Costa Rica – Day 2 – Travel to Arenal – Canyoning

photo of Jack rappelling in Costa Rica

Now THIS Is What I Call Adventure!

The stay overnight at the Grano De Oro was really very pleasant. Just what we needed after an international flight and a big dinner. I can’t say enough good things about the Grano De Oro, it truly was wonderful. The man who helped us arrange our trip, Eliot Greenspan, proprietor of Costa Rica Custom Trips and also the author of Frommer’s Guide to Costa Rica (excellent!), said it was one of his favorite hotels in the country — and TripAdvisor rates it as #1 in San José. In short: stay there, if you can. Here’s a bit more video I shot of the hotel – especially the gardens – from the inside.

I don’t want to spend too much time on the details of the Grano De Oro, since we’re here only one night and I neglected to take any pictures of our actual room (other than the number ’25’ on the door outside in the video above). But I’ve already described the wonderful dinner we had in the restaurant at Grano De Oro last night, and if you clicked on the photo album in that previous post, then you’ll have already gotten a preview of breakfast this morning. It was less fancy than dinner, but what breakfast isn’t? And it was just as delicious. My first taste of Gallo Pinto, the famous Costa Rican staple of rice and beans, cooked together. Rice and beans together provides a pretty complete meal, so it’s no surprise that this dish is what many Costa Ricans will eat exclusively for breakfast and sometimes lunch, too. I can see why – though it’s as humble as it sounds, it’s very tasty and filling. Just the thing to start off our first full day in Costa Rica!

photo of Jack's breakfast at Grano De Oro hotel

From your basic ‘Americano’ breakfast at stately Grano De Oro in San Jose…

Jack felt a little less adventurous as far as breakfast goes, but that might have been because he didn’t know what Gallo Pinto was yet. He ordered the “Americano” breakfast, which is exactly what you’d expect, and can order at any diner throughout America: two eggs, bacon, toast, potatoes. Though for whatever reason, Jack did take this occasion to have his first fried egg ever. He’s always had them prepared scrambled whenever a waiter asks, although how Jack managed to make it to ten years old without Beth or me ever frying him an egg, I don’t know. But he liked it just fine.

photo of us in waterfall at canyoning trip in Arenal

…to THIS, in Arenal – before lunch!

Onward! Sadly, as beautiful as the Grano De Oro was, our goal is not to linger in San Jose, but to get out into more of the natural areas of Costa Rica. With only a week in which to do so, Eliot has us scheduled to visit three main places: the Arenal volcano area near La Fortuna, then Monteverde (home of the famous cloud forest) and finally Manuel Antonio, on the Pacific coast. Arenal is our first destination, and Desafío Adventures arrived as scheduled at 8:30 at the Grano De Oro for the approximately four hour (yes, four) drive to Arenal. Our driver from San Jose was Freddie, and his English was good enough that we were able to ask him numerous questions along the way. Most of it had to do with what was growing along the sides of the road, though we were enthralled with every bit of it.

photo of Costa Rica countryside

Costa Rican Countryside

I don’t have much in the way of pictures of the drive from San Jose to La Fortuna, but it was our first experience with what we would come to expect in Costa Rica – beautiful, lush countryside, always a bit damp, sometimes raining, but green, green, green!I have never been to southeast Asia, so this was my first experience with genuine rainforest or jungle, and of course it was Jack’s first time as well. Looking out the window for most of the trip gave us a view into just how much – and how quickly – the terrain could change in Costa Rica.

Originally, Eliot’s schedule called for us to go on a canyoning trip between San Jose and Arenal, and then check in at the Volcano Lodge afterward. Fortunately for us, we made better than expected time to the La Fortuna/Arenal area, and the Volcano Lodge had a room ready early for us, so we were able to get our things set down and get properly prepared for the canyoning trip (mostly sunscreen — although as it turned out (and you will see!) – very little of the canyoning trip took place in direct sunlight). Freddie said he had to pick up a couple of people for the trip, then he would be back for us.

The Volcano Lodge looked great, but we didn’t really have time to mess around. We barely had time to put our things away, slather on the sunscreen, and get back up to the front office. From there, Freddie took us to pick up a couple of other people, and then on to the “Lost Canyon.” Although we’d researched this online a little bit, and knew it was mostly a rappelling experience, we weren’t really sure what to expect. Would it be a difficult, technical type of thing? Just mostly walking through a canyon, with some nature-observation? We weren’t really sure. After picking up a few more people, Freddie turned off on a back road that quickly became both unpaved and steep. It went gradually uphill until we came to a place where several vehicles were parked – a sort of drop-off point for people going on various tours through the canyons. We found the connecting transport for Desafio’s Lost Canyon tour, and continued up the even bumpier (video) road.

