I walked out of my bedroom, a converted sea container, and ambled towards the swimming pool, hypnotised by the sun rising over the Pacific Ocean. It was already stickily hot, and the guttural dawn roar of the howler monkeys – dangling in the tree canopy of the adjacent Manuel Antonio National Park – had just subsided.
And then I almost stepped on the baby crocodile.
Welcome to Costa Rica.
The country occupies a narrow strip of Central America, between Nicaragua to the north and Panama to the south, with the Caribbean on its eastern coast and the Pacific Ocean to the west. In a land of less than 5 million people, a scarcely believable 5% of the world’s biodiversity is squeezed into just 0.1% of the earth’s surface. And Costa Rica’s enlightened government and naturally caring people embrace conservation as a way of life, making it the perfect ecotourism destination.
The El Faro hotel nestles in the steep hillside contours of Manuel Antonio Park, and is just 400 metres from a white sand beach. Its bedrooms are sea containers from China, rescued from the Costa Rica port of Limón. Construction was 35% faster than for comparable hotels, saving 60% in concrete and water consumption, and producing just 25% of normal construction waste.
On our final morning of the Highlights of Costa Rica tour with Explore, the adventure travel experts, we could see a humpback whale breaching the choppy ocean, as we ate breakfast in the restaurant, above our container bedrooms and as if we were on the top deck of a luxury cruise ship. And ok, it turned out to be a healthily large iguana rather than a baby crocodile, but the story still epitomises the perfect harmony of nature and sustainable tourism in this remarkable country.
Here are a few other highlights:
Part of the Pacific Ring Fire Circle, Costa Rica has more than 200 identifiable volcanic formations, dating back over 65 million years. Today, only 100 or so show any sign of volcanic activity, and just 5 are classified as active.
The volcanoes have played a key part in the country’s spectacular natural diversity, their frequent past eruptions making the soil fertile and rich in minerals. In turn, this has nurtured dense verdant forestation, supporting the huge variety of wildlife and bird species, as well as the magnificently exotic plants and trees throughout the country.
Poas is one of the active volcanoes, and is close to Costa Rica’s capital San José. We got up close and personal with its crater rim, after a short hike on our first morning. At 2,700 metres above sea level, we began to struggle slightly for breath, but the effort was rewarded with a spectacular view down to the boiling acid lake of the active crater, 1,050 feet deep and nearly a mile wide.
And to the left of the bubbling cauldron, a wide grey path – like a slushy late season ski piste – sloped away into the gathering clouds below, showing us the lava flow course of the last eruption of Poas in 2011.
A couple of hundred metres higher, the Botos lagoon is another crater of Poas, but extinct and presenting a much more serene picture. Its high acidity means it contains no marine life, just microorganisms and algae, but the rain-fed lake offers a spectacular view and is home to many exotic birds.
Later in the trip we spent time exploring Arenal Volcano National Park. Arenal is a more classical conical shape than Poas, and rises majestically from the surrounding landscape in the north-west of Costa Rica, 90 km from San José. A short 2 km hike through lush forestation brought us to the point where dark rocks from the 1998 eruption remain, after being hurled from the volcano’s core as incandescent, glowing lava.
Although still classified as active, Arenal last erupted in 2010. But in 1968 the local area was devastated by a violent and unexpected eruption, lasting several days, killing 87 people and burying 3 small villages.
We stayed in the charming town of La Fortuna. Previously called El Borio, it has a perfect view of Arenal and was renamed after 1968, in recognition of being on the eastern side of the volcano and surviving, while those settlements to the west were submerged. Lucky indeed.
Costa Rica is a paradise for animal and bird lovers.
White-water rafting on the Balsa river, a short drive from La Fortuna, we saw white egrets; black vultures; green and Amazon kingfishers, skimming the surf around us; cormorants, their wet feathers reducing buoyancy to ease their fishy feasting; and – high in the trees above the riverbanks – our eagle-eyed guide pointed out iguanas, almost perfectly camouflaged by the branches on which they languished.
En route to the world-renowned Monteverde Cloud Forest, Mario – our excellent guide and driver for the week – pulled the bus to the side of the road to point out a troop of mantled howler monkeys, rustling the trees above us. Specially adapted hyoid bones in their throats allow them to emit their elemental roars, usually at dawn and dusk, to warn of danger or to communicate with troop members.
And in the special environment of Monteverde, there are more than 100 species of mammals, 400 types of birds, 120 amphibians and reptiles, tens of thousands of insects, and in excess of 3,000 plants, including the largest orchid diversity in the world. Of its total 4,000 hectares, only 3% is open to the public, the rest being virgin forest.
We walked a few of Monteverde’s trails during the day, seeing millipedes and centipedes ambling across our path; an agouti, a rodent resembling a large guinea pig; two baby hummingbirds, lying side by side in a half-concealed nest, and breathing almost imperceptibly; and on a soggy afternoon, as we climbed past ferns, mosses, trees and vines to the top of the verdant canopy, we straddled the Continental Divide. Here, the water drains into the Atlantic and Caribbean on one side, and the Pacific on the other.
And, with the insight – and torchlight – of a specialist guide, we also enjoyed a night walk through this incredible forest. Exploring other trails and crossing long, high hanging bridges, we saw a plethora of exotic bugs and insects, dodged freshly spun spiders’ webs, spotted a tarantula running for cover on a branch, and several different types of noisy crickets.
But the most vivid memory is of fireflies, flourishing in the humid forest and lighting up to capture prey or to attract mates. As we dangled high above the canopy, torches switched off, it felt as though we were intruding on a private orgy. Perhaps they should have turned the lights off too….
