Costa Rica Rainforest Hiking: An Experience in Sight, Sound and Touch

hiking up from lake at cerro chat

Hiking in the mountains of Costa Rica is a multi-sensory experience.

brave ski mom logoI should have anticipated rain, especially as we were hiking in a rainforest during the official rainy season in Costa Rica.

Still, the sheer volume of water falling from the sky and roiling down the trail was daunting.

“I think we should go back,” our younger son appealed, looking at me with worried eyes.

A child of the Colorado Plateau, he’s heard about flash floods his entire life and recognized the signs – we were hiking in a confined area and water was pouring down upon us in buckets. Our feet submerged with each step and the trail – really a staircase that goes straight up through dense Central American jungle — was a waterfall.

“It’s okay,” we assured him. “There are no flash floods in the rainforest.”

We kept going.

clouds breaking cerro chat

A rare break in the storm on our ascent of Cerro Chato.

Hiking Cerro Chato

The trail up Cerro Chato, an ancient volcanic cinder cone near the town of La Fortuna, is only about 4 km – but it’s a hard. The track starts mildly enough, leaving the Green Lagoon Lodge along a manicured path, bordered with tropical flowers and fields freshly planted with medicinal herbs.

jungle flower costa rica

Soon, the path curves back upon itself and meanders steeply uphill through a grassy meadow, which we shared with legions of leaf-cutter ants.

 

cerro chato volcano

Where the meadows meet the rainforest.

At just about the half way point, the jungle begins, the meadow rapidly disappears into stands of trees, hung with mosses, vines and enormous leaves. It’s a quintessential rainforest complete with echoing bird calls and reverberating insects.

jungle trail cerro chat

Does it get any more jungle-y than this?

Once in the jungle, the path is nothing more than a muddy and irregular staircase. In some places, the steps are relatively regular, in others, the span is so broad that you find yourself grasping for purchase, grabbing at stumps and twigs and roots, hoping that they’ll hold, and that your hand won’t accidently grasp something alive and mobile.

Just when the burn in your legs gets intense, the trail tops out in a small clearing at the top of the cinder cone, where benches offer respite and the promise of views. Clouds swathed this area when we arrived, so we didn’t tarry, instead, we turned down a treacherous, slippery incline into the mountain’s crater.

The crater of Cerro Chato is filled with water, a border-to-border lake, ice blue and refreshing in the extreme.

When we arrived, we had the lake to ourselves and the rain had stopped. Drenched to the skin, we didn’t bother with niceties like removing our shoes and socks. We just jumped in.

swimming in cerro chat

The payoff. Refreshing waters in the volcanic crater.

Perhaps drawn by our shouts of glee, but more likely attracted by the offer of a cool, clean payoff after a long filthy slog, we were soon joined by other hikers.

Splashing together, we exchanged names and home countries. We chatted and shared the kind of information so valuable among fellow travelers – in this case, the location of the cheapest local hot springs.

frog cerro chato

A froggy friend, spied along the edge of the lake in the Cerro Chato crater.

Finally, as the sun broke high above our heads, our family emerged from the water and began scrambling up to the main trail.

Rain Beats Sun 

We didn’t know it then, with the sun beckoning us back to the trail, but the rain was actually a blessing and we would miss it.

Sure, when it was raining, we were covered head to toe in muck and goo. We were dripping rainwater and slick with perspiration, but after ensuring that our camera was safely tucked away behind double layers of plastic, we gave in to the experience.

arenal volcano

As the rain broke, we could see the Arenal Volcano.

When the rain stopped, the temperature and steam began to rise. And with the steam, came biting insects, eager to feast on our water-softened skin.

Chased by bugs, we rushed down the trail, stopping only to remove the camera from it’s waterproof shroud, snapping photos on the fly, trying with one sense to record and remember an experience that was as much sound and touch, as sight.

 When You Go…

La Fortuna and the area around Arenal Volcano are hot stops on the tourist track, popular with backpackers and luxury travelers alike.

la fortuna view

Looking back at the town of La Fortuna from the Cerro Chato Trail.

Hiking abounds in this area, with many kilometers of trail in Arenal National Park, as well as additional well-kept trails in private reserves. While Cerro Chato is often promoted as a guided hike, you can easily do it alone, as we did, checking in and paying the $10 per person fee at the Green Lagoon Lodge, near the La Fortuna Waterfall.

green lagoon lodge

Start your hike at the Green Lagoon Lodge and when you finish, you can use their free shower, swim in their pool and enjoy a nice cold beer.

