Costa Rica: Land of orchids, volcanoes, enchantment

Published: Saturday, Dec. 3 2011 4:00 p.m. MST

Amber Hale poses with a Sarchi Cart. (Chris Hale) Amber Hale poses with a Sarchi Cart. (Chris Hale)

Five months after 9/11, I took my daughter Amber to Costa Rica. This was significant because many people felt that travel outside the United States was unsafe.

Traveling has always been bonding time with my kids, and not only was my time with my kids threatened, but my livelihood was also in jeopardy since I worked for one of the airlines that was victimized in the senseless attacks.

This trip with Amber was our first step back to normalcy and my way of saying that no selfish act by a group of radicals can change what I loved to do.

We stayed in the hills above the San Jose Airport at the Hotel Buena Vista, which is situated on a coffee plantation overlooking no fewer than three volcanoes and their surrounding valleys. It was the perfect base for us to see all of the country we wanted to see.

Steam billowing off the thermal waters at Tabacon Hot Springs. (Chris Hale) Steam billowing off the thermal waters at Tabacon Hot Springs. (Chris Hale)

Costa Rica offered the best-organized tours I've ever experienced in South or Central America. The guides had been doing it awhile, and since they were very good at it, we chose to see the country this way.

Our first organized tour, titled "Highlights of Costa Rica," was amazing. Recommended by Frommers, the tour included a visit to the crater of Volcan Poas, one of the three volcanoes seen from our hotel.

Also included was a stop at La Paz Waterfall that was surrounded by the dense foliage of Braulio Carrillo National Forest, and a cruise along the Sarapiqui River, where I saw my first cayman. The entire tour lasted all day and was a photographer's paradise, with variations of the most beautiful and breathtaking natural scenery I've ever encountered.

The next day, we took another organized all-day tour to Volcan Arenal, one of the most active volcanoes in the Americas located a couple of hours north of San Jose.

Our chariot for a cruise along the Sarapiqu River. (Chris Hale) Our chariot for a cruise along the Sarapiqu River. (Chris Hale)

At night, if the mountain is not in the clouds, it's possible to see lava flow down the side. Even though we missed the lava because of clouds, we felt the ground rumble beneath our feet.

At the base of the volcano is the most enchanting and engaging place I've ever seen: Tabacon Hot Springs and Spa. Consisting of thermally heated interconnecting pools, the resort offers an awe inspiring experience for anyone wanting a therapeutic waterfall massage or just to take in the extraordinary scenery while swimming.

Orchids and ferns, as well as other plants and flowers, were literally everywhere. Beware though: I found by experience that the posted temperature for each pool, which is as high as 102 degrees, may not be accurate, so step in gingerly.

In addition to the memorable atmosphere while swimming, the resort offers an evening buffet that is quite literally the best I've ever experienced. Years later, my taste buds still jump with pleasure when my mind remembers everything from the prime rib to the chocolate mousse.

Amber Hale takes a break on a trail through a plush Costa Rican cloud forest. (Chris Hale) Amber Hale takes a break on a trail through a plush Costa Rican cloud forest. (Chris Hale)

Costa Rica has so much more to offer. For the adrenalin junkie, canopy tours and whitewater rafting are available, and the rapids from category II to V offer excitement for anyone. There are more than 300 scenic beaches on either the Pacific or the Caribbean side of the isthmus. Bird-watchers will enjoy seeing Amazon parrots, toucans, hummingbirds or maybe even an elusive quetzal, if they are lucky.

Perfect temperatures, friendly people, breathtaking scenery and a tourism industry that really knows how to delight and entertain made our visit to Costa Rica as one of the best trips we've ever taken.

Chris Hale is an aviation maintenance technician for a major airline who has traveled extensively with his family. In his spare time he writes fiction novels inspired by places he's been. Find out more about his books at www.Chrisahale.com.

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