Costa Rica: Chapter 3

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The La Fortuna waterfall is probably Costa Rica’s most famous waterfall – every tour stops here for lunch, which is why you want to get here at 8am or 9am  to enjoy your hike down the steps to the falls and go swimming before you’re interrupted by throngs of people. Six years ago, there wasn’t a park ranger, much less a life guard. You used to be able to swim behind the waterfall. Now, it appears there’s a park ranger watching over everyone.  Each time I tried to swim behind the waterfall, I got whistled at. Whistled at. You know, with a loud summer camp whistle with that dreaded hand motion to get back here NOW!  I lament.

It’s one of the few things that’s difficult to miss if you’re driving yourself, because there is signage everywhere. Follow your Costa Rican GPS.

You can bring food and I encourage you to, because it’s a nice, somewhat slippery trek down to the bottom and you’ll probably get hungry by the end of it. If you’re the planning type, you’ll bring a waterproof / water resistant bag for a change of clothes, or at the very least, shoes, because no one wants to schlep back up the side of a mountain in soggy shoes.

The thing I always forget when I get close to a waterfall is how loud it is. It’s a solid THWACK of water against water and it is thunderous. It’s windy, too. We had to coordinate our photos to make sure our tripod would stay upright in the water. Mist sprays everywhere. We’re lucky both of our cameras didn’t get obliterated with the mist. The water was chillier than I expected, with the trees and midmorning cloud cover blocking most of the sun.

Get to the waterfall before 8:30am, for a view all to yourself.

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You can climb all over the rocks, swim in the river, and have a beautiful morning to yourself. Be prepared to leave around 11am, which is when the tours start arriving for lunch. And if you decide to bring your food, please bring a bag for your wrappers. This is a beautiful place that’s existed for eons – keep your human traces to yourself.

Did we swim? Hell yes. I swam everywhere I was allowed and everywhere I wasn’t. This was my first original happy place. The first place I felt at one with the world and completely, totally at home. Waterfalls are kind of my thing. When I go again, (really early in the morning), I’ll definitely bring a dry pack and wear Teva sandals instead of the Nikes.

Next up – La Fortuna (the city) and our ziplining tour! Next on Costa Rica: Chapter 4

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Costa Rica: Chapter 1

October 2 – 6, 2014

Mark’s 26th birthday, recapped after two glasses of wine.

Highlights – Tenorio National Park / Rio Celeste, renting a car / driving in Costa Rica, Volcan Arenal, Ziplining Arenal, town of La Fortuna, ATV 4×4, La Fortuna waterfall, won free night in 5-star resort from chatting on an airplane

This was our first trip to Costa Rica together and I wanted it to be special. October’s a fine time to go because it still rains a bit but it’s shoulder season so you enjoy smaller crowds and lower prices. I also wanted to see as many waterfalls as possible because Costa Rica is rugged, volcanic and full of dramatic cliff faces – all of which are very fun to look at but less so when you’re driving your own vehicle.

Mark insisted on driving and I said that as long as we did not drive at night that I’m cool with that – it isn’t that you’re going to get taken hostage in the middle of the night – it’s that there is no signage, direction or street lights to help move you along. Add in a couple marginal passes around a mountain bend and if you so much as sneeze you’re falling 1,000 feet and abruptly ending your vacation.

So, no night driving. When we picked up our tank of an SUV we opted for full coverage because, as the salesperson put it:

You can total the car, drive it off the cliff, set it on fire, whatever, and we will come bring you a new one – no charge.

How could we argue with that? We also opted for the GPS in the car because our phone GPS could not track us as fast as we needed to veer / make turns / drive otherwise recklessly.

Our first stop was Tenorio National Park. It’s a few hours away from San Jose – it looks deceivingly close on a map but here’s a Costa Rica tip: Take whatever time Google maps tells you and multiply it by 3. 1 hour? Means it’s 3 hours. The roads are very narrow 2 lanes at best, sometimes over 1-lane rickety wooden bridges, prone to flooding and trucks breaking down.

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This was the bridge we took on our way to our hotel / cabanas, just outside Tenorio National Park.

We arrived to our humble abode about dusk, and exhausted from our day’s journey, prepared for an early rise. Food and coffee is wonderfully fresh, refreshing and well flavored. You can get either an American breakfast or go with the Tican breakfast, which we highly recommend.

Tenorio is nothing short of a natural wonder. It’s far flung which means you won’t get hordes of tourists but it’s big enough that you can spend a whole day here. The paths are well marked and you will see the water change from crystal clear to a brilliant aqua blue.

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The minerals in this pool of water give it its brilliant blue color. Due to the sensitivity of the habitat, swimming or playing in the water is not permitted, but we’re fine with that so long as it preserves this incredible view. Below is the Laguna Azul, aptly named Blue Lagoon.

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For more on Tenorio National Park and the best of La Fortuna, go

Onward to Costa Rica: Chapter 2

Costa Rica: Chapter 2

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This is a panoramic view with the waterfall hidden just beyond the foliage to your right. On the left, Mark is setting up the camera for a long exposure. We spent the entire morning around the waterfall and saw two people the entire morning. It was everything I wanted in Costa Rica – natural, rugged, secluded. I would go again and bring a lunch. If you’re looking for off the tourist trail, go Tenorio National Park.

