Costa Rica: Big Trip Little Country
In the heart of Central America, bridging the gap between the Pacific and Caribbean Seas,Costa Rica provides an ecotourism for anyone, just a two and a half hour flight from Miami. From die hard backpackers to patients coming for facelifts and lap band procedures, Ticos (as the locals are called) have their thumb on the pulse of attracting Americans. People can get a taste of their days of adventure without going too far or spending too much money.
The only problem you might have in Costa Rica is that you might strain yourself trying to do it all before tucking yourself into a hospital bed for a medical procedure. To get the best bang for your buck, you should consider for your trip a series of a few shorter diversions from the jungle covered volcanoes to the cactus hills of Guanacaste. The important thing to remember is that you can take the perfect trip to Costa Rica in about a week and then allow yourself ample time to recover from whatever procedure you might be having. What’s more, with the relatively small size of Costa Rica, the rest of your family can continue to explore while you are recovering.
The President of the Medical Tourism Association, Jonathan Edelheit and I planned a trip to visit some of the hospitals in Costa Rica for our research and for this issue of the magazine. We wanted something different, something exciting during our trip to Costa Rica. We wanted an adventure trip since this was my first time to the ecotourism paradise, and that is just what we did. We stayed at two eco-friendly lodges with toucans, monkeys and hummingbirds.
We arranged for a several day tour of Hospital Clinica Biblica through their special international patient department. Managers Brad Cook and Bill Cook, and their staff took care of all the arrangements. Getting off the plane and going through customs, we were lured into excitement by the large flat screens depicting exotic photographs of volcanoes, toucans and poison dart frogs. Soon thereafter, we were greeted by a nice woman with our names on a sign showing us where to get our baggage and where we should go to meet Luis, of Tropical Expeditions (www.tropicalexpeditions.com).
Luis took us on a driving tour of downtown San Jose, the capital city of Costa Rica, pointing out some of the notable monuments, art centers, museums and of course, the international icons of McDonalds and Taco Bell. The majority of the population speaks Spanish, but then again, living only one and a half hours from Miami, I felt right at home. We finally ended at our destination, the Holiday Inn – Aurora, owned by the Intercontinental Group.
This had to be one of the nicest Holiday Inns I had ever stayed in. We met Bill and Brad Cook for dinner in the restaurant of the hotel to discuss our upcoming tour of their hospital and also our prearranged ecotour. The upscale dining and piano accompaniment was a relaxing way to end our first day in this exotic country. The next few days were spent touring the city and the hospital facilities.
Rafting the Pacuare River
Following our desire to be adventurous, the Cooks arranged an overnight rafting tour through Tropical expeditions and the Pacuare Lodge. Class four to five rapids we were told…the adventure was on. We were picked up by shuttle that made several stops at other hotels to pick up some Americans and some British folk, one couple on their honeymoon, a father and son seeking bonding time and another couple on a one month vacation through Central America.
Clearly, we had very little concern that our Spanish was not up to par. Our tour guide was a lively fellow named Tito, employed by the Pacuare Lodge, our ultimate destination. During the one and a half hour shuttle tour through some of the most exhilarating and picturesque countryside, Tito gave us a detailed history of Costa Rica, its people, towns, folk lure, architecture and personal stories about his experience working in the coffee fields.
Surely, he must have been handpicked for our tour. His charisma and sense of humor made the long journey at such an early hour very invigorating. We made a stop for breakfast, where we were served local foods at a restaurant located at the top of a hill overlooking the valley. It was a nice break and great photo taking opportunity, not to mention the last toilet break for the whole rafting trip, we were told.
Okay, so they did tell us to travel light for the one night stay and I thought that was just to prevent you from bringing your valuables and extra your necessities. What I failed to realize was that our luggage was going to be dry bagged and then rafted down by another brave soul with two paddles in an oversized raft. Fitted up in life preservers, helmets and a paddle, we were instructed to get in the Pacuare River and learn how to swim towards the raft in the event we were tossed out. This was the adventure we were looking for! The raft ride into the Pacuare Lodge was not that intense, only Class 3 and 4 Rapids I was told.
Not bad at all. With six people and a guide, the raft was comfortable and the company was terrific with Tito also as our river guide, pointing out natural flora and fauna, wildlife and waterfalls, when spotted. The ice cold water quickly dissipated with the heat of the sun and I found myself curiously comfortable in my Florida-thin skin. We stopped for lunch on the river bank, which was prepared by the rafting guides as well. They raft and they prepare food?
