The blue morpho butterfly’s iridescent colours glisten as it effortlessly swoops through the air, the howler monkeys chatter fills the high canopy of trees and the crocodile blends into the stream so well, you’d be forgiven for missing him.
This is Costa Rica’s Corcovado National Park — one of the world’s most biodiverse regions — and as in much of the country, nestled between Nicaragua to the north, Panama to the south, the Caribbean to the east and the Pacific to the west, nature’s abundance is captivating and inescapable.
Costa Rica means rich coast. And the nation of 50,000-square-feet boasts of an explosion of life. About 40 per cent of the land is protected (roughly 27 per cent by the government and 10 per cent privately), as are all of the animals, islands and rivers. The country, encompassing 12 climatic zones, is blessed with everything from mountains to mangroves.
Walking through the national park, Tony Jimenez Rogas, a guide with Aguila de Osa who’s been coming to the reserve on the Osa Peninsula in the country’s southwest for more than 40 years, points out brightly-coloured scarlet macaws, brown boobies and brown pelicans.
There are about 300 types of birds, 36 kinds of bats and four species of cats — jaguars, ocelots, pumas and margays — in the undisturbed 424-square-kilometre park, which is the last remaining large and sustainable lowland tropical rainforest in Central America.
We hike from the San Pedrillo Ranger Station to the Casa Corcovado Jungle Lodge (just outside of the park) and back for a break with some mouth-wateringly good, fresh pineapple, papaya and watermelon.
And then we set off in the other direction, passing the aforementioned crocodile, wading through a stream and trudging through old-growth rainforest to the beautiful San Pedrillo Waterfall — which cascades down a slope in two areas before flowing into a fantastic natural swimming hole.
It doesn’t take long for my group of seven to wade in, swim around and enjoy the refreshing pool. We take turns swinging like Tarzan from the Ficus vines, swim hard against the current to reach the falls, and once there clutch the rocks and then duck behind the chutes for the sheer exhilaration.
The rush of water, the lush rainforest and the joy of seeing wildlife in a vast, natural habitat really casts a spell.
And it stays with me. Like tuning into a certain frequency — the acute appreciation and respect for the natural world took centre stage and remained thus throughout my trip.
The next day, I’m in a small boat on the choppy Pacific Ocean looking at lightning bolts ahead of me and wondering if diving in this weather is really such a good idea. The dive-master Jean-Paul Arana, from Costa Rica Adventure Divers, assures me the storm is a ways off and that we’ll be fine.
Thankfully, the storm stops before we back roll off the boat and go underwater by Cano Island, one of the best snorkelling and diving sites in the country.
Turtles, lobsters and more
We are rewarded by seeing two huge turtles, a cluster of rock lobsters and numerous tropical fish. A few small schools of fish swim past us and the coral appears to be in decent shape.
But the highlight is swimming with five white tip sharks who seem to be play fighting. I later learn from Arana that it was in fact four males trying to mate with a female — who was having none of it.
When we surface after our second dive and get back on board we see a humpback whale breaching a short distance in front of the boat.
Full disclosure: I think the underwater world is amazing and I’m happy to see monkeys, birds and the like, however I’ve never been much of a fan of insects and rodents.
But a night hike, with Tracie Stice and Gianfranco Gomez, by Drake Bay on the peninsula changes all that. Seeing and learning more about the critters makes them much more interesting. And as most tropical insects and mammals are nocturnal — there’s simply more to see when it’s dark outside.
Stice points out a golden orb spider — which NASA has shown can adapt to the weightless environment of outer space and weave webs there. Our group also sees a Spirostreptid millipede and Stice explains that some millipedes have toxins, which monkeys use as insect repellent. And on the mammal front, we see a woolly opossum that literally stops in its tracks when it hears Gomez trill out “ch-ch-ch,” capturing the little creature’s attention.
It all reinforces the idea that nature is indeed amazing, as Juvenal Acuna, my naturalist guide throughout my trip, often says.
And in a country like Costa Rica, it’s difficult to disagree.
