Costa Rica

Costa Rica’s pura vida at­ti­tude is much more than a slo­gan – dis­cover it your­self, mi­nus the crowds, dur­ing off-sea­son…

Wanderlust Travel Magazine (UK) - - Contents - WORDS LYN HUGHES

Head­ing to the Cen­tral Amer­i­can coun­try dur­ing ‘Green’ sea­son doesn’t al­ways mean rain, and the fewer vis­i­tors leave more room to soak up its pura vida cul­ture, wild won­ders and rag­ing rapids all by your­self…

Ahh! Now it’s rain­ing,” wailed my walk­ing guide. It was as if a tap had been turned on, as the al­ready heavy rain in­creased in vol­ume still fur­ther, blind­ing me as I fol­lowed the rain­for­est trail. Thun­der re­ver­ber­ated around the river val­ley and oc­ca­sional flashes of light­ning were the only source of il­lu­mi­na­tion in the gloom. I fo­cused on my feet as deep pud­dles formed along the track, and scur­ried my way back down to Pacuare Lodge as quickly as pos­si­ble.

It had been a day dom­i­nated by wa­ter. A three-hour drive from San José had taken me and five other guests of the lodge from Costa Rica’s cap­i­tal to the rush­ing wa­ters of the Pacuare River. There, sev­eral com­pa­nies were tak­ing their charges through the ba­sics of raft­ing as we donned our safety gear, jumped into a bright blue raft and headed to the op­po­site bank for our brief­ing and tu­to­rial. They soon de­parted and we had the river to our­selves.

“There has been a lot of rain, so the wa­ter is high,” said our raft­ing guide, Ol­ger. “Per­fect con­di­tions!” We were all a lit­tle ner­vous as we ap­proached the first rapid. “One-two, one-two,” Ol­ger yelled to get us pad­dling in time: “Left side, back, back, back… and rest.” The rapids on this stretch of the Pacuare were Class II or III (novice to in­ter­me­di­ate; the scale goes up to VI), but they were adren­a­line-boost­ing enough and we cel­e­brated the suc­cess­ful pas­sage of each with a high five of pad­dles.

Each side of the river was cloaked in thick green for­est, with oc­ca­sional glimpses of camps. We pulled in at a quiet in­let and took a quick dip in the wa­ter be­fore head­ing off again. Ol­ger pointed out a ca­ble con­trap­tion across the river: “That is for lo­cal, in­dige­nous peo­ple to cross the wa­ter. They get into the bas­ket and it takes them and their goods across.” Fur­ther on was an­other, sim­i­lar con­trap­tion. “This one is used by the lodge. If some­one can’t ar­rive by raft then they are brought by car and are winched across here.”

In truth, I had been ex­pect­ing rain on this trip. I was vis­it­ing Costa Rica in late Septem­ber, sup­pos­edly out of sea­son. Nu­mer­ous web­sites ad­vised that my in­tended visit was at the very worst time of year and that I would have un­remit­ting rain. How­ever, when I asked a tour­op­er­a­tor friend for their opin­ion, she re­as­sured me: “Hey, you’re go­ing to the rain­for­est – there will al­ways be some rain!”

In fact, Costa Rica has a range of weather pat­terns de­pend­ing on a num­ber of fac­tors: the Caribbean coast may be dry even when the Pa­cific coast is wet. For me, this meant a golden op­por­tun­tiy to see the coun­try’s wild reaches away from the crowds.

Trails and eco-tales

We ar­rived all too soon at Pacuare Lodge, ex­hil­a­rated and wish­ing we could carry along the river a lit­tle longer. But this lux­u­ri­ous eco-lodge of­fers much more in the way of ac­tiv­i­ties, in­clud­ing a zip-line ex­pe­ri­ence, rain­for­est hikes, canyon­ing and vis­its to in­dige­nous com­mu­ni­ties. Or, if you need to re­lax and have a will­ing part­ner, the spa also of­fers, ahem, an or­ganic choco­late mas­sage.

‘The rapids on this stretch of the Pacuare are Class II or III, and we cel­e­brated the pas­sage of each with a high five of pad­dles’

The lodge’s en­vi­ron­men­tal cre­den­tials are pretty im­pec­ca­ble, too. Founded in 1995, it now owns 3.4 sq km of land. Howler mon­keys have been rein­tro­duced here and a jaguar re­search pro­gramme has also been started. The buildings are even con­structed from nat­u­rally fallen wood, while elec­tric­ity use is kept to a min­i­mum.

