Back to Nature in Costa Rica
Published: January 2010
By Kimberly Brown
Mother Nature is still in charge at three superb eco-resorts in rough and ready Costa Rica
It is morning again in Costa Rica's Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve, and 15 of us are hearing it for the first time. Fifteen pairs of lightweight hiking boots and Reeboks stand in a single file, rooted to the damp, dark path. Heads back, mouths slack, we assume the peculiar posture of birders: frantically focusing.
For most of us, this is an initiation to our Costa Rica vacation. Necks draped with the requisite equipment—binoculars, camera, or both—we fumble and grapple. I have never been ornithologically inclined, but at this moment, the only thing that seems to matter is the electronic BAAAAAAAAWNK of the three-wattled bellbird perched in the leafy canopy somewhere over our heads.
It is the loudest bird I have ever heard, and it has only just begun.
Our guide, Eduardo, wears Levi's tucked into his brown leather boots and a blue and white retro-print Hawaiian shirt. His hair is in dreadlocks. "Okay, my friends," he says—he has this radiance about him—"you should know that nature is undependable." It is Eduardo's job to interpret the forest for us, but what that really means is that he will identify, and help us see, as many plant and animal species as he can in 90 minutes.
Our group is hushed, expectant. There are so many of us, I fear we won't spot a thing. Eduardo glides through the forest. The rest of us are not only nearsighted, but lead-footed by comparison.
Now Eduardo is explaining that we are walking through secondary forest. The virgin forest was cut down to create pastureland 50 or so years ago. We file by huge buttresslike tree roots and sci-fi-size philodendrons that resemble giant houseplants. A strangler fig with aero-roots as thick as logs winds around a young oak. Eduardo points out clusters of white begonias edging the trail at eye level, then a heliconius butterfly.
Suddenly, there is a racket in the canopy overhead. "A white-faced monkey shaking down bromeliads for frogs!" Eduardo says. Before any of us has a chance to spot the monkey in the thick camouflage, there is a crashing in the underbrush, and a short-haired mammal, a sort of cross between a rat and a pig, streaks down a little hill and charges right for us. He cuts between me and the person ahead of me, carves a quick U-turn, and speeds back through our ranks before disappearing into a nearby thicket. "Guatusa!" Eduardo is laughing. "It's an agouti."
"Did we startle him?" someone asks, visibly shaken.
"I'd say it was about fifty-fifty."
This is exactly the kind of experience I have been hoping to have on my 10-day ramble: something to remind me that there is still wildness in Costa Rica. In recent years, not only has this tiny country evolved into one of the world's favorite vacation spots, but many North Americans have decided to retire here. The usual reports have trickled back: "You know, you should have gone ten years ago." Or worse, "It's already trampled to death."
Suspecting these rumors were far from true, I set out to find the best of unspoiled Costa Rica by visiting three wilderness resorts in three out-of-the-way destinations. I tossed my hiking boots into a bag, along with a pair of binoculars and a pile of T-shirts, and promised my kids that as soon as they were old enough, we'd all take a trip to the jungle.
First stop: The Monteverde Lodge. A rustic 27-room inn just outside the Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve, the lodge is by far the most luxurious place to stay in the area, but don't expect marble baths. It was built by the brilliant but wacky Michael Kaye, who, in 1978, founded Costa Rica Expeditions, the country's first adventure travel company, which last year escorted nearly 7,000 people on nature tours. "It's beds for a cloud forest!" is how Kaye describes Monteverde Lodge, and that's pretty much what it is.
Guests come to see a 29,000-acre tropical reserve perched high in the Tilarán Mountains, about 93 miles northwest of San José. The lodge is remote. So remote, in fact, that you would be extremely disappointed if you traveled the two hours by paved road and two hours by dirt road to reach it and weren't inclined to go tramping. Well-maintained paths lead from the visitors' center through six to eight different ecological zones, where some 1,500 species of plants, 400 species of birds, and 100 species of mammals reside.
I have heard stories about the arduous road to Monteverde and am relieved not to be driving alone. Instead, Costa Rica Expeditions sends a white van to meet me in San José. It is outfitted with a guide, Manuel, a driver, Elvis, and a two-way radio. The van's other passengers that day are the Kumar family, three biologists from Washington, D.C., also en route to the lodge. We take the Pan-American Highway north from the city, then a narrow route that winds through miles of coffee plantations. Manuel tells us that five years ago, coffee was the country's number one industry; now it's tourism. Elvis pulls off to the side of the road so the Kumars and I can jump out and pick a few coffee beans.
