Travel review: Costa Rica
New direct flights from the UK are making Costa Rica's beaches and wildlife even more accessible. Karen Bowerman explores the highlights.
There are countless ways to wear a silk scarf. Wrapping it round the neck of a soggy goat, retrieved from a river in Costa Rica, probably isn’t one of them.
I’m on a boat on the River Frio near Los Chiles, a sweltering village a few kilometres south of Costa Rica’s border with Nicaragua, when the drama unfolds. In trying to persuade a goat, pursued by dogs, to scale the river bank, we accidentally cause it to jump into caiman-infested waters instead. Our (male) guide, Arturo, initiates a rescue. With the goat on board and tethered (the scarf looped into a lead), we return it to its owner, upriver.
Thankfully there is more to the country’s animal population than goats. Wedged between the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea, Costa Rica has multiple microclimates and the most species, per area, in the world. It is home to more than 200 types of reptiles, 800 kinds of birds, 35,000 varieties of insects and, what excites me most, five species of sloth.
“Look for a ball of ‘moss’ in a tree,” Arturo suggests. Bearing in mind we’re in a tropical rainforest, it doesn’t reduce the options much. But somehow, we spot one – a shaggy brown two-toed sloth hanging casually from all fours in a cecropia tree.
Moments later, a bright green “Jesus Christ lizard” (an emerald basilisk) walks – or rather zips – across the water, explaining, with agility, its nickname. A boat-billed heron looks down, rather imperiously, and parakeets bomb through the canopy above.
Then suddenly, the forest bursts into grunting sounds. It’s a troop of howler monkeys; the second loudest mammals.
Unsurprisingly, howler monkeys were absent from the squawking, chirping soundtrack in our green-tinted, jungle-themed plane when I set off for Costa Rica a few days earlier. It was Thomson’s first flight to the country, and the only direct flight from the UK, hence the celebration.
We fly into Liberia, in the northwest, staying first at El Mangroove, a rather funky, boutique beach retreat, overlooking the Gulf of Papagayo in Guanacaste province. It’s just a 30-minute drive from the airport.
The region is known for its dry climate and fine sandy beaches. But next morning, we head around 100 miles east to Arenal Lake and volcano.
Central Costa Rica reminds me of the Lake District – but with brilliant sunshine. Our drive turns into a game of hide and seek for tourists desperate to glimpse the volcano’s near-perfect cone. It first erupted in 1968 and is still active; what I think is a halo of clouds is, in fact, steam.
There’s steam, of a gentler kind, at the Tabacon hot springs near La Fortuna, on the lake’s northern shore. As we approach, Arenal volcano seems to straddle the high street.
If I’m in need of a pick-me-up, it comes the following day in a caffeine-filled visit to a coffee plantation near Monteverde, 100 miles south.
I meet the owner, Don Juan, a wizened 78-year-old, who tells me his coffee’s the best I’ll ever taste “because of all the love that goes into it”. Now, he sells his organic, fair trade beans to Waitrose.
Monteverde is a settlement which appears to have been built in the clouds; it’s damp and atmospheric, with roads that dissolve into sky.
We’re soon bouncing across suspension bridges among giant ferns and 160ft trees in Monteverde’s cloud forest.
But it’s not the main reason we’re here; that’s the Superman zip line.
It’s a bit disconcerting but our guide, Tony, who handles hysteria well, persuades us. It proves exhilarating; with the wind in my face and the canopy below, I feel like I’m almost flying.
That evening, we check into the all-inclusive Dreams Las Mareas resort on Costa Rica’s northwest coast: it’s time to enjoy those beaches.
The resort’s set in gardens with tiered pools leading down to the private Jobo Bay. It’s sandy, sheltered and hot. Add to this a sighting of an armadillo near a restaurant, and the rare, owl-like great potoo, which apparently birders would have died for, and I come to realise I’ve spotted a lot of Costa Rica’s wildlife without much effort at all.
Karen Bowerman was a guest of Thomson (0871 230 2555, thomson.co.uk) which offers seven nights at El Mangroove (B&B) from £1,183pp (two sharing). Includes flights from London Gatwick on May 1 and transfers.
First Choice ( 0871 200 7799, firstchoice.co.uk;) offers seven nights at Dream Las Mareas (all inclusive) from £1,149pp (two sharing). Includes flights from London Gatwick on May 1 and transfers.