LOVE TO WANDER
The day started early with monkey business. A cheeky white-faced capuchin monkey took up residence on top of the roof of the hotel spa looking for all the world like he was passing time before his massage appointment. In reality, he was looking for food, of course, but was a bit too shy to stroll into the restaurant and choose a table for breakfast.
The drive to Arenal Volcano takes around 2 hours, allowing for a relaxing start to the day. The two lane road was mostly well made, but there were several sections which had broken up to gravel. Fruit sellers dot themselves all along the road - no problem finding your five a day in this tropical environment!
A warm welcome at Nayara Springs and the return of the sun enticed us into sampling a Caribbean fashion cocktail (7 year old Centenario rum, coconut water infused with rice, cinnamon and orang peel, orange syrup and angostura bitters) and spending the rest of the day doing little more than exploring everything this very beautiful resort has to offer - see the accommodation review for all the details.
Guaro Sour - a local cocktail made with a clear liquid distilled from sugar cane.
Pistachio Frappuccino - courtesy of the resort's excellent coffee tasting bar.
The resort works with the family run Beneficio (processing facility) in the Tarrazu region of Costa Rica in the small community of La Violeta. The higher altitude gives the coffee its distinctive chocolate and nutty flavour.
Learning the Lingo:
Hermoso dia - Beautiful Day
Rio Celeste Hideaway is a small resort-style, ecologically-conscious hotel right in the centre of the lush cloud forest of Rio Celeste in Volcan Tenorio National Park. You can walk down to the beautiful blue river directly from the hotel.
There are 26 rooms (casitas) which are all extremely private and separated from each other by lush, tropical rainforest. The best bit by far though is the outdoor shower - magical! Tropical gardens surround the hotel and let you observe tropical birds close up without even leaving the hotel. Rooms are all air conditioned and the wi-fi is good too. The beautifully decorated restaurant offers plenty of choice of local cuisine and a buffet breakfast with omelettes and pancakes available cooked to order just as you like them. There is also a large swimming pool area with hot tubs and a swim up bar. Spa treatments are available if you want to treat yourself to those - we didn't try them, so I can't comment.
On the downside, the hotel brochure says it offers yoga facilities, but in practice, it doesn't. Despite the massive shower area, there is no washing line. The plugs in the basins don't actually close and the safe comes with no instruction (requiring a walk over to the front desk to sort out). There are a number of tours offered from the hotel, but there seemed to be some confusion about whether tour prices included National Park transfer costs or not. These are all such easy things to sort out, so hopefully - with the right feedback - it will all be fine if you decide to visit in the future?!
These niggly things aside, this is a very comfortable and luxurious place to stay in a wonderful out of the way location.
This morning started rainy. The forecast is for a sunny afternoon, but for now, it is pretty damp here and humidity is very high too up at 86%. The rooms in our lodge all have both a humidifier and air con. This morning, everything feels slightly damp to touch. So this is the dry season?! The dry season, or “Summer” in Costa Rica is from mid November to April (although it differs a little from region to region). Even in the dry season though, it still rains a lot - but I suppose that is what you have to expect when you come to a rainforest.
The weather is brightening up this afternoon and we are going to take a walk down to the Celeste River. This time, we will have no guide. It is interesting what you see when you go for a walk. It depends how you look at the world and different people can see different things in the same environment. If you walk with the eyes of a botanist, you will see flowers, plants and trees that would pass unnoticed by someone else. Walk with the eyes of a geologist and the rocks will speak to you in ways that the untrained eye just cannot discern. Walk with the eyes of a photographer and you will start to notice light, reflections and shadows. This afternoon, I am aiming to walk with the eyes of a tour guide and see if that helps me to spot wildlife I would otherwise have missed. I found it fascinating that in Tortugeuro, I could see nothing in the trees at the start of our stay. By the end though, I could see orange and green iguanas everywhere draped on the branches above and birds began to come into focus too. You just have to know what you are looking for and watch for rustles of leaves, unexpected colour variations and so on. In the forest, looking for tracks helps identify when something interesting might be hiding nearby. On this rainy morning, the forest is alive with birdsong, but you can’t see the singers - they are all sheltering under the big green leaves until the sun comes out again.