Presently, we came to the “lodge” – basically a starting point with lockers, showers (you need it afterwards, believe me…unless you wanna just stick with the river water), and a kitchen (Desafio served lunch along with this tour, and believe me, you need that, too, when you’re done with this tour). There were about a dozen of us in all, split into two groups. Each of us was outfitted with a helmet for safety, and a rappelling harness, as well as a pair of loose-fitting gardening gloves. I thought this last unnecessary (not to mention clunky), but the employees just chuckled and assured me I’d be thankful by the end that I had these, also — and again, they were right.

After taking a few group pictures of us and double-checking everyone’s harness, we were off to the canyon itself. We still weren’t sure what to expect, but our truck pulled over seemingly at random by the side of the road, and we got out for a last-minute tutorial on rappelling. I couldn’t see any canyon, but there was a trail that led directly away from where our pickup had parked. After our last-minute instruction, we walked down this trail and soon the trail started to descend and it became clear that we’d been driving parallel to this canyon all along, without really even being able to see into it. It was truly like a slit in the ground.

Once we got to the top of the trail – actually in the creek that was running down the canyon, our guide (there were about five of them) told us we’d be going down four rappelling runs, with some short hiking/walking in-between. The first was about 20 feet, the next was just under 100 feet, the next was smaller, and the last one was over 200 feet(!) Once we got down inside the canyon itself, although there was light, it was not direct sunlight at all.

Along the way (actually, on the way in on the bumpy pickup-truck ride), we met a couple of women who were from Canada, but living in New York: Jessica and Lauren. They took a shine to Jack, and we went through most of the the canyoning tour together. Because I had my iPhone 5 inside its fantastic, waterproof case (from Lifeproof), I was able to keep my phone either in my hand or in its armband holder when I was rappelling, so I got my own photos and video of Jack, Jessica and Lauren when they were coming down some of the runs. Because my phone kept getting plunged into the stream, the lens is kind of smeary, but some of the video turned out pretty good:

If you’d like to see the rest of the videos I shot during the Lost Canyon adventure, I’ve put them on YouTube (#1, #2, #3, #4, #5)

(This album was taken not by my phone, but by the Desafío guys with a real camera. It’s also inexplicably and apparently unalterably backward in sort-order, meaning the photo at the very BOTTOM is the first one. Start there and work your way backward. Or view this album of canyoning shots on Flickr to download full-size images):

Jack will be upset with me if I do not take this opportunity to mention that the promised lunch which was part of this tour surpassed our expectations. We had expected cold sandwiches and who knows what else. Instead, we were treated to warm Gallo Pinto, roast beef, fresh fruit and not just water but hot coffee (and in Costa Rica, the coffee is nearly always good) and juices. Sadly, we were both too hungry to think to take any pictures of this unexpectedly sumptuous lunch, but still…it was nice to have.

It was also at lunch that I discovered I’d forgotten my glasses (aaargh!). I’d been wearing my semi-new contact lenses for the canyoning tour, because I remember losing my glasses into a frigid mountain stream due to a bump while hiking in the Sierra Nevadas with my dad when I was fourteen. Not eager to repeat that experience – and convinced that this would be far bumpier than simple backpacking ever was – I decided to go with contact lenses. They were fine…but I’d been wearing them since we left the Grano De Oro at 8:30, and by the end of our canyoning trip, it was nearing 4. Sitting at lunch, I was so glad I’d brought the cleaning solution and the case for the contact lenses. I took them out, giving my eyes a much-needed break, and then…realized the one thing I hadn’t brought was the glasses I’d need to put on so I wouldn’t be blind-ish. Ah, well…lunch and the trip back were just a bit blurrier than the rest of the experience.

We arrived back at the Volcano Lodge in time to take a quick shower and head up towards the pool. I’ll save the description and photos of the grounds at Volcano Lodge for the next post, because this one’s already long. But we enjoyed our first meal looking out over the volcano, and Jack splashed around in both the pool and the very large hot tub while dad enjoyed a serendipitous two-for-one on Imperial, Costa Rica’s main beer. When it got dark, we headed back to our room, where Jack spent a while unwinding by trying to understand Costa Rican TV, which was mostly U.S. Disney shows in Spanish (“¡Buena Suerta, Charlie!”), while I did some of this post and photo/video editing. What an amazing – and amazingly full! – day.