Crossing Costa Rica
It turns out sloths were the culprits behind Hector’s tardy arrival, and he pulls into the hotel driveway at 8am with tales of helping relocate a sloth that had clawed its way too close to the road. It must have taken the slow-moving mammal days to get to its destination, only to be shunted back to the treeline by do-gooding ticos, as the local men are affectionately known.
On a larger scale, Hector’s story is one that tells the tale of Costa Rica as a country – a nation of environmentally aware citizens on a mission to ensure their slice of Central America remains one of the most biodiverse ecosystems in the world.
The short dash to the car leaves me soaked in the heavy rains, but it’s short-lived and soon, the sun and warm tropical air dry my sodden hair as we take Route 32 northeast toward the country’s Caribbean coast. Before long, tall palms and dark green jungle replace San Jose’s dusty, traffic-clogged highways, marking the beginning of coffee country.
Costa Rica is one of the largest coffee producing nations in the world. The industry’s history dates back almost 200 years, and although tourism has leapfrogged it in terms of contribution to GDP, it’s still considered the first wealth creation for the country. In fact, direct taxes on coffee funded the vast majority of Costa Rica’s early infrastructure. Today there are still about 84,000 hectares of Arabica farmland left, with many of the country’s organic and biodynamic-savvy farmers growing other fruits as well, including pineapples, papaya and cacao.
We stop for a tasting of the latter at Sibu, an organic bean-to-bar chocolate producer committed to using Costa Rican flavours. Small-group tours introduce you to cacao farming and chocolate production and end, of course, with a tasting of Sibu’s bonbons – think flavour combinations such as chai and cayenne, cardamom and coffee and, a local favourite, ginger, coconut milk and caramel. Sibu’s owner tells us that even the packaging has an eye on the environment, with chocolate wrappers made from cacao nibs and recycled paper.
It would be easy to linger on the patio of the mountain-set roastery, overlooking the patchwork of green in Braulio Carrillo National Park, but we have more landscapes to discover and a jungle to explore.
The staggering diversity of ecosystems stands out the most in Costa Rica. Split by two mountain ranges, its 51,100 square kilometres – roughly the same size as Switzerland – include more than 1200 kilometres of coastline along not just the Caribbean but also the Pacific, with 12 tropical life zones in between. It accounts for 0.03 per cent of the Earth’s surface but is home to five per cent of the world’s wildlife species, and includes vast tropical rainforests, live volcanoes, 10,000 species of plants and more than 230 kinds of mammals.
Costa Rica developed its national parks system in the 1970s, taking its cue from the great North American parks. In the mid-1990s, the government instituted the most progressive reforestation program in the Americas and began an international campaign to market the nation, wedged between Nicaragua and Panama, as an “ecologically friendly” destination. For decades, travellers from the north came here to catch waves and study turtles, but then the rest of the world began to hear about la costa rica, which is Spanish for the rich coast. Visitors from all corners of the globe flocked to this slip of land to see one of the most biologically varied places on the planet, and an eco-tourism movement was born.
Hector and I see it in action at Parque Nacional Tortuguero, a protected wilderness area on the northern Caribbean coast. The beaches here are known for their sea turtle nesting grounds, including endangered green turtles, while the park’s freshwater creeks and lagoons shelter caimans and river turtles. We leave the car behind in Siquirres and catch a longboat up river to the coast, passing through wetlands and dense jungle where we spot crocs sunning themselves, iguanas clinging to hibiscus bushes, howler monkeys skipping between vines, and so many kinds of birds (toucans, pelicans, herons) that I and the other non-birders on board take solemn stock of our plight. At one point Hector points out a common basilisk, known as the Jesus lizard for the fact that it can walk on water.
Our hotel for the night, Laguna Lodge, is built on a narrow strip of land between Tortuguero’s main lagoon and the Caribbean coast. The bugs are bigger here, the wilderness wilder and the fauna at its noisiest after dark. My night-time lullaby is a symphony of red-eyed frogs and cicadas, chirping from the every-shade-of-green gardens that surround my rustic hut. I let out a long breath and feel tightness release in my belly. Henry David Thoreau had it right when he said, “We need the tonic of wildness.”
Leaving Tortuguero, Hector navigates west toward the town of La Fortuna de San Carlos, home of the colossal Arenal Volcano and another distinct ecosystem. Along the dusty highway, we detour to a small village where the Tico family shows us how they have been farming palmito (heart of palm) for generations. Things move at a slow pace here – at least a dozen well-fed dogs sleep in the sun when we arrive and mama Tico sits in a hammock peeling steamed plantain. Papa Tico dons thick gloves – the palm stalks have fierce thorns – and takes us into his plantations where he lobs off a couple of long buds, proudly revealing the tender inner hearts. Back in the open-air kitchen, mama serves me the just-peeled flesh transformed into a simple ceviche, with corn tortillas on the side. The nutty palmitos are the perfect complement to the warm bread, and I don’t leave a trace on my plate despite the fact that lunch is mere minutes away.
