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Carefree in Costa Rica

Written by  Margery Weinstein

Latin-costarica
Holding onto a raft through level three and four rapids, while spotting orioles jumping from branch to branch, is one way to find relaxation. Another is taking a lazy, day-long excursion on the sea with plenty of time for swimming, snorkeling and fishing. In Costa Rica, both the adventurous and languorous sides of relaxation are easy to find. Interspersed with these activities, the country’s rich cultural history can be experienced, from museums in the capital, San Jose, to visits with indigenous cacao growers in the country.

Jewels of History
Artifacts containing jade, and other native crafts, dating to between 800 BC and 1500 AD are newly on display at San Jose’s Museum of Jade and Pre-Columbian Culture. Opened in May, the museum puts artifacts in context with the larger culture they represent. For example, in a “Faces of the Night” area, visitors will see artifacts used by shamans, or spiritual guides, along with tools and crafts made out of jade, ceramics and other materials related to indigenous burial practices and war. The jade, found in Guatemala, and crafted in what is now Costa Rica, was mostly unearthed in tombs and ancient burial grounds.

Going with the Flow on the Pacuare River
Turbulent waters, green from the rain depositing soil and vegetation, can make for an adventure-filled day. After spending a day of cultural learning in San Jose, it’s time to head toward the Caribbean coast. Less developed than its Pacific side counterpart, the Caribbean side of Costa Rica offers an eco-resort-nature-adventure-indigenous cultural experience. The trip from San Jose is four-and-a-half hours by car or bus, so you may as well have some fun along the way. That’s where the Pacuare River and its rapids, which range from the most challenging - level 5 - in its upper reaches, down to levels four and three in the mid-section, and level 2 and 1 in its lower areas, comes into play.

A river rafting company like Exploradores can take you by van from San Jose to the Caribbean coast, stopping along the way to ride the rapids, with rafting supplies and meals provided. Following the rafting, travelers can be dropped off at a Caribbean coastal resort area such as Puerto Viejo. Trips on the river can be as short as two hours, or as long as multiple days with stops overnight at the Pacuare River Lodge along the river’s shores. The Exploradores rafting guides educate all participants, so those entirely new to whitewater rafting won’t have a problem - as long as they are prepared for a thrill or two. In the more challenging parts of the river, guides may shout for rafters to “get down!” crouching into the center of the raft for protection as the water surges overhead. Nature towers all around - if you’re lucky, you may even glimpse a monkey or sloth, or maybe a river turtle or iguana on the banks.

Caribbean Casual
After a journey down the roiling Pacuare River, it’s time to unwind, and there’s no better place to do that than Puerto Viejo on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast. Like the rousing experience on the river, time spent along the Caribbean beaches and rainforest lands is a chance to be immersed in nature. JAX FAX stayed at Hotel Banana Azul, where nearly one whole wall in the room features retractable, windowed doors, allowing the warm breeze to flutter in, along with the sounds of birds and tropical rain. Within a short drive is Gandoca-Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge and Cahuita National Park. During even a brief hike on these grounds, you’re bound to see both the beautiful and the slightly terrifying. JAX FAX experienced the sight of a deadly yellow eyelash viper within arm’s reach, along with processions of cutter ants and a spectacular view of the sea.

Also in the area is the Jaguar Rescue Center. The center now mostly rehabilitates other animals such as monkeys, owls, toucans, crocodiles, ocelots, margays and deer, and features a collection of poisonous snakes housed behind glass. Visitors can go inside an enclosure with adorable baby monkeys who are being nurtured to be returned to the wild.

The Puerto Viejo area offers access to lands still inhabited by indigenous people. During JAX FAX’s visit, the Cocoa House Talamanca Jungle indigenous cacao growers were giving presentations nearby. The presentation not only demonstrated each step in the process that takes the cacao from plant to chocolate, but also included stories about indigenous life. Our presenter, a native woman in her sixties who grew up in the tribal culture, explained the tribe’s childbirth tradition and the related purification rituals.

Before you leave the Caribbean coast, a boat ride is a must. There are numerous companies that will take you out for fishing, swimming and snorkeling. One such company is Wahoo Fishing & Tours. Fishing in these waters will yield kingfish, yellow tail tuna, grouper, and, of course, wahoo, among other fish. The company will clean any fish, and has a list of local restaurants that will cook the fish for you.

Catch a view of the Costa Rican rainforest from the treetops via Rain Forest Adventures, which offers an aerial tram tour and zip-lining at its “Atlantic” location 50 minutes outside of San Jose. A gondola offers views of massive, perfectly symmetrical ferns growing on the rain forest’s floor and birds like toucans at eye level. With a warm rain often falling and nothing but the sound of cicadas, you just may forget to check your cell phone.

Accommodations
In San Jose, JAX FAX stayed at Aloft San Jose Hotel (www.starwood.com). The rooms were spacious, clean, comfortable-and eco-conscious. While in Puerto Viejo, JAX FAX stayed at Hotel Banana Azul (www.bananaazul.com). Rooms open onto patios with seating and a hammock. The hotel is on the beach, with a walkway to the water directly outside its doors. The hotel’s target customers are couples looking for a romantic getaway, so there are no guests under the age of 16.

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