November 26, 2018

Living on the Edge of Balance:

Eco-Adventure Meets Wellness

By Juancho Otalvaro (

Disclaimer: In an effort to be fully transparent, I want to let you know that I have a partnership relationship with Costa Rica Travel-Futuropa. Any links clicked in this post can be assumed to be affiliate partners with the Costa Rica Travel-Futuropa card.

Today, I’m taking you 3 hours away from San Jose, through a path of microclimate vegetation, tropical rainforests, and grasslands. This journey proved to myself that I can still feel alive!

You can start your journey in San Jose to settle in and acclimate to the weather after landing at the airport.

Some hotel options I would recommend are: Barceló San José, which has easy access and is halfway between San José and the Airport. Palma Real & Casino is another great option if you want to be closer to the San José area.

If you want to be in a district with some nightlife and restaurants, then you can head around Escazú to the Wyndham Garden Escazú. If you’re traveling with kids and family or just passing through for business, Apartotel Villas del Río is a great option that complements your stay with a business center, children’s play area, and pet-friendly accommodations!

Now that you’re settled in, let’s venture further into the Costa Rican province of Alajuela, more specifically, to the area near the Arenal Volcano. It’s time to uncover the ancient secrets hidden within the mystical “Cavernas del Venado” (Deer Caverns). Centuries ago, these caves served as the home of the indigenous god “Toku,” worshipped by the “Maleku” tribe. The caves are believed to be a sacred place; but most importantly, they have remained intact due to their beauty and mysterious natural formations, which even today, scientists and geologists cannot agree on their age.

There’s something about darkness that intrigues us humans and pushes us to explore the incredible corners of the world. The Venado Caves are one such corner, offering plenty of adventures and thrills through its sculpted natural treasures, which display the story of how Costa Rica was formed from the deepest places beneath the ocean.

Getting here is easy, and yet another route that I love driving in Costa Rica, so if you want to follow in my footsteps and enjoy some incredible views with the freedom to stop anywhere along the way, the best option is to rent a car. Among the most reliable are Europcar and Solid Car Rental, but if you’re on a tight schedule and want to visit other places during your trip in Costa Rica, I would recommend several of the following travel agencies and tour operators that will make your life easier with the same adventurous experience.

Travel Agency Amadeus, Ara Tours, Costa Rica Distribution, Costa Rica for Everyone, Discovery Travel, Swiss Travel, TAM Travel, and City Vacations. There’s also Solo Costa Rica Travel, which offers beauty, medical, and mental health services combined with adventure, marine, and cultural tourism..

The Venado Caverns were discovered by accident when a hunter got lost in the forest near the village of “Venado” decades ago, where deer hunting was allowed. Surprised by his discovery, he traced an exit. On his subsequent visits, he ventured deeper and deeper into the caves until he managed to explore almost the entire vaults and corridors. Nowadays, this passage to the depths of Costa Rica is open to everyone: children are even encouraged to take a leap into this ultimate adventure!

The inhabitants of “Venado” don’t mind our intrusion into the caves, and I’m not talking about their people. I’m talking about the wildlife of the cave ecosystem, where you can see different species of bats, including bloodsuckers! But don’t be afraid, they are all busy minding their own business, nesting in the darkest spots, pollinating, and mating. There are also spiders that feed on other insects, and some of the most interesting frogs I’ve seen, with completely transparent skin, which is hard to find as they have great camouflage.

Entering through the “main entrance” cave is just a few steps from where you can safely park your car and get your gear (boots, helmet, and flashlights). A guide will briefly introduce you to what you might expect inside the cave. Once at the cave’s mouth, you’ll see the stream flowing almost all along the trail. As soon as you enter, you can smell the freshness of the damp rock walls while feeling the slight breeze that keeps the air flowing inside.

The adventure begins as soon as you turn on your flashlight: the interior darkness is pitch black, at points you can’t even see your hand in front of your face. Walking inside, through the stream, the architecture of the rock formations surprises with its grandeur, shaped by the water that has been working through them for centuries.

Soon you find yourself farther from the entrance, and the sound of silence drums in your ears with nothing but your breathing and the splashes of water with each step. Now you are inside the Earth, beneath the floors and possibly rivers and lakes, what a magnificent feeling to be here! Anxiety turns into a rush of emotions when your guide tells you that you have to squeeze into a small hole to enter a rock vault, barely fitting inside, but the adrenaline rush in your body pushes you to move forward using your forearms against the clay tunnel, to advance into a semi-empty dome. “Turn off your flashlight,” your guide requests. As you do, true darkness envelops you, and it’s even darker than closing your eyes! A whole world of dreamlike silhouettes crosses your mind, almost like hallucinations, lost in your thoughts until your guide breaks the silence; “Okay, shall we move on?”.

