|Travel: Wild adventure and cute creatures in Costa Rica||| Print ||
|Monday, 05 April 2010 21:05|
One minute, I'm sitting on a log in the middle of the densest rainforest on Earth, nibbling a banana sandwich and enjoying the solitude.
The next moment, there's an enormous crunch behind me and I've jumped so high my head's connected with the tallest branch in the canopy.
Is it a puma gnawing on the bones of poor Gustave the park ranger? He'd pointed out tracks back along the jungle path of a large she-cat and her hungry cub.
Or perhaps marauding peccaries - wild rainforest pigs - which my Costa Rica wildlife guidebook warns roam in bands of up to 300 and are notoriously aggressive.
"When you see a peccary, climb the nearest tree," the book advises from the safety of its publishing office in the capital San Jose. I glance nervously around the clearing.
Plenty of trees promise sanctuary if you ignore the possibility of 18ft boa constrictors wrapped around the lower branches and tree trunks covered in lethal spikes.
"Crunch!" That sound again. I take the bull - or the peccary - by the horns and turn slowly to face down whatever wants to eat me for lunch.
Snuffling happily at my feet is one of the cutest animals of the Costa Rican rainforest. He's called a coati and he's like a cartoon version of a North American racoon.
He's tucking into a dinner of hermit crabs - shell and all - with as much relish as I was enjoying my own jungle picnic.
Unlike most wild animals, he doesn't seem in the slightest bit scared of people. Or maybe he doesn't perceive someone eating a banana sandwich as much of a threat. As we munch companionably on our lunches, it occurs to me you're never really alone in the jungle.
Spider monkeys chatter as they swing through the trees on vines that would take a grown man's weight.
And I watch like a peeping tom from behind a bush as a long-nosed tapir wallows happily in his mudbath.
Then there are the birds.|
The Corcovado National Park is home to 350 different species, from brilliant scarlet macaws to overfed wild turkeys called guams almost too fat to balance on the branches.
Our own Cap'n Francis Drake gave nearby Drake Bay on Costa Rica's Pacific coast its name. Interestingly, the Spanish guidebooks describe him as a pirate rather than the loyal patriot and upstanding gentleman we know him to be.
The trip into the rainforest isn't straightforward. A Nature Air light aircraft flies us from the capital San Jose into Drake Bay, landing at an airstrip narrower than most British supermarket aisles.
The profits from Nature Air go to protect the rainforest in this lush part of the world. The airline pays local farmers not to cut down the ancient trees, a scheme that's ensuring about 7,500 acres of forest are being looked after for future generations.
The company's Nature Kids charity also runs a free school in the village, teaching the kids English, computer studies and about the nature that surrounds them. Teachers ride on horseback to give lessons to children living deep in the forest.
A boat ferries us from the beach in Drake Bay across the lagoon to La Paloma, an eco resort where a lazy caiman crocodile snoozes beside the dock.
The family-owned hotel is right on the edge of the forest. It has a small beach and clifftop terraces where you can sip a margarita and watch the sun go down across the Pacific Ocean.
One day we spot a mother humpback whale and her new baby feeding near the shore. You soon find out why the hotel gives you thin cotton sarongs instead of pool towels. Nothing heavy dries completely in this rainforest climate where the air is as clammy as a Turkish bath.
Even the cicadas sing with a rusty squeak rather than a well-oiled chirp.
Yet surprisingly, not all the rainforests of Costa Rica are so hot and humid.
About an hour's flight takes us north out from Drake Bay into the mountains of the central volcanic region.
We fly low along the coast where the rainforest has been cleared and replaced by mile upon mile of palm oil plantations. Chopping down the forest is making life very difficult for the wildlife of Costa Rica.
Large animals are moving nearer to the roads and villages in search of food.
One morning we spot a sloth very near our hotel in the resort town of La Fortuna.
Sloths are the ultimate tree-huggers. They spend their days clinging to tree trunks and looking like a 1970s' shag rug that's been left out in the rain.
They stay still for so long that algae grows on their fur, turning them a not very flattering shade of green. That said, it's excellent camouflage when a jaguar is stalking through the jungle.
There are three-toed sloths and then there are the five-toed sloths - our driver chortles "that's what Costa Ricans call a lazy husband".
We're in the cloud forest beneath the smouldering Mount Arenal volcano.
The daytime temperature here is mercifully cool, yet I'm sweating like a peccary as I balance on a wooden platform half way up a tall tree.
A howler monkey heckles from a nearby branch.
Monkeys use vines to swing effortlessly between the trees.
I have neither their dexterity nor a useful tail; just my gloved hands clamped on to a trapeze wire that will carry me through thin air, hundreds of feet above the forest floor.
