Costa RicaCosta Rica

Day 7: Bird Watching and Jumbo Shrimp on the Lake

Destination: Arenal

Boat trip across Lake ArenalRefreshed after a good night's rest and hearty breakfast, I was eager to visit El Congal, a private nature reserve covering 450 acres of primary and secondary forest located on the other side of Lake Arenal, west of the volcano.

Named for the congo (howler monkeys) that inhabit the reserve, El Congal is known for its biodiversity, impressive views and variety of microclimates. I met the reserve's manager Alejandro, and his brother Johann, my naturalist guide for the day. En route to the lake, they explained that the protected reserve had been in their family for over 25 years. In 2005, El Congal was opened to the public, offering visitors a chance to hike scenic trails or ride horseback with a guide.

Horseback riding guideMudslides from recent rains derailed our original plans to hike the reserve's Los Sainos trail. Instead I joined Johann for a leisurely horseback ride through low-lying pastures near the shore of the lake. While I am a fan of rambling terrain, I don't consider myself a true hiker, and was secretly glad to ride in lieu of a steep half-day hike.

A twenty-minute boat ride across a portion of Lake Arenal brought us to the reserve where our horses awaited us in the shade of a tree. Just next to ours, 15 fully-tacked horses patiently stamped their hooves and nosed each other, ready to embark on the popular La Fortuna to Monteverde trek. A large group of eager tourists mounted their horses, ready for their four-hour adventure into the cloud forests. From some of the anxious looks, I assumed a few were novice riders and were in for a long day.

Johann and I moseyed on, taking a wide dirt road towards the reserve's reception area. A local farmer tending his cattle passed us on horseback and gave a friendly nod. Johann was an avid birder and pointed out American swallow-tail kites, the oro pendola and the cackle of a laughing falcon. Arenal hotel terraceThe reserve was as beautiful as it was quiet; the only sounds aside from the birds were our horses' soft breathing and the occasional whinny.

My guide was surprised at my excitement over a flock of fluffy white sheep, a relatively uncommon sight in Costa Rica. In my previous travels to Australia, I had developed a certain fondness for their distinctive personalities. Our horses carried us past beautiful lake views to an open-air rancho where we dismounted. From the reception area I could see the reserve's two hiking trails that followed a steep ridge along the mountain. Guests have the option of a two or four-hour hike, and would likely see other wildlife in the dense foliage.

We returned to the lake where Johann shooed the horses back to their stables. The tour was a nice preview of El Congal's trails, and I looked forward to returning another day. Alejandro, Johann and I shared conversation over a tipico lunch before I loaded up my car for the 45-minute drive to La Mansion Inn.

Arenal hotel poolside artTucked on the shore of Lake Arenal, La Mansion Inn is the type of resort that you never want to leave. Located in the pueblo of La Union, the inn offers intimate cottages with sweeping lake views. La Mansion has a reputation for personalized service and old world hospitality, and I looked forward to savoring every moment of my two-night stay.

I was warmly greeted in reception, and owner Godfried Ponteur invited me to join him for a glass of wine, endearing himself to me immediately. I was first whisked away to my split-level cottage, the interior a mixture of rich textures and colors, with hand-tooled Italian furniture, vibrant murals and a spacious Spanish-tiled bath. Decorated by Italian artists, with an eye for detail as well as comfort, my cottage was the ideal retreat. I tested out my sprawling king size bed (firm but comfy) and unpacked a little before exploring the inn's grounds.

Sunset over Lake ArenalThe sun peaking out, I seized the moment for a late afternoon dip in the infinity pool. Lounging in the warm waters overlooking the lake, I felt that life just didn't get much better than this. I wandered into the inn's cozy bar and dining area where I chatted with a nice honeymooning couple and met an outgoing family of six. Most folks had spent a few days in La Fortuna, but sought out La Mansion Inn for its charm and peaceful location.

There was a definite air of romance in the candle-lit dining room, and I pined a little for my fiance. I was quickly distracted, however, by the gourmet menu which, unlike him, changes nightly, depending on what is available and fresh. One glance and I knew I'd be dining on mouth-watering jumbo shrimp, with sauteed squash and potatoes. Accompanied by a French wine, the meal was superb.

I retired to my inviting castle and watched a movie from the comfort of my bed before drifting off into a sublime sleep.

Day 7: Bird Watching and Jumbo Shrimp on the Lake in Pictures

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