Costa Rica bird watching in Arenal or how our hotel hooked us up with a botanical garden and homemade breakfast

Disclaimer:  I am not a “bird watcher”, but one of my good friends is and the Middle Sister is kind of becoming one.  So on our first trip to Costa Rica a bird watching adventure was on the list.

Confession: We didn’t do any research for this trip and booked a bird watching tour through our hotel. Very unlike all of us, but the guide the hotel hired was fantastic!

Our trip started at 5:30am when Jose (our guide) and Tomito (our driver) picked us up from the hotel.  It was dark and raining. Arenal Costa Rica has a wet season and a less wet season.  While we happened to be there in the “less wet season” we also came during a pretty big storm that had knocked over a lot of trees and cut power to some places.  Jose was a little concerned that we might not see as many birds as he hoped because of the heavy rain but he was very positive and led us on a great birding adventure.

This was my first bird watching trip and I didn’t really know how it was supposed to go.  The van stopped in front of a field and Jose was looking out and around.  The sun had not come up yet. On the drive he had told us some birds he thought we would see and asked if we had any birds we were hoping to see.  My friend, Mo of Russia trip and Iceland trip fame, has grown up with a birding Mom and stepdad and is a birder herself. She was able to answer all the birding questions and soon she and the Middle Sister were sitting next each other with their binoculars looking at birds and asking questions.

Bird watching

Bird watching

Bird watching

The first half of the trip was driving in the van looking for birds.  We stopped a lot.  Got out and walked a lot.  And saw a lot of birds.  It also was raining off and on and when it would really start to come down Jose would herd us back to the van.

The second half of our tour was in a botanical garden called the Eco Garden. We didn’t realize it until later but Jose and his family owned the botanical garden. Jose has degrees in biology and toxicology and had started creating this botanical garden about twelve years ago. It only opened to the public five years ago and it continues to grow.  What an amazing place!  Filled with native plants, the garden has become a home to so many creatures.  We even saw a sloth family with a baby.  
EcoGarden sign

People in garden

At the end of our tour Jose’s wife Patricia made us a traditional Costa Rican breakfast and it was cool to ask about the food and how it was prepared.  Bring on the Lizard Sauce!
Four people eat

Below is a video I made on our birdwatching adventure.

I can not recommend Jose highly enough.  He was so knowledgeable and it was a gift to see his garden and to be fed by his wife.  If in this area, please look up EcoGarden Arenal as they have way more than bird watching adventures!


Coming soon: New Orleans report

Coming soon: five days and four nights in New Orleans during Mardi Gras. I totally understand why everyone needs 40 days to detox now......


Costa Rica rainforests, hanging bridges, birdwatching, horseback rides and the volcano we never saw

Ladies and Gentleman I have returned from my first trip to Costa Rica and lived to tell the tale. Not that there was really much to worry about as Costa Rica turned out to be a very friendly place. Our trip was one week and divided into Rainforest and Ocean. This post will be about the first half of the trip near the Arenal Volcano in the VERY WET rainforest that was colder than I thought it would be.

Costa Rica coastline by air

For logistic reasons we flew Alaska Airlines into Liberia and decided not to rent a car (due to our Ireland experience) and that was a good choice for our first trip to Costa Rica. We booked a shuttle through our hotel and thought the driver Eduardo was joking when he said it was a three hour drive….he wasn’t. There was a substantial storm raging in Arenal and we passed about six fallen trees on our wild-twisting-road filled-with-potholes adventure. I was glad to have a local driving for sure! When we arrived at our hotel the power was out, due to a fallen tree, and we laughed because we all had headlamps that we used. The lobby and restaurant of the hotel were on a generator and we enjoyed free drinks and dinner as the hotel’s apology for the loss of power. Not necessary, but very kind of them. The Hotel was the Royal Corin in Arenal and it had “thermal waters” and a spa. The “thermal waters” meant all their pools were filled with hot spring water that they drained every night and refilled. The water was warm and it was nice to swim in them as it rained around us.

Hotel Royal Corin welcome mat

Hotel and pool

Us in small pool
Us in small pool #3. Can you see the iguana on the top of the waterfall?
Pool with lounges
Built in lounges in the big pool
I am usually a planner when it comes to trips but didn’t really plan much for the Costa Rica trip. The Middle Sister did the planning and we had some ideas of things we might want to do. Our hotel was about three miles from La Fortuna, the closest town. We decided to book everything through the hotel (very unlike us) and ended up having amazing guides and experiences. We arrived on a Sunday night and Monday around 10am we approached the hotel lobby to talk about excursions. We booked three items with them that included guides and drivers and one massage. The excursions were a Hanging Bridges Tour with guide, Bird Watching with guide, and Horseback Riding to La Fortuna Waterfall with guide. We booked massages for after the horseback ride. Our time in Arenal was short and we packed everything in.

