Costa Rica: Flight of fancy

A road and river trip through Costa Rica reveals a spectacular landscape of misty mountains and dense rainforest, plus a cast of beautiful but shy birds, sneaky alligators and scuttling baby turtles.

By Emma Thomson
Published 23 Mar 2016, 08:00 GMT, Updated 7 Jul 2021, 12:06 BST
Quetzal perched on the branch of an aguacatillo tree.

Quetzal perched on the branch of an aguacatillo tree.

Photograph by Getty Images

Bone cruncher. Eyeball twizzler. Teeth rattler. Descriptions of Costa Rica's infamous potholed roads sound like the names of the giants from Roald Dahl's BFG. But I'd been assured things have changed: nowadays stretches of smooth tarmac and concrete abound between main towns. So, encouraged, I've decided to try a self-drive tour. My road trip buddy? My father. It'll be make or break for the car — and me.

So here we are, all geared up. Bags in the back of the 4WD vehicle, GPS set, maps on lap, written road instructions, Wize App on for traffic alerts and, with the words of our meet-and-greet guide, Yvette, ringing in our ears — "Whatever you do, don't forget to turn left after the Crowne Plaza Hotel" — we pull out of an Alajuela hotel car park, raring to go. One mile down the road we run into our first landslide. It takes the digger 40 minutes to scrape away the wet earth. And then we're off: road trip round two.

Within minutes, we're in the thick of San José and it's a nerve jangling experience. Cars crowd around us, horns tooting; there's new rules, a new side of the road and a new car to tame. And then the GPS takes us via the ring road, meaning we miss the Crowne Plaza turn-off.

It's a frustrating start. But before long we join the Pan American Highway — which doesn't peter out until Buenos Aires, Argentina — and start to zigzag up into the Talamanca Mountains. Suddenly, it begins to feel less of a stuck-in-Saturday-shopping-traffic trip. Goats and calves nibble grass by the roadside, houses have been replaced by cloud forest and thrilling names such as 'Cerro de la Muerte' ('Hill of Death') appear on the map. Bromeliads sprout from the Vs of laurel and 500-year-old oak trees, and orchids trail their golden flowers like Rapunzel's hair.

By the time we reach our first lodge in San Gerardo de Dota, the altitude on the GPS reads 9,639ft and I feel light-headed. As we step from the car, the silence is snapped by the roar of the rushing Savegre River, which whips up the cool mist swirling around my bare arms.

These forests conceal over 170 bird species, but one reigns supreme: the quetzal. It starts life grey and then undergoes something of a superhero transformation, sprouting iridescent emerald plumage, with the male growing twin tail feathers that can trail over 3ft long. The Mayans revered them as gods and used their feathers in headdresses in place of diamonds and gems.

"Killing a quetzal was forbidden — they only plucked the tail feathers — and if anyone was caught, the village murdered them," explains Carlos, a birder who's been leading tours here since he was 10 years old. "I needed the pocket money," he shrugs. We've been up since dawn hoping to get a glimpse of this shy bird. Carlos asks the driver to pull over beside a wild avocado tree — the quetzal equivalent of catnip. "No avocado, no quetzals," he utters matter-of-factly. All eyes fix on the stumpy tree, scanning the branches for flashes of green. They're bare. "Chances of seeing them aren't 100%," says Carlos. "This is nature. But with me they're 99%!"

We wait — and wait. We exchange whispered conversations and wander further up the road, scanning the bush. "They're also found in Monteverde, but here the ecosystem is perfect for them," Carlos encourages. We stamp our feet to fend off the cold. Then a sound echoes from the forest rendering him silent. It sounds like a puppy pleading for treat; a heart-melting whimper. Without a word, Carlos dashes up the road, telescope in hand, and swivels it round to zoom in on the avocado tree, and a smile cracks across his face. "Come, quickly — look." I peer into the eyepiece and there it is: a male, lit up green, black and red like a Christmas tree.


The next morning, another landslide halts us in our tracks and, while waiting, I get chatting to the passengers in the car behind us. German Stefaan is being dropped at the bus station by his friends, who are heading home. "Where are you going?" he asks. "Uvita." "Me too!" he beams. "Well come with us — it'll save you loads of time." So he bundles his bags and tall frame into the back of the Toyota and we set off south, stopping en route in the surfer town of Dominical to rub our toes in the black sand.

