NWS Rebecca Explores Costa Rica

Rebecca Puttock

23 Oct 2017

Day 1 - Arrival in San Jose

After an 11 hour flight direct with BA (running Wednesday's and Saturdays) I am greeted by Eduardo, a knowledgeable driver and guide who tells me everything he can during the 20 minute transfer. He willingly takes me around San Jose. Home to 50% of the countries population - 1.6 million - it feels small and contained, with low rise buildings surrounded by volcanoes and mountains of The Central Valley. 

The town is buzzing. Music, market stalls, shoppers, and sunshine! Sunshine! 

I mean, I didn't expect this in the rainy season, especially after a recent storm has brought much of the country to a standstill. Relatively undeveloped, there is an immediate feeling of safety. Being a solo female traveller this is important of course, but what captivates me more is how friendly everyone is. I am greeted with smiles and great service everywhere I turn. This place has soul. The Grano de Oro hotel, a 10 minute walk from the centre, is a haven of calm. Think flowing waterfalls and immaculate gardens. And absolute tranquility, which is a complete contrast to the hustle and bustle I have just witnessed. An incredible dinner to top the day off and I cannot wait for what is in store tomorrow.

Day 2 - Pacuare Lodge

Today will be one I never forget. Those days in your life that are just filled with energy. Excitement. Adventure. From the 6am departure this morning, it truly has been remarkable from start to finish. A beautiful drive out of San Jose and through multiple small villages and towns, each completely different to the last. History, culture, and endless coffee plantations (the coffee here is incredible!). A breakfast pitstop with an incredible view and we're off again, meandering further into the rainforest and further away from the city only to find ourselves at Pacuare River. One of the top five best rivers in the world for white water rafting, this is how I shall be arriving to National Geographic's recommended ecolodge - Pacuare Lodge. In adrenaline fuelled style! After 4 miles of white water rapids and stunning waterfalls, I meet my luggage and a welcome cocktail on arrival. Electricity in the suites only and WiFi only accessible in the main social areas, you really couldn't be more at one with nature - the sounds of water. Rapids. Insects. Birds. Bugs. That sound of the jungle that is relentlessly beautiful. 

With a list of activity options longer than my arm, I enjoy a beautiful three course lunch and check in to my River Suite, complete with Infinity Pool overlooking the river. Now what to do first? The nature hike, indigenous experience or birdwatching tour? Or perhaps something more adrenaline fuelled... Zip lining, canopy tour or canyon experience? There is too much and they are all incredible. I chose the one hour nature hike and waterfall swim and learnt all about the Jaguar conservation efforts in the area, before enjoying another delightful three course meal for dinner. There are certain moments in your life that you are truly blown away and for me this is one of them. 

The people are friendly, guides knowledgeable and the environment is raw. the food is exquisite And the signature cocktail is to die for! 

Days 3 & 4 - Caribbean Costa Rica

There is something quite unique about leaving a lodge via one of the top five best white water rapids in the world - a whole 14km of it! Absolutely soaked. And smiling, of course! The guides were patient and fun and before I knew it was over. Tiger herons, river otters and kingfishers as we (myself, four other adventurers and two guides) end up in a canyon before the finish line. A quick lunch after the adrenaline filled activity is enjoyed and I am met by Eduardo once again, complete with a big grin. We have a 2.5 hour drive south, meandering past banana and pineapple plantations towards brightly coloured buildings and the sun! Yes, still plenty of sun (she says, vigorously reapplying Factor 30). 

So here we are. The Caribbean coast. The province of Limon. Home to Cahuita NP, and here... the wildlife is guaranteed. Howler monkeys in their troops, white faced capuchin monkeys cheekily bouncing from tree to tree and a two toed sloth. And that was just in the first 20 minutes. The setting? A beached spit that sticks out into the sea, with a well trodden path and high trees along the way, each corner more beautiful than the next. And then we have Puerto Viejo further south, a seaside town that has a hipster feel just 20 minutes away.

Everything is different here. The people, the food, the attitude. Caribbean style! Young vibrant and trendy towns, with wildlife at your fingertips.

