My Favorite Place in Costa Rica (and other Costa Rica Travel must-do’s)

Sunset after a rainstorm above the Rafiki Safari Lodge. Photo by Morgan Smith

Sunset after a rainstorm above the Rafiki Safari Lodge. Photo by Morgan Smith

I arrived at the Rafiki Safari Lodge alone and on foot, since I chose to walk two miles up a rocky dirt road that followed a strong river, the Rio Savegre, where we would whitewater raft on Class 3 rapids the following day. A dense rainforest full of myriad species of palms, vines and moss-covered trees bordered the road. A chorus of hissing, buzzing, croaking, tweeting and chirping filled my ears, along with the roar of the river and of distant thunder. I had never been in a forest teeming with so much life, and I could only imagine how many frogs, cicadas, birds and snakes lived in the intense greenery all around.

I walked in the center of the open road, partly out of mild concern about snakes that might be hiding off the shoulders, but mostly because I reveled in having this road to myself. Only a few motorbikes passed, driven by locals who gave an hola.

Our family had spent the prior two-and-a-half days up north near Arenal Volcano and the tourist-oriented town of La Fortuna, and estuve harta de los vans turisticos—I was sick of all the vans full of tourists that drove too close to me as I went for a run on the road. We, too, had ridden in vans to zip lines, hot springs, hanging bridges and hiking in Arenal National Park—all quintessential Costa Rican experiences, all of which I got a kick out of—but I had felt herded with gringo masses in those packaged attractions. The crowds felt too big, even though we’re here during the rainy “Green Season” when it’s supposedly much less crowded. I know now that I really would not want to travel around Costa Rica during the December holidays when the number of visitors swells.

But here, in the Savegre Valley near the village of Santo Domingo, about a 45 minute drive south from Quepos, I discovered a less-discovered slice of authentic Costa Rica where the only hotel around was the one we were staying in, and it featured just 10 tent cabins on 842 acres of unspoiled and protected rain forest. I inhaled deeply and felt the spirit of pura vida, and then I broke into an easy run in my Keen water sandals because the vibrant setting spurred me on.

Our canvas-sided luxury tent cabin.

Our canvas-sided luxury tent cabin.

During this week, our family has been traveling with two other families—both, like us, a foursome that included two teenagers—as part of the Backroads “Costa Rica Family Multisport Tour.” To get from La Fortuna down to Quepos and detour to the Savegre Valley, we took a half-hour flight on a 19-seat prop plane with Nature Air, which I recommend for getting around Costa Rica to avoid long, slow drives from region to region.

We then drove to the village of Santo Domingo and entered the garden home of an abuela named Doña Eta, who has a special arrangement with Backroads to prepare and serve lunch for their groups. We feasted on patacoñes, which are smashed plantains flattened and fried to make what tastes like a delicious round sweet potato chip as big as a salad plate, along with homemade tortillas, fire-roasted black beans, arroz con pollo (rice with chicken), salad, and a tangy hearts of palm casserole called pico de palmito; and to drink, passion fruit agua fresca. Almost all of the ingredients came from her garden.

Doña Eta. Photo by Colly Smith

Doña Eta. Photo by Colly Smith

Morgan and me at the lunch she prepared.

Morgan and me at the lunch she prepared.

Stuffed, I wanted to walk briskly up the road to the Rafiki Safari Lodge while the rest of the group meandered. Four or five horses grazing next to lush gardens greeted me at the entrance to the lodge. As I ran up the dirt driveway to the main building—an open-air, thatched-palm-roofed structure with a hardwood deck, a bar and restaurant, lots of rocking chairs and a hammock—I noticed a long water slide built into the hillside. (Later on, Kyle went down it 45 times!) A yellow caution sign along a pathway said, “Snake Crossing – Use Your Flashlight at Night.”

Rafiki Safari Lodge main building

Rafiki Safari Lodge main building

The keys to the tent cabins came attached to a mini flashlight. I was unsure what a “luxury safari tent” would be like and upon first sight fell in love with it. Half of it was made of stone walls, which housed a modern bathroom designed with pretty tile work. The other half was a canvas-sided bedroom that zipped open to a deck with rocking chairs, overlooking the garden and forest.

Morgan reading on our porch.

Morgan reading on our porch.

A lightning, thunder and rain storm intensified, which is normal for the afternoon. It’s a rain forest, after all! On each of our days in Costa Rica, we experienced sunny mornings and stormy afternoons. Two inches dumped in two hours.

