LETTERS FROM ABROAD
By Marianne gray
My cousin is a great birdwatcher and when she rang to say, ‘Let’s go to Costa Rica because the most beautiful bird in America, the Aztec-named green and red quetzal, lives there.’ I immediately dragged out the atlas.
Costa Rica. A strip of land straddling the Caribbean and the Pacific, full of mountains, volcanoes, valleys and rivers, is squeezed in between Panama, where the hats come from, and Nicaragua, with it’s huge lake and lawlessness.
Very soon we were landing in San Jose, the small, pleasant capital at the foot of the mountains. San Jose is a slow, balmy town with warm, smiling people but much of its history was lost in the 2012 earthquake.
Stroll along the Boulevard Calle 17 where all life jostles or take coffee in the elegant National Theatre, which was built in the 1890s on the coffee industry’s success. There are several museums, like the yellow fort and the gold museum which are diverting, and end your stroll with a cool cocktail (of which there are many) next to the fountains in the totally colonial Gran Hotel.
You need to hit the road to explore this fascinating country. There is an extremely limited train service due to a 1991 earthquake destroying much of the Pacific network. The roads in Costa Rica are mainly good and they wind over mountains and hills lined with colourful tropical greenery full of butterflies and berries, howler monkeys and soaring black vultures with feathered wingtips catching the therms. It is an extremely beautiful country with big views in every shade of green, dazzling flowers and red iron acid soil.
There are many organised mini-bus tours that make travelling easy. Some trips are for those who just want to quietly explore the rivers, volcanoes, lakes, forest, beaches and relax in thermal springs. Others are for those who want to whitewater raft, kayak, zipline, canyoneer, ride horses, surf, watch whales, dive into waterfalls, fall off hanging bridges in the cloud forest or fly like Tarzan through the trees.
We preferred slightly less action, like having a nice cool Imperial beer on the beach or overlooking a great view. Or a plate of rice and black beans (gallopinto) in a local bar near the volcano. Or a visit to a sugar mill where oxen still turn the grinding wheel. Or a cup of Arabica coffee in the plantation kitchen.
We walked up central Monteverde and into the forest with brilliant bird-man Marvin, in his snake-proof wellies and with a high range telescope, who spotted two splendid quetzals (male and female) hidden high in the treetops for us within the first 15 minutes. There are 910 different birds in Costa Rica sometimes making an abundance of colour tumbling over each other.
We also loved chugging up a deserted river with a jumble of exotic trees and liana vines tumbling onto riverbanks alive with small furry things … coatis, sloths, agoutis and monkeys leaping through trees and slow scaly things like giant iguanas, spectacled caymans and turtles creeping along the moist shores.
Travelling upstream as far as the Nicaraguan border at Las Chiles, passports were at the ready in case there was a riverine version of a roadblock. Accompanied by a Jesus Christ lizard, a green lizard with webbed feet so it can walk on water, it felt about as far from civilisation as one could wish.
In the most unlikely spots rambling villages of small (mainly) corrugated iron houses appear. Men still ride to work on horseback. Children go to school in uniform. Women wear colourful gear and run roadside stalls. Everyone says a friendly hola! (hello!) or pura vida (enjoy life). Ticans, as Costa Ricans are called, are very welcoming and laid back.
They are also very green, very eco conscious and conservation is high on the country’s list. Aware of the value of tourism to their unspoilt country, the hotels are upmarket, clean, with Wifi and swimming pools, and even in the rainy season, life seems easy for the traveller in Costa Rica.
We will have to go back as we never saw a tapir or a puma and hardly saw enough of the 138,000 butterflies fluttering around everywhere. And then there’s that local rum, the pina coladas, the music, the dancing, the colours, the charm – and the howler monkeys that stole the food from a wedding reception and the cappuccino monkeys that juggled lemons in the trees at breakfast. And much more to their pura vida.
Marianne Gray travelled on a bespoke holiday
organised by Trailfinders (www.trailfinders.com)