Costa Rica: The adventure I never knew I always wanted to have

Amanda Angus / 19 May 2016

We start our journey at just past 1am, when the taxi arrives at my front door. My friend and I are joining a group of four other ladies on an educational trip to Costa Rica, arranged by Saga Holidays.

It’s a whistle-stop version of Saga’s popular Jewel of Central America tour; the idea behind the trip is to give us an insight into not only the country we’re visiting, but also how Saga run the holidays they offer.

I’d never really thought about visiting Costa Rica before. I like travel, but the places that really interest me are English-speaking; perhaps because as brave as I try to be, going far from home still makes me a little nervous, and knowing I can at least make myself understood is a comfort. But still, when the opportunity to experience Costa Rica for myself came up, I didn’t think twice about taking it. After all, I thought to myself, I quite like wildlife, and it’s not every day you can walk up a volcano, trek through the rainforest, or spot a sloth.

I’m not too fussed about birds though, I thought anxiously as our departure date came closer. And I don’t really like monkeys; on the rare occasion I visit a zoo I always prefer to rush past or maybe even skip out the monkey enclosure altogether. From what I’d read about Costa Rica, birds and monkeys feature quite heavily. Oh, and crocodiles. I don’t like them much either.

But I put all my fears and misgivings to one side, recognising them for what they were – last-minute heebie-jeebies, brought on by the idea of embarking on a long-haul adventure with a group of people I barely knew. In order to calm myself down a little, I sought out Zoe, a girl I knew vaguely from the office, who had taken a last minute space on the trip. We’d worked on the odd project together, so I knew her to say hello to, but had no idea what we might have in common.

I quickly discovered that we did have something in common – and that something was Costa Rica. Her enthusiasm was infectious, and I found myself forgetting all of my worries and joining in with excited conversations about what we might see and experience. Suddenly I had an insight into why solo travel with Saga is so popular – when you have something like a whole new destination to discuss, you forge bonds quickly. Before long Zoe and I were chatting like old friends, and at 1am on a chilly Thursday morning in April, we’re waiting outside my house for the taxi to take us to the airport.

After a short hop to Madrid, we embark on an 11-hour flight to San Jose airport. Luckily, I have advice from Holiday Creator Kathy on how to cope with a long-haul trip and, with a few films to watch and a book to read, the time simply flies by (!).

We make our way through customs and collect our luggage from the belt. It’s swiftly whisked away from us by a porter hired by Saga, and we are quickly met by our Tour Manager, who effortlessly ushers us on to an awaiting minibus. The air outside is warm and humid, the sky overcast – we’ve managed to time our trip to coincide with Costa Rica’s rainy season. We were aware of that before we travelled, but all the same, my heart sinks a little – will we see any sunshine, or will it be grey skies all the way?

Our first journey through the streets of San Jose is relatively painless – the traffic is busy, as might be expected in a capital city, but the driver skilfully steers us through the long lines of cars in an unexpectedly smooth manner. I gaze out the window, enthralled by the juxtaposition of huge trees and McDonald’s billboards. It’s oddly American here, I notice, with some surprise. I’m not sure what I expected, but it wasn’t adverts for Quiznos and Subway. The trees hold my attention though; tall and straight, the bark is streaked with colours, as though an artist has carefully coloured them in with pastel chalks, or watercolours. In my head, I call them watercolour-paint trees, but make a mental note to ask their proper name, when I get a moment.

The tour manager is a lady who speaks perfect English with a beautiful Costa Rican accent. She introduces herself as Eugenie, like the princess – but we can call her Enya, if we prefer. Alvarro is the driver – or, if we prefer, Alvo. I like this immediate shortening of names – it feels friendlier, and I suspect sometimes people might struggle with the correct pronunciation of the longer version, and not wish to offend. I attempt to call our tour manager Eugenie throughout, but I’m never quite sure if I’m saying it right. She doesn’t correct me, so I’m quietly confident that I’m not causing offence. She chats naturally as we drive, telling us about San Jose and the things of interest we pass.