By 11am, the rain had cleared allowing us to walk the 2.4km circular trail from the hotel to the River Celeste. You can swim in the Celeste River at the mid-point of the trail if you want to which is interesting because there is no swimming allowed in the National Park itself any longer. ln one direction, the trail is labelled "Tapir Trail" and in the other "Armadillo Trail", but realistically, you have no chance of seeing either. I guess you have the eyes you have got, until you have trained them differently. What my eyes saw was a beautiful forest with a plethora of very brightly coloured flowers. There were probably all sorts of other treasures there, but my eyes are still becoming accustomed to those - and it's a very long journey The root systems of the trees here are also fascinating. Some of the trees sway in the breeze because they are so tall and their root systems are comparatively delicate - and that's before the bar opens?!
Costa Rica set itself a goal to be the world’s first carbon-neutral company back in 2009, but it is likely not to achieve that, despite good progress in lots of areas. This country is trying hard in so many ways though - buses/taxis run on natural gas, electric and hybrid vehicles are expanding fast, organic farming methods are widely used and reforestation is being actively and aggressively pursued. Fossil fuel generated electrics (hydro, wind and geothermal power) produced 98% of Costa Rica’s electricity in 2016 (Lonely Planet).
More than 27% of Costa Rica has been set aside for conservation. The Spanish Empire started in the mid 1500s and - thanks to Costa Rica being seen as a swampy, largely useless backwater - its colonial path diverged from the typical pattern and a slave based economy never gained prominence here. The small indigenous population gradually withered and by the mid 1800s, the Spanish Empire fell too and an independent Costa Rica began to take shape, avoiding being ruled by either Mexico or any attempts at a United States of Central America.
Flora and Fauna:
When you go for a walk in the dark, of course, you have got no eyes at all - just your ears - so you can let your imagination soar. Armed with a flashlight, you can get beyond the din of the chattering crickets and find all sorts of things buried in the undergrowth - some nice and some very nasty indeed. To begin with, we saw a friendly bullfrog, a red eyed tree frog, a little pygmy frog and an army of those industrious leaf cutting ants marching on through the night. As we got deeper into the forest though, things livened up considerably and we saw an eyelash viper and a black tarantula spider.
Although the eyelash viper is small, it is one of the most dangerous of the venomous snakes in Central America. Its poison is strong, and most people disregard a bite by a small snake as non-threatening. My photo isn't great, but I pride myself on including only my own photos and this was as close as I was prepared to get.
Not only does Costa Rica have black widow spiders (in one small region of the northeast, but it has the world's most aggressive and dangerous spider, the Brazilian Wandering Spider. A black tarantula spider was quite scary enough for me.
Glad I packed:
My hiking boots.
A good flashlight.
There is something very special about waking up in the morning, throwing open your back doors and walking right out into the rain forest for an outdoor morning shower. Looking up at blue sky, watching the dewy fronds of the palm leaves wave above your head and feeling the warm breeze brush against you as the arm water rushes over you makes you feel alive in a way that a tiled indoor shower cubicle just never could.
Established as a National Park in 1995, Rio Celeste is in the cloud forest region. A massive 3.7 metres of rain falls here a year - around six times more than the UK - and that sometimes feels very wet! A legend tells that after God was done painting the sky, he washed his brushes in the river that now bears the name of Rio Celeste - Light Blue River. It was worth a 4 hour hike to see how beautiful this looks in real life.
We had pre-booked a half day hike in Tenorio National Park, visiting Catarata Waterfall, Laguna Azul and the hot springs. It is as well to pre-book an excursion like this as there is only one trail through the National Park and the numbers of people allowed to walk it are strictly limited. Only 500 are allowed in at a time - the next 500 have to wait in a holding area until there is space to enter. If you are number 1001, you won't get in at all. Only 45 people are allowed down the steep, slippery steps to the waterfall at a time. The strong concrete rails (cleverly designed to look like wood) are useful to steady yourself. At least when you are in the Park though, you get a great view of the beautiful waterfall and lagoon which you definitely wouldn't if there was free access. You can also see the volcanos from the trail, but they were shrouded in mist today. The cost of a guided tour from our hotel was pretty steep - $65 per person + $20 for a taxi to take you to the National Park entrance. You could easily have done this walk on your own and just paid the $12 National Park Entrance fees. You would need to get there at opening time (8am) to avoid a queue though. The park stops allowing visitors in at 2pm as it takes 4 hours to walk the trail and starting at 2pm would mean it was dark by the time you finished your walk. This is definitely not a good place to be after dark. That is when the jaguars, pumas and snakes come out to play. They have eyelash vipers, bush vipers and fer de lance vipers in this Park. Maybe it is a good idea to fork out for a guide after all then? The trail is very steep and muddy in places - hiking boots are your best choice of footwear.