From the Osa Peninsula, we take a boat across part of the Pacific Ocean and through some mangroves to the town of Sierpe — where we stop to admire some of the mysterious stone spheres, thought to date back to 300 BC to 300 AD, at the Unesco World Heritage Finca 6 archeological site.
And from there we set off on a road trip across the Terraba River, the biggest in the area, and over the Talamanca Mountain Range — where you can find the Cerro Chirripo Mountain, which at 3,900 metres above sea level is the highest in the country. Acuna points it out as we take the route up the Cero de la Muerte (also known as the mountain of death, which at 3,700 metres is the third highest in the country.) The name is slightly disconcerting, but Acuna assures me it got the moniker many years ago when the Spanish came this way and many of them died of cold at the top.
En route, we pass through rainforest, into the cloud forest and eventually into elfin forest. Acuna explains how different crops grow at the various heights (we pass pineapple fields, sugar cane crops and Arabica coffee plantations) and he points out that the trees become shorter the higher up we go.
“Nature is amazing, it always finds a way to grow,” Acuna says, adding that the country’s lucky to have rich soil thanks to its 112 volcanoes. More than half of them are dormant, but two in the central valley are active — the Turrialba Volcano and the Poas (which is the second-largest active crater in the world).
Costa Rica’s top crops are Arabica coffee, bananas and pineapples. In terms of industry, agriculture ranks third for the country, after tourism and technology respectively.
About 4.9 million people live in the democratic republic, which is known as a world leader in environmental conservation. Almost all of the country’s energy (97 per cent) is produced from nature and the recently elected President Carlos Alvardo Quesada announced a plan to make it the first carbon-neutral nation in the world by 2021 — when the country will mark the 200th anniversary of its independence. (Interestingly, Costa Rica abolished its army in 1948 — choosing to use the money for healthcare, education and a social safety net. And it ranked No. 12 in the world for happiness, according to the 2017 World Happiness Index.)
Indeed most of the people I meet on the trip seem to be happy, peaceful and proud of their country.
And in Turrialba Valley, about 70 kilometres east of the capital San Jose, they’re also energetic. This is a centre for adventure activities.
The Pacuare River is known for its fast Class III and IV white-water rapids. This, along with the lush, tropical rainforest on either side of the 108-kilometre river led National Geographic to call it one of the top-10 river trips in the world.
I join five others visiting from France and Spain and our expert Explornatura guide Jorge Segura, who steers our raft and is so adept at reading the river he can call out commands faster than the river surges as we alternately get thrown about the rapids and then peacefully glide along the water.
Luckily, we’re also accompanied by a couple of kayakers in case someone gets thrown overboard, or loses a paddle. Indeed both of these things happen (a number of times), which adds to the adrenaline rush, the laughter and the vibrancy of totally living in the moment.
Segura and both the kayakers have all competed internationally in kayak events and riding the river seems like it’s second nature to them. It leaves the rest of us with an exhilarating thrill that lingers after we disembark.
With the rapids still racing through me I opt for more of a relaxed activity the next day and go for a bike tour through the CATIE botanical garden. I see cows, coffee and cocoa plants along the way and learn how this international research and education centre helps promote sustainable growth in Latin America and the Caribbean. The large site, which has about 4,400 species of plants from all over the world, is an oasis of green and also home to a forest seed bank.
Costa Rica’s forests are amazing and one of the coolest ways to explore them is on a zip-line…
Explornatura’s Mario Ramirez, aka Super Mario, leads my group of five adults and four children as we whiz through the treetops on five different zip-lines, cross a balance beam of a hanging bridge, and canyon down three different waterfalls.
The latter is the most challenging — loosening the rope on the harness, while finding my footing against the rock face and being soaked by the cool waterfall at the same time definitely takes a bit of co-ordination and adds to a bizarre sense of accomplishment afterwards.
But there’s more to it than the adrenaline kick — just being surrounded and immersed in the rainforest again is an extraordinary experience. It’s no wonder so much wildlife calls this natural haven home.
The writer was a guest of the Costa Rica Tourism Board. The organization did not review this article.