Le Cameleon Hotel is slap bang in the middle, a beach location, jungle feel and a great option if hippy backpacker towns aren't your thing. The next day I drive under two hours to Selva Bananito Lodge, down an 11km "road massage" over rivers and creeks into the Talamanca mountains. With private bungalows, you'll want to stick around for a few days. Hiking, horse riding, canyoning, canopy tours, camping in the rainforest... And meeting one of the six resident German shepherds, who may just follow you on one of the excursions... 

Here I see my first dart frog and learn about the conservation efforts, understanding more about their elusive big cats and what they are doing to help protect them. All six reside in this region - jaguars, pumas, ocelot, margay, jaguarundi, tigrillo. Camera traps have been set around the area and educational ecotourism is emphasised to help minimise poaching and restore the cats' numbers in Costa Rica. A humble location, cared for by passionate ornithologists and wildlife experts. After galloping through the wilderness on horseback, we continue our journey to the equally humble town of Parismina, a basic village that has dedicated its life for turtle conservation and the gateway to Tortuguero National Park. Leaving the car at Cano Blanco we hop on a canal boat transfer for 20 minutes to meet with Roxanna and Carlos, and international volunteers. On 24/7 patrol, they watch over every turtle, every egg and fend off every predator to help protect the green sea turtle, leatherback and hawksbill turtles... And I witness the tiniest hatchling make it to the sea, even in mid October (late in the season).

I continue on a two hour boat ride through the canals, rivers and water networks and I reach my next destination - Mawamba Lodge, Tortuguero NP.

Day 5 - Tortuguas in tortuguero

An early morning alarm (howler monkeys) and the 5am start comes easy. I'm up. And ready to watch the sunrise on the property's beach before jumping on the 5:30am boat tour, deep into the Tortuguero National Park - a wildlife safari by water. 

Caimans, capuchin monkeys, howler monkeys, river otters, snakes, spiders and birds - 370 species of birds. And butterflies. And crocodiles. And sloths. This place is alive even in the heat and this early in the morning.

We head back for breakfast before a boat transfer across the river to the Evergreen Lodge. This property is different to Mawamba Lodge, with private bungalows and mostly shaded by a thick canopy network, natural home to countless insects, amphibians and reptiles. 

We have lunch by the floating restaurant (private hire available) before heading back via Tortuguero village - a busy and buzzy town completely built on ecotourism. The Sea Turtle Conservancy (former Caribbean Conservation Corporation - CCC) have got all the locals involved in patrolling, protecting and promoting the sea turtle, and the town is a product of this. It is busy here. But there is something heartwarming about the passion and attitude of the locals, contributing to a better future. The daily 6pm raffle for each hotels "turtle tour" location is decided and we are in Zone 1 at 19:30pm. There are six zones in total across 15 miles of beach, to minimise the impact on the nesting process. I say this lightly because it is extremely popular. People come from all over the world to witness the turtle nesting season, from July to October. In our flocks, we get put on a boat in the pitch black. The rules? Black clothing. No cameras. No flashlights. Groups of 6-10 per guide and we each take it in turns to witness a one metre long green sea turtle lay her eggs, bury them and head back to the sea before repeating the process three times. This process takes a couple of hours. And she lays around 120 eggs each time. Minimal red light is used by the guides to assist the tourists and you witness this spectacle for a matter of minutes. Is it a supply and demand problem? October has few turtles and many eager tourists wanting to witness this moment? Is it right that the public are able to get so close? I am not convinced. Which is why Parismina was quite a special place for me. No infrastructure and little findings, this tiny town outside the park needs our support.  

Deep in thought, we jump back onto the boat for the last night at Mawamba Lodge for 10pm. A raccoon passes me by as I sleep in my fan-assisted room.

Day 6 - Costa Rica's Biological Corridor

A great sleep preps me for the departure back to Cano Blanco. Repeating the journey back to the car - Boat. Road massage. Civilisation. I have more time to gaze and gawp at the endless banana plantations, pineapple fields and palm oil fields. Over and over and over. Despite this area being richly deforested due to past generations, it is actually heartwarming to know that Costa Rica has banned all further deforestation, meaning the fields that exist for business remain as business but nothing more is destroyed. 

