6 mins

Costa Rica: A new dawn

Will the ultra-green eco-paradise prove the perfect cure for the coronavirus blues? We get bubbled-up to go on a road trip in search of whales, birds, monkeys and soul-shaking scenery

(AWL)

My senses were on overdrive. Any lingering demons I’d had about travelling during these strange times were quickly supplanted during the wildest night imaginable in Costa Rica.

Arriving at Tiskita Jungle Lodge in pitch blackness during a thundery tropical downpour, I flinched at fruit-bats that were sinisterly backlit by phosphorene flashes of lightning. Even if Count Dracula never materialised, my hairs still prickled at the tumble-dryer roar of the unseen ocean while the relentless electrocardiogram ping of tree- frogs synced with my quickening pulse. It seemed only fitting that later, during dinner, a glossy boa slithered into the lounge and took residency between the armchairs.

And still fright night wasn’t over in this south-western corner of Costa Rica. Pre-sunrise, the jungle’s blood-curdling baritones, howler monkeys, awoke me with their simian rendition of ‘Nessun dorma’, which continued until the first crack of sunrise seeped into my wooden cabin. The smell of damp soil rose alongside an amplifying crescendo of birdsong. The tropics’ vivid resurrection after darkness, had begun. A resurrection too, for my soul after lockdown; I had come to Costa Rica seeking the uplifting joyousness that nature can provide; at the same time I was curious as to how I would feel about long-haul travel during a global pandemic? 

Pacific parrots

Weathering the storm: Tiskita’s Pacific beach after the author’s tumultuous first night (Mark Stratton)

Weathering the storm: Tiskita’s Pacific beach after the author’s tumultuous first night (Mark Stratton)

River Tarcoles macaws (Mark Stretton)

River Tarcoles macaws (Mark Stretton)

Costa Rica certainly feels like a perfect antidote against the coronavirus blues. The country breathes truth into the label ‘eco-paradise’, the force of its nature is affecting enough to convert a dyed-in-the-wool climate change sceptic into a card-carrying member of Extinction Rebellion. It is – at  time of press – also the safest bet currently for travels during COVID-19 in Latin America,  quietly reopening to visitors.

“You’re going to feel very safe here,” insisted Walter Amador, the local tour operator who greeted me at the airport to direct me to the bubble of my own private vehicle. From here I would head south down the Pacific coastline and then return over the volcanic continental divide, driving between eco-lodges that were almost completely empty.

“There are few tourists, currently.

There’s never been a better time to see Costa Rica. Recently a surfer in Guanacaste photographed a jaguar walking along the beach in broad daylight. You wouldn’t see this in normal times.” And it wasn’t long before one of the greatest wildlife shows on Earth began.

The first day’s drive towards Tiskita quickly reminded me that Costa Rican wildlife seeps beyond the boundaries of 30 national parks and into the wider countryside. Waiting at a carpark by the River Tarcoles, where 5m long crocodiles loiter on toffee-coloured riverbanks, was Victor Chazez, a founder of LAPPA, a local association for parrot protection. He urged me to hurry. “There’s an almond tree full of scarlet macaws.”

It was not difficult to pick out the fireworks of their garish plumage, reds, yellows and blues, looking like hyperactive parrots in mardi-gras costume. They devoured almonds, preened extravagantly and sidled along branches to nuzzle together, only to energetically fall-out in a flurry of pecking and squawks. Emphasising Costa Rica’s conservation ethos at a grass roots level, Victor explained how his association was conserving Tarcoles’ macaws. 

“Twenty years ago, they had almost gone, poachers were  getting $US2,000 per bird to sell as pets. But we started an education campaign with children to make them understand that they will make money from visitors coming to see the macaws. Now they number around 500.”

A similar duty of care emerged after my night of terrors at the Tiskita Jungle Lodge. Shortly after 5am, on Tiskita’s broad, black-sand Pacific beach where the creamy tide leaves a residue as delicate as lacework, Wilbur Nargas, a local farmer and volunteer with the Punta Banco Turtle Conservation Project, was poised with a bucket of 142 olive ridley turtle hatchlings. Wilbur explained villagers walk the beaches nightly to collect the eggs and relocate them in a safe hatchery to protect them from egg-poachers. Between mid-July to January, hawksbill, olive ridley and green turtles nest in great numbers. “We began the project because we didn’t want outsiders stealing our natural heritage.”

