Costa Rica? Get lost!

A mixture of paradise and roughing it, the Central American destination has no shortage of off-the-beaten-track adventures.

THE AUTHOR’S wife and son at Playa Conchal on the country’s Pacific coast. (photo credit: DARREN PINSKER)
THE AUTHOR’S wife and son at Playa Conchal on the country’s Pacific coast.
(photo credit: DARREN PINSKER)
Costa Rica is an antidote to civilization, an unhurried place, a verdant stretch of rain forest, cloud forest and dry tropical forest blessed with a wild variety of flora and fauna. Though a country of modest size it is possessed of an immodest beauty, gifted with picturesque Pacific and Caribbean coastline.
If all is not Eden – Costa Rica is, to be sure, a developing country, and a drive along its often unpaved, gravel-strewn roads reveals rural villages composed of ramshackle homes – the country does in places offer a glimpse of paradise. Finding oneself in Costa Rica can be a sublimely relaxing experience; getting lost there was much less so, as my wife and I were to find out.
We set out for the province of Guanacaste in the country’s northwest, an area not far from the Nicaraguan border, and alighted on a town called Playa Conchal on the country’s Pacific coast. Guanacaste is an attractive region comprising savannah- like topography for long stretches, punctuated by undulating hills and forested mountains. Dry tropical forest at one time dominated the landscape, but much of the forest succumbed to farming and ranching over the years. However, the country has taken steps to preserve large portions of its natural gifts and, as a result, capacious reserves of Guanacaste’s dry tropical forest are protected within an extensive national park system.
Two of these national parks, Palo Verde and Rincon de la Vieja, are a mere two-hour drive from the scenic beach of Playa Conchal where my family pitched its tent, metaphorically speaking, in Playa Conchal’s cushiest resort. Palo Verde, our first national park destination, is a place where many visitors go to observe monkeys in their natural environment. The ride from Playa Conchal to Palo Verde in a minibus with a poorly functioning climate control system introduced us to the bone-rattling wonders of Costa Rica’s long stretches of unpaved road, but the final destination easily justified the tectonic challenge.
The park is traversed by the Tempisque River, and both the river itself and the river’s banks provide a wonderful chance to sample Costa Rica’s animal life in relative comfort by boat. The boat we boarded was a small vessel largely open to the river, though it contained a canopy that shielded us from the powerful Central American sun. Over the course of two hours we plied several kilometers of the Tempisque River and sighted capuchin and howler monkeys, crocodiles, iguanas, sundry other lizards, dozens of bats with their wings splayed across tree trunks, and a sampling of the country’s colorful birds including the graceful heron.
As a result of their encounters with tourist boats, the capuchin monkeys, identifiable by their small, expressive white faces and darting heads, have become comfortable enough with humans to board the boats from the river banks and snatch banana slices off of travelers’ hands and heads. My niece and son had the good fortune to experience multiple close encounters with the capuchins that commandeered our boat, the monkeys plucking banana slices from my niece’s and son’s hats as if the children were fellow members of the capuchin clan.
We returned to our hotel along the same gravel-strewn roads we took to the river, bumping along for two hours, craving a dip in our resort’s pool the entire way. Swim and dip we did, and after a day of rest my wife and I decided to rent a vehicle and drive to Rincon de la Vieja National Park.
We were advised to rent a four-wheel drive SUV in order to maintain sufficient clearance for the challenging roads that lay beyond the resort, good advice as it turned out. We were also advised to rent a GPS device in the event the poorly signed (and often completely unsigned) roads proved too difficult to navigate. It took an hour and a half of relatively effortless driving from the hotel to reach the more challenging 16-km. gravel road that leads directly into Rincon. At its end, rising like an oasis in a desert of gravel, appeared the Las Pailas entrance to the park.
Rincon National Park consists of a dry tropical forest situated in a volcanic complex.
The park is noteworthy for its geological wonders: fissures that hiss with steam and bubbling, boiling mud pots. It contains several trails of varying levels of difficulty.
We chose the shortest, a 3-km. circuit that comprises a two-hour trek through the forest and includes close-up views of the park’s interesting geological features. The park also contains abundant wildlife, but much of it is hidden from view due to the relatively dense foliage.
Nonetheless, at the very outset of our hike we came face-to-face with a coati. The coati is a mammal that looks like a cross between a lemur and a raccoon. Our encounter with the coati began when my wife suggested – innocently I would like to believe – that I sit on a fallen tree to pose for a photograph. As she positioned herself to take the photo, her eyes widened.
That immediately set off some of my more atavistic, rarely utilized reflexes: I braced, she jumped backwards, I noted her backward jump and in sympathy jumped up, and a heretofore camouflaged coati jumped down from a tree, nearly landing on my foot.
That was the first – and last – coati we encountered in the park. It was not, though, the last of the wildlife.
Costa Rica’s birds emitted their songs around us for much of our hike, but the birds were largely hidden from view. It was much easier to sight lizards as they scampered through the foliage at the sides of the trail. And that was probably all for the better.
In a park set in a volcanic complex among boiling mud pots, it is probably wiser to look down at one’s feet than up at the sky.
The hike in Rincon was interesting and pleasant, and the tree canopy provided a welcome shade that lowered the temperature in the forest to a comfortable 24C, about 10 degrees lower than the temperature outside the park. The path was not overly demanding, but the final leg wended its way across a stream to a much steamier path far away from the shelter of trees. We were thus exposed to the full force of Costa Rica’s sun.
Conveniently, quite close to the Las Pailas entrance to the park sits a rustic spa fittingly called Symbiosis, which contains hot and cold natural springs for the weary hiker. The rusticity of the spa coupled with its location among tropical trees placed us in a charming and relaxed natural environment, enhanced by susurrating rush of a river in the nearby valley. Fifteen minutes in the hot spring, and our muscles were soothed. We then leaped into the bone-chilling cold spring, which was supremely refreshing.
The spa was isolated, and we were alone there for most of our immersion in the natural springs, until we heard the sound of Hebrew in this isolated place of all places. It was an Israeli family, of course, visiting their son who was living on a commune in Costa Rica. How fitting.
Physically recuperated, we moved on to lunch at a nearby ranch and then hit the road with seemingly ample time to return to our lodging before nightfall. But due to a conspiracy between the country’s poorly signed roads and a barely functioning GPS device, we were still on the road by nightfall, a state of affairs that we had very deliberately planned against, and after numerous attempts to find our way we had no choice but to concede a very disconcerting thought: We were lost in Central America.
Panic began to set in slowly, and built as the night darkened. We were perhaps 50 or 65 km. from our resort, but driving in the darkness on unlit, utterly unsigned roads with nonexistent shoulders and dizzying drops, made us feel as if we were thousands of km. away. The GPS was now useless.
The locals were hardly better. They either threw up their hands to signal that they, too, had no idea where we were (or where they were for that matter), or they misdirected us to side roads that led nowhere. To compound the vertigo of our predicament, our young son was awaiting our return, kept blissfully ignorant of our disappearance by my now panicking parents.
Strange thoughts and images dart in and out of the mind like mad dragonflies when you are lost in a foreign country.
The thought creeps in that one might end up driving aimlessly deeper into the countryside, into the tropical forest that one was admiring only hours earlier.
Of course, we did make it back. This story, after all, is not a message in a bottle. We made it back, with a little help from a friendly Costa Rican (and a little money), back to our civilized resort after an unplanned adventure.
We had our fill of Eden. We found our antidote, at last, to the wild.