The tropical paradise of Costa Rica

Costa Rica is teeming with incredible wildlife and beautiful beaches

The leaf on the ant’s back is three times the size of its body. Stretched in a long line, its colleagues are following along the top of a yellow wall. Some carry leaves, others small brown flowers. There’s a steep vertical drop they must negotiate to reach the lower wall, and their destination, unknown.

I'm watching all this from my outdoor shower at the edge of the rainforest. It's my fifth day in Costa Rica and I realise I've slowed down enough to see the myriad tiny details of nature doing its thing.

Of course, Costa Rica has far more glamorous wildlife than leafcutter ants, but it’s the day-to-day encounters that make it so good for the soul; a tiny green frog hopping over the counter, the glimpse of a bat, a cane toad dodging into the ditch as we pass. We wake each morning to the roar of the howler monkeys in the trees, and one evening had a visit from a possum, whose fox -shaped head peered over the wall of our open kitchen and eyed the fruit bowl.

We began our trip in Tortuguero, one of the treasures of Costa Rica’s extensive national park system. It’s a watery world of lagoons and rivers where close encounters with animals are practically guaranteed. We rise with the sun and are in the water with Roberto by six, gliding across the lagoon in his electric-powered motorboat. “Last week one of the other boats saw a jaguar swimming across right here,” he says. We’re impressed.


Roberto steers the boat towards a large tree. We can see nothing. He points with a green laser beam. It’s an iguana. Perfectly blended into the tree trunk, richly textured, almost metallic, it looks old, prehistoric even. Moments later we’re looking at a green leaf. Except it’s not. It’s an emerald basilisk lizard with a crest running the length of its head body and tail, completely at one with its surroundings.

We leave the wide waters of the lagoon and head into the smaller waterways of Cana Chiquera, drifting into a lost jungle world where shafts of early morning sun break through the canopy, illuminating the forest floor below. Tortuguero was almost lost to the loggers but as with several other areas of Costa Rica, reprieve came just in time. At one point, only the tall ceiba trees were left standing, but now the logged areas are filling with recovering secondary forest. In the primary forest, the taller trees shelter the larger mammals such as sloths and monkeys.

There’s a crunching noise in the branches overhead among the dense foliage. Roberto passes the binoculars. Capuchins. A black-and-white-faced monkey is jumping from branch to branch.

A splash and our heads swivel. It’s a river otter, its glossy body moving strongly through the water. Another splash, there are two. A black river turtle nibbling fungi on a log dips underwater as we approach.

We leave Tortuguero on a fast speedboat through a complex network of rivers, canals and lagoons, heading for Moin on the Caribbean coast. The water level is low in parts and twice we get stuck on a sandbank. The captain requests volunteers and Dara is first over the side. The rest of the guys on board oblige and soon we’re moving again. Congratulations all round – until two minutes later we see the unmistakable head of an (admittedly small) American crocodile. “They don’t really come after humans” the boat captain smiles. “Well not usually, although that’s a baby so its mother might have got angry. . .”

After that episode it's time to relax and hit the beaches around Puerto Viejo. Surfers cycle with boards under their arms and there are fish tacos and margaritas on the menu in the open-air beach shacks. The vibe is low-key and relaxed and beaches such as Punta Uva and Manzanillo are beautiful, safe and tranquil. The number of tourists is low and normal life goes on all around. Tannoys mounted on pick-up trucks advertise their wares; "Mango, pina, guanabana, papaya . . ."

Fruit and coffee are at the heart of Costa Rica's economy though tourism is the biggest industry. There's a well-trodden trail around the Arenal Volcano, the cloud forests of Monteverde and the beaches of Guanacaste, but we've chosen to stray off that path and head to the southern Pacific coast and Corcovado national park next.

It’s a choice between a long 4WD trek through rivers, a flight or the bus followed by another scary open-boat ride. We take the boat. At first it’s just hurtling at speed through the mangroves and then out on to the wide Sierpe River. Then we see the Pacific breakers, huge, loud, relentless and quite frankly terrifying. To exit the river mouth and make for Drake, the captain has to surf every wave. The two dozen passengers are fairly sanguine at first, but as we crest wave after larger wave the thump when we slap the water grows louder; the nervous laughs turn to yells and even the locals start putting on the lifejackets they ignored at the start.

