Trip Report: Costa Rica Multi-Sport: December 2019

  • Staff Member: Dan Crandall
  • Travel Dates: December 7-16, 2019
  • Destinations in COSTA RICA: Playa Samara (northern Pacific coast), Rio Perdido (interior Guanacaste), Rancho Margot (Arenal), and San Jose
Sea kayaks awaiting paddlers on the long, serene beach of Playa Samara

December 7, 2020: Arrival in Liberia / Transfer to Playa Samara

The unassuming Liberia International Airport (“LIR”) is the main gateway for northwest Costa Rica, which is where our first destination, Playa Samara, is situated on the northern Pacific coast, about a 2-hour drive away. Our plan was a one-way trip from Liberia to San Jose, situated in central Costa Rica (and incidentally,the main international airport in Costa Rica), making a nice one-way trip through a pleasant swath of this beautiful country. Arriving in Samara, the first thing you notice in this dusty little hippie town is how easy-going everyone seems to be, the languid pace. The second thing, once you get your first glimpse of it, you notice is just how long and beautiful the beach is. Our modest accommodations were the Samara Treehouse Inn, an intimate little property right on the beach, composed of 4 raised mini-beach houses on high stilts overlooking the sea. The beach houses come with a small sitting area that views the beach, then a small kitchen and bathroom area, with the bedroom in the rear. The Inn has direct access to the sea and a small ‘plunge-style’ swimming pool. Within an easy stroll, conveniently, is the downtown area with a variety of shops, boutiques, restaurants, and bars.

View of Samara Treehouse from the beach. Each unit has its own open air hammock, breakfast table, and grill beneath the chalet. Each chalet comes with a large panoramic window overlooking the beach.

December 8, 2020: Beach trek Playa Samara to Playa Carrillo

Today we hiked the length of Playa Samara to nearby undeveloped Playa Carrillo, walking the length of that impressively long beach as well. We’d estimate this to be about 8-9 km total including a short stretch on the road (careful here – no sidewalk but traffic is relatively light mid-morning). We were glad to bring water and snacks, as there was no development on quiet Playa Carrillo, and hats, since there is little shade. Both beaches feature find sand beaches, with rugged cliffs as headlands on each. We passed several small smiling parties of travelers enjoying horseback riding along the shore. There was great bird watching especially on Playa Samara, watching various shorebirds flit among the waves and brown pelicans dive in the surf. The the highlight of Carrillo meanwhile was it’s blissful solitude even on a weekend. Exhausted from the sand hike, we paid $10 to a local hanging out in the Carrillo parking lot to drive us back to Playa Samara. Getting back here, we hit the ocean to cool off. While one needs to practice caution and common sense, Samara is, overall, an excellent swimming beach, a notable attraction in a country loaded with dangerous riptides affecting many other beach areas. Surfers still hit the gentle waves here, with 3-4 surfing schools along the beachfront to rent or get instruction. Later we retreated to one of the several beach bars for a refreshing pina colada as the sun set over the water.

Surfing the gentle waves on Playa Samara

December 9, 2020: Sea kayaking Samara

After a sunrise beach stroll and breakfast at the Treehouse Inn, we hiked up to the northern stretch of beach where we knew a nice local was renting sea kayaks for about $10/hour. (For novices, there are guided sea kayaking trips daily to Isla Chora.) He claims to have been there at the same location every day for over 5 years running – that is dedication! He included snorkel gear at no extra charge and a dry bag. Our destination: Isla Chora, a rugged uninhabited tropical island literally right in front of us, a brief 20-25 minute paddle away. We timed our quest at low tide. With high tide, the beach on Isla Chora may be un-landable and even dangerous. Landing was tricky, with the powerful waves criss-crossing the main beach but once landed, we got out and easily explored the rocky island (a seabird preserve) on foot, admiring some friendly iguanas up-close, and also did some snorkeling. We returned the kayaks and spent the rest of the day enjoying the town and the beach. On the way back, you can’t help but notice the handful of fishing boats moored in the water. The local fisherman do more than just fish, they also take travelers out on unique 1/2 day dolphin watching trips, which are reputed to have a high success rate if the sea conditions are not too bad and there’s no rain. Local fisherman also take tourists out fishing on half day in-shore fishing trips. Another option for travelers here are 4-hour sea turtle nesting tours, offered in the evenings/nights, on a seasonal basis, generally between August and December, to nearby Ostional Wildlife Reserve, about an hour drive away. We help our travelers with options like this, depending on interests and time.