In fact, huge conservation efforts are in place for reforestation, claiming the land back to allow nature to take over once again.

So yes, after the beautiful two hour boat ride back through the endless canals, and a 1.5 hour drive spotting two-toed and three-toed sloths high in the trees (binoculars needed), we arrive at Sarapiqui. Sarapiqui is another popular destination for white water rafting activities as the Sarapiqui river flows through its core. I head straight to Selva Verdes's Conservation and Learning Centre and then Tirimbina Biological Reserve to understand more about the educational and ecological NGOs in the area, working to preserve Costa Rica's natural habitats. Set within the ecological corridor, this place is quite exceptional. 

Round ear bats doze in their dozens, tucked away in huge termite mounds. Frogs make the jungle sound alive, like natures own harmonic orchestra. Butterflies everywhere. Then there is the longest hanging bridge in Costa Rica (not for the faint-hearted)!  Swinging 260m over the fast flowing Sarapiqui River, I gratefully and safely reach the primary forest and learn about the work that takes place here. 1200 species of Butterfly reside here. 120 species of bird. Jaguar camera traps prove there is plenty of wild cat activity in the region and the research continues. They even make their own chocolate onsite from their cacao trees. And it's good. Muy bueno! 

After a wholesome lunch (including salad fresh from their natural outdoor "greenhouse"), we set off towards the Arenal volcano, a 2.5 hour drive into the mountains. The clouds build, the rain comes and we have reached yet another microclimate. It's hard to keep up, but shorts are still encouraged as it is 28 degrees - typical rainforest territory, hot and rainy! I gladly check into the Lost Iguana Resort & Spa, a property on the further side of La Fortuna, past Arenal Lake and near to Arenal Hanging Bridges. I am tucked up in the forest with the most breathtaking view - Arenal volcano.

Day 7 - Arenal & Cano Negro

There is much to do in Arenal, and it is probably the most popular spot in Costa Rica for tourists. Much of the town is filled with signs for this tour, that tour or the other tour. Zip lining. Quad biking. Day tours. Night tours. It's funny because my question was "why is this area so popular?" Yes, it has a beautiful volcano that erects itself grandly from the forests, but it is closed due to dangers of activity. You can pretty much take a photo of it from afar and that's all. Once, of course, it was open and La Fortuna was established, and tourism encouraged. Still extremely popular among young active tourists, the locals thrive off the industry and so on and so forth. It is definitely worth a visit, and the hot springs here are definitely good to help rest those aching shoulders (Hotel Nayara is a great option for this). Meanwhile at Lost Iguanas, I chat to some other tourists at the bar and watch Nat Geo TV over dinner, before sleeping under air con for the first time. The next day we take off for a full day tour to Cano Negro - a beautiful wetland area just south of the Nicaragua border (take a photocopy of your passport just in case of inspection) - a three hour drive along a bumpy road from Arenal. 

From the amount of wildlife I spotted, I would highly recommend taking the day to do this despite the distance.

Caiman, Jesus Christ lizards, hundreds of iguanas and thousands of migratory birds. Flocks of them. It is also home to spider monkeys and to the elusive jabiru bird (found March and April) which is unique to the area and a different species to the Galapagos jabiru. The day is set on an open boat with a motor and a roof to keep you away from the sun, navigating through endless canals and waterways in search of nature. Wear mosquito repellent! A peaceful tour, filled to the brim with natural beauty. After a local lunch, we make the drive back and I am ready for a dip in the pool, food and bed!

Day 8 - Into the Clouds

A one hour drive to catch the local boat across the stunning Arenal Lake and I arrive at Rio Chiquito, where my guide is already waiting. My bag is put into the boot and we're off again. Next destination? Monteverde Cloud Forest. As we drive higher into the mountains the temperature cools down from 28 to 25, to 22, to 20ºC. On go the trousers, the jumpers, the rain jacket and I am ready to experience this incredible ecosystem. 

