Day 1: Journey to Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui
I took the scenic route to Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui, a small riverside community located in the northeastern corner of Costa Rica, less than 20 miles south of the Nicaraguan border. The budding town lies at the base of the Cordillera Central Mountain Range and is quickly becoming a popular eco-tourism destination for both wildlife enthusiasts and thrill-seekers.
Situated at the junction of the Sarapiqui and Puerto Viejo Rivers, the village of Puerto Viejo (not to be confused with the southern Caribbean town of the same name) offers sensational Class III-IV whitewater rafting along with a slew of other adventure sports.
Via Alajuela, the picturesque journey wended along backcountry roads, past coffee plantations and over rolling hills divided into a quilt-like patchwork of strawberry farms and ornamental plants growing under huge shade tents. I followed signs for Poas Volcano, passing the greenest of pastures dotted with good-natured Holstein cows. In the span of an hour, I had left the warmth of the Central Valley and had ascended into the cool and misty cloud forests near Vara Blanca, where I paused for a moment to admire the towering La Paz waterfall.
The rains held off as I made my way northeast to the lowlands of Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui. I descended into the flat plains of the Caribbean Zone, the landscape dominated by pineapple plantations and coconut palms. I arrived in the outwardly sleepy town of La Virgen, about ten miles south of Puerto Viejo. Here I discovered the region's nexus of adventure sports and cultural activities, where visitors could fly high on a canopy tour, explore the rainforest, or learn about indigenous cultures.
I made a pit stop at Centro Neotropico Sarapiquis, a unique combination of eco-lodge, museum, archeological park, education center and botanical gardens. The center's mission is to integrate education, conservation and scientific research in the hopes of creating a hub for further conservation and sustainable tourism.
The museum narrates the history of the rainforest and man through a combination of videos and exhibits, focusing on the plight of Costa Rica's indigenous tribes. Beautiful pottery, musical instruments and other indigenous artifacts were on display. From the museum, I walked over to the Alma Ata Archeological Park where petroglyph reproductions, ancient stone sculptures and a Pre-Columbian burial field provided insight into 15th century life in Costa Rica.
Continuing north to Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui, I was pleased to discover that little had changed in the eight years since my last visit. A few more restaurants and tour companies had sprung up, but rampant tourism had yet to infiltrate and transform the town. I was quick to notice that English was still a novelty, spoken mainly among hotel staff and tour operators.
My home for the next two evenings was Hotel Gavilan Rio Sarapiqui, a veritable birdwatchers' bliss, where acres of landscaped gardens allowed guests a peaceful rest on the outskirts of town. Owned and operated by the very energetic Tica, Mariamala Sotela, Hotel Gavilan is nestled near the banks of the Sarapiqui River and is a favorite with families and birding groups.
The rooms are quaint and homey, some with floral drapes and matching bedspreads. All of the 17 rooms overlook the garden and come equipped with fans and hot water.
The lodge offers excellent opportunities to spot the green ibis, spectacled owl, bronzy hermit, and flycatchers to name a few of the area's 100 plus bird species. That evening, I joined a lively group of nature lovers at the lodge's restaurant for a home-cooked dinner.
The day had been a dynamic one; some folks having ridden horseback while others drifted down the Sarapiqui River on a tranquil safari float. Stories were swapped about wildlife that had been seen or heard, from toucans and monkeys to bats and hummingbirds, before we shuffled off for a good night's rest.