Nat­u­ral­ist guide, Luis, was born here. “Thirty years ago, this was grass used for cat­tle,” he said, ges­tur­ing to thick na­tive bush border­ing the trail we were tak­ing. “My boss bought it and planted trees.” I ex­claimed sur­prise at how quickly it had re­grown. Luis shrugged philo­soph­i­cally: “We have ev­ery­thing here that the trees need to grow quickly: sun and rain, rain and sun.”

Back at the lodge, he showed me cam­era-trap footage from the jaguar re­search pro­gramme that they sup­port. Three jaguars have been recorded, plus at least two black pan­thers, the name com­monly given to black jaguars. These big cats are so se­cre­tive that they’re rarely seen in the flesh, al­though Luis had come face to face with a black pan­ther once. He also re­vealed that pumas are very com­mon here.

“I see the tracks in the sand along the river, just un­der the rooms, and out on the trails,” he con­firmed.

The cam­era-trap footage had also recorded a whole ar­ray of other rain­for­est crea­tures: ar­madillo, tapir, jaguarundi, agouti and ocelot. But my first close en­counter with the lo­cal wildlife caught me com­pletely by sur­prise. Sup­ping a glass of wine in the can­dlelit bar that evening, a movement caught my eye.

“What’s that?” asked a puz­zled guest. “Is it a cat?” No, it was a kinka­jou, a furry rain­for­est crit­ter that looks like a cross between a mon­goose, a cat and a mon­key. It ca­su­ally saun­tered through the bar be­fore head­ing down the beams and into the restau­rant area, leav­ing me mulling over pos­si­ble ‘A kinka­jou walks into a bar...’ jokes.

I shouldn’t have been too sur­prised at na­ture in­ter­rupt­ing my evening. Costa Rica has built a rep­u­ta­tion for its en­vi­ron­men­tal sus­tain­abil­ity, its wildlife ex­pe­ri­ences and its nat­u­ral won­ders. It has moun­tains and vol­ca­noes, rain­for­est and cloud for­est, and is lapped by two dif­fer­ent oceans. With a dozen dif­fer­ent mi­cro­cli­mates and a range of habi­tats, it is one of the most bio­di­verse coun­tries on the planet, count­ing at least 205 species of mam­mal, around 900 birds and 1,500 but­ter­flies.

Livin’ la pura vida

Af­ter a cou­ple of nights at Pacuare, my skin was dewy soft and I re­alised that I felt en­er­gised, pos­si­bly due to all the oxy­gen from the trees. The Ti­cos, as Costa Ri­cans call them­selves, con­stantly use the phrase ‘ pura vida’, which lit­er­ally trans­lates as ‘pure life’. It struck me that this was just what I was feel­ing.

It was all good prepa­ra­tion for my next stop, which promised an even closer brush with na­ture. Not only was this the dri­est time of year at Tor­tuguero – an­other tick for off-sea­son travel – but the ad­van­tage of Septem­ber was that green turtles would be nest­ing on its beach.

But first I had to get there. The Pacuare River was run­ning too high and too fast to raft out, so I took the hang­ing gon­dola across

‘The Ti­cos, as Costa Ri­cans call them­selves, con­stantly use the phrase ‘pura vida’, which trans­lates as ‘pure life’’

the river, where guide-driver Juve was wait­ing for me. He filled me in on the vol­canic ac­tiv­ity that had been tak­ing place in the pre­vi­ous few days. “There’s a lot of ash in San Josè,” he said. And some flights have had to be can­celled.” I asked which vol­cano was re­spon­si­ble. “It’s from Tur­ri­alba, over there.” Look­ing across bu­colic ru­ral scenes to the vol­cano dom­i­nat­ing the hori­zon, it dawned on me that what I had thought was cloud was ac­tu­ally a plume of ash.

Turn­ing off the high­way, un­paved roads took us through farm­land and crops, and then ba­nana plan­ta­tions and pack­ing plants. Blue bags cov­ered the bunches of ba­nanas as pro­tec­tion against fer­tiliser. In­stead of a level cross­ing, we had to pull up at a ba­nana cross­ing, as a worker pulled a dozen or so of the huge bunches across on a pul­ley sys­tem at­tached to his belt.

