Costa Rica is a treasure trove of tropical gems with the resplendent Quetzal, stunning Scarlet Macaws, hilarious Howler Monkeys and surreal walking trees some of my favorite. Though small in size the country boasts natural treasures galore within each diverse ecosystem and unique micro climate. There are towering primary rainforests festooned with tumbling waterfalls, steamy cloud forest paradises of exotic epiphytes, dry forests with emerald thermal rivers and jutting active volcanoes with gigantic craters, steaming geysers and hot bubbling mud. Costa Rica is blessed with two coastlines and miles of wonderful beaches. On the Pacific side the coastal rainforest plunges to the waves and the Caribbean coast boasts turquoise calm.
One of the best ways to experience the stupendous flora and fauna is by simply trekking into one of the numerous National Parks to discover unique species in their natural habitat. Horseback or quad bike riding is on offer throughout the country and is an ideal way to explore the foothills surrounding the numerous volcanoes. Adventure is part of the experience, with a mandatory adrenaline ‘fix’ propelling across the surface of the rainforest canopy on a zip line. On a par with this is waterfall rappelling which involves following a river hidden deep in the rainforest and then abseiling down cliff-faces attached to a rope and harness!
On arrival at San Jose we transferred to Finca Rosa Blanca Coffee Plantation and Inn. Finca Rosa Blanca is a rustic but enchanting casita nestled in the hillside above San Jose with wonderful far reaching views overlooking the Central Valley and the surrounding volcanoes. We ambled through the rambling tropical gardens to the main building and Restaurant El Tigre Vestido to discover a visiting chef duo on a culinary tour so we partook in a delicous medley of Latino Fusion Cuisine which we thoroughly enjoyed.
Our driver scooped us up just before sunrise for the first leg of our journey and a fascinating drive through towns with names such as Curridabat, Turrialba and Pacayar, with people and animals busy with their morning routines. We were on our way to the South of the country to the steamy rainforest in Turrialba. The vehicle wound its way through the land of volcanoes with views of Barra, Inazu, Turrialba from the window. We gently climbed higher and higher through the slopes of the Central Valley with plantations of coffee, pineapples, ferns and sugar cane dotted throughout the dynamic landscape. After a typical Costa Rican breakfast of tropical fruits, black beans and scrambled eggs, we were back on the road. Eventually the road narrowed and traversed a steep track down towards the Pacuare River to our ‘put in’ point for our journey into Pacuare Lodge. This was the first adventure of the trip as a stay at Pacuare is part of a multi-day rafting tour!
Our minimal ‘luggage’ was tightly bound in waterproof stuff sacks and sealed in plastic airtight drums which were loaded onto the ‘baggage’ raft and rowed solo by a guide resembling ‘the incredible hulk’. Following a long and detailed safety briefing from Jorge our guide (which at the time I thought slightly ‘over the top’ in detail and only remembered the summary which was ‘if all else fails grab the chicken line’!), our inflatable of six passengers was finally paddling gently downstream.
The rafting journey was both sublime and thrilling in equal measures. Stretches of coffee-coloured river rippled as the raft gently ambled downstream allowing time to take in the tranquil surroundings. The rainforest sky-rocketed from either side of the riverbank in a tangle of tropical beauty, with crystal waterfalls plummeting from great heights, as a giant Blue Morph butterfly flashed turquoise blue wings as it flapped past. Suddenly a dart of iridescent green from a kingfisher and the silhouette of a toucan soaring high across the void from one side of the river to the opposite bank completed the picturesque scene.
Peaceful daydreaming was interrupted by urgent instructions from Jorge as we approached a narrow canyon tumbling with alarmingly raging rapids requiring urgent paddle-power – “left back, right forwards” more orders were fired out in quick succession. The rapids were much more exciting than we’d imagined and we soon realised that Jorge’s detailed briefing was essential!
Real adventure with unreal style can be found at Pacuare Lodge. The property comprises a sprinkle of thatched eco-lux jungle lodges set within the backdrop of towering primary rainforest. The open air design of the villas gives the feeling of sleeping in the heart of the rainforest but with the luxury of crisp white sheets, running hot water and gourmet dining by candlelight.
Zip wiring the canopy and waterfall rappelling are exhilarating activities to experience in the immediate area. One morning we zip-lined to the 100ft high ‘Nest’ for breakfast and abseiled away from the table following a sumptuous gourmet feast!