Flora and Fauna:
The symbol of the Tenorio National Park is the tapir, but your chances of actually seeing this nocturnal mammal are only about 1%. You are likely to see black river turtles in the lagoon though.
Learning the Lingo:
Desayuno - Breakfast
Café con leche - Coffee with Milk
Cómo estás - How are you
Estoy bien gracias - I'm fine, thank you.
Con gusto - With pleasure/with pride
Glad I packed:
Several camera lens cloths - the high humidity plays havoc with your lenses.
Bug spray. I brought quite a lot, but am using it up quickly. Time to buy some more (something local and strong!) en route to the next stop. Definitely do not come here without it!
Wish I had packed:
A tiny travel speaker. My earphones are great, but it's nice to share what you are listening to sometimes and sing/dance along together? I'm playing the theme tune from Dr. No - "Underneath the mango tree ... " it feels strangely appropriate here surrounded by all these tropical fruit trees!
Guess what - it rains in a rainforest! Last night, it rained pretty well all night. It hammered on the tin roof of the lodge for all it was worth, building up to a crescendo drum beat for a few deafening minutes before petering out to a bit of a tap dance and a finale of sprinkles and tinkles in the gutters. Then silence, filled only by the constant hum of the air con which intermittently halted as the electricity cut out. Those industrious leaf cutter ants must be so pleased when it rains. They don't go out in the rain. They finally get to take a bit of a break from humping bits of leaf twenty times their body weight around and get to sit inside their huge nesst and put their feet up for a bit.
The appearance of the grounds around the lodge was transformed by the rain. As the sun returned after dawn, it lit up the rain held in the palm trees and cobwebs and gave the world a whole new look. So that's what it is really like to wake up in a rainforest. Really lovely for a holiday, but I'm not sure I'd be moving in permanently any time soon.
We move on to Volcan Tenorio National Park today. The only way in and out of Tortuguero is by boat, so it will take us a couple of hours to navigate the waterways back to La Pavona and then another three - four hours to head inland to the Celeste River 226 kilometres away. It is a long road, with not a huge amount to see on the way. The two lane road out of la Pavona carries quite a lot of traffic - trucks exporting bananas, pineapples, papaya, coconuts and coffee.
The most startling sight was the bright yellow Cortez Amarillo tree punctuating the horizon on the ride through Guanacaste province.. This unique tree is native to Costa Rica and only seen in this part of the country and only in flower at this time of year - stunning. We drove past fields of sugar cane (what they use to make the delicious cocktail based on cacique liquor), pineapples, fields of cattle and free range chicken runs. One brave chicken chose to cross the road right in front of us bringing the car to a screeching halt. He just plodded on across - pure vida style. We also passed through an Indian indigenous reserve - Maleku - which would have been really interesting to visit if only we had had more time. It made me wonder - if rice and beans is the national dish of Costa Rica - where do they grow it, because I haven't seen any evidence of that yet?
Flora and Fauna
Heliconia Flower. These beautiful flowers produce a sugary sap that attracts humming birds. And what eats birds - snakes. So don't be surprised if one of the venomous yellow snakes they have here jumps out from one of those enticing looking flowers - so don't get too close!
Costa Rica is a safe place to holiday and there are relatively few risks. Interestingly though, you are often warned not to linger under a coconut tree in case one falls off and knocks you out - they are huge fruits and extremely heave when ripe and full of coconut milk - not a nice way to go at all!
Bullet ants are another danger. You can get a very nasty bite from them if you accidentally touch one in the forest - easily done if you catch hold of a creeper/vine or brush against it.
Quesadillas. Airy soft wrap style bread encasing a creamy mixture of cheese and chicken and onions.. It's hard to think of a better lunch really?
Peace and comfort in the middle of the rainforest. - Manatus Hotel is the exclusive way to enjoy remote Tortugero. It has only 12 fully equipped rooms and is the only hotel in Tortugero with air conditioning and cable TV. The aircon is really a big bonus - it is very hot and humid here. You can walk out into the rainforest direct from the lodge and the lush, tropical gardens are full of beautiful flowers and all sorts of interesting creatures which you can see without even leaving the lodge. The tours are mostly provided within the cost of your package, as is full board. The food is caribbean/asian fusion - colourful, fresh and delicious. The menus are set, but there is ample choice. All you have to do is decide which of the tempting array you will choose and to pay for any alcoholic drinks you order.
