Where can you go for a one-day trip that’s interesting, challenging, genuinely Tico, doesn’t bust the budget and is close enough to get you home in time to feed the dog and cat and watch the evening news? Whether you are a resident or a visitor, a one-day getaway to Abajo La Paz is appealing.
Abajo La Paz is easy to find, about eight miles north of the coffee town of San Ramón, an hour and a half northwest of San José on theInter-American Highway
. This small, rural village, situated in the valley below the La PazRiver, is opening up for tourism while conserving land and traditions.
Here the local people use oxcarts, and the beautiful, placid beasts that pull them, because they work better and cheaper than tractors or trucks in the hilly sugarcane farms. And they’re much more picturesque.
Several trapiches, old-style sugar mills that press sugarcane to make tapa dulce (brownsugar cakes), spread the sweet scent of sugar over the area. Protecting the environment is important here, and waste products from the trapiches are used for cattle feed, fertilizer and fuel for the fires that boil up the sugar.
But what makes Abajo La Paz so attractive is the chance to walk through the cloud forest on spongy, soft trails, or mount horses for an easygoing ride in the surrounding hills while enjoying the hospitality of the area.
Entering the Forest
The cloud forest lies in the hills above the village. Entering it is like sneaking into a secret, hush-quiet world or, perhaps, a living museum, where you can see how plants collect moisture from the air and pass it to underground streams, which later emerges as pure, cool water that you can scoop up and drink. Water from a faucet or bottle never tasted so good. Here, too, birds – including quetzals during the nesting season – insects, frogs, butterflies, orchids and bromeliads freely populate the area, and some of the trees are so huge they have buttresses to hold them up.
The grade uphill is gradual, and the paths, made of sand and pebbles from the stream, are safe and comfortable for all ages. The surrounding mist adds to the ambience of forest as it was a hundred years ago. Guides lead you through, speaking softly and pointing out delicate butterfly eggs, a colony of tiny, shiny beetles and other of nature’s precious gifts.
Called the Valle de los Quetzales (Valley of the Quetzals), the land, once used for hunting, is now preserved in its natural state, as is much of the surrounding hilly land. According to Romaín Arias, whose family owns 120 hectares of land in the area, forests now stretch all the way to Monteverde, in the north-central region of the country, providing a green corridor for wildlife.
Another option is a horseback ride around the area, with various stops. Or, for those who want a more strenuous adventure, there’s a longer ride through the woods to the waterfalls. The tours put conservation ahead of commerce – no hype, no crowds, no blaring noises and no fast-food shops. Horse tours are led by Ignacio “Nacho” Arias, Romaín’s brother, who can take up to 10 people at a time.
The area is typical of much of rural Costa Rica: hilly farmland planted with mostly sugarcane.
It’s not unusual to see an oxcart rumble by with a load of cane for the nearest trapiche, and it’s quite customary to exchange greetings – “Buen día, ¿qué tal?” –or for Nacho to introduce his guests. He will also point out things along the way: a pila, or caldron from a trapiche, a waterwheel along a river or animal tracks on the path.
On the Trail
Our horse-tour group consisted of one experienced horsewoman, another who wasn’t quite sure how to get up in the saddle, and two teenage girls who were stunned to see how big horses are. We met up with Nacho at the stable next to his house, and were allowed the use of the yard, the bathroom and a couple of sweatshirts for the girls, whose sense of style (mini blouses) was no match for the cool air. Off we went, accompanied by two colts that wanted to be with their mommies.
Our ride took us up gentle slopes among cane fields and into the woods, but we were able to stop and tarry, to look around and take pictures. From our vantage point, up on horses on top of a hill, we could make out San Ramón and the city of Alajuela in the distance. Nacho showed us different plants and some raccoon tracks along the way and kept us in line if a horse got too far ahead or behind, or stopped completely to grab a bite of sugarcane. The horses were well behaved and well cared for, and soon we were relaxed enough to converse. The girls even held hands while riding along.
After an hour and a half of bobbing along, and none the worse for it, Nacho asked if we’d like to stop at a trout farm with a small, rustic restaurant. It was a perfect pause to walk around, view the tanks of trout of various sizes and see how the water is cycled from the river through a series of canals and tanks and then back on its course.
A locally made hammock bridge had us swinging and swaying as we crossed over to the playing field, and the girls took to wading in the river like ducks in water. Over refreshments at a cable-spool table in an open-air ranchito, Nacho told us about the animals that live in the area: raccoons, tapirs, pizotes (coatis), monkeys and pumas. He said he had seen one puma and found tracks of others.
He also mentioned that Abajo La Paz is the home of the one and only botacross, an overland race by people wearing boots, usually held in April.
A Taste of Típico
Once again in the saddle, Nacho suggested stopping at a trapiche to watch them make tapa dulce from sugarcane. By then we didn’t need any help dismounting, and we not only saw and smelled the freshly made brown sugar, we also got a taste of it: a blob of taffy, fresh from the caldron and dipped in cold water. We each pulled off a chunk to chew. Then it was back on the horses for the rest of the ride.
We finished the day with a late lunch on the front porch of Flory’s cafeteria at the edge of town, where she made vegetarian lunches of salad and French fries for the adults, while the girls had traditional full lunches. We all had fresco natural pineapple juice, and the total bill came to ¢4,500 ($9). Flory’s is also a good place to wait for the bus to San Ramón, which stops right in front.
The four-kilometer horse trip took about three hours with stops. The three-kilometer hike in the rain forest is also a three-hour trip. Tours are arranged by calling the Arias family at 447-3595 – Nacho for horse tours, Romaín or Walter for forest hikes, but any family member will take the message. Each tour costs $10 a person; the longer trek to the waterfall costs $15.
Buses to San Ramón leave San José every half-hour from the Empresarios Unidos station on Calle 16, between Avenidas 10 and 12. Buses to Abajo La Paz leave every 40 minutes from in front of the Marisobel store in the San Ramón station; it’s a half-hour ride. By car, follow theInter-American Highway west
to the San Ramón exit (after Palmares). Once in town, take the road to Piedades Norte and follow the signs for Bosque de los Quetzales to Abajo La Paz. Overnights in comfy cabins for $10 a person can be arranged with the Arias family.