Last updated on June 6th, 2019 at 03:58 pm EST
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WHEN IN COSTA RICA, DO AS THE COSTA RICANS DO
There is something to be said about Costa Ricans (at the risk of stereotyping the entire population): Ticos take the time to appreciate life in its varied and natural forms. Take Ricky, for example. He cannot hike a path without commenting on a leaf, raft a river without acknowledging rock formations, or rest in a hammock without desire to hear a bird’s hum or song. To say that he is mindful of his surroundings is an understatement–he is one with them, and although not all Costa Ricans are as keen-eyed and passionate about the country as my naturalist guide husband, I can confidently say that most are experts at living simply, loving purely, and finding beauty in everything. You could say that their appreciation for life in its rarest and rawest forms has become second-nature to them, and since Costa Rica regularly ranks at the top of international studies that evaluate happiness, perhaps attention paid to the little things is the secret to considerable bliss.
With the above revelation in mind, I visited Costa Rica’s Arenal Natura Park (established in 2010)–one of La Fortuna’s newest ecological parks compared to other longstanding sites in the region, and one with a great backstory. We love that ownership is 100% Costa Rican–run by the local Ferreto family–and that the primary focus of the operation is the study of incredible species, not tourism.
- The Arenal Natura Park (or the Arenal Natura Ecological Park, as it is sometimes referred to as) should not be confused with the Arenal Volcano National Park or the Arenal Mundo Aventura Ecological Park; each of the three sites offer very different experiences despite their similar-sounding names.
VISITING THE ARENAL NATURA PARK: WHAT TO KNOW
As Costa Rica’s busiest destination, La Fortuna requires most of its attractions to operate according to strict structures and schedules given the high number of travellers it receives. While this should not be considered a hindrance, as such regulation helps keep the epicenter of adventure organized and the majority of travellers happy, the Arenal Natura Park’s less obvious contribution to the area allows it to offer some key advantages, including tour time flexibility, tour duration flexibility, and smaller tour group sizes, not to mention quiet visits and focused tour guide attention. During my most recent visit to the park (which was conducted during Costa Rica’s high tourism season), there were only two other vehicles in the parking lot and no other tour groups could be seen or heard. Since we are accustomed to stumbling across attractions that offer the same degree of tranquility at more remote locations in the country, the relaxed vibe at the Arenal Natura Park in the middle of bustling La Fortuna / Arenal was a welcomed surprise.
At the Arenal Natura Park entrance, travellers will find ample free parking, a small souvenir shop, bathroom installations, and a reception area for tour check-in. There I had a chance to chat with Allan (a reservations department employee with whom Ricky and I work through our business operations at Pura Vida! eh? Inc.), Santiago (a tour guide), and Ronald (the owner of Arenal Natura Park). We discussed a variety of the park’s onsite attractions, including the following:
- Mariposario (butterfly garden)
- Ranario (frog garden)
- Serpentarium (snake garden)
- Crocodile lagoon (including a caiman)
- Turtle pond (including a snapping turtle)
As mentioned above, the purpose of my visit was to immerse myself in the little things, so I opted to participate in the park’s premium exhibits tour (titled the Natura Premium tour) which includes all of the onsite attractions listed above, complete with a nature trail walk and guided service throughout. Other travellers can experience the same (with an advance reservation) from Monday to Friday between the hours of 8:00am and 5:30pm as guided Natura Premium tours run daily, typically every hour. Travellers who would prefer to explore the Arenal Natura Park grounds on their own are welcome to do so at any time during the park’s regular operating hours (for help deciding whether or not you should visit with a guide, don’t miss our related blog post Costa Rica Guided Tours: Are They Necessary, Valuable, And/Or Worthwhile?). For early-risers, the Arenal Natura Park also offers an approximate three-hour birdwatching tour conducted around the property first thing in the morning. Night owls can choose an approximate two-hour night tour option offered after dark. Both specialized tour options are automatically guided experiences (these two activities cannot be experienced without a guide) and each offers one preset start time daily (6:00am and 6:00pm, respectively).
Don’t miss our Arenal Natura Park tour discounts:
- A unique opportunity that the Arenal Natura Park provides is a photography tour. This tour experience was developed with professional photographers in mind and allows photographers to work closely with park guides to capture one-of-a-kind stills during their trip. Although creatures may be spotted about the property, the species on display in Arenal Natura Park’s onsite terrariums guarantee photo captures.
- The Arenal Natura Park is a tour operator that does not automatically include round-trip transportation to/from La Fortuna hotels in its rates. If desired, round-trip transportation to/from La Fortuna hotels can be included with any of the Arenal Natura Park’s tours for an additional fee.
- The Arenal Natura Park is one of a few Costa Rica tour operators to offer special rates to senior travellers. In addition, children under the age of five participate in Arenal Natura Park tours for free (transportation fees–if desired–still apply).
ARENAL NATURA PARK: BUTTERFLY GARDEN
Butterfly gardens are one of my absolute favourite exhibit experiences in Costa Rica. Since I tend to get a bit squeamish around creepy crawlies (although I continue to search for them throughout our travels, nonetheless), I much prefer to be surrounded by the in-air fluttering of butterfly wings. Couple this interest with an opportunity to spy on species as they go about their everyday routines, and butterfly garden visits make for one of the most immersive types of nature experiences that can be had within a specially-designed space.
