Costa Rica? It's one country that's got the lot

Costa Rica? EUREKA! Creatures of every kind. Volcanoes. Glorious beaches. Welcoming people… there’s one country that’s got the lot

  • Almost three million people visit Costa Rica every year, with Britons at the front of the tourist peloton
  • Despite its small size, the country possesses more than five per cent of the world’s total biodiversity 
  • Costa Rica’s slogan ‘Pura Vida’ (pure life) may be cheesy, but it’s not without foundation, says Mark Palmer  

She keeps popping into my head. And there’s no doubt that the teenage eco-warrior Greta Thunberg would approve wholeheartedly of Costa Rica’s much-heralded efforts to look after its outstanding natural beauty.

It’s just that Greta goes about her mission with such earnestness that you can’t help wanting the girl to smile more, despair less and have some unadulterated fun.

Thank goodness the people (some five million in total) in this spectacular country — which has Nicaragua on its northern border and Panama to the south — do a great deal of smiling and, as far we can see, have lots of fun. 

Captivating: The Rio Celeste waterfall in Costa Rica. Almost three million people visit the country every year, with Britons very much at the front of the tourist peloton

Ticos, as Costa Ricans are called, are gentle, welcoming and wear their eco-credentials lightly, perhaps aware that for all the environmental high-mindedness, the bottom line counts, too.

Almost three million people visit the country every year, with Britons very much at the front of the tourist peloton, helped hugely by direct BA flights.

Despite its small size (roughly similar to Denmark), Costa Rica possesses more than five per cent of the world’s total biodiversity, and its disbanding of its army in 1948 means that huge financial resources have been ploughed into education, resulting in a literacy rate way above the average for Central America.

Costa Rica’s slogan ‘Pura Vida’ (pure life) may be cheesy, but it’s not without foundation when you consider its ancient rainforests, active volcanoes, waterfalls, coffee plantations, national parks, hippy-dippy surf towns, rumbustious Pacific and calm Caribbean coasts, plus, topping the bill, a wildlife that comprises 250 species of mammals, nearly 9,000 species of birds and more than 250,000 types of insect, including a quarter of the world’s butterflies.

So take binoculars. But, whatever you do, bring the most powerful mosquito repellent on the planet because we lose practically a whole day nursing our throbbing ankles, hands and arms after offering the midgies a perfect all-you-can-eat Anglo-Saxon gourmet dinner.

It’s early November when we visit. That means the Pacific west coast is in transition from the rainy to dry season, while on the Caribbean coast it’s the other way round.

Easy going: The beach at Santa Teresa. You put your watch away… especially at sunset when the spray of the surf catches the fading light, writes Mark 

Supermodel Gisele Bundchen, pictured, has a house in Costa Rica. Mel Gibson also has a place in town and David Cameron spent Christmas near Santa Teresa a couple of years ago

We flit back and forth between the two and experience some ferocious but exhilarating downpours, plenty of clear skies, high humidity and temperatures around the 28 degree mark. Our aim is to see and do as much as we can over ten nights, with the help of tour operator Elegant Resorts and its excellent ground handlers, Travel Pioneers.

For the most part we want to drive ourselves — a road trip of sorts, albeit one that results each evening in a comfortable bed and good bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon. ‘Don’t bother with San Jose,’ a friend had advised. But we are pleased to have brushed shoulders, fleetingly, with the capital, staying our first night at Grano De Oro, a colonial-style hotel about a mile west of the city centre.

My wife, Joanna, collects antique glass and did a Google search before leaving the UK. So just after checking in, we order a taxi, hand the driver an address and head off heaven-knows-where. ‘I wait for you,’ says the cabbie, as we pull up outside a dilapidated antique shop.

We’re not sure if this is because we will find ourselves stranded or because he knows a good piece of business when he sees one. Turns out he insists on staying with us for the next two hours as we stop here and there, after which he charges only £15. It’s about the only bargain we will encounter. Costa Rica is not cheap.

Next day, we retrieve our rental car and head west to the Papagayo Gulf, not to the overly-built area where the Four Seasons and other big resort hotels cater mainly for Americans, but about an hour or so south where the serial Moroccan/French entrepreneur, Mehdi Rheljari, has just opened a five-room eco-lodge called Kasiiya.

It’s one of the most exceptional projects I’ve ever witnessed, mainly because you might never know it’s there.

Such is the footprint of the tented suites that it’s the howler monkeys who have more of a presence than any of the man-made structures. Mehdi bought some 55 hectares of rainforest which towers over three beaches, accessible only from the sea if you are not staying at the hotel. Come to think of it, hotel is really the wrong word, but eco-lodge doesn’t do it justice either.

The young staff are totally committed to Mehdi’s vision. There’s a shaman-type character who operates from a tree-house spa; barefoot Bruno, originally from Berlin, offers ‘movement sessions’ (some of which involve taking your cue from animals); and trained naturalist Manfred takes you on hikes pointing out the wildlife (I swear there’s a tear in his eye when an osprey does a fly-past).

The beautiful Papagayo Gulf. Mark headed about an hour south of here, where the serial Moroccan/French entrepreneur, Mehdi Rheljari, has just opened a five-room eco-lodge called Kasiiya

You go with the flow here (there are only two choices at lunch and dinner and just the one at breakfast) because you know it will land you just where you want to be. Leaving after 48 hours is not easy — and proves vexing as we head south to Santa Teresa, Costa Rica’s little secret which is not such a secret any more.

