Monkeys and mountains and more, oh my! Adventures in Arenal, Costa Rica

Visiting Arenal National Park, Costa Rica

Costa Rica. It’s an eco haven, famous the world over for its wildlife and boasting some of the most impressive natural biodiversity in the world. Holiday-makers, backpackers and researchers alike flock in their thousands to the national parks that give Costa Rica its sterling reputation as Central America’s eco-tourism hotspot. But after three months living in the built-up touristy beach town of Playas del Coco, I was starting to wonder whether Costa Rica was fully deserving of it’s place on the podium off all things ‘nature’.

Greenery abound in Arenal's rainforest

It had been more tacky nightlife than wildlife, more burgers than birdwatching, and my feet were itching to join the throngs of travellers who have added Costa Rica’s great volcanic park to their list of natural wonders. During my time in Coco, I’d meet people who’d raved about the mighty volcano, the stunning rainforest and the cuddly coatis that they’d seen in Arenal National Park. So, when I finally got the opportunity to make the pilgrimage myself, I set out with high expectations. With only two nights planned to enjoy all that Arenal had to offer, my hardy team of travellers – James, my Dad and I – put together a rigorous schedule that would include the best the area had to offer. The first of these, we all agreed, should really be Arenal’s hanging bridges.

Arenal hanging bridges

This famous nature reserve is made up of six impressive bridges which (the clue’s in the name) hang over the sprawling rainforest. Dangling in midair within the canopies of ancient trees and swirling mists affords you views of the landscape that would be inaccessible to the scrawny legs of humans without these impressive feats of engineering. Their optimum positioning allow you, so they told us, to spot some of the finest wildlife that Costa Rica has to offer.

Arenal rainforest

Setting out early, just as the sun began peeking over the tip of Arenal volcano, we felt confident that we’d have a morning of plentiful sightings ahead of us. “Early risers are the best kind of visitors”, we were told as we bought our tickets, “they always see the best stuff.” Feeling smug at our hardiness, we set out on the trail, marvelling at the greenery and peering into the depths of the forest for a glimpse of the promised wildlife.

On the lookout for nature at Arenal's hanging bridges On the lookout for nature at Arenal's hanging bridges

Ten minutes in, we began musing over whether we should have taken a guide. Fifteen minutes and we’d resorted to jokes about our terrible eye-sight and/or our inability to recognise excellent wildlife when we saw it (“if you look really closely, you’ll see the lesser spotted brown bird; although it might look drab and common and we saw twenty of them in the queue for the ticket booth, it is in fact Costa Rica’s most rarely sighted specimen of bird!”)

After half an hour we were feeling somewhat shortchanged. Throughout the entire circuit of the hanging bridges, we spotted little more than a couple of insects and some small, common birds. Whilst the setting was undoubtedly stunning and the stroll through the fresh, damp air was a pleasant way to start the day, I began to wonder if Costa Rica’s reputation as a wildlife mecca was based more on hype than on hard facts.

In search of wildlife at Arenal's hanging bridges

Feeling a little deflated after a morning of tall tales and shortcomings, we headed over to Mount Arenal to see if we could improve on the sparse sightings we’d experienced so far. The basecamp hike here is a very different set up indeed. Unlike the slick, on-brand signage that had shepherded us (along with hundreds of tourists) to the hanging bridges, Arenal’s nature trail was hidden away at the end of a long and bumpy dirt track. There was no huge song and dance about the place (and, subsequently, no huge price tag attached); instead they’d opted for a more rustic, homemade approach. Hand-painted wooden signs offered us a glimpse into the wildlife we could expect to see on our walk – coatis, deer, monkeys, toucans and resplendent quetzal birds. “Ha!”, we scoffed cynically; we weren’t about to fall for that again.

Arenal nature trail

With expectations low but spirits resiliently high, we set out past an ominous sign hinting at imminent death and began to trudge along the dusty track. Within minutes, it became clear that this little pocket of forest was where all the wildlife had been hiding. Birdsong ricocheted between the branches, swelling and rising like the sweeping strings of a symphony. Next came the woodwind, the mellow hoots of the howler monkeys bouncing across the high boughs of the canopy. Beneath it all, the mechanical thrum of insect wings beat a steady percussion, joining the orchestra to create great waves of sound.

Walking through the forests of ArenalArenal's nature trail

Small birds darted across our path, cheeping in their busy, urgent way and, as we followed one particularly inquisitive wren hopping from branch to branch, we noticed a quivering black nose. Frozen in expectation, we watched as the nose became a snout and the snout was joined by a pair of bright, black eyes and the inquisitive face of a coati mundi. After weighing us up for a moment or two and deciding we were friend not foe, he materialised from the bushes and began sniffing around our feet, soon joined by his entire troop.