Wilbur upended the bucket, releasing the little turtles, 10cm- long and flapping adorably like clockwork toys. I struggled to keep dry eyes as I watched them heroically surge towards the ocean; their vulnerability profoundly moving, as few will survive to adulthood. I followed every one of them into the surf zone, where all would taste – at least, briefly – life on an ocean wave.

South-east splendour

An illuminated tree frog (Mark Stratton)

An illuminated tree frog (Mark Stratton)

Cocoa pods (Mark Stratton)

Cocoa pods (Mark Stratton)

A chestnut-mandibled toucan (Mark Stratton)

A chestnut-mandibled toucan (Mark Stratton)

Tiskita itself is an endearing story of how quickly nature may reclaim lost ground. My cabin lay within regrown secondary forest where bromeliads and creeping vines lent a primitiveness to hikes exploring forest trails, watching chestnut-mandibled toucans snapping at wild guava and regularly rechecking a three-toed sloth to see if it twitched a muscle. It never did.

But Tiskita’s story begins with Peter Aspinall’s love for fruit. Since arriving in 1979 with his wife, Lisbeth, to farmland ravaged by slash-and-burn, he’s indulged his fructose passion, planting over 125 tropical varieties. Life, however, didn’t go to plan. “Oh bananas,” said Mario, the resident guide, as we explored Peter’s orchard.

“Woodpeckers make the first hole then toucans finish them off… Mark, try a mangosteen, I can’t believe the monkeys haven’t eaten these.”

“There wasn’t much wildlife when  I arrived,” confirmed Peter, when I caught up with the man himself back at the lodge as he unloaded a new batch of cocoa trees. “I wanted to sell fruit commercially. But as we reforested, the animals returned and ate everything. We weren’t sure what to do but my brother, a travel agent, brought birdwatchers here in the late 1980s. I had no notion we’d become an eco-lodge”.

A local boat took me onwards across Golfo Dulce towards Puerto Jiménez on the Osa Peninsula, a routine transfer until the boatman yelled the Spanish equivalent of ‘There she blows’. Seeing blowhole spouts rekindled a familiar excitement in me: my last assignment before lockdown had followed humpback whales in Antarctica as they fattened on krill before beginning one of the animal kingdom’s longest migrations, swimming to the tropics to deliver calves in safe warm waters. Perhaps these were my old acquaintances?

With every dive the females were synchronously shadowed by calves the size of smaller whale species, like belugas. Personally, I’ve always found whale-watching somewhat spiritual. Nourished by the mystery of these globe-trotting mariners with a language and intellectual capacity on a seemingly higher plane to that of human existence.

But if anybody in Costa Rica understands nature’s ability to enrich our lives, it’s Lana Wedmore, the dynamic American owner of Luna Lodge. This New Age enthusiast’s rainforest abode shoulders one of the greatest biodiversity hotspots on earth, the 424 sq km Corcovado National Park, set on the Osa Peninsula. Resident in Costa Rica for four-decades, Lana opened Luna in 2000. From my forest-facing bungalow, gushing waterfalls replaced a tinnitus of ocean tide. I was the only guest. “COVID-19 hasn’t been a total failure. Without guests, I’ve got to know my lodge better, and my dog and mother,” she beamed with trademark positivism. 

She invited me to meditate facing Corcovado’s primary green wall, although cavorting howlers utterly trashed my inner-zen. Next day we tried ‘forest-bathing’ amid leviathan trees where I found myself conveying my inner-anxieties to a leaf. “You’ll never see a forest in a same way,” she said, adding that her dharma was to protect nature.

Corcovado National Park had not quite reopened, but it didn’t matter. During two days with local guide, Erick Gomez-Chavez, every glance gleaned macaws, iguanas, agoutis, tree-frogs and monkeys. And I had them to myself. “Before COVID-19 I did several tours per day, but you’re the first foreigner I’ve guided in five months,” said Erick.

All four of Costa Rica’s monkey species are found around Corcovado. Skinny squirrel monkeys swept through the canopy on food quests while there is a monkish look about capuchins, their white faces topped by a tonsured hairstyle. Fruiting date palms shook with loose-limbed spider monkeys, dangling by prehensile tails to feed. “They have no thumb, so rely upon their tail,” explained Erick.