Up, up, up into the clouds. The recent storm has affected the area badly so 2/3 roads to the area have been closed due to landslides, but we make it up a steep and bumpy path. Three hours later we have arrived, driving through the busy town of San Elena with restaurants and a bar, up through Cerro Plano village, and up for a pit stop at Tramontis pizzeria for lunch. I drop my bag at Hotel Fonda Vela, a basic property (they're all basic in this region) that has spacious rooms and WiFi in the main communal areas. I am close to the entrance of the Monteverde Cloud Forest, so we head out for an afternoon trail walk.

The vegetation here is thick and, it being the wet season, wildlife sightings are few and far between, but the experience of walking through another completely different rainforest is breathtaking. We continue along the hanging bridge to get some perspective of how high up we are in the canopy and then meander our way back, with the birds singing in their masses to keep us entertained. Other than the national park, this area has plenty to do including zip lining, night tours, hanging bridges, night tours, quad biking and much more, but because of the storms last week (and closure to the area due to access) it feels significantly less touristy, which I like! It gets dark early and I am exhausted. Tomorrow a different adventure awaits; a different microclimate and a different side of the country - El Pacifico.

Day 9 & 10 - Mountains, Savannah, Beach and Rainforest in 48 hours

Another early departure and I am ready! Ready for some adrenaline. Ready to feel on top of the world. Ready for zip lining through the cloud forest. I meet two groups of Brazilian tourists and get kitted up. Harness? Check. Helmet? Check. GoPro? Check! As we cable car up to what feels like the top of the world, the butterflies start and I realise how far up we are. 1700m. I am the first to go and I get the briefing once more. Knees up, arms straight, and enjoy. "Pura Vida!" I shout and I fly, jumping from canopy to canopy making my way back down to civilisation, with the final hurdle - abseil or bungee off a platform to the bottom. I of course opt for the bungee. Backwards. 

Now don't get me wrong, I like adrenaline sports but I have not done a bungee before. A 70 year old Brazilian tourist followed straight after me - no limits for those daring!

We take a stop to visit Monteverde Cloud Forest Lodge with its own zip lining tours and access to the cloud forest trails (the name suggests how high up it is) and again, the property is basic but it is comfortable. We watch the hummingbirds dance around a feeder and say goodbye to Monteverde after lunch at Amy's Taverna in San Elena. Then comes the three hour drive back down the mountain into the Guanacaste province. Meandering through well kept roads, and richer lands. Over the Tempisque River and across the Friendship Bridge we go.The temperature warms up. More and more. Hotter and hotter. 28. 31. 34. We reach the Guanacaste tropical dry forest savannahs as fields and fields of cattle pass by, and the green mountains either side get higher. The air is hot and in just three hours we have changed climates, altitude and scenery significantly. We cross onto a dirt road - 26km to go - and eventually, hot and dusty, we arrive. Rancho Humo.

We are led up the property path by a sabanero on his trial bike to a beautiful entrance. A passionate French intern greets us with big smiles, fluency in Spanish and English (and French of course) and a cold towel before allowing us to get orientated. My guide has the family suite and I take a junior suite with the most exceptional view. We are high up, looking down on Guanacaste National Park wetlands. Lush green grasses with networks of waterways and decorated with birds. Less obvious are the crocodiles, iguanas, lizards, but most importantly it is one of the best bird watching spots in the world. The migratory hub! All shapes and sizes and colours, in their flocks and masses. 

Flocks fly overhead as I get comfortable in my air conditioned room and take a dip in the pool to cool down. The sunset offers all kinds of purples, pinks and oranges before I stargaze through the resident telescope. A wildlife hotspot, here you can enjoy the air conditioned rooms, WiFi throughout and an array of activities such as horse riding, wetland boat tours, safari overland tours, a visit to bird island or a night tour. Whichever two you chose, they are complimentary. We take an orientation around the site via horseback before hitting the road to take another site visit on the Pacific coast.

We arrive at Punta Islita, nestled away down a 23km dirt road in the forest canopy and overlooking a rough and ready beach. The property is surprisingly humble with 92% of their staff locals, and an array of activities that involve the local communities. "Ara", the macaw project run by an Englishman in the area has helped rehabilitate the green and scarlet macaws that were once prevalent in the area. Poaching meant that they almost reached extinction, but thanks to this and other similar projects, education and research has been a huge success. The relaxed seaside feel would be perfect for honeymooners. With a relaxing spa, onsite gym and swim up bar, you really do need three days here to fully enjoy what it has to offer. 