We arrive at our first stop, the Hotel Villa Tournon. Saga guests will stay two nights here, so they can have plenty of time to relax and explore San Jose, but as we’re doing a two-week tour in half the time, we’re only staying one night. I let myself into my room and feel sad we aren’t staying longer; the bed is huge and comfortable, and whilst the décor of the room might be considered due an upgrade, I love its rustic appeal. The air conditioning on, I pad about the room, pausing to swig gratefully from the bottle of water that has thoughtfully been left for me. As with any trip abroad, I’ve been warned to drink only bottled water, but I wash and clean my teeth with water from the tap with no ill effects – though I do have a strong stomach, so I don’t necessarily recommend it.

Before long I’m due to find the rest of my group for a meeting with the hotel manager. A polite, softly-spoken man, he ushers us into the bar area for a drink and a chat. It transpires that he is a trained attorney, who fell in love with the hotel years ago and has run it ever since. He proudly gives us a tour, during which his great fondness for the building is evident. I’m now flagging, having been awake for around 48 hours, but before I have to call it a night I mention the Americanisation that so surprised me on arrival. He nods.

“We are only three hours from Miami. Many Americans come here for holidays.”

He sounds pleased with this; pleased that people want to visit the country with which he himself is so enamoured. No wonder he fell in love with the idea of running a hotel from which people will start their Costa Rican journey of discovery…

The next morning I awake early, and open my curtains. I needn’t have worried about grey skies; the morning is bright and sunny, and there is not a cloud in the sky. I make my way through the corridors to the breakfast room. I scope out the breakfast buffet; rice and beans, scrambled eggs, small sausages in a tomato sauce, pancakes, fresh fruit. I fill my plate with a little of everything and sit down with a coffee. Raymond, another Saga tour manager, stops by my table to say hello. He wishes me good morning, and points at the rice.

“This is ‘gallo pinto’,” he tells me. “It means ‘speckled rooster’, because the beans in the rice look like the speckles of colour in a rooster’s feathers.”

I am delighted by this tiny piece of trivia, given out so casually. I realise that the automatic instinct to inform, to enlighten, is what makes Raymond an excellent guide. Like the hotel manager, he wants people to discover every little thing that makes his country wonderful, everything from the volcanoes and rainforests to the reasons behind names of the (delicious) breakfast food. And luckily for us, our Eugenie is cut from the same cloth.

We pile back on the bus after breakfast, our cases taking up the back rows of seats. There is plenty of room to stretch out, but now I’m refreshed and in no need of a nap, I watch as the streets of San Jose flash by. I notice there is barely any graffiti – everything seems freshly painted in various cheerful hues, even though the area we’re driving through doesn’t seem particularly well to do. People seem proud of their city. I see various items used in ingenious ways to create a makeshift wall, or a roof – and all painted carefully. I spot a couple of bowls of water left out with the sign ‘Agua para su perro’ – my Spanish is basic at best, but I suspect this means ‘water for your dog’ (once home, Google translate confirms). I’m struck by how friendly and welcoming this country is; I’m already feeling a fondness for it.

Our first stop for the morning is at the Poás Volcano. We walk up a gentle incline through cloud forest, Eugenie all the while pointing out plants and birds. We marvel at huge leaves that unfurl like giant rhubarb; Eugenie tells us they are called ‘poor man’s umbrella’, and carefully demonstrates. Here a baby fern is sprouting, there, bamboo, introduced from China, grows to towering heights. Birds flit through the sky, perch in trees, hop across the path in front of us, and fill the air with the piccolo chirps and trills.

We reach the volcano crater, but I can’t hide my disappointment – beyond the guardrail we see nothing but thick cloud. An impenetrable wall of white hides everything from view. I glance at Eugenie, but she doesn’t look worried.

“We wait for a while,” she says, with a shrug, adding with a mischievous smile, “Try blowing at it.”

How long is a while, I start to wonder, then I realise I can see through the cloud. A moment ago it was opaque, I’m sure. I snap a picture, wondering if this is the best view I’ll get. A second or two pass. I can see more. The camera comes out again. In less than a minute, the cloud has faded entirely, revealing the crater and the lake in the centre. The lake is so hot it’s steaming, and today it’s a bright white, as though someone spilt a pot of paint. I’m told it changes colour depending on the mix of chemicals present that day – I don’t know what white means, but I know I don’t want to go swimming in it. The perspective is hard to comprehend, with nothing to compare it to. I can’t work out exactly how far away the lake is, nor how big the crater is. As though reading my mind, Eugenie appears at my elbow.

