Volcanos and Coconuts: Costa Rica Is An Adventure Travel Paradise

GearJunkie hosted the Off Grid & All Clear sweepstakes with CamelBak and Chill Expeditions late last year. The winner of a trip for two to Costa Rica, Elizabeth Averbeck of Boulder, Colo., and her friend, Missy Forrey, returned from their journey this spring. Below Averbeck shares her story from the trip.

The author (left) and her friend Missy in Costa Rica

For much of my life, adventuring meant sharing hostel dormitories with seven strangers and schlepping my backpack through gritty train stations across Europe, all while navigating language barriers and the occasional heckler.

This type of travel worked well in my college days when cash was limited and energy abounded, but it wasn’t until my recent trip to Costa Rica with Chill Expeditions that my views on adventure travel equaled a “true vacation.”

I love to connect to the culture, food and environment of a new location, and the guided adventure I experienced in Costa Rica gave me a wonderful opportunity to do just that.

After a quick overnight flight from Denver, Colo., to San Jose, Costa Rica, I was greeted cheerfully by Esterling Alfaro (pronounced ‘Sterling’) my chipper and fluent bilingual tour guide and driver for the week. After picking up my friend Missy, we hit the road, northbound for the city of Arenal.

Throughout the 4-hour drive, Costa Rica’s rural and humble nature presented itself — tropical flowers, grazing white cow herds and the occasional toucan — punctuated our drive. I was thankful to have the chance to be a passenger and gaze out the window to take in the culture, people and vegetation.

Elizabeth and Missy with their guide Esterling

Traditionally on vacations I assume the role of planner, driver, tour guide and problem-solver. With Esterling chauffeuring Missy and I through the winding Costa Rican roads in his crystal blue minivan, we could fully enjoy our time as vacationers.

No more worrying about which road to take, what sign we’d missed, or if we pissed off the locals by driving too slowly while gawking at the pineapple plantations. As we comfortably settled into our passenger roles Missy and I felt the daily grind of life back in the States melt away.

CamelBak All Clear

Each morning at breakfast Esterling, Missy and I chatted about plans for the day while sipping local coffee and noshing on glazed plantains, beans and rice. Then we’d pile into Esterling’s van and head off for our adventures of zip lining, waterfall rappelling or river tubing (which if you’ve never tried, it is way more fun that you’d expect!).

One particular day we chose to do a five-hour hike to the top of the Cerro Chato volcano and then into its crater that provides a quiet pool for swimming. Beside us, while standing in the Cerro Chato crater, stood the Arenal volcano and in one wind-swept minute its summit was visible — a rewarding view after our uphill hike through a rainforest trail wrought with roots and hanging vines.

Missy balancing near the edge of a volcanic pool

Famished and happy about refilling our CamelBaks at the pool we descended to find Esterling hanging out by the back of his van. He greeted us with two gigantic coconuts with straws poking from the top. We indulged in fresh coconut water while Esterling expertly sliced a pineapple.

It was all displayed on the tailgate so perfectly that Missy and I joked that we were having a Costa Rican tailgate party. This concept of a tailgate party, especially one that has coconut and pineapple, was new to Esterling so we explained. Not avid football fans, Missy and I definitely preferred the Costa Rica tailgate to its American counterpart.

Over dinner we talked about Costa Rica, the United States, family, education, business and birds — Esterling’s favorite topic. It was during these meals that I realized the special meaning of this adventure. For some, the concept of being driven around a foreign country by a tour guide may seem wimpy, but I learned that what you gain in knowledge and conversation with your guide (and their local friends) makes up for any loss of perceived adventure.

Not a bad view from the resort

Travel to me has always been about connecting with the location, the food and the people. While there are many ways to experience all of these facets, the unique opportunity to be guided through a country by a local expert offers a deeper layer of understanding that you might miss if you are busy looking for a road sign or fumbling your way through a train station.

Costa Rica boasts adventure, stunning scenery and wildlife. But perhaps the most distinctive experience was meeting Esterling, who shared with us his knowledge of country and culture.

If you are considering an adventure abroad, consider hiring a local guide, even for a few days as you might return home from your adventure not just with photos and souvenirs but with a better understand of life in that country or place because of the people who were part of your experience.

—Thanks to CamelBak and Chill Expeditions for sponsoring our contest and the Costa Rica trip. Book a trip to Costa Rica and other destinations with Chill Expeditions for a potentially life-changing experience. For more photos from the trip, see our post ‘Waterfalls, Volcanoes, Swinging Bridges… What A GJ Sweepstakes Trip Looks Like.’