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It started with an invitation from my friend Allison who lives in Horquetas, a small town in the Sarapiqui region of Costa Rica. “Venga!” she exclaimed. I could not pass up the offer since I was already halfway across from the Pacific Coast and had some time to explore a region I had never visited before, even after 22 years of traveling around the country.
The Sarapiqui is located about 90 minutes northeast from San Jose (Google Map). To get there you drive through the high mountain passes of the Braulio Carrillo National Park, and luckily it was clear enough to view the miles of emerald green primary rainforest, deep canyons, and cascading rivers. The highway drive can be nerve-wracking with flying tractor trailers, unseen road hazards, and ever-present construction projects due to the enormous amount of rainfall the area receives each year.
Once off the highway the pace slows dramatically and you pass farms, sleeping dogs, and the occasional restaurant and cabinas. The backdrop to the east is the distinct cratered peak of Volcan Poas and the mountain ridge along the western edge of the Heredia province. Horquetas is a sleepy town, but there is plenty to do within a few minutes drive north or south. Here are the highlights of my trip.
Rafting the Sarapiqui River
The first day we took a rafting trip along the Sarapiqui River. It was a beautiful day, a little overcast at first keeping things cool but later the sun came out to make the rapids sparkle. Our guides were Green Rivers Adventures, a small but well trained outfit with our guides Kevin and Alvaro. There were four of us plus the guide on the solid raft with the other guide ahead on a kayak, scouting for the best path down the river.
We passed dozens of birds – cormorants, herons, egrets, tanagers, fly catchers, king fishers, lapas (green parrots) and saw a sloth nestled up in the branches. There were sounds of howler monkeys in the forests shading the tide pools, and since the river was not running too high we had time to relax and just take in the natural beauty of being on the river. We stopped twice along the way, once to jump off the riverbank and float down stream and a second time to rest our paddling arms while our hosts prepared fruits and snacks to get our energy back. The trip took about four hours and I was the only one who fell in (twice!), although I appreciated soaking in the cool waters coming from high up the mountains.
Later that afternoon we went horseback riding with Gauly (Wally), a local caballero who offered rides into the backcountry, made up of mostly grazing lands interspersed with jungle. The horses were well acclimated to beginner riders, although Allison’s horse always wanted to stay in the lead. The trail was wide and easy for the horses to climb, and at one point we traversed a shallow river. The afternoon clouds were welcome as they cooled off the tropical afternoon, but the rain held off for the entire journey to Mirador Prendas, where we stopped for cervezas and to admire the view. Feeling like a vaquero, I sang a few country songs on the way back to the amusement of the cows inspecting us behind the ranch fences.
The Mirador Prendas is quite a unique place to venture to. It is a working ranch, but the centerpiece is a wooden four-story structure sitting atop a small ridge and bordered by jungle. The second floor has a sizeable restaurant and third floor a cozy bar, but on this day we were the only guests there. The bartender Miguel served up Pilsens and Imperial Lights on ice and we sat along the balcony watching the rain move in from the Caribbean lowlands. You can see toucans and the occasional scarlet macaw on the property and it borders a wide swath of rainforest filled with white faced and howler monkeys. They had a couple of zip lines, but they looked out of use.
What made this place unique was the artwork and wood carvings decorating the inside of the property. The two-foot wide wooden beams appeared to be trees growing right through the middle of the house. Tacked up on one of the beams was a 12 foot long crocodile hide, and I ran my hand over the thick ridges of its back, wondering who was brave enough to capture this dinosaur. There was also a small cabin set up on the top floor, with expansive views and pastoral scenes painted on the walls. Allison mentioned the place gets full for holiday parties, but on other nights its quiet with the highlight of the evening just watching the stars shining brilliantly over the dark farms and forests.
After all this activity I had built up a tremendous appetite and luckily Allison knew the owners of the best restaurant in the area – Tica Linda. Their specialty was their ceviche, which of the many varieties my favorite was the tilapia and the heart of palm. It went perfectly with their patacones (flattened and fried platanos). Another delicious dish was their costillas (pork smoked all day over an old iron oven) with a glazed pineapple sauce and served with vegetables and a baked potato. Their pastas and arroz con pollo (rice with chicken) also were tasty as well as their breakfasts. For drinks I loved their chili guaro (like a bloody mary, but made with a local sugar cane liquor). And for dessert they let us try their homemade guayabana ice cream.
Besides the food, what made this place special to me were the hosts. Osmundo would come by our table and share stories of the history of the region and his family’s past. Julio had superb attention to detail and came to check on us often to make sure our beer glasses and appetites were filled. Lili and Angie were the cooks in the back helping Osmundo, and they always had a smile on their face and asked me about my family and my future. And little Juan-Ca (Juan Carlos), was a cherub of a baby who kept us entertained with his coos and smiles and was just precious. Tica Linda also has four small basic cabins with hot water, wifi, and a TV, some with A/C, and this was where I stayed for the entire trip. I felt safe sleeping there and when I left I felt like family.
One of the activities I did not have time to do, but will surely do next time is go mountain biking. Tica Linda had a dozen bikes to rent, some just for cruising around town and a few for the many trails within a mile of their restaurant/cabinas. The trails wind through cattle farms and patches of forest with a few old single track bridges along the way. The route most often taken was to Cacho Negro (Black Horn) where at one bridge you can take a leap into the refreshing stream below it. The trails are as steep as you want them, but not necessarily technical – the ride is more about enjoying the quietness of the countryside. Some of the views are immense since on a clear day you can see Braulio Carrillo ridge and even north to the mountains of Nicaragua. Julio from Tica Linda can guide you on his favorite trails or you can explore your own route.
This was an unexpected surprise. In the tiny town of La Union, right off the highway, sits a small house with a big garden. The owner, Jose Perez Arrieta (Cope), created a beautiful garden in his backyard which attracts hundreds of hummingbirds and other species of birds like cherry tanagers, purple honeysuckers, red headed woodpeckers, and yellow breasted flycatchers. He set up his backporch like a shaded photo studio and professional photographers from around the world come to take photos of the birds that feed off of the fruit he leaves out and sip from the feeders hanging next to the porch.
We sat there for almost an hour admiring the quantity of birds and their kaleidoscope of colors. Cope would teach us about their feeding habits while at times injecting a sweet mix of honey water into the feeders to keep the birds content. He held a small ginger plant which attracted the hummingbirds enough to come right to us. And at one point they were drinking right from my hand and you could feel the wind off their fluttering wings. If I was a true birder, I could have knocked a good two dozen species off my ‘must see’ list.
La Selva Biological Station
I didn’t discover until I returned home that the Sarapiqui is home to La Selva Biological Station. La Selva is a protected area encompassing 1,536 hectaresof low-land tropical rain forest in northeastern Costa Rica. It is owned and operated by the Organization for Tropical Studies, a consortium of universities and research institutions from the United States, Costa Rica, and Puerto Rico. Recognized internationally as one of the most productive field stations in the world for tropical forest research and peer-reviewed publications, La Selva hosts approximately 300 scientists and 100 university courses every year.
In La Selva Biological Station they have recorded an astounding 467 species of birds, the most diverse site for birds in Central America. The primary goal of La Selva Biological Station is to preserve and protect an intact forest, as well as providing laboratory facilities for tropical research and education. The research potential of the area is not only vital to tropical ecology, but it is also an important location in the effort to study relations between local communities and protected areas. You can book rooms directly with this link – Booking.com.
If you wish to visit the Sarapiqui region of Costa Rica, just contact us and we’ll help with reserving transportation, accommodations, and tours.