I can’t remember what triggered our desire to vacation in Costa Rica. Whatever the reason was, I’m more than glad we visited. We reserved rooms at the Riu Palace, Guanacaste, on the northern Costa Rican coast. Kenny and I had stayed at several other resorts under the Riu name and they were always comfortable, clean, and well organized – and you can’t beat an all-inclusive resort on a holiday so you don’t have to worry about your bar or meal tabs growing out of control.  Though the resort appears quite isolated, nestled between the surrounding forest hills, we were very pleasantly surprised by the plethora of opportunities to explore the area.

After an initial day of settling in after the journey, we began exploring the nearby areas first. We found a local tour operator on the beach who offered a 4×4 quad bike tour that ventured around the local jungle and ended on the beach just a few yards from the hotel. While the guides were careful to keep to the trails so as not to disturb the local wildlife, we often were aware of the treetops rustling as the curious Mantled Howler Monkeys tried to keep up with us. It was all a bit ‘Jumanji.’

The following day we took a fishing trip out in the bay that leads out to the Gulf of Papagayo, again with pickup and dropoff on the black sand beach directly in front of the resort.

The staff on the boat were great and pretty much set everything up for us.  I watched as Kenny and the two friends with whom we were vacationing reeled in sizeable tuna with little effort. But when it was my turn to reel in the line, everyone onboard mocked my struggles.  It took every ounce of energy I had to keep hold of the rod, much less reel anything in.  Kenny finally had sit behind me with his arms around my waist to serve as an anchor.  My face turned scarlet from effort and sweat kept dripping into my eyes.  After three and a half hours (OK, it probably was only five minutes, but still…), the fish broke the surface and I was redeemed!  The monster at the end of my line made everyone else’s catches look like guppies.  I was convinced it had to be a relic of the Jurassic era, but the fishermen onboard assured me it was just a modern-day Wahoo.

After giving half the fish we caught to the crew as a gesture of thanks – because God knows we couldn’t have eaten the whole thing – we took what remained back to the hotel, where the chefs kindly cleaned and cooked our catch and delivered it to our table that evening.  Whether it was because I’d struggled so mightily for it, or (more likely) because of the expert way they’d prepared the fish, the meal was one of the best cooked seafood I’ve ever tasted.

Costa Rica is well-known for its scenic tropical landscapes, so we took an excursion to the nearby forest in Tamarindo for a day of ziplining through the canopy. The guides began with short tandem lines between treetops to get us started and comfortable with the equipment.  It turned out to be the perfect introduction, since I’m not too sure I would have had the nerve to attempt the longer lines at the higher elevations if they hadn’t eased us into it.  With harness and helmet safely secured, you step up to the platform and grab hold of the zipline that stretches out before you.  The noise of the zipline whizzing drowns out the sound of your heart pounding in your ears.

 

We also couldn’t resist the opportunity to scope out Costa Rica’s scuba diving.  Diving in Costa Rica surprisingly was more expensive than we anticipated, but that’s likely because of the once-in-a-lifetime chance to dive with humpback whales. They often are present in the bay off the northern coast, and it was one of only a few places in the world you can dive with them so close to the shore.  We’d seen a few whales breach from both the beach and from the fishing boat, but we never got to our cameras fast enough to take a photo, so we were excited at the prospect of seeing one underwater.  On the first of our two dives, we were a bit disappointed to find the water a bit murky and only limited sea life.

Nevertheless, we were determined to enjoy the underwater experience and followed the divemaster as he showed us around the reef.  After rounding a corner, he stopped, tapped his tank, and cupped his hand to his ear.

We weren’t sure if he was trying to signal to us that there was a new kind of fish – an earfish? – but after a couple of moments of confusion, we finally heard what he was pointing out.  Just in the distance, we could hear the calls of the humpback whales.  It was surreal and distant, but phenomenal at the same time.  We finished the dive and had a bit of lunch before our second dive in a different location.  This time, however, the divemaster didn’t need to cup his ear.

 

The whales clearly were much closer, as their calls were so loud they vibrated our insides.  We were at once excited about the prospect of being so close to them and a little unnerved at not being able to see them. Remember Finding Nemo when the whale approaches them from behind and swallows Marlin and Dory? Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your perspective), we never caught a glimpse of them underwater.  But just as we surfaced and started to swim toward the dive boat, one breached a mere thirty yards from us!  That alone made the dive worth every cent.

Overall, Costa Rica is a terrific place to visit, whether for a lengthy vacation with tons of outdoor adventures, or even a short, relaxing break.  Costa Rica offers the full range of experiences and you can make it whatever you’d like.  The locals are very welcoming and easy going, and there wasn’t even a moment that I didn’t feel safe.  To top it off, there’s always a perfect sunset.

Do you have advice or a recommendation for this destination? Please feel free to post the details in the comments section below!