The drive is onerous. We’ve done everything possible by way of downloading the satnav app Waze and it should take us 4½ hours, but nearly seven hours later we’re crawling along a bumpy track in darkness, wondering why people are calling Santa Teresa the ‘new Tulum’. ‘Bad roads bring good people,’ is a refrain we hear more than once.

If true, Santa Teresa must be a community of saints. The main street, separated from the beach by a thin strip of woodland, has giant craters in it.

Perfectly positioned Hotel Nantipa has been open for less than a year. Its modern design (teak wood, huge sliding glass doors, flashy bar and restaurant on the beach) is in stark contrast to Santa Teresa’s hostels, shacks and yoga retreats with names such as ‘Slower the better’; ‘Believe’ and ‘The love zone’.

Coffee pickers dressed in traditional clothing show off their ripe coffee cherries on a coffee farm in San Marcos de Tarrazu. The country is well-known for its coffee plantations 

A tree frog, which is characterised by its small size and red eyes. Costa Rica possesses more than five per cent of the world’s total biodiversity

Mel Gibson has a place in town; so does supermodel Gisele Bundchen. David Cameron spent Christmas near Santa Teresa a couple of years ago, as did Canadian PM Justin Trudeau this year.

And here’s the rub: for now it’s the pot-holed dusty track that makes sure Santa Teresa’s bohemian vibe lives on, keeping away those New York bankers who have colonised the Mexican riviera. I’m not a surfer, but if I were this must be one the greatest places in the world to practise one’s ‘aerials’ and ‘backsides’.

Two days here is absurd — and contrary to the care-free vibe. You put your watch away and hang out in Santa Teresa — especially at sunset when the spray of the surf catches the fading light and the dudes catch the final waves of the day.

It will be fascinating to see what happens to this glorious spot over the next ten years.

Then we head for Tortuguero National Park to introduce ourselves to sloths, iguanas, crocodiles, killer frogs and snakes. It’s an eight-hour trip, so we break our journey in La Fortuna and stay one night at the new and highly recommended Amor Arenal. Dusk arrives early, but there’s just time to visit a farm nearby where a taciturn man called Oscar has set up his own nature reserve, concentrating mainly on sloths.

What extraordinary animals they are. By definition they don’t do much, spending hour upon hour wrapped around a tree branch. ‘The only come down to go to the toilet,’ says Oscar.

La Fortuna is where Costa Rica tourism revs into gear, offering everything from white-water rafting to canyoning, zip-lining, horse-riding, marinating in hot springs or just strolling under a tropical canopy, all in the shadow of the country’s biggest active volcano.

The last time Volcan Arenal blew its top was in 1968, when 78 people perished, and it only stopped releasing lava in 2010. Today, it’s an awesome sight when not hidden by a sombrero of cloud.

The main access point to Tortuguero National Park is some four hours away from La Fortuna in La Pavona.

A green hermit hummingbird feeds in the rain in Costa Rica. The country is home to nearly 9,000 species of birds

A three-toed sloth hangs from a tree in Costa Rica. The wildlife there comprises 250 species of mammals

COSTA RICA’S BIG TEN 

 1. Sloths: Look up because they seldom come down.

2. Monkeys: You’ll see many varieties and hear howlers.

3. Whales: From December to March humpbacks call the warm South Pacific waters home.

4. Birds: Take your pick from more than 900 species.

5. Turtles: Leatherbacks, green turtles, Olive ridleys, loggerheads and hawksbills are all here.

6. Iguanas: An adult green iguana can reach 6ft long.

7. Dolphins: Spot them all year round.

8. Tree frogs: Tiny and red-eyed.

9. Devil Rays: They fly out of the water as if suspended in mid-air.

10. Butterflies: The blue morpho is the most famous butterfly in Costa Rica.

Here, tour buses deposit their human cargo on the river bank and then flat-bottomed boats take them off to various lodges along the canal that is separated from the sea by a spit of land, while various watery subsidaries take you further into the rainforest.

Our berth — Tortuga Lodge — has been around since the 1980s and it’s beginning to show its age, but you’re not here to marvel at the interiors when there’s so much going on outdoors.

Included in the rate is one morning and one afternoon safari, plus a trip to the village, where locals do their best to make a living from relentless tourism.

We stay two nights at Tortuga Lodge but would have preferred just the one, especially once we arrive at our final destination —Puerto Viejo in the far south-east of the country practically on the border with Panama.

It’s a colourful, buzzy little town where Jamaicans settled some 100 years ago. They came to Costa Rica to build the railways — and never left.

Ramshackle but with a growing number of chi-chi shops, bars and restaurants, this might be like Barbados was long before the Sandy Lane crowd took over. We stay just off the main drag at a delightful little place called Aguas Claras, with almost direct access to the beach.

‘We’ve left the best until last,’ I tell Joanna, sagely, as we saunter here and there before choosing a spot for our final supper. We opt for a fusion-style restaurant packed with locals — and it seems entirely appropriate.

Puerto Viejo is a glorious fusion of Central American and Caribbean cultures — and reason enough to return to this gentle and engaging country.

TRAVEL FACTS  

Elegant Resorts (elegantresorts.co.uk, 01244 897294) offers a ten-night trip from £4,235pp, including flights, four-day car hire, transfers and UK lounge access, B&B stays at Grano De Oro, Aguas Claras and Amor Arenal; full-board at Tortuga Lodge and Kasiiya Papagayo; room only at Nantipa. Activities such as Village and Wildlife tour at Tortuga Lodge, and Private Arenal Hanging Bridges and picnic, are included. Price is based on two sharing and departing on September 12. More information at visitcostarica.com/uk.

 

 

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