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I cannot even begin to tell you how worried I was about travelling to Costa Rica. I had the usual list of worries imprinted in my mind:
1. Is this country in Central America safe?
2. Crime rates? Let's just quickly google that...
3. BUGS! SPIDERS! SNAKES!
4. I cannot speak a word of Spanish. Nor can the husband.
5. BUGS! SPIDERS! SNAKES!
So, as you can imagine, there was much Googling that happened; scrolling through forums, scouring Trip Advisor for reviews and pictures, a little peruse through YouTube in the hope to pick up at least some language basics (this did not happen, I have no ear for languages). After a few months of solid research, I decided that my burning questions and reservations had been answered and soothed enough for us to start looking into flights, hotels and tours.
And then, the new list of questions formed. Questions which most people don't have to consider because they can pack a bag, pull on some walking boots and hop on a plane to the wonderful, beautiful rainforest.
Not me! The bags stood empty, the passports still stowed in the cupboard as I began my new load of research based on a whole new list of concerns.
1. How difficult will it be to bring my wheelchair?
2. Will I be able to carry all my meds with me?
3. Will the hotels have reliable fridges so that I can store my injections?
4. Are all the walks through the rainforest 'treks' or will there be some tamer, flatter walks available?
5. Will any of the tours be wheelchair accessible?
6. Will the hotels have wheelchair accessible rooms?
These were the main questions. And they were so difficult to find answers for. I know, as a disabled person I shouldn't have been surprised that my idea to travel to Costa Rica might have been a bit 'adventurous' but why should I have let it stop me? My initial delve into the internet might not have been successful but I am nothing if not determined and just started to adapt the articles and reviews I could find and read between the lines.
We finally took the plunge and booked. The excitement and trepidation was unreal but still, we were booked and had 8 weeks to prepare. The basics we took, which are a must for anyone going to Costa Rica were:
1. Bug spray: You need this! We sprayed three times a day, every day, for two weeks and we still got bitten! We had a total of 63 bites between us when we got home and we used the strongest spray available to us in the UK!
2. Sun Cream: Factor 50. I know, I know, it seems silly mentioning this as who doesn't travel to a hot, sunny country without sun cream but really - pack a lot! It's so expensive when you're there (in some places little bottles were being sold for $40) and you need to use a LOT. We got burned on the few really cloudy days just as much as we did on the bright, clear sky days.
3. Comfortable, practical shoes: And by this, I do mean the ugly, bulky walking shoes they wear in the country. For some people (including me!) the very thought of actually purchasing and wearing these shoes is horrific but believe me, when you're up near the volcanoes and cloud forests, you will be grateful for them! Not only are they comfortable and grippy, they also provide a little comfort in the knowledge that no spider or creepy crawly is going to find it's way into your shoes. Just remember to check them every morning before you put them on because they are a favourite place for spiders to hide in!
4. An anorak or waterproof jacket: The key is in the name - rainforest. It rains quite often, especially in the cloud forests, all year round. And it POURS without warning. We took thin, lightweight ones as it is still muggy even when it is raining but they really save you from getting drenched and miserable.
Anyone who is traveling to Costa Rica will find these things invaluable, regardless of whether you are completely able bodies or you need special requirements, etc. Honestly, I hate to preach, but the items listed above really were life savers whilst we were out there.
Now, I'll talk about the whole disability and wheelchair topic. As you can imagine, not everything is completely accessible. There's nothing wrong with that as Costa Rican's are so dedicated to maintaining habitats and eco systems that they don't adapt the environment to tourists - tourists adapt to the environment. This is great but it does mean that there are limitations for less able bodied people when traveling throughout the country.
Our first stop was Arenal Volcano. It was beautiful and the few days we spent here were easy enough when it came to accessibility (I will do a full post on each of the different areas we visited and the tours we did). I'm lucky enough in that if I have taken all my meds, I can walk short distances with a walking stick and don't need to be in a wheelchair full time. At Arenal, my stick proved to be enough of an aide as the tours we did do (a boat tour, a coffee tour and a visit to the hot springs) were quite tame.
