A Primeval Beauty

by Marla Norman-Freytag, Publisher

We’ve somehow stumbled into a contemporary Jurassic Park. We recognize the ferns, philodendrons, and ficus. But these Costa Rican versions of typical house plants would never sit daintily in your living room. They’re ENORMOUS!!! The leaves alone are big enough to cover king-sized beds.

And it’s not just the size of the plants, but the variety and number. There are more than 500,000 species of plants and animals in this modestly-sized country -- which is less than 20,000 square miles total. Even more amazing is that there are twelve distinct climactic zones. All of which make Costa Rica an unrivaled paradise.

500,000 species of plants (Many quite large!) and animals make Costa Rica one of the most biodiverse sites in the world

We’ve just flown into San José from Miami, on a quick one-hour flight. Less than an hour later, we’re checked into Vista del Valle, our Eco-Lodge, and have begun exploring our new Eden. (See Hotel Finds for more information about Vista del Valle.)

We spot signs pointing the way to a waterfall and decide to take the plunge. A short hike later, we’re chilling in the cool, lovely falls. And are even more astonished by the lush jungle plants and scenery.

From the waterfall, we hike back up to enjoy the more domestic pleasures of the lodge’s pool. We soak while sipping local rum concoctions. The alcohol, in combination with the hike and an early flight, leave us drowsy and in need of a quick pre-dinner nap. Collapsing in our bungalows, we conk out immediately.

Relaxing poolside at the Vista del Valle Lodge

Bungalows at Vista del Valle

Howler Monkey

But, just as we’re into deep REM, a low hum begins to vibrate all around us. The noise grows louder and louder. A maniacal drone builds to a wild shrieking and then finally an earsplitting roar. We leap out of bed and rush over to the windows, wondering what sci-fi monstrosity has invaded our lodge. Then, as suddenly as it all started, the cacophony ends. All’s calm. Sweetly musical chirps and peeps are all that can be heard.

Later, at dinner, the hotel manager explains: “Sunset is always like that. Just the jungle critters saying ‘Good-night.’ Course, the Howler Monkeys do live up to their names,” he grins sympathetically. “You get used to it.”

Like I was saying.....Jurassic Park!

Turn the volume way up and watch this video to get a feel for sunsets in Costa Rica.


Smoking fumaroles spew out red hot lava from the core of Poás

Marla Norman-Freytag, Alex Freytag, James Norman and Victoria Norman at the volcano viewing platform

Costa Rica has over 200 identifiable volcanic formations dating back 65 million years. Today, however, only 100 show any sign of volcanic activity, while just five are classified as active volcanoes. Poás, the volcano nearest our lodge, is one of the five active sites. In fact, with a depth of 1,000 feet, it’s considered the largest active volcanic crater in the world. The last serious eruption was in 2009. We’re hoping Poás won’t throw any tantrums today.

Driving towards the volcano, the cloud cover thickens. And, surprisingly, the temperature drops somewhat. A smokey haze hangs above us as we walk towards the crater. The smell of sulfur permeates the air.

Standing on the viewing platform, we finally look into the steamy, bubbling lake. Smoking fumaroles spew out red hot lava. I expect to feel scorching heat pouring from the crater but, remarkably, the temperature remains cool and misty.

Signs remind viewers to step away from the crater every 10 minutes because of the sulfur fumes. So, we make a number of trips back and forth. Each time we’re amazed by the power and contained fury of this natural wonder.


Like many of the tourists visiting Costa Rica, we are particularly eager to see the Monteverde Reserve. Located at elevations that extend from almost 7,000-12,000 feet, this unique rainforest has an average temperature of 65 degrees Fahrenheit. At this altitude, clouds accumulate around mountain tops and create the famous Cloud Forests.

The conditions in the forests provide one-of-a-kind habitats that shelter an unusually high proportion of rare species. Over 2,500 plant species (including the largest number of orchid varieties in a single place), 100 types of mammals, 400 different birds, 120 reptiles and amphibians, and thousands of insects.

One of the best ways to view the forests are the zip-line tours. Zip-lines, which were invented in Costa Rica, have become the quintessential experience for tourists. Flying 300 feet high, through the upper levels of the rainforest canopy is not only exhilarating, but provides unequaled access to rare plants. You can even catch glimpses of exotic animals -- provided you don’t scream and scare them all away.

With helmets, heavy gloves and harnesses we're ready to zip through the jungle.

Wow! That first step off the platform is a doozy.

We select Selvatura for our zip-line tour because it is the only line built entirely inside the cloud forest. It has 15 lines and 18 platforms as well as hummingbird, butterfly gardens and reptile exhibitions.

Our zip-line guides carefully explain how to ride in the harness and -- most importantly -- how to slow the ride and stop. After our orientation, we’re ready for our first short “zip.”

Alex, James and Victoria seem very calm. But I’m feeling a little anxious -- probably petrified is a more accurate word. And, as I grab the line and begin flying through the jungle I hear a blood curdling scream -- which of course is me shrieking for all I’m worth.

James Norman showing great form as he glides through the canopy.

Monkeys playing on the zip-lines.

Fortunately, our guides are thoroughly professional and used to dealing with nervous nellies. By the time I reach the third platform, I’m flying through the air completely at ease and enjoying the magnificent views of the rainforest canopy.

In between the platforms, we make a few short hikes to see plant and animal life on the floor and midlevels of the rainforest. Our guides also convince us to try out the Tarzan Swing, which is something akin to a horizontal bungee jumping experience. Watch these short videos to experience zip-lining through the Monteverde Cloud Forest. For us, it was an absolute thrill.


On our final night in Costa Rica, we wait on the hotel terrace for the sun to set over the spectacular Río Grande Canyon. We’re also anticipating the daily “symphony.” We discovered, after the initial shock wore off, that we enjoy the evening animal performance.

Views form Vista del Valle

As the Howler Monkeys and the other jungle creatures begin their chorus, we toast our new friends -- both two and four-legged. We also celebrate all we’ve experienced in one short week. And we realize too how much more we have to discover in this small but endlessly surprising country.

Click on the map pins for information about locations mentioned in the article.

View Costa Rica Highlights in a larger map

Be sure to take a look at our Incredible Critters Photo Album, featuring Costa Rica’s amazing wildlife.

Costa Rica

Monteverde Reserve


San José


Vista del Valle