"What sort of howl is that?" the monkey sneers as I take off with a shriek. Zip-wiring through the rainforest is the latest adventure craze in Costa Rica. If you squeeze the rope tight you can vary your speed - which means I cross the ravine rather slower than your average sloth. Yet even the wobbliest wimp would find the ride exhilarating.
As I zig-zag down the mountain, I spot a pair of toucans with big yellow bills flying far below me, a bird's eye view of other birds.
Beyond the forest is Lake Arenal, an enormous man-made reservoir with a hydroelectric power station that supplies electricity to much of Costa Rica.
Some of the country's power also comes from geothermal energy, a sort of natural underfloor heating.
It's a mixed blessing. This part of Costa Rica has wonderful hot springs for a soothing dip after you zip.
Yet the volcanoes are unpredictable and in 1968 Arenal exploded destroying three villages and killing 87 people.
If you don't fancy zipwiring, you can always catch the rainforest tram.
This open funicular was built by an Austrian ski lift company and carries you at a gentler speed up the mountain.
The trees are so close to the tram you can just about reach out to pick a mango or fill your hat with raw cashews, which look like big green peppers rather than the ready-salted variety. Crops grow well in Costa Rica, a country that produces some of the world's best coffee, chocolate and all sorts of tropical fruit.
If you check the label on your pineapple at Tesco, the chances are it comes from this country.
As a result, the food in local restaurants is invariably tasty and very cheap.
For about £3 you can tuck into rice, beans and fresh fish at local cafes called sodas, washed down with a Costa Rican Imperial beer.
For a smarter meal out, we found a table at a modern Latin tapas bar called Chimera in Monte Verde, just across the mountains from La Fortuna.
The meal was definitely worth crossing a mountain for with exotic dishes such as patagones (plantain) fritters with garlic herb mojito sauce and seabass cerviche for less than £2 a plate - and the world's best margaritas made with fresh grated ginger for the same price.
Sea bass is on most menus and if you go fishing at the river mouth in the Pacific resort of Nosara you'll probably catch at least one in a couple of hours. But watch out for your bait. Lurking beneath the surface are equally enthusiastic anglers, the crocodiles and fierce bull sharks.
They drift in and out with the tide, their toothsome grins as beguiling as the smiles of the North American property developers trying to carve up this coast for condos.
There are, however, champions of the forest in Nosara. Our seaside Harmony hotel has planted hundreds of trees and seen monkeys and other animals such as colourful green iguanas return to the gardens.
And Nosara's Lagarta Lodge runs and protects one of the last wildlife refuges along the beach, the Nosara Biological Reserve.
At dusk, I paddled a canoe upriver through the reserve, keeping one eye out for shark fins but captivated as an osprey flew past with a fish in its beak.
Early the next morning, I went for a walk through the reserve, picking my way through the mangroves and pausing for a rest (and OK, another banana) beneath a big old tree.
There was a thud from deep inside the trunk.
Looking down at me with feathers ruffled and a face only a mother could love was a big baby vulture.
The parents make nests inside hollowed-out mangrove trees, leaving their chicks safely hidden while they go out to scavenge for dinner. This baby looked rather put out.
As I backed quietly away, I heard a larger animal crashing toward me through the undergrowth. What now? It was a coati, come to say hello. I'm beginning think they like bananas.
Your Rica moment..
With its beaches, rainforests and volcanoes, Costa Rica is one of the most beautiful countries in Central America.
It boasts an idyllic coastline on the Caribbean and the Pacific. Visitors shouldn't miss the beaches at Playa Tamarindo and Playa Conchal where the sand has a pink tinge thanks to the tiny seashells that are washed up daily. The best time for a beach holiday is the dry season, which runs from December to April.
Buses, with fares costing about $10, run throughout the country. Nature Air (www. natureair.com) and Sansa (www. flysansa.com) have domestic flights from the c apital San Jose to various destinations, including the volcano at Arenal and both coastlines.
What's the deal
Flights this spring (high season) to San Jose Costa Rica, £676 with tax through www.dialaflight.com
Nature Air flies from San Jose to Drake Bay from £48pp each way. Flights to La Fortuna start at £33 and to Nosara from £47. See www.natureair.com
Room-only at the La-garta Lodge, Nosara, with entrance to the reserve from £16.50pp per night. See www.lagarta.com
All-inclusive with trips to the jungle and offshore islands at La Paloma eco lodge, Drake Bay from £168pp per night. See www.lapalomalodge.com
For hotels and adventure day trips in the Arenal volcanic area see www.sunsettourcr.com