The Highs and Lows of Costa Rica
For those of you who are unfamiliar with British children’s television series from the 1970s, the main title of this entry has been shamelessly nicked from the theme tune of a programme called The Wombles.
So, the last three weeks have been a complete contrast to the lazy month we spent on Isla Mujeres. In fact, I think we have been more active in Costa Rica than any other country so far. (I wasn't lying about the underground, overground stuff in my title!)
We started off in the capital, San Jose. It’s a modern city with a pleasant feel to it, and we were comfortable there right away. Unlike other cities we’ve visited, we spent very little time exploring the galleries and museums here (though we did enjoy the Museo del Oro which houses a seriously impressive collection of Pre-Colombian gold artefacts). We were in Costa Rica for the nature! I wanted to see rainforests and butterflies and mountains and monkeys and stuff, so we booked ourselves on a tour to the La Paz Waterfall Gardens where we got to see some stunning scenery and a few exotic creatures.
La Paz has a variety of aviaries, a butterfly enclosure, a collection of frogs (including miniature poisonous ones), monkeys and jungle cats. I was absolutely thrilled to get up close and personal with the toucans and hummingbirds. They are only found in the Americas, so it was a rare privilege to see them in real life.
Of course, seeing animals in enclosures isn’t the same as seeing them in the wild, so we packed our bags and headed to Monteverde, which was approximately a four hour drive from San Jose. We were against hiring a car (anyone who has read my first Mexico entry will understand why), so booked ourselves onto a tourist bus.
This trip was interesting for a couple of reasons. First, we had to swap buses halfway. Our driver told us to find bus number 50, then disappeared to have his lunch. Unfortunately bus 50 was getting ready to leave, and our backpacks were still locked in the original bus! When our driver finally finished eating, he couldn’t get the doors open... and in the meantime, bus 50 drove off! It turns out that that wasn’t the bus we wanted after all, which was just as well.
We eventually locate the correct bus, and our new driver told us it would be a journey of about one hour and forty-five minutes. “Oh goody,” said I, and settled back with my MP3 player. Two minutes later he turned onto a road that was more of a dirt track than anything, and started up a winding path into the mountains. “Oh gods,” said I, and quickly popped another travel sickness pill. This was a sensible move, ‘cos the next hour and half was a bone-jarring, knuckle-clenching ride. I’m not saying this mountain was steep, but on the way we saw cows wearing oxygen masks. It just kept going up and up. We passed families of mountain goats that looked at us and said, “Are you mad? Even we won’t go up there; the air’s much too thin!”
The road was so narrow in places that you could look down past the edge into the valleys beyond. Call me gruesome, but I couldn’t help but panic every time I caught a glint of metal. Was that an upside-down tour bus we passed back there? I had vivid images of Michael Caine at the end of The Italian Job (the original, not the crummy remake), his truck hanging precariously over the cliff edge, and him saying, “Hang on, lads; I've got a great idea.”
We also squeezed by some humungous trucks which could never conceivably have driven up on their own. I concluded that the only way they could have got there was if an alien spacecraft abducted them and plonked ‘em back down on the mountain top, so then I started looking for signs of crop circles in the undergrowth, as well as ruined tour buses. (Travel sickness pills have a weird effect on me. I get somewhat spacey and imagine all sorts of things. I know I don’t strictly speaking have to share them with you, but what would I write about otherwise?)
To the surprise of everyone (including the mountain goats), we made it to our hotel in one piece. “No way am I doing that in reverse,” I told Pete. “When it’s time to leave, I’m gonna call Mountain Rescue and get someone to come and airlift me out!”
The hotel was amazing, though, ‘cos we were staying in a cabin in a cloud forest:
Of course, the downside to such fabulous views is the fact that we have quite a hike to reach our cabin. Happily the hotel provided Sherpas to guide us to our room.
A big part of visiting Costa Rica for us was the opportunity to walk through a rainforest (*). There were many ways to explore the forests, including train, zip lines and aerial trams, but we chose to do the Sky Walk in the Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve. This consisted of a series of hanging bridges that allowed us to see the top of the forest’s canopy.
(*) Or in our case, a cloud forest, if you wanna get technical about such things! I’d never even heard of cloud forests before. They differ from rainforests in that they are cooler due to their high altitude, and contain different types of vegetation.
