The nature of our visits abroad means we pack a lot into a short time, and – if truth be told – often spend more of it than most of us would like visiting hotels. On the plus side, the rate at which we travel means we can squeeze a lot of highlights into a short time. My recent trip to southern Costa Rica was a great example of this, it wasn’t even two weeks, but I managed to see and experience a bucket load of great things.
After letting the dust settle, I’ve been reflecting on the top 10 highlights of the trip, in no particular order. While I can’t promise every single one of these experiences in any given visit, the pace of the trip meant that these are a pretty fair reflection of a fortnight or so’s journey through the beautiful south of Costa Rica…
Seeing a two-toed sloth
Everybody knows that the sloths are the rock stars of Costa Rican wildlife. It’s that enigmatic quality – is he smiling at me, or plotting my downfall? We all love a gesticulating howler monkey, a graceful macaw, or a leaping dolphin – but the sloth just has a certain, ‘je ne sais quoi.’
While I had been lucky enough to spot a couple on my last trip, these were both the more common three-toed variety. I’d been reliably informed that Cahuita was my best chance of seeing a two-toed specimen, so was feeling a bit glum as I breakfasted before departure without having had the pleasure. Just as I was headed back to the room for my bag though, the gardener beckoned me over with a grin, pointing up above my bungalow. It took me a moment to spot him (or her, it’s pretty hard to tell) – but there he/she was, tucking into the foliage barely 20m above my roof. I whipped out my camera, and for one glorious moment those liquid brown eyes looked through the leaves, directly down at me. I think it might just have been a smile you know.
Racing dolphins in the Golfo Dulce
OK, we weren’t actually racing dolphins. This was the boat ride across from Golfito to the lovely Playa Cativo, when a group (school?) of dolphins swam all around us for several minutes. Spinner and bottlenose both love these waters, and can be seen year round. We slowed the boat right down, and sat enthralled as they leapt and frolicked all around us, there must have been a dozen or so in all. Absolutely fantastic. After reluctantly waving them goodbye, the thought occurred to me that a race wouldn’t have been much of a contest – those guys could really shift through the water!
Chancing upon a live reggae band
My first stop after San Jose was the southern Caribbean, which I’d been keen to get to for some time, if for no other reason than you don’t hear much about it other than, ‘it’s different’. I was curious – just how ‘Caribbean’ was it?
After dining on coconut fish for dinner I met a local guide, replete with Rastafarian hat, who advised me in the strongest terms to head to a certain bar on the edge of the village. It was an open-sided structure, with the waves lapping the shore directly in front, and I was soon swaying along to a full instrumental Bob Marley cover, with freestyled lyrics in both English and Spanish. How Caribbean? Turns out the answer is, pretty Caribbean, actually!
Discovering a beautiful jungle lodge
Costa Rica is virtually synonymous with the concept of ‘eco lodges,’ and is of course a leading light in green, sustainable travel. Not many countries rate their hotels by ‘green leaves’ rather than stars, and just about any small hotel in the country will proudly display their leaf certificate to proclaim their eco credentials.
But it’s not just about your recycling system or water treatment, and there are a handful of lodges that are incredibly engaged, not just in minimizing their impact, but in making a positive contribution to their environment (physical and social). One of the lovely surprises of my trip was a chance encounter with just such a lodge, Selva Bananito. My intended activity having been cancelled at the 11th hour, it was suggested that I might like to pay a visit so, pointing my 4×4 into the Caribbean rainforests, I forded a few rivers to reach a very special place indeed. Beautifully isolated, on the cusp of the largest swathe of untouched rainforest in Central America, this is somewhere you are surrounded by beauty and immersed in the efforts to protect it. There isn’t space here to detail the full story of Selva Bananito’s evolution from logging land to conservation icon, but it’s somewhere you’d do very well to include in a trip to Costa Rica.
I’d been avidly assured that the only way was time and patience. Position yourself in one spot, ideally with tripod, and choose a specific flower. Sit/stand quietly, and wait for that perfect moment, when you get the hummingbird right in the centre of the viewfinder… Drat. Another blurry one. I’d seen plenty of serious birders / bird photographers, with serious cameras, adopting these tactics, so I could only assume this worked for them. Being neither a serious birder nor photographer, and having a decent (lens under a foot) camera, they didn’t seem to be working for me.
That said, I’ve heard more than one wildlife photographer admit luck plays a part alongside patience (the ingredient I was probably most lacking). So by adopting the rather looser approach of losing the tripod, and shooting miscellaneous points around me, I did manage a couple of nice shots of hummingbirds. I then realised that trying to get that *great* hummingbird shot was a bit like golf: fun up to a point, but often descending into painful frustration. So I decided it was better just to sit back and enjoy watching these incredible creatures, (and then tell people back home that the best shot I had was the result of 3 hours hiding motionless in a bush, rather than sticking my camera out of the lodge window and getting lucky).