I was lucky enough to be guided by Jorge on an invigorating trek within the Talamanca Mountain Range to visit the Cabecar Indian community to learn about the people’s traditional way of life. The route zig-zagged steeply up through rampant rainforest and the tropical wonder of giant mahogany trees with buttress roots, vines tangling through moss draped branches and Jurassic ferns on trunks towering towards the canopy with custard coloured toadstools lining the narrow path like runway lights. Further on an army of leaf-cutting ants marched across an insect motorway hauling vast cargo as all around the canopy was alive with buzzing, screeching and hooting of invisible creatures. After a couple of hours we emerged the sheltered canopy through a giant bamboo arch and out onto a cleared sweep of plateau, to reveal a scattering of thatched dwellings dotted around the hillside. The village has no electricity and people lead a self-sufficient existence much as they have done for many generations. The rainforest is their shelter, food and medicine.
Pacuare Lodge is a magical ‘destination’ with a series of delightful surprises at every turn and I could quite happily have spent my entire two weeks here.
Costa Rica’s boasts a plethora of towering volcanoes; adventure playgrounds waiting to be explored with all the adrenaline activities you could imagine on offer. Both Volcan Arenal, with its summit cloaked in mysterious cloud and Volcan Poas, boasting the world’s second widest crater offer fantastic hiking opportunities.
Horseback riding around the slopes of Volcan Rincon de la Vieja is a magical way to enjoy the panoramic views of the area while exploring the unique flora, fauna and waterfalls here.
The area is latticed with hot spring, geysers and volcanic mud baths so you can spa yourself to your heart’s content. Many of the lodges and hotels have access to thermal springs sprouting straight from the epicentre of the volcano.
Borinquen Mountain Resort & Spa in Rincon de la Vieja is set in stunning gardens which can be appreciated from your private veranda. The gardens are a veritable arboretum of fascinating species such as Ficus Nitida with its trunk seemingly a column of serpents and Diphysa Americana with its bark in wattled clumps of frosted sugar, Bombacaceae with its bark an armor of rhinosasarus spikes (see below), Quinatum with vines clinging like a web of fingers and Cyclopendulum with a lime green cacti snaking up its trunk. Borinquen has a natural steam room, volcanic mud bath and hot spring pools. You can then relax for some bird watching beside the tropical pool with a cold drink from the wetbar!
Rio Perdido boasts a thermal river flowing direct from source and provides an ‘in house’ volcanic spa experience. The property is perched high up on a ridge above two canyons. Through one canyon flows hot thermal water straight into a series of natural plunge pools.
A parallel river of cold tumbling white water provides the lodge with a thrilling playground for guests seeking adventure with a twist! Guests can join a zip-line experience through the canyon high above the gorge. Rio Perdido also offers an alternative take on white water rafting. Guests can roller-coaster the tumbling white water aboard a mere rubber ring! In my opinion the thrill of plummeting, spinning and falling through a narrow gorge on your bottom is more terrifying than enjoyable. Having been terminated by the Terminator rapid I was pleased to see Helena surface alive and still kicking!
If you don’t feel the need to throw yourself off a cliff or down white water rapids Rio Perdido has some wonderful hiking and mountain biking trails through its dwarf-forest with spectacular views of Miravalles Volcano. On our walk we spotted a Painted Keelback Snake looped from a Ficus trunk, a foraging White-Nosed Coati and a Lineated Woodpecker looking like he was wearing a scarlet noddy hat. Following all this energetic activity the greatest luxury is to indulge in a self-service spa treatment. You can paint yourself with volcanic mud, sit back and wait for the medicinal minerals to work wonders and then bathe in pools of turquoise thermal water while watching life in the rainforest flow by. During one indulgent soak terror struck we mellow bathers as an almighty roaring echoed around the rainforest. It sounded like King Kong was approaching at speed with a fevered crackling and rustling of branches above and we anticipated an imminent attack. From the shaking canopy above a tiny Mantled Howler Monkey emerged peering down at us with intent interest.
The Monte Verde Cloud Forest is home to unique species such as the resplendent quetzal. It is a Jurassic spectacle of epiphytes delicately balancing from every branch, taking nutrients from the swirling cloud and fog. The National Park offers numerous self-guided trails. We meandered the undulating trail on a two hour circuit while enjoying bird watching in this unique environment with its rambling vines, lichens, ferns and moss.
Monte Verde’s towering ridges boast Latin America’s longest zip-wire. The exhilaration of flying at speed far above the forest canopy ‘super-man’ style was so overwhelming it rendered me (almost) unconscious, but the 295ft freefall Tarzan swim at the end was a near death experience!
