Costa RicaCosta Rica

A Safari Float and Giant Green Iguanas

Destination: Arenal

While the lodge's breakfast bonanza usually begins at 7 a.m., with advance notice the staff will provide continental fare as early as 6 am, which suited my schedule perfectly. I had an early pick-up by Aventuras Arenal, a local tour operator specializing in eco-tours, for a safari float down the Penas Blancas River.

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My guide Alvaro had twenty years of whitewater rafting experience, but today we wouldn't need it. Our trip would be a leisurely float down Class I rapids through a part of the river that had been dammed for hydroelectric use.

Along the way, we passed large tracts of papaya trees, yucca plantations and fields of platano and rice. The numerous dairy cattle farms reminded me that before the tourism boom of the 90's, the area was primarily agriculturally driven. We drove through the tiny town of El Tanque where the annual patron saint celebration, complete with fiestas and Tico bullfights, were well underway.

Twenty minutes later, we arrived at a small dock in La Perla, where Alvaro and our driver Albert inflated our sturdy six-man raft while we each grabbed an oar and life jacket. Alvaro explained that the Penas Blancas River originates in the Children's Eternal Rainforest of Monteverde and is usually quite clear. Today the river took on a coffee-colored hue due to the silt and debris churned up by recent rains.

We reviewed some basic paddling commands but it was pretty obvious that our river trip would be far from demanding. Alvaro did most of the steering while we three passengers enjoyed the ride. The gentle current carried us past giant cecropia, balsa and ficus trees. Alvaro maneuvered us close to the shore to point out the bread fruit tree. The spiky green produce was a throwback to my Peace Corps days in Jamaica, where my Rastafarian homestay family and I dined on the potato-like fruit fried in butter.

The Safari Float is a popular tour with many outfits, so it wasn't surprising to see other rafts on the river. There was a sense of camaraderie as guides shared information on wildlife they had found. We saw basilisk lizards, mango swallows and tiny long-nosed bats, resembling furry kiwi fruit with wings. A large troop of howler monkeys soon made their presence known. We watched mothers and babies frisk in tree canopies, searching for leaves and fruit. They moved quickly from branch to branch, balancing with their prehensile tails.

The river is home to caiman, crocodiles and a variety of fish including machaca, catfish and tarpon. At times, in an attempt to maneuver small rapids, Alvaro asked us to paddle backwards or stop. I had a brief flashback of some fierce whitewater I had paddled in Indonesia and quickly followed commands, whereas the nice couple with me was busy fidgeting with their cameras. I was glad I wasn't sharing a raft with them on bigger waters.

Our two-hour journey carried us eight kilometers downstream where we picnicked in an open-air rancho. We snacked on fresh fruit and cookies under the watchful eyes of two turkey vultures. Since we had a bit of extra time, we drove to a bridge in the nearby town of Muelle to get up-close and personal with some green iguanas. There were at least fifteen large males sunning themselves in the branches of the azote caballo (horsewhip tree), one of their favorite foods. I bid goodbye to my Aventuras Arenal guide and driver after our tranquil Safari Float.

My bags were packed and I was ready to move to my new digs, Hotel Arenal Paraiso. Conveniently located on the main highway between La Fortuna and the lake, Arenal Paraiso is a full-service resort with all the amenities you'd expect.I was particularly excited about the hotel's private thermal hot springs, a series of fourteen pools that varied in temperature and all with terrific volcano views.

The rooms were nicely spaced apart, more like small bungalows, each with an enclosed glassed-in terrace where you could hang out and enjoy the volcano. I settled into a rocking chair on my patio and watched a huge rainstorm move in. Though the rain kept me out of the hot springs, I enjoyed my comfortable room.

Although I didn't have time to try it, Hotel Arenal Paraiso also offered its own canopy tour right on the hotel's grounds. As I was checking in, I saw a group of cheerful tourists clad in white hard hats on its way to zip through the trees. I nipped into town to grab some dinner and supplies before crawling into bed, weary but in good spirits.

A Safari Float and Giant Green Iguanas in Pictures

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