Country number: 45
Territory number: 50
When? August 1996,
How? Local Bus,
Who? Group Tour – 3 counting me
‘If there is no peace in Central America, it will not be because Costa Rica, and myself as president, have not done what is necessary to obtain peace.’
My first visit to Costa Rica wasn’t a lot of fun, so I’m not going to write much about it. The other members of the group were two very young twenty somethings from the States, the tour leader was replaced at the last minute by ‘her friend’ who wasn’t trained and didn’t even have a map. We visited Arenal, Poas, Monteverde (really cold) and Manuel Antonio (sloths and gorgeous beaches but too rough for snorkelling) and it rained a lot. My day-pack with my camera in it was stolen in San Jose on Day 1.
When? August 2010, Central America trip, coming from Panama, going onto Nicaragua
How? Bus, boat
Who? Group Tour
A long day’s drive to the Costa Rican town of Puerto Viejo Sarapiqui crossing the border, into the Caribbean lowlands. (Artist is in the front seat again). Puerto Viejo lies at the confluence of two rivers sandwiched between two mountain ranges, so it functions as a trading centre for travellers. A mooch around rivals a little market, and a motley collection of shops, with heaps of good piled on the floor like a jumble sale or, bizarrely, hundreds of cans of spam stacked on shelves. This morning we have a chance to explore a little more of Puerto Viejo and its environs. An early morning boat ride along the river, out of town, at La Selva is peaceful, though frustratingly various lizards, iguana and birds preen themselves on sundry branches as we drift along, sidling just enough to make photography difficult, if not impossible.
The classic cone of Arenal is enticingly visible for most of the next day’s journey, starkly barren and scarred by lava flows. We skirt fertile farmlands, rich with a diversity of tropical crops, to our hotel, where I’m housed in a little bungalow in the grounds, with beautiful tropical gardens and a great view of the mountain. Costa Rica’s most active volcano is reasonably cooperative during our night visit, with rumbling worthy of a giant and amazing red splashes of lava catapulting into the sky. It growls gently until I drift off to sleep, but next morning I’m awoken by a huge roar. I leap out of bed, wrap a sheet round me (it’s too hot to sleep with anything on) grab my camera and run outside for my own private eruption performance, complete with puffs of pink ash, which lasts over half an hour.
We spend the day scrambling over huge boulders in lava fields and wandering in the rainforest in the national park. There’s an astonishing variety of natural wonders to admire en route, mesmerising patterns artistically drilled into leaves, frilly lizards, enormous spiders, more red frogs, hairy tree trunks, and lustrous birds. Our guides hold viewer and telescopes steady so that we can see clearly or photograph. Artist is always head of the queue. I don’t know how she does it. I can’t see her actually manhandle anyone, but she always manages to elbow her way through, is consistently at the front of the line for the bus and is glued to the guide at all times, in case she misses anything.
After such an exciting day a girls’ visit to a spa to relax in the hot springs is very acceptable. It’s comfortably warm, with fountains and falls, but it doesn’t pay to look too closely at the green rimmed pools. Polish Bozena, a real character keeps us entertained. She’s brought coffee and cigarettes in with her.
Next, we climb into the mountains (guess who’s in the front seat?) to the much more temperate Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. The reserve is lauded in guidebooks for its ‘staggering diversity of flora and fauna; 2,000 species of plant, 400 species of birds and 100 different species of mammals’ so I have high expectations. And I’m not disappointed as again, there is an incredible variety of wildlife to be seen. Humming birds, an emerald vine snake, huge ferns, epiphytes, bromeliads, woolly insects and all manner of other exotica, some of it very odd indeed, all make an appearance. This is one of the last remaining places in Central America where the famous, resplendent quetzal is occasionally sighted and the happy guide does manage to track one down. It’s only easily discernible though a telescope on a tripod, but there’s a clear shot and semblance of a photo, where we can see the amazing iridescent colours (after we have waited for Artist and prayed that the rare bird won’t take off while she is perfecting her shots). The long tail for which it is famous (and famously pursued for trade in pre-Columbian America) is not there, however. It’s not the mating season and it’s been discarded, as being too cumbersome. We also get to see the equally shy three-wattled bellbird, but he refuses to stick more than his beak over the edge of his nest. Where was all this wildlife hiding last time I visited-keeping warm maybe ?
The rest of the day is given over to ‘amazing optional activities’ which include sliding down wires through the canopy, walking on suspension bridges strung at canopy height, or more sedately, a rickety chair lift through the canopy. I decide the latter is the (relatively) safest option. I’m not keen on heights.
We continue our journey, to Rincon de la Vieja, located close to the Nicaraguan border. This is another active volcanic area, with lush vegetation and a plethora of lagoons and craters, punctuated with steaming vents and pools of boiling mud. It’s still raining on and off, and the ground is extraordinarily muddy. I view the hot springs and the Rio Blanco Canyon climb and swing from a distance and decline the offer of horse riding. I spend a very happy afternoon with my camera and the many extraordinarily vivid flowers and butterflies in the fields around the hotel. An enormous toad keeps me company. The wildlife in Costa Rica is truly amazing.