I changed into running shorts to head out for a drenching run on that irresistible road leading to the lodge—running in water sandals, since I didn’t want to deal with packing damp running shoes in my suitcase—and meanwhile, the rest of our group hung out playing cards and games. As soon as the lightning subsided, they jumped in the hot tub that connected to the top of the water slide.

I was soaking wet after running in the rainforest surrounding the lodge.

I was soaking wet after running in the rainforest surrounding the lodge.

After the storm clouds and lightning subsided, several guests in our group enjoyed the hot tub overlooking the water slide and gardens.

After the storm clouds and lightning subsided, several guests in our group enjoyed the hot tub overlooking the water slide and gardens.

Kyle on the water slide. Amazingly, he broke his collar bone three weeks ago, but it is healing fine and the injury did not slow him down on this trip.

Kyle on the water slide. Amazingly, he broke his collar bone three weeks ago, but it is healing fine and the injury did not slow him down on this trip.

The 12-year-old Rafiki Safari Lodge is the creation of one family, the Boshoffs, originally from South Africa, who advocated to save the river valley when the utility company tried to dam it and who rebuilt after extensive flood damage a few years ago (read about them here). We got to know Lautjie (pronounced “low-key”) Boshoff, a biologist and river runner, because he was our guide throughout the stay and took us on the river the next day. Any chance he got as we walked around the property, he would tell us about the species of plants and animals there, frequently tearing off leaves for us to sniff and taste.

Rafting was an adventure that included one of the three rafts capsizing (thankfully not ours, and everyone was OK), a short hike to a waterfall that we all stood under, and an up-close look at a boa constrictor sleeping in a tree.

Kyle, me, Colly and Morgan

Kyle, me, Colly and Morgan

Checking out a double waterfall midway through our rafting trip.

Checking out a double waterfall midway through our rafting trip.

Kyle and Morgan submerged in the waterfall

Kyle and Morgan submerged.

We only spent 24 hours in and around the Rafiki Safari Lodge, but I’d say it was the highlight of a remarkable week.

A litchi fruit picked on the Rafiki Safari Lodge grounds.

A litchi fruit picked on the Rafiki Safari Lodge grounds.

These flowers bloomed everywhere we went in Costa Rica.

These flowers bloomed everywhere we went in Costa Rica.

An extremely poisonous Yellow Eyelash Pit Viper we saw on Day One in Arenal National Park. Colly stood inches away to take this photo, until the guide told her they jump. Photo by Colly Smith

An extremely poisonous Yellow Eyelash Pit Viper we saw on Day One in Arenal National Park. Colly stood inches away to take this photo, until the guide told her they jump. Photo by Colly Smith

Other Recommendations for Costa Rica Travel

Near La Fortuna and Arenal National Park:

  • We were impressed with our hotel, the Arenal Kioro Suites and Spa, and especially liked how each room had a pano view of Arenal Volcano and its own large hot tub.
  • This area features numerous hot springs, and our guides took us to one for soaking, drinks and dinner that was clean, beautifully designed and not too crowded or touristy: the Eco Termales.  They provide towels and have changing rooms with showers so you can go for a soak in the hot pools, then change and enjoy a casual meal there.
  • We did the Arenal Hanging Bridges Walk one morning. It’s worth it to see the rainforest canopy from both above and below, but go with patience to deal with the crowds—or, go as early as possible to be one of the first in. The photo below makes it appear as if we had the place to ourselves, but in reality we had to walk slowly and wait frequently for tour groups to make their way over the bridges and trails.
Hanging bridge in black and white, by Colly Smith

Hanging bridge in black and white, by Colly Smith

  • And, of course, when in Costa Rica … zip line! I personally am not a big fan of zip lining, but I went along for the kids’ sake. Our Backroads guides took us to Arenal Mundo Aventura, and they thoroughly researched zip line providers to assure safety, so I trust that this is a good provider. The only problem is we went in the afternoon, during an intense lightning storm, so we had to wait a half hour for the worst of the electricity to pass. I would recommend going in the morning when it’s less likely to storm. We got a thrill flying over the treetops, but once is enough for me.
Morgan zip lining in the rain.

Morgan zip lining in the rain.

Near Quepos:

  • Manuel Antonio National Park: Don’t let the junky entrance lined with cheap tourist shops dissuade you; a walk through Manuel Antonio is worth it. We spotted howler monkeys, white-faced monkeys, toucans, sloths, iguanas and more. Then we loved swimming in the warm water at the beach and hiking to Cathedral Point.
A monkey jumping from one tree to another, with a baby on its back, at Manuel Antonio National Park.