“It’s over 1.5km across,” she tells me, smiling at my incredulity.

We stroll back down the track, chatting amongst ourselves about the magical moment when the cloud cleared. I feel totally at ease with the group; conversation flows about what we just saw, and what’s next on the agenda. And what’s next is a visit to a coffee plantation…

After spending the morning walking up and down a volcano, we’re more than ready for lunch. The coffee plantation has a hot buffet waiting, along with freshly squeezed fruit juice and – of course – coffee. I enjoy chicken and rice, along with what appears to be a baked banana – plantain, Eugenie tells us. It’s a relative of the banana, but used as a savoury carbohydrate, usually in Caribbean food. I’m not sure about it, but I eat it anyway – I love trying new food. Before the tour starts, we make our way past giant, bright blue hydrangeas to the butterfly garden, which is filled with vibrant wings fluttering through verdant greenery. Between the six of us, I’m sure we take over a thousand photographs.

The tour of the plantation starts with a shot of ice-cold mocha, and I make a mental note to recreate it at home. We follow the diminutive guide, who speaks English with a lilting, sing-song Costa Rican accent that lifts at the end of every sentence, reminding me of the bird song we’d heard in the cloud forest. She explains that in order to stop birds and monkeys from eating the coffee berries, they don’t try to keep them away; instead they plant mango trees as a distraction. I have noticed that there are lots of mangos left on the ground; I ask Eugenie why they aren’t collected and eaten, and she shrugs. “We have too many mangoes, we grow bored of them,” she tells me, with a dismissive wave. Mangoes are for the monkeys and the birds here, it seems.

We are under cover in a large shed learning about how the good coffee beans are separated from the bad (simple – bad beans float in water, good beans sink) when suddenly, and without warning, there is a total eclipse of the sun – or so it seems, as from nowhere, black rainclouds gather and the heavens open. As we watch, raindrops dislodge lemons from the trees and a small river forms where moments ago we had been standing, soaking up the sun. We scurry back to the main building, where we are rewarded with more coffee and chocolate-covered coffee beans. In a matter of minutes the rain stops, and the sun turns the heat up once more; we are dry before we even get back on the bus. I pause to take a few photos of the delicate flowers known as Angels’ Trumpets; now covered in sparkling raindrops, their pastel pinks look even prettier. The watercolour paint trees I noticed on the drive from the airport to the Hotel Villa Tournon are here too; Eugenie has already told the group they are called rainbow eucalyptus, a better name than the one I came up with myself, and damp from the rain their colours are all the more striking and vivid.

In truth, I’m waiting to make sure that one of our number knows where we are. Miranda is lagging behind, having stopped to buy something from the gift shop. We told her we’d meet her on the bus, but it’s occurred to me she might miss the turn to the car park, hidden as it is by Angels’ Trumpets and Rainbow Eucalyptus trees. I see her approaching, and wave. She waves back, and I can see she is relieved I’ve waited. That’s the beauty of travelling in a small group; even after just two days together, we already seem to be second guessing one another’s needs. The nature of the trip means we can’t help but get to know each other on fast-forward. Already I think of each of my companions on the bus as a friend, and any fears I had about feeling lonely or left out are forgotten.

Our next hotel is the Hotel Vila Lapas, deep in the rainforest. We turn off a main road, on to a road that seems to be little more than a dirt track, then down a incline so steep it feels a little like a rollercoaster – but Alvo, our expert driver, isn’t phased in the slightest, and gets us to the bottom with considerable ease. We jump out and check in, whilst our luggage is carefully unloaded from the bus. All around us huge butterflies with black wings marked with bold green stripes dance through the shafts of late afternoon sunlight that stream through the leaves overhead.

“They’re beautiful,” I marvel to Eugenie. “What spectacular wings these butterflies have!”

She shakes her head.

“They aren’t butterflies, they’re diurnal moths. Moths that like to come out in the sunshine instead of the moonlight. But you’re right; they are beautiful.”