Alternatively, you can start the hike from the other side of the cinder cone, at the Arenal Observatory Lodge. Either way, the lake is your destination, so plan on swimming.

And while you can pay upwards of $60 per person to enjoy the area’s abundant natural hot springs, the hot tip among our fellow hikers was the $6 per person fee to partake of the pools at Termalitas de Arenal, a local spot where you can bring your own beer and food, soak in the pools and relax under the shade of one of the many picnic shelters on the well-maintained property.

Enjoy!

termalitas de arenal

Chilling in the local hot water at Termalitas de Arenal. Just one of many pools to choose from and it’s only $6 per person.

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Summer in Steamboat, Part Three: Water, Water Everywhere

stand-up-paddleboard-steamboat

brave ski mom logoLocated on the banks of the Yampa River, named for a chugging hot spring that once sounded like a steamboat, Steamboat is a haven for water-based recreation.

While the river is a hot spot for rafting, tubing, kayaking and fishing, not surprisingly, it’s the hot springs that get the most notice.

rafting yampa river

Rafting on the Yampa, near one of the many natural springs.

Right in town, you’ll find Old Town Hot Springs, with a lap pool, water slide, climbing wall and plenty of nooks and crannies which to relax and soak after a day of recreation.

Strawberry Hot Springs

For a more adventurous excursion, check out Strawberry Hot Springs, about a 20 minute drive north of town, or a 1.5 hour hike.

While we ran out of time and couldn’t hike to the springs (but what fun it would have been!), we still felt like we earned our soak after a day of downhill biking.

Strawberry Hot Springs is a combination of hippy heaven and family fun. A series of interlocking pools along the river, the springs are super hot when they leave the ground but cool to the perfect temperature as they mix with the river’s frigid snowmelt.

strawberry hot springs

Beautiful Strawberry Hot Springs, a 20 minute drive from Steamboat or a 1.5 hour hike.

There are plenty of places around the pools to relax and hang out, but not a lot of activity in the water. Mostly, everyone is just sitting, chatting and melting into the comforts of a hot bath.

The hot soaking, combined with a warm sun, made us bold, so before we left, we went all  all in, sliding into the river, gasping at the cold and swimming to the other side.

Refreshing? Yes. Breath-taking? Literally.

warm pool cold river strawberry hot springs

For Big Kids: While the drive is easy and quick, I still think a family hike ending with a long soak, sounds like a grand idea.

Even if you don’t hike, the springs are in a gorgeous spot, along the river amongst abundant groves of aspen.

There are campsites and cabins to rent if you want to spend the night. Note that clothing is optional after dark.

For Little Kids: Old Town Hot Springs is your best bet, as it is more active and has more family-friendly features.

If you go to Strawberry Hot Springs, try to go mid-day, midweek. That’s what we did several years ago, and we had the pools almost to ourselves, allowing for more splashing and playing.

Stand Up Paddleboarding

Whether on a lake, a pond, or the river or, Stand Up Paddleboards (SUP) are everywhere in summer and a “must do” in a water-oriented town like Steamboat.

sup at fetcher pond

Paddling at Fetcher Pond.

Fetcher Pond is a lovely little lake right off of the Yampa River Core Trail and a perfect place to try SUP. We happily spent time paddling about, staying out of the way of the many families fishing from the banks and enjoying the rhythm of moving on water.

Looking for an extra challenge for body and mind? Steamboat Paddleboard Adventures offers SUP Yoga on this same pond, paddleboard lessons on the river and a paddleboard tour of lovely Pearl Lake in a nearby state park.

For Big Kids: Whether they have paddling experience or not, SUP is a great option for bigger kids. Easy to learn, it’s fun to play with steering, speed and balance. When the pond gets too tame, there’s always the river.

For Little Kids. Using the legs, arms and core, SUP is straightforward sport for kids who can swim. And, while you can try standing tandem, I think a better idea is to try sitting or kneeling on the board for greater stability.

Steamboat-based Hala makes a unique double-bladed SUP paddle, allowing you to paddle your board like a canoe when kneeling or sitting.

hala sup paddles

Using innovative paddles from Steamboat’s own Hala.

When You Go…

Lodging abounds, from camping out-of-town to condos on the mountain.

For families of all ages, we like close-to-the-action condos, where everyone has some space to spread out and you can cook some meals (or just have snacks handy). Check out Canyon Creek, just a block from Gondola Square.

For a hotel option, I recommend the family rooms with separate bedrooms at the Inn at Steamboat.

Both properties have pools, and the Inn includes breakfast.