Our base in the Tortugero National Park is the Manatus Lodge. Access is via boat transfer only - and let's hope they keep it that way! There are plans to build a road, but there is a real danger of that ruining the peaceful paradise that this beautiful.place currently provides.
What do you hear when you wake up in a rainforest? Well, we heard howler monkies - there is a troop of them living high in the trees around the lodge. The early morning alarm was useful as we had another early start this morning. The best way to visit the rain forest by day is by boat. In the hands of Lewis, our expert guide, we were able to spot so many creatures that would otherwise have remained invisible, safely camouflaged in their natural environment. You really have to know what you are looking for here. There is just so much to see here, the boat trip became rather like a gargantuan scale game of I Spy. We moved slowly along the water, passing banks lined with the buttress roots of the giant trees towering above. They fanned out like giant organs supporting the massive trunks above them, lining onto the wet banks for dear life. If you peered in (which you could safely do right from the boat), you could see giant golden spiders hiding inside. There aren't many mornings if you are asked "what did you see this morning?" when you can truthfully answer: a tiger heron, a snake bird, a Jesus Christ lizard (so called because they can walk on water), a green tailed heron, a Cayman crocodile, iguanas and a three toed sloth. As if that wasn't enough, the afternoon here yielded: a spotted sandpiper, a keel billed toucan, green macaws, spider monkeys, turkey vultures and huge iguanas. All just part of a typical happy day's sightseeing here in Costa Rica.
Most of the excursions at Manatus are optional, but (for $30 pp), you can choose a pair of rubber boots, don your flashlight and head off into the depths of the rainforest at twilight with an expert guide. Given that 95% of the creatures that inhabit the sea level rainforest of Tortugero are nocturnal, this is a bit of a "must do" here.
At 5.30, by the light of the silvery moon, we followed Lewis into the jungle, obeying strict instructions not to touch ANYTHING and not to veer from the path. Our group of eight all sprayed hair and clothes liberally with bug spray to fend of the mosquitos before we set off on our two hour expedition. Tiny red "poison" frogs (they give off toxins from the formic acid they consume in the ants they live on) were our first sighting. They are very tiny - no bigger than your little finger nail. You could easily tread on one by mistake. Your eyes soon get accustomed to searching for beauty in this eery, crepuscular world. You find it in the most unexpected places. For me, it wasn't the coloured frogs, the gaudy red eyed tree frog (national symbol of Costa Rica) or the bats that held my interest longest. It was the gossamer thin, translucent wings of the dragon fly perched on our guide's arm; the motionless owl butterfly and, most of all, the long lines of marching leaf-eater soldier ants. They traced paths all through the forest, leaving large sections completely clear around their huge nests. The females do all the work - the males have very short lives. If I ever have a second chance of life, remind me never to come back as a leaf-eater ant.
Young male howler monkies leave the troop early and go off on their own in search of another troop where they can seek to replace the alpha male in charge. It sounds cruel, because they usually fight and kill the old male. Apparently though, they only do this when the old monkey is near the end of his life anyway at which point, they tend to fall into a sort of depression where they lose interest in the world around them and eat very little. Euthanasia howler monkey style then may actually be a peculiar form of kindness?
Pineapple and banana breakfast smoothie - a totally tropical taste
Fresh fish ceviche (spicy - with a definite Mexican feel)
Watching the three toed sloth and her baby.. Sloths have four stomachs, are great swimmers and are solitary (they leave their mates) . It takes 11 months for a baby sloth to mature and after 9 months, it will be abandoned by it's mother. Sloths spend their whole day eating or sleeping and yes - they really do move so slowly that they are covered in green algae.
The transfer to Tortugero took all morning - but what a lovely way to spend it. We drove past banana plantations, fields of papaya, coconuts and plantains learning a little about the beautiful country that is Costa Rica (Rich Coast) as we travelled.
Costa Rica is like the Switzerland of Central America. It has good health care and high standards of education, numeracy and literacy. The water is drinkable, the streets are safe to walk and there is a deep held belief here in pure vida (José's translation was "everything is fine"). There is no army here. The National Park system was established back in the 1970s as a result of a relentless struggle against the natural inclination of humans to destroy their environment to meet basic economic needs. Conservationists battled against poachers, farmers, developers, loggers and the tourism business to create the system of 28 National Parks which between them preserve the full repository of this nation's incredible diversity that we can enjoy today.
