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Pura Vida! Discovering Costa Rica

| 24 Aug 2007

Latin America Consultants Katie Parsons and Ariane Mick de Vizcaino recently visited Costa Rica with Cox & Kings and they discovered a country teeming with diverse wildlife. Here is Katie’s account of their tour.

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Not being an avid birdwatcher or nature enthusiast one thing I didn’t expect to find myself doing in Costa Rica was getting up at 5 am to go looking for the elusive quetzal. But such is the incredible diversity of flora and fauna it is almost impossible not to become absorbed. If the bilingual guides, who can spot the smallest flower or bird long before anyone else, don’t know the answer to a question about the plants and animals, then it isn’t worth knowing.

Tortuguero National Park
There are 25 National Parks in Costa Rica, and the Ticos (the name Costa Ricans give themselves) enjoy their claim that 25% of the country is protected by the government. Tortuguero National Park, named because of the large population of Leatherback turtles that nest on the beaches between June and September, is jungle on the Caribbean coast and unlike the other parts of the country there is no dry season – in fact it is one of the wettest areas in the country. Although seeing the baby turtles hatching is obviously a key attraction, a visit is more than worthwhile anytime of year as there are plenty of other species of plant and wildlife to be found; on a boat trip along the canals we saw caiman, iguana, green parrot, different types of monkey, frogs, birds and a Jesus Christ Lizard, so named because of its ability to walk on water. Many of the modern conveniences of normal city hotels are left behind here, although our lodge did provide a free but very early morning wake up call: on-site howler monkeys!

Arenal Volcano National Park
Arenal Volcano National Park is 80 miles to the north of San Jose but the drive is very