And then it’s over. We’re puttering through calm azure sea, with thickly forested slopes in the distance and fishing boats at anchor in the bay, the picture of paradise. We’d been warned it’s all beach landings in this part of the world, and negotiate the surf barefoot with our bags held high. Miguel from Finca Maresia is waiting for us.

The finca is set high in the hills and is beautifully designed by Miguel’s Spanish architect wife. A communal central deck raised high on stilts is for lounging, dining and watching wildlife, while rooms are all individual modernist cabinas. The heat is staggering, even by Costa Rica standards, and although it’s the rainforest, it hasn’t rained for months.

Hiking in Corcovado we discover the best way to find the rare Baird’s tapir is to head for muddy places where they can cool down in comfort. A ball of fur we spy in a tree is a baby sloth, moving only as much as is absolutely necessary. In Spanish it’s a perizoso, or lazy one.

The only way to deal with the temperature is to get up with the birds. The cackle of the scarlet macaws does the job of an alarm clock and we’re in a boat by seven, destination Isla Del Cano. Adjusting my snorkel as we jump over the side, I discover we’re floating over a huge reef. We glide through a school of silver and yellow striped, and aptly named, gafftopsail pompano with their deeply forked tails. A spotted eagle ray is clearly visible.

Two white-tipped reef sharks move within narrow openings in the reef, searching for prey. We snorkel on, pushed about by the strong currents this far offshore. Dara grabs my hand and points urgently to the sea floor. I can see a large shape outlined in sand but am slow to work out what it is. It seems too big to be a turtle. But it is – a Pacific Hawksbill. Costa Rica has some of the most important nesting sites in the world for endangered turtles. Isla Del Cano is a marine reserve, uninhabited except for rangers and scientists.

The next morning Dara goes deep sea fishing for sailfish and I (improbably) am on a horse, having been persuaded to visit Miguel’s friend Pepe’s house in the forest for lunch. After crunching along gravel roads, welcoming the shelter of forest paths and riding through rivers, we dismount close to his home.

Pepe plucks a conical-shaped brown casing from a nearby tree, and starts to peel some of the long-winged seeds inside. He hands them to us to taste. They’re creamy coloured, and taste like almonds. “It’s the food for the scarlet macaws,” he says. “That tree is one of the reasons we have so many now.” The return of the scarlet macaw, the largest parrot on earth, is one of the big successes of Corcovado, one of the most bio-diverse places on the planet.

Back at the finca we finally hear the sound of what the rainforests needs most. It’s not yet the teeming downpour that will come in the rainy season, but a slow steady trickle of blessed rain, just enough to freshen the air and dampen the earth. You can almost hear the leaves drinking it in, see the parched grass soaking up the will to live. And you realise that now you notice everything and see the world for what it truly is.

HOW TO ... COSTA RICA Costa Rica is now much more accessible thanks to a BA direct flight from Heathrow to San José. Thomson also flies from Gatwick to Liberia in the north-west of the country. Otherwise, you're looking at flights through the US or with KLM/Air France via their European hubs and Panama City. While often cheaper, many of these options involve long layovers or three flights. No visa required for Irish citizens. Departure tax of $26 but most airlines include this in the ticket price. Malaria tablets are not usually needed, but the Zika virus is an issue for pregnant women.

GETTING AROUND: While many people hire a car or use tourist shuttle vans, we found a combination of public buses, boats, taxis and bikes worked really well and gave more opportunities for interaction with Ticos, rather than living inside Costa Rica's tourist bubble. If you do hire a car, a 4WD is pretty much essential if you are going anywhere remote. Although Costa Rica looks small on the map, don't try and cover it all in one visit. Distances are deceptive, and access to some areas is tricky.

PRICES: Costa Rica is expensive compared to the rest of Central America. While there is a local currency (colones) prices are all dollar-based.

ACCOMMODATION: Costa Rica has a huge choice of accommodation at all price levels from basic cabinas to top of the range luxury hotels and wonderful eco-lodges. An example is the Finca Maresia, Bahia Drake, $90 for a double with private deck overlooking the rainforest.

EATING: Costa Rican food is based around rice, beans, tortillas, and chicken or fish. It's not particularly spicy except on the Caribbean side, where the Jamaican influence produces jerk chicken and fish in coconut sauce. Many expats run restaurants, so you will find Italian, French and fusion food in the most unlikely places, such as the Pura Vida Alajuela. Stay at this B&B near San Jose airport and check to make sure Nhi is cooking dinner – French/Vietnamese and other influences combined with top local ingredients.