When we first arrived at Santa Elena we wondered just how much fun it was going to be. There were buses arriving left and right, and crowds of people milling about everywhere, so we assumed we were going to be part of a huge tour group. We have a talent for losing people, however, and soon managed to get separated from the rest of our bus. Instead we ended up in a party of four, with an American couple and a guide named Henry.
Henry was superb. He was knowledgeable about every aspect of the environment and was happy to explain things to us. He was in no rush, and he let us take our time and ask as many questions as we wanted. He was also determined that we were not finishing the tour until we had seen this: a quetzal bird.
Quetzals used to be found throughout Central America, but unfortunately are now only found in Costa Rica. They are rare and hard to spot, but Henry was confident that he’d find one for us. He was skilled in making bird calls, and I think my most vivid memory of that day was of him walking slowly through the forest, tracing the return calls of a quetzal, and us four tourists standing so, so still, not daring to move in case we scared it away. There was something very thrilling about that.
Henry was as good as his word; he found a pair of quetzals, and decided that we were all going to get a good look at them before we moved on. We had three pairs of binoculars between us, which was good as the birds were some distance away. Pete and the American lady saw the bird pretty much straight away; the other fella and I had a bit more trouble locating it in the tangle of branches. (Bizarrely I could see the thing with the naked eye, but couldn’t home in on it with the binoculars.) We all managed it eventually, but we were on that bridge for an hour!
We had one more memorable experience before we left Monteverde, on the way back from a cheese factory tour. (Yes, they have a cheese factory on top of a mountain! It was built by Quakers in the 1950s.) I mentioned before that we’d been a lot more physically active here, often at unexpected times. This was one of ‘em. We came across a sign for a trail to Monteverde Waterfall, and, having nothing better to do at the time, decided to give it a go.
It wasn’t a long hike by any means, but it was a tough one compared to the others we’d had so far. We’d taken a couple of walks through rainforests, but those trails were all so... paved. This was rugged. The owners had laid a few logs over streams and attached ropes to trees to help you up and down steep bits, but otherwise it was pretty much untamed woodland. I hadn’t had this much fun in ages! We scrambled up some slopes, slid down others, clambered over boulders, ducked under trees, climbed over stiles, wobbled over make-shift bridges and tried not to fall off narrow ledges that were barely wide enough to let an anorexic skeleton past. By the time we got back I was hot, tired, sweaty, dirty, aching all over from using muscles I obviously hadn’t used in years, was completely breathless and covered muddy paw prints from a friendly dog who came to say hello once we’d reached the top. I wouldn’t have changed it for the world! It’s good to be reminded what the human body is capable of sometimes.
After Monteverde we headed to Arenal, ‘cos we just couldn’t leave without at least trying to get a look at a live volcano. We thought we were gonna be out of luck, ‘cos apparently they have a long rainy season there (kind of like Scotland); but the one day the sun peeked out from behind a cloud for more than two minutes, we decided to push our luck and booked a private tour.
Our taxi driver was a character, to say the least. On the way he stopped at a mini-market so we could buy supplies (“Hooray!” said Pete. “Beer!”); Mr. Driver thought this was a good idea, too, and bought himself a can. If I ever had any doubts as to whether someone or something was looking out for me, it was confirmed that night. I shall never forget sitting in the backseat of that taxi, blasting down a dodgy road in a national park with no streetlights, and the driver in front of me with an open beer can in one hand and his mobile phone in the other. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once said, “Live dangerously and you live right,” but I suspect he had had very little experience with homicidal taxi drivers. (They’re loco to a hombre, I swear!)
Anyway, by some miracle we made it to the volcano with all limbs attached, and joined the dozen or so other lava groupies who were hanging around the viewing area. We couldn’t see much, but we all stood there willing the clouds away. Maybe there is something to be said for telekinesis after all, ‘cos suddenly the sky cleared and we were treated to a nice little show of volcanic pyrotechnics. Our photographs didn’t turn out, sadly, but there are some impressive ones on this website.
That wasn’t the only weird and wonderful thing we did in Arenal, however...
See, I am a goal-setting kind of gal. I like making lists and ticking off completed items, and was delighted when I discovered Life Lists and 101 in 1001. Before leaving New Zealand, I wrote down 101 things I’d like to achieve on this trip. Item #37 on this list sounds harmless enough; it says simply: Explore a cave.