Next stop back up into the foothills, this time in the Vagaces region of Guanacaste, turning right onto a very bumpy road. The sun sets orange as we arrive to Rio Perdido at 6pm, and the hot springs are a welcome sight after much driving!

Day 11 - Bagaces to Manuel Antonio

Rio Perdido is home to 20 rooms set in luxury self-contained units, and you really do have privacy here. Located within 600 acres of land in a transitional dry and rain forest, it is positioned conveniently on the mountain's natural springs. Your only decision here is which thermal pool to dip in. If one of the three infinity pools doesn't interest you, you can submerge yourself directly into the river - that's nice and warm too! With this, it would be no surprise for me to say spa and relaxation is a big focus here, but don't be fooled by its laid back feel. The staff are on it, addressing their guests by name at every greeting and the activities are plentiful too. Whether yoga takes your fancy in the middle of the jungle, zip lining over a dramatic canyon, mountain biking, tubing, Tarzan swinging or an easy walking trail is your thing, you will get to the end of the day feeling like you truly deserve to eat the delicious food they offer for the guests. WiFi throughout and aircon is much appreciated! 

We watch a porcupine the size of a cat nibble on the branches and frogs and toads dart about the poolside, whilst I relax under a massage jet, under a clear canopy of stars.

About a three hour drive southwest, we make a pit stop at Cafe y Macadamia (a cheeky takeaway of Costa Rican coffee with a banana and macadamia muffin) and continue over Rio Tarcoles, where quite a spectacle is unveiled.

No one quite understands why these Jurassic reptiles congregate on this particular river, but it is home to dozens and dozens of seemingly placid, monstrous-looking crocodiles. Don't worry, I am high on the bridge above and well within safe distance of these fascinating creatures. We continue further along the coast, and I witness the damage Storm Nate has done to the country; river banks decimated, trees fallen and roads dispersed. Through the surfers town of Quepos, We reach our destination, Arenas Del Mar, and I check into the best room in the house... the Ocean View Suite. Full ocean view. Jacuzzi on my balcony. Complimentary minibar, WiFi, and private Blue Flag beach. Yes, the property is beautiful, but the best part is that it's just five minutes from Manuel Antonio National Park.

Day 12 & 13

There is nothing quite like experiencing rain. True tropical rain. In a tropical rainforest. Not just any rainforest - Corcovado rainforest, Costa Rica. Home to 400+ of the 900 Costa Rican bird species, the National Geographic's Lapa Rios Ecolodge (Macaw River) is located next to the park, nestled in the rainforest looking east onto the Pacific and the Gulfe Dulce, the end tip of the Osa Peninsula. This is far to reach, an 8 hour drive from San Jose or, a more popular 40 minute option, a scheduled flight to Puerto Jimenez with a short transfer. As the heavens open, I jump in the pool and watch a troop of 25 squirrel monkeys bounce by. They scratch up against the trees, and fly from one branch to the next. These are my favourite! They're small (squirrel like, of course) and cheeky, the way monkeys should be. The property overlooks one of four tropical fjords in the world (200m deep) and is quite unique - well deserving of its "unique lodges of the world" title received from National Geographic. There is little tourism here, so this is truly the wild Costa Rica I have been craving. There is no feeding or petting of the animals. No carbon footprint. 100% ecological. Renewable. Sustainable. The property's surroundings are mainly secondary rainforest, only 24 years old having once been cattle farming fields. 

This is the ultimate reforestation success story. It is wild, and the animals are wild. A Coati wanders by and a stick insect attaches itself to me.

I take a photo and a gecko runs swiftly up my arm. I feel like a wildlife whisperer. Meanwhile, the squirrel monkeys forage in their dozens. They are rare in other areas of Costa Rica, and this is the last of the resident primates for me to see - now I have seen all four! As the storm develops, I check into my bungalow with a spectacular view of the peninsula coast. Equipped with an umbrella and a torch, I make my way back to the restaurant area and enjoy a three course dinner - including a beautiful steak from a nearby cattle ranch. The sounds of the rainforest and the rumblings of thunder and lightning send me into a deep sleep ready for a 5:45am start - a bird watching tour. Sounds early, but another natural alarm from the howler monkeys and a spectacular sunrise to wake up to makes it easier.