They are. I watch them for a while longer, counting at least seven, before heading for my room. My suitcase is already making its way there, pulled by a friendly porter, who points out birds flying overhead as we cross a small bridge that spans the Tacolitos River. At one point he pauses, and carefully steps over something I can’t yet see (my eyesight is not so good in the dusk, when my prescription sunglasses have come off and my glasses are safely packed in my suitcase). As I get closer, I can see what looks like a stream carrying bits of debris – then I realise it’s not a stream, it’s hundreds of thousands of ants, each carrying a small circle of leaf to an undisclosed location. Channelling my inner child, I crouch down next to them to get a better look. Tiny ants carry the leaf fragments, and larger ants with impressive pincers patrol up and down, performing spot checks occasionally, moving obstacles, chasing away threats…

“Be careful,” Eugenie tells me. “They bite.”

I move backwards, but it doesn’t stop me following the trail of ants a few metres to the tree they’re systematically stripping. I wonder how long it would take them to totally destroy a tree, and realise that there are dirt tracks through the grass to every single tree in the area, worn down by billions of tiny little ant feet carrying their leafy burdens. Some tracks are being used, some are slowly growing grass again – so it would seem that when the ants feel they have got enough leaves from one tree, they allow it to recover, and start on another. I’m totally enchanted by them. Eugenie is amused by my reaction.

“They take the leaves to feed their fungus garden,” she tells me. “They are farmers.” I stare at her, trying to decide if she’s winding me up.

She isn’t. It turns out that leafcutter ants cultivate gardens of nutritional fungus, enough to feed the entire colony. As though I wasn’t amazed enough with these busy little creatures.

“They’re brilliant,” I tell her. She laughs.

“Costa Rica has no navy; instead we have crocodiles. No airforce, because we have eagles. And no army, because we have the leafcutter ants.”

My room at the Hotel Vila Lapas is light and airy, with a walk-in shower and another huge, comfortable bed. I love it. I fall asleep to the sounds of the rainforest, and awake early to birdsong. In fact, I’m up so early that I grab my camera and go for a walk around the grounds. I spot a couple of lazy iguanas sunning themselves on the roof of my room – explaining the stomping sounds I heard last night and assumed were raccoons. The leafcutter ants aren’t awake yet (they are late risers) but instead I spot a tiny black and green frog hopping through the grass. Later, I show Eugenie the photo.

“A poison dart frog, yes,” she nods wisely. I google him later, with the hotel’s free Wi-Fi, and see that he had enough poison in his tiny, adorable little body to stop a human heart beating. I’m glad I didn’t pick him up.

At breakfast I have a fresh omelette – the eggs here are really delicious, I guess because the chickens are totally free range, and live on such a natural diet – and more gallo pinto. Eugenie tells us that today we are going for a trek through the rainforest, but that we should pack a swimming costume, as we may have a bit of time for a dip in the Pacific Ocean. I nearly don’t bother, but at the last minute I grab my bikini and a towel, just in case.

We drive to an area that seems oddly busy, considering we are going for a trek in the rainforest. People try to sell us whistles that make bird noises, fans and other touristy bits. It’s busy, and I wonder what we’re getting into. Eugenie beckons over a man carrying a telescope.

“Estás listo?” she asks us. “Are you ready?”

We are, and off we go. Almost immediately the crowds fade, and we find ourselves in the rainforest, on a track that disappears off into the trees. After a few metres the man stops, and sets up his telescope. We peer into the distance, wondering what he could have seen. We see nothing. Then one by one he lets us look through the telescope. I’m last to look, and every time someone else says “Wow!” I get more impatient. Finally, it’s my turn – I look through and see a lizard; known as the Jesus Christ because it can run on water, it’s well camouflaged. Now I know where it is, I can see it sitting on a rock – just. But as soon as I’ve looked, he moves the telescope again – a squirrel monkey is approaching us along some electrical cables. He moves fluidly, and I am entranced. I thought I didn’t like monkeys – but what I realise, standing in the rainforest with my mouth gaping and my eyes wide – is that what I actually don’t like is zoos. It turns out, I love monkeys.

“He is different to the other monkeys,” I tune in to Eugenie in time to hear her explain. “His tail is not prehensile. It’s used for balance.”

Even in my daze I am surprised to hear Eugenie use the word ‘prehensile’. I was pleased to be able to translate the Spanish for ‘water for your dog’, and here she is, throwing around words like ‘prehensile’. Later, I discover that Eugenie has a degree in biology, which makes her an incredible tour guide for Costa Rica, as she recognises every species we encounter, and can tell us a fascinating fact about it. This educational is educational in many more ways than I originally anticipated!

