Coffee Fields, Poas Volcano, Wildlife and Waterfalls
One of the great things about traveling in Costa Rica is its compact size, enabling visitors to explore varied terrains in relatively short amounts of time. Costa Rica is known for its diverse ecosystems, including cloud and rainforests, rich farmlands, cool mountains and hot lowlands. Today, I had the opportunity to experience all of these environments on my tour with Expediciones Tropicales. Dubbed the 4 in 1 tour, our journey began in the mountains above Alajuela, at Doka Estate coffee plantation, followed by Poas Volcano and La Paz Waterfall Gardens, before descending into the Caribbean Zone, to the town of Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui, for a tranquil boat ride down the Sarapiqui River. With an appetite for adventure, we set off at 7 a.m. with our trusty tour guide, Martin, for an action packed day that would end a full 12 hours later.
In chats with my tour mates, who hailed from South Africa, Australia and the U.S, I learned that most were on a tight schedule, some with just a few days vacation in Costa Rica. For them, the 4 in 1 tour with Expediciones Tropicales offered the most bang for the buck (or kick for the colon), but more importantly, the opportunity to see some of the Central Valley highlights in just one day, a sort of condensed Costa Rica. As we climbed up the mountain through San Isidro de Alajuela, to Doka Estate, our group asked Martin some thoughtful questions about Costa Rica's economy. He explained that while Costa Rica still exports large amounts of coffee, bananas, sugar and pineapple, within the last decade, technology and tourism have replaced agriculture as the top industries. Driving past verdant coffee farms and large fields of ornamental plants, our thoughts were on our impending coffee tour and Tico-style breakfast at Doka Estate.
With perfect timing, the pea-soup fog that we had driven through for nearly an hour suddenly cleared as we arrived at Doka Estate. There, Martin gave our group of ten an abbreviated 15-minute tour of the coffee plantation where we learned about the Arabica coffee plant and the drying and roasting process of Doka's award-winning Tres Generaciones cafe. We tucked into hearty helpings of delicious coffee, fruit, eggs and gallo pinto, Costa Rica's version of rice and beans, in the plantation's outdoor restaurant. After breakfast we had 20 minutes to roam the coffee fields or shop in Doka's souvenir store. A couple of folks in our group purchased bags of freshly roasted coffee, so our tour bus smelled like a double shot of espresso for the remainder of the trip.
Already on the lower slopes of Poas, we continued north to Poas Volcano National Park, the 35-minute ride traversing small farming communities, past cattle and sheep ranches and a couple of trout farms. We climbed from 4,500 feet to over 8,000, through cloud forests and vegetation reminiscent of Jurassic Park. As the air was noticeably chillier, we dug through our bags and pulled out light jackets for the short walk from the parking area to the crater of the volcano. Once there, it was obvious why this is one of the most visited national parks in Costa Rica: close proximity to San Jose, wheelchairaccessible, paved roads and a spectacular view of the second-widest crater (9/10th of a mile) in the world. Our guide informed us that Poas is one of Costa Rica's five active volcanoes and had a minor eruption last September. In fact, Poas has erupted several times over the past century, sending huge ash clouds into the air.
The park was blanketed in giant ferns and poor man's umbrella plants, their massive leaves nearly three feet in diameter. The acid rains generated by the volcano allow few other species to flourish in the area. As we approached the lookout to the crater, we smelled the eggy sulphuric gas that gurgled from the volcanic fumaroles. Undeterred, we arrived at the lookout and were relieved to see the crater, only partially obstructed by clouds. Inside the crater boiled a lagoon of aquamarine water. At a depth of nearly 1000 feet, it is the largest active volcanic lagoon in the world.
While the park offered several well-marked trails through cloud forests to other lagoons, Martin explained that we didn't have time and would have to push on. Our hour-long visit to the park included a quick visit to its small museum, with old aerial photos and topographical maps. I learned that Poas is comprised of three craters, only one of which is active. One of the dormant craters has transformed into a cold-water lake which flows down the mountains and feeds the Sarapiqui River, our final destination.