Tor­tuguero can only be ac­cessed by wa­ter, so at the port of Caño Blanco we trans­ferred to a mo­tor launch filled with peo­ple want­ing to ex­pe­ri­ence one of Costa Rica’s most unique na­tional parks.

Sit­u­ated on the north Caribbean coast, Tor­tuguero is a wa­tery par­adise for na­ture lovers, with a net­work of canals bi­sect­ing the rain­for­est here, as well as a river and coast­line. Even the area’s name means ‘Land of the Turtles’, and for good rea­son – three species of tur­tle nest on its 35km of beach. In­deed, it is the sec­ond-largest nest­ing population of green turtles in the world, and plenty of other wildlife calls the for­est, canals and coast home.

Tor­tuguero vil­lage is sit­u­ated on a car-free sand­bar is­land, and has one nar­row main street of shops, cafés and small busi­nesses, mostly con­nected to tourism. Wan­der­ing through on a sul­try af­ter­noon, there was scarcely any­one around to buy the ‘pura vida’ T-shirts; the only sign of life was the oc­ca­sional dog snooz­ing in the shade. How­ever, down on the beach a group of schoolkids of all dif­fer­ent ages were beat­ing out pop­u­lar chart hits on drums.

My first call was to the vis­i­tor cen­tre and mu­seum op­er­ated by the Sea Tur­tle Con­ser­vancy (STC), an or­gan­i­sa­tion that was founded in 1959 to pro­tect the turtles in Tor­tuguero, but it has grown con­sid­er­ably since those early days and now works with and ad­vises with in­ter­na­tional pro­grammes and gov­ern­ments. Co­or­di­na­tor Mary Dun­can put on a 20-minute video for the hand­ful of vis­i­tors, and then reap­peared to take any ques­tions, of which there were dozens.

“This is one of the most im­por­tant marine con­ser­va­tion projects in the world. There has been a 500% in­crease in nests,” she stressed. In 2016 there were more than 35,000 tur­tle nests along the beach. While jaguars took some of the turtles and they and a host of other preda­tors took eggs and hatch­lings, huge num­bers will have suc­cess­fully made it to the sea. In­deed, 80% of the green tur­tle eggs hatched.

I was sur­prised to hear that, un­like some places in the world where well-mean­ing peo­ple carry the baby turtles to the sea, here the re­searchers let the hatch­lings make their own way. Mary ex­plained that re­search has shown that the hatch­lings ben­e­fit from the ex­er­cise be­fore they reach the ocean, and also that the beach is im­printed on the turtles for them to come back to when they are ma­ture. “Of course there are vol­un­teers and re­searchers on the beach when

‘In 2016 there were more than 35,000 tur­tle nests along the beach… and huge num­bers will have made it to the sea’

many of the nests hatch, and so the hu­man pres­ence keeps many of the preda­tors away,” she con­firmed.

The ex­cep­tion to giv­ing a help­ing hand is with any hawks­bill turtles that nest here. These crit­i­cally en­dan­gered crea­tures don’t seem to be the smartest, as they of­ten lay their eggs within the high tide area, and so they get washed away. If there is a hawks­bill, the re­searchers stay with it to en­sure no pre­da­tion, and may move the eggs if they feel it ab­so­lutely nec­es­sary. They are also care­ful to erase the tur­tle tracks af­ter­wards, so that hu­mans and an­i­mals won’t find the nest.

Mary ex­plained that it was ap­proach­ing the end of the sea­son for the green turtles, but there was still a good chance of see­ing them. Vis­i­tors are not al­lowed on the beach at night with­out a guide, and so I booked a trip through the lodge I was stay­ing in. Sure enough, at 9.15pm Miguel was wait­ing in a boat for me and an­other fam­ily. A short trip took us across the la­goon to a dark spot on the same is­land as the vil­lage but well away from any lodges or lights.

“The tracker has found some turtles close by... quick!” Miguel hissed qui­etly but ur­gently. We crossed a nar­row spit of land to the beach, at which point we turned off our flash­lights. We hadn’t gone far, eyes try­ing to ad­just to the dark, when Miguel paused, point­ing out tell­tale tracks in the sand: “They look like a trac­tor has driven up, but it’s ac­tu­ally a tur­tle.”