By the time we drop Stefaan at his hostel and arrive at La Cusinga Eco Lodge, the lavender light of afternoon is creeping in. The lodge is set in 495 acres of virgin rainforest, so I decide to take a short walk to a nearby swimming hole; tiptoeing between pools of rainwater dotted along the trail.

The forest clears to reveal a small waterfall pouring into a circular pool. I sit on the surrounding rocks and lower my legs into the cool, swirling waters. Apart from a parade of ants, waving their leaf placards aloft as they march, I have the place to myself. I tilt my head back and gaze up into the canopy and, for the first time, get a sense of the 'Pura Vida' ('Pure Life') that the Costa Rican locals, or Ticos, speak of. No people, no phones, just nature. And then, as I'm retracing my steps along the cinnamon-coloured earth, a capybara crosses right in front of me. He pauses, lifts his nose to take a sniff, and potters back into the protective forest.

In search of more creatures, we take a boat out to Corcovado National Park — its only accessible sections lie on the coast. Most visitors opt for the easier-to-reach Manuel Antonio National Park, just south of San José, but the extra effort is rewarded. Corcovado, a 99,000-acre chunk of rainforest on the Osa Peninsula, is the largest of Costa Rica's 26 national parks. It's also said to be the most biologically intense place on Earth — home to the jaguarundi, ocelot, Baird's tapir, nine-banded armadillo and jaguar, to name a few.

Sadly, we see none of these. Just as we're rounding the peninsula, the sky blackens and rain thunders down. As the waves rear up, captain and crew wrestle to steady the boat as we disembark. Undeterred, Reymer — our guide — strides off confidently into the forest and a trail of brightly coloured waterproof jackets tramp after him. The animals have more sense: they've scattered to avoid the downpour, so Reymer valiantly points out as much as he can — shouting above the roar of the rain. "See this, it's a termites nest — they taste like peanut butter! You can smash them onto your skin to act as an insect repellent."

"Look, the web of a golden orb spider — if you smoke it, it makes you high for two hours!"

"See this plant? If it's drunk as a tea, women can't get pregnant for six months."

"Here — see these spines? They were the first army of Costa Rica; we'd rub frog poison on them and use them as darts."

At one point, we hear the menacing growl of a howler monkey, but we never find him. The forest floor is now hidden by a foot of water. We retreat to the ranger station for lunch and notice a large log floating just off shore. "That's not a log," declares Reymer. "It's an alligator!"

Buoyed up by food, he decides we should hike to a nearby waterfall. "It shouldn't be as flooded," he reassures us. We clamber over the buttress roots of strangler fig trees and soon find ourselves wading across fast-rising rivers; leaning on ropes and feeling for the hidden rocks with our feet. When we reach the waterfall, we're fording through waist-height water. "I haven't seen the waterfall run that high in 10 years!" Reymer exclaims, gawking at the rush of muddy water that's burst its banks and is gushing violently past us. I look at my fingers; they're wrinkled like prunes.

On the way back, brown boobies and a gang of pelicans cruise past us, snatching fish from the surface of the water, and spotted dolphins prance in front of the boat's bow. We're sailing through the protected waters of Marino Ballena National Park — one of the best places in the world to see humpback whales. They migrate thousands of miles to winter offshore here. "From Jul­y to October, the whales come from Argentina — they speak Spanish. And from December to March, they come from California and speak English," teases Reymer.

Down the line

We swing north west towards the flatlands of the Guanacaste region — named after Costa Rica's national tree — passing palm oil plantations, sodas (coffee shops) and women selling lychees, arranged like piles of spiky pink grenades. Guarding the entrance to towns are speed bumps, labelled 'Reductor' on road signs — as if designed to dismantle, rather than slow down, cars.