You cannot ask for more than that! We were warned about the frequent rains in the rainforest, where the river was guiding us, and fortunately we just barely missed the downpour that came through just after we arrived at the Pacuare Lodge (www.pacuarelodge.com). The Lodge itself is environmentally responsible inasmuch as there is no electricity, no lights and you do not flush toilet paper. We were greeted by the staff and led to our bungalows by our river tour guides.
Tito carried our luggage to our new home away from home and told us dinner was to be served in about an hour. This was like no other bungalow I had stayed in. The place was huge, private and definitely romantic. Minimalist but large accommodations featured a large main bedroom with a small step down hallway and inspired bathroom with rainforest water showers.
Our friends were staying in the honeymoon suite, which was worth the long hike to view its privacy, its own swimming pool, magnificent view and outside porch with hammocks. Dinner consisted of five star dining, tables located in the main lodge area where you can sit with anyone staying at the lodge.
We ended up sharing our meals with the same people on our raft. After all, we were devoted to saving each others lives out there on the rapids. Interestingly, Tito was also our server and the raft guides were the chefs of our meal. We were able to relax and kickback with backgammon and cocktails under the candle chandeliers until dark. I even indulged myself in an in-bungalow massage.
The next day, we all took a wonderful, yet intimidating hike up the mountain terrain to get to the start of the zip-line tour. Capped in hardhats and lining harnesses, we zipped from one tree to another, overlooking the rainforest and all of the beauty Costa Rica has to offer. When you take a zip-line tour, you’re basically as high as the clouds. You go along the top part of the rain forest, also known as a canopy. It is terrifying, yet incredible.
There’s only a wire hanging between two trees and you are really high. The natural American in me leads me to think, “Who inspected these things?” Our guide Alex, also a rafting guide assured me that I was not the first person to stop myself just a little bit short of the end so I had to sort of monkey-crawl to finish. Once landed back at the lodge, we prepared ourselves for the big day. Today we would raft on Class 4 and Class 5 rapids.
Would we flow through this one like we did the day before? Tito retaught the method of “getting down” in the raft during certain rapid areas, presumably so we would not go flying out of the raft. No problem there, as I was more than willing to be the first down in the raft. Surprisingly, the words of my mentor Tito rang in my ear before each rapid, “okay good position now…get down get down!”
This was a piece of cake. After each pass through conceivably deadly rapids, Tito encouraged us with the tapping of our paddles in the air yelling “Pura Vida!” I had developed a strange and deep confidence in this person who had taught me to raft, housed me, fed me and directed me each step of the way. Overall, we only had one person fall out of the raft during the whole trip. He fell over twice, but….we did not hold that against him. After spending the whole day on the water fighting the rapids, we were ready to hit land. The trip overall was unforgettable.
After two days of intense physical workout, we decided to spend a couple of days at a place called Peace Lodge. Who could have a bad time at a place called the “Peace Lodge?” The drive to get there was picturesque with views of the coffee fields and volcano rainforest. When we arrived it was raining, but it did not taint the exotic flair of the Peace Lodge with its rooms named after butterflies. The Peace Lodge has established a fantastic series of walkways, hiking paths and stairs that weave you in and around the volcano area to expose three of the most powerful waterfalls I have ever seen this close up.
It would seem that the Peace Lodge must have its sufficient share of guests since they did not respond to our request for photos for the Magazine, however, we have included some of our own. Some of the unique charm of the peace lodge is the privacy and the unique care taken to create the rooms, which are very large. Each room has a fireplace, as the rainforest and the elevation makes for chilly evenings.
The large bathrooms include a tub with a waterfall backdrop and even a natural rainfall shower that seems to emanate from the wall and ceiling. The stained glass separating from the bathroom and the main bedroom emanates romanticism and who does not appreciate a balcony with a hot tub and its own hummingbird feeder? Although I must say, watch your eyes, those hummingbirds mean business.
Costa Rica is truly an amazing and beautiful country. It’s people are friendly, it’s medical facilities state of the art, and it gives medical tourists a wide range of activities to choose from. Even if you don’t choose an eco-adventure, it is still a beautiful country to go to.
Renee-Marie Stephano is the Chief Operating Officer and a Founder of the Medical Tourism Association, Inc., an international non-profit organization that serves international healthcare providers and medical travel facilitators in the global healthcare industry. Renee-Marie is an attorney licensed to practice law in the states of Florida, Pennsylvania and New Jersey and has a background in litigation and health law. She is also Editor of the Medical Tourism Magazine, a monthly journal serving the global healthcare industry by free subscription at www.medicaltourismassociation.com