After the last leg of our journey, two bone-jarring hours of dirt road and dust, our van deposits us in an immaculate clearing—an absolute oasis of rosebushes, stone-bordered paths, and lawns surrounding a two-story lodge that seems to glow with fresh whitewash. All around us the jungle chatters and thrums.
My room, a double on the ground floor with a door that opens onto the garden, is cool and dark. This is a good thing, since I am so road-weary I have to lie down. When I come to, I can just make out the simple furnishings: a desk, a chair with a leather seat, a low table, and wooden closets with shelves. When I flick on the light in the bathroom, two enormous beetles scurry for cover under the bath mat. Just then, all the lights in the lodge go out, and the room is pitched into darkness. For a few long minutes, until the generators kick in, it's just the beetles and me, and about 10,000 tree frogs outside serenading the moon.
The next morning, after a serious breakfast of rice and black beans, scrambled eggs, two tortillas, a wedge of cheese, sliced plantains, orange juice, and cafe con leche, it is time to catch the 7:30 shuttle to the preserve for a guided cloud-forest hike. That afternoon, having seen a group of white-faced monkeys, two spider monkeys, several howler monkeys, dozens of exotic birds—including two of the legendary resplendent quetzals—and of course, the blindly charging agouti, many of my fellow nature walkers are eager for more. But the thing about Monteverde is that even outside the preserve, you are surrounded by an embarrassment of natural riches. Thrilled and overwhelmed, I sneak back to the lodge to recuperate.
All is quiet in the Biosphere-like Jacuzzi room and the camp-style dining room, where guests are assigned tables by number. I try the lecture room. No one. Even my room, with its thin walls, is silent. But as I doze away the afternoon on the terrace, spider monkeys rustle leaves in the trees, black-faced solitaires sound their high, thin whistle, another three-wattled bellbird lets loose its loud metallic BONK, like an amplifier's feedback, and black-breasted wood quails sing, quite literally, "Where-ARE-you, where-ARE-you, where-ARE-you?"
That night, I sign up for a hike along the same trail, this time under cover of darkness. There are only six of us now, plus our guide, Rodrigo. Our gingerly progress is marked by the bouncing beams of seven flashlights; beyond the corridor of light, the forest is invisible—and ALIVE. There's the high buzz of cicadas, the low buzz of crickets, the bleep-bleep-bleep of blackness thick with frogs. During the day, our forest posture was upright, but our night stance is hunched, more marsupial. We creep along, branch by branch, flashlights picking out plants edging the trail.
A whole new cast of characters emerges in the dark: huge sticklike katydids perched on their own private leaves, tiny naked rain frogs, lobster crickets that look almost edible. A fragile web maybe two feet in diameter is spun between leaves, framing a furry brown spider.
The highlight of the night is the so-called clink bug, a brown-shelled, almond-shaped beetle with a pair of phosphorescent spots on its back. When Rodrigo cradles one in his palm, we hear a delicate clinking sound, like a spoon tapping crystal. Rodrigo releases it and suggests we turn off our flashlights. Our little band is suddenly surrounded by a darkness so complete the ground is as black as the sky, except for the clink bug's spots, shining like stars.
From the mountainous world of the Monteverde Cloud Forest, I bump back down the two-hour dirt road, take the Pan-American Highway to San José, then fly south to the Osa Peninsula, which protrudes from the Pacific coast just north of the Panamanian border and is one of Costa Rica's remotest corners. My destination is the Corcovado Lodge Tent Camp, Michael Kaye's latest creation.
The first dirt road to the Osa was cut through the jungle just 17 years ago, and if it feels as if you've landed in one of the earth's wildest places, you have. In addition to being home to an amazingly rich diversity of biological species, the Osa is known for its outlaw gold miners, illegal firearms, machete fights, and the unsolved murder of conservationist Olaf Wessberg in 1975. I wanted to visit the peninsula's Corcovado National Park, the largest remaining portion of tropical rain forest in Pacific Mesoamerica.
I arrive at 10 in the morning. Our single-engine Cessna has crossed miles and miles of emerald rain forest, and now makes a wide circle over the Pacific before skimming the tops of the palms and touching down in Carate, which consists of a short gravel runway and a shotgun-shack bar. A blond-braided, blue-eyed American woman, walkie-talkie in hand, meets us at the plane and introduces herself. She is Lana Wedmore, the Corcovado tent camp's extremely capable manager. Lana is accompanied by a wiry Costa Rican vaquero named Urbano, a worn-out horse, and a wooden cart. She loads my duffel bag, explaining that while we walk the 45 minutes up the beach to the camp, Urbano will transport our gear.