Something ahead catches the attention of the man with the telescope, and he gestures for us to hurry. Debbie, the lady I happen to have been sitting close to on the bus, looks through the telescope first, then grabs my arm in excitement. She knows, from our conversations so far, that the one thing I am desperate to see is a sloth.

“Amanda, look! You won’t believe it!”

I press my eye quickly to the telescope. I always struggle with binoculars and telescopes; my eyesight isn’t awful, but for some reason I don’t see well through either of the gadgets. But today my eyes are behaving, and the so-ugly-it’s-gorgeous face of a three-toed sloth swims into focus.

My eyes well up. I had hoped we’d see a sloth, but I knew no truly wild wildlife sighting can ever be guaranteed; yet there he was, sitting munching leaves, without a care in the world. With a sigh, I move away from the telescope to let someone else have a look, feeling deeply contented with my sloth-sighting.

“He is a three-toed sloth,” Eugenie imparts. “You can tell because he has a happy face. Two-toed sloths have a piggy face.”

I had forgotten there were two types of sloth! Would I also get to see a two-toed sloth in all his piggy-faced glory? I gaze up into the trees as though I might spot one waving back.

We carry on our walk through the rainforest; an hour or so passes in a haze of animal sightings. We see a spider monkey eating fruit from a tree and three long nosed bats asleep on a branch; they’re so well camouflaged that I can’t even see them through the telescope. I work out where they are and take a photo with my camera, and only then can I work out what bit is tree and what bit is bat. I don’t know how our man with a telescope does it.

Our rainforest walk now over, Eugenie leads us down a rocky incline towards the black, volcanic-sand beach. I’m still undecided about whether I’ll swim.

“I’ll swim if you swim!” Zoe says.

That’s all the encouragement I need. Whilst everyone else elects to relax in the shade, we hop over the hot sand and into the waves. I brace myself for the usual shock of cold water, but it never comes. The water here is warm; it’s like getting into a bath.

“This is amazing!” I squeak at Zoe.

“I know!” she squeaks back.

We float for a while, taking in our surroundings. The rainforest comes almost to the water’s edge, from here I can see raccoons stealing bananas out of someone’s bag on the beach. All too quickly our time in the ocean is over; we have to go for lunch at a restaurant and then continue for our late afternoon river cruise in search of crocodiles…

We are a little late on arrival to the river cruise; we lingered over lunch longer than we should have, but it’s hard not to when the food is so good. The captain of the river boat has waited for us, and if we have irritated him with our tardy arrival, you wouldn’t know it. He is all smiles, and before long we are sailing down the Tarcoles River.

Eugenie hands out a booklet for us to tick off each species of birds we see; looking through it I have no idea how she has memorised each different one, but somehow she has. She barely has time to stop for breath as she walks up and down the length of the boat with her binoculars, pointing out noble tiger herons, vibrant motmots, darting mangrove swallows and of course, crocodiles.

The first one we see sends a shiver up my spine; he is a juvenile, and not as large as I know they can get, but still, even for my safe vantage point aboard the boat, looking at his wide open jaws makes me feel slightly uneasy. But after that we spot another, and another, and I relax. They are all sleepy, and crocodiles dozing on the banks are a far cry from one swimming down the river. That is, until we spot two giant crocs doing exactly that. They swim in tandem, dwarfing another boat that’s just finished the cruise and returning to the bank. My heart skips a beat as they quickly disappear from sight, and I move away from the side a fraction, closer to the middle of the boat.

Of course, nothing happens; they have no interest in us, and we carry on. I detach myself from the group a little in an attempt to get a photo of the quick mangrove swallows that flit past the boat, but give up after a while and simply sit quietly, enjoying the bird sounds on the air, and the breeze in my face. I consider everything we’ve seen and done so far, and can’t quite believe we’ve only been in Costa Rica for three days.

But my sudden quietness has not gone unnoticed; ever-vigilant Eugenie has clocked that I am alone, and subtly pops over to check I’m okay. As a cover, she offers the binoculars to look at some vivid pink, almost fluorescent birds on the shore; but my eyes are done for the day and I know I won’t be able to see through the binoculars. I shake my head and start to explain when Debbie interrupts.