Tortugero lies on the Caribbean coast, close to the border with Nicaragua. The population mix differs from the rest of Costa Rica with a much higher proportion of Africans. The park was started to protect the sea turtles who breed here. If you really want to see them though, you need to come between June and October. Even then, you may not get that close as the beaches are closed between certain hours to protect them. Tortugero Village gives an interesting snapshot of afro-Caribbean culture. It lies right next to the Caribbean Ocean - always good to dip your toes into a new sea.
It takes the same amount of time to grow a baby banana as it does to grow a human baby - about 9 months.
Banana bunches are protected by biodegradable plastic bags which create a micro climate around the fruit making it grow fatter. They are also quite likely to contain spiders or snakes, feasting on the sweet sap that the flowers produce.
A bunch of fully grown bananas weighs about 50 kilos. Banana workers start early and work through high humidity (75%) and heat loading up o 25 bunches on a pulley transportation system. They are paid around $30 a day for this - about the same as the cost of the red snapper in the restaurant last night, which makes you think a bit .... Life on banana plantations in the early days of the United Fruit Company which started growing bananas on a commercial scale was very harsh indeed with little consideration given to working conditions or health and safety. Hopefully it has improved a bit today - but it's still a tough way to make a living and a job for young people.
Gallo pinto - the national dish of Costa Rica. It is sometimes said that the Ticos eat bananas, rice and beans for breakfast and lunch and beans, rice and bananas for supper. Gallo Pinto is a favourite for breakfast and usually also contains onions, red peppers and coriander (cilantro). We stopped at Hotel Suerre in Guaplies en route to Tortugero to sample ours and were offered it served with eggs, fried plantains and fresh cheese with natilla (sour cream) on the side. Very delicious.
A ten and a half hour flight whisked us away from a cold February in London Gatwick to the tropical heat of San José airport in Alajuela. It took a long two hours queuing to go through Customs - Saturday and Sunday are the busiest days and definitely best avoided, if you have the choice. With a 7 hour time difference, in theory, we had an afternoon to explore, but in practice, we did little more than explore the beautiful hotel and its grounds before an early supper and some rest before a 5am start the next day. The glittering lights of Alajuela spread out before us from our hotel in the mountains outside San José and promised an infinite parade of possibilities to explore in the country below.
We had chosen to be drive on this trip rather than self-drive. There was no difference in cost and with a packed itinerary and little opportunity to deviate from it, it seemed like the most relaxing option. Good choice - the roads from San José airport up into the mountains would not have been at all easy to navigate and there seemed to be very few road signs. We set off in the dark, clutching our freshly baked banana bread and a little tub of totally tropical fruit salad and met with José, who drove us safely to meet our transfer to Tortugero stopping to explore San José centre a little on the way, which was kind. We could have spent a day exploring San José - there is a beautiful Catholic Church and a couple of museums - but valuable time is probably much better spent here immersing yourself in the natural world. José spoke no English and we speak no Spanish, but none of that mattered when you hold the power of Google Translate in your hand. These days, it no longer matters how you speak a language and make yourself understood, it only matters what you choose to say, which is, finally, just how it should be, I think?
Refreshing coconut milk, sipped through a straw from a whole coconut.
Red snapper - served whole on a bed of coleslaw.
Fajitas - Costa Rica style (tiny!)
Freshly baked banana bread - handed to us as we set of before dawn.
Costa Rican coffee - it's warm and mellow - a very friendly tasting brew.
Architecturally designed Xandari has 24 spacious villas nestled on a 40-acre plantation surrounded by lush gardens, with terraces facing spectacular views of Costa Rica's majestic Central Valley day and night. Each villa has a unique design, with tropical colours and contemporary artwork.. The private forest reserve has rivers, five natural waterfalls, and 2.5 miles of trails. There is also a swimming pool, yoga studio and a spa -none of which we had sufficient time to sample, sadly. The restaurant offers a wide choice of fresh, local dishes and there is a (quite pricey) bar. Over 140 species of both resident Costa Rican and migratory North American bird species have been reported on their eBird hotspot. We could happily have stayed a couple of days here and allowed ourselves a little more time to recover from the long flight and inevitable jet lag.
I finished my heavy book - The Quetzal and the Macaw - on the plane, so I decided to leave it in the library at Xandari. A. it like throwing a ship in a bottle into the sea - you never know where it will land. I hope whoever finds it enjoys the book anyway - and hopefully the blog too. If you're reading this - please bw kind enough to leave me a comment?!