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Our itinerary took us to the farthest place first – so we flew into San Jose, CR and drove north to Tenorio, then drove back and visited our next destination, La Fortuna.

This was a stark contrast because  La Fortuna is heavily touristed, even in shoulder or off season. There’s no language barrier (Spanish to English) and there are too many tours to choose from. To see our picks for La Fortuna, visit Chapter 3.

Back to Chapter 1                                                                       Onward to Costa Rica: Chapter 3

Traveling to Costa Rica? Read This First (Updated for 2015)

Costa Rica is a haven for adventure lovers, thrill seekers, and romantics. When we visited earlier this month, we were burdened again and again by some information that, well meaning, is not entirely true. Here to debunk some of the most popular “advice” of Costa Rica.

MYTH 1: You can’t drive the country alone.

FACT: The country’s roads, though still largely created by boulders and rocks of many sizes, can be driven without hired help and you definitely don’t need a tour bus. A 2WD vehicle is not necessary if you are staying on paved roads.

Please note that the roads to Volcan Arenal (Arenal Volcano), La Fortuna (city, and La Fortuna Waterfall) and the surrounding hotels are largely unpaved. The road from La Fortuna to Monteverde is also unpaved (even if you take the ferry across the lake, much of your travel is going to be on unpaved road.

MYTH 2: It’s unsafe to drive at night because of thieves.

FACT: The danger lies in the complete inability to see axle-breaking potholes in the road at dark. No street lights line the unpaved roads. Seldom you will have a fence between the road and the cliff, but rarely. Please don’t drive once the sun completely sets.

MYTH 3: San Jose is like any other capital, easy to navigate.

FACT: Wrong on so many levels. San Jose is rife with very narrow roads and two-lane roads that abruptly become one-lane. We got lost (several times) even with the Costa Rican GPS.

MYTH 4: My iPhone GPS or Google GPS will navigate me through Costa Rica.

FACT: Yes, the Costa Rican GPS is expensive, but I promise you that you will use it and you will love it. The Costa Rican GPS alerts you of school zones, dangerous bridges (often one-way), and reduced speeds.

Google satellites are extremely dodgy in the mountains and the instructions are delayed by three to five seconds. This doesn’t sound like a lot on paper, but Costa Rica driving instructions involve a lot of “Turn right, then make a sharp left, then turn right again” in a second’s time. The lag from your standard GPS will prove frustrating at the very least.

MYTH 5: Rental car insurance is a waste and I should get only the minimal coverage.

FACT: The majority of domestic car insurance companies limit their liability on rentals abroad. Even if you call your insurance company and are advised otherwise, some information is bound to be omitted. We opted for the insurance that gave us ZERO liability; the agent literally said, “You can bring the car back in pieces, and no charge.” Yes, this almost tripled the cost of the rental car, but having that green light to be as rowdy on the rocky roads as we could be, well, was a treat.

MYTH 6: Sodas are the cheapest place to stop and get food.

FACT: Food prices in Costa Rica have tripled over the past three years. Formal restaurants will still be the bulk of eating expense, but the sodas we went to in the highlands cost us $6 for a heaping helping of chicken and rice.

Bonus:

If you want to drink Costa Rican beer on the cheap, head to the closest supermercado, or market, where you can still pick up beers for less than $1 each.

Getting the Best Experience at La Fortuna Waterfall

A trip to the mountains of Costa Rica is incomplete without a visit to La Fortuna Waterfall, and for good reason. It’s a beautiful sight. You can swim in front of it and get an awesome picture of yourself with the waterfall thundering behind you. The hiking trail is well traveled, though it’s much easier to walk down the hundreds of steps than it is to come back up. There’s landings at regular intervals to rest.

In front of La Fortuna. Difficult to get a shot of just the waterfall.
In front of La Fortuna. The lifeguard watched me closely to make sure I did not climb over too many rocks.

However, in the last few years tourism to Costa Rica has exploded. The well traveled tourist trail is getting even more, well, traveled. What once was a waterfall that one could spend uninterrupted hours at is now a lunch stop for tour companies operating in the Arenal region. This makes alone time with La Fortuna rather difficult. We arrived at 11am to find a few couples swimming at the base of the falls. In the next half hour, Desafio Tour Company and their group of 30-40 people arrived and tourists sprawled out over the rocks in front of the waterfall to eat lunch. Unless a person is sitting perfectly still, the long exposure shot of the waterfall (like the type we were trying to get, above) becomes completely distorted.

There’s a lifeguard of sorts at the entrance to the waterfall now. You used to be able to swim behind the waterfall (a sublime experience) but this lifeguard does not permit that. In fact, if you get too close to the waterfall you get a whistle blown and a hand waving you back to shore. It takes the “unadulterated nature factor” away.

Regardless, the waterfall is still worth a quick visit. Here’s how to get your best experience:

1) Make sure you are down to the falls before 10am. In order to do this, you’ll have to get your ticket to the waterfall by 9am (tickets are still $10 USD).

2) Carry a small backpack with drinking water, a light snack, flip flops/ water shoes, and a towel. 

3) Wear your bathing suit. There are no stalls to change in. 

4) Leave before the lunch crowd, which trickles in about 11:30am. (It pains me to say there’s a lunch crowd at a waterfall, but there is). 

#MarkandMelody