The Way to San Jose...
Costa Rica January 2022
..felt like a very long way, after navigating the queues to check in at Gatwick, having to re-scan our vaccination certificates on arrival, and then Ian losing his spectacles while waiting for our bags. What with the 6 hour time difference and a very bumpy 3 hour journey by road to our first destination I was glad that Ian wasn’t driving and we were ready for bed on our arrival in Monteverde. We didn’t expect to be woken by howling winds. Had I dreamt it all, and we were back in the depths of the British winter?
Fortunately, the morning was bright and sunny, although still blustery and much cooler than I had expected. After confirming our tours for the next few days with the extremely helpful Diego on the front desk, he offered to try and move us to a quieter room at the back of the hotel. We “climbed” into town – this place gives San Fran a run for its money with its steep streets and gale force winds – on the search for a local sim card. After much more climbing and backtracking (if only we had Google maps!), we were finally successful and had by then seen most of the bars and souvenir shops on offer. But then shopping and drinking wasn’t what we were there for….
Out first adventure was the Kinkajou night walk, and kitted up with head torches, we followed our guide through the forest and were immediately greeted by the sight of a couple of olingos (members of the racoon family which live in the tree canopy). It is amazing how the guides manage to spot the tiniest of tree frogs, tarantulas, green vipers in the darkness and hidden amongst the foliage – it almost made me wonder if they’d planted them there (or if they were actually real – they weren’t moving a lot!).
Next up was a walk in the Cloud Forest. These differ from rain forests in that they are usually much higher and cooler. Why hadn’t I known that before I packed one pair of long trousers and a single fleece??. We were part of a small group which included two avid bird watchers from Houston, who I nicknamed “The Texas Twitchers”. They seemed to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of our feathered friends and were keen to catch a glimpse of the elusive Quetzal, to tick off their list. Costa Rica is home to over 850 different species of birds, so their list was pretty long. The Quetzal is the national bird of Guatamala – they have even named their currency after it, as I discovered when I was there.
After watching the fascinating little hummingbirds at the coffee shop, we decided to make our own way back to town, as Diego had pointed out some interesting stops along the way. A group of Quakers had settled in the area in the 50’s and started clearing parts of the primary forest to make way for grazing their cattle and established a cheese factory. Luckily they eventually realised the importance of preserving this unique environment, and with the help of the World Wildlife Fund and other donors, the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve was established.
Nowadays, you can also buy delicious ice creams as well as cheese at the Cheese Factory and we treated ourselves as we made our way back downhill, spotting a flock of quetzals on the way! Next up was the Coffee Centre, and then the intriguing sounding Bat Jungle (sounded like some kind of Batman/Tarzan mash up theme park!). Sadly we’d just missed a tour so promised to return another day.
However, inspired, we donned our capes (well…harnesses) and went vine swinging the next day at the Aventura ziplines. We’d already experienced the “fastest” zip line in Europe in North Wales, and now we took on the “longest” zip line in South America. It was certainly a thrill channelling my inner super hero and “flying” over the treetops, although I was a bit of a “Jane” and opted out of the Tarzan Swing. After all this excitement, the hanging bridges the following day were a bit disappointing.
As promised, we decided to return to the Bat Jungle and were very glad we did. We learnt several fun facts about these much maligned little creatures:
- They are not birds! They are the only mammals in the world that can fly.
- Bats share over 90% of their DNA with humans.. Holy genomes!
- Mascara is not made from bat poo as is commonly thought (although you can “bat” your eyelashes…)
- Bats usually only have one baby (or “pup”), and can “pause” their pregnancies for several months – how handy is that!
- They can eat their own bodyweight in mosquitos each night (Ian has vowed to get a pet bat!)
- The largest species, the “flying fox” has a wing span of up to 6ft! You wouldn’t want to get one of them caught in your hair! (another fallacy – they navigate by echolocation, a kind of sonar so would never accidently fly into you).
We were led into a darkened enclosure to see the bats up close, while the guide fed them with fruit. They really are quite cute!
Treetops and Hot Rocks
Our transfer the following morning took us via undulating tracks (I’d hesitate to call them “roads”), up through the clouds and rainbows and finally landed us at the edge of Lake Arenal. We were told that amazing views of the Arenal Volcano could be enjoyed on the crossing to the other side, but our luck was out as our flat bottomed boat rode the waves while I tried to keep my breakfast down.
We were pleased to find the roads a lot better on the other side, and the transfer to our next stop via the very touristy town of La Fortuna went smoothly. Along the way dozens of hot spring resorts and spas had “sprung” up since I was last there, as well as stalls selling everything from fresh pineapples and bananas to…rice pudding (go figure!). There was even the chance to go zorbing in a big plastic bubble down the hill with “Rollacano”!!
We’d decided to treat ourselves to a tree house stay and were shown up to our very quaint and rustic lodgings in the canopy. It had all mod cons including a rainforest shower (what else!), a lovely veranda with rocking chairs and fresh coffee brought to your door each morning. What it didn’t have was sound proofing (unfortunately we were again plagued by road noise) and an essential for Ian…a hammock! Mentioning this to the ever helpful Yiandra the next day, she kindly offered to move us to a larger tree house with attached hammock and where the wildlife drowned out the traffic. The complex boasted several trails and after a rest we trekked down through bamboo forests to a wonderfully peaceful little waterfall spotting cows, more birds than we had seen so far, and trails of leaf cutter ants. Humidity and heat was much higher here than in Monteverde but the river at the end of the trail was too fast flowing for me to chance a refreshing dip.
