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Another reason Costa Rica is one of the happiest places on Earth

Cameron and Amy at La Fortuna waterfall

Costa Rica was named one of the happiest places on Earth, and it certainly earned that title and more in the eyes of Cameron Clark and his new fiancée Amy Steinfeld on a recent trip to the country.

Cameron is Friendly Planet Travel’s webmaster, and when he decided to pop the question to Amy, he looked through Friendly Planet Travel’s catalog of tours and picked Costa Rica as the place to do it. Cameron got down on one knee and Amy said yes! Congrats Cameron and Amy, I couldn’t be happier for you two.

Cameron was so excited to share the news with us at Friendly Planet Travel that he didn’t stop there. He told us about everything else that made Costa Rica memorable.

Cameron customized his Costa Rica trip itinerary, but he did visit many of the cities on the Captivating Costa Rica and Costa Rica Pura Vida tours. They included San Jose, Tortuguero, Arenal, Monteverde, La Fortuna, and Santa Elena.

He detailed what he and Amy saw and explored in each of these locales in his e-mail. So I asked him if it was OK to share it on the blog to give readers a first-hand look at some of the places they can explore on our Costa Rica tours.

He graciously said yes and shared some spectacular photos he and Amy took. Read on to get a little history of Costa Rica and what some of the cities on Friendly Planet Travel Costa Rica tours are like.

Hey all,

Amy and I just back from Costa Rica late Sunday night. The trip was fantastic — probably the most relaxing and romantic vacation I’ve ever taken. Felt like much longer than nine days.

And some good news — Amy and I are engaged! No surprise to anybody, of course … except, somehow, Amy! I can’t imagine being any happier or luckier.

And now I’m sending you a not-so-brief summary of our trip, which you’re free to read!

Tortuguero, Costa Rica

San Jose. We started by flying into the capital and biggest city.

San Jose is not as dirty, run-down and dangerous as other Central American cities, but is certainly not the most photogenic part of the country.

Luckily, we had reservations at perhaps the most beautiful and charming hotel in the city, the Grano de Oro, a century-old tropical Victorian mansion that was once home to one of the Costa Rican coffee baron families.

From here, we explored the crowded markets, well-worn cathedrals and quaint squares of the city on foot and recovered from our red-eye flight.

Tortuguero. The next day, we were picked up and taken to a remote spot on the Caribbean coast called Tortuguero. Getting there was no easy task; we wound through several hundred kms of roads through cloud forests over the continental divide; turned off onto 30+ km of dirt roads through banana plantations; then changed to a boat for the last hour of the trip. (And all this in the pouring rain.)

Amy high above the rainforest

Tortuguero is a brackish delta of rivers and natural canals, surrounded by impenetrable jungle, which can only be accessed by boat or by air. Our hotel (if you can call it that) was located on a narrow forested island strung between one of these canals and the Caribbean Sea.

The beach here is one of the most important nesting spots for green sea turtles, as well as other species of turtles (tortugas), and during the nesting season (which we just missed), you can stay up all night and watch the hatchlings dig their way up through the sand and drag themselves out to the sea, only to return when they lay their own eggs.

But Tortuguero is also famous for a wide variety of other wildlife, including spider, howler & capuchin monkeys; iguanas; crocodiles and caymans; jaguars & ocelots; and a mind-boggling number of butterfly, insect and bird species.

Though this area is perhaps the wettest in Costa Rica — it rains without fail every single day — we were lucky to get almost one full dry-ish day, during which explored the canals by boat with a very knowledgeable guide.

Later, the rain provided a nice excuse to spend a couple of languorous evenings taking refuge in our cozy cabin, during which I had plenty of time to get down on one knee. 🙂

A glimpse at the peak of Arenal

La Fortuna and Arenal. We were next escorted halfway back to San Jose, where we got a rental car and began exploring on our own. First stop was Costa Rica’s most active volcano, Arenal.

After erupting in 1968 (wiping out a town and killing a bunch of people), it’s been more well-behaved, though it consistently chortles out smoke and bits of lava ever since.

It’s usually covered with clouds, but if you’re lucky, you’ll see the ribbons of lava at night and hear explosions. The nearby town of La Fortuna is home base to all sorts of adventure activities, but we decided to explore on our own, and were again lucky enough to get nearly perfect weather. We hiked up to the famous La Fortuna waterfall, a ribbon of water surrounded by dense rainforest, and swam in the pools.

Next, we hiked around the base of Arenal itself, catching a quick glimpse of the peak when the clouds parted for a moment. Then we drove down a little dirt road out to Rancho Margot for an incredibly inspiring tour of the most legitimate eco-lodge I’ve ever seen. We finished it all off with a romantic evening at Tabacón hot springs, a ridiculously gorgeous (manmade) paradise that Adam & Eve would have envied.

Cameron at the base of a 100-year-old Ceiba tree

Monteverde and Santa Elena. We next drove around beautiful (manmade) Lake Arenal and up into the mountains to Monteverde, Costa Rica’s most famous cloud forest.

