San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Club Rio maximizes family adventure time

Over the last two decades, Costa Rica has developed a reputation for its ample array of outdoor adventures. Canopy tours, horseback riding, rafting, rappelling and ATV rides all top the checklists tourists arrive brandishing. Knocking off all those items usually requires hours in transit, not to mention lost time with cowardly companions. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

To accommodate families and groups who’d like to spend the majority of their time together and doing fun things rather than driving all over the place, there is the multi-adventure center. To be clear, I define a multi-adventure center as a place with two or more activities in which my timid mother would refuse to participate.

Springsmonkey

A baby monkey in Club Rio’s rescue center.
Lindsay Fendt

These have long existed in most major tourist destinations: There’s Midworld near Manuel Antonio, Monteverde Extremo in Monteverde and Buena Vista Lodge in Guanacaste. In Costa Rica’s adventure capital – the La Fortuna area – the country’s newest and most convenient multi-adventure outfit has been quietly amassing attractions for the past two years.

That would be Club Rio, an extension of The Springs Resort and Spa, located about 9 kilometers west of La Fortuna. U.S. businessman Lee Banks bought the 59-hectare property about a decade ago. Although the opulent, five-level hotel has become a favorite with well-heeled North Americans, most don’t know the story behind it.

“I actually bought the property because I love the area down by the river so much,” Banks said in a recent interview. “I knew that with an amenity package like the river, rainforest and pastures below, I could put together an outdoor center to rival any of the world’s great resorts.”

Banks had a vision for a place that would provide numerous activities in just one spot, so tourists wouldn’t need to drive 30 minutes to horseback ride, 45 to river raft, 30 to rappel and 30 more for hot springs. “The idea is to keep families together when mom wants to just watch the father and kids come down the river,” he said. “She can still feel a part of the activity.”

The 1.5-kilometer stretch of the Arenal River that runs across the resort is ideal, Banks said, because it’s scenic, private and close to the Arenal dam, which prevents flash floods and allows sediment to clear quickly after heavy rainfall.

The class I and II rapids in the tranquil river also offer a perfect opportunity for white-water kayaking and tubing, the latter of which is Banks’ favorite Costa Rican adventure activity.

Springstubing

Whitewater river tubing and kayaking are both available at Club Río
Lindsay Fendt

“Everyone is smiling as they come down the rapids,” he said. “With this tour, you have adventure and fun in the right mix.”

In addition to the river activities, Club Rio has horseback riding, mountain biking, rock climbing and rappelling, nature hikes, hot springs bathing, and a wildlife experience at the club’s wild cat and wildlife sanctuary, which houses pumas, ocelots, monkeys, sloths, toucans and more.

When my parents came for a visit, I jumped on the opportunity to do everything together in one place, securing us all multi-adventure packages, These included two adventure activities of our choice, lunch, hiking, pools and a tour of the wildlife sanctuary ($99 for adults, $75 for kids under 12). Somehow, I managed to talk our whole group – including my terrified mother – into signing up for kayaking.

First she and my dad would be partaking in the guided nature tour while Tico Times photographer Lindsay Fendt and I climbed and rappelled the largest artificial rock wall in the country.

We caught the 8:15 a.m. bus from The Springs down to Club Rio, and the short but steep ride was a small adventure of its own. Out the window, wild turkeys perched in the trees, and twisting foliage gave way to cleared horse pastures, with the majestic volcano rising above it all. Soon a few structures materialized at the end of the road.

The club is composed of a reception area, the Rancho Club Rio bar and restaurant, a massive rock wall, the sanctuary and a grassy knoll overlooking the pools, a waterfall and the final part of the river, where kayakers and tubers finish their ride. All of it sits in a compact area, allowing families to hang together even if they select different activities.

Springsclimbing

Club Rio has the self-proclaimed largest artificial rock wall in Costa Rica (we don’t know of a bigger one). They have traditional artificial grip walls along with walls that imitate real rock faces.
Lindsay Fendt

My parents watched as Lindsay and I geared up and easily mastered the beginner section of the wall, then they headed off on their hike. On the slightly harder routes, our guide offered important pointers, for instance, keeping our weight in our legs. When we reached the top of the four-story structure, we could see the river and beyond.

Our guide then showed us to the back of the wall, which featured smaller holds that were farther apart. That thing was serious, but we both went for it. Only one of us made it to the top, but I won’t embarrass Lindsay by telling you who it was.

Then the guide showed us the final side of the wall, with its tiny holds that could be grasped only with the tips of fingers and toes. Most people can’t even start that one, he told us.

We were all ready to try when my parents returned and scooped us up for the wildlife sanctuary tour. Oh well.

As a guide showed us around, he described the animals and their respective mental illnesses (which occurred as a result of the animals previously being kept as pets). Apparently, the ocelot is schizophrenic and the monkeys are bipolar. “Be careful with Mike Tyson,” the guide said of a white-faced monkey. “He loves iPhones.”

Springscat

An ocelot at Club Rio’s rescue center.
Lindsay Fendt

We also met an oddball jaguarondi, crept into the enclosure of two sleeping sloths and snapped photos of a bunch of caged toucans, which had been quarantined for the day. The sanctuary was in many ways similar to that of its sister property, La Paz Waterfall Gardens in Varablanca, which Banks also owns. The La Paz sanctuary is larger and contains more animals, including a jaguar. But Banks also has plans to expand Club Rio’s wildlife offerings to include a frog habitat, an aviary, a serpentarium and a farmhouse petting zoo.

Additionally, he plans to build a state-of-the-art ropes challenge course, which will begin from the rock wall. Like a ski mountain, the ropes course will include yellow, green, blue and black challenges, with black being expert. “[Ropes courses] are one of the fastest growing outdoor sports in the world,” Banks said.

Springstoucan

A Toucan at Club Rio’s rescue center.
Lindsay Fendt

After our wildlife tour, we headed for Rancho Club Rio and sat down to a lunch. The chicken casados were filling and flavorful, and my steak burrito was among the best I’ve had in the country.

After lunch we had an hour or so of free time before our kayaking would start, and my mom said she wanted to return to the room to rest beforehand.

Meanwhile, Lindsay, my dad and I soaked in the natural hot springs, admiring the nearby waterfall and watching other tubers and kayakers come in.

Springsfalls

Club Rio’s natural waterfall and hot springs.
Lindsay Fendt

Having jogged along much of the river, Banks found this the most interesting and beautiful place. There were pools, hot water and rapids, but also the flat ground on the side of the river. “If someone gets scared, they can always exit the river on our side, no matter where they are,” he said.

Surely this would be good news to my mom. Except that come 2 p.m., with our tour was about to start, she was nowhere to be found.

It was only then that we realized our mistake. We had pressured her into signing up, and now she had chickened out. Rather than allow us to pressure her further, she snuck away. Now she wouldn’t even see us come down the river!

So much for the grand plan to keep families together.

What could we do though? We got on the bus. After a quick ride to the starting point and a lesson on how to move and stay safe, we set off down the river. The current was strong, the rocks were big and adrenaline was rushing through us. I think we all knew immediately that this was no activity for mom. Maybe next time we’ll just allow her to watch.

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