“Live, travel, adventure, bless, and don’t be sorry.” – Jack Kerouac
We woke up early to the sound of chickens and life on the farm at our stay in El Castillo at Parrot Hill Ranch. The morning fog was rising over Arenal and the surrounding jungle was coming to life with the roar of howler monkeys and constant squawking of scarlet macaws. Outside, morning dew caressed the closed petals of flowers and the ground was wet and moist. It had rained hard last night.
We only had one full day in Arenal and with so many exciting, adventurous options, we had to make a family decision on how to best use our time. Besides the volcano, Arenal is known for its hot springs and spas as well as its incredible zip line park and aerial tram that sweeps you hundreds of feet above the jungle. Since we had already done zip lining and canyoning in Manuel Antonio, we opted to spend the day at Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridges Park, a stunning property on the foothills of Arenal filled with lush tropical rainforest where you can hike, horseback ride, go birding and more. If we had time, we’d go for an afternoon swim at one of the many hot springs.
Before breakfast, we made the mistake of attempting a morning hike on a makeshift path near the farm called the “Monkey Trail”. We heard about it from the American neighbors who also run an Air B&B just down the gravel road from Parrot Hill Ranch. The owner boasted how he made the trail by hand and it was almost complete. He told us to go early in the morning for a chance to see howler monkeys and other nature. We were unable to convince our 12-year-old son Max to get out of bed however 10-year-old Sophia was game for the hike. Thankfully so were the farm’s two dogs, one of them a tiny Chihuahua named Bobby who was spirited and had a big dog personality.
In my eyes, a morning hike with monkeys sounded like a dream come true! Yet little did we know, the trail would be very dark, narrow and literally inside the thick of the jungle. With a hesitant start, we entered the dark,deep jungle and the first thought that came to mind was I hope we wouldn’t see any snakes. The dogs went first and it made me feel a little better (I jokingly thought of them as “snake bait”) yet after about twenty minutes we turned around not wanting to take a chance with fate. Costa Rica has many species of venomous snakes, spiders, frogs, and other insects. Oftentimes you cannot see them until it is too late. If you are attacked and can’t reach medical attention soon, it can be fatal. We heard way too many spooky stories to mess around so we decided to hold off our hiking until we were at the park with an experienced guide. Looking back, I’m glad that we trusted our instincts as our guide pointed out three highly poisonous snakes at the park later that day and we never would have seen them due to their meticulous camouflage.
We left the farm a little after nine and headed to the park. We thought we knew where we were going but after about twenty minutes of driving we realized we were back in the town of La Fortuna and had completely missed our turn. We stopped at a little shop in town and got better directions but our little mishap cost us to miss the first tour of the hanging bridges and no time to spare for the hot springs later that day.
When we arrived at Mistical, we were surprised to see the large parking lot relatively empty. A bus filled with tourists was pulling out and we realized they were there for the early morning bird walk. We smiled and took it all in. For once we would have almost the entire place to ourselves which felt like a luxury after spending a few days in crowded, touristy Manuel Antonio. A young man with a clipboard came up to us and helped us plan our day. We chose to do horseback riding in the morning followed by lunch and a three-hour tour of the hanging bridges. It was going to be a ton of fun!
I grew up horseback riding spending my summers taking riding lessons and going to a sleep away camp where I’d get my own horse for an entire week to care for and ride. I always enjoyed it. My daughter had been on a few trail rides with me however surprisingly, my son had never been on a horse before. For some reason, I forgot! I thought he had gone with us before but as we were putting on our helmets and getting paired up with our horse I realized my son was standing back a little timidly.
He confessed that he was a little nervous but our trip to Costa Rica had been all about stepping out of our comfort zones. For my son, it was getting on a horse and riding for the first time. For my daughter, it was attempting to ride a boogie board in the ocean. For my husband, it was driving in Costa Rica on the crazy roads and for me, zip lining proved to be the most discomforting thing I’d done. I had never gone before and thought it sounded like a lot of fun. We had signed up with a local company based in Quepos near Manuel Antonio National Park. We met at their base near the rainforest and boarded the back of an open-air pick up truck which corralled us to the heart of the jungle. There, we walked to the first platform well over one hundred feet up in the air and I nearly passed out trying to climb up the ladder. Yes, I love to hike and climb mountains! But when it comes to heights, I am petrified!
For the next two hours, we zip lined from platform to platform, each one getting more daring and crazy than the last. I went upside down zip lining, I swung out like a monkey and did the famous “monkey drop” into the water. I repelled down a waterfall and then did the superman zipline. By the end of our excursion, I was ready to pass out. It was a little bit too much adrenalin for me but the kids loved it. Horseback riding would be calm and relaxing. Peaceful after the other crazy things we did on the trip including all the driving.
We set off with our guide Augustin from Paco’s Horses and enjoyed the verdant countryside and breathtaking views of Lake Arenal and the volcano. It was the perfect day, not too hot and thankfully not raining. They get a lot of rain in this part of Costa Rica which is why it is so incredibly lush while the Pacific side of Costa Rica is hot, barren and dry. It is a sharp contrast.
We finished our ride just in time for lunch. The park has a beautiful A-frame building with large windows affording a stunning view of the volcano. The restaurant is lovely and the food is very good. My only regret is that we never took a family picture here. It would have definitely been a keeper.
Once our bellies were full, we were off to our next adventure. A three-hour tour of the hanging bridges! I could hardly wait.
If you go:
Mistical Arenal Hanging Bridges Park is open seven days a week and is located 2.5 km East of the dam of Lake Arenal on the pave road, La Fortuna de San Carlos, Alajuela, Costa Rica.