At the Arenal Natura Park, butterfly garden visitors are treated to a guided tour of the premises. The experience not only includes an opportunity to spot a variety of different species of butterflies flying about (including the crowd-pleasing Morpho and Owl butterflies among other less familiar varieties), but the educative tour showcases the various stages of a butterfly’s life cycle in the insect’s own habitat. From spotting eggs and larva on leaves to watching full-grown butterflies feast on what will soon be their final meal, the tour left little unseen.
ARENAL NATURA PARK: SNAKE GARDEN
Following the butterfly garden visit, Santiago led the way along a pleasant nature trail to the Arenal Natura Park’s snake garden–a space that showcases a variety of snake species within enclosed terrariums. Unlike the time I came across a pit viper during an unguided hike (an event that happened many years ago as a result of my own mindlessness at the time) or the day that Ricky accidentally provoked a coral snake while en route to donate supplies to a school tucked away in the mountains, the terrariums at the Arenal Natura Park offer much safer encounters with snakes.
Surely, there is no better person to explore the Arenal Natura Park’s snake garden with than Santiago; his love for snakes is simply too passionate to miss, and his knowledge about the park’s various species is abundant. Not only does he spend his free time away from work searching for snakes in the wild, but has he been bitten on more than one occasion by snakes before. He says so as he shrugs his shoulders and smiles proudly, as if memories of the events come to him fondly, and each bite is merely a part of what he loves to do the most. After some time spent exploring the various snake enclosures, snapping photographs, and drilling Santiago with just about every snake-related question I could think of (none of which were left unanswered), the Natura Premium tour shifted its focus to frogs.
ARENAL NATURA PARK: FROG GARDEN
At the frog terrariums (steps away from the snake terrariums discussed above), Santiago continued to educate with facts and findings; he outlined features that distinguish various frog types from others, he explained the difference between frogs and toads, he confirmed where each frog type is likely to be found in Costa Rica, and he described the typical behaviours and defense mechanisms of each frog species. Remarkably, he was able to spot where even the tiniest of frogs were hiding in each terrarium, and his great spotting skills continued throughout the remainder of the tour as he pointed out both a Strawberry Poison Dart frog (nicknamed the Blue-Jean frog) and a collection of frog spawn hidden under a leaf in the wild.
ARENAL NATURA PARK: CROCODILE AND CAIMAN LAGOON
Over a small bridge, we rested and watched as crocodiles waded calmly in the water below. Santiago helped us get to know the crocodiles–he told us their names, their histories, their hardships, and the tales of their rescue. The talk was rather sweet and humanizing, and I almost wanted to climb over the barricade and give them each a big hug. Then one of the beasts startled another and caused it to thrash about in the water like one would see on National Geographic. Santiago told me just how strong the clench of a crocodile’s jaw is, and I thought twice about befriending the beasts. At least in person, anyway; I admire the reptile’s strength, and in the case of the Arenal Natura Park’s rescue crocodiles, their triumph over adversity, but I’ll be keeping my expressions at a distance.
ARENAL NATURA PARK: TURTLE POND
To round-out the Natura Premium tour experience, Santiago made a quick stop at the Arenal Natura Park turtle pond. Here we watched a few different types of turtles walk and swim, including a large snapping turtle–one of a few species types that I have not yet had the pleasure of seeing throughout our years of travelling around the country.
ARENAL NATURA PARK: OTHER ITEMS OF INTEREST
Although the Natura Premium tour includes the attractions described above, it also presents opportunities for additional gems to be encountered along the way. Leaf Cutter ants are one such find, typically marching in a row over forest brush or crossing a flattened trail. However, it usually isn’t until a tour guide cautiously picks up the ant (carefully holding it between two fingers to not cause it any harm) and attaches it to a piece of leaf which the insect grasps solely with its tiny legs, before the ant’s mammoth strength can fully be appreciated.
Other notable gains from visiting the Arenal Natura Park and opting to tour the premises with a guide are the park’s plethora of flora and a guided tour’s examination of foliage. Not only did I get a chance during the Natura Premium tour to taste a drop of ginger direct from the beehive (i.e., the ginger plant’s flower, not the home of a bee!), but also I was able to chew on mint, cilantro, and gavilana–my new go-to herb to infuse in tea the next time my gastrointestinal tract needs cleansing. I also touched the ever-sensitive Mimosa plant and giggled over its reaction, and I couldn’t resist snapping a picture of Santiago giving himself a leaf “tattoo” in the middle of the forest. When I realized that that little lizards were scurrying about the floor and birds were flying overhead throughout, it became obvious that beauty in Costa Rica truly is everywhere.
When I consider the sheer volume of information that I absorbed over two hours spent at the Arenal Natura Park, and perhaps more tellingly, the degree of infectious excitement that the tour guide displayed when he offered the information, I cannot help but think that the Natura Premium tour offers great value. For travellers with a specific interest in learning about reptiles, amphibians, and/or butterflies while in Costa Rica’s La Fortuna region, the Arenal Natura Park should not be missed. As an understated experience that is worthy of consideration, why not do as the Costa Ricans do, and appreciate life in its varied and natural forms for yourself.
QUESTION TO COMMENT ON: Have you been to the Arenal Natura Park before? What did you think?
If you’re more of a visual learner, take a moment to view our gallery photos below from our most recent visit to the Arenal Natura Park.