Heading to nearby Isla Chora, a beautiful undisturbed tropical gem

December 10, 2020: To Rio Perdido, in Guanacaste’s rugged interior

Today we transferred about 3.5 hours away to Rio Perdido, with a coffee stop at a macaw sanctuary en-route. (Normally, we’d have gone to Rio Perdido first, then Samara, then Arenal, but availability made us flip flop the beach and Rio Perdido.) Rio Perdido is an exclusive mineral hot springs resort with a variety of outdoor activities on offer immersed in the rugged hill country of Guanacaste. Travelers seeking lush rainforest need to look elsewhere in Costa Rica (we can help), but for travelers seeking a unique luxury eco-resort with first-world resort amenities and a unique ecosystem – the dry tropical forest – this is an outstanding property. Our first priority was hiking the hot stream trail on-site. This is a scenic natural little stream, in a forested canyon, with natural hot pools here and there to stop and relax in. After the hike and pool sampling, we checked out the developed hot pools attached to the main lodge area, including one with a swim up bar. We ate dinner at the lodge’s restaurant and retired to our free-standing chalet early since we had an early wake up planned the next day for rafting.

A Rio Perdido chalet
Rio Perdido interior
The hot stream in the Rio Perdido canyon, with various pools reached via a 1 km trail

December 11: Rio Tenorio whitewater rafting

After breakfast at Rio Perdido and early pick up, we were transferred to the rafting office for the Rio Tenorio where we had coffee and waited for the team to assemble. The Class 3 and 4 Rio Tenorio is a must for any whitewater rafting enthusiast who visits the area. On our full day excursion, we ran a number of big class 4 drops and jumped off ledges into others. In between, numerous Class 2 and 3 ledges and river funnels thrilled us. Howler monkeys yelled at us from the canyon canopy and lush forest was all around within the jagged canyon walls. Brief calm pools spelled us to allow for some easy river swimming. This is a small fast jungle river encased within a scenic rock canyon, with clear cool water and plenty of sun. After we ran the river and tipped our guides, we returned to the rafting base, had lunch, and returned to Rio Perdido. The put in for the river is approximately 1-hour from Rio Perdido.

Phase 1 of the famed “big drop” on the Rio Tenorio
And Phase 2 of the same Class 4 “big drop” on Rio Tenorio – the entire raft was submerged at the end – fun Costa Rica-style!!

After the rafting, we went on a sunset hike on the Rio Perdido trails. Many of the trails are designed for mountain biking (which you can rent on-site) but all of them make for fine hiking, with a variety of destination available, from dramatic footbridges over the canyon to hidden springs to scenic overlooks. Allow for extra time on any hike here since the maps are not super accurate, you can get a little “turned around” so bring extra water, a hat & sunscreen for sun protection and a flashlight if hiking at sunset.

December 12, 2020: Whitewater tubing, Zipline, and transfer to Arenal (Rancho Margot)

Rio Perdido also offers whitewater tubing and a zipline course and I did both. Allow for about an hour or more for each activity. I did them back to back this morning, before returning to the lodge for lunch and our transfer to Arenal.

The whitewater tubing would be best at moderate river levels. The tubing is done on the main river, which is a separate column of water from the placid, idyllic hot spring stream we checked out on our first day at Rio Perdido. It would be a fun exhilarating experience in lower water. I went, however, when the river was very high (the tubing had been closed the previous days due to high water) and it was terrifying. The river was extremely fast and pushy, with numerous tight Class 4 drops. The river canyon walls rise straight from the water, meaning this is more like tubing a deep slot canyon rather than a routine river. The hike out is steep! I would definitely do it again in low to moderate water levels but I would not especially recommend it when the water is very high unless you are looking for an extreme water challenge. Be prepared for some bumps and bruises. Wear closed toe river shoes or water shoes or a pair of tennis shoes if you don’t have them. The canyon itself is absolutely beautiful and the guides are fun guys.

After the tubing, we went on the Rio Perdido zipline course, which features a number of high but not particularly long ziplines, a tarzan swing, a challenge rope bridge, a pendulum swing, plus a few stretches of via ferrata climbing. While the ziplines don’t compare to the best ones in Costa Rica (like the Sky trek complexes), it’s still plenty fun to fly over the canyon and enjoy some of the diverse mini-experiences built into the course. It will bring the kid out in you!

After a quick lunch, we transferred to Rancho Margot, a mid-range eco-lodge situated in the Arenal lake area, about a 3-hour drive away. We checked in, had a brief orientation from the manager about this unique sustainable farm property, and went to our bungalow. Before dinner, we relaxed and had great fun watching several species of hummingbirds zip around the flowering plants adjacent to our unit. We enjoyed our first farm-to-table dinner here and went to bed early with the relaxing pitter-patter of a gentle rain falling on the roof.