Getting up close and personal with coatis in Arenal, Costa Rica

The adorable coatis were living proof that the Costa Rican wildlife that we were craving was very much alive and well within the forests of the volcano, and we continued our hike with a newly restored vigour. From there on in we were greeted with fresh displays of flora and fauna. A pair of elusive toucanettes watched us suspiciously from the treetops, evading all attempts at decent photography with their swift, surreptitious movements.

Toucanettes in Arenal

The peace of the jungle was sporadically shattered by the catcalls of howler monkeys or the shrieking tirades of white-faced capuchins, their angry little faces contorting into expressions of outrage, defiance and malicious glee.

Howler monkeys in ArenalWhite faced capuchin monkeyWhite faced capuchin monkey

The giant roots of an ancient La Ceiba tree jutted imposingly into our path, casting a grand, earthy shadow over the forest and dwarfing our puny bodies as we huddled within its gnarled knuckles.

Ancient La Ceiba tree in Arenal

Finally, as the jungle began to clear and the snaking vines grew less dense, we reached a rocky outcrop boasting unblemished views of the mighty Arenal volcano.

Arenal, Arenal National Park

Centuries ago, when the indigenous tribal communities called this part of the planet their home, the whims of nature and the might of science governed the lives of anyone who dared to live in the foothills of the volcano. Its ominous rumblings and formidable form demanded a sort of terrified reverence, and sacrifices would be made in a desperate bid to appease the volcano’s anger which would roll down its slopes in lethal rivers, destroying all which lay in their path. So dependant were the lives of the natives upon the patterns and behaviours of Arenal’s fickle moods that they named their village – now the capital of the region – after its fortunate relationship with the mighty mountain. Each time the earth began to shake and the sky lit up with sparks of fiery fury, the villagers would the shelter in their homes, praying that the lakes of hot lava spewing from the volcano’s smoking mouth would spare their homes and their lives. And after each eruption they’d emerge – alive, still standing. The lucky village became known as La Fortuna – ‘the fortunate one’.

Arenal volcano

Gazing up at this awe-inspiring natural phenomenon, it was easy to sympathise with the barbaric impulses of the ancient chiefdoms who lived in Arenal’s shadow. It’s sheer size, the impression of great, latent power just waiting to bubble over like a passionate hot temper, are so striking that it wasn’t hard to imagine myself jumping on the bandwagon and throwing a couple of unfortunates into the abyss just to placate the smouldering beast that lies in the volcano’s heart.

A far more tranquil view greeted us at the top of Cerro Chatto, Arenal’s sister mountain peak. I recounted last month how the climb to the top nearly put me out of action for the entire trip, and have since christened the sensation of awakening the next day to debilitating muscle cramps ‘The Day my Legs Turned Into Baseball Bats’. But, arduous though the hike was, it stunning views and strenuous climb personified what a visit to Arenal is all about – muddy shoes, early starts and incomparable natural beauty.

The emerald lagoon at Cerro Chatto

However, after putting my body through a veritable battering, I finally put my foot down. Or at least I gingerly lowered it towards the floor, wincing and muttering “ow, ow, ow” under my breath which, when you’re experiencing the levels of muscle cramp that I was, is tantamount to the same thing. It was time for some pampering.

As well as providing an awe-inspiring backdrop to the region, Arenal also provides a treat in the form of steam-hot fresh water streaming from the beneath the soil. These natural thermal springs are famed for their restorative qualities, something that I was definitely craving.

Natural waterfall in Arenal, Costa Rica

Whilst many of the hot spring parks in Arenal have opted to use these springs as a supply for their whacky waterparks – all slides and rubber rings – I was looking for something more sedate, more sophisticated. EcoThermales provided the perfect backdrop for some relaxing rejuvenation and, as an added bonus, offered a night time hot springs experience which promised to be a more adult experience. I couldn’t wait to submerge myself in what is effectively a giant natural bathtub, and wondered into the depths of the forest in eager anticipation.

Ecothermales hot springs, ArenalEcoThermales hot springs, Arenal

The water was divine. With different pools varying in temperature, all artfully interspersed within the thick, verdant jungle, you can float away your troubles to your heart’s content. As the night sky stars began to twinkle, the whirring and purring of tree frogs and cicadas, the glow of fireflies dancing before my eyes, nature lulling me into a state of pure relaxation. An ice-cold gin and tonic in my hand, my family surrounding me, the warm waters lapping against my chin – finally, after months of waiting, I was in eco heaven.

Eco heaven in Arenal Costa Rica