For dining, don’t miss Rex’s American Grill in the nearby Holiday Inn (really). While my guys like the big meaty sandwiches and burgers, I’m a fan of the Beetin’ Quinoa veggie salad.

Enjoy!

More Waterborne Delights: 

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Summer in Steamboat, Part 2: Bike Town, USA

steamboat bike park

Our oldest rips it up at the Steamboat Bike Park.

brave ski mom logoWhat do skiing families do when the snow melts?

They bike.

As skis are to winter, bikes are to summer, especially in Steamboat. Already known as Ski Town, USA, Steamboat is well on it’s way to becoming Bike Town, USA.

When we visited with little kids, we rented bikes and spent a morning riding the Yampa River Core Trail, stopping to toss rocks into the river, watch people on tubes and rafts float by and visit the lovely Yampa River Botanic Park. We also toured many of the town’s natural springs, including the actual Steamboat spring.

yampa river botanic park

No riding in the Yampa River Botanic Park, but the flowers are worth a short wander.

This time, we rented cruisers, the perfect bikes for taking in the sights and enjoying two-wheel freedom. While the river was running too high for tubing or swimming, rafts were jostling their way through the rapids, fisherman were casting line, and once again, we made a tour of the local springs.

We also revisited the free botanic garden, which is just as lovely as I remembered, a peaceful spot for shade, a cool drink of water and a wander on trails that wind among trees, wildflowers and sculptures.

For Big Kids: Bring a bike lock and stay all day. Throw in a swimsuit and check out the swimming at the C-Hole or rent a tube and float the river. If angling is your game, don’t forget the fly rods.

fishing steamboat

There are many fishing holes along the Yampa River Core Trail.

Ski racers and history fans can follow the Olympic Heritage walking tour which starts at the Tread of Pioneers Museum and ends at the ski jumps on Howelsen Hill.

Depending upon your family’s interest in geothermal activity (our seems to be quite high), you can take a walking tour of the town’s seven springs, ending, quite happily, at the town’s Old Town Hot Springs swimming and water slide facility.

hot springs steamboat colorado

For Little Kids: The Core Trail is absolutely perfect for families. You can easily ride to the stables and alpine slide at Howelsen Hill and the town’s many restaurants. Also, check out the Amaze’n Family Fun Park, a kidtopia with mini-golf, water walkers, bungee trampolines and more, found near the southeast end of the trail, by the visitor’s center.

Cross-Country and Downhill Biking

Cruising the Core Trail is a great time, but my teens also enjoy mountain biking and downhill riding. For these two pursuits, the focus shifts to Steamboat Resort where you’ll find a maze of uphill and downhill cross-country bike trails, as well as downhill only trails, with gondola access.

steamboat bike park

Dirt is the new snow! Fast fun in the Steamboat bike park.

My family is all about the on-mountain downhill scene.

Using bikes described by a friend as “40 pound behemoths with 8 inch travel,” it’s worth renting the right bike, donning safety gear and taking a lesson. The balance on a downhill bike is different, as is the turning.  While some of the skills are transferable back to cross-country riding, the two are totally different sports.

steamboat bike park downhill biking

I took a private lesson and worked on skills, while my boys and husband took off with a guide and lapped the intermediate Rustler’s Ridge trail. When we met for lunch at Thunderhead, they were gushing about the long trails, the smooth banked corners and the fun dirt jumps.

As one of them put it, “it’s the best downhill trail I’ve been on.”

High praise, indeed.

For Big Kids: Go. Do it. Spend the money, rent the bike, take the lesson. The word on downhill biking is that it’s a lot like skiing, and for skiers missing snow, it’s awesome. We agree. Get on the dirt, feel the flow and have fun.

For Little Kids: The minimum age for lessons and downhill equipment rentals is 8. We saw families with school age kids on the cross-country trails, but don’t be tempted to take your cross country bike onto the downhill routes. Better to stick with the trails appropriate to your equipment.

steamboat river trail

Just cruising’ along…

For the Future: Steamboat has gone all in for biking, recently dedicating more than $5 million to future bike trail development. Not surprisingly, mountain bike trails are everywhere, along with outstanding road biking routes.

Pick up a Bike Town USA Bike Guide for more information.

Next: Steamboat on Water 

stand up paddle board steamboat

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Summer in Steamboat: Four Hooves, Two Wheels and Water (A Three Part Series About One Busy Weekend)

horseback howelsen hill

Horseback riding on historic Howelsen Hill in the heart of Steamboat.

brave ski mom logoI love Steamboat in summer.