“She can’t see through binoculars without her glasses, but she’s okay.”

I am surprised and touched that Debbie has realised this, and I’m grateful – yet again I understand that little bit more why these group holidays are so well loved.

The sun starts to set and our cruise is drawing to a close when suddenly the captain, makes an excited noise, and points upwards. A pair of macaws are flying over, their colours bright against the darkening sky. He says something in rapid Spanish to Eugenie.

“He says he has done this job for so many years but he still gets excited to see the animals and birds,” she translates, approvingly. “He says that sharing it with you makes it even better.”

We leave the boat tired but with high spirits, and just as the bus starts to pull away, Miranda jumps out of her seat. In an unassuming tree by the roadside, she has spotted five scarlet macaws, eating seeds from the branches. We pile out to get a better look and take photographs, but my camera battery has had enough for the day. Instead I watch the macaws as they take flight, and I watch my friends taking photos, and I feel incredibly lucky.

We are all a bit broken-hearted to leave the Hotel Villa Lapas, with its green page moths and leaf-cutter ants, but Eugenie assures us that the next hotel, the Tilajari, is something very special. We wend our way through the lush green countryside, past fields of Brahman cows that are kept from wandering to their heart’s content by fences created by wire strung between live trees. I have noticed these fences before a few times, and have spent a lot of time wondering whether the trees were left in a line when the land was cleared, or whether they were planted from seed for the fences, and why they don’t just use normal fence posts. I have considered asking Eugenie about them a couple of times, but hesitated because it sounded like a bit of a peculiar question. To my surprise – though I shouldn’t have been surprised, Eugenie has a knack for reading my mind at times – she pointed them out herself.

“Notice how the fences are made from live trees – this is because termites will slowly destroy dead wood; we cannot build fences that last. So we use trees, and then when they need cutting back, we put the branches in the ground, and they too take root. It’s very ecological!”

Ecological and resourceful, I think to myself, which more or less sums up this whole country.

We stop at an Adventure Park, where Zoe takes an exhilarating zip wire ride through the forest (I am a little bit too chicken, though I later regret my decision when I see the footage she took of her trip). Here we visit an orchid garden, amongst other attractions.

“Orchids are bromeliads, so they grow high up in trees,” Eugenie tells us. “But they are not a parasite – they use the tree as a hotel, not as a restaurant.”

After another leisurely lunch we’re on the road again to the next hotel. Unlike the Hotel Vila Lapas in the depths of the rainforest, the Tilajari is located on the banks of the lazily-flowing San Carlos river. Once again I follow my suitcase to my room, which has two huge double beds (one for me, one for my suitcase), a balcony and another walk in shower. Everyone disappears for a nap, but I grab my camera and take a stroll through the grounds and along the river. I spot a brown squirrel in a tree, busily eating what appears to be a lime, and I circle a large clump of bamboo that spear straight into the sky and creak eerily in even the faintest of breezes.

Happy that I’ve seen everything there is to see, I return to my room and get dressed for dinner. I’m almost ready when there is a hammering at the door. I run to answer it, wondering what on earth could be happening. Outside is Caroline, and she is beside herself.

“Quick, quick!” she says, jumping up and down. “A sloth, a sloth! Coming up the bank! Now!”

She turns and runs and I grab keys and camera and run after her. Outside the rest of my group are standing, staring at a fuzzy shape that is slowly but determinedly crawling up the bank towards our rooms.

I get a glimpse of his piggy face and realise – he is a two-toed sloth.

As we stand, gobsmacked and flabbergasted, he nonchalantly makes his way to a tree, and starts climbing it. Our cameras out, we take photos and creep close. I am about to ask everyone to stay back, to give him space, when I see he is bringing leaves to his mouth and munching them like popcorn, watching us with interest. He couldn’t care less that we’re there, within stroking distance.

“He is a baby,” Eugenie murmurs. “His fur hasn’t grown algae yet. Sloths are an ecosystem all of their own – they grow algae on their fur, and it camouflages and gives them extra nutrients.”

Even during a magic moment such as this, Eugenie has not removed her tour manager hat.