Rappelling down a waterfall
Ever since an ill-advised bungee jump in Ecuador back on my ‘gap yah,’ I’d rather lost my youthful enthusiasm for heights, so when I peered over the edge of the waterfall while holding a pretty thin rope, I did question for a moment whether this was a great plan. Not helped by visiting shortly after the dry season, as there was rather more rock than water in the cascade…
I needn’t have worried. I was, of course, securely harnessed to the rope, and in the capable hands of two excellent guides (one rather improbably also called Dave). In the simplest terms, canyoning involves making your way from the top to the bottom of a canyon via a number of methods. Being Costa Rica, several of these are zip lines, but it’s the rappelling which is the standout element. Unlike zip lining, where you can just sit/hang there and let the gear do the work, rappelling does require some effort from the participant. And I think it’s this which makes it far more rewarding. It’s not seriously technical, but it’s quite a rush, and you’ll likely get a couple of bumps. But when you finally land in the pool at the bottom, water cascading into your face, rock and jungle looming all around you, you’ll understand why this is one of the quintessential Costa Rica activities.
Seeing the resplendent quetzal
Hummingbirds are amazing, but they weren’t my only avian target on this trip (honestly, I’m really not a birder). The resplendent quetzal is the poster bird of Costa Rica’s prolific number of bird species, a stunning bird of emerald green and crimson, with tails up to a metre long. Its beauty had rendered it to the status of myth and legend in Pre-Colombian Central America, with the feathers being more treasured than gold. On this trip, I was headed to San Gerardo de Dota, a beautiful valley of cloud forest that offered the best chance of seeing them in the country.
Early the first morning, I reluctantly emerged from my delightfully warm duvet, quickly brought to life by the frigid morning air. At over 2,200m, this is one area in Costa Rica where you can leave the flip flops in the bag. My guide was ready and waiting – looking, I have to admit – rather keener than me. My dawn inertia soon vanished however, as not 5 minutes up the road he clutched my arm, and pointed up into the branches not 30m away. There he was, the most beautiful bird I’d ever seen, his feathers a shade of green that was quite unlike any plumage I’d previously encountered. I managed to snap off one quick shot before he took to the air, his long, long tail giving the impression of a feathery shooting star. We quickly turned in pursuit, and set off for another couple of hours of quetzal seeking. Hmm, maybe I could get used to this birding thing after all.
Paddling past a crocodile
I love jumping in a kayak, there’s something about being down at water level that gives you a really different sense of the world around you. You never know what you might come across. On this occasion Sergio our boatman had dragged the kayaks (and us) up towards the top of the gulf, where we climbed in to explore the narrow waterways of the mangrove swamps.
The crabs and birds we’d seen were fascinating, especially when described by the indomitable Gerardo, our guide, whose passion and knowledge for this incredible ecosystem seemingly knew no bounds. It was when we’d come back out onto the more open water however, that one of the locals really caught our eye.
‘John, have you seen what’s behind you?’
‘Undoubtedly a massive crocodile, right? Ha ha.’
‘Well, it’s not massive…’
There he/she was (again, tricky to know the gender) – stretched out on the bank a few yards away. While it was probably just catching some rays, there seemed to be a hungry glint in its eye, while the fact it was actually slightly above our head height did not help improve things for the more squeamish members of the paddling party. Let’s just say some people found a sudden burst of pace…
Driving across the country
I recently came across the website of a US-based Costa Rica operator, who had a page entitled something like, ‘Should I drive in Costa Rica?’ It proceeded in no uncertain terms to give all manner of horrifying reasons why you should not – they literally use the phrase, ‘if we haven’t managed to scare you off yet…’ Given that roughly 95% of our clients’ trips are self drive ones, I was slightly stunned to read this (at least, I was until I realized that this firm operated shuttle buses between various locations in Costa Rica).
While driving does of course require care and attention, I’ve always held it to be the best way to explore Costa Rica, a belief that has only been cemented by my own time behind the wheel. How else the flexibility to investigate that little road down to a waterfall, or take an early lunch because you like the look of that restaurant’s terrace? To fit three activities in three different directions into one day, or visit the beach that’s 10 miles away because someone has mentioned the water visibility is particularly good today?
It comes down to that feeling of the open road, being in control of your travels, and the joy of exploring a new destination. Driving connects you to the landscape and the people, in a way you just can’t get behind the window of a bus, and I think this is something priceless when travelling in Costa Rica.
Sundowner in the pool
After a day of eyeballing crocs, seeking howler monkeys in the palm trees, and snorkelling in the gulf, how should one end the day? I know that if you’ve read this far, you’ll be feeling for how very busy I was while trying out activities and wildlife spotting, so you’ll be pleased to hear that I did manage just a little R&R.
A cooling dip in the pool, with an icy beer in hand, watching the sun come down over the glorious bay – does it get any better than this? Well, yes, actually – there are some toucans in that palm tree. And is that? – oh yes – a couple of scarlet macaws flying home to roost! As the saying goes, ‘It’s hard work, but…’