From Poas, we traveled east for another 35 minutes, towards the Caribbean side of the continental divide, to the tiny town of Vara Blanca, home of La Paz Waterfall Gardens. La Paz is a mammoth place: a nature park, wildlife refuge, butterfly garden, and serpentarium all wrapped up in one. A hotspot on the tourist trail, La Paz has beautifully-landscaped grounds and nearly three miles of trails, lush with bromeliads and orchids. We spent over two hours at the park, exploring the football field-sized aviary, where scarlet macaws and toucans roamed freely. In a separate enclosure, a family of marmosets, known locally as star monkeys, vied for our attention. Their furry, mischievous faces reminded me of Gizmo, the gremlin. We moved on to La Paz's new butterfly observatory, and got a closer look at some of the many species of butterflies native to Costa Rica. The enclosure had an onsite laboratory, allowing us to view the butterfly lifecycle.
Our next stop was the serpentarium, which exhibited 30 of Costa Rica's snakes, including boa constrictors and the highly venomous eyelash pit viper. Our group had time to stop for photos; however Martin kept us on the move, as we had lots of ground to cover. We chowed down on a buffet-style lunch of salad, pasta, chicken and pizza, fueling up for the rest of our journey. I was happy to be visiting La Paz in the rainy season as there were fewer crowds and better opportunities to photograph the flora and fauna. We passed through the hummingbird garden, where the iridescent green birds zoomed just inches from our faces,their long and narrow bills designed to drink nectar from flower blossoms.
The Ranarium, or frog garden, housed several species of the minuscule poison dart frog and tree frogs, all climbing freely on trees and plants. The larger species were easier to spot, usually wedged in the crevice of a plant, almost like a prop frog as they always seemed to be next to their identification card. We finished our trip to La Paz with its real highlight, a series of five spectacular waterfalls. A somewhat slippery, vine-covered path led us to the first waterfall, known as The Temple. The water crashing down from 85 feet above created a fine mist in the air. The trail followed the La Paz River, through both cloud and rainforest habitats, carrying us first above, then next to and finally below the waterfalls.
In the interest of time, we skipped the hike down to the last two waterfalls which our guide explained we could see better by car on our way out. Although the sky was dark and cracks of lightning could be heard, the rains held off as we made our way northeast, to the Caribbean lowlands of Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui.We descended into the flat lands of the Caribbean Zone, the landscape dominated by coconut palms, grown for both their fruit and tender hearts of palm, harvested from the core of the tree. The hour and 15-minute drive passed quickly as our group chatted away about the places we had just visited.
Our final voyage of the day was a boat trip down the Sarapiqui River. Our boat driver, Mr. Willy, had lived in Sarapiqui his whole life and knew the water and its animals so well he seemed like kin. We trawled slowly down the river and almost immediately saw a couple of baby howler monkeys frisking in the trees. A splash alerted our guide to a river otter, slipping quietly below the surface of the dark water. We spotted herons, waterfowl and large male iguanas, but my favorites were long-nosed bats, the tiniest I had ever seen. The bats clung to the side of a tree in a long, snake-like formation to scare off predators. Mr. Willy turned off the boat's motor and we spent a few quiet moments idling along the river. Every now and again he would rev-up the engine, exciting the monkeys, who howled back at us. Nearing the end of our trip, we saw a juvenile three-foot crocodile, common to the Sarapiqui River. One of my tour companions was particularly worried about the small children we saw swimming in the river, just a few hundred yards away. When asked about the danger, Mr. Willy just shrugged and said "no worries, Pura Vida."
Our day had come to an end, and although happy, we were all a bit tired and hungry. I was relieved to see cookies and pineapple juice waiting for us at the dock. While cramming butter cookies into my mouth, I thought about all that we had done on our tour and how it would have taken me several days to cover so much ground on my own. We boarded our comfortable bus, bound for San Jose, via the scenic highway through Braulio Carillo National Park. The last person to be dropped off, I said goodbye to our friendly Expediciones Tropicales guide. It had been a long and fun journey, but I was ready to head home to share my exciting day before crashing out and dreaming of waterfalls and volcanoes.