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A Week in Costa Rica with Bill Callahan

Austin Adventures’ Bill Callahan returned recently from a week long scouting adventure in Costa Rica. He knew he was in for some fun. What he didn’t know was his experience would give him a new take on life.

My Costa Rican Adventure began with a surprisingly easy trip from Billings to San Jose, where I spent the night at the beautiful Hotel Beacon. My guide, Alex Arias, arrived bright-eyed at 4:45 am the next morning to pick me up and shuttle me San Jose’s Downtown Pavas Airport for our morning flight to Tortuguero National Park. The scenic flight took us over countless acres of lush mountains, coffee plantations and pineapple fields. We flew in a Dehavilland Twin Otter via Natureair, an operator based in San Jose that bills itself as “The World’s First Certified Carbon Neutral Airline” – a first of many experiences that would remind me just how much respect Costa Rica gives its environment!

Day 1: Tortuguero

There are no roads leading to the Tortuguero Airport. We are greeted by a motorboat and whisked to the Hotel Manatus where we are treated to a hardy Costa Rican breakfast of fresh, local fruit and coffee, pinto beans, rice and fried plantains. With full bellies we hop back on our motorboat for a quick jaunt up the river to the Pachira Lodge, our home for the night. We are treated like royalty by Heidi and her wonderful staff. I am assigned bungalow #21, and before I’m whisked off for my next activity I plop down on the porch in one of the bungalow’s comfy rocking chairs and breath in the tropical air around me.

Next on our agenda is rainforest Canopy Tour on the Pachira’s zip line. Costa Rica claims to have invented the zip line, and if you’ve never experienced the thrill of a canopy tour, it’s a must! I strap on a helmet and harness and climb a latter to a platform perched several hundred feet off the ground in a treetop. There, a guide hooks me by pulley to a metal zip line…I lift up my legs…and swoosh! – I’m off. By the miracle of gravity I zip from tree to tree, enveloped in branches, face-to-face with colorful toucans, three toed sloths and howler monkeys. It’s an experience I’ll never forget – and the closest I’ll ever get to seeing the rain forest through the eyes of her tree-faring creatures!

Back on the boat, we make our way to the town of Tortuguero for lunch at Miss Junies, a Costa Rican classic, and enjoy a cold Imperial beer at The Snake Bar. Our next stop is the CCC (Caribbean Conservation Center). It’s here that I learn about the Green Sea Turtles. Much of Costa Rica’s Caribbean Coast is the nesting ground for these wonderful creatures, whose ancestors evolved on land and returned to the sea to live about 150 million years ago. They are one of the few species so ancient that they watched the dinosaurs evolve and become extinct! I am in awe of these primordial creatures.

After a peaceful walk on the beach, we hop back on our motorboat for a 2-hour cruise of the canals in Tortuguero National Park, where we spot countless howler monkeys and are serenaded by a group of boisterous macaws, toucans and fiery-billed aracaris overhead.

As night begins to fall, we cruise back to the Pachira and dine alfresco to the sounds of Caribbean music playing from the bar. Then it’s back to bungalow 21 for some shuteye. As I drift off to sleep I’m engulfed in the sounds of the rain forest…the occasional roar of a howler monkey, the chirp of a forest frog – the back and forth nocturnal discussion of the unseen “critters of the night.”

Days 2-3: San Jose/Expotur

The next day we hop on the back motorboat and head upriver to the airport, where I have one more chance to walk the deserted beach (footsteps from our landing strip) before the plane arrives. We fly back to San Jose and shuttle downtown to the Best Western Irazu, a modern, centrally-located hotel. After a quick change I’m picked up by Marco Thomas, Austin-Lehman partner and the Sales Director from Costa Rica Sun Tours. We spend the next 2 days touring Expotur-2009, Costa Rica’s large annual travel show. On our second evening together, Marco takes me to a Costa Rica Premier League Soccer Game. I join in and cheer for the home team – C.S. Herediano defeats Brujas F.C. 3-1!