We watched howlers sleepily digesting lunch, finally silent. Their downturned mouths seem to express perpetual disapproval while their shaggy mantles are golden, darker than variations across the Americas. I was tempted to shout and wake them by way of petty revenge for my night’s broken sleep, although this may not have chimed so well with Lana’s transcendental outlook.

Birdwatching central

A snowcap hummingbird (Mark Stratton)

A snowcap hummingbird (Mark Stratton)

A garden emerald at Rancho Naturalista (Mark Stratton)

A garden emerald at Rancho Naturalista (Mark Stratton)

One species I wouldn’t find in the south-eastern lowlands, is Costa Rica’s glitziest bird. Twenty years previously I backpacked through Costa Rica trying, and failing, to see a resplendent quetzal, revered by both Mayan and Aztec civilisations, alike.

This time I was more optimistic. Savegre Valley is the global hotspot for quetzals. Beyond San Isidro, the road ascended steeply into the Talamanca Cordillera cloud forest in the centre of Costa Rica until reaching Hotel Savegre near San Gerardo de Dota at around 2,200m. Established in the early 1970s, the lodge’s current manager, Daniel Chacon, tells me his grandfather was one the ‘pioneers’ who came to farm the valley in the 1950s. “They weren’t good farmers,” he laughed. “Eventually my grandfather sold his cattle to build this lodge. We will be like pioneers starting again after this virus.”

Next morning, after a sound sleep where the cloud forests are way too cold for insomnia-inducing howlers, I rise for a chilly 5am start. “Quetzals feed before their bright plumage in sunshine attracts birds-of-prey, then retreat deeper into the forest,” said bird guide, Agniel Trejos.

There was no challenging trek to see them this time, just an easy walk to a thicket of wild avocado trees where several fed in the embryonic dawn. Seeing them released in me the sort of endorphins a magpie might experience when spying bling. This bird-of-paradise is a slave to changing light – sometimes brilliant blue or iridescent green, red chest intense like blood. Yet the males were missing their characteristic metre-long tails. “They’ve rubbed them off during nesting in tree-holes because they cannot fit the tail inside. They will regrow for next year’s breeding season.” 

As the sun climbed, hummingbirds appeared, yet this scarcely prepared me for their onslaught at Rancho Naturalista. Walter returned to drive me over the volcano-lined continental divide. We scouted rich alpine dairy pastures until descending on the Caribbean-side towards Turrialba Volcano.

Rancho Naturalista’s Californian owner, Lisa Erb, greeted me on the veranda of her two-storey hacienda. But I was woefully distracted. Dozens of hyperactive hummingbirds swarmed over the nectar feeders strung along the veranda. Twenty-three species of hummingbird have been recorded at one of Costa Rica’s most-renowned bird lodges. “There was great excitement recently when the rufous-crested hummingbird was seen here for the first time in Costa Rica for 110 years. The television cameras came,” said Lisa.

Lisa arrived here in 1984. Her father bought this ex-farmland where peppercorns once grew. “He grew pineapples but wanted to go back to San Jose, so I took over. We had butterfly collectors at first, but then the birdwatchers came. If that first evening’s nocturnal amphibian chorus over dinner was anything to go by, I could scarcely wait for first light when their mantle was passed to the ranch’s avian wonders.

Northern uproar

A collared aracari toucan feeding at Rancho Naturalista (Mark Stratton)

A collared aracari toucan feeding at Rancho Naturalista (Mark Stratton)

Our days at Rancho Naturalista began with local coffee on the veranda as Lisa’s naturalist, Meche, placed bananas along the forest edge. Soon the foliage rustled with stealthy banana-thieves, a rainbow pantheon of birds. Montezuma’s oropendola first, then the funky chachalacas, followed by noisy brown jays and collared aracari, and then garish toucans who forensically dissected chunks to fit within large bills. Omnivorous coatimundis – ground-dwelling racoons – claimed the leftovers. We followed the ranch’s forested trails spotting birds after breakfast, stalking a sun-bittern until it opened its wings to reveal a brilliant pattern resembling a setting sun.

On cue, the rains came after lunch. I retreated to the seat in my veranda – birdwatching for the perennially lazy. All afternoon, hummingbirds buzzed around my head, the draft of their rapid wingbeats twirling at 20-50 beats per second ruffled my hair. Their names embodying iridescence – garden emeralds, violet sabrewings and green-crowned brilliants – they hovered and reconnoitred, reversing backwards with a manoeuvrability that wing-commanders could only dream of. I was close enough to see tiny tongues flicker out of needle-sharp bills as they waged turf wars over the feeders, squabbling and pursuing each other during manic chases. 