Our driver Soul (pronounced like Raul with an S) drove us to the Hanging Bridges tour that afternoon. He was a wealth of information and told us Arenal Lake (a manmade lake) produces 40% of Costa Rica’s power when we drove over the dam. He also said Costa Rica is trying to use 100% sustainable resources as energy sources by 2021. Most of the cars are diesel cars and they are moving to biodiesel. It was pretty cool to learn about.

At the Hanging Bridges of Arenal, Bernardo was our guide. There are sixteen bridges total and six of them are suspension bridges. It started POURING during our hike but we still saw five vipers, spider monkeys, spiders, birds, a sloth, and a few insects. Below is a short video and a few photos. I should mention that Arenal is famous because it is a National Park with a Volcano. It was raining so much that we never saw the volcano, even though it was “right there”. We have lots of photos where we are pointing to the volcano. You might hear us mention it a bit in the videos too….

Mo points to the volcano sign
Mo points to the volcano we are supposed to see....
People in rain ponchos

Us in rain ponchos

After our Hanging Bridges adventure, where it was pouring rain, we drove back to the hotel and then Soul drove us to La Fortuna to go to the grocery store, my favorite thing to do in foreign countries, and explore the city. We had a good time and had a great dinner at Soda Restaurante Viquez. It was pouring rain when we got a taxi back to the hotel and went to bed as we had an early morning bird watching trip planned.
Birdwatching near La Fortuna Waterfall
Looking for Toucans near La Fortuna Waterfall
Alan and the Middle Sister birdwatching
The next day started at 5:30am with Jose as our guide and Tomito as our driver. Mo and the Middle Sister are the people into birding and Alan and I were along for the ride. It ended up being a great excursion in Costa Rica and I have a whole blog post coming about it next. In the meantime, here is a short video and a few photos from the morning.

That afternoon we went horseback riding to the La Fortuna Waterfall. The rain was almost not falling on our ride to the waterfall. The four of us went with our guide Joelle and his eight year old sidekick “Rambo”. Four of Rambo’s friends came too as we found out school was out for the month of January.

Our horseback ride was a lot less structured than any horseback ride I have been on before. We did have to wear helmets and we were told our horses had GPS so they knew where they were going, but one of the horses liked to be in the lead and kicked another horse that tried to pass him. The horses would group together a lot and it was like they were kids playing in the school yard who had spent too much time together. They seemed a little irritated with each other, but it might have been that they were trying to see how experienced the riders were. The horseback ride was pretty cool. We went across fields and rivers and arrived at the La Fortuna Waterfall.
Horse and rider in field

We had planned to swim at the waterfall, but the rains have been so substantial that it wasn't safe and there was no swimming. Before we started the hike the boys all bought plastic rain ponchos and we thought they were coming with us on the hike, but it turns out it was for after the hike. Here is a picture of us before the hike, and then one after the hike.
Four people and a waterfall
Before the hike
Four people in rain
After the hike
As you can see it started to pour on our hike to the waterfall. It was 500 steps down and that part of the trip was nice. When we got to the bottom we took pictures looked around and it was only when we were just starting back up that it started to pour.

We still had a horse ride back and that was funny to do when it was pouring rain. Right before we got back the rain let up a little, and on the drive home we even saw a tiny bit of the volcano.

That night was our last night in Arenal and we finished up with the massage and dinner. It was three days packed with Costa Rica and adventures in a very wet rain forest and we had a blast. Here is our recap of some of the things we did from one of the small hot spring pools.

Eduardo was our driver to Guanacaste, our next stop. The rain was letting up a little and he stopped and showed us a sloth and birds and even the Guanacaste tree. We arrived at the Hotel Rui Guanacaste to tropical beaches, warm breezes, and forest meeting the ocean. I was happy to have a chance to defrost but soon missed the tranquillity of Arenal. Guanacaste provided a great contrast to the eco friendly rainforest region. We all agreed we would like to go back and hopefully see the volcano next time.
Eating lunch
Eating lunch with Eduardo (back left) on the way to Guanacaste