The sun is already hot, the air heavy and thick. I worry that even a five-minute walk will undo me. But once we start, the sound of the surf, the softness of the khaki-colored sand, and the sight of lush rain forest growing right down to the ocean is so fantastic that I feel deliriously restored. On the little bluff where sand and forest meet, luxuriant palms grow tall, and almond trees with pomegranate-red leaves shimmer in the sun. Soon Lana says, "Look, scarlet macaws!" Sure enough, there they are—a flock of at least two dozen, squawking loudly, unmistakable with their bright red heads and extravagant tail feathers.
The Osa Peninsula is one of the last places where scarlet macaws can be found. Seeing so many of them, in pairs that mate for life, is a bit like stumbling into the Jurassic period. Maybe it's the sensation of physically walking away from telephones and fax machines and cars and televisions. Or maybe it's just the heat, but by the time I've hiked the mile to camp, I am exactly where I want to be: on the beach, on the edge of the tropical rain forest, living a simpler life.
While the Corcovado Lodge Tent Camp certainly isn't for everyone, it does give new meaning to the concept of an oceanfront view. Home for the next three days is a white canvas platform tent perched on a grassy bluff a few feet from the ocean. My tent contains two bamboo single beds made up with white cotton sheets and a blue coverlet, a woven floor mat, a rustic wooden table, a candle, matches, and a bottle of mineral water. At the foot of the bed, a white cotton towel is topped with three pink hibiscus blossoms. The walls of the tent are mesh with canvas flaps that can be lowered. A small slat porch looks out at tall palms linked by rope hammocks; beyond that, the beach slips into the Pacific. The waves are so loud you might as well be sleeping beneath them.
Meals are family style, the food amazingly good, especially when you consider the logistical nightmare of flying everything in and carting it up the beach. We dine at a long table in a thatch-roofed lodge overlooking the tents. At lunch the first day, I meet some of my campmates: a couple from Stuttgart, a pair of ophthalmologists from Berlin, two Californians, and two New Yorkers. The large woman from Stuttgart sits down, flaps her arms like a duck, and says, "Why don't we make more room between ze plates!" We eat in awkward silence until the woman from California, attempting to make conversation with the rather androgynous husband and wife from Berlin, says, "So, are you brothers?"
The icebreaker at a place like Corcovado is shared experience—for example, at the hammock house, a big, open-sided, thatched pavilion, where there is nothing but a Robinson Crusoe-style honor bar at one end and two rows of hammocks at the other. I discover it that first day, after lunch, when I realize that, since I'm only 10 degrees from the equator, the sensible thing to do is sleep. You might bring along a novel, but once you select your hammock, climb in, and push off with one toe, you are doomed. My neighbors from New York and I meet in the hammock house and never exchange a word. We drift in and out of consciousness to the top notes of scarlet macaws and the bass notes of waves.
Days revolve around nature. A two-mile, self-guided trail runs up the hill behind the camp; guided hikes are announced on a chalkboard. Since December, guests have been able to visit Costa Rica's first treetop observation platform. An amazing experience, it involves being raised by harness and pulley 120 feet to an aluminum treehouse.
I sign up for the four-hour Rio Madrigal hike without any idea of what to expect. All I know is that it will be led by Felipe Arias, 35, who has lived most of his life in the Osa, where he grew up farming and mining. Of the 16 or so guests, I am the only one taking the Rio Madrigal that day; Lana hints that I am in for a treat.
But the going is rough. After hiking along the beach, entering Corcovado National Park, scrambling up a steep ravine, and following an exceedingly narrow path, I have broken into a serious sweat—not just from the jungle humidity. But all along the way Felipe has been pointing out dozens of small wonders that serve as distractions from the physical discomforts: delicate agouti tracks, a tiny fruit bat suspended from a banana leaf, a bronzy hermit, a black-hooded antshrike, a family of white-faced monkeys, "Jesus Christ" lizards (they walk on water), and plate-size blue morpho butterflies that dance over our heads like iridescent cartoon characters. At Lana's suggestion, I am wearing a bathing suit, my lightest-weight running shorts, and reef sandals. Felipe has on shorts and a machete. He tells me he has never worn shoes in the forest, and to prove it shows me the thick brown soles of his feet.