So it won’t be any surprise that when we visited for a weekend in mid-June that we had a terrific time.

Simply put, there is no other mountain town (that I know of) that has so much going on for families of every age.

Activities for Kids, Big and Small

Eleven years ago, our family first experienced Steamboat in the summer. One son had just finished Kindergarten and the other was a toddler. Our week-long visit was eye-opening and happily memorable.

This summer, the Kindergartener is a high school senior, while the toddler is a sophomore. Our two Steamboat experiences are virtual bookends of their childhood, which gives me a perfect opportunity compare the activities for kids from toddlers to teens.

Four Hooves

Although skiing and winter sports have been important components of life in Steamboat since the town’s founding in 1874, farming and ranching underpin the community to this day.

For visitors, it’s easy to partake of the old West heritage, especially if you spend time at Howelsen Hill, Colorado’s oldest ski area and town’s summer heart. At Howelsen Hill, you’ll find a fun, fast alpine slide, horseback riding, professional rodeo and a free summer concert series.

Get Your Rodeo On

The Steamboat Springs Pro Rodeo Series is unique among mountain rodeos. In it’s 111th year, its been a professional event since 1989, attracting  top competitors seeking  to qualify for the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas.

calf roping steamboat pro rodeo

One calf, all roped up, in the team event.

Events range from bull riding and bareback riding to calf roping and barrel racing. Each rodeo is a two-night affair, with winners announced on Saturday. And while other communities in Colorado have one-night or weekend pro events, Steamboat hosts 10 weekends of pro rodeo, all summer long.

bull steamboat rodeo

The rock stars of the animal world, pro rodeo animals travel from event to event with their handlers.

For Big Kids: Just about the only people in the stands without boots and hats, we were clearly visitors, but that made it all the more fun. Western hospitality is genuine and we quickly made friends with a local 80-year-old farrier, the proud father of the 1996 National Steer Wrestling Champion.

Prior to the competition, we enjoyed a huge, homemade BBQ dinner, and my boys can attest to the high quality of the brownie sundaes available all evening.

steamboat rodeo bbq

A plate heaped with BBQ brisket at the rodeo.

The athletes — human, equine and bovine — impressed our boys, who would definitely go back. One sone even won a prize in the stadium Frisbee toss, a fundraiser for the nonprofit association that keeps the rodeo running (we’re giving the prize away below!).

For Little Kids: If you’ve got kids under 12, the Steamboat Rodeo is even more fun. Kids ages 6-12 participate in the Calf Scramble, while children 5 and under compete in the Ram Scramble.

The format is the same for both events: The kids gather in the arena and chase a calf or ram. The first child to grab the ribbon from the animal’s tail is the winner, receiving a belt buckle and gift certificate.

Both scrambles are “all come” with no limit on the number of participants and no need to sign up in advance.

calf scramble steamboat rodeo

Some calf scramble action at the Steamboat Pro Rodeo.

Peaceful Trail Rides With Sombrero Stables

If you don’t have the skills to ride a rodeo animal (and really, who does?), you can still get on horseback for a trail ride up Howelsen Hill with Sombrero Stables. These horses are big, calm and easy – and possibly greedy. After orienting us to western reining (pull right to go right, pull left to go left) we were told the only “rule”: Don’t let the horses eat the grass.

sombrero stables howelsen hill

Howelsen Hill is where the action is — from horseback riding with Sombrero Stables to the Howler Alpine Slide.

Easier said than done, we thoroughly enjoyed our ride with Will, a Wyoming-bred cowboy and rancher in his early 20s.

The ride was beautiful, through the forest along a dirt path lined with wildflowers, breaking into meadows with long views. Ski geek that I am, I enjoyed the novelty of passing ski trails and trail signs on horseback.

horseback steamboat

My son and Will, on the trail.

 

For Big Kids: Given the right animal, anyone can ride. Despite our lack of boots and hats, we immediately felt comfortable, and, with Will’s blessing, even nudged our mounts into a slow gallop. A one hour ride is only $35 and takes you well up on the mountain.

For Little Kids: Sombrero Stables welcomes riders of all ages from 2 to at least 80. Although the littlest cowpokes will have to ride with mom or dad, trail riding is a safe, fun family affair.

mount werner colorado

A view of Mount Werner and Steamboat Resort.

And when the ride is over? The Howler Alpine slide is right next door. Just try and keep your kids away from that.

I’m pretty sure it can’t be done.

howler alpine slide steamboat

Gondola Pass Giveaway

My son won a one-day, summer gondola pass at the Rodeo. Since we already had passes, I’m happy to give it away to a family headed up to Steamboat this summer.

