You don’t need a fairy godmother to grant your wish to explore Costa Rica in style and with an all-inclusive tour company. Now, you have a Mouse ready to make that dream a reality.
Adventures by Disney, a new company created by the same folks who gave us theme parks and resorts, an animated Tarzan and Johnny Depp as a pirate of the Caribbean, and a cruise line whose ships whistle to “When You Wish upon a Star,” is offering Costa Rican tours.
The weeklong trips, called “Path to Pura Vida,” feature two local guides who stay with the group every step of the way and utilize deluxe hotels. The programs spend an overnight at the Costa Rica Marriott Hotel in San Antonio de Belén, west of San José and close to Juan Santamaría International Airport; three nights at the Arenal Kioro Hotel (in the “backyard” of Arenal Volcano) in north-central Costa Rica; and three nights at the Hotel Parador, with views of the Pacific, close to Manuel Antonio National Park on the central Pacific coast.
Transportation via motor coach and Twin Otter private planes is included, as are all meals, several cocktail parties, all excursions and activities on a busy itinerary, and some Disney surprises, such as a complete series of Costa Rica-themed Disney commemorative pins.
En route to Arenal, we made a stop at La PazWaterfallGardens near Poás Volcano, north of San José, to enjoy not only its breathtaking, quintessential tropical cascade, but also its butterfly farm featuring many of the 1,250 species of this gorgeous insect found in Costa Rica – including iridescent blue morphos, big as saucers.
At Arenal, the humid, cloud-forming winds keep the 5,400-foot-high volcano shrouded in mists often during the daytime; its crater was thus hidden by clouds. But the choice of hotel was key: the all-suite Arenal Kioro has a glass door and a window facing the volcano in every room, so when we once happened to get up in the middle of the night, we just glanced out our glass door and saw the spectacular crater lit up as if by fireworks at Disneyland. Each room has a private Jacuzzi by a window, and the hotel restaurant boasts panoramic views of the volcano as well.
One evening during dinner, the volcano – one of the 10 most active in the world, with daily eruptions since 1968 – erupted with a grumble, loud as thunder, and three incandescent rocks spewed out of its crater, a magical moment we got to enjoy because of our hotel’s location on the “safe” side of the volcano.
Our group was made up of 30 well-traveled and well-educated nature lovers – 27 U.S. citizens and a family of three from France. There was a doctor and his family from Ohio, a lawyer from Los Angeles and other professionals. Conversation often dealt with the trips they’d taken to Tahiti, the Galapagos and other exotic destinations.
One of the most popular activities with the group was ziplining in the rain forest around Arenal. Participants, equipped with a harness, gloves and helmet, zip down cables at speeds of up to 30 miles per hour from a height of 600 feet. Stops are made at observation platforms.
“See you in the next life,” Peter Steinman, an attorney from Los Angeles, said to the group leaving for the first platform, where there were two practice cables. Several people laughed a tad nervously.
“They have Petzl climbing gear here – the best, from Austria,” one of our guides, Jayms Ramírez, assured us.
“And you’re ‘flying’ on two cables, not just one,” added Gastón Trujillo, our other guide, a licensed naturalist who has been guiding in Costa Rica for 17 years.
During the practice runs, guides demonstrated how to slow down before arriving at platforms and how to hold our bodies, with ankles crossed and legs up toward our chests. With a “Woo hoo!” and other screams, and the swoosh of the gear on the cable, the intrepid were launched over the jungle for bird’s-eye views of its zillion-and-one shades of green and Arenal Lake, a vast, manmade body of water.
“I have never been so afraid of anything in my life,” said Susan Gas, a mother of one, from Paris, France. “I’m glad I did it, but I’m exhausted.”
“I felt like Tarzan,” said Will Hertel, 10, of the U.S. city of Denver.
For those who did not wish to zipline, an aerial tram ride was an included option. “We want people to do what they’re comfortable doing,” Ramírez said. “Nobody is pressured to do something because the rest of the group is doing it.”
As in a Disney theme park, there are thrills for those who want them and other activities for those who don’t.
That afternoon, we had another intimate encounter with the rain forest while hiking on the Arenal Hanging Bridges, a two-mile circuit with 15 bridges to observe the canopy, “this time, from a monkey’s perspective,” Trujillo said.
As we hiked, I understood why Christopher P. Baker referred to this country as “a Noah’s Ark” in his National Geographic Traveler Costa Rica guidebook. We encountered a diversity of animals, from leaf-cutter ants to eyelash vipers, from blue morpho butterflies to white-nosed coatis – not to mention three-toed sloths and a chestnut-mandible toucan, like a tiny rainbow on a tree.
After the hike, we went to Hidalgo Hot Springs, a natural spa with pools of different- temperature waters, where we soaked our tired muscles contentedly.
Our last day at Arenal, we went whitewater rafting on the SarapiquíRiver. We picked up helmets, paddles and lifejackets, and, after an orientation, we had a choice of navigating a stretch of the river with Class II and III rapids, or a gentler section with Class I rapids. A half-dozen people fell into the water in the Class III rapids and were put back into the rafts by rescuers on safety kayaks that accompanied us.
Dinner one evening was a Costa Rican feast with entertainment by a trio and folkloric troupe. We sampled olla de carne (beef and vegetable soup), heart-of-palm salad, plantains, carne mechada (shredded meat in sauce) and other dishes.
Leaving Arenal, we boarded two Twin Otter planes for a 40-minute flight to Quepos on the central Pacific coast. Our activities there included a hike in ManuelAntonioNational Park, where we saw capuchin monkeys, white-tailed deer and three-toed sloths.
We went swimming at Manuel Antonio Beach – a tropical idyll with white sands – and explored the marine side of the park via catamaran, snorkeling in the reef accompanied by safety kayaks. On the return trip, pantropical spotted dolphins frolicked in our wake.
While at a beach near Manuel Antonio, several Jurassic-looking iguanas posed for pictures, and, most impressive, we heard the lion-like roar of howler monkeys. It was a big dose of what Thoreau called “the tonic of wildness” just before we had to return to “civilization.”
If You Go
Adventures by Disney offers seven-night “Path to Pura Vida” tours in Costa Rica. Rates are $2,999 per person, double occupancy (triple and quad rates are available, as is a $500 discount per child, 8-14 years old, in the same room with two adults). Included are lodging, all meals, several cocktail parties, excursions, souvenirs, backpack and transportation. Departures are scheduled March through November. For more info, visit www.adventuresbydisney.com.