Having travelled all over the world using local transport and organising most things locally myself, I was really intrigued to take a trip through Central America using one of our tour operators as part of a small group adventure tour. I wanted to see the differences between planning the trip myself and relying on a guide and travelling with a group as part of an organised tour.
My Costa Rica adventure tour lasted 8 days but even in this short amount of time we were able to enjoy one of the most eco-friendly regions of the world. We saw some fantastic wildlife and met interesting people all of the way through to tackling the longest zip wire in Central America.
I travelled with G Adventures and took a shorter version of their 17 day volcano trail tour. Their full 17 day tour starts from San Jose in Costa Rica and finishes in Antigua, Guatemala. My particular tour went as far as Managua in Nicaragua, where we took a short flight to San Salvador before our flight home.
As soon as we arrived into Juan Santa Maria International airport, we were met by a local tour guide or 'Chief Experience Officer' as their own. Our CEO was called Allan and it immediately became evident that he had a huge amount of passion for his country.
I found the knowledgeable guide was my first and probably chief benefit of taking a group tour. So many times travelling before I would visit and see something special, but not really understand it. I had a feeling this time was going to be different!
On arrival, you will be taken to your hotel in the capital where you will have a group sit-down meal which is a great time to get to know everyone. We had a choice of meal and most people including myself, chose the local option called Casado (meat, rice and beans). After dinner you will have a group meeting and your CEO will run through what sort of things to expect and the optional additional activities that will be available to you. At this point you can see the excitement in everybody’s face and the bond between the group members begins to form.
Leaving early in the morning you will start out on the 3 hour journey to La Fortuna. The transport was very comfortable being an air-conditioned 15 seated minibus, which also had free wi-fi.
On this short trip, you’ll see wildlife as soon as you leave San Jose. We managed to stop and see a couple of sloths, toucans, vultures and a wide array of colourful birds. On arrival into La Fortuna you can choose from a number of morning activities. These included waterfall rappelling, white water rafting (class 4), nature walks over the hanging bridges, local cooking classes and zip-lining (however you are better off waiting for Monteverde for the zip-lining in my opinion).
In the afternoon you will have a guided walk to the lava fields of Arenal and some fantastic views across the lake. Up until recently this was an active volcano, and again another opportunity to see sloths.
In the evening you will be taken to Arenal Hot Springs just outside of the town. You will have a fantastic buffet meal here, and then a few hours to relax in the pools with a huge swim-up bar, slides and a local DJ. Trying some of the local cocktails here is a must! If you like Mojitos - this is the place for you, the menu is massive! Once everyone is ready to go you will be taken back to town.
After a fantastic breakfast in the hotel you will make your way across to Lake Arenal where you will take a small boat across to meet a minibus on the other side. This trip will give you fantastic views of the volcano and the surrounding rainforest.
Travelling up to Monteverde is a bumpy ride along an unsealed road. You will be passing through the clouds up to an altitude of 1,440m so it’s a good idea to have some warmer clothes and waterproofs at the ready.
On arrival you will spend a couple of nights in the small township of Santa Elena. Your CEO will take you on an orientation walk of the town, which doesn’t take long as it’s only a small place. You will have the rest of the day to explore on your own or take a horse riding trip for a few hours around the local hills and countryside. Around 6pm in the evening you will all head down to a local bar, where you can take in a Salsa dance lesson, which along with a few local Imperial beers is a really good fun!
Today is all about zip-lining the longest zip wire in Central America! Before this you will make the short trip into the cloud forest for a 2 hour walk where a local guide will explain the flora and fauna along with spotting insects and reptiles.
There is a good chance you'll spot snakes and or tarantulas so be prepared! It was amazing how easily they found them and without the guide I am pretty sure we would have missed it all. There is also the small chance of seeing wild cats such as ocelots and jaguars but you would more than likely have to explore deeper to have any chance of seeing these.
Straight from the walk you will be taken to the zip-wire and after a safety briefing you can have a go. There are about 10 separate wires in all which start out easy and quite slow and graduate all the way up to the last couple which are a mile long and very fast and high! You have the choice to do these in the “Superman position” which I would strongly recommend – great fun! After this you can either go and relax back in town or take one of the additional activities such as quad biking, bungee jumping, or book yourself onto a night safari.
This is the longest travel day on the tour, so it’s an early start and you head straight to the Nicaraguan border.
This was somewhat a different experience for me personally... normally this border crossing is very straightforward and you would travel by mini-bus to the ferry terminal and take the ferry to Ometepe Island. However I had a slightly elevated temperature and I was put through the medical paces for suspected Ebola! After 3 hours I managed to persuade them that I was medically OK and I was off on a local chicken bus to meet the rest of the group.
Once in Ometepe you will be split up into pairs and you will spend 2 nights in a homestay with a local Nicaraguan family. This for me was a highlight of the trip, as it was a fantastic insight into local life and a great way to improve your Spanish. This whole homestay project is funded by a non-profit organisation known as Planeterra, who specialise in sustainable travel, so a very worthy cause.
Nicaragua overall is very different to Costa Rica and a lot poorer so expect the accommodation to be more basic. Ometepe is made up of two volcanos and you will have the option to climb one of them if you are feeling energetic. You can also take a bike and take a ride by yourself or with the CEO around the island.
There is a great beach about 30 minutes away and the chance to swim in the largest lake in Central America. Here you will more than likely see some of the many turtles swimming! In the evening the local women offer a cocktail making lesson which is included in the tour, followed by a local Nicaraguan dance performance from the children. This is great as the children range between 4 and 18 and is a fun way to top off a long day.
After having breakfast with your host family you will make your way back to the ferry and board a chicken bus to Granada from the bustling town of Rivas. This is a great insight into how local people travel and great experience for anyone. You will see the locals boarding with fresh fruit and drinks along with anything they can sell.
Once you arrive into Granada you have the chance for an orientation walk of this amazing colonial city. This is a great place to pick up a hammock for your garden, where you can actually watch it being made by people that are blind. One of these hand-made hammocks will only cost about £25. You will also be taken up the bell tower to get great views across the city and back across to Ometepe Island.
In the evening you can head into town and experience the numerous bars where I recommend trying the local rum called Flora de Cana. Be aware though that they sell this by the bottle and not by the glass! Day 2 in the city is somewhat about exploring the town yourself and picking up some souvenirs. In the evening you will be taken up an active volcano where once darkness falls you can see the glow of the lava under your feet!
If you’d like to explore Costa Rica or to book this trip, I can help you find the best Costa Rica adventure tours or book a tailor-made trip for you. I can also show you how to fit Costa Rica into a round the world trip, or how to make it work as a standalone trip or a journey through Central America – just get in touch with Mark.