The River Balsa (unlike the wood it is named after) was too hard to resist the next morning, as we set off on our white water rafting adventure. Reassured by our life jackets and competent guide Mario, we set off down the rapids armed with instructions like “row forward”, “left row back” and “all inside”. It was the last one I had a bit of difficulty with, as I hit the deck so to speak, it took my old legs some time to get back up and start rowing again! It was great fun however, and we all managed to somehow stay onboard, with time to check out the sloths and birds in the treetops.
I managed to stay awake long enough to partake in the free “night walk” at the Tree House with resident guide, Sillar. No “surprise surprise” then that I couldn’t understand much of the commentary as his English was about as good as my Spanish, but he managed to find a luminous scorpion, a red eyed tree frog, and two sleeping sloths (isn’t that just what sloths do?) Apparently they only come down from the treetop around once a week to use the bathroom (Sillar’s words, not mine!). Luckily we didn’t come across any sloth droppings…
Back in our treetop abode, we were delighted to find that we were within Deliveroo’s range and ordered freshly cooked pizzas which were delivered right to our door. We could get used to this…and we wouldn’t even need to come down to use the bathroom!
The forest glistened the next morning after the night’s heavy rainfall, and was full of the sounds of nature. The clouds were still obscuring the top of the volcano as we started our hike in the Arenal National Park. They soon cleared and we were treated to a fabulous (and apparently quite rare) view of the peak with a column of steam rising out of the fumarole. By the time we had reached the vantage point, a bigger column of steam was rising out of Ian as the humidity had joined us on our climb. The vista was splendid however, with the lake glistening on one side and the volcano rising out of the forest on the other. We even got to see some toucans and masses of beautiful orchids on our way down.
Our efforts were rewarded by a relaxing dip in the hot springs, and a cold beer/cocktail at the swim up bar, before heading back for our final night in our tree house. We were thrilled to be joined by two toucans on our balcony the next morning while waiting for our ride – what a send off!
The Heat Is On!..
Another long road transfer through the heart of Costa Rica, circumventing the busy capital of San Jose. We finally hit the coast and our final destination just outside of the town of Quepos, the entry point to the Manuel Antonio National Park. The grandly named Coyaba Elegant Adult Guest House was along a busy road but as soon as we stepped through the jungle theme painted doorway, it felt like we were in paradise.
Canadian Mike, and his Jamaican partner Paul had created a peaceful haven full of tropical plants, fairy lights, comfortable loungers and soft jazz playing in the background. We felt like we had died and gone to Heaven (in more ways than one!). Hiked up to “Ronnie’s Place” for a burrito or two that evening, but sadly was too dark to appreciate the coastal views.
We began our tour of the National Park the following morning with our knowledgeable guide Manuel (obviously a very popular name in these parts). What he didn’t know however, after reassuring Ian that he wouldn’t need his bug spray, was that he was talking to the man who would be found by the most intrepid mosquitos if he was on the North Pole! Nursing a dozen or so nasty nips, Ian bravely soldiered on through this tropical paradise and we were rewarded with sightings of sloths, a golden orb spider, howler monkeys, a giant tree iguana, a giant grasshopper, a normal sized shoe billed heron and several agoutis. The guides all carried telescopes which made it easier for people like myself, who struggled to spot even the larger creatures nestled in the foliage, to get a close up view.
One of the few parks which border the coast, and the smallest in Costa Rica, Manuel Antonio boasts a primary rain forest set alongside some stunning beaches and coral reefs. Although visitors were now banned from bringing food into the park (and feeding the wild animals), the beach was teeming with playful white faced capuchin monkeys who seemed happy to pose for photos against the fabulous backdrop. We thanked Manuel and left him to finish off the tour as a laze on the beach was just too tempting, despite the imminent Tsunami warning for the whole West Coast of the Americas following the Tongan earthquake. We did manage a quick dip, although the strong rip tide deterred us from venturing out too far. The view was simply idyllic, as I’m sure the pelicans sunbathing on the nearby rocks would agree.
We had been recommended a restaurant by the shiny new harbour in Quepos for dinner that evening, but annoyingly found the place jam packed with contestants of a huge fishing tournament. We were back at the harbour again the following afternoon for a catamaran tour along the coast. The fish supper and superb sunset were enjoyable, but we agreed that we had been on better organised boat trips elsewhere.
Finally our trip was coming to an end, and we spent our last full day eating huevos rancheros at the sweet little Mariposa café for breakfast before strolling down to the quieter end of the public beach and once again marvelling at the views and the wildlife but feeling slightly sad that our trip was almost over. As a final treat we had booked a table at La Luna (in the posh Gaia Resort next door) for supper and enjoyed our dinner watching the sun set on a most memorable and enjoyable holiday.
“Pure Vida” is a phrase you will see and hear everywhere you travel within Costa Rica. It means “pure or simple life” and perfectly encapsulates the ethos of this fascinating place. We were impressed with their commitment to renewable energy and eco friendly tourism. They seem keenly aware of the need to preserve and protect the amazing biodiversity and wide range of ecosystems from the lure of mass tourism.
We felt privileged to have been able to experience even a small part of this amazing country, and hoped to return one day to explore more.
Is is a bird???… (click to play)