Aperitif on the beach at sunset, in Grand Cayman, is priceless

View from our Dorado Beach Hotel terrace.

Rafting in the Rio Paquare, Costa Rica was an exhilirating, heart thumping experience

These two teenagers fighting were so amazingly close you could hear their tusks clanking

I ticked off another destination on my bucket list and, in retrospect, am finding it hard to determine which vacation I loved more: the South African Safari http://singita.com/ or a recent trip to the Galapagos Islands.

" On the way to Tilcara and Humahuaca, the landscape is unreal, the color tones of the earth, and the huge mountains, are all overwhelming"

Costa Rica

By: Esilda Buxbaum

After last year’s trip to Japan, my grandson wanted a family trip with lots of action. I found one in the National Geographic Adventures booklet: nine days of kayaking, hiking, white water rafting, and zip lining on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica. It was for the intrepid traveller but no experience was necessary. So I packed up my creaky bones and got ready to immerse myself in a unique adventure.

We were greeted at San Jose airport and driven half an hour to a hotel set amid tropical gardens high above the city, the Xandari Resort. http://www.xandari.com/colorscapes.html We had time to walk in the garden and take a dip in one of the two swimming pools before dinner. The hotel overlooks the lights of San Jose in the evening. (Meals in most of the hotels throughout the trip were served family style for breakfast and lunch; at dinner we chose from a menu. We had enormous breakfasts everywhere, often starting with quinoa granola, yogurt, fresh fruit salad, freshly squeezed juice, then scrambled eggs, bacon, rice and beans, maduros (sweet yellow plantains), and finally in case you wanted something sweet, pancakes.

 

The next morning, we took a small private plane to Tortuguero National Park, which is accessible only by water or air. The park is best known for the yearly ritual of the turtles that come ashore in July and August to nest. We were overnighting for two days in the Tortuga Lodge and Gardens. http://www.tortugalodge.com

After settling in, we went for a private motorboat excursion on the waterways to search for toucans, howler and spider monkeys, sloths, caimans, and other wildlife. The next day we navigated the quiet waterways in individual kayaks. It was an easy paddle back with the current. 

 

 

The following morning, after an hour’s boat ride and another couple of hours of driving, we arrived at the Pacuare River where we would start an eight-mile paddle downstream in a raft. Before setting out, our expert guide, Jorge, gave our small group of six a quick but very helpful talk on paddling; forward and backwards, get down, trying not falling in the river—and what to do in the event that it happens (don’t panic, someone will pull you in, or you should float down belly up and feet first until you reach the boat). David, a second guide, packed up our gear to take solo in a separate raft down the river. The rapids are classified from 1-6, from small to large waves, also taking into consideration how difficult the passages are to navigate. That day we paddled category 1-3 rapids, and it was a fast heart-pumping experience for me. My grandson was smiling all the way, even when he fell in the river (I think on purpose). We arrived at the thatched-roof eco lodge, Rios Tropicales, wet and tired. http://www.riostropicales.com

 

The lodge is like a nice American summer camp, with full bathrooms, simple yet comfortable rooms, set in wooden cabins connected by paths and wooden stairs, all in the forest overlooking the river. The next day, we went on a short hike to a waterfall and swimming hole. That night there was another small group staying at the camp and our group guides cooked dinner together in the open kitchen.

 

The longer and harder rafting day came with our departure. We paddled 14 miles of category 3-5 rapids. The white water and steep drops were so exhilarating that I can’t recall ever having had so much fun while being so scared. My grandson, who was sitting in front and happily bore the brunt of many of the drops and bumps, popped out of the boat like popcorn several times. Twice my son-in-law was able to pluck him right out of the water. The last time my grandson fell, we were in a section of serious rapids. But that also meant that we had the benefit of Juan Carlos, who was in a kayak following us. Juan Carlos paddled right away towards my grandson, grabbed onto him, and brought him back to the raft. With a helmet and life vest, he was in no real danger, but it still made my pulse quicken.

(photos here –4 small rafting scenes)

 

 

 

That night we stayed at the Albergue de Montaña Savegre. http://www.savegre.com Here, for the first time on the trip, we encountered some large groups of hikers, bird watchers, and bus tour people. The rooms, some of which had fireplaces, were all large modern cottages surrounded by very well kept gardens. Meals were all buffet style. After the exhilaration of the rafting, the zip line was a walk in the park, and we all enjoyed it.

 

On our way back to San Jose, we stopped at the old capital city Cartago to see the Basilica de los Angeles, an ornate Byzantine-influenced church. We arrived late in the day back at Xandari Resort for our last day in Costa Rica.

 

Thanks to Jorge Calderon who was super knowledgeable and guided us with great care throughout the trip. Three generations in a small group was not an easy task to handle and he managed beautifully and with great humor.