A few hours south and west of Monteverde, we had a boat trip through the mangrove swamp, to the mighty Tárcoles river where it joins the Pacific Ocean. Keep your hands by your side….this is crocodile territory. We saw several, lounging on the banks or sliding menacingly into the murky mangrove.
Tornado, decades old but undisputed king of this stretch of water, lay lazily near the mouth of the Pacific. The locals know he is at least 5 metres long, but with just his ugly head and a small proportion of his scaly torso visible on the muddy bank, he looked almost cuddly. Almost.
In less than 2 hours on the boat and thanks again to expert guides, we also saw a mangrove hawk; a black iguana, the second largest species in Costa Rica, basking on a slain tree trunk; two scarlet macaws, screeching high up in the trees and looking like an advertisement for Dulux; a white ibis; a green heron, skimming the water; a rink kingfisher, the largest variety in the country; a wide-winged osprey with a catfish in its mouth; cormorants in search of their own lunch; a snowy egret, with yellow feet; a yellow-headed caracara; and lithe mangrove swallows, with iridescent blue breasts sparkling in the sunlight, darting around in search of food churned up by our boat.
On the water again at the end of the trip, this time in a catamaran in the open waters of the Pacific, we tracked humpback whales by their water spouts, and were almost on top of them as they breached the swelling ocean. Not to be outdone, a school of dolphins performed an almost perfectly synchronised routine. And one of our group spotted a rare and highly poisonous yellow-bellied sea snake.
And on our final day, getting up early to beat the heat, we entered the Manuel Antonio National Park. It might be the smallest of Costa Rica’s National Parks, but it packs a mighty punch of biodiversity in its forests, mangroves and on pristine white sand beaches.
We saw more pizotes, unfazed by close human presence; white-faced capuchin monkeys, destined forever to be called Marcel, after the one where Ross gets a pet in Friends; and – finally, after days of anxious searching – some 3-toed sloths, lazing around high in their special tree. One even started moving.
Costa Rica is undoubtedly heaven for anyone interested in the natural world, but there are plenty of opportunities to combine an adrenaline rush with your sloth.
The white-water rafting on the Balsa river was a blast. With Class 2-3 rapids, it’s fun and safe…..but still gets the pulse racing. The guides were as entertaining as they were competent, and I can still taste the fresh pineapple, laid out on one of the upturned rafts with watermelon and yellow oranges, as we caught our breath on the riverbank, half way down the 10 km route.
And for a thrillingly different perspective of the Monteverde Cloud Forest, dare to experience the Sky Trek Ultimate Zip Lines. Whisked by gondola up to an altitude of 1,600 metres; 8 zip lines; longest cable 750 metres; highest cable 100 metres above the forest canopy; total zipped journey of almost 4 km; and a surprise at the end, called “Vertigo”….go and find out for yourself what that might be.
Strapped to the zip line like a spit-roasted hog, we screamed along the first couple of cable slides into thick cloud – a leap into the dark, way above the lush green forest. And then the sun emerged, and the clouds cleared – like the parting of the Red Sea – to reveal a rare, perfect view of the distant Arenal volcano.
Too energetic? Relax in the many natural hot springs near Arenal, the volcano’s geothermal activity creating bubbling bathing water as warm as 105°F.
If you like coffee, that’s just one more reason to visit Costa Rica. An important part of their history, culture and economy, they are the world’s 13th largest producer, again punching way above their geographical weight.
90% of the production, from 70,000 farmers, is exported around the world. Coffee represents 11% of the country’s total export revenues, and a significant proportion of its GDP.
And it’s good coffee. Very, very good. A Presidential decree in the late 19th century ensured that only Arabica coffee is grown in Costa Rica. How prescient was that!
We had a fascinating tour of the Doka Estate, on the fertile slopes of the Poas Volcano. We learned about the complete growing and production cycle; how each worker is paid $2 for filling a cajuela, a basket containing 1.5 kg of perfect coffee beans…and how a very good picker can fill 20 cajuelas a day. During the harvest – 6 months from October – most of the Estate’s workers are from neighbouring Nicaragua, and their deal includes a house, water and electricity.
Naturally, we had to try some mature, finished product, which takes a full 4 years from end to end. It’s worth the wait. The Estate’s Espresso Italiano is strong enough to make you want to wrestle crocodiles; try their French Roast, Breakfast Blend or House Blend for something a little less punchy; or – for something completely different – sample the Peaberry, a sweeter brew produced from a bean which represents only 5% of the total harvest and which produces one round seed, rather than two flatter pods.
In 1948 the President of Costa Rica, Jose Figueres, took a sledgehammer and smashed a hole in the wall of the country’s military headquarters. This symbolised the remarkably forward thinking decision to disband the army, and to redirect any military budget towards spending on education, healthcare and environmental protection.
All the “Ticos” – as Costa Ricans call themselves – we met seemed educated, polite, friendly, happy, proud, kind and deeply aware of their environment and sustainability issues.
I wonder what would happen if we made a similar decision about Trident, and the rest of our own defence budget….?
Throughout our trip, meeting local people was a joy and an integral part of the travel experience. And they may have originally plagiarised a Mexican comedian, but the phrase “Pura Vida” very much sums up the Costa Rican psyche and culture today. The literal translation is “Pure Life”, but to Ticos it means much more. It is used to say hello and goodbye, how are you, have a good day, enjoy life….but on a deeper level, it represents how Ticos live their life every day, how grateful they are for what they have and a recognition that others are less fortunate.
So start saying “Pura Vida” now and embrace life like a Tico as soon as you reach beautiful Costa Rica. It really is an enriching place to visit.