Half Attenborough, half Indiana Jones...
It’s all action for RHIANNON McDOWALL in Costa Rica
IF there’s one thing I learned from a trip to Costa Rica, it’s that it is a place for adventurers, not tourists.
Forget lying on the beach with the latest from Richard and Judy’s book club, the only thing you’ll have time to read is a guide book.
The adventure started when our plane landed in the midst of a lightning storm, with rain bouncing up to our knees as we raced to our taxi.
My first thought? Great, I have travelled 10 hours from the wettest city in the UK to the wettest city in Central America.
But our tour guide, Mario, was quick to reassure me that rain would not be a problem and educated me on the most important phrase I would learn all week – Pura Vida.
Spanish for ‘pure life’, it’s Costa Rica’s unofficial national phrase, used as a greeting, an attitude and a lifestyle choice.
And so this would be our motto.
We threw ourselves into the adventure, rain or shine, with a fun-filled week of snorkelling, zip-lining, hunting for creepy-crawlies, trekking up to volcanoes and white water rafting.
We were actually very lucky with the weather, although I have no doubt we would have enjoyed all of the activities in the rain, which, of course, is much more bearable in 30-degree heat.
Costa Rica has one of the most diverse climates in the world, which means that it will rain a lot during the rainy season, but it also means it’s a haven for nature lovers, with plenty of protected national parks teeming with wildlife.
In just over a week we spotted macaws, humming birds, dozens of crocodiles, tarantulas, scorpions, countless monkeys, iguanas, humpback whales, toucans, vultures – and, of course, the sloths, which had me enthralled.
It took some effort, with their pale hunched bodies and long limbs wrapped around the branches, sloths are a master of disguise and managed to evade us for most of the trip. But on our final day, as we headed out early for a final walk to Manuel Antonio National Park before our flight home, we spotted a majestic three-toed sloth lazing in the trees above our heads.
And just like buses, we went on to see three more, with the last one even moving into position so we could get a better picture.
Our Costa Rican adventure was organised by the travel company Explore, which planned everything including accommodation, transport and our tour guide Mario, who was also our driver, nature expert and Costa Rican brother by the end of the trip.
The wonderful thing about Explore is that not only is everything organised for you, but you also get to spend a week with a group of likeminded people.
I first met my travelling companions at the airport, with our ages ranging from 25 to the mid 60s. But by the end of the trip we were comrades in arms, we’d coached each other to jump off a 130-metre high ledge and down a zip wire, clung on to each other as we trekked across suspension bridges in the pitch black, battled white water rapids and shared the magical experience of seeing a mother and baby humpback whale just metres from our boat.
One of my favourite places - and the location of our sloths - was Manuel Antonio National park. With a track leading straight through the forest and down to the beach, it felt as if time had stood still, as if at any moment a dinosaur could appear out of the shrubbery - it’s no surprise that Steven Spielberg chose it to film Jurassic Park.
From here we did the whale watching trip and enjoyed some of the best food of the trip at Raphael’s - the tuna was the best I’ve ever had.
There are five active volcanoes in Costa Rica - we made it to Poas and Arenal.
Poas was very accessible with a gentle walk to the summit where you could see a huge crater filled with a boiling acid lake and the hardened lava flow from when it last erupted in 2011.
Getting to the top of Arenal is a bit more of a mission, so we satisfied ourselves with a walk to the base, where you could see huge black rocks which were spewed out when it erupted in 2010.
Arenal, which is as impressive from the ground as Poas is from the top, looms over the town of La Fortuna, which is also worth a mention.
It’s strongly geared towards tourism without being offensively touristy, with good bars, restaurants and, of course, coffee shops. It was from here that we went white water rafting on the Balsa River, which was to be one of the most talked about activities of the trip.
Another benefit of being so close to the volcano is the hot springs, which are naturally heated by the volcanic activity.
Most have now been moulded and shaped around resorts, with seats carved into the side of rocks and under waterfalls. I would recommend visiting in the evening when it’s a little cooler and you can make the most of the hot water while gazing at the stars above.
It’s also worth mentioning the Doka Coffee estate, which we visited en route to La Fortuna. Here we were given a tour around the enormous coffee estate before being shown how the coffee beans are harvested, dried, roasted and ground to create the best coffee I’ve tasted.
We also headed to Monteverde Cloud Forest where there are dozens of jungle trails for all abilities.
I particularly enjoyed the night hike where, equipped with torches, we trekked through the jungle hunting out spiders, crickets and creepy-crawlies. And while I was particularly entranced by the tarantula we found holed up just off the side of our path, the magical view of thousands of fire flies buzzing around our head as we crossed through the canopy will stay with me forever.
I don’t think you can go wrong in Costa Rica, every day is like a David Attenborough documentary with a splash of Indiana Jones excitement.
Rhiannon zip wiring in Monteverde Cloud Forest