Lunch is at Hacienda Pozo Azul, an 80-hectare working ranch dedicated to eco-tourism. There are white water rafting trips, horse riding along jungle trails, ziplining through the forest and hikes into a private nature reserve where guides decode flora and fauna, including a large number of endemic butterflies and frogs. But I’m here to tour the expansive organic gardens and orchards that the owners, the Quintana family, use to supply the on-site restaurant. We pick corn, ginger, malanga (a type of root vegetable) and herbs, then sit down to a lunch of chorreadas (corn pancakes) and rondon (spicy coconut soup with fish and yucca), and a zingy ceviche made with sea bass, coriander and red pepper – it’s like Costa Rica on a plate.
There are similar offerings, although on a much larger scale, at nearby Arenal Vida Campesina, an organic garden and cultural centre where you can tour cocoa and coffee plantations and learn about the farm’s sustainable growing, harvesting and reforestation practices. There’s also an open kitchen where we watch chefs prepare local specialties, from gallo pinto (black beans and rice) to wafer-thin plantain chips and heart-starting coffee dripped in a chorreador, a type of cloth filter typical to the country.
This part of Costa Rica, the fertile northern lowlands, is the setting for Arenal, the country’s most active volcano and one of the top 10 most active of its kind in the world up until 2010. Until recently, it experienced 41 eruptions a day. It’s currently in a resting phase, which has paved the way for the many boutique hotels and resorts opening nearby its jungle-laced lava flows.
I check in to Arenal Kioro, known for its hot springs – my room comes with a thermal-heated hot tub – and incredible tropical gardens, complete with a backdrop of the near-symmetrical, 1633-metre-high Arenal cone. Within its foothills sit rainforest, waterfalls and the country’s largest lake, all easily accessible on hiking tours through Arenal Volcano National Park.
The park is also the site of 1140-metre-high Chato Volcano, although this particular volcano has been inactive for nearly 3500 years and has a collapsed crater that contains a picture-perfect lagoon. There are vast expanses of lava fields and forest to explore here, with short trails also leading to Lake Arenal at the mountain’s base. Significantly, the waterway supplies 12 per cent of Costa Rica’s hydroelectric energy, and there are wind farms on its banks and a geothermic plant nearby to tap into the region’s other bountiful green energy resources. It’s also a magnet for wildlife and as we stroll closer to the water, we spot white-faced monkeys and yellow-backed orioles clinging to ferns and wild orchids.
Our road trip ends at the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, which straddles the Continental Divide and covers 10,520 hectares of tropical rainforest. It’s home to six ecological zones and an extremely high biodiversity (2500 plant species, 100 species of mammals, 400 bird species, and 161 reptilian and amphibian species). And many of them are on show at Villa Blanca, our boutique accommodation for the night situated in the neighbouring Los Angeles Private Cloud Forest Reserve.
In addition to the beautiful casitas (cabins) – each with vaulted cane ceilings, an open fire and spa tubs overlooking the gardens – the hotel features organic gardens, a strong recycling policy, and a commitment to sustainability. There’s an on-site research station where local scientists come to study the country’s endemic species, and guests can book in to meet with biologists and naturalists who help identify photos of plants and animals snapped around the property.
In the kitchen, chefs produce everything from butter to cheese – including a creamy smoked mozzarella and a hard cheese infused with spices from the greenhouse – along with a warming soup that is half black bean and half pejibaye (peach palm), and wholly delicious.
In the early evening I hike through the hotel’s expansive grounds as mist spills over a ridge thick with jungle, enveloping the whitewashed casitas. Fireflies flicker in the gathering darkness and, from the treetops, the haunting chant of howler monkeys gathers pace. I can smell rain, the earthy aroma of droplets hitting warm soil and tarmac. And somewhere there is a wood fire burning, signalling a cool night ahead. As I make my way back to the dinner table, I know that this is the only tonic I need.
Qantas operates daily flights from Sydney to Dallas from US$1414 return. There are daily connections on American Airlines south to San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica, from about US$1088 return.
The Costa Rica Marriott Hotel San Jose is designed as a traditional courtyard hacienda and features vast tropical gardens and a golf course. Rates for a deluxe room start from about US$188 per night.
Laguna Lodge in Tortuguero is a great base for exploring the surrounding jungle. Rooms are simple but comfortable, and there’s an atmospheric restaurant and bar perched over the river. Rooms from US$119 per night.
Thermal streams and bathtubs are just part of the allure of Arenal Kioro, where rooms and suites also come with dramatic views of the Arenal Volcano. From about US$224 per night.
Villa Blanca in the Los Angeles Private Cloud Forest Reserve is designed to resemble a ninteenth century mountain farm village, with individual casitas and an excellent restaurant overlooking the forest. Casitas from US$134 per night.
There are a number of ways to get around Costa Rica, depending on how independent you want your travels to be. You can rent a car through companies such as Avis, or you can rent a car and driver. There’s also the option of guided tours from companies offering immersive programs designed to connect you with locals and the environment.