A monkey jumping from one tree to another, with a baby on its back, at Manuel Antonio National Park.

Colly on the beach at Manuel Antonio park. She wrote "Pura Vida" vertically on her legs with clay.

Colly on the beach at Manuel Antonio park. She wrote “Pura Vida” vertically on her legs with clay.

  • Alma Del Pacifico Beach Hotel along Playa Esterillos Este: We stayed two nights here on the beach, located in between Jaco and Manuel Antonio National Park in the Central Pacific Region. The hotel has colorful mosaics and artwork along every walkway and in each spacious room. It’s designed by the same architect and artist who did Xandari (see below). Our room featured a mini pool on its patio overlooking the beach, where I ran for miles.
That's me in the small pool off our patio at Alma del Pacifico Hotel. Morgan is in the hammock by the beach.

That’s me in the small pool off our patio at Alma del Pacifico Hotel. Morgan is in the hammock by the beach.

Playa Esterillos Este, photo by Morgan Smith

Playa Esterillos Este, photo by Morgan Smith

Near San Jose:

  • I normally don’t rave about a Marriott, but if you need to stay near the San Jose airport, then the San Jose Marriott is one of the nicest you’ll find. It has a high-quality and large fitness room, and an outstanding Peruvian restaurant called La Isabella.
  •  After our Backroads tour ended, we spent our last two nights at Xandari, about 25 minutes from the airport on a mountaintop overlooking the city. Both Xandari and Alma Del Pacfico (see above) were built by the California architect Sherrill Broudy and his wife, an artist, Charlene Broudy. Splashy, bright colors, mosaic patterns, curved lines shaping all the buildings, and exquisite gardens with exotic flowering plants define both properties. But Xandari, which has a working farm and covers over 40 acres, is to me more special than their beach hotel because of its 4K of hiking trails through a jungle and past five waterfalls. The trail is like the jungle version of the Dipsea, with hundreds of mossy steps, through a giant bamboo forest and dense greenery. It felt like the perfect place to rest and enjoy a last bit of Costa Rica after a very active week.
The trail around Xandari had hundred of steps like these.

The trail around Xandari had hundred of steps like these.

Morgan and me hiking around Xandari's property.

Morgan and me hiking around Xandari’s property.

A giant bamboo forest.

A giant bamboo forest.

Finally, I enthusiastically recommend Backroads. This is our second trip with them (read here about the first) and we had great experiences both times with the guides and the group as a whole. If you’re on a budget and/or if you want a relaxing vacation with a lot of downtime, then I would not suggest Backroads. But if you want to get the most out of a week of travel in terms of doing a lot of activities and seeing a lot of places, and you want to enjoy the company of others, then this is a great way to go. I really appreciate Backroads’ focus on athletic activities (primarily biking and hiking), their attention to detail, and the way they strive to create unusual experiences on lesser-traveled byways.

If you go to Costa Rica, you'll see lots of lizards and iguanas! This photo is by Colly Smith.

If you go to Costa Rica, you’ll see lots of lizards and iguanas! This photo is by Colly Smith.

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2 Responses to My Favorite Place in Costa Rica (and other Costa Rica Travel must-do’s)

  1. Stewart August 2, 2014 at 2:14 pm #

    Hey Sarah, great trip report! We travelled to CR in March (dry season) for two weeks with our daughters. We enjoyed similar adventures including gorgeous Manuel Antonio Park. We were so impressed by the kindness and trustworthiness of all the Ticos we met. My solution to the footwear issue was VFFs, my first time wearing them, but they were great on the trails there and worked even on horseback! My main takeaway from all the ecotourism we did was a sense of wonder at nature, not only there, but back home in Québec. Strange, how a trip abroad makes me appreciate the most mundane or “common” of birds or insects back home.
    Thanks again! PS you can see where your son’s collarbone was busted…ouch!

  2. Christine Krishnan August 4, 2014 at 8:48 am #

    Hi Sarah,

    What a great report! So glad you and your family enjoyed your time here in Costa Rica!

    When you come back, we’d love to show you some of our off-the-beaten-path amazing trails for running near the Arenal Volcano (we are sorry about the lack of safe running areas along the main streets – we are also working on creating recreational bike paths, etc. along the shoulders to attract more-fitness enthusiasts like you to our area.)

    And there are some intense marathons and triathlons you might be interested in competing in. Several of us are gearing up for the Playa Conchal Triathlon later this Fall.

    Thank you again for posting this great blog and beautiful photos!

    Warm regards,
    Suresh and Christine Krishnan
    Arenal Volcano, Costa Rica

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