The afternoon turns rapidly into evening in Costa Rica. As soon as the sun sets, darkness falls quickly – there seems to be very little dusk or twilight here. When we first gathered around the sloth and his tree, it was light, but now, as we watch, we can barely make out his little gray form in the dimming light as he makes his way higher into the leaves. With regret, we leave and head for the hotel’s restaurant.

Before we eat, we are due to meet with the hotel’s manager and the owner – that is Jason Hamilton, and his father, James. They are both friendly and eloquent, with an obvious passion for Costa Rica. American-born James moved here during his time with the Peace Corps, and has built the Tilajari almost from scratch. Jason, who speaks with a barely discernable Spanish twang under his American accent, yet claims to not be very good at speaking English, was in charge of designing the hotel that’s will be our next, and final stop of the tour, the Bosque Del Mar.

I ask him what he thinks of Saga guests.

“They’re adventurous, I think,” he tells me, after considering the question. “They are always ready to explore new things, and make new discoveries. In fact, I remember we had a Saga group not so long ago – they managed to capture a moment on film, where a crocodile jumped out of the river and grabbed an iguana. They often tell me that they feel as though the have lived all over again after their adventure here, that they’ve experienced things they’d only dreamt of.”

I like the sentiment, but I am a little shaken by the idea of a crocodile jumping out of the river – the same river that I had taken a stroll along earlier in the evening. This country really does have a surprise around each corner…

The next day Zoe and I get up early to take a swim in the pool before the day’s planned events kick off. We’re doing leisurely laps, talking about the sloth’s visit and watching a menagerie of birds fly over our heads, when a sudden splash makes us jump.

A frog is in the pool with us, also doing laps. He eyes us, clearly wondering what we are doing disturbing his morning swim. I jump out to fetch the net and rescue him, and a nearby hotel worker immediately comes over to help. He expertly catches Mr Frog and gently tips him out on the ground. The frog is playing dead, so to reassure me, the man gets a stick and prods him carefully. The frog swats ineffectually at the stick and resumes his charade.

“Sappo!” the hotel worker tells me cheerily, as he walks back to finish to sweeping the poolside.

“Sappo!” I say back, pleased to learn a bit more Spanish, and I get back in the pool.

Later, we tell Eugenie we rescued a sappo.

“A toad!” she says happily.

Ah. Mr Toad, then. But at least it wasn’t a crocodile.

Continuing from Part 4…

After our dip in the pool, we are ready to face the day. This morning we are due to take a river float along the Peñas Blancas; we are a bit apprehensive of the idea of jumping into an inflatable dingy (especially after the crocodile sightings yesterday) but we are assured that it’s perfectly safe – and of course, it is.

We are three to a raft, accompanied by an expert rower. In my boat I have Zoe and Debbie; in the other Miranda, Liz, Caroline and Eugenie share with their rower. The floor of the raft surprises us at first; it seems thin, and it moves with the movement of the water beneath. I amuse myself by pushing up and down on it with my feet and tell Zoe it’s a crocodile, but she laughs and doesn’t believe me.

We wondered how the river float could beat the river cruise of the day before, but it turns out that the two things don’t really compare. The river yesterday was wide and sweeping, with views over Costa Rica’s rolling countryside; this river is thin and fast-flowing, hemmed in on both sides by overhanging branches. It’s a totally different experience. I feel much closer to nature here, with the sounds of the engine replaced by the paddle quietly dipping into the waves behind me. Yesterday, in the distance, we saw a thunderstorm crashing a few miles away; today we can’t even see a few metres ahead, but I love it.

The man rowing pauses occasionally to make loud monkey noises. At first, I think he’s being a bit of an idiot, in order to amuse the tourists, but the third time he does it, he gets an answer. In the trees above us a group of howler monkeys are sitting languorously, taking a nap – or they were, until we woke them. The alpha hoots back at our rower, apparently telling him this is his territory, and we should move along sharpish. Carried along by the current as we are, that’s exactly what we do, but not before getting an incredible view of the howlers up close.