With less haste, I returned north to the uplands next day until by nightfall the shadow of Arenal volcano loomed, dwarfing La Fortuna, now a COVID-19 ghost town. “Normally it’s full of coaches and backpackers coming to zipline or canopy walk, but it’s been dead since COVID-19,” sighed Walter.

Such was La Fortuna’s eerie emptiness there was almost a deja-vu to how the town might have been back in 1968 when Arenal, long believed to be dead, awoke. It hadn’t erupted since 1525. Yet on 29 July that year, it did so with the force of an atomic bomb, burying 15 sq km around it beneath lava and ash. Three towns were annihilated, 87 people perished.

“Our family bought the farmland in 1964 but when Arenal erupted it felt like a big mistake,” recalled Alexander Cedeño, owner of Hotel Arenal Manoa, my final stop. “But when tourists came to see Arenal we realised we sat on a goldmine.” Transformed from cattle pasture, his modern bungalows are secluded and set among flowery gardens of palms and wild ginger. Yet something special awaited me the next morning.

Curtain call

The view from Luna Lodge (Mark Stratton)

The view from Luna Lodge (Mark Stratton)

Rancho Naturalista (Mark Stratton)

Rancho Naturalista (Mark Stratton)

Opening my curtains after another early howler alarm revealed a full-frame panorama of Arenal. Having arrived at La Fortuna in darkness the previous evening, I’d no idea that we were so close to that perfect ashen cone. It is Costa Rica’s Fuji. An intimidating presence willing me to come closer yet warning me to keep away. Gazing at it, I realised that I’d been missing during restricted travels was nature’s spontaneous ability to leave us speechless with moments far removed from the footprint of our daily lives. Costa Rica was helping me rediscover that in abundance.

Later, at a private attraction called ‘Arenal 68’, I hiked a trail across the lava field. The gnarled black flow contorted into petrified sculptures of a landscape shaped by catastrophe. I ended with Walter at a café-bar on the lava-field and we drank mojitos in awe.

An aqueous rainbow arced over Arenal. Above this rainbow, were ugly menacing clouds, and below, intensely bright sunlight. To me, it felt symbolic of passing through the uncertain darkness of COVID-19 and entering into the brilliant glare of the world’s only true eco-tourism destination – one that is not only empty of tourists and never once felt unsafe but is also as energised by nature as it has ever been. Although in the case of the howler monkeys, with their night-time terrors and early wake-up calls, perhaps even a little over-energised.

6 Costa Rica Wildlife Highlights

A humpback whale in Golfo Dulce (Mark Stratton)

A humpback whale in Golfo Dulce (Mark Stratton)

1. Whale migration

Because of the crossover of migrations north from Antarctica and south from the North Atlantic, whales can be seen most of the year, particularly  on the Osa Peninsula.

2. Turtles nesting

On the Caribbean coast around Tortuguero, nesting season is staggered from March to October with the star turn, colossal leatherback turtles, from March-May.

3. Tarcoles crocs

Choose a boat tour not feeding the river crocodiles and enjoy the chilling proximity of seeing 5m-long giants, like ‘Tornado’ and ‘Osama’.

4. Quetzal

Best sightings for males is when their full tail is intact during the February-July breeding season. Los Quetzales is a national park dedicated to them.

5. Hummingbird buzz

Some 57 species frequent Costa Rica – including green hermits and violet sabrewings – with key sites including Rancho Naturalista and La Paz Waterfall Gardens.

6. Spotting simians

Four monkeys are common throughout lowland forests yet all four (squirrel, white-faced capuchin, howler, and spider) can only be seen together on Osa Peninsula.

Top tip

Don’t rule out travelling in wet season. Animals and wildlife are abundant, feasting on fruiting trees, the forests greener – and crowds and prices lower. 

What to pack

Besides lightweight breathable clothing tropical heat, it’s time to invest in a pair of binoculars for the dazzling birdlife plus a camera lens with macro for nature’s minutae.

Footnotes

Mark travelled as a guest of Sunvil Latin America (0208 758 4774). A 12-night itinerary of Costa Rica costs from £2,683per person (based on two sharing) including transfers, guided excursions, some meals and international flights. For more, click here.