Days 4-7: Pacuare River, Arenal Volcano

The next morning I’m picked up by Anton from Adventuras Naturales Pacuare River Lodge. We drive about 2 ½ hours up the spine of Costa Rica and hike down a long, winding road to the Pacuare River. Anton and the staff fit us with helmets and life jackets and we are trained and drilled on how to raft. We push off and test ourselves on some level I and II rapids and we’re feeling pretty smart by the time we arrive at the Lodge.

Pacuare Lodge is breathtakingly beautiful. Nestled in the middle of the rain forest, its luxury bungalows boast screened in porches with hammocks, large bedrooms (mine had a queen-sized four poster bed) and luxurious bathrooms with outdoor showers. I rinse off, dress, grab my flashlight (there are no lights on the property so all the bungalows are equipped with flashlights) and walk to the main building. What a meal!!! The steak is cooked to perfection…the tomato soup the best I’ve ever had and the Argentine White Wine a double thumbs up.

The next morning our river rafting adventure continues. The Pacuare is rated as the #5 white water rafting experience in the WORLD! I soon found out why. It was as beautiful as it was challenging. When we weren’t tackling a rapid we were marveling at the trees hanging above, or stopping to swim under a waterfall. We pull up for lunch in a small native village and after a delicious meal, I walk down-river where some kids have built a soccer field on a sand bar, knitting together sticks for goals. As you may have gathered, I’m a big sports fan…and I couldn’t resist juggling a soccer ball left on the “field.” Anton joins me and we spend a good half hour running up and down the sand bar – he a great defender…against my ferocious attack!

With lunch and a soccer match in the books, it’s time to tackle the toughest stretch of the river – lots of level III and IV rapids. Anton directs us well and when we arrive safely at the end we all feel like we’ve really accomplished something.

Alex is at the take-out to greet me, and after a change of clothes, we drive 4 hours north to Fortuna near Arenal Volcano. Before hitting the hotel, we stop at the Ecotermales Hot Springs. I spend an hour soaking in hot volcano heated water, a perfect remedy for my tired rafting muscles. My well-earned dinner of chicken and steak with rice and delicious fruit juice hits the spot. I stay the night at the Arenal Observatory Lodge, where the restaurant and all rooms face the volcano. When night has fallen, I sit in awe and watch as steam from red-hot lava spews from the top of the volcano.

The next morning I’m treated to a hardy breakfast at the hotel before Alex and I head to the Arenal Reserve for a second zip line tour. Now I’m feeling pretty proud of myself from my successful zip line experience in Tortuguero a few days earlier. This zip line tour, however, is a whole different experience…welcome to the Major Leagues of zip lining! This tour includes the highest zip line in Costa Rica (55 stories up!), which is also the longest (well over a half mile!) and the fastest (you travel at about 45 miles per hour!). Now when I was a kid, I was afraid of heights…after experiencing this…I’m not afraid of anything anymore. It was exhilarating!!

Lunch is at the wonderful Hotel Kioro in Fortuna where we choose from three menus: American, Costa Rican and Fusion. With rooms that look out at the Volcano, a private garden, their own Hot Springs and a large pool, the Kioro is the place to stay on your next getaway. Alex and I finish the day touring the Arenal Hanging Bridges (a must see) before driving back to San Jose. I spend my final night in the luxurious Hotel Xandari, where the restaurant and all of the rooms overlook the beautiful city skyline.

I’m home in Montana now and as I think back on my week in Costa Rica – the rafting, the zip lines, the soccer, the people – I find I’ve surprised myself in many ways. Before I left Billings, I never would have flown from treetop to treetop 55 stories above the forest floor! I would have been reluctant to white water raft level III and IV rapids. Before I left Billings, I didn’t know how vibrant and different the countries of Central America were. I also thought that “getting by” with one language was okay. It’s not okay – I’ve signed up to study Spanish in the fall! Before I left Billings I thought I liked soccer. After watching a game in Costa Rica, and playing on a sandbar in the Pucuare river, I not only love it, but I now understand why it’s the “World’s Sport!”

I’m 55 years old and I’ve led a very active and busy life. But what I realize now is it wasn’t until I hopped on a plane to Costa Rica and stepped out of my comfort zone that I learned a lot about myself. Today I am a more confident, curious person than I was before my trip. I am more alive. Some people say travel can change your life. For me, this adventure changed the way I think about everything!

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