Living on the edge of balance:
Eco-Adventure meets wellness
By Juancho Otalvaro (theroversquest.com)
Disclaimer: In an effort to be completely transparent, I want to let you know that I have a partnership relationship with Travel Costa Rica-Futuropa. You can assume that any link that you click on this post is an affiliate partner to Travel Costa Rica-Futuropa.
Today I’m taking you 3 hours outside of San José, through a road of microclimate vegetation, rainforests, and pasturelands. This trip proved to myself that I can I still feel alive!
You can start your trip in San José to settle in and become acclimatized with the weather after you land at the airport.
Some hotel options I would recommend are: Barceló San José, which is has an easy access and is mid-point 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 stay around Escazú, at the Wyndham Garden Escazú. If you’re traveling with kids and family or just passing by for business, Apartotel Villas del Río is a great option that complements your stay with a business center, kids playground, and pet friendly facilities!
Now that you’re settled in, let’s get deeper inside the Costa Rican province of Alajuela, more specifically to the area close to Arenal Volcano. It’s time to learn the ancient secrets hidden inside the dark magical “Cavernas del Venado” (Deer’s Caverns or Venado Caves). Centuries ago, these caves served as home to the indigenous god “Toku”, worshiped by the “Maleku” tribe. The caves were believed to be a sacred place; but most importantly, they were kept untouched because of its beauty and natural mysterious formations, that even today, scientists and geologists can’t agree to about how old they are.
There is something about darkness that intrigues us humans and pushes us to explore incredible corners of the World. The Venado Caves is one of such corners, offering plenty of adventures and emotions through its natural sculpted treasures, that display the history of how Costa Rica was formed and created from the deepest places under the ocean.
Getting here is easy, and yet another route that I love to drive in Costa Rica, so if you want to follow my steps and enjoy some amazing views with the freedom to stop anywhere along the ride, your best bet is to rent a car. Among the most trustworthy are Europcar and Solid Car Rental, but if you are under a tight schedule and want to visit some 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.
Amadeus Travel Agency, Ara Tours, Cast Costa Rica, Costa Rica for All, Discovery Travel, Swiss Travel, TAM Travel and Vacation City. There is also Just Costa Rica Travel who offers beauty, medical and mental-health services combined with adventure, marine and cultural tourism.
The Venado Caves were discovered by accident, when a hunter got lost in the forest near the village of “Venado”, where deer hunting was permitted decades ago. Amazed by his discovery, he mapped a way out. On his following visits he went deeper and deeper inside the caves, until he managed to explore almost all of the vaults and corridors. Nowadays this passageway to the bowels of Costa Rica, is open to everyone: even kids are encouraged to take a leap into this ultimate adventure!
“Venado” inhabitants don’t mind our intrusion inside the caves; and I’m not talking about its people. I’m talking about the cave’s wildlife ecosystem, where you can see different bat species, even the bloodsucking ones! But don’t be afraid, they are all busy minding they’re own business, nesting on the darkest spots, pollinating and mating. There are also spiders that feed from other insects, and some of the most interesting frogs I’ve ever seen, with completely transparent skin, a rare find as they have great camouflage.
Entering through the cave’s “main entrance” is just a couple of steps from the place where you can park your car securely 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 brook that flows almost through the whole trail. As soon as you step inside, you can smell the freshness of the damp rock walls, while feeling the slight breeze which keeps the air flowing inside. The adventure begins, as soon as you turn on your flashlight: the darkness inside is pitch black, at points you can’t even see your own hand in front of your face. Walking inside, through the brook, the architecture of the rocky formations amazes with its grandeur, shaped by the water that has been running through them for centuries.
Soon you find yourself further from the entrance, and the sound of silence drums in your ears with nothing else but your breathing and the water splashing with your every step. You are now deep inside the Earth, underneath the soil 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 crawl inside a small hole to get into a rock vault, you can barely fit inside, but the flow of adrenaline in your body, pushes you to advance using your forearms against the clay tunnel, to move forward into an empty semi-dome. “Turn off your flashlight” your guide requests. As you do so, true blackness engulfs you, and it’s even darker than closing your eyes! A whole world of dreamlike silhouettes crosses your mind, almost like hallucinating, you get lost on your thoughts, until your guide breaks the silence; “Ok let’s move on, shall we?”