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The North Pacific boasts a rare pocket of ocean nestled in a bowl and cupped by the jagged volcanic ridges surrounding it. The water is flat calm like sheet glass and soothing warm in temperature and you can watch giant Black Ctenosaur Lizards parade the black volcanic sand and mangrove. Further down the Pacific coast offers some excellent surfing. Santa Teresa is a vibrant gringo hot spot and its mighty waves are notorious with buzzing cafes, bars and souvenir shops. One of my favourite discoveries of our trip was Playa Avellanas with its swathe of white sand palm fringed beach and Lola’s Beach Bar. We enjoyed a delicious lunch of fresh fish produced in Lola’s open air kitchen, while relaxing on the beach under the shade of mangrove and palms surrounded by iguanas, exotic birds and hunky surfers. Heaven!
Punta Islita on the Peninsula de Nicoya is located in the rainforest beside the ocean and is cloaked in a cape of tropical splendor with mango trees draped in ripe fruit, banana trees a fan of green satin rippling in the breeze and coconut palms bulging with ripe nuts. The rooms are wonderful, food delicious and the infinity pool sublime with views across the gardens, golf course and Pacific below. We loved the way Punta Islita has collaborated with the community to provide projects for the local people and loved everything about this very special hotel.
Driving in Costa Rica is a joy travelling through avenues of tropical splendor as giant ficus bow across the road and vines drape like party streamers suspended from palms of every describable shape, colour and height. Its like travelling through a giant-sized tunnel of Kew Gardens tropical house! We passed huge palm oil plantations of giant trees displaying a vibrant plumage of ferns, football pitches in every town and men travelling western style on horseback – you never tire of the view from the window!
We stayed in some wonderful boutique hotels along the Pacific Coat but one of my favorite is the Oxygen Jungle Villas located in Uvita in the Costa Ballena in the South Pacific. This is an exclusive Balinese style hideaway of just twelve luxury glass villas set in the rain forest. The atmosphere is serene and calming and the food exquisite.- we joined the owners for a sumptuous banquet of fresh fish. There is a wonderful circular trail to follow through the rain forest surrounding the hotel, via a beautiful waterfall and series of natural pools. The area boasts outstanding bird watching with one of the best spotting areas from the cooling waters of the infinity pool.
The Oso peninsular is the wettest region of the country with flora and fauna endemic to the area, such as the Giant Blood Tree which can only be found in Lapas Rios Eco-Lodge and Reserve and Corcovado National Park. The bird watching is sensational from Lapas Rios. Woken with a knock at 5.45am and a flask of cocoa deposited in a wire rack hung outside the door and issued with a pair of wellies, I soon set off with the guide for a private sunrise bird watching experience. The walk provided a fascinating insight into birds common in the area such as Fiery-billed Aracari and Black-Mandibled Toucans, Orange-Chinned Parakeets, CherriesTanagers, Rufous-Tailed Hummingbirds and Blue Dacnis. We spotted over 20 different species of birds and experienced the most wonderful inter-reaction between a Squirrel Monkey family going about their morning ritual.
I finish this Blog from the beauty and comfort of my veranda. The sun is sinking low in the vast vista before me, casting its golden light far across the tree canopy immediately below. In its wake the iridescent green illuminated by the sunlight succumbs to the olive tones of dusk in a long line of divide between night and day. The Pacific ripples reflect the sun beaming through a flurry of low cloud with the steely blue mountains of Punta Burica in the distance. A Chestnut-Mandibled Toucan has traversed the width of my balcony half a dozen times in a bid to search out the riper fruit of the almond trees swaying either side of my view. Howler Monkeys are roaring from the canopy below and a White Ibis glides gracefully from view as parakeets chatter noisily in their search for the night’s roost. Pairs of Scarlet Macaws are soaring across the canopy as part of their nightly ritual. A Slender Anole Lizard has marched along the balcony railing in front of me and billowed out his throat pouch in a bid to reclaim his territory – I move my foot from the railing and he boldly marches on his way!
It is sadly time to depart my ethereal place, The Garden of Eden tropical paradise and its natural treasures. Our Nature Air flight completes a perfect journey as we zip across Golfo Dulce narrowly avoiding volcanoes before landing at San Jose International airport in order to check in for our departure flight which was somewhat delayed due to Costa Rica’s 1-0 victory over Italy in the football World Cup. Who would have imagined that the smiles of the Costa Ricans – always prevalent – could become even wider – a perfect end to a magical experience. Pura Vida.