Rancho Margot bungalow
Rancho Margot bungalow interior, modest but functional

December 13, 2020: Rancho Margot R&R and hiking

We had 2 full days here, so we decided to take it easy this morning. The secluded Rancho Margot is located in a quiet remove far from the hustle & bustle of La Fortuna, and the spacious grounds (which includes not just the farm and ranch but also the forested hills that ring the property) creates a welcome space to un-plug and relax. The views of jungle hills from the bungalow porch were plenty good all by themselves. I could even hear the river in the distance. On the porch, there’s a hammock, a rocking chair and a table with chairs. Plenty of space to relax, watch colorful birds as they come and go, and catch up on reading.

Space to relax at Rancho Margot
No shortage of colorful things to distract you however right from the bungalow porch at Rancho Margot
One of the bungalow’s other resident’s at Rancho Margot

Then in the afternoon, we went for a 2-hour hike up to the Mirador of the property, a viewpoint with expansive views of Arenal Volcano, the ranch, and Arenal lake. This is a steep hike on very uneven ground so bring your hiking boots and avoid a twisted ankle. The views are worth it. After the hike, we returned to freshen up in the lodge’s natural pool and ate another fine farm-to-table dinner.

Views as you hike up the steep Mirador trail at Rancho Margot, a substantial river slices the middle of this forested gorge. A huge white eagle soared just beyond.
Bird watching the Mirador trail. On clear days you’ll see great views of Arenal Volcano (in the distance, shrouded by clouds).
An abandoned ranch house that Nature is slowly re-claiming. Photo opportunities abound on the Mirador hike. Notice Lake Arenal in the background.

December 14, 2020: Exploring Rancho Margot

Before breakfast, my wife went to the yoga studio, situated near the riverside, for morning yoga with several other ladies visiting the property. (She gave the yoga instructor high marks.) Their are daily classes on request, included. Later this morning we enjoyed the guided sustainable farm tour, which was very interesting, learning just how self-sufficient Rancho Margot really is and how much they value people, wildlife, and the land. One project they are passionate about is nurturing native botanical, and in turn, the wildlife and insects that rely on them. We saw several species of frogs, a snake, butterflies, and loads of native flower & tree varieties and more on the tour. We visited the livestock pens and learned how they humanely treat the animals plus the grand vision & admirable goals of the eco-lodge. It was a beautiful day and our local guide was a wealth of knowledge. In the afternoon we did our own self-guided 1-hour hike in the private nature reserve on-site and in the evening, we joined a local guide for a 2-hour guided night walk on the property, seeing armadillos, frogs, spiders, a colorful snake, and more.

Meeting the passionate chief horticulturalist at Rancho Margot on the farm tour
Rancho Margot has a host of protected mini-habitats that nurture indigenous wildlife

December 15, 2020: Bogarin Trail for sloths, San Jose

After a leisure morning, absorbing our final tranquil moments of simple rural life at Rancho Margot, we headed to La Fortuna and a unique urban sloth & bird sanctuary, the Bogarin Trail. The actual trail is just over 1 mile, and the entrance fee is $10/person. This is a urban wildlife conservation project lovingly managed by local brothers. This is not a deep wilderness experience – the reclaimed forest is right off the main drag. It does however provide extraordinary views of the resident wild sloths (go on one of the scheduled guided walks… we saw both species of sloth) plus fantastic photo opportunities for poison arrow dart frogs via their little open-air frog habitat and lots of colorful birds, especially toucans, at their feeder, right near the entrance.

Bogarin trail’s open-air frog habitat
The bird feeder at the entrance to Bogarin trail draws an impressive array of colorful and rare species
Opportunities to see wild sloths is the main attraction at Bogarin Trail

After our 2-hour visit at Bogarin, we ate lunch at a local pub in La Fortuna and continued our transfer to San Jose. San Jose is one Latin America’s most humble capital cities with relatively little to excite an experienced international traveler compared to the grander cities elsewhere in Latin America but it still has it’s share of very fine hotels and a variety of things to do & see. After checking into our downtown hotel, the comfortable, clean, mid-range Park Inn, we walked about a mile to the downtown pedestrian area, which was chock-full of busy holiday shoppers. We stopped by the beautifully appointed, recommended National Theater for a glass of wine, and enjoyed some people watching in the National Theater Plaza, had some dinner and then returned by taxi to the hotel.

December 16, 2020: Departure from San Jose

After a fine breakfast and time to relax poolside, at the Park Inn’s third floor open-air swimming pool – soaking up our last bit of sun before heading back to the bitter cold awaiting us further north – we met our driver outside the lobby and transferred about 30 minutes to the airport. The modern San Jose airport is much more significant than Liberia’s, with more shops, bars, cafes, and restaurants. Adios San Jose!

For many more photos from the trip, check out the trip’s Smugmug page >>. For more itinerary options in Costa Rica, check out the Adventures Within Reach Costa Rica webpage >>. All of our Costa Rica tours are custom, and you can start one any day of the year. We’ve helped parties that range from solo trips of 1-person to large groups of over 20 people. Please contact us if you’d like help planning a Costa Rica trip and get a quote.

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