The hike is a marathon, but worth it. That night I am both exhausted and euphoric. At nine o'clock when the lights go out, I take my towel, toothbrush, and flashlight, and head up the path to the bathhouse. The wind is warm as a breath, the moon hangs soft and full, and on the stone steps leading from the path a frog as big as a dog sits like a statue, surveying the night.
I Saved Lapa Ríoa for last, knowing that it will be my reward for a few days of almost roughing it. Just an hour from Carate by dirt road, but light-years away in comfort, Lapa Ríos is a three-year-old wilderness lodge that has been carved out of the jungle by its American owners, John and Karen Lewis. I radioed one of two local taxis—flatbed trucks outfitted with benches—for the ride from Carate, but most guests get here by flying into the small town of Puerto Jimenez, on the Golfo Dulce side of the Osa Peninsula. No matter how you reach Lapa Ríos, it's guaranteed that you will be thirsty and tired by the time you check in.
Karen Lewis knows this, and before I can introduce myself, a chilled glass of blackberry juice is pressed into my hand. Lewis is at the front desk, fielding guests' questions, and monitoring the radio—the only form of telecommunication on this part of the Osa. But somehow he manages to guide me through a detailed check-in procedure. I'm given a map with directions on how to get to my room, a brief history of Lapa Ríos, suggested hikes, and a quick look through the Lapa Ríos photo album.
Feeling grateful, I offer Karen my highest praise: "This feels like the ideal antidote to Manhattan."
"Mike Wallace said the exact same thing last week," she replies smoothly.
The Osa, it seems, has become the celebrity rain forest of the month. Mike and Mary Wallace, William and Rose Styron, Julia Roberts, Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins, and Woody Harrelson have all been to this incredible jungle. All were guests at Lapa Ríos, except for Woody, who stayed at Tierra de Milagros, the hippie-esque commune down the hill.
It is a long walk to my room—150 wide stairs down a dirt path, to be exact—in the shriveling heat. I try to imagine Julia and Susan making this same trek, but that doesn't make it any less daunting. My room, number 12, at the VERY bottom of the hill, is housed in a small thatch-roofed bungalow. What strikes me instantly is the sensuous simplicity: the lustrous cristobal wood floor, the two beds draped with white net canopies, the textured cane walls and screened windows. After the long journey my room makes me feel a bit like Julia in "Pretty Woman", during the part when she can't believe her good fortune.
The view drops over dense green foliage that fades into the blue Golfo Dulce. Louvered wooden doors open to a private terrace and a white stone path leading to my outdoor shower. In my garden, brilliant bougainvillea climbs a whitewashed wall; hibiscus, philodendron, and orange-and-green-speckled croton flourish.
After a few nights camping at Corcovado, Lapa Ríos seems wildly luxurious. But when I turn on the taps of my beautiful tiled bath, a few pathetic drops of water dribble out, then...nothing! No water in the sink, either. Later, when I limp back up the 150 steps and report my water problem to Karen, she admits, "We're in a constant battle with the jungle here, and the jungle is always winning."
You do have to be a bit more tolerant than usual. Most guests, however, seem to get in the spirit of the Osa and enjoy the little challenges Lapa Ríos sends their way. The couples in cottages 1 and 2, for instance, have the shortest walks to their rooms, but brag about being awakened every morning by the raucous hoots of howler monkeys. The man staying in number 4 is rumored to have survived a midnight run-in with a battalion of red ants.
A few people never get it. They complain about the hikes, the chicken salad that should have been a chicken sandwich, the lack of blow-dryers. These guests visibly frustrate the Lewises, who are here to educate people about the rain forest. Peace Corps volunteers in the late sixties, the Lewises had settled in the Midwest and raised a family before the conservation bug bit them. Seven years ago John Lewis quit his law practice and came to Costa Rica to go birding. He fell in love with the Osa and determined that a small-scale tourism project might be the key to protecting it. After liquidating their assets and selling everything, the couple moved to the jungle and broke ground. Now Karen puts in 12-hour days at the hotel, while John mans the office in Puerto Jimenez. They have no complaints: Lapa Ríos is booked through the high season.
