Mistical Hanging Bridges Park, Arenal, Costa Rica

A Day Exploring Mistical Arenal Hanging Bridges Park

“Only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go”. – T.S. Eliot

After our horseback ride and lunch, it was time for our next adventure: A two-hour guided tour of Mistical Arenal Hanging Bridges Park with a naturalist. The trail is about two miles long, and follows a footpath through the innermost parts of the rainforest as well as passes high up through the jungle canopy over 6 hanging bridges (the highest one being 148 feet/45 m above ground) and four lower bridges. You can do the walk without a guide however having a trained eye and a professional naturalist was amazing as we learned a ton about the diverse flora and fauna in the area and saw lots of interesting things we would have missed on our own.

We met our guide, Gustavo at the entrance and were on our way. As we were walking, Gustavo told us a little history about the park. The park was built on the property of the Castillo Rodriguez family who had inherited this pristine land from their family.  Wanting to share its immense value and beauty, the land owners formed a partnership with Los Puentes Colgantes de Arenal to develop the land with the mission of preserving this unique ecosystem while also opening it up for sustainable tourism. Construction on the park began in 2000 and Mistical Arenal Hanging Bridges Park was opened in 2002 with complete transfer of management back to the Castillo Rodriguez family in 2014.

Mistical Arenal Hanging Bridges Park, Arenal Costa Rica

The view of Arenal Volcano at Mistical Arenal Hanging Bridges Park is fabulous

Mistical Hanging Bridges Park, Arenal, Costa Rica

Heading to the start of the trail

As we left the beautiful gardens surrounding the entrance of the park, we were mesmerized by the almost deafening sound of cicadas. Unlike where we live, cicadas live year round in this part of Costa Rica thanks to its ideal climate. Gustavo told us that after the cicadas hatch from their shells, they live for only 5-6 weeks and it is a 9 and 13 year cycle. That is why they lay eggs all the time since it takes so many years to hatch. The magic of nature never ceases to amaze me.

While we were walking, I stopped to ask Gustavo about the importance of colors. Many of the most brilliant colored insects in Costa Rica are poisonous (such as the “Blue Jeans Poison Dart Frog) and the brilliant colors are a warning to predators or else a way to attract them. Flowers also have an interesting role in colors. For instance, the Heliconia flowers which are common throughout Costa Rica are fuzzy and look like a bird of paradise. Most people mistake the large, red pieces as the flowers. However, the small yellow parts are the actual flower and the red part is a modified leaf. It is a natural way of attracting pollinators.

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Mistical Arenal Hanging Bridges Park, Costa Rica

Costa Rica Family Adventure: Horseback Riding at the Foothills of Arenal Volcano

“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.

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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.

Parrot Hill Ranch, El Castillo , Costa Rica

Our morning hike

Parrot Hill Ranch, El Castillo , Costa Rica

The homemade path

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.

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Parrot Hill Ranch, El Castillo, Arenal, Costa Rica

Our Family Costa Rican Adventure: A Stay at a Farm near Arenal

“And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.”  -Roald Dahl

As we inched up the gravel road at a snail’s speed, we admired the sensational beauty of our surroundings. Lake Arenal was off in the horizon, and the farm was surrounded by lush, thick jungle. The sounds of birds and a group of dogs greeted our arrival while a group of distant howler monkeys warded off their turf with their deep throaty howls. The masterpiece of all however was the piercing view of Arenal Volcano. It was literally right in your face begging not be ignored. As we unpacked our bags, we knew that this was going to be one place that we would never forget. A place of dreams and fairytales. A place of magical mystique.

El Castillo, Arenal, Costa Rica

Heading up the gravel road to the farm

El Castillo, Arenal, Costa Rica

Lake Arenal beckons

Parrot Hill Ranch, El Castillo, Arenal, Costa Rica

The mighty omnipresent Arenal Volcano is literally right in your face

We had found the Parrot Hill Ranch through good friends of ours back home in Minneapolis who had stayed at this remote Air B&B property back in February. They have children the same age as ours – 10 and 12- and informed us that the farm was quite a memorable, unique experience. It was an opportunity for the kids to fully integrate and immerse themselves with Costa Rican life and stay at a very different kind of lodging on a working farm. I secretly liked as well that this is the way to travel sustainably. To support the local community and get a taste of their culture. It would not at all be luxurious like our last place however it would certainly be unique.

El Castillo, Arenal, Costa Rica

Our Family Costa Rican Adventure: Drive to Arenal

“Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.” – Jack Kerouac 

We rose early on our last morning at Manuel Antonio not really wanting to leave but ready for our next adventure. We had planned a morning sloth tour at the Tulemar property before heading north to Arenal. We were grateful that we had forgone the idea of driving ourselves and instead hired a driver again from Morpho Vans to take us there. Our driver was to meet us immediately after the sloth tour and it was going to be another very long day on the road again.

Tulemar Vacation Rentals, Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica

Morning breakfast on the veranda of our villa at Tulemar

The sloth walk is one of the benefits of staying at Tulemar as it is only offered to guests of the property. Over the course of 90 minutes you have the opportunity to see a ton of sloths, monkeys and birds right in the heart of Tulemar’s own private reserve. The sloth walk is offered every day except Tuesdays at 9 am and books up fast given its popularity. The tour begins up at the top of Tulemar and meanders down the steep road towards the beach.

Each sloth walk is hosted by a Sloth Institute Researcher who carries binoculars for guests to get an up close view of both two and three-toed sloths. Over the course of the next hour and a half we saw a total of 12 sloths including a few babies. It was a cool experience but nothing could ever beat our private tour at Manuel Antonio National Park. Still, I’m glad we did it.

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By 11 am, our driver Juan Carlos was waiting with a 12-person van for our family of four. It ended up being a good thing that we had an extra large van given how carsick we all were on our five-hour bumpy, winding drive from Manuel Antonio to La Fortuna. Little did I know, I’d be using the entire back row to lay down and try to sleep away the Dramamine and the feeling of unease. (On map below, we traveled from B to D, a total of over six hours).

Our route

The drive was long and arduous yet fascinating given how much the landscape and topography changed. We left the hot tropical jungle of Manuel Antonio, passing through the beach town of Jaco and then headed north to the mountain town of San Ramon and the cloud forest near Los Angeles where we were engulfed in misty cool fog. It was such a dramatic difference from where we had just been that it seemed unimaginable that we were only about three hours away from where we left that morning.

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