Bien venido a Costa Rica! Pura Vida!
This was my first experience with la selva (the jungle). When I was 20 years old, in college, I got a chance to take a month-long Tropical Ecology class right in the jungles of Costa Rica. This was through the Organization for Tropical Studies (http://www.ots.duke.edu/) and Duke University.
So I decided to leave a bit early for Costa Rica and spend a week or so on my own checking things out. My first destination - Manuel Antonio. I would recommend Manuel Antonio to anyone looking for a great (and cheap) beach vacation destination. It's on the Pacific coast, and has its own National Park full of capuchin monkeys. You can take your pick of hotels, as there are pricey nice ones and small cheaper ones. I stayed at Hotel Velabar, a small hotel, 25 or so bucks a night, a short walk to the beach, and with a built-in restaurant where they make the best honey pancakes I've ever tasted. The stray cats and hoppity frogs will keep you company as you enjoy a meal in the evenings under the banana-leafed restaurant hut. I fell asleep every night swinging on the hammock listening to the hum of the rainforest. And once a sloth even came down to the ground right next to me! So close I could see the moss growing on its back and could have picked it up and put it round my neck (apparently they don't mind that sort of thing). :P I also spent my time teasing toads that sat outside the room, making them puff up and act angry, though I know they love to be tickled.
In Manuel Antonio park, you can follow trails through virgin forest right down to the most paradisical beaches (I just made that word up). So bring a swimsuit with you. The white-faced capuchins get a little angry if you try to touch their trees, so don't be fooled by their cute little faces. You might also see the endangered squirrel monkey, the two and three toed sloths, common raccons, white-nosed coati, iguanas and tree squirrels.
There are so many other things to do in this area of Costa Rica. On the beach I parasailed for the first time (only 50 bucks!), went on a dolphin-watching boat ride, and went canopy zip-lining (zip-lining over the tops of the forest trees, and then repelling down onto the floor). The zip-lining tour was 80 bucks and including a walk to a waterfall, lunch, coffee, and yummy fresh pineapple (one of the best things about Costa Rica are the fresh pineapple and bananas). You can also sea-kayak, fish, horseback ride, river-raft (I did that, too!) and many other things. The nearest town to Manuel Antonio is Quepos, and you can just hop on a bus for the 15-minute ride to Quepos when you feel like having dinner at a nice restaurant or buying souvenirs.
After a week in Manuel Antonio, I met the other students at the San Jose airport where we took off for our first destination - Volcan Poas. A short hike up a rocky slope leaves you with a view of this awesome volcano, one of the world's largest active craters (see the pic below). We stopped at a restaurant on the way back down and had the world's largest active pile of platanos (plantains [fried bananas]), my favorite Costa Rican dish. After the volcano we visited a snake institute where some of the world's most important anti-venom is made. This is because Costa Rica harbors many of the most deadly snakes. But it's nice to know there are brave scientists out there catching them and making anti-venom for the rest of us poor sods.
Then it was off to the Las Cruces research station, where we visited a coffee plantation and did a project on insect diversity. Walking through primary forest, I had my first experience with the feeling of "home" I get when I'm in the jungle. The feeling that I need to protect this beautiful, mysterious habitat called the rainforest, along with all its inhabitants. Big job for a little person like me. We put up a bird net and caught some of the local birds to look at and let go. So many of them! Then we took a trip to the local club where I was taught a tipsy lesson on spanish dancing.
After Las Cruces, it was off to Cerro de la Muerte. A cloudforest. Costa Rica has many of them - highland rainforest where the mist hangs over the mountains, and you're right up shivering in it. We slept on mattresses on the floor under at least 10 blankets. But it's beautiful forest, and the wildlife up there is different, as it has had to adapt to living in the cold. We took a walk through a bog (where we stomped around barefoot and had a slime fight) and through some of the most beautiful rainforest I've seen. The trail shortly turned into a river and we quickly made our way through the mud back to the cozy fires of our lodgings. A couple words of advice about the highland cloudforest; put your camera in a ziplock bag (for waterproofing), wear a rain poncho, and (in an Arnold Schwarzenegger voice) "the umbrella does nuuuthing".
Then it was off to another research station, Palo Verde, which is lowland forest. Lots of birds like herons and cranes hang out here. Beautiful, but less green than the highland forest. The thing I remember most about this place was the lightning bugs that came out at night (along with the blasted mosquitos). When you looked up into the sky, the lightning bugs blended in with all the stars and you couldn't even tell the difference between the two. We went on a frog-watching night tour, and saw some other things as well. Here's how you find animals at night using the eye-shine technique. You hold your flashlight shoulder-length, point it straight out at a 90 degree angle facing forward (in front of you), and let the light reflect off the animals' eyes. Red eye-shine reflection is usually a sign of a mammal staring back at you, while white is frogs or insects. Green is either slime-monster or moths or spiders. After returning to our beds, my roommate and I put toads in our room to catch all the insects that were flying around. While in Palo Verde we took a horseback ride to a waterfall where we spent the day swimming, and then did a little bit of rock-climbing, where I managed to get up on the cliff and proceeded to get stuck there, balling my eyes out after I had looked down and didn't want to move another inch. Eventually someone came up after me and helped me back down. Hey I'm not proud. ;)
We all hopped in the Vengabus (the allocated cheesy nickname for the bus that took us everywhere) and visited the beach, where it started raining and we all had to jump back on the newly-upholstered seating despite the "no-wet bodies and no de-shirted people allowed on the bus" rule. We took off toward our last destination, La Selva, the biggest research station in Costa Rica. There the coatis come right up to you begging for bananas. We saw peccaries, macaws, tucans, agoutis, iguanas, bats, tarantulas and more. Things seemed to gravitate toward me at La Selva, like during a lecture about reproduction when the bat spooge from the two bats doin' the nasty on the ceiling aimed right for me. And again when we caught a bat in the bat-net one evening, and the professor let it go and it decided to land right on my arm. And when we had stayed up late partying and had to get up at 5 in the morning to hear a really boring lecture about something or other, and a giant umbrella leaf from the tree above me aimed its big pointy stem right for my forehead as it fell toward the ground. La Selva was great, though. I did a project about butterflies, and spent many of my days in light gaps, fields, and pieces of forest catching them. We also visited the red-eyed tree frog habitat - where there were hundreds of them hangin out and doin what they do. We went river rafting in class 3+ rapids, which was one of the funnest things I did there, as you're in a river surrounded by the most beautiful forest imaginable.
The last place we visited was a little town called Arenal. Named after the active volcano in its center. We drove past the volcano at night and saw the lava dripping down the sides. They don't let you drive too close in case of an eruption. We swam in the volcanic pools and splashed around under its waterfalls. We had our last meal in a restaurant where I said goodbye to extra-sweet ice cream, "con leche" drinks, beans & rice prepared in different ways to make you not think you're still eating beans & rice, and fried bananas. This was definitely one of the trips of a lifetime for me. An experience that changed my life. I recommend it to anyone interested in getting a first-hand look at the tropics or just wanting a nice beach vacation. Costa Rica is cheaper than Hawaii and still has endemic species and untouched forest.