by Marcia Simon, CTA, APR
Standing under a stream of warm water in an outdoor rain shower is nothing short of luscious, especially when you look up toward the dense green foliage surrounding your private casita near Costa Rica's Arenal Volcano.
The stunning greenery challenges anyone who questions the importance of protecting these nature-filled rainforests, aptly named because it does rain here, sometimes daily, if only for a short period. But the rain is warm and passes quickly in dry season and, after all, that's why it's so intensely verdant and filled with flowers, ferns, frogs, birds, monkeys and rich soil that feeds a healthy ecosystem. A cloudy sky or gentle rain makes the greens even richer – like fully saturated film colors.
That said, those in search of a tropical beach may long for an ocean view with nonstop sun. Costa Rica certainly has plenty of sunny coastline, which makes a combination rainforest/beach vacation a perfect trip, especially if you want to taste more of this Central American paradise.
What's the difference between a jungle and a rainforest?
A jungle has year-round tropical weather. A rainforest climate, on the other hand, can be either temperate or tropical, with tall trees that block sunlight, preventing heavy undergrowth typically found in a jungle. Both have heavy rainy seasons but while a jungle is warm, humid and has sunlight, a rainforest is humid, damp, and darker.
Staying at a hotel or resort that is both authentic and eco-friendly makes perfect sense when staying in Costa Rica's rainforest, and there are plenty of choices at various levels.
Nayara, about 10 minutes outside the town of La Fortuna, is recognized as one of the world's most highly rated eco-friendly rainforest resorts. Accommodations throughout the resort are similar; the size and outdoor spaces vary depending on category. Even the entry-level casita deluxe in Nayara Gardens feels like a bungalow, with indoor and outdoor showers, a private deck with two large, comfy wooden chairs, a table, hammock and hot tub. We could near the stream at night and the birds in the morning. Upgrades to Nayara Springs and the Tented Camp include private plunge pools, wraparound deck and more interior space and amenities.
Full breakfast is included in all room categories. Dining off-premises is just a short taxi or Uber ride away. Daytime excursions most often include lunch; there are five a la restaurants onsite for dinner and lunch. Four pools, two swim-up bars and four jacuzzis tucked into the greenery provide plenty of exploration, and there are hot springs, too.
One great thing about Nayara is that no matter what level of accommodation you choose, every person has access to all areas of the resort. The one exception is that the adult-only areas do not allow children. Walking paths are open to all, lined with flora and numerous varieties of wild orchids, red-flowered Heliconia, bougenvilia, red stalk palms, ferns and papayas.
Things to do near Arenal Volcano
From ziplining, repelling down or hiking along a waterfall, horseback riding, relaxing in the hot springs and night tours of the jungle, this part of Costa Rica has no shortage of activities for families, couples and solo travelers.
This area began attracting a new level of tourism a few years after the Arenal Volcano unexpectedly erupted in 1968, violently spewing fire, hot lava and large boulders over an area of six square miles. The volcano has been inactive since 2011. Hiking trails were created amid the lava rock when trails could be defined and the decimated greenery began to grow back. The Costa Rican government does not permit hiking on the actual volcano; hikes are on the surrounding land and provide exceptional views of the rainforest and volcano. Hiking trails at Arenal 68 end at a small outdoor cafeteria that offers a surprisingly good and varied lunch menu with tropical beverages. Take the stairs up to the roof for a 360-degree panoramic view of the area and volcano. Volcano National Park has two popular hiking trails as another option.
Mistico Park Hanging Bridges features a nature walk and path about two miles long, crossing 20 bridges, some very small and others overlooking the rainforest canopy. Six suspension bridges gently sway as you cross over them, making for unique photo opportunities.
Rincon Corobisi Rafting offers a two-hour Class III-IV white water rafting trip down the Tenorio River. It's followed by a traditional casado lunch and has a place to change into dry clothes. The guides are very skilled not only at navigating the waters and steering the rafts, but also at comforting nervous or inexperienced rafters with their humor and understanding. Our guide Lalo was fantastic! He made us feel safe, and pointed out the white-faced capuchin monkeys and other wildlife along the river's edge. RCR is a family-owned-and-operated business that receives consistently high ratings. This trip is sure to be a memorable way to break up the four-hour drive from Arenal to the Guanacaste coast. A private driver can transport you and your luggage and keep all your belongings safe during your time on the river. For people uncomfortable with Class III-IV, an optional Class I-II guided "float" is available.
Guanacaste – Beach Destination
Driving out of the rainforest, the colors change from green to brown. The landscape is dry, small wildfires pop up along the roadsides, and the Pacific Ocean comes into view. The heavy clouds are behind you clinging to the volcano tops. (This is actually steam, I've been told, produced by the heat of volcanic rock.) The sun is shining and the clouds ahead are wispy.
People who are looking for a new destination that parallels the beaches and turquoise waters of the Caribbean islands will be disappointed. The blackish sand is created from volcanic rock, and beaches are often rocky and small. Yes, there are surfing towns with bigger beaches. The hotels in those communities are generally smaller, more modest and a la carte.
All-inclusive resorts are less common, but more are appearing as coastal tourism in Costa Rica grows. We opted for the all-inclusive Secrets Papagayo for relaxed chill time within a half hour from the airport in Liberia. The food was very good at each of Secrets' five restaurants, particularly the Seaside Grill, where we enjoyed perfectly grilled fresh fish, ceviche and unique freshly squeezed juices.
One big perk about staying at Secrets prior to heading home is their on-site COVID-testing. (At the time of this writing, the United States requires a negative antigen test within 24 hours of entry into the US.) Testing is scheduled (USD $42) for the day before your flight with results emailed the same day.
Sustainability and wellness
Costa Rica is known as one of the world's most popular destinations for ecotourism. The country's energy sources are wind, geothermal (from the volcanos that produce underground heat) and hydro (water) power.
This is a place where you can rejuvenate your spirit, excite your senses and challenge your physical capabilities all in one week. However, it takes more than one trip here to experience and understand the Pura Vida (pure life) of Costa Rica (Rich Coast) where the richness is in the soil, the atmosphere and the attitude of living a life that respects Nature and all living creatures that intersect with the human ecosystem.
Marcia Simon is a writer, a traveler, and a travel advisor who has been named an Essential Costa Rica Destination Specialist. Connect on Instagram @friendlygrouptravel, Facebook @friendlygrouptravel, Twitter @friendsgotravel, or drop a note to firstname.lastname@example.org. (Or call +1 860 395 7244.)
photographs: Marcia Simon copyright 2022
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Marcia Simon, CTA, APR, has been exploring new places since she was 17 years old and traveled around Europe on a Eurailpass with her best friend. Decades later, she still considers travel the best investment of time and money she's ever made for herself and her family.