Up here, the weatherboard houses are painted in shades of peach, blue, pink and green and positioned amid square plots of perfectly trimmed grass. Rocking chairs wait on porches, and fields of Brahman cows — with saggy, wrinkled necks and long ears — hide under trees to escape the heat. "People live day by day here — the level of stress is much lower than in the city," smiles hotel manager Jimena Sánchez that night over dinner at Rancho Humo, a cattle ranch with an old farmhouse that was converted into a boutique hotel last year. It sits amid 50,000 acres of private-reserve wetlands — one of the most important nesting sites in Central America. We drive their trails, on the lookout for the exotic 3ft-tall, red-collared jabiru and see roseate spoonbills, anhingas, hawks, tiger herons and egrets. Later, at low tide, a boat trip through the mangrove-lined Tempisque River reveals mud flats studded with the scaly bodies of crocodiles.

But I'm hungering for something a little more adventurous, so we seek out Rio Perdido further north, which has one of the best zip-lines in the country. Instructor Felipe Eras tips his green-and-yellow John Deere baseball cap in greeting, and sets to strapping on harnesses, helmets and hooks. We hike through the forest to the first platform. "There's no monkeys," laments US tourist Lisa. "Just us," quips Felipe, as he attaches her to the line and sends her soaring. Then it's my turn. The milk-chocolate river flows 800ft below and black vultures circle, unnervingly, overhead. I grip the wire with my leather mitt and let out a girly shriek as the canyon walls whizz past.

We trace a dirt track to our final stop, the seaside town of Ostional whose four-mile beach is the world's second-most important nesting site for the endangered olive ridley turtle. They come ashore in droves known as arribadas. "On the second of November we counted 3,700 in just three hours" beams our guide, Yamileth Diaz, when we pick her up at 9pm. She volunteers for the Ostional Wildlife Refuge.

The acrid smell of fox urine wafts across the sand and the moon is so bright we can walk without torches. Littered along the length of the beach are turtle shells; as white and empty as caved-in ping-pong balls. We're not the only ones checking them out: dancing in the dark are the silhouettes of wild dogs, raccoons, crabs and vultures searching for hatchlings. Rangers patrol at night to fend off these night marauders and stop people stealing the eggs. "To sell them?" I ask Yamileth. "No, to eat — they're delicious with hot sauce."

A beam of light strobes across the sky. It's one of the rangers alerting us to a nest of hatchlings. We hurry over to see the young ones crawling like ninjas on elbows and knees out of the sand. They scuttle-dash-stop, scuttle-dash-stop until they reach the water's edge and plop into the Pacific — not to be seen again for another 10 to 15 years.

We're the only tourists to witness it, and the encounter brings home the benefits of a self-drive, over a tour group. You can escape the crowds; travel more deeply. You're free to dally, dawdle and, to a certain extent, decide on a whim what you'd like to do. Sure it's nerve-wracking in places. But it gives you a chance to learn about the land and interact with more locals.

We end the trip in great spirits, with memories of German hitchhikers, shy birds and baby turtles. And, I'm happy to report, not a crunched bone, twizzled eyeball or rattled tooth between us.


Getting there
From April 27th, British Airways will operate a twice-weekly nonstop flight from Gatwick to San José.
Thomson Airways flies weekly from Gatwick to Liberia Airport, on the northwest coast.
Average flight time: 10h 45m.

Getting around
Costa Rica has an excellent bus system that operates even in remote areas. It's best to book tickets in advance, especially during high season (late November to late April). Once riddled with potholes, the country's roads are much improved and getting around in a 4WD hire car offers great flexibility. Companies such as Sixt, Hertz and Europcar all have hubs in San José.

When to go
Famous for its microclimates, the weather varies dramatically in Costa Rica: the northern Guanacaste Province is much drier than the tropical south east. Generally, mid-December to April is the dry season, with plenty of sunshine, while May–November is the rainy season; travel is cheaper during these months, but be prepared to get wet and for some activities to be cancelled. Temperatures range from 21C to 27C.

Need to know
Visas: No visa needed for visits of up to three months. You may have to pay a US$29 (£20) airport departure tax, though many airlines now include this in the ticket price.
Currency: Colon (CRC). £1 = CRC807.
Health: Vaccination top-ups, such as Hepatitis A, may be required. There's no need for antimalarials.
International dial code: 00 506.
Time: GMT –6.

How to do it
Pura Aventura offer a 15-night Costa Rica Uncovered self-drive trip with B&B accommodation, activities, transfers and 4WD rental car with GPS from £2,060 per person, based on two sharing. Excludes flights.

Published in the April 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)


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