As at Monteverde and Corcovado, the challenge for guests at Lapa Ríos is not what to do, but what to do in moderation. There are shaman-led hikes, morning bird walks, trips to an island orchid farm, sea kayaking excursions. The wise learn to limit themselves to one outing a day and save the rest of their time for recovering in the shade by the pool. Meals are served in a round thatched dining room with sides open to the breeze and wooden decks overlooking the jungle. Birds and monkeys congregate below, serenading diners like some New Age orchestra.
The menu, which elsewhere might appear limited, seems absolutely extravagant here. For breakfast there are exotic fresh fruits, plus banana pancakes served with a berry puree, or huevos rancheros, or omelettes. The lunch menu includes a spicy gazpacho, a wonderful grilled chicken sandwich, and the local casado: grilled fish, chicken, or beef with rice, beans, fried plantains, and tortillas. For dinner one night I had seviche, tequila-glazed shrimp, and chocolate flan; another night, hearts of palm cocktail, grilled red snapper with fruit salsa, and banana chocolate cake.
At night, with the light on, my room hums, clicks, and pulsates. Those elegant mosquito nets are more than decorative, I learn, as my room literally comes alive. I am as squeamish as anyone, but here the two or three beetles on the bathroom sink seem mildly interesting. A many-legged creature is camped out in my cosmetics bag, and a stick bug has crawled into my canvas duffel. (A small sign in our rooms warns us to keep bags zipped. I saw it too late.) There is a lovely, nearly translucent albino spider camouflaged on the white tiles of my shower (which works now), and a half-dozen other winged things are buzzing about my bedside candle.
After two days of signing up for early-bird walks and jungle hikes, I decide to try the two o'clock kayak trip, but by the afternoon it sounds too rigorous. When a striking, six-foot-tall Frenchwoman, the mother of three teens, tells me her massage has made her feel two inches taller, I ask for the next appointment. It is a heavenly hour in a screened room cantilevered over the forest—just the masseuse's soothing fingers, the sea breeze on my skin, and the sound of the wind in the trees.
After that I lose all track of time. I sit on the pool deck with the young French girls. It's quiet, late afternoon. There are no drink orders, and the waiters, little more than children themselves, really, shyly offer up delicate dead butterflies for us to admire. One has wings like an opalescent pastel watercolor; another, an electric-blue body. We sit and watch luminous clouds roll in over the ocean as first one, then two, then three big black toucans settle onto the bare branches of a nearby tree. We pass the binoculars around.
T&L senior editor Kimberly Brown realized she had to get to Costa Rica once all of her California relatives had been there and back. "The final straw was when my aunt and uncle bought a boat and spent a year cruising Costa Rica's Pacific coast." Brown was afraid the country might already have been tamed, but found plenty of liveliness left. She recounts her journey in "Something Wild." The best part of the trip, she says, was camping on the beach in Corcovado; the worst was discovering, two days into her visit, that her young sons back home had made off with her flashlight before she left New York.
Many travelers visiting Costa Rica for the first time choose an organized tour, but this small country, about twice the size of Vermont, is easy to explore on your own, especially with the help of an outfitter who can plan itineraries and arrange for flights, road trips, and guides.
I began my trip in San José, spent three days in the Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve, returned to San José for a night, flew south to the Osa Peninsula for five days, and spent another night in San José before flying home. The roads to Monteverde and the Osa are arduous: if you plan to drive to Monteverde, allow a full day; if you are thinking about driving to the Osa—well, don't. Instead, book a quick flight on one of the two domestic airlines, SANSA or Travelair.
Costa Rica's dry season runs from late December to April; the rest of the year is wet, but July can have a dry spell. Shorts and sandals are fine for the lodges, though you might want to dress up a bit for dinner. For jungle hikes you'll need hiking boots or sturdy sneakers, and binoculars. Don't forget sunscreen, a hat, and a flashlight.
Note: Phone and fax numbers below beginning with 506 are based in Costa Rica.
Where to Stay
c/o COSTA RICA EXPEDITIONS, P.O. Box 6941, San José, Costa Rica.
011 506/257-0766 or 011 506/222-0333, fax 011 506/257-1665
Web address: http://www.expeditions.co.cr
Owned and operated by the outfitting company Costa Rica Expeditions, this 27-room lodge is the nicest, most comfortable place to stay near the Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve. Several packages are offered; my two-night visit cost $429 and included transportation from San José, meals, and a guided hike in the forest preserve.
Best Value: CORCOVADO LODGE TENT CAMP
c/o COSTA RICA EXPEDITIONS, P.O. Box 6941, San José, Costa Rica.
