We were looking for a unique travel experience and found a travel company called http://www.gadventures.com. We wanted lots of activity and an opportunity to support local economies. So we booked a 12 day excursion to Costa Rica during the last 2 weeks of January.
We arrived in San Jose the day before our tour started. On Saturday, January 18, we met our tour CEO, Flor, who expertly led a group meeting. Flor grew up in San Jose and we immediately trusted her with our holiday. She had a special skill in giving us clear information for what was needed in the immediate day ahead. She also picked great places to eat and take extra tours. Our group of 16 people from Canada, USA, Switzerland, Germany, and Italy immediately hit it off over a wonderful dinner.
Sunday morning we arose early to catch a tour bus that drove us over a high mountain pass to San Isidro. We relaxed in the pool at the airy hotel and got to know our travel partners. We were about to begin a 3-night excursion with a locally owned adventure company to the community of Piedras Blancas in the heart of the Zona de los Santos region.
Above the clouds on the way to San Isidro.
On Monday we loaded on a small tour bus at 5:30 am and wound our way up the mountain. At the end of the paved road we transferred to benches in the back of 2 trucks. It was still dark as the vehicles climbed along the narrow gravel trail and through mountain streams.
Vehicles built for the back country
By daylight, we were ready for the plentiful breakfast served by local women in an outdoor kitchen in the small town of Brujo, San José Province. There we met our local guide, Manos Lopez, who lives with his wife and children in Brujo. Manos kept us entertained and was incredibly strong and capable. He could carry an extra pack for a weary hiker and skip up the mountain.
Our wonderful guides, Manos and Flora.
To start our hike, we put on water shoes and waded a fair distance to cross the river. It was tricky as the water was swift and the rocks were slippery. We carried our day packs full of clothing and personal items needed for the next 3 nights.
Getting used to weight on my back while fording the river.
We were soon climbing on a small road accessible by all terrain vehicles. Only a few years ago this was a narrow trail passable on foot or by horseback.
The picture just doesn’t capture the steepness.
We were soon drenched in perspiration from our exertion in the hot and humid climate. Stops at mountain streams offered welcome breaks and an opportunity to refill water bottles. The water out of the mountain streams was always excellent.
Group cohesion, through the challenging shared experience, was strengthening quickly. We shared laughs and stories. Sometimes we were so engaged with the steep trail that we walked in silence. I took each step in time with my breathing. I was slow but steady. Everyone was encouraged to hike at their own pace, although it was soon obvious that we were a competitive group.
Photo bombed by Sandra and Matt!
We climbed the notoriously difficult “la cuesta roja” (The Red Hill). The climb required impressive exertion. My apple watch said we climbed 150 flight of stairs and walked 16 km that day.
On person suffered heat heat exhaustion and was assisted by the lunch ATV.
Don and Perky, both 71, impressed us with their strength and stamina.
Manos’s family sent us trail lunch–called farmers lunch: Corn tortillas, eggs, potatoes, and beans wrapped in an eco-friendly banana leaf.
We crossed the river on a suspension bridge to arrive at the first family home stay.
Mr. and Mrs. Lopez — Manos’s parents.
Mrs. Lopez cooked all our meals, with the help of her daughters, on a lovely wood stove. We ate a lot of rice, beans, and eggs, a staple on the mountain farms. The food was always plentiful and tasty. Our guide, Manos, is one of 18 children. When his family gets together there are over 90 of them!
The outdoor showers and toilets were clean and adequate.
We slept upstairs in a dorm-style setting. Alf and I had a room to ourselves most of the time. The shared accommodations mean that single travellers weren’t paying extra.
The Lopez home was open and built around some impressive rocks.
Horses carry supplies in the rainy season. They walk across the suspension bridge!
Chicks in a wheel barrow are easily moved for temperature control.
We enjoyed the farm atmosphere and the Lopez family grandchildren. Many of us found this stay our favourite experience during the whole trip. We felt privileged to be part of this loving family who have been on this farm for 30 years.
Solar panels supplied lights in the evening. A water generator also provided power. A gas generator was used for some tools and machinery.
We negotiated the rocks and current and had fun cooling off in the river.
On Tuesday, after a typical breakfast of eggs, rice, beans, fruit, coffee, we met at the Trapiche to make sugar cane candy called Tapa dulce. Extracting the juice from the sugar cane, raised on the farm, was an impressive process. The candy was delicious!
The sugar cane was pressed through the Trepiche to extract the sweet juice.
The syrup was boiled and skimmed while we hiked and swam.
The rendered syrup was cooled in a wooden box.
The thick syrup was poured in wooden molds to make dulce.
