Exploring the 'Pearl of the Pacific' in Costa Rica

LYSA ALLMAN-BALDWIN | 4/5/2013, 1:34 p.m.
In part one of this series, morning had just broken and we were breathing in...
Exploring the 'Pearl of the Pacific' in Costa Rica

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Exploring the 'Pearl of the Pacific' in Costa Rica

In part one of this series, morning had just broken and we were breathing in our first taste of Costa Rica at the Parador Resort & Spa, an award-winning hotel and Costa Rica's premier eco-luxury resort.

The resort is located in the Puntarenas region, Costa Rica's largest province, also known as the "Pearl of the Pacific," spanning over 500 miles of stunning coastline hugging the country's curvaceous western, Pacific Ocean boundary, all the way down to the Panamanian boarder.

The province is so large, it is distinguished as North Puntarenas and South Puntarenas, both offering amazing beaches, incredible forests and mangroves, hundreds of wildlife and exotic plant species, beautiful national parks and ecological reserves, white water rapids, stunning bays and peninsulas and so much more. With all that diversity, it's no wonder that whether you enjoy active sports like surfing, hiking or fishing or slower paced diversions like beach combing or sunbathing, you will find it here.

A COSTA RICA ORIGINAL

Our first full day out was the one adventure I was really looking forward to-zip-lining through the rain forest. I had done it twice before in my life--the first time to break out of my acrophobic comfort zone--on what would probably be called a beginner course. I loved it so much that I zipped again a couple of years later--higher, more challenging and still loads of fun.

But zip-lining in Costa Rica, where it is said that zip-lining was first created, is considered by many to be the best in the world, and I was definitely not going to miss out on that! So off we went in a van with "Big Al," our very outgoing and entertaining host, picking up several others lodging in various accommodations along the way--a professional couple from New York City and three mid-30s girls from Texas--for the 10-minute drive into town to the main office.

Once there, we hopped off briefly to sign our paperwork and were joined by a baby boomer from Colorado and three Costa Ricans (two early-20s and a 40s-something mother of three) who lived in other parts of the country.

The approximately 45-minute ride traversed a flat two-lane highway for a spell, suddenly veering off onto rutted gravel roads that revealed wide expanses of thick scrubland countryside populated by groves of dense trees are far as the eye could see.

As we jutted off in all directions without a landmark or sign to be had, Big Al pointed out the history of the area, the workers equipped with six-foot long branch and fruit cluster cutters and, at one point, had the driver stop the bus to pluck a broad leaf from a henna plant. As we jostled along, he demonstrated how to rip, roll and squeeze a piece just so to extract the crimson liquid to mark our skin. Several on the bus now adorned with dots, crosses and their names in henna--we continued on through what eventually transformed into a hilly, picturesque area sparsely peppered with tiny rustic homes and roadside convenience shacks.

AT HOME IN THE TREES

Then seemingly out of nowhere, we arrived at Canopy Safari, a clean, spacious and inviting pergola-covered establishment with picnic tables, a kitchen and service counter, bathrooms and small storage area.

Disembarking from the van, we were welcomed with plates of fresh fruit, water and juice and introduced to ... well ... I'll just put it out there: five delicious, multi-hued chocolate Costa Ricans who made it hard for me to concentrate on the instructions they gave us throughout the adventure--just sayin'.

After a brief respite, we were guided through the property's Butterfly Garden, brimming with a wide array of exquisitely patterned native butterfly species that gracefully flitted about our bodies. In an odd contrast to all of that elegant beauty, the garden also had a Serpentarium with glass-enclosed exhibits featuring an array of non-venomous and venomous snakes, some among the most lethal in the world.

So back to the chocolate--I mean, our guides! They then outfitted us with belts, harnesses, helmets, gloves and other equipment, provided a zip-line overview and divided us into small groups to hit the trails for a few introductory zips, followed by a leisurely, 10-minute uphill hike to the higher elevations.

Other than our guides, I was the only one who had zip-lined before, and as we would later learn, everyone (myself included) had their various panic buttons pushed along the way. Nevertheless, regardless of age, body size and weight or physical agility, we were held and strapped-in safe and secure each step of the way by our very knowledgeable and witty guides, who put us at ease and were more than willing to hand-hold or tandem swing with us if desired.

The experience of the rainforest canopy from this perspective--about 100 feet above the ground in these magnificent towering trees--is amazing and appreciated even more for the company's dedication to constructing the course and all of its components in such a way that it has very little impact on the sensitive ecological balance of the natural environment. This coupled with their efforts to educate visitors on the importance of endangered rainforest preservation and conservation.

As some of the group began to relax, we became more daring during our two-hour adventure--zipping between 18 different platforms and along 10 zip-lines backwards, upside down and in tandem. The suspension bridge, two rappelling lines and Tarzan swing were real "step-out-of-your-comfort-zone" opportunities, but our guides were very patient; our fellow "swingers" were very proud and congratulatory of one another as we passed new milestones. As we swung from tree to tree, there was plenty of time for photo-ops with our own cameras, as well as via the professional photographer who went ahead of us on each challenge to capture all of the action.

CAMARADERIE COSTA RICAN STYLE

Safely back where we started, every single one of us shared how we thoroughly enjoyed the adventure and would most likely experience it again. It really is an unbelievable experience that you must put on your bucket list!

The piece de resistance was the outstanding Costa Rican buffet lunch ready and waiting for us upon our return. Prepared by a woman and her daughter in the small kitchen, we "oohed and awed" as we enjoyed savory stewed chicken and potatoes, tender fried plantains, white rice and herbaceous black beans. The food was delicious and definitely hit the spot after so much physical exertion.

Back in the van, fully sated and exhilarated, we motored back to town, another Costa Rican adventure of a lifetime joining the annals of our memories.

In our last sojourn in Punta Quepos, we will traverse through Manuel Antonio National Park, one of the most diverse rainforests in the world.

Lysa Allman-Baldwin writes for numerous online and print publications, including as the cultural travel writer for www.Examiner.com and as a senior travel writer for SoulOfAmerica.com, an Afrocentric travel website.

RESOURCE LIST

Canopy Safari

888-765-8475, http://canopysafari.com

Costa Rica Tourism Board

011-506-2299-5800, www.VisitCostaRica.com

Go Visit Costa Rica

800-807-6475, 858-581-9209, www.govisitcostarica.com

Parador Resort & Spa

877-506-1414, www.hotelparador.com