As a Wildlife Travel Consultant, Costa Rica had always fascinated me. This small Central American country that has decided to preserve a quarter of its land as National Parks and to spend more money on conservation and education than on national defence (Costa Rica scrapped its army in 1920). It seemed to me that this would be some kind of wildlife utopia. On a slightly more personal note, I had always wanted to see a sloth in the wild and had been told Costa Rica is a great place to spot them. When the opportunity came to visit, I couldn’t say no, even though it was going to be Wet Season.
I arrived into San Jose, not the most interesting city in Central America, but still with enough Hispanic charm and interesting churches and museums to make it worthwhile staying a day or two. Driving from the airport to my hotel I actually thought I was transferring through downtown America, with shopping malls and familiar fast food restaurants lining the road. I later learned this was a result of many Americans retiring to Costa Rica and bringing a bit of their culture with them!
Volcanoes, some still active, surround San Jose. I took the opportunity of visiting two of the most well known and most accessible, Poas and Irazu. I was told the last time Poas erupted was the day President Kennedy came to visit, and this was taken by many as Costa Rica’s way of saying hello. Fortunately, there was no such welcome for me! Due to the cloud cover, the views at the top were disappointing, but this was the closest I had ever been to an active volcano, looking into its crater and the smell of sulphur was quite over-powering.
In the afternoon, I was taken on a couple of very interesting cultural experiences, the first of which was a visit to a coffee plantation. Costa Rica prides itself on producing the world’s best coffee and has won many awards to back this up. Watching the process from start to end product was fascinating, especially the sorting and grading. A small bit of trivia I found out is that coffee is actually a fruit, not a bean. At the end of the tour I got to taste all the coffees and, for a non-coffee drinker, I was definitely impressed, although tea is still my favourite. Later, I went to a cocoa plantation and discovered the process of making organic chocolate. Not quite Cadburys, but still very tasty.
From San Jose, I headed east to the Brauillo Carrillo National Park. This is one of Costa Rica’s biggest National Parks but only accessible in a few places. It is also home of the Rainforest Aerial Tram. Personally, I was a little disappointed, as the number of people makes it difficult to see much wildlife, but it was good to get an aerial perspective of the rainforest canopy. Much more interesting was the night walk. (This and the morning walk are only possible if you stay in the park at The Rainforest Lodge). During the night walk I saw several types of frog, cricket and other insects. The highlight was seeing a couple of Tarantulas crawl out of their nest in the ground, probably in search of their next meal.
From Brauillo Carrillo I travelled to the Caribbean coast and Tortuguero National Park. Arriving by boat is an excellent introduction to this area of lagoons, canals and mangroves. I stayed at the Pacheria lodge which operates a bit like an army camp with set meal times and group activities. I was lucky to see a Tayra, a giant of the weasel family, chase a baby White Faced Monkey through the treetops hoping for an easy meal. During the chase the monkey even fell 30ft from the trees into the river below, in its panic to get away. Fortunately, like all good endings, the baby monkey somehow survived and found its way back to its mother. Our guide said this was like something out of a National Geographic programme and I couldn’t help but agree with him.
I think that probably the biggest thrill of my trip was witnessing a Green Turtle lay her eggs on the beach. Before we ventured out on to the beach in the evening, I was told that this was end of the season and I would be lucky to see anything. It was therefore even more special, when, through the dusky light, my guide grabbed me by the shoulder and pointed to what looked like an abandoned piece of wood on the beach. As we got closer it was unmistakably the shape of a turtle digging a hole in order to lay her eggs. This is always a critical time. If the turtle is disturbed she will give up and go back into the sea. We had to keep our distance and no cameras or torches are allowed. Once she starts laying she goes into a type of trance and I was able to get closer and view her laying up to 100 eggs into the hole. This was nature at her best and I felt privileged to spend an hour watching in silence and admiring this wonderful creature. I went to bed very happy that night, but still I had not yet seen a Sloth.
Next on my whistle stop tour was Arenal. It took most of the day to get here, but the highlight is to view it by night. The Arenal volcano dominates its surroundings and is still very active. The night I stayed there, it lit up the sky and was like a firework show. My room directly faced the volcano, so I lay in bed with the curtains open looking at this great natural sight until I feel asleep.
A transfer around Arenal Lake towards Monteverde reminded me of Switzerland with its rolling hills and cheese-making factories. The area has been populated by Quakers for the last 50 years and I was told that the bad quality of the road up to Monteverde is because the Quakers do not want hoards of tourists visiting which makes it a bit more of an adventure to reach. I stayed at the Fonda Vela, a good hotel located 20 minutes’ walk from the National Park entrance. I decided to take the self-guided option and picked up a map at the entrance. I stumbled across an Agouti and a Coati, which I had never seen before, and I thought these creatures were so rare that only a handful of people had ever seen them before. However, my ego was somewhat deflated when I got back and was told these animals are really common and most locals ignore them. Still it was a very enjoyable walk.
Next stop was Manual Antonio, a small town on the Pacific Coast, popular with the surfing crowd and growing all the time with new developments. The idea of coming here was to visit the Manual Antonio National Park, a small park but with a high concentration of Sloth. Because of its size the park restricts numbers of people allowed inside and also shuts on Fridays. It also closes at 4pm and, due to my tight schedule, I arrived too late to get in. I had to leave early the next day and so felt destined never to see a sloth. Next time I am in Costa Rica I won’t make this mistake.
My final destination was Corcovado, probably Costa Rica’s most pristine National Park and full of wildlife. The journey to my accommodation was an adventure in itself. I had to fly south and transfer by road transfer to a small port on a river from which a small boat took me downriver and then out to sea, surfing the waves, before we arrived at Morenco Lodge, my base for two nights. The accommodation was fairly basic, but all the staff was really friendly and attentive and, best of all, we were located in the jungle looking out onto the ocean. During December and January, it is possible to see Humpback Whales migrate past from the lodge and at most times the ocean is busy with traditional fishermen. I went on several guided walks and learned lots about the flora and fauna. I hoped we might stumble across a Jaguar, as Corcovado has the highest concentration of Jaguars in Costa Rica, but, as usual, they proved elusive. Nevertheless, this was a great place to finish my trip and I left full of wonderful memories and experiences. My dream of seeing a Sloth was not realised, but this goes to show you cannot guarantee anything when it comes to wildlife, even if it is one of the slowest moving creatures on the earth!
In conclusion, Costa Rica lived up to my expectations. There are none of the rough edges of other Central American countries and it has developed a big tourist infrastructure, which might not be to everyone’s taste. But I think it does lead the world in conservation. It has seen the need to preserve its natural resources and so the wildlife thrives, while other countries, both richer and poorer, decide to plunder theirs for short-term gain.
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