Curubanda Lodge: Slipping and sliding to the waterfall

Curubanda Lodge near Quebrada Grande in the hills of Guanacaste

Curubanda Lodge, near Quebrada Grande in the hills of Guanacaste

“Don’t be afraid,” our guide tells us. “It’s a little steep and slippery on the way to the waterfall, but the horses know the way.”

We’ve already come up a trail so muddy the horses sank in past their knees. There were stretches so steep I’d been hugging my horse’s neck to keep upright.

But I wasn’t complaining—yet. We were riding through a dramatic landscape that few would associate with Guanacaste or even Costa Rica. Swaths of dense forest alternated with green hills that might be called rolling if what they were doing wasn’t a lot more dramatic–let’s call them rock-and-rolling hills.  The air was fresco – cool and fresh.  Cacao Volcano lay before us, with Rincon de la Vieja Volcano at our back.

David and I and the guide had started out from Curubanda Lodge, four comfortable cabins on the Finca Nueva Zealandia (New Zealand farm, for the area’s resemblance to that country). We were just over an hour from the baking-hot town of Liberia (the hottest in all of Costa Rica), where there’s an international airport and more banks per square meter than anywhere else in Costa Rica, and two hours from the party beach town of Tamarindo.

If you’re not crazy about extreme heat or spring-break style revelry, then Curubanda is a breath of fresh and cool air. At well over 2000 feet, it lies in a perpetually green valley between two volcanoes, and is sandwiched between two national parks—Rincon de la Vieja and the Guanacaste Protected Area.

The flat part of the path to the waterfall at Curubanda Lodge; photo by David W. Smith

The path to the waterfall at Curubanda Lodge

We’re riding through what they call bosque seco (dry forest), though you wouldn’t know it from the rain squalls and the clouds scudding through. “The clouds here haul ass,” says a local expat rancher from California who’s been here a decade and says that the area’s microclimates are so very micro that it can be raining out his back door when the sun is shining on his front yard.

This morning we’re riding 3 of the farm’s 22 horses, trying to catch of glimpse of the volcanoes’ steeply sloping cones, and marveling at the view from the ridges—we can see over multiple ridges in myriad shades of green, all the way to the where the Pacific would be if the haze of the lowlands wasn’t obscuring it today.

We’re well-fortified with a farmhand’s breakfast—eggs, gallo pinto (rice and beans), toast, a plate of fresh pineapple, papaya, apple, and watermelon, and a dollop of delicious fresh cheese (the farm is primarily a dairy, with 80 Holstein, Jersey, and Pardo cows).

Still, I’m not feeling too good about the steep and slippery descent to the waterfall. I guess I could dismount and do it on foot, but one of the reasons they encourage exploring the area on horseback is that hay culebras (there are snakes, including terciopelos (fer-de-lances) and matahueyes (literally “ox-killers,” aka bushmasters). The lodge has loaned us tall rubber boots, but still, I guess I’ll take my chances on horseback.

Our guide is William (lots of people around here have anglicized names, though they may speak no English and have no English heritage). He’s from Nicaragua originally –we’re not far from the border here, and the clouds we see probably formed over Lake Nicaragua. He carries a machete to whack away some of the branches encroaching on the trail, and to have a weapon against culebras.

I take a deep breath and give my horse, Palomo, a gentle kick so he’ll follow the other two, which have begun to slip and slide down the narrow, root-encrusted trail. It’s not my first time on horseback but it’s the first time I’ve seen how horses can slide stiff-legged for yards and then right themselves. The horses nimbly pick their way over fallen trees, rocks, and through mud bogs.

We’re almost to the bottom of this steep stretch when the guide’s horse loses his footing. The rear feet slide out from under him and he goes down, sliding on his rump for several yards.

I pull my horse up short as I watch the spectacle. But William doesn’t bat an eye, just pulls up on the reins until his horse regains all four feet.

I turn to David. “I thought you said these horses couldn’t lose their footing.”

David laughs. “I guess I must have meant mules.”

Soon we dismount, clamber on foot down an even steeper stretch (No hay muchas culebras aqui, says William—There aren’t so many snakes right here), cross a small river, and round a bend to see a small waterfall cascading into a round pool. The mist from the falls drifts over to us, and we breathe it in, watching a blue morpho butterfly ride the currents of air produced by the falling water.

All photos by David W. Smith

The trail to the waterfall was steep and muddy, but it was worth the trip.

The trail to the waterfall was steep and muddy, but it was worth the trip.

  • By Mackswim, January 31, 2010 @ 9:43 am

    Thank you for the wonderful description of your journey! We are going to stay at Curubanda Lodge later in Feb. and didn’t want to take a long car trip to the park for a tour there. We are hoping that a horseback tour from Curubanda will be an adventure enough, and from your description it looks like it will be!
    Were you able to swim at the waterfalls? What month were you there, was it during the rainny season?

  • By Erin Van Rheenen, January 31, 2010 @ 1:24 pm

    Mackswim, thanks for your comment. We were at Curubanda in mid-December, which is supposed to be the beginning of the dry season. But up there in the cielo roto (broken sky) highlands, there was still a fair amount of rain.

    We didn’t swim in the waterfall pool because it wasn’t that warm out but I imagine you could if you wanted to (staying away from where the falls hit the pool, a potentially dangerous area).

    The horseback ride was a lot of fun. Hope you enjoy your stay!

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