Chasing Waterfalls in Costa Rica
When I was five years old I loved everything creepy crawly. I didn’t play house, I couldn’t care less about Barbie, and there was no way I was going to sit still long enough to drink tea. All I wanted to do was catch bugs, look for lizards, and dream about far off places where there were bigger, better, creepy crawly things to discover.
Sometime between chasing down frogs and learning my ABCs, I met a girl whose dad was an entomologist at the University of Washington. As soon as I figured out what an entomologist did, I immediately decided that this girl was going to be my new best friend. Dr. Gara traveled all over the world collecting insects, and his office was a menagerie of stunning insects. The walls were covered with moths the size of my face, royal blue butterflies, and rainbow colored beetles. I had found my calling.
After one trip in particular, instead of carefully preserved insects, Dr. Gara came back with tales of lush forests, neon-blue waterfalls, white sand beaches, and Pura Vida. And thus, a new obsession started - Costa Rica. I checked out every book in the library, cut out pictures from my parents’ magazines, and put it at the top of my list of places to visit when I grew up.
But a funny thing happened: I grew up and I never went to Costa Rica. Sure, people change, interests evolve, but the truth is, I’m more similar to that six year old now than I’ve ever been. So I really had no good excuse. I'd traveled all over the world, but let Costa Rica slip through my fingers. Perhaps that’s why when Quin contacted me about working on a project down in Costa Rica, I jumped at the opportunity. My childhood dream was about to become a reality!
Leading up to the trip, we didn’t have much of a plan. But we almost never do, and Quin lived in Costa Rica for two years, so I knew I was in good hands. From Los Angeles we flew into Liberia, picked up a car, and hit the road! Our goal was to see as much as we could over a long weekend, without driving more than a few hours from the airport. And waterfalls were the name of the game.
Stop One: Rincon de la Vieja National Park
Our first stop was actually a happy accident. We headed to Rincon de la Vieja National Park looking for Caterata Oropendola (Stop Two). Rounding the last corner on the three mile (one way) hike through verdant forest and volcanic dirt, we stopped short in our tracks as La Cangreja Waterfall came into view. We were definitely in the wrong location. In hind sight it should have been obvious from the photos at the visitors center, but all's well that ends well, and we definitely weren’t complaining!
Stop Two: Caterata Oropendola
Located just BEFORE the entrance to Rincon de la Vieja, the hike to Oropendola, is short, fun, and photogenic. There is an awesome suspension bridge leading down to the viewing platform, and stairs that actually descend into a swimming hole at the base of the waterfall. Take your pictures down in the refreshing water while you watch butterflies flutter though the canyon and rainbows form in the spray. This was one of the only waterfalls we visited that openly permitted swimming, so don’t forget your suit!
Stop Three: Llanos de Cortez waterfall
On our second day, I woke up to the sound of tropical birds and raucous monkeys in the trees outside our lodge. We loaded the car up and headed toward Bagaces and the Llanos de Cortez Waterfall. After a 1km hike we arrived, and found that we had the entire place to ourselves! The solitude didn’t last very long, and we were glad that we made the effort to get there early. There is a small sandy beach area perfect for sun bathing while you take in the view. Or if you’re feeling adventurous, like we were, you can swim out behind the waterfall.
Stop Four: Tenorio Volcano National Park
After our morning at Bagaces, we drove out to Rio Celeste. As we made our way down the dirt road to the Tenorio Volcano National Park, the fog rolled in, and we got our first taste of Costa Rican rain. I grew up in Seattle, so I’m no stranger to rain, but there’s something truly impressive about a tropical storm. The sheer volume of water that falls from the sky never ceases to amaze me. Drenched we trudged up the river of mud that doubled as the trial to Rio Celeste. I now understood why there were boots for rent at the trailhead. But the trail is relatively short (maybe a 20 minute walk), and before I had time to change my mind about the whole thing, we were there! The bright blue cascading water glowed through the mist filled air like a tropical lagoon, and I was so glad we hadn’t turned back. I couldn't help but think about the neon water from Dr. Garcia's stories - the legends were true!
Stop Five: Arenal & La Fortuna
La Fortuna is the gateway to Arenal Volcano National Park. You could spend days in this area exploring the two active volcanoes, but we only had half a day, so we headed to La Fortuna Waterfall. This was probably my favorite waterfall of the trip. The short trail down to the fall is beautiful, and comprised primarily of an elaborate staircase - picture a few hundred stairs winding their way through trees, vines, and the occasional chatty monkey. And then there’s the waterfall! Cascading straight down for approximately 200 feet, you hear La Fortuna well before you can see it. Standing at its base you can literally feel nature’s power as misty vapor blasts through the air. It’s a truly invigorating experience, if you don’t mind getting wet!
Stop Six: Tabacon Thermal Resort & Spa
Arenal Volcano is active, and still laced with lava flows. As a result hot springs dot the surrounding area. One such hot spring is located at the Tabacon Thermal Resort - our big splurge for the trip. While I was researching locations to shoot I found a photo of Tabacon and knew it was a place I had to see for myself. At the time, I didn’t realize it was located inside a resort, and due to the last minute nature of that discovery, we weren’t able to book accommodations at the hotel. Fortunately, Tabacon has a number of different day use options, and we took full advantage of the opportunity.
If one of Arenal’s thermal resorts is not in your budget, there’s also some awesome free options, including a portion of the Tabacon River that runs just outside the Tabacon Thermal Resort & Spa. We simply parked on the street outside the Resort and wandered down to the steaming river. Go early to avoid the crowds.
Stop Seven: Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve
Last but not least we booked it out to Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve. This reserve is one of the most renowned cloud forests in the world for its wide variety of biodiversity, important conservation contributions, and scientific research. Plus, it has an awesome red suspension bridge you can hike to! A number of trails will take you to the bridge, all of them lovely. We took one trail out, and a different trail on our return just to keep things spicy!
The national saying, Pura Vida, or “pure life,” is a sunny, feel good expression. I didn’t quite understand what it meant when I first heard about it back in my creepy crawly days. But now I understand that it’s not just a greeting, it's a way of life. A way of life born out of the unique beauty, land, and magic that makes Costa Rica unlike any other place I’ve been.