We fol­lowed the tracks up the beach, our an­tic­i­pa­tion ris­ing. As we stopped and qui­etly crouched, Miguel turned on a ‘tur­tle safe’ red light and shone it onto the huge rear end of a green tur­tle re­leas­ing eggs the size and shape of moist ping-pong balls into a deep hole. With an awestruck rev­er­ence, we watched qui­etly for a bit and then moved a few yards to where an­other tur­tle was lay­ing her eggs.

Miguel ex­plained that the sec­ond one seemed smaller and younger. We then moved back from both for a few min­utes be­fore re­turn­ing to the first to check on her progress. So it went on, with each tur­tle in turn fin­ish­ing the lay­ing and then cov­er­ing the eggs

with sand. This took a while, as each one paused to re­cover from its ex­er­tions. While the younger tur­tle ini­tially seemed to be faster and stronger, ex­pe­ri­ence even­tu­ally won, with the older mama the first to turn to­wards the sea and lum­ber her way back down the beach ex­cru­ci­at­ingly slowly. We all had a lump in our throats as she fi­nally en­tered the wa­ter and grad­u­ally dis­ap­peared from view.

Back on the wa­ter

I was still on a high early the next morn­ing when I took a boat trip on the canals. We were in a rather noisy launch and I won­dered if we were go­ing to see much in the way of wildlife, but I needn’t have feared. We soon took di­ver­sions into quiet chan­nels and var­i­ous nooks and cran­nies, the boat­man turn­ing the en­gine off when­ever his keen eyes spot­ted any­thing. It was like be­ing in a BBC wildlife doc­u­men­tary as he pointed to long-nosed bats cam­ou­flaged on a tree trunk, huge igua­nas loung­ing on tree branches, and a caiman cun­ningly dis­guised as a log. Sloths, howler mon­keys and spi­der mon­keys gazed on us from high in the canopy, along with both green macaws and the rarely seen scar­let va­ri­ety. Closer to eye level, ex­tra­or­di­nary look­ing green basilisk lizards were bask­ing on the lower branches of trees, a pre­his­toric fin-like crest along their backs.

If this seemed like a na­ture theme park, my fi­nal stop in Costa Rica made me aware of the power of na­ture in a dif­fer­ent way. I spent my last full day near Mount Are­nal, the iconic vol­cano with a seem­ingly per­fect cone. The peak was ini­tially cov­ered in cloud but that grad­u­ally cleared, re­veal­ing its dis­tinc­tive shape. Al­though at first glance it looks sym­met­ri­cal, peer closer and you can see an­other crater on its west­ern flank, the re­sult of a dra­matic erup­tion in 1968 when the pre­vi­ously dor­mant vol­cano sprang to life. Since 2010 it has been dor­mant again, but lo­cals still worry about it.

I took a sky tram up through the nearby cloud for­est and then walked back down, cross­ing sev­eral ‘hang­ing’ sus­pen­sion bridges along the way.

“You’ll be ready to re­lax your limbs,” said my guide. “We have the per­fect ac­tiv­ity for that this evening.”

Tabacón Ther­mal Re­sort has nat­u­ral ther­mal springs run­ning through its grounds, and has turned these into a se­ries of in­ter­con­nect­ing pools, some with wa­ter­falls. I must ad­mit to feel­ing scep­ti­cal about it when I ar­rived, fear­ing a ‘cheesy’ ex­pe­ri­ence. But, as dusk fell, I es­caped the busy first pool and headed up through fo­liage-fringed paths un­til I found a small pool with no one else in it and im­pres­sive views gaz­ing out to­wards the huge dark out­line of the Are­nal vol­cano.

The wa­ter was like a warm bath, and steam rose off it dra­mat­i­cally. A storm was ap­proach­ing, and as I floated in the sooth­ing warmth, thun­der rum­bled be­hind Are­nal, the sky oc­ca­sion­ally lit up by a sheet of light­ning. Pura vida, I thought. Yes, def­i­nitely pura vida.

‘It was like be­ing in a wildlife doc­u­men­tary as he pointed to huge igua­nas loung­ing on tree branches and a caiman dis­guised as a log’

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