Vital statistics

Capital: San José

Population: 5.1 million

Language(s): Spanish with  English widespread

Time: GMT-6

International dialling code: +506

Visas: Not required for stays of up to 90 days but you willl require insurance covering COVID-19 and complete an advance epidemiological information form.

Money: Costa Rican Colon (CRC). Ideally travel with US$

When to go

The author travelled in wet season, typically May-December; low season is September-early November when turtles nest on the Pacific beaches. Antarctic humpback whales show July-November. European summer visitors arrive between June-September.

Winter offers hotter days with temperatures reaching to the mid- 30°C during Jan-April, when the country fills with American visitors.

December-March marks the return of humpback whales from the North Atlantic.

Health & safety

See the FCO for latest travel info and COVID-19 entry advice to Costa Rica.

Otherwise, consult your GP with regard to wider vaccinations or check out the NHS. Take care hiring a vehicle as car accidents are common, and seek advice swimming as the Pacific coast’s riptides are strong, and follow guidance at active volcanoes like Poás.

Getting there

The author flew with Iberia. They fly from Heathrow to San Jose via Madrid, the transatlantic crossing taking around 10hrs. Fares are currently unpredictable but expect to pay from around £250.

Getting around

The tour operator arranged private transfer between lodges. There is no comprehensive railway system but there is a network of cheap and frequent buses, see: Centrocoasting

Cost of travel

Costa Rica is generally inexpensive but that will depend on how you’ve chosen to travel there. If you’ve arranged a group or private tour, most expenses will be covered.

Food is very cheap: eating ‘Tico’ style buffet for lunch shouldn’t cost much more than £4-8.

The remote upmarket lodges will be weighing in at £85-150 per night per person, yet it’s easy enough though to find lower- priced rooms and hostels for as little as £25 per night. Local buses are cheap.

Accommodation

Xandari Resort (Alazuela). More than just a first night close to the international airport, this resort-spa overlooks the Central Valley. Its 24 large modern villas, furnished with local art, sit within 16 hectares of tropical gardens. Prices start from around £104 per person based on two sharing, including breakfast.

Tiskita Jungle Lodge (Punta Banco). Fifteen rustic cabins set in remote jungle with a central dining area and dramatic views over the Pacific. Room prices vary but standard ‘jungle room’ full-board experience starts from around £123 per person per night, based on two sharing.

Luna Lodge (Osa Peninsula). Eco-tourism and wellness fuse at this assemblage of bungalows, hacienda rooms, and static tents, secreted in a forested valley by Corcovado National Park. Full- board price per person based on two-sharing, from around £110.

Hotel Savegre (Savegre Valley). Fifty functionally modern rooms set in exotic gardens on a property with hiking trails into the surrounding forest plus a fine terraced restaurant. Full-board rooms per person, from around £109.

Rancho Naturalista: Hugely popular with birdwatchers, this former ranch has a mixture of chalets and big rooms in the old hacienda. Expert guide on site leads birdwatching. Full-board days person based on twin-share from  around £120 per person, per night.

Hotel Arenal Manoa (La Fortuna). Roomy modern bungalows in riotously tropical gardens with views towards  Arenal Volcano. A B&B junior suite is good value at around £96 per person with two sharing.

Local Guides

Erick Gomez-Chavez (Osa); 506-8614 35 56; Gomerick007@yahoo.com,

Agniel Trejos (Savegre); 506-8779 68 64; Trejosag04@hotmail.com,

Mercedes Alpīzar (Rancho Naturalista); 506-8580 36 90; Meche.alpizar@gmail.com

Food & drink

Casado is a low-priced buffet typically found in small restaurants called soda, offering gallo-pinto (rice and beans), fried sweet plantain, steamed yucca and cassava, tortillas, patacones (salted crisp plantain) and usually beef or fried chicken or local fish, like tilapia.

It’s easy to find restaurants serving western meals and fast food but do splurge on exotically abundant local fruit, fresh juices and batidos fruit shakes.

Costa Rica’s most popular beer is Imperial, while home-grown coffee is earthy and delicious.

Further reading & info

The official tourism portal

Costarica.com – a useful online resource for travellers.

Whitehawk Foundation – Lana Wedmore’s charitable trust www.facebook.com/lappacr/ - LAPPA (macaw protection)

Costa Rica – Rough Guide (2017)

The birds of Costa Rica – Richard Garrigues & Robert Dean (2014)

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