Adventure meets luxury in Costa Rica
A pair of Green iguanas (adult male is orange) in the wild kingdom that is Costa Rica. STEPHEN SMITH/Special to QMI Agency
GUANACASTE, Costa Rica -- Swinging Tarzan-like from a cable high above the treetops is no fantasy when you hit the jungles of Costa Rica.
After all, the art of zip-lining was perfected there. Plenty of wilderness excursions are now geared to adventure travellers and nature seekers, and there's no better place in Central America for these than Costa Rica, which is rife with national parks.
An estimated quarter of the country is protected land with 28 national parks offering pure unadulterated nature. And it's becoming increasingly popular with foreign visitors who want to experience what locals call their "pura vida," or "pure life."
LUXURY IN NATURE
After an adrenaline-packed day it helps to relax in a soothing environment, which is exactly what I did at the Riu Palace Costa Rica, the country's latest luxury resort. During my recent visit to Guanacaste, on the rugged Pacific coast, I discovered a wonderful secluded paradise. Situated along the remote Playa Matalpalo, Riu's new resort is spectacularly surrounded by a protected nature reserve. Just about every type of critter that makes its home in Costa Rica's jungle or off its shores can be found footsteps from the hotel.
The day after the 538-room all-inclusive resort opened in November, hundreds of turtle hatchlings poked their heads from their beach nests then made a beeline to the resort pool.
"We had to get them very quickly. It was a sight to see," resort director Wim Bracke says, recalling efforts to redirect the hatchlings into the sea to increase their chances for survival.
While surprising, the event was not entirely unexpected. The area is a renowned hub for sea turtles, and the neighbouring Riu Guanacaste Hotel has a Sea Turtle Protection Program that has been recognized with a sustainable tourism certificate. Last year more than 2,000 baby turtles were born along this Blue Flag designated beach.
Guests don't have to venture very far from the Riu Palace to be completely enveloped by nature.
We spent a morning beach-combing along the shore toward a rocky promontory, where we spotted some rowdy Howler monkeys hobnobbing high in the tree tops. Off the rocky coast, a flock of pelicans aimed their sights on the tasty fish in the waters below as looming vultures carefully eyed the whole scene.
But back at the hotel, the nights sizzled with live music and ample cocktails in uber-chic lounges. The property's five restaurants are good places to refuel after outdoor adventures. Four of these -- including the Italian eatery and the steak house -- offer a la carte menus. Some families and teens opted to take advantage of the free room service so they could relax in their rooms and use the free Wi-Fi to upload trip photos to Facebook friends.
RINCON DE LA VIEJA
A 45-minute drive from the hotel brings you to Rincon de la Vieja, the largest active volcano in the country's northwest and the closest to the beach. It's part of a national park of the same name, which translates roughly to "old woman's nook."
The area is steeped in heart-breaking romantic lore. Legend has it a tribal king's beautiful daughter fell in love with the son of an enemy tribal leader. A baby was born. The angry king tossed his daughter's lover into the volcano. Broken-hearted, the young woman became a recluse and was bestowed with magical mysterious healing powers.
Rincon de la Vieja is also known as "the little Yellowstone" because of its numerous boiling mud pots. It emits an otherworldly ambiance as the sulphurous fumaroles cast small mushroom clouds over the terrain.
Eons ago three rivers sliced deep canyons through the area, leaving a tropical forested carpet best explored in the dry season.
I had booked a horseback riding excursion and my mount was waiting at the corral. Don Rene Amador -- a seasoned sabanero (cowboy) -- had prepped a wide-eyed horse named Collo Blanco for my ride. I saddled up and we lightly galloped through aromatic savannah along trails marked by volcanic activity. Before long we heard the thundering rapids of Rio Negro, the final stop on our adventure-filled day.
Costa Rica enjoys tropical weather year-round with no winter as we know it but rather rainy (May through November) and dry (December through April) seasons. With the dry season starting, water levels on the Rio Negro were getting low but still producing considerable currents.
"How many obstacle courses?" I asked.
As a seasoned white-water gal who has battled rapids near Ottawa and jet-boated in the Niagara Gorge, I wanted to know what the narrow serpentine Rio Negro had in store for tubers. Loads of fun as it turned out.
The experience was a bit like a combination "tea cup" and "bumper-car" ride at an amusement park -- only much wetter. Twenty-five rapids in a 5-km stretch with water pelting each way had our tubes spinning, splashing and bouncing off protruding rocks.
But that wasn't all. After we hauled our tubes out of the canyon, we headed to the Hacienda Guachipelin for a traditional lunch of rice and beans, and fish.
Don Justo, a musician from the neighbouring village of Curubande entertained on his handmade marimba (xylophone).
"What's the song?" I asked in broken Spanish.
"It's about love," he said with a wink.
Our final afternoon was packed with zip-lining, which has become Costa Rica's signature activity. The fun Cirque du Soleil-like experience gets participants hanging around in some dramatic scenery. Our team did seven zips in all over the mighty Rio Colorado, plus an optional rappel and rock climbing. The experience made for memorable thrills and exciting stories to share with friends back home.
NEED TO KNOW
-- All-inclusive packages for Riu Palace Costa Rica are exclusively sold through Signature Vacations. For pricing and availability, visit your travel agent or check signaturevacations.com. Price includes air, accommodation, transfers and meals.
-- Tour operator Swiss Travel has numerous outdoor excursions. See swisstravelcr.com.
-- For travel information on Costa Rica, see visitcostarica.com.