I really should be more careful with my choice of words. See, I’ve visited caves before – lots of them. On those occasions I’ve enjoyed a pleasant stroll in tourist-friendly caverns and grottos, with walkways and stairs and handrails. The ceilings are high, and they are generally very well lit. The Venado Caves near Arenal, however, had none of these things... and I still have the bruises to prove it!
I only suggested the caves because I thought it would be a relatively easy half-day tour. We booked in the morning, enjoyed a leisurely lunch, then strolled down to reception to await our minibus. We told the cheerful chappy behind the desk where we were going, and he immediately looked us up and down. “Do you have spare clothes?” he asked. “You will get wet.” We explained we had raincoats with us; he shook his head. “You need more clothes,” he insisted. “To get to the caves you must walk through water.” Pete and I looked at each other, a little alarmed. No one said anything about wading when we booked! Cheerful chappy grinned and added, “They provide hats and boots.”
He was so earnest that we dutifully returned to our cabin and collected more clothing, me wondering out loud what on Earth I’d let myself in for. “Don’t worry,” Pete told me. “There are probably lots of caves round here. He’s misunderstood which tour we’re booked on, that’s all.”
He hadn’t. He was right about everything: the wading, the hard hats, and the need for dry clothes at the end.
We were there, however, and it was too late for me to back out, so I donned my hat and wellies, grabbed a torch, and followed our guide down a steep mudslide to the entrance of the cave. We did indeed have to walk through water, for most of the tour in fact, ‘cos a small stream ran through the caverns. Staying upright was an interesting challenge, because the bed of the stream was an uneven mess of stones.
Before entering the cave, the guide assured us that none of the bats, spiders or other creepy crawlies we would encounter inside were harmful; actually, he said, most of them are blind ‘cos it’s so dark in there.
Oh dear, oh dear.
The next hour was something new for me. Instead of high ceilings, bright lights and helpful handrails, I had to crawl through narrow passageways and rely on the too-skimpy beams from the torches to avoid touching rocks with creepy crawlies on ‘em!
Before heading out, our guide had tried to get us to pay $20 to hire a photographer to follow us around and record our adventures. We passed, mainly because $20 is a lot of dough for a few snapshots. Once in the caves, I was glad we’d declined for another reason. See, if the photography fella had been in there with us, I would have ended up with a series of pictures that showed the following:
- Me smacking my head off low ceilings (multiple times)
- Me struggling to stay upright (all of the time)
- Me trying to squeeze my way through a tiny hole that triggered a claustrophobia attack (only once; the guide avoided the narrowest trails after that)
- Me struggling to keep up with the guide as he bounced over big rocks and boulders (I think he was a mountain goat in a previous life!)
- Me trying to hide surreptitiously behind Pete when the guide was waving a ginormous spider around.
- And, most embarrassing of all, me being hoisted up a 6ft wall - pushed at one end, pulled at the other – ‘cos the guide said it provided a more interesting route back to the entrance. (Dignity, why didst thou forsake me?)
At the end of the tour, we were both soaked top to bottom, covered in dirt and clay, and aching in places we didn’t know existed before. I had bashed myself many times, so had a wonderfully colourful collection of cuts, scrapes and bruises, and was unable to sit down without wincing.
And you know what? I’d do it all again in an instant! You can keep your sanitised caves – this was the real deal! That night I happily ticked off goal #37 from my list, considering that bad boy well and truly explored.
Before I go:
I mentioned that one of the things I wanted to do in Costa Rica was to see some monkeys, and I finally got to do that – twice. The first time was somewhat unexpected. We’d booked ourselves into a hotel called Casa Lima in San Jose (very nice), and the owners had a pet monkey called Kiko. Kiko was a very cheeky chappy who enjoyed yanking the tail of the hotel’s pet iguana and teasing birds.
Just before we were due to leave, we went on a boat ride down the Rio Frio (great name or what? It means ‘cold river’), where we saw howler, spider and capuchin monkeys just hanging around in the wild. We also discovered that the thing Kiko did with the iguana is quite common: Capuchins like to pull lizard’s tails!
Costa Rica is a fabulous country and we had a whale of a time. I highly recommend it if you like nature, beautiful scenery, wild animals, extreme sports or aching muscles from over-exertion!
We’re returning to the USA for a few weeks now, so I’ll write again soon from the west coast.