“Welcome to Costa Rica. Take care on the riverbank, there is a very large crocodile, he visits us most days and he’s angrier than he looks”, warned the pleasant receptionist behind the Tilajari Resort’s desk.
Naturally, we quickly dumped our heavy bags in our room and headed straight to the top of the grassy bank that overlooked the river through a tangle of trees. As predicted there he was. Just a few metres below us, lazing on the baked mud, half in and half out of the khaki-green water. The receptionist hadn’t exaggerated his size. He was enormous. His scaly body stretched at least four, maybe five meters from the end of his powerful jaws to the tip of his tail that occasionally splashed the water with a violent twitch. Thankfully, we felt quite safe as the riverbank was much lower down than the hotel grounds and the croc, and his friends, remained safely contained within the confines of the shallow ravine.
Crocodile in the river behind the Tilajari Resort
Arenal, Costa Rica - Butterflies, VolcanoEs & Crocodiles
Our hosts may have been totally accurate in the description of the resort’s frequently visiting reptiles, but nothing they told us about the rest of the resort could have done it justice. Set amongst lush farmland, and within easy striking distance of the volcanos, trails, and hot springs of the Arenal national park, it proved a perfect base from which to explore this part of Costa Rica. The butterfly garden is a must, with seemingly hundreds of unbelievably colourful butterflies that simply landed on my outstretched hand.
The Tilajari was just one of our stopovers as we made our way around the ever-changing scenery of this mesmerising country. As well as Arenal, we spent time in the lush jungles of Monteverde, the coastal forests of Tortuguero, a cowboy adventure on a ranch at Buenavista as well as a seaside stay on the Pacific beach resort of Tamarindo.
At the heart of Costa Rica’s northern volcanic Alajuela region, the Talaraji Resort is surrounded by fertile farmlands due to its mineral-enriched soil. It provides a central base to explore volcanos such as the perfectly triangular-shaped Arenal. In 2010 this giant volcano unexpectedly and suddenly became dormant yet until then was one of the most active volcanos in the country. Still, it’s tall almost perfectly symmetrical shape imposes itself in your eye line as you make your way across the Alajuela plains. Visitors will still be awed by the temporarily silent mountains imposing presence as they take part in one of the many outdoor pursuits on offer.
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Saying HI to The Iguanas at the Chicken Coup
On our first evening, just before sunset, we headed about a mile down the road that runs past the gates of the hotel to see what the locals call the ‘chicken coup, which is a large tamarind tree right by a wooden road bridge. Sitting amongst the lush green vegetation are hundreds of enormous Green Iguanas, some of them over a metre in length. There they sat, silently sleeping, or waiting for an unfortunate cricket to wander by, bouncing ridiculously in the branches as lorries carrying watermelons thundered over the rickety bridge. Interestingly, we later learned that this amazing spectacle is called the ‘chicken coup’ simply for the reason that the locals claim Iguana tastes like chicken!
La Fortuna - The Luckiest Town on Earth?
Early the next morning, after a wonderful breakfast of fresh bananas and mangos, pancakes, and the most delicious eggs, we set out to nearby La Fortuna. Almost the entire skyline is dominated by the hulking mass of the triangular Arenal volcano. For hundreds of years, people have been settled in La Fortuna, living off the plentiful bounty of the lava and ash enriched soils surrounding the slopes of the great mountain.
“Until she slept, it was possible to clearly see great boulders being thrown from her crater. They could be clearly heard as they rumbled down her sides” a local shopkeeper told us. I loved the way he personified the great beast on the horizon, for it was clearly a major part of the town’s soul. A provider of food and giver of life. But, sadly, it can also be the unstoppable harbinger of death and destruction. As the volcano was intensely active between 1968 and 2010, including regular major eruptions resulting in huge, destructive lava flows, it is interesting that the town has so far been spared its smouldering end. Hence the apt name of La Fortuna – “the lucky one”.
Costa Rica Volcano HiKe
After coffee and cake in La Fortuna, we made our way to the lower slopes of the volcano, where verdant green scrub suddenly gave way to deep bronze coloured pummel stone, as if someone had taken a huge excavator and scraped the whole top layer of soil and bushes away. Despite the volcano no longer being active, there was the distinct acrid smell of sulphur in the air, biting against the back of your throat and reminiscent of burning metal, like when the wiring in an electric plug overheats.
Our guide explained to us that where we now stood would have been a dangerous place before 2010, where we could easily be struck by hot steaming boulders the size of tractors falling from the sky. We were told that the volcano could become active again at any time, adding an edge of trepidation to our hike along the lush lower slopes of the towering volcano.
Natural Volcanic Spa
That evening we watched the sun set behind the volcano, casting burning red shadows across the rippling waters of Lake Arenal. Afterward, we spent a couple of hours lazing in the Los Perdidos Springs (The Lost Springs) and Las Lagunas (The Lagoons), which are located at The Springs Resort and Spa. As we made our way through the various springs and pools we experienced different sensations to revitalise our minds, body, and soul. Some were hot steaming baths, others freezing cold. There were also stinky, hot mud pools where we would smear ourselves body in the restorative, pungent volcanic mud, before once again plunging into a steaming natural bath to wash it away.
Flora & Fauna in The Cano Negro Refuge
The next day, our final day at the Talaraji, we took a tour to the Cano Negro Wildlife Refuge, a complex system of lagoons, rivers, flood forests and marshes, close to the Nicaraguan border. At Los Chiles, we took a boat to the Rio Frio basin eagerly trying to spot some of the 307 species of birds amongst the verdant forests, mangroves, and Yolilo palms that line the banks of the waterways. Caiman swam around our boat and we saw monkeys swinging through the trees. We also spotted the occasional turtle, before it sensed the boat’s motor and promptly disappeared into the murky waters.
At the end of our three days in Arenal, we were heading out to the coast for a little R&R at Tamarindo, but we departed from the Tilajari promising to return as we were sure we had barely scratched the surface of what this enchanting part of Costa Rica has to offer.
Getting there and around
Virgin Atlantic flies to Miami, giving you time to experience the art deco Miami Beach and decadent city nightlife, or maybe a day trip to the Everglades is more your thing. You can then take a 3-and-a-half-hour flight to San Jose International Airport. Most of the large hotels and resorts around Costa Rica offer a range of tours and day trips including transport, so in theory, it is entirely possible to skip hiring a car. If you do hire a car, a sturdy 4×4 is recommended, and ensure you check the spare wheel as, though there have been vast improvements in the road system in the last decade, many of the roads are still badly pot-holed, due to flooding.
- Arenal Travel Guide (www.arenal.net);
- Cano Negro Wildlife Refuge (https://www.arenal.net/tours/cano-negro-wild-life-refuge-costa-rica)
- Tilajari Resort (https://tilajari.com/en/)
- The Springs Resort and Spa (https://www.thespringscostarica.com)