You haven’t really been caught in a storm until you’ve been abandoned to the elements during a Costa Rican downpour – a deafening orchestra of thunder and rain that soaks you to the bone and sends animals scurrying for cover as it rolls around the valleys like a colossal bowling ball.
There are over 30 microclimates here, ranging from dense, leafy jungle to sun-drenched beaches, but the generally tropical weather and abundance of volcanic soil means the Central American country is one thing above all else: green. Vegetables grow to rosette-winning proportions, mossy trails lead to palm-fringed waterfalls and the billowing smoke from the country’s 60-something volcanoes merges with heavy, rain-bloated clouds to keep humidity at a sweltering high.
Bordered by Nicaragua and Panama, and with both Caribbean and Pacific coastlines Costa Rica is a haven for adventure-seekers, who flock here for the clean air, high-altitude trails, white-water rapids and surfing beaches. Nature lovers too come in search of the country’s wildlife – a quarter of Costa Rica is made up of protected jungle, which hosts 5% of the world’s entire biodiversity (more than the USA and Europe put together). And with British Airways now offering direct flights to San Jose international airport, a slice of ‘Pura Vida’ (or pure life) is more graspable than ever.
My journey starts at El Silencio Lodge and Spa, a remote eco hotel perched high in the cloud forest of Costa Rica’s Central Valley. The lodge can only be reached by winding mountain trails and, as we meander our way to higher altitudes, the animal spotting starts in earnest from the car. Even from the road, the wildlife in Costa Rica is almost cartoonishly brilliant. From a wound-down window I spot a pair of bright chestnut-mandibled toucans warring noisily with flycatchers in the treetops; black vultures cruise dizzyingly on the thermals above us and, much to my delight, I glimpse the ghost-like flash of a rare white hawk (a twitcher’s dream) nestling in a nearby tree.
El Silencio is roughly a two-hour drive from the capital of San Jose, so we break up the journey with a visit to a local ‘soda’. These are small roadside restaurants popular with locals, and are a great place to eat traditional Costa Rican food. Ours just so happens to offer some of the best hummingbird viewing around as well, and as we tuck into cheese tortillas and freshly-made coconut fudge (Cajeta de Coco), these jewel-coloured birds dive-bomb and whizz past our ears – tiny pink tongues flitting out of their delicate beaks.
We’re soon back on the road, bellies full and legs stretched, and we continue to climb until the 500-acre cloud forest opens out in front of us. El Silencio is a nature-lover’s dream. There are three waterfalls that cascade around the chic mountainside cabins, and the lush surroundings mean the area plays host to a huge variety of wildlife. Rare wild cats fish rainbow trout from the tributary streams (the water is so pure humans can scoop it up in their bare hands and guzzle it down, too) and those with keen eyes might also spot sloths high up in the densely-packed trees. That’s not to mention the elusive jaguars that have been known to roam the forests that sprawl for as far as the eye can see (although our guide Paulo is the only person I’ve met to have actually seen one in the flesh).
My personal cabin has what I consider to be a rather splendid misty mountain view. So, after a delicious dinner of grilled skirt steak from the lodge’s farm-to-table restaurant (trout is farmed onsite, the chef keeps 40 hens for eggs and he even make his own cheese) I retire for an evening on my balcony. With a cool Imperial, the local beer, in hand I alternate between curling up in my al fresco rocking chair and watching the fireflies buzz around me from the bubbles of my personal jacuzzi. Eventually, when all slips into darkness and the monkeys stop their squabbling, I head inside to be lulled to sleep by the symphony of the rainforest at night.
The next day, we’re up early for a brisk hack around the lodge’s mountain trails. I’m a rookie when it comes to horse riding, so I am assigned Pinto, a small but beautifully-formed brown and white mare. But, as the group canters ahead on their muscular steeds, gallantly crossing streams, galloping through fields and picking their way along stony mountain paths, Pinto refuses to budge. She trudges forwards as if only on her terms, and only occasionally, to snaffle leaves, apples and blackberries from the surounding foliage. The most action I get is when I’m almost thrown out of the saddle as she bends suddenly to gulp water from a stream, but I can console myself with the breathtaking views that a hack on even the most curmudgeonly Costa Rican horse can afford.
