Pura vida is a phrase you will see and hear everywhere in Costa Rica. It literally means ‘pure life’, but also ‘May the future be good’, and is surely a fitting slogan for a country with such stunning landscapes and wildlife.
You don’t need an alarm clock here. Instead, monkeys in the rainforest start calling at 4am. The females won’t disturb your sleep – only the males scream and screech. They provide a useful service, however, if you’re planning a dawn boat ride to see wildlife in Tortuguero (above), on the north Caribbean coast. It’s one of 28 National Parks that protect 30% of the land in this Central American country, which is the size of an elongated Wales – Wales, of course, being the international country of comparison. And this is one reason it has earned a reputation as an eco-tourist destination.
As the sun breaks through the mist on the labyrinth of waterways in the park, a snakebird stretches its long neck and spreads its wings wide on a log to dry before it can take off; red-lored parrots perch up above, while toucans feed in the canopy.
Costa Rica is a birder’s paradise, with species that include the resplendent quetzal (favourite food, avocado) and two macaws – the red and the green. Other memorable spots are the bare-throated tiger heron, tropical pewee, yellow-crowned euphonia and the green-crowned brilliant – one of more than 50 types of hummingbird to be found in the country, with a wing speed of up to 90 times a second while hovering to feed on nectar. So many wonders to choose from, yet the national bird is an ‘LBJ’ (little brown job), the clay-coloured thrush.
One of the most comical animals you will encounter in the jungle is the doe-eyed,
slow-moving sloth, not to be confused with the noisy, busy sloth bear of India. Scan the branches above you carefully and you may see one hanging about. Every ten days or so it laboriously descends to the ground to spend a penny (or a colón in local currency) – why bother, one wonders. Somehow, they find the energy to breed, the pregnancy lasting as long as a human’s.
Green and serene - from verdant cloud forests to jungle-fringed beaches, Costa Rica is a little slice of paradise. Find out more about our Costa Rica holidays here
Lodge like a local
One way to immerse yourself fully in the wildlife is to stay in eco-lodges, which are constructed with local, natural materials and blend in with the surroundings, while mod cons such as electric showers are solar-powered.
My favourite accommodation was at Esquinas Lodge in the south, where an outdoor pool was fed by a flowing jungle stream, so there was no need for pumps or chemicals. While there, I experienced an afternoon of dramatic thunderstorms worthy of a King Lear production – the area receives 20 feet of rain a year – but thankfully the Wi-Fi worked, so I was able to catch up on The Archers Omnibus while marooned in my log cabin.
Staff at the rainforest lodges are generally from the nearest village, and most of the delicious food served at mealtimes will have been grown or made by them (even the chocolate).
You’ll develop a taste for gallo pinto – ‘painted rooster’: a traditional dish of rice and black or red beans, mixed with a salsa-like combination of onion, garlic, coriander and finely chopped bell peppers. Then there’s casado – ‘married man’: fried plantain, cabbage, rice, beans and chicken, fish or beef. (The name jokingly refers to the mundane daily fare a man might be served after he has tied the knot.)
Costa Ricans call themselves Ticos and a popular snack is a tico taco, similar to a spring roll. You might wish to avoid two other local favourites – lengua, cow’s tongue, and the local tripe, mondongo.
For breakfast, expect juices, fresh rolls and Costa coffee – the real thing. At dinner, you may be offered Chilean wine, local beers – and a paint-stripper, sugar-cane spirit, guaro.
Costa Rica: The adventure I never knew I wanted
Adventures after dark
A night walk with a naturalist gives an eye-opening insight into the unique flora and fauna. It’s a bit like a ride on a ghost train as a child – you don’t know what scary things you’ll meet, but you can’t resist the thrill. At Golfito Nature Reserve (below), I noted 17 species on an hour-long hike, wearing rubber boots to avoid anything untoward slithering through the leaf litter.
You’re likely to find the Jesus Christ lizard (it can walk on water), vampire bats, the cat-eyed snake and red-eyed tree frog. We were warned that if anyone were unlucky enough to come in contact with a fer-de-lance viper (also known as a yellow-jaw tommygoff), they would die in four hours – the nearest hospital was five hours away. Insect repellent will, as the term suggests, scare off any insects, so don’t wear it if you wish to see a glasswing butterfly (transparent wings) or a leaf mimic katydid (disguised as a dead leaf), but it might be advised if you aren’t keen on bullet ants or eight-eyed crab spiders.
As we walked back to our huts in the pitch-black, our guide Ely called out, ‘Watch your step. There are snakes everywhere. You are in their territory.’ A reminder that the rainforest belongs to wildlife, and we are privileged to visit.
The best-laid plans
One of the most extraordinary sights anywhere in the world is of green sea turtles (right) laying their eggs on a beach in Costa Rica, and as there are also three other species – leatherback, hawksbill and loggerhead – nesting on both the Pacific and Caribbean shores, there is a good chance you will be there for either the nesting or hatching.
When the females are ready to give birth, they choose a dark, moonless night to haul themselves out of the ocean, lumber up the sand to find a secluded spot and dig a nest, thrashing about with their flippers and hind legs until it is round and deep enough. They then lay up to 200 eggs, each the size of a hen’s, in two layers. Those on the top, hotter level will become female, the lower level, male.
It is mesmerising to watch the eggs plopping out, the mother seemingly unaware of spectators. The guide explained that she goes into a kind of birthing trance, and provided we kept quiet, wore dark colours and didn’t use a torch or flash photography, she would be completely undeterred by our presence. Job done, she then camouflages the nest with greenery to protect the eggs from wild dogs, turns around and trundles back to the water, never to see her offspring.
Sixty days later, the eager hatchlings emerge and dash gleefully into the sea, at the mercy of sharks and seabirds. An average of one in 500 survives, reaching maturity after 34 years, when they can become the size of a five-foot oval dining table, and the females will return year after year to the same beach to lay their eggs.
Until the 1970s, turtles were exploited for their meat, shell and eggs, but with eco-tourism now a priority, they are closely guarded, and monitored by scientists, though they are still prey to poachers and seriously endangered. Small-group viewings, carefully timed to cause least disturbance, bring in revenue to fund conservation and offer an unforgettable experience.
Costa Rica facts
4.9 million, plus some 1.4 million tourists a year.
British citizens can stay 90 days visa-free. Overstaying your permitted stay can lead to serious fines.
11hrs from Gatwick direct. Stopovers can add 2-3 hours.
You should protect against mosquito-borne Zika virus, chikungunya virus and Dengue fever (travelhealthpro.org.uk).
Activity holidays are popular, but ensure you’re booked with reputable companies as safety considerations aren’t always paramount. And watch out for crocs!
Costa Rican colón (CRC), current rate 772 CRC to the £1. Local beer, £1.58; Cappuccino, £1.72; mid-range three-course meal for two, £25.95; Coke (330ml), £1.15; one-way bus ticket, 56p; petrol 81p per litre.
Feb is mid-point of the five-month high season, though rain can be expected even then. Costa Rica has many micro-climates but average temps are pretty constant year round – highs of 26-28C, lows of 17-18C.
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