Pure, wild bliss in serene Costa Rica
A group of college students wearing headlamps huddle around the large leaf of a palm tree to watch a pair of nocturnal red-eyed tree frogs mate under a near-full moon night.
I’m walking to dinner at Selva Verde Lodge & Reserve, but give in to the impulse to lean in, too, and be a voyeur on this natural love scene.
It’s that easy to become a creature-peeper in the wild forests of the Sarapiqui region, located in Costa Rica’s Heredia Province. It’s in the northeast of the country bordering Nicaragua, two hours north of the capital city of San José.
Unlike the Nicoya Peninsula’s Guanacaste region, known for its never-ending beaches, Sarapiqui isn’t on the radar of many tourists.
But it should be.
The soundtrack of the Sarapiqui is set by the constant motion of wild things. Only the sleepy sloths stay idle in the trees. In the forest, an orchestra of buzzing insects, birdsong and howling from the monkeys surrounds us at all hours.
The region is home to several large nature reserves, like La Selva, a mecca for international ecological researchers, scientists, students and everyday nature-lovers like us, as well as Trimbina, a massive private reserve.
When you’re not craning your neck at the towering kapok trees looking for toucans and tree frogs, you can experience the rush of river rafting or a serene boat ride on the Sarapiqui River or rappel the river canyon.
It doesn’t take long to meld into the quilt of tropical greens punctuated by massive banana plantations, coffee plantations, waterfalls and volcanoes poking out from behind the landscape.
Within a couple of hours, we’re getting comfortable with the creature sounds, and the rainforest smells, which in one hike can include both the whiff of wild boar dung and the heady aroma of a tropical flower.
Yes, this is pura vida — the pure or simple life — two words you’ll hear the ticos (Costa Rican locals) use all the time.
It’s easy to see why Costa Rica ranks at the top of the Happy Planet Index as I settle into a tropical groove surrounded by these lush forests with their own secret language.
LA SELVA BIOLOGICAL STATION
A guided hike at this impressive 1,600-hectare nature preserve with 61 km of hiking trails (some paved) through old and secondary growth forests is well worth your while. Part of the Mesoamerican biological corridor, it’s teeming with wildlife. It’s known around the world for its tropical ecology research.
Just inside the entrance, we see a three-toed mother and baby sloth cuddling in a tree branch about 10 metres above us. Mere feet from us are five peccary (wild boars) looking for their next meal.
Out among trees in this mainly tropical wet forest, which gets up to four metres of rain a year, are panthers, leopards, bats, spiders, snakes, frogs and monkeys. Crossing the bridge over the Puerto Viejo River, I spot an anhinga, a duck-meets-snakelike kind of creature, swimming in the river. Peering through the towering trees all around us, I spot my first toucan.
TRIMBINA RESERVE CHOCOLATE TOUR
Walking under the canopy of leafy cacao plants, all I can think about is sampling the final product — Theobroma, or food of the gods. We know it as chocolate.
Making a 65 per cent or higher chocolate is a time-consuming process.
It takes more than four years for a plant to bear the fruit from which the chocolate is made. We learn that one cacao tree yields about 30 chocolate bars of 100 grams each.
Before we get a taste, our guide Caroline shows us the process — mashing, roasting and drying — before it’s the recognizable treat. But first she makes us a warm chocolate drink, worthy of the gods. It’s a rich and lightly spiced elixir garnished with vanilla and cayenne.
You can do the guided and unguided hiking and chocolate tours at Trimbina, a nonprofit research and educational centre on 345 hectares of tropical forest. (It is also a rainforest lodge with villas, rooms and apartments.)
It caters to tourists and international students studying biodiversity, as well as researchers and scientists from around the world.
Chocolate tours are offered every day.
The reserve is known to have 1,300 species of plants, and thousands of indigenous and migrating birds.
LEAF-CUTTER ANT/ RAFTING TOUR
Aguas Bravas, is primarily a rafting company offering tours on the adjacent Sarapiqui River.
End a perfect day sitting along the river at the open-air restaurant with some Costa Rican coffee and home-made sweets.
The industrious world of the leaf-cutter ants is revealed on a fascinating one-hour tour. Leo Herra, a former tropical flower exporter, became intrigued with the ants 25 years ago and used his knowledge to re-create a one-million strong colony at Aguas Bravas.
Walk through the recreated “super highway” of trees that Herra has built for the ants and you’ll see a take-out “salad bar” of leaves provided for the ants during their busy day.
A moonlit view from the Sarapiqui’s Rainforest Lodge. The Sarapiqui region is home to bountiful beauty and wildlife.
The Sarapiqui region of northeastern Costa Rica features nature reserves teeming with the sounds of wildlife.
A sleeping sloth in a rainforest tree. There are several Costa Rican tours you can take to witness these exotic creatures for yourself.
Ligia Escalante Lizano makes goods from coloured plastic bags.
One of the coolest creatures in Sarapiqui is the red-eyed tree frog.
One cacao tree yields 30 chocolate bars of 100 grams each.