• Kristi Burke

Turning 30 In Paradise: A Birthday Surprise In La Fortuna

My husband is the master of surprises. He's always got tricks up his sleeve. This year I turned the much-dreaded 30, and Dave knew he had to make it special. So he planned the birthday celebration of a lifetime in La Fortuna, home of the Arenal volcano.

For his first surprise, he led me to believe he needed to pick up an item for his guitar from someone in San Jose. Certain specialty items are difficult to find in Costa Rica, so many people have them "muled", which just means having someone from the States bring it over in their suitcase. Dave had been in contact with someone willing to mule his item over, and he told me it was time to go pick it up. But when we arrived at the home, he revealed that we were there for something else. He walked me over a car he'd rented privately for the following week and confessed that we were actually heading out of town for a birthday celebration. I was shocked and over-the-moon.

The drive to La Fortuna was mystifying. We live around 3 hours away, and the closer we got to town the more magical our surroundings became. Thick fog blanketed the rolling green hills, making us feel like we were driving straight through the clouds. We kept the windows down and welcomed the misty breeze.

After several hours of driving through hazy mountain roads, we arrived at Cerro Azul- a BnB located right off the river, with several cozy cabins surrounded by native Costa Rican Flora. When Dave came back from check-in, he pointed upward with a grin and asked "do you hear that?"

I paused to listen. I could hear the sounds of birds chirping in the bushes nearby, the river rushing through the other side of the trees, and a strange, deep barking sound that was similar to that of a dog. I looked at him, shrugging.

"Howler monkeys," he said. "The lady at reception said you can see them down by the river."

That was all I needed to hear. We rushed to our cabin to unload and then headed down to the water.

As we walked the short trail down, I felt my heart trying to escape my chest. The barking sounds were getting louder, which meant we were getting closer. I couldn't even try to contain my excitement. My stomach was jumping in loops, and I told Dave that I felt like I was getting ready to meet a celebrity. The anticipation was building with every step.

As soon as we reached the river, we saw movement in the trees. Small, dark figures were swinging through the branches. I was witnessing monkeys in the wild for the first time in my life. I felt suspended in time. It surprised me to see that they were so little, considering their gruff vocalizations. If you've never heard a howler monkey, google what they sound like. It probably isn't what you would expect!

Since moving to Costa Rica, I've become a very early riser. Dave is still a bit of a night owl, so he sleeps in a few hours later than I do. We spend 99% of our time together (and I wouldn't trade it for anything) but it's healthy to have alone time in a relationship. I cherish my quiet mornings.

So the first morning I spent lounging in the back porch hammock, drinking coffee and doodling plants. I saw movement out of the corner of my eye and looked up to see a pair of toucans landing in a nearby tree. These rare sightings are always so special to me. Toucans are beautiful and fascinating creatures. You'll rarely ever see one alone because when toucans find a mate, they stick with them for life.

For the afternoon, Dave planned an adventure that neither of us could have ever imagined would be so enchanting: A hike through the Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridges Park. It was lightly misting which set the scene for a magical journey. The rain amplified the emerald greens in ferns and leaves, pulling us into what felt like a real-life fairytale.

Then something incredible happened. We had only been on the trail for around five minutes when I thought I spotted something in the trees nearby. I strained my eyes a bit only to realize that it was just some kind of large nest. Then the movement of something larger, and even closer caught my eye. I stopped in my tracks, gasping to Dave "LOOK!"

About 40 feet ahead, hanging from a branch, was a mother sloth with a small baby clinging to her belly. They were both enjoying an afternoon snack. I stared, wide-eyed, not being able to move as I watched her lazily reach for the leaves in her vicinity. This was only the second time I'd seen a sloth in the wild, but this was much closer than the last time. I could see the rain on her furry brown coat, the long claws wrapping around her supporting branch, and the beady little eyes of her young. We looked on for several minutes in disbelief until continuing on down the trail.

Every moment on the trail felt surreal like we were stepping into a beautiful dream. There were several hanging bridges made to admire the forest from above, making it very difficult to keep going. I stood in the center of the highest bridge, watching the thick fog blanket the canopy. I remembered moments of my darkest days, thinking I would never escape the painful grips of depression. I felt thankful that those days were far behind me. I expressed my gratitude to the trees and the rain and the birds and the wet soil and the fresh, mountain air for healing me. For helping me find meaning and purpose. For reminding me what life is worth living for. Moments like these.

When I awoke the next day, my 20s were behind me. I dreaded that day for so long and yet 30 felt better than ever. Dave purchased day passes for the Baldi Hot Springs Resort, which boasts of the largest hot springs in the world. This beautiful resort has 25 separate all-natural thermal pools of varying temperatures, surrounded by Costa Rican vegetation. We had such a relaxing time lounging in the jacuzzis, exploring the caves and natural sauna, cooling off in the cold pools and ordering Pina Coladas by the bar. There were not many people there and we were able to maintain plenty of social distance throughout the day, having most of the thermal pools to ourselves. It was the perfect way to kickoff my thirties.

We decided to add a day to our reservations to soak up the last bit of Arenal that we could. We decided to spend our last day visiting the La Fortuna Waterfall, which drops at over 200 feet. Your ticket includes entrance to the trail as well as access to the swimming hole at the bottom of the falls. As a self-proclaimed mountain mermaid, I was eager to jump in.

Dave was worn out from all of our adventures, so he chose to soak it up from the rocks. I didn't hesitate stripping down and slipping into the cold, rocky waters. The falls were powerful, stirring up heavy currents in the basin. They mimicked a perpetual avalanche, and the sounds they made crashing to the lagoon below rumbled through my entire body. Despite the choppy waves, I laid back, spread my arms wide and let the water rock me for a few minutes. I wish I could relive that moment a thousand times over.

I have to say that of all the places I've visited, La Fortuna holds the most magic. Between the hazy skies, the abundance of flora and fauna, volcano views and soothing hot springs, I can't imagine any better place to getaway for a kickass birthday weekend. I can't recommend this place enough, and am already itching to go back. I feel so grateful for a husband who's willing to take this crazy life adventure with me, and plan the most amazing birthday surprise.

Yours Authentically,


*If you liked reading my posts and are interested in reading more about my life and thoughts as an expat, artist and former fundamentalist, you can subscribe to future posts using the link at the bottom of this page*

Follow Me On Instagram: @Artistkristiburke

Other notable posts:

"Why I'm Selling Everything And Moving Out Of The States"

"My Move To Costa Rica: Learning To Embrace Struggle With Open Arms"

"Living In Costa Rica: Changes I've Made, Struggles I've Faced, And Lessons I've Learned So Far"

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