Watching the silhouettes of more squirrel monkeys jumping past, I load up with binoculars and wellies (provided) and set off for a one hour orientation around the property (also included). Squirrel monkeys. A two-toed sloth. 20 different species of bird including the local favourite - scarlet macaws. Egrets. Huge blue morpho butterflies. A huge success before breakfast! 

After breakfast, a three hour waterfall nature hike. Walking around the Corcovado NP and Lapa Rios grounds, across rivers, past leafcutter ant cities, not colonies, orange poisonous dart frogs, strawberry dart frogs, green and black dart frogs...

It starts to rain; well received in the humidity of the rainforest. We return to the property to be met by hot drinks and chocolate cake! I proceed to check out the area and visit a nearby property, El Ramanso. Recently renovated, this small 14 bungalow ecolodge is also 100% self sufficient. With a maximum of 24 guests sharing 8.5km of trails, tours, the beach, the lagoon, and the pool, you will most likely feel like you have the place to yourself. Whether you opt for the plunge pool honeymoon suite (brand new and worth every penny) or the standard rooms, you won't be disappointed. The additional high-adrenaline activities such as rappelling, bird watching or hanging bridges will keep you busy. Perhaps you want more still? Have a chat to the owners about their camera traps - helping Osa conservation projects learn more about the vast Corcovado National Park area, and all of the wildlife that resides in it, pumas included. 

The stars present themselves as the sky eventually clears and I sit in my hammock and enjoy the view under candlelight. Pura Vida.

Day 14 - Piedras Blancas National Park

I have one last stop before I make my way back to San Jose and onward to the UK. We depart the earthy Lapa Rios Ecolodge with a quick detour to view their resident beach, and leave the Osa Peninsula. Pan-American Highway Section 2 done. Let's prepare for the last leg. 

We drive around the tropical fjord to Piedras Blancas National Park and up to Esquinas Lodge. Once just a forest reserve, this area has now officially become a national park. Even more exciting, a variety of conservation projects aim to turn it into a dense biological corridor between Fila Cruces and Panama. On the map we are in southwest Costa Rica - almost on the Panama border. Here, the forest is quite unique. Highly dense and highly diverse. Home to 700 different species of trees, 360 birds and the largest population of scarlet macaws in the country, 117 different types of reptile and amphibian, jaguars, pumas and tapirs.

The 56km² of Piedras Blancas was the last unprotected tropical forest in CR until 1971, and it was Esquinas Lodge that were fundamental in the protection of the reserve by donating 40km² of land to help it become a national park. As such, Esquinas Lodge continuously help to protect the region. The property itself is a basic but comfortable lodge. WiFi in the lobby, hot water and comfortable beds. An honesty bar (a fridge filled with beer and soft drinks) sits under rows of resting bats. The food is a set menu each day, usually a three course meal including a soup, a hearty main and a yummy dessert (I say this having put on a few pounds in the last 24 hours). As an NGO, the profits generated from the accommodation and tours are reinvested directly back into the Rainforests of the Austrians fund, which continuously helps to develop local rehabilitation, reforestation and renovation projects in the region. For example, between 2009-2016 over $1 million was donated through this NGO, which was used to create a completely new rainforest in an area that was once clear cattle pastures. Esquinas Lodge have their own trails which are relatively well managed but still very natural. In comparison to other national parks (Monteverde Cloud Forest for example), this is not kept at all, and Piedras Blancas NP doesn't have the manpower or funding to maintain the main national park at all really. With this, Esquinas Lodge's trails offers a safe and sustainable way of experiencing the incredible biological diversity that is Piedras Blancas National Park. I head home with a warm heart, a full belly and huge excitement for working with such an incredible wildlife destination. 

2450km, 15 days, Costa Rica - Pura Vida!


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Allan Morales

25/10/2017 4:31 PM

Amazing Journey!

Will Bolsover

12/10/2017 11:04 AM

Looks like hard work!!! :)

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