For the next part of our trip, we’re headed North to more volcanic climes. Award-winning Hotel Nayara sits in the shadow of the mist-topped Arunel volcano – a colossal peak that last erupted in 1968 (it’s dormant now, thankfully). The grounds of this exclusive boutique hotel are strewn with bougainvillea, citrus trees and dazzling orchids – infusing the air with a heady floral scent. The rooms are some of the most luxurious I’ve ever seen too; lofty bamboo-thatched villas decorated with stained glass windows and intricate mosaic tiles.
I’m giddy when I open my door to be met with a gargantuan four-poster, luxurious double shower and expansive his-and-hers vanity stations – and that’s just inside. Stepping out of the sliding doors I come across an inviting outdoor shower (who wouldn’t want to shampoo surrounded by hummingbirds?); a volcano-view decking area complete with hammock and, of course, a personal infinity pool – giving an easy escape from the Costa Rican humidity with only a tangle of rainforest flowers for company.
That evening we set out on a nocturnal nature walk in the sprawling gardens belonging to a local landscape gardener named Otto. The grounds are packed with hundreds of ornamental and imported trees – shipped in from Madagascar, the Caribbean and North America – which jostle for space with Willy Wonka-esque flowers and triffid-like bulbs and roots. As darkness falls we arm ourselves with torches (and a thick spritz of bug spray) to explore the jungly surroundings. In the crevaces of leaves, nestled in the nobbles of branches and scurrying across the damp floor we find a procession of different amphibians – from bulbous, warty cane toads to the tiny, rare glass frog (so-called because you can see its organs through its skin).
Our torchlight unearths huge caterpillars, dessicated stick-insects that freeze in the spotlight and snapping turtles hiding in watery rock pools. We even spot a Jesus Christ lizard; named for its ability to ‘walk on water’ and a sleeping ‘Michael Jackson Bird’ (a ‘moonwalking’ creature which looks not unlike a big fluffy tennis ball). On our way back to the house, Otto points out an army of bullet ants wrapping themselves around the trunk of a nearby tree. “Being bitten by a bullet ant feels like you’ve been shot,” says Paulo gravely. “How do you know?” I ask. To which he simply turns his wrist over, showing us the craterous scar that runs along the side of his hand. We all pull down the sleeves of our jumpers and decide to call it a night.
Our trip ends in Manuel Antonio National Park – Costa Rica’s real draw for tourists. The park, on the country’s Pacific coast, offers something for everyone; whether that’s rugged rainforest, murky mangrove swamps, bleached sand beaches or coral reefs. This is where Costa Rica’s wildlife really puts on a show. Manuel Antonio is home to hundreds of bird species, as well as two and three-toed sloths and the endangered white-faced capuchin monkey. You won’t be hard-pressed to see any of these from the hiking trails that meander across the park’s 680 hectares. On our sticky afternoon walk we see a vertiable safari of animals – agoutis constantly trot across our path; racoons peer out from the boughs of trees and the guttural sound of howler monkeys swinging high above us rings out from the rainforest canopy.
We’re fortunate enough to see several sloths, which, coincidentally, move much quicker than you might expect – stretching each limb with a swift purpose that belies their languorous nature – and finally, we end the day at the beach: a craggy crescent of white sand where monkeys scamper about the shoreline.
As I peer out to sea, I see a pod of dolphins playing in the surf and a squadron of seabirds cruise purposefully past. I take a deep breath to inhale the fresh salty air. This is the ‘Pura Vida’ that the locals talk about, I think. No stress, no crowds, no 9-5 anxiety. Just beautiful views and a whole lot of nature. Costa Ricans have it made.
Rainbow Tours offers a seven night tour of Costa Rica visiting San Jose, the Central Valley, Arenal and Manuel Antonio from £1,985 per person. This price includes direct flights with British Airways from London Gatwick, accommodation on a bed and breakfast basis, transfers and selected excursions. For more information, visit www.rainbowtours.co.uk.