The boat tour did not include any walking, you just need to be able to transfer on and off of the boat (they provided a ramp and there were not gaps to jump over or anything like that). Other than that, I just sat on the boat and was able to walk up and down when my hips became stiff.
The coffee tour proved to be much longer than we anticipated but the ground was completely flat and there were ample seating areas for me to sit and take a break when I needed a rest. The guide was wonderfully understanding and in hindsight, we would have been able to take the wheelchair as there were enough smooth paths and we would not have missed out on anything.
The hot springs were the thing that proved the most difficult. The steps into the hot springs were very steep and the floor was uneven (it would be as it completely natural). In the end, it proved too much and I sat at the bar whilst my husband explored and took pictures. So, yeah, if you have mobility issues, you might not be able to enjoy this one to the max. I wouldn't say skip it all together as they are still wonderful to look at but getting in and out of them may prove to be difficult.
After two days at Arenal, we took the three hour journey up to Monteverde, where the infamous cloud forests are. Here we did a cloud forest and hanging bridges tour and a night tour. Our hotel, as many of them were, was built up the mountains so the hills to the rooms were steep. We picked a hotel which provided transport to and from the reception at the bottom of the hill to the rooms at the top. There is no way we would have been able to get to our room and back again without this service as it is too steep for a wheelchair. If you do need a wheelchair or walking aide, this is really something to look into as you will need to stay in a hotel which provides this service.
The cloud forest tour, which included the hanging bridges, was difficult. The first bridge is relatively low and is in line with the reception (which had a lift - wonderful!) so I was able to walk across that with my stick and back again. Because it was quite low and not very long, it didn't swing, so I was able to do this little bit at least. The rest of it was too much and so I skipped it and my husband went. The trails are really narrow and some quite steep and if it's raining or has recently rained, they are very slippery; so unfortunately there's no way you will be able to get a wheelchair around. I do feel like I missed out but I did get to do the first bridge at least, which is in the trees, so you are able to experience some of the cloud forest!
The night tour was completely flat but a long time. I think it was about two hours in total and there is no where to sit and take a break (I don't think you'd want to either as it's pitch black and full of snakes and spiders etc!). Because of this, I did the first little bit (about ten minutes of flat, slow walking) and did see some tarantulas and snakes. After this, I went back to the reception to wait for the rest of our tour group to come back.
After Monteverde, we traveled another three hours to the coast - Guanacaste. Here we stayed for ten days and did a sloth tour and another boat tour but this time on the sea.
The boat tour was easy enough, you are helped onto the catamaran (two steps) and then you can sit for three hours and enjoy the view, look out for whales and watch the dolphins. They do take you to a snorkeling spot but I would not have been able to get off and on the catamaran as you have to hoist yourself up a ladder so I didn't take part in this. I didn't feel like I was missing out on anything though, so if you like the sea, this would be a good choice. The only thing is, is that again, you have to be able to transfer onto the catamaran.
The sloth tour was perfect for me. Completely flat, quite a short route and an ample amount of benches and chairs to rest. Some of the paths were quite narrow but I would say that most of it can be done in a wheelchair. Again, you might miss out on some bits but I still saw three sloths and lots of butterflies, frogs, toads and bugs.
Being able to transfer from a wheelchair is essential when planning your trip to Costa Rica. Being able to walk for short amounts of time is definitely a bonus as you will be able to see and experience a bit more. Although not everything is completely accessible because of conservation, the tour guides are fantastic when it comes to mobility issues. They understand that you might need a rest, small breaks and they tell you before you book whether or not the tour will be suitable for your needs.
All in all, the trip to Costa Rica was fantastic but you definitely should do your research in order to get the most out of your trip. There is so much to do and see and I would even say that if you are chair-bound, it's still worth the trip. You might not be able to do the 'adventure' but it's such a beautiful country, full of wildlife, that you will still be able to enjoy a trip there and come back with beautiful pictures and wonderful memories!