Wonderful lunch with chicken, rice, veggies, beat salad
After lunch we hiked 3 km back down the trail to the next home stay. We carried warm memories of the Lopez family with us.
The Granado’s brand new family home.
This beautiful new 2-story home, after it was threatened by a recent flood, was reconstructed and located higher up the river bank. Some lumber was reused along with new materials. All supplies had to come by 4×4 up the narrow road. The small community worked together to build the house. Manos worked on it, too. The workmanship was beautiful.
Gorgeous wooden stairs
At this home stay we had coffee with delicious cakes for a snack. Then we made banana cake, chocolate cake, and cheese. An evening hike to the river topped off the day. The sun was down by 5:30. Sunset and sunrise only vary through the wet and dry seasons by ½ hour.
The cheese is in the can with a weight to press out excess moisture.
The evening on the deck was pleasant as we watched the rain and visited. Some of us did a friendly push-up challenge. After our early morning we were in bed by 9 pm.
On Wednesday, January 22, we ate a lovely breakfast: pancakes, eggs, rice, beans, and our cakes and cheese. The coffee was always good in Costa Rica.
Then we departed with our back packs and down the Red Hill to the next home stay. At a rest stop by a creek a patient horse and mule were tied to the trees. I couldn’t resist taking a look at their tack. The animals were in good condition.
A typical Costa Rican saddle on this mule.
We hiked to a river crossing and 2 people at a time were loaded onto the cable car. Manos expertly pulled the rope for a speedy trip.
The cable car had been rebuilt after it was washed out by the recent flood.
We arrived at the Fonseca family home. This home was older, but fascinating. The family had an extensive garden and raised cocoa trees for chocolate making. Our snack on arrival was pancakes topped with chocolate sauce.
Curtained bunks lined an open living area.
Flowers decorated the tables.
Soon we were on to the next activity–tree climbing. I didn’t think I could make it to the top of this gigantic tree, but I did. Alf had a great climb too. Manos skipped up the tree with ease!
Tree climbing like this, was a lot of fun.
The Fonseca family home overlooking the river.
After the exertion of tree climbing we were refreshed by swimming in the river. Following a short rest, Mr. Fonesca took us to the sauna and instructed us on its local tradition. We were to keep silence, to stay in the sauna for 10 minutes, go into the river for 3 minutes and repeat this cycle 3 times to cleanse the body, mind, and soul. We really enjoyed this quiet experience in the beautiful forest.
An Owl Butterfly at rest.
On the quiet walk at dusk after the sauna, I photographed a very large brown butterfly with eye spots on its wings. I was impressed by the many types of butterflies. In particular, the large, Blue Morpho butterflies were incredible. I found them to be a lovely symbol of the beauty and wonder of Costa Rica.
After supper we learned about chocolate making. The chocolate pod was sliced open and the cocoa bean was roasted in a pan over the open flame. The chocolate seeds cooled and then we worked together taking off the skin of each bean. We took turns grinding the beans. Cooked with a little milk and sugar added to the cocoa, chocolate sauce was made and served on banana slices.
Pealing the beans. Many hands make light work.
Thursday, January 23, we had another early breakfast and hiked back to the cable cars and crossed the river back to Brujo. This time a truck forded the river and took us to the Savegre River to get ready for a 20 km, 4 hour, whitewater rafting trip through some class III and IV sections. After an extensive safety and training talk, the Authentic Adventures guides, including Manos, expertly negotiated the best routes over rapids and around rocks. We stopped to swim in several place and also had a delicious lunch on the shore. This was a fun trip, with teasing and pranks along the way.
Ready to go. I didn’t take my camera on the boat.
Out of the rafts, we changed into dry clothes, gathered our belongings, and hopped on the tour bus to drive to the surfing town of Dominical along highway #34. We checked into the Hotel Diuwak for 2 nights. We showered, dropped off laundry, and went out for supper.
Friday, January 24, provided free time on our own. Alf and I enjoyed a late morning and coffee and chocolate cake. Costa Rica has delicious coffee, chocolate, bananas, and pineapples. We swam in the ocean surf, walked the beach, and watched some of the crew take surfing lessons. Other tour members did a day of snorkelling. Souvenir stands lined the beach, cool surfers slid across the huge waves, and the weather was hot.
Surfing lessons start on the ground.
The town was hosting the Dominical 2020 Costa Rica National Surf Circuit
Watched the sunset over the ocean with the group.
Even the dogs like the waves and the beautiful ocean sunset
On Saturday, January 25, we travelled by van to Diamante Verde, a set of 10 waterfalls hidden in the jungle.
Group photo before our hike.
We hiked 3 km, climbing 800 metres up hundreds of stairs, to the Case de Piedra Cave. It was a total of 2000 stairs up to the river. On the way we stopped at a garden and learned about edible plants and herbs.
