Costa Rica; the spanish name directly translate to “rich coast”. The name is well deserved. From the moment we crossed the border from neighbouring Nicaragua, everything became a little richer. From greener pastures, to better roads, to the number of shiny SUVs on the road, the difference between the fortunes of Costa Rica and other Central American countries was stark.
Decades ago, while other Central American countries were experimenting with various forms of socialist regimes, Costa Rica hitched its wagon to that of the US. And for this they have been rewarded in spades. The country is stable and prospering and has been able to make the most of its stunning cloudforests and jungles. And they are stunning.
Except after the heat, the crowds and the general hum and buzz of the rest of Central America, Costa Rica seemed just a little safe, and dare I say it, dull. In fact the most chaotic thing in the country seemed to be labyrinth-like border crossing with Nicaragua. Navigating that in the rain with a 20kg backpack was definitely a challenge.
One of our first stops was Monte Verde, a town that is renowned for its ziplining. I admit to some degree of disappointment while walking down the main street of this town…souvenir shop, souvenir shop, tour agency, souvenir shop, tour agency, Tex-Mex restaurant, souvenir shop. Where were the dirt-cheap hole-in-the-wall cafes where every meal came with the thrill of salmonella roulette? Where were the second-hand clothes shops blaring out offensively loud and bad Latin-pop? Where were the rusting taxis with optional door-handles? There was none of that here, no it was all too nice for any of that.
The ziplining was great fun. Hooked on to cables, we spent two hours whizzing through and over the Costa Rican cloudforest. The best part was the final cable – the “Superman” – where both our chest and our feet were hooked to the cable so that we were hanging horizontally. Strapped in, we were then sent flying super-hero style along am 800m cable that traversed a valley. As I rushed along the line, arms outstretched, I really could believe I was flying – the only reminder that I wasn’t being the metal whir of the bracket going along the cable. It was incredible, but A and I do remember having the same thought as we looked down at the lush valley hundreds of feet below: “I really really hope this cable doesn’t break…..”
The other main attraction of Monte Verde was the surrounding cloudforest and the animals within. We joined a nightwalk through the nearby Santa Elena Reserve, and I was delighted at the number of creatures we came across. We started at dusk, just as the fireflies were putting on their evening display. As we tramped through the forest, fireflies zipped and dashed past us, impressing us tourists. (Did you know fireflies aren’t actually flies? They are actually beatles, and bigger than you would think.)
It’s hard to pick a highlight of the night. There was the grey sloth we saw snoozing in the tree tops, the coatimundi that dashed past us, the tiny blue hummingbird that we saw protecting its eggs in its nest and then the baby green viper which almost looked cute until our guide told us it was the most deadly animal in the cloudforest. The highlight was definitely not peering into a hole to see a hairy squat tarantula peering back at me. Those things just make my blood run cold.
After Monte Verde it was time to go to La Fortuna. Once again we were confronted with a town that seemed to have the sole purpose of serving tourists. We signed on for a standard day tour of the area which included Arenal Volcano and some hot springs. What we got was an afternoon of unintended hilarity thanks to our over-enthusiastic guide.
Listening to him as we walking through the cloudforest reserve,we could tell this guide thought he was a cross between Bear Grylls and David Attenborough. He was patently neither and in reality was much much closer to Russel Coight. (For the unintiated click here for some brilliant clips). At one point, spying some wild limes he proceeded to try and knock them from a high branch by throwing a stick at them. He completely missed the first and second time, but undeterred tried again, and managed to get the stick lodged in the tree. Solution? Another stick! This time it ricocheted back at him, forcing him to quickly dodge it. All the while he was completely oblivious to a handful of low-hanging limes within easy reach. A nice US tourist helped him out with that. It went on like that for much of the day.
Our last stop of note was Turriabla for some white-water rafting. Thankfully this town seemed to have a reason to exist beyond the tourists, and there were cheap restaurants and cafes aplenty along with a really really good icecream store. Our white-water rafting took place on the Lower Pacuare River, where we had Class III and IV rapids to contend with. I had no idea what that kind of classification meant – and still don’t. I just know there was lots of rushing water, lots of rapids and lots of paddling at the direction of our guide. We spent three hours paddling down the river and leaping left or right or down into the boat at the command of our guide. In between the rapids we jumped into the cool water and floated downstream by ourselves, taking in the beautiful rainforest that lined the banks. It was a great day.
Costa Rica was the last stop on the first part of our trip. It was lot of fun, but all very safe and, despite the posters advertising “adrenalin-fuelled adventures”, all very supervised. It was also a hell of a lot more expensive that the rest of Central America, and I’m not convinced the price hike is that justified. Costa Rica is a nice place to see, but not really my ideal destination and not a place I’ll be heading back to anytime soon.