Your senses are fully awake, you feel that you can almost see in the dark, the sounds are now familiar, your primitive brain is in control and your instincts are put to the test. All of a sudden you’re face to face with a small waterfall inside the cave. Its sound is almost deafening as your senses are acute now, and the feeling of the mist against your skin gives you goose bumps, refreshing you after the struggle inside the clay tunnel. You can jump from rock to rock until you reach behind the waterfall, or you can choose to slowly walk in-between the rocks and step right underneath. Either way, you will feel how the falling water refreshes and invigorates you, as you become fully aware that you’re underground and alive, a key word that resonates with an echo on every stonewall of the cave. As you come back to your senses, you will take in your surroundings: smooth formations with dripping water sculpting a “papaya”-shaped rock, figures covered in glowing white minerals, that shine with the reflection of the flashlight. We take nature for granted, but here you’re able to see the magnificence of how life is shaped out of darkness, no words can describe being present in this slow but perfect event.
The amazement doesn’t end here; there is yet another cave, and if you’re “brave” enough you can swim through a dark tunnel to reach it (or you can get there through another path). As soon as you enter it you’ll be received by what looks like a dormant “waterfall” made of solid rock and minerals from top to bottom. White smooth formations caressed by water and carved by time surround this cavern. Its silky white floor, filled with puddles, offers a ladder to the top that 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’re blinded by the light; recovering from this dreamlike state. The breeze gets stronger and you realize you’re out of the caves; a breathtaking tour through the underground world that will leave you wanting for more.
Adrenaline can be addictive once you try it. But luckily the area around “Venado” village is filled with adventure if you drive a bit further. The small village of Venado is a small place that bases its economy on tour guides, milk and cheese. People grow their own products and exchange meat and milk, which are also exported, to other Costa Rican towns and cities. This is a fascinating system, as are the friendly, hard-working people, who has the privilege to inhabit this area. The cozy small houses await their owners walking back with bags filled with fresh products, to arrive to a warm, wood-oven cooked meal, noticeable by the smoke emanating from the small chimneys over the rooftops. The hills guard the rest of their lands where they keep cattle and enjoy the striking colors of a sunset.
I encourage you to stay more than to do a one day-tour around the area, so you can continue the hunt for adrenaline. If you are able to visit “La Fortuna” you’ll be in for a treat! Driving there you must certainly find the “Great Colossus”, the massive Arenal Volcano. Its magnitude will make you feel so small, that you will want to scream at it just to fail at trying to be heard by its impressive vastness.
There is a huge contrast between the peaceful, easygoing life of La Fortuna and their active entrepreneurship to survive in a competitive tourism place. I think there’s no one in Costa Rica that knows adventure better than as the people in La Fortuna; after all they themselves are addicted to that rush of adventure, they live in the outskirts of a giant volcano!!
Once you get there, there will be tons of things to do that will satisfy even the most adventure-hungry. From walking on the suspended bridges of Místico Arenal Hanging Bridges Park or resting in the soothing calm of hot-springs, to river rafting or mountain biking, to flying through the air by zip lines, and my personal favorite, canyoning waterfalls. If that’s not enough, try the ATV tours around the volcano and the “Tarzan jumps”. If you stay in the area, most of the hotels, such as Hotel Los Héroes, will provide tour information and reservations, for exciting stay in La Fortuna.
If you decide to stay a bit longer and want to have more than a spoonful of this recipe to eco adventure and wellness, I can give you a few more tips:
You can visit some other incredible areas Costa Rica has to offer, such as Rincón de la Vieja and stay at https://altagracia.aubergeresorts.com/Buena Vista Lodge; go to the Turrialba region and stay at Casa Turire, see the beautiful Rio Celeste and stay at the amazing Río Celeste Hideaway Hotel, travel South, to the area of Perez Zeledon and enjoy the unique Hacienda AltaGracia Auberge Resorts Collection, or immerse into more magical places inside rainforests with a tour by Rainforest Adventures Costa Rica.
Finally, if you would like to have the thrilling pleasures of adventure but want to be near the beach, you will be able to find similar activities and tours on the Pacific Coast. In the North Pacific I recommend you to stay 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 important; prove to yourself, that you’re still alive!
Special Thanks to Hotel Arenal Manoa and their amazing staff
And Don Fausto Pérez for the great insight at Cavernas del Venado.