At the spectacular cave, we ate lunch. We selected our sleeping spots on the top of a raised rock platform. By now we had been through a lot together and sleeping in the open was accepted readily by the group.
This cave was a lovely cool spot and mostly free from insects.
We hiked further to cliff jump and swim in the natural pool.
In the late afternoon we hiked to another high section of the falls to watch a spectacular sunset. I was quite nervous on such a high view point. Some stood closer to the edge than I would have dared.
The sun is reflected on the ocean in the far distance.
The sunset was spectacular from such a high viewpoint.
We walked back in the dark with headlamps to find a magical, candle-lit cave.
On Sunday, Jan 26, after an early breakfast we rappelled down the Diamente Verde Cave. This was my scariest experience. Alf was set to rappel down with me. We started together at the top of the cliff. I was shaking and took tiny steps while leaning back to get over the edge. Alf said his brain worked faster than his feet—he released too much rope and tipped up-side-down from the top of the cliff. He soon righted himself and we made it to the bottom.
All suited up and ready to belay down the cliff face
The cliff face ready for our belay down.
Then we hiked down the steep steps to the trailhead and drove to Uvita for our last 2 nights on the tour. We stayed at a lovely place, Luz de Luna, managed by a couple from Saskatchewan. We booked an optional Uvita 360 mangrove kayak tour. Don and Perky joined us.
Mangroves grow where the ocean tide ebs and flows and meets fresh water. It is a harsh environment. We saw a flock of ibis, lizards, crabs, and other birds.
Paddling down one of the channels to a small lake
On Monday, Jan 27 in the morning we walked several kms down the beach to the whale tail formation. We swam in the ocean in wonderful waves and incredible warm water. We didn’t last long in the heat.
Looking towards the mainland at the tail – a spit of land.
A rock formation makes the flukes at the end of the tail. This beach is part of the Marino Ballena National Park. It is accessible to everyone. After 4 pm there is no entrance fee. I was impressed that this beach did not have any developments crowding the shoreline. Uvita was my favourite town on our trip. It was very rural and clean.
One fluke of the tail in the distance.
That evening we had a horseback ride from 3-6pm. I really wanted to ride on the beach but our guide said the river we needed to cross to access the beach was too high. So a ride up the mountain was the plan.
The Criollo horses were sure-footed and fit. I’m on Choco.
Our guide, Saul Castro Mendez, grew up in the area and used horses in farming and ranching. His family helps him with his touring business. Saul knows the traditional Costa Rican way with horses.
We enjoyed visiting with Saul Castro Mendez
His horses were small and wiry, just like him. The horses climbed a steep trail with ease and were careful with their feet as we descended a rocky creekbed through the jungle.
Stopping for a drink. Our travel friends, Don and Perky enjoyed the ride.
Once in town, along the beach, the horses tolerated the busy evening traffic of trucks, bicycles, and motorcycles. Locals greeted Saul warmly as he rode by. We rode to the hotel and dropped off our riding friends, Don and Perky. Then we helped Saul pony the horses to his nearby home.
Tuesday, January 28, the group voted to hire a private transport and take in the famous Manuel Antonio National Park. In the park we saw several 2-toed sloths (I even videoed a sloth moving) and many white-faced monkeys.
A young white-faced monkey lounging by the trail.
A male sloth climbing in a tree.
Loving the beach
We really enjoyed the warm water at this beach. It was a beautiful spot, even with mischievous monkeys. Alf caught one looking through my back-pack for food while I was swimming. Our bags had been inspected to make sure we didn’t bring food into the park.
Then we loaded into our tour bus and made another stop at a bridge to see crocodiles! This particular river was murky, just what the crocs liked.
These crocodiles are dangerous. No one dares go down to the shore.
We arrived back in San Jose for our final supper together. The next day people started to disperse; some to do more touring, others to fly home. Our plane left very late in the day so we arranged another tour with Ian and Celina.
The four of us took a tour, recommended by Flor, to the Irazu Volcano, a coffee plantation, some historical sites, and a botanical garden.
We were up 11,000 feet.
The Irazu Volcano was impressive with a lake in the crater and the Caribbean ocean in the distance.
At the Lankester Botanical Gardens
It was time to say good bye to beautiful Costa Rica. We had a great time with our travel friends and have plans to stay in touch.
If you want an active holiday, then we recommend G-Adventures. We knew our tourist dollars were going to families and independent tour providers. Costa Rica is a fascinating country with an interesting history. Instead of investing in an army, the government invested in education and health care. Costa Rica is one of the ‘greenest” countries in the world. Energy is supplied by hydro, wind, and solar energy.
Adios Amigos and Pura Vida!