Your senses are fully awakened, you feel like you can almost see in the darkness, the sounds are now familiar, your primal brain is in control and your instincts are being tested. Suddenly, you are face to face with a small waterfall inside the cave. Its sound is almost deafening as your senses are sharp now, and the sensation of mist on your skin gives you goosebumps, how refreshing after the struggle inside the clay tunnel.

You can jump from rock to rock until you get behind the waterfall, or you can choose to walk slowly amidst the rocks and step right underneath. Either way, you’ll feel how refreshing the falling water is, invigorating you, as you become fully aware that you are underground and alive, a key word resonating with echoes on every stone wall of the cave. As you tune back into your senses, you’ll take in your surroundings: smooth formations sculpted by dripping water, a “papaya”-shaped rock, figures covered in bright white minerals, shining with the reflection of the flashlight. We often take nature for granted, but here you’re able to witness the magnificence of how life forms emerge from darkness, there are no words to describe being present in this slow but perfect event.

The wonder doesn’t end here; there’s yet another cave, and if you’re brave enough, you can swim through a dark tunnel to reach it (or you can reach it through another route). As soon as you enter, you’ll be greeted by what looks like a dormant “waterfall” made of solid rock and minerals from top to bottom. Smooth white formations, caressed by water and carved by the enveloping passage of time in this cavern.

Its silky white floor, filled with puddles, offers a staircase to the top. I like to think that these puddles are the footprints of “Toku,” the Maleku God who inhabited the caves, and whose throne must have been this grotto.

A couple of hours later, you are blinded by the light; emerging from this dreamlike state. The breeze grows stronger, and you realize you are outside the caves; a journey through the awe-inspiring underworld that leaves you wanting more.

The adrenaline can be addictive once you try it. But luckily, the area around “Venado” village is full of adventure if you drive a bit further. The small town of Venado is a tiny place that bases its economy on tourist guides, milk, and cheese. People grow their own produce and exchange meat and milk, which are also exported, to other towns and cities in Costa Rica. This is a fascinating system, much like the friendly, hardworking people who have the privilege of inhabiting this area. Cozy little houses await their owners to walk back with bags full of fresh produce, to enjoy a warm, wood-fired meal, perceptible by the smoke emanating from the small chimneys above the roofs. The hills guard the rest of their lands where they have cattle and enjoy the striking colors of a sunset.

I encourage you to stay more than just a day touring the area so you can continue the adrenaline rush. If you’re able to visit “La Fortuna,” you’ll be in for a treat! Driving further, you’ll surely encounter the “great Colossus,” the massive Arenal Volcano. Its magnitude will make you feel so small, you’ll have to shout at it just to fail in trying to be heard by its awe-inspiring immensity.

There’s a stark contrast between the peaceful, carefree life of La Fortuna and its active entrepreneurial spirit to thrive in a competitive tourist destination. I believe there’s no one in Costa Rica who knows adventure better than the people in La Fortuna; after all, they themselves are living on the outskirts of a giant volcano!

Once there, there will be plenty of things to do to satisfy the most avid adventurers. From walking on the hanging bridges of the Mistico Hanging Bridges of Arenal Park or relaxing in the soothing calm of hot springs, to rafting or mountain biking, to flying through the air on zip lines, and my personal favorite, canyoning down waterfalls. If that’s not enough, try the ATV tours around the volcano and the “Tarzan jumps”.

If you’re staying in the area, most hotels, like Hotel Los Héroes, will provide tourist information and bookings for an exciting stay in La Fortuna. If you decide to stay a little longer and want to have more than a taste of this recipe for ecological adventure and wellness, I can give you some more tips.

You can visit some other incredible areas Costa Rica has to offer, such as Rincón de la Vieja and stay at Buena Vista Lodge (; go to the Turrialba region and stay at Casa Turire, see the beautiful Río Celeste and stay at the amazing Río Celeste Hideaway Hotel, travel south to the Pérez Zeledón area and enjoy the unique Hacienda Altagracia Auberge Resorts Collection, or delve into more magical places deep within the tropical rainforests with a tour by Rainforest Adventures Costa Rica.

Finally, if you’d like to enjoy the thrilling pleasures of adventure but want to be close to the beach, you’ll be able to find similar activities and excursions on the Pacific coast. In the North Pacific, I recommend staying at the beautiful Capitán Suizo Hotel in Playa Langosta, Guanacaste. In the Central and South Pacific, you can check out Karahé Beach Hotel in Manuel Antonio or Hotel Cristal Ballena Resort & Spa in Bahia Ballena.

Be safe and grateful, but most importantly; prove to yourself that you’re still alive!

Special thanks to Hotel Arenal Manoa and its amazing staff.

And to Don Fausto Pérez for the great insight at Cavernas del Venado.