011 506/257-0766 or 011 506/222-0333, fax 011 506/257-1665
Web address: http://www.expeditions.co.cr
doubles $60 per person, including meals
A beach-front camp sandwiched between the Pacific and the Osa Peninsula's tropical rain forest. Those who like wilderness and a bit of adventure will be in heaven; those who want private bathrooms and electricity should think twice. Meals are communal; the food is surprisingly good. There are two tidy bathhouses, each with toilets, showers, and sinks.
011 506/735-5130 or 011 506/735-5281, fax 011 506/735-5179
doubles $145-$164, including meals and transfers from Puerto Jimenez
A luxurious, 14-bungalow hideaway perched 350 feet above the sea in a private 1,000-acre nature preserve. Built by an American couple intent on educating travelers about the rain forest, Lapa Ríos takes pride in being absolutely ecologically correct. Whether you buy the "eco" part or not, it's an amazing place to spend a few days. Howler monkeys are everywhere. Naturalists lead early-bird outings; a resident shaman guides hikers through the rain forest. There is also a pool, and you'll need it.
HOTEL GRANO DE ORO
Calle 30, San José
011 506/255-3322, fax 011 506/221-2782
A 33-room inn in a turn-of-the-century mansion on a quiet residential street in San José. The Grano de Oro makes a comfortable, welcoming home base before and between trips to the Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve and the Osa Peninsula. Meals are served in a small, airy dining room overlooking a courtyard. Local dishes are best, and the service is endearingly friendly.
FINCA ROSA BLANCA COUNTRY INN
SJO 1201 - PO Box 025216 - Miami, FL 33102-5216
011 506/269-9392, fax 011 506/269-9555
Web address: http://www.finca-rblanca.co.cr/index.htm
This gorgeous Gaudi-esque house-turned-inn, just outside San José, was built by an American family in the late 1980's to display their extensive contemporary art collection. Eight suites overlook lush gardens, a pool, and a coffee plantation. Breakfast is included, but you should also stay for dinner: cream of chayote soup, avocado stuffed with sea bass seviche, hot chocolate mousse cake with blackberry sauce.
COSTA RICA EXPEDITIONS
P.O. Box 6941, San José, Costa
011 506/257-0766 or 011 506/222-0333, fax 011 506/257-1665
Web address: http://www.expedtions.co.cr
The adventure tour company that pioneered nature tourism in Costa Rica. Guides are well-qualified local naturalists or ornithologists; everyone I met was terrific. Highlights: trips to Tortuguero National Park, Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve, and Corcovado National Park. Costa Rica Expeditions has its own lodges or tent camps at each.
3516 N.E. 155th St., Seattle, Wash.
800/345-4453 or 206/365-0686, fax 206/363-6615
This U.S.-based outfitter specializes in Costa Rica and offers the most complete range of trips. I worked closely with Wildland Adventures in making my plans and was impressed. They provided a seamless itinerary, arranged for my flights and guides, and hired Costa Rica Expeditions to take care of my ground transportation. Wildland's guided tours are led by local naturalists, and many can be extended to include additional outings, such as a white-water rafting trip or a Pacific Coast cruise.
Best Value: OVERSEAS ADVENTURE TRAVEL
625 Mount Auburn St., Cambridge, Mass.
800/221-0814 or 617/876-0533
One of the leading international adventure travel companies, OAT has the most accessible and affordable adventures in Costa Rica. Its 10-day Real Affordable Costa Rica trip is a bargain at around $2,200, including round-trip airfare from Miami. You won't be bored: the trip includes white-water rafting on the Reventazon River, volcano-watching at Arenal Observatory, horseback riding in the Monteverde Cloud Forest, cruising for crocodiles, and sea kayaking at Manuel Antonio National Park.
6420 Fairmount Ave., El Cerrito, Calif.
800/227-2384 or 510/527-8100, fax 510/525-7710
Mountain Travel/Sobek runs many Costa Rica trips but is best-known for its white-water rafting tours. Its 10-day "Adventures in Costa Rica," trip, starting at $2290, includes sea-kayaking on the Nicoya peninsula and rafting on the Reventazon and Pacuare rivers. Its 10 day "Natural History of Costa Rica" package is an educational/explorative trek through Tortuguero, Corcovado, Arenal and Monteverde, guided by a trained naturalist, starting at $2,050. Prices for both trips include accommodations, transfers, meals, camping & rafting equipment, and guides.