Day 3: A Morning Horseback Ride
One of the main attractions at Hacienda Pozo Azul is their easy horseback ride through small streams and backcountry roads, with opportunities to gallop along the way. I joined a group of seven other travelers, all with varying degrees of riding experience, for our morning cowboy adventure.
Our mounts were criollo horses, a well-tempered breed with Spanish and Peruvian bloodlines common in Costa Rica. While a bit on the small side, criollos are sturdy and sure-footed, perfect for children or the novice rider. After a short tutorial on how to steer and halt our steeds, we set off for a two-hour exploration of the countryside.
We reached a large grassy meadow where we spurred our horses to a gallop and raced back and forth, cheering and laughing the whole time. The loop trail continued up a steep muddy path to the banks of the Sarapiqui River before circling back to the stables at Hacienda Pozo Azul. Along the way, we chatted with our guides who pointed out the deep, throaty call of nearby howler monkeys and a colorful poison dart frog.
Back at the ranch, a group of students were gearing up for a rafting trip down the Sarapiqui River, one of Pozo Azul's most popular tours. From the river bridge, I watched the paddlers excitedly begin their 13-kilometer adventure down Class II and III rapids with names like "the roller coaster" and "ay, caramba!"
I headed back toward Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui and stopped at Selva Verde Lodge, just a few miles outside the center of town. Surrounded by 570 acres of protected rainforest, this popular lodge was founded in 1985 by the Holbrook family, and was one of the first true "eco-lodges" in the region.
The sprawling grounds are home to a primary rainforest reserve, several hiking trails, a botanical garden, swimming pool and butterfly gallery. The accommodations are rustic but comfortable with nice touches like pillow-top mattresses and high-quality linens. My room was part of the river lodge, built up on platforms above the forest floor and connected to other buildings by a series of covered walkways. All of the rooms had wrap-around balconies and hammocks for relaxing outside.
The Holbrooks also run the nonprofit Sarapiqui Conservation Learning Center (located next to Selva Verde Lodge), which strives to promote community development and sustainable tourism in the region. With the help of volunteers, the center teaches English and environmental education to community groups of all ages. The center also supports reforestation programs that work with small landowners and schools.
Unfortunately, I had just missed the Selva Verde's 4 p.m. birding tour with their resident naturalist guide. Visitors typically see everything from woodpeckers and toucans to the brilliant rufous-tailed hummingbird. That evening I joined other guests for a tasty buffet dinner at the lodge's open-air dining room and bar overlooking the Sarapiqui River.
Next to the dining area, a suspension bridge leads to a massive rainforest reserve, where lucky hikers can spot spider monkeys, agoutis, river otters and even ocelots with the help of a guide. As I walked back to my room, quick flashes of red revealed tiny strawberry dart frogs along the sides of the path. They hid under leaf litter and inside wet bromeliad leaves, chirping a soft rainforest harmony.