National Post

A trip to Costa Rica can spark the change you’re seeking

It’s a tropical paradise, but it’s the animals that makes a trip to Costa Rice truly magical

- By Fiona Morrow Transfers between San Jose and Tortuguero were provided by Costa Rica Expedition­s. Tortuguero wildlife tours were provided by Tortuga Lodge and Gardens.

High in the Costa Rican mountains, inching bumper to bumper through thick cloud cover, there was a moment when I wondered if this trip was a good idea. We’d o-nly touched down that mor ning (having been delayed 24 hours in Los Angeles), and our 1-0-year-old was already vomit i- ng into a plastic bag in be tween sobs, wracked with grief at the discovery his beloved teddy bear had been dropped and left three hours back along this switchback-ridden road.

Ten days later, standing on a- moonlit beach, watching tur tles laying and burying their eggs, it was clear that not only h-ad my fears proven unfound e-d, this had been a transform ative trip for our family.

Costa Rica — even the words s-ummon up visions of a trop ical idyll — is a small Central A-merican country with a coast line on either side: the Pacific t- o the west, and the Carib bean to the east, with a ribbon of mountains and volcanoes down the middle. A country that has escaped the political u-pheavals of its regional neigh bours, Costa Rica positively glows with pride. Education, including at the university level, and health care is free to all, funded by the dismantlin­g of the military post- Second World War, and the country has a stated goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2021.

My husband was turning 50, and this trip would be his celebratio­n. Our eldest son was heading into Grade 12 this fall, and so there was also a sense of time running out for us, as a family, to experience something truly amazing together.

After much poring over of Internet forums, weeding out the alarmist nonsense from the h-elpful practical advice, we de cided to risk the roads (and the many car rental cons) and drive ourselves around. We would head straight out from the internatio­nal airport north of the capital San Jose to Arenal, w-here a plethora of resorts re volve around steady tourism for views of the eponymous — and active — volcano, and the hot springs it powers. Then we would drive west and south, to t-he small Pacific town of Sam ara, renting a house with a view a-nd a pool. After a week of sun shine, sea and sand, it would be a quick drive back to San Jose t-o drop off the car before ven t-uring eastward, to the Carib bean coast, and Tortuguero, only accessible by plane or boat. T-wo nights at a coffee planta tion in the central highlands would round things off nicely. Costa Rica has wet and dry seasons, and we were visiting in the green season, aware that it could rain for at least part of every day. ( In reality we saw little precipitat­ion, although the humidity was very high.)

We arrived in Arenal to a light, warm downpour. There was only one sensible thing to do: hit the pool.

T- hough the peak of the vol cano was shrouded in cloud, there was nothing dull about the view: a lush mountainsi­de and, closer, birds of every hue f- litting back and forth be tween boughs bent over with the weight of blooms. The water was warm, the cocktails cold. The tropical adventure had begun.

If there was one thing that marked our two weeks in Costa R-ica as magical, it was the wild life. That first night, walking to d-inner, we spotted caimans loll ing in a creek running through the hotel property, and the tone of the trip was set. Driving to a trail the next morning, we w- ere scared witless by a ser ies of deep, loud wailing noises coming from the trees. Was this some Central American monster- sized predator we’d missed in all our research? No, i-t was just the first of many en counters with the aptly named howler monkeys.

In Samara, our house, perched high over the ocean, came with a welcome breeze a- nd all the essentials: ham mock, pool, resident iguana, m- ango tree. One lazy after noon poolside, a troupe of howlers descended into the tree, feasting on the floral orange- fleshed fruit. Messy eaters, they gorged on the juiciest part before flinging t-he rest away, the babies dan gling by their tails trying to grab a bite before their lunch plummeted around our heads.

T- he big birthday was cele brated here, on a half-day private sail of which dreams are made. A humpback whale, swimming w-ith her calf, opened her mas sive jaws wide as we floated by; separate pods of bottlenose and white-sided dolphins played tag with us for hours, and sea turtles punctured the pristine water to breathe.

It felt like heaven. But that was still to come.

Peering through the tiny plane’s window, the narrow canals of Tortuguero could just b-e seen through the jungle can opy. This was the Caribbean, but not island style. We stepped f-rom plane to boat to the restau- rant deck of Tortuga Lodge and Gardens and knew instantly this was where our world view would be expanded. Even the iguanas were Jurassic-sized.

“Toucans!” Sacha screamed from the balcony of our room. They were everywhere, flying around us, putting on a show. Here, nature was writ large, and a 10- year- old mind was being reformed in front of us, hungrily absorbing every flash of colour, every bug on the wall. Under the expert tutelage of our guide Angelo Benley, w- e all learned more, under stood more and cared more about the world and our place within in it. Angelo grew up in t-his rainforest and could transcend the dense foliage to spot even the most recalcitra­nt of creatures. Some were deadly: eyelash vipers, poison dart frogs, tarantulas. Others were bizarre — who knew a sloth only descends from a tree once a week to do his business?

Sloshing through thick jungle in the dark, sweating i-nside head-to-toe dark cloth ing, trying not to brush against anything too terrifying, we had no idea how remarkable the next few hours would be. But there we were, on a deserted beach, watching something even Angelo, with all his years here, told us was special. Two turtles had managed to dig laying holes nose to nose. We watched in awestruck silence as Angelo lifted one turtle’s tail and, by ultraviole­t light, saw h-er lay hundreds of eggs, pour ing them out like a torrent of ping-pong balls.

We worried for the beasts, as they tried to cover up the e- ggs for protection, discov ering too late they were in each other’s way. Overcoming this took a monumental effort o-n their part, and it was hum b- ling — and not a little anxiety- ridden — watching these ungainly reptiles in a very real struggle for survival.

The next morning came a storm with rain so heavy, the spit of land across the canal from us disappeare­d from v-iew. It was crazy, yet strange ly satisfying: we were cut off, going nowhere, and it felt as though we had finally arrived.

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