Pure, wild bliss in serene Costa Rica

The Province - - TRAVEL - LISA MONFORTON

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.

— PHO­TOS: LISA TONFORTON

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.

— GETTY IM­AGES FILES

A sleep­ing sloth in a rain­for­est tree. There are sev­eral Costa Ri­can tours you can take to wit­ness these ex­otic crea­tures for your­self.

— LISA MONFORTON

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.

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