We also see several log-odiles – which is our rower’s teasing name for any log or other floating debris that looks fleetingly enough like a crocodile to make us jump – and an emerald basilisk, aka the Jesus Christ lizard. Iguanas are happy for you to get relatively close, I’ve noticed, but the basilisks are a lot jumpier. It doesn’t take much to make them scarper, and they run so fast they can run on water – hence the name. As I watch, it sees us, startles, and races across the surface of the river. At that moment everyone’s attention is elsewhere, so I’m the only one to see it. A lot of the sights here are the luck of the draw, I think to myself. We’ve just been very lucky.

Half way through our river float we moor, and go for coffee at a local house. It’s little more than a shack, but here two elderly sisters provide visitors with hot coffee and sweet bread. It’s a nice break from the sunshine, and as we sit drinking our coffee, a baby chicken comes in and scratches at the dirt around our feet.

Suitably fortified, we all pile back into our dinghies to finish the float. As we leave the bank our rower points at something lying half out of the water on the other side.

“A log-odile!” Zoe laughs.

“No,” our rower says seriously. “Crocodile.”

Zoe and I both instinctively recoil a bit, but the crocodile isn’t bothered about us, as we float past in our inflatable raft. We’ve left it behind in moments, but after that I don’t mess about making the floor of the dinghy ripple anymore.

After the river float ends, we make our way to an eco-farm for lunch and a quick tour. Here we eat plantains and fish, with taro root and – of course – rice and beans. The farmer claims his English isn’t great, then manages to take us on a fascinating tour of his farm anyway. He has an adorable quirk of stopping midsentence if he senses anyone raising a camera, in order to pose with his machete, his eyebrows waggling furiously. He picks a flower for each of us and places it carefully behind our ears. Mine falls off. He frowns at me so I pick it up quickly and weave it into the plait I’m wearing. He seems happier with that.

He shows us a cocoa plant, and a seed pod that – he says – can be used as earrings, because of the way it pops open and then curls around on itself. He demonstrates on my ears, but I quickly remove my seedpod earrings when he isn’t looking; having a plant cling on to you feels very peculiar indeed. Before we leave he shows us some delicate leaves that close up in defence if you touch them, and a plant with bright red seeds that burst when you press them, releasing a thick unguent paste that native Costa Rican women used to use as lipstick and blusher. He demonstrates on Eugenie and me, and we spend the rest of the afternoon looking like clowns.

Our next stop is an orphanage, which we have been asked to report back on, in case we think the Saga Charitable Trust should get involved in fundraising. I have very little experience of orphanages so I can’t compare, but this one was heartbreaking and wonderful, at the same time. The heavily pregnant manager showed us around; the children’s fondness for her and the other members of staff was palpable. But still, they are orphans, and when they reach 10, they have to be moved from this safe environment to another orphanage. The manager is trying to find funds to expand so the older children can stay, and I found myself wishing desperately that we could help; especially when a young girl of about eight sidles up to me in order to compare the freckles on my arms with the freckles on hers. I leave with tears in my eyes, feeling that it’s an incredibly worthy project to support, and wishing I could take the eight year old with the freckles on her arms home with me.

One of the many long-running jokes on this trip is that Miranda is missing her daily banana. Eugenie has told us that over here they don’t eat bananas until they’re so ripe they’re nearly black; consequently they aren’t served at the hotels we stay at because no one from England likes them. But by now the whole group is determined to find Miranda some bananas, so when we spot a cluster of fruit stalls set back from the road on the way back to the hotel, we shout in unison, and Eugenie fires rapid Spanish to Alvo, instructing him to stop. He quickly indicates and pulls over, and we pile out. Sadly, there are no bananas, but Eugenie selects a number of different fruits for us to sample. I’m excited to try a custard apple, as our Holiday Creators have mentioned them to me a few times, and eating one is an odd sensation – as the name might suggest, they’re reminiscent of cooked apple, mixed with custard. I try lychee, and mango; a fruit that tastes like caramalised coffee and another fruit that taste so peculiar I have to spit it out discreetly. Eugenie selects three fresh mangos and we’re back on the bus, heading back to the Tilajari for one last night; tomorrow we’re heading for our very last stay on the coast at the Bosque del Mar in Playa Hermosa.

But for tonight we sit and watch the geckos race around the walls in search of bugs. As they dart in and out of the shadows they make chirping noises at each other – whether this is a territorial thing or not, I’m not sure, but it’s really cute either way.

“We call them Kissing Geckos,” Eugenie says. Even cuter!

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