he marched on ahead and we didn’t catch up with him again until the end. A fantastic morning’s fun – highly recommended.  

But the fun didn’t stop there. Next up white-water rafting – my favourite of the adventurous parts of the trip. The kids slipped into the front positions, with James and I behind. Almost immediately we hit the grade III rapids, buffeted and jostled about in the raft. After years of rowing in my youth, I feel at home on water. I could see Rosie beaming too.

But I could feel the anxiety coming off Harry in waves. The thought of flipping out of the boat filled him with dread. He readily took up my offer of switching places to sit in the sturdier middle position. From here he visibly relaxed.

I tried to verbalise my excitement (not one of my best traits as an introvert) so he could see there was nothing to fear.

The guide also encouraged Rosie to sit right on the bow with her feet dangling over the edge. She seemed to disappear a few times under the waves, but always came up with a grin from ear to ear.

It didn’t take Harry long to loosen up. I saw a genuine smile poke through and then he risked sitting at the front again and even up on the bow!

At the half-way point, we stopped for fresh pineapple and papaya. A skimming competition ensued (who knew that pineapple husks made such good skimmers?). Back in the water on the calmer sections, we jumped out and let the current float us down stream.

The location was out of this world – just utterly breath taking. It was in fact used as the setting for Jurassic Park. I took time to stop, breathe and just behold the beauty. Giant trees edged the riverbanks. Iguanas lay sunbathing high in their branches. Howler monkeys called from somewhere within. And we floated along the crystal-clear waters. I was as happy as I could be.

Day Six – The Chocolate Tour

By day six, James and the kids needed a rest, and a day by the pool. I seemed to be indefatigable, so I booked myself onto the Don Olivo Chocolate Tour. This involved:

  • a quirky and entertaining guide with a wealth of information about growing tropical fruits, spices, sugar cane and of course chocolate on his family’s organic farm
  • the opportunity to try lots of divine fresh fruit picked straight from the trees
  • grinding some sugar cane to produce a very sweet drink
  • and a large quantity of what is undoubtedly the best chocolate I have ever tasted!

Day Seven – Swimming Against the Force of a Waterfall & Feeding Monkeys

After a day of rest for the kids, they were excited for more adventures on day seven! In the morning, we headed down to La Fortuna Waterfall. After paying the exorbitant entrance fee, we walked the 500 steps to the base of this towering waterfall. To be met by one of my favourite signs of all time, with some excellent advice:

(You’ll have to excuse my infantile humour – I appreciate it has a more serious meaning in respect to landslides)

It was another exquisite setting attracting many posing instagrammers who it seemed were only there for the few minutes it took to get the perfect shot… We stripped off, squeezed past them and into the water. It was exciting seeing just how close you could swim to where the waterfall thundered into the plunge pool, trying to push against the pressure of the water forcing you backwards. But it was exhausting.

So, after a while, we wandered around to a beautiful little spot on the river, to climb on the rocks and play in the water.

The boys doing their best insta pose!!

The Volunteering

In the afternoon, we drove out to Proyecto Asis, a wildlife rescue centre. It was another of our favourite parts of the trip. The extremely entertaining naturalist guide first gave us a fascinating tour of the animals. He described in detail each animal’s history, why they were there, and how they were rehabilitating them for release into the wild. In the process, we learned a huge amount about the macaws, parrots, toucans and monkeys they looked after.

It was heart breaking to hear some of their stories – how they were kept as pets on short chains or in hotel lobbies. But thankfully laws and attitudes are changing in this country to protect these beauties. And organisations like this one are doing an amazing job at teaching children and adults the importance of conserving the animals in their natural habitats.

A bold wild white-faced capuchin joined us on a tour too, clearly hoping for leftovers at feeding time.

After the tour, we stayed on for the volunteering section, which was just the four of us. Our job was to prepare the dinner for the monkeys. We weighed and chopped vegetables and fruits as per the vet’s instructions.

But to keep the brains of these intelligent animals active and prevent complacency and boredom, we weren’t simply to give them this food. Instead, we had to hide the food in enrichment toys. For example, one set were placed inside woven baskets which were then tied up tightly with palm fronds.

We then took our ‘toys’ to four different monkey cages to see them being fed – so fun! It was captivating watching them figuring out how to get to the food, tipping out the least-liked spinach in preference of the eggs and fruit! My favourite was watching Coco the spider monkey loping out to collect and run off with her bucket of food.

All in all, it was a very special experience. We would consider returning here for a longer volunteering experience throughout which you stay with local families.

And so ended our first week of adventures and facing our fears in Costa Rica.

Logistics

If you’re planning a similar trip, hopefully this section will provide some tips.

Accommodation

La Sabana Hotel Apartments, San Jose – would highly recommend for a first night’s accommodation.

Casitas de Montana Cabuya, Monteverde – excellent family run accommodation in a stunning, quiet location. We saw more wildlife here than in the national park! You do need a 4 x 4 to get here though.

Hotel Arenal Springs Resort & Spa – we splurged out on this lovely hotel for a bit of luxury. I’d return just for the gorgeous hot springs on site. Expensive to eat in, so we headed into La Fortuna for dinners.

Driving

Booked with Hertz. This was the most expensive part of our trip (it cost more than our flights!) mostly because we only booked a week in advance. It was the only 4 x 4 car remaining for hire that we could find in San Jose. Be more sensible than us and book earlier!

I would however recommend hiring a car. It was easy to drive in Costa Rica and much faster than local transport. Many of the roads we travelled on were badly potholed though, so it requires some concentration!

What to Take

  • Warm clothes for Monteverde – it’s only about 18 degrees Celsius up here and with the wind chill factor, you need jumpers.
  • Summer clothes for La Fortuna – here it was a toasty 36 degrees Celsius.
  • Waterproofs including a waterproof bag (super helpful).
  • Water shoes, light hiking shoes or trainers (I took both but only wore trainers, although we had little rain) and flip flops.
  • Sunscreen & hats.
  • Mosquito repellent – we used Para’Kito mosquito bracelets which worked extremely well.
  • Go Pro if you have one, or waterproof case for your phone.
  • Water bottles.
  • Binoculars and bird/animal guides.
  • Torches.

Hopefully this post has provided some inspiration for a family trip of a lifetime. In my next post, I’ll cover our more sedate adventures in Tortuguero and Cahuita on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica.

Pura Vida!

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