If that’s you, please leave a comment! A winner will be randomly chosen on July 10th.

Next: Steamboat on Two Wheels 

steamboat colorado bike park

Looking ahead through the turn and showing perfect form on Rustler Ridge.

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Mi Familia: Unplugged

reading liberia airport

Reading in the airport at Liberia after two weeks with no phones or other electronics (except a camera).

brave ski mom logoThe first three hours were the hardest.

When our family left for a two-week holiday in Costa Rica this summer, we also left behind all of our electronics. This meant no phones, no tablets, no laptops, not even a watch. They all stayed home.

When we presented this idea to our teenage sons, we expected resistance.

Yet they thought it was a grand idea. Two days before our departure, our oldest son told me that he was looking forward to being unplugged. Our younger son, too, offered no resistance after we explained that his phone wouldn’t work in a foreign country and that searching for WiFi was not on the agenda.

Forward to the first three hours.

I’m sitting in the back seat of our car as we drive to Denver to catch our flight the next day. Within minutes of pulling onto I-70, I’m bored, totally at loose ends. So was our younger son, with whom I was sharing the backseat (Note to all parents: The backseat is terrible. I have a new appreciation for what kids suffer on road trips).

We wanted our phones. We wanted to listen to music, play games, fact-check and kill time through button pushing. It was withdrawal and we were not happy.

At one point, I developed a strong urge to look at a map of Costa Rica. I had to see that map. I had to see it NOW. Without a phone, I couldn’t.

And so it went, with me thinking of all the things I could have been learning, reading and doing, if only I had that darn phone.

Finding Freedom

Luckily, despite the initial frustration, the adjustment was fast. By the next morning, we weren’t giving the left-behind phones a thought.

Although some of my friends had cautioned us to take at least one phone — “just in case” — our travel went smoothly and we found our way through the airports and into our rental car without a hitch.

On our first morning in Costa Rica, as we drove to Monteverde, an area of Cloud Forest in the high Central American mountains, we were enthralled with the views, with reading signs, with laughing and joking together. And we recognized how much more we were taking in, simply because we were taking it in — fully and without distraction.

guancaste trees costa rica

You can see a lot when you look out the window instead of looking at a phone…

costa rica cattle country

foothills costa rica

And so it went throughout the two weeks.

During downtime, instead of playing games alone on the phone, looking at weather forecasts, Fitbit numbers or reading yet more advertising masked as emails, we read books, played games together and took naps.

reading at sea costa rica

Best of all, we didn’t have to worry about theft, low batteries, dropping the phones in the ocean or responding to any requests from work or friends. It was truly liberating.

Re-Entry

On our return trip, we found ourselves stranded in Houston, knowing no one, and obviously without phones. After our flight was cancelled, we rushed to the customer service desk, while connected passengers dialed up the airline or their travel agent for rebooking.

At one point, we tried to borrow a phone to call our hotel in Denver and let them know we wouldn’t be arriving. We asked the couple whom we’d been seated next to flying out of Costa Rica if we could borrow a phone. Ironically, they, too, were traveling sans phones.

We remained phone free and unplugged. And we still made it home.

tiny lizard costa rica

When you’re not distracted, you have time to notice tiny things.

Lessons Learned

Since both my husband and I rely on phones and email to conduct business, we were especially eager to leave them behind and truly relax on this vacation.

Before we went, my husband notified his clients and set up procedures where they could easily reach his assistants. We also changed our voice mail messages and set up auto-responses to email to let people know when we would be available again and we unsubscribed to the majority of our email.

Upon reentry, neither of us had any voice mails or texts. And while we still had a lot of email, at least 80% of it was worthless.

Seeing the relative unimportance of this two-week accumulation convinced me to remove email from my phone.  I still answer email every day that I work, but my non-working time is now more fully my own.

I hope that this will make me a better, more attentive person when I’m around other people, and help me to be more efficient.

As for our teens, when we asked them what they missed while unplugged, their answers surprised us. Our younger son, at 15, missed listening to music. His older brother, who is 17, missed reading about sports and watching ski videos.

posada colonial la fortuna

Neither of them mentioned social media, texting friends or playing games. And, both of them remarked upon how happy they were to have read so many books while we were traveling.

Home Again

Back at home, not much has changed.

The boys are plugged in. Books from the library, which they checked out in a fit of enthusiasm, are sitting mostly unread.

Life resumes and goes on.

But now we know that life goes on whether we’re plugged in or not.

reading at posada colonial la fortuna

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