One of the perks of our industry is that Tour Operators will whisk us away on free trips to sample a destination and check-out glamorous hotels. It is much more unusual to be given the chance to experience an actual tour, but thanks to Trafalgar that’s exactly what lay in front of me.
I will confess apart from the association with those bug-eyed bright green frogs and a high spirited football team Costa Rica was a mystery to me. Our route would take us from the Caribbean coast, past towering volcanoes, to the warm and inviting Pacific Ocean. That’s just 75 miles as the crow flies, however, crows don’t fly very straight here and to see it all there will be quite a bit of on the road time.
Trafalgar pride themselves on the quality of their Travel Directors (far more than just a tour guide) and I knew from the moment I met Fabian that his enthusiasm and absolute love of his country would carry us through those sitting on the bus periods. As he said very early on “if the sun shines then hallelujah…….. If it rains then hallelujah”, you get the idea.
Over a week we were going to be staying in four different hotels so I was ready to live out of my suitcase. I really agonised over what clothes to pack with my outfits varying from a dodgy Daktari impression to swimming shorts. On reflection this is a tee-shirt and shorts destination with a variety of footwear necessary from sturdy trainers to flip-flops. I was very worried about insect bites, but with vigilant application of bug-spray I didn’t have a problem. As a result my “Jungle Jim” costume stayed firmly in my bag.
The Sheraton in San José is a decent city hotel and served its purpose after a 12-hour flight. Unsurprisingly I slept very well and thanks to the time difference had no issues with our early start the next morning. A brief city tour was followed by a journey combining our comfy coach and a motorboat to Tortuguero National Park.
Tortuguero meaning “the land of the turtles” provided us with our most basic accommodation, Laguna Lodge. The hotel boasts eco-friendly credentials and the rooms are homely, but perfectly functional. Although on the beachfront the hotel is not about sunbeds and umbrellas, in fact in many ways the coastline resembles Cornwall with breaking waves and a heavy dark sand. It’s here that the Sea Turtles come to nest later in the year and I didn’t get to observe any in June. If the turtles are a must see for you chose your dates carefully, I believe July to September are best.
There is no shortage of other wildlife and I woke-up on day three to the haunting screams of howler monkeys. It was an animated start to a day of discoveries cruising through the park’s canals where a variety of monkeys, caimans and exotic birds await around every corner. My highlight of the day was gazing in awe as a spider monkey swung above our heads.
It would be impossible to capture every wonderful moment, but a good sports camera with a zoom or pocket sized binoculars would have been extremely useful throughout the trip. Many of my companions used their mobile phones, but this seemed a bit fiddly and I would have worried about water damage.
I think it’s worth pointing out that you are not at the zoo and part of the adventure is spotting the animals as they go about their daily lives. Feeding is strictly frowned upon and as you’ll soon discover at your hotel monkeys don’t need to be invited to dinner.
During one impromptu stop we stood at the roadside squinting at distant trees for a glimpse of a sloth. As these drowsy tree-dwellers spend most their time asleep you would have thought it would be easy to pick one out. It wasn’t. Skip forwards a couple of days and we had the excitement of a mother and baby within a few feet of us……. Hallelujah!
That night it rained really heavily, but as dawn approached the howler monkeys easily out gunned the pounding rain. I was somewhat surprised to open my curtains to bright sunshine and as if posing for photographs two toucans (no pun intended) perched in an adjacent palm tree. I’m not good with breeds, but these were of the Toucan Sam variety, you know, the mascot for Froot Loops breakfast cereal.
The next day involved getting the boat back to the mainland and travel to the centre of Costa Rica. I nearly said the Island, but with borders with Nicaragua to the north and Panama to the south and east that would be geographically incorrect. It’s strange how much this feels like an Island Nation though. The people refer to themselves as “Tico’s” and they are very proud of their heritage.
The Costa Rica national football team played a World Cup Qualifying game during my visit and I cannot speak highly enough of the friendly and inclusive atmosphere while watching the match in a local bar. I’m sure my brand new Costa Rica shirt helped. I really hope they get to the finals so I can wear it again.
Trafalgar are very clever at including regular and interesting pit-stops along the way. We visited a palm plantation where we got to taste some local delicacies and a rehabilitation centre allowing us to get up close and personal with some rather large amphibians and reptiles. Snake holding was entirely optional and I elected to observe proceedings from a distance.
Our coach was amazing. Brand new with superb air-conditioning it was a welcome retreat from the heat of the day and this is incredible…… Wi-Fi and internet connection was available as we drove along. This country never fails to surprise and it’s nearly always in a good way.
Our next two nights were spent at the Arenal Paraiso Resort & Spa where apparently all rooms have a volcano view. Perhaps I was just unlucky, still the opportunity to try out the thermal pools was too good to resist and my new friend Ian and I set off to explore. The water in the pools is strangely yellow in colour due to its mineral content and as you move higher so they get warmer. We were enjoying one of the hotter pools when the heavens opened, so there we sat for an hour. We could easily have had a beer in one hand and an umbrella in the other, bizarre.
Day five broke with bright sunshine and to my amazement there right in front of my room was a massive volcano. The cloud that had hidden it the previous evening was gone. I’m very relieved that I didn’t complain to reception about the view.
This was definitely walking day (hence the sturdy trainers) and a morning hike up the volcano was followed by an afternoon of hanging bridges all at eye-level within the lush jungle canopy. Think of the bridge that celebrities cross as they are voted out of the jungle and you’ve got a good picture.
The next day’s journey to the Caribbean coast was broken-up with the ultimate holiday thrill. Zip-wiring through the tree-tops must be one of the most exhilarating things I have ever done. I was terrified on the first platform and I’m not really sure how I managed to take the plunge. After a while I was enjoying every moment and I savoured the last couple of descents. I wonder if I will ever experience anything like it again.
The beaches at our final port of call, Manuel Antonio National Park, were stunning and our hotel, the Parador Resort & Spa was exceptionally good. If this had just been a beach holiday then I would have been more than happy to spend a week here, but that would be to miss the point. You may only visit Costa Rica once so take a tour like I did and experience “Pura Vida” for yourself.
Errors and omissions excepted.
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