Though only 25 kms from Arenal, the drive took over three hours in the rain, half of it on steep, windy, narrow dirt roads that suffer (like all of Costa Rica) from far too few signposts. Though I hadn’t really wanted it first, the rental company’s free upgrade to a 4-wheel drive SUV came in very handy!

We finally arrived in the small Tico town of Santa Elena, which felt very much like California’s old remote gold country towns high in the Sierra Nevada. Despite its size, Santa Elena boasts many nice hotels & restaurants and dozens of adventure activity outfits. Instead of the somewhat overrun Monteverde reserve, we spent our one full day here in and around the adjacent Santa Elena reserve, once again with nearly perfect weather.

After a three-hour hike led by a well-trained guide, we headed to the Selvatura center, purchasing a package that included 13 zip lines, a terrifying “Tarzan swing,” a well-maintained hiking trail with copious swinging canopy bridges, a hummingbird garden, and a butterfly aviary. As dusk fell and the animals started to reclaim the cloud forest, we finally wandered out, the last of hundreds of tourists to leave, and found our way back to our cabin, with its incredible views over the mountains down to the Nicoya peninsula.

The next morning, we took a tour with Monteverde Coffee Company of a small organic coffee farm with an incredibly sweet second-generation Tico farmer, who let us harvest some coffee beans alongside his 80 year-old father, then crush some sugarcane and drink the juice.

After a night in Cartago, a pretty little town and the original capital of Costa Rica, we headed back to San Jose. And after getting rather lost, managed to make it back to the airport with just 45 minutes to catch our flight — which luckily, we did.

Costa Rica calling! Friendly Planet Travel introduces its first tours to Costa Rica

I’m living up to my promise of adding new destinations to Friendly Planet Travel’s tour offerings in 2010. I’m excited to take travelers to a country that is ranked as one of the happiest places on Earth. No, not Disneyland. I’m talking about Costa Rica!

Friendly Planet Travel’s new seven-day Captivating Costa Rica tour and nine-day Costa Rica Pura Vida tour shows travelers why this country is known as a tropical paradise. Its biodiversity, ranging from jungles, cloud forests, and active volcanoes, to exotic wildlife, rivers, and Caribbean and Pacific coasts, is what lures millions of travelers every year.

Judy Poliva, Product Development Manager for Friendly Planet Travel, went to Costa Rica a few weeks ago with her camcorder in hand. She captured what it was like to a ride a zip line over the rainforest’s canopy and do a Tarzan-swing. She kindly agreed to share her videos, and you’ll get to watch them a little further down.

Both tours begin in San José, the capital and largest city in Costa Rica, which is nestled in a green valley, surrounded by mountains. If you choose the Captivating Costa Rica tour, you will travel to the Arenal region next. It is home to the one of the most active volcanoes in the world.

Watch the smoke rise from the cone and lava flow down the hills. If seeing an active volcano isn’t adventurous enough for you, try a Tarzan swing over the canopy. Hit play on Judy’s video below to see what it’s like.

If you opt for the Costa Rica Pura Vida tour, you spend two extra days exploring the Caribbean coastal area and Tortuguero before you head to Arenal. Small boats take you for a tour through the canals of the Tortuguero National Park where you can see rainforest vegetation and wildlife, including Capuchin, Howler and Spider monkeys, crocodiles, and more. You might also see some green turtles, one of several varieties of endangered turtles that lay their eggs on Tortuguero’s shores.

Both tours then continue on to Monteverde. Settle into your air-conditioned mini-van that transports you to the Monteverde Reserve where over 300 species of birds and mammals and many varieties of orchids can be found. Get a better view of its Cloud Forest Reserve on the suspension bridges that span from one mountaintop to another.

Or opt for a canopy tour that includes zip lines. (This is also available in the Arenal region.) Judy handed her camcorder over to the zip line instructor to give you a birds-eye view of the canopy. You see Judy as the instructor comes in for his landing.

Lastly, you’ll drive back to San José to see two of its famous landmarks, the National Theater and Edificio Correos buildings. If you’re not ready to leave Costa Rica, take advantage of the already included airfare and continue on a three-night extension in Manuel Antonio.

If this sounds like a stunning tour to you, it’s not as stunning as the price. Book the seven-day Captivating Costa Rica tour for $799 or the nine-day Costa Rica Pura Vida tour for $999 by Oct. 28.

Included in the prices are round-trip flights from Miami; all transfers via air-conditioned, chauffeur-driven minivans; superior hotel accommodations; daily breakfast; all meals in Tortuguero; comprehensive sightseeing with a naturalist, bilingual guide in Tortuguero; entrance fee to Tortuguero National Park; and more.

With these debut tours priced so low, I wouldn’t wait to book your trip to Costa Rica. So if you have any questions, visit our website for more details and the full itinerary for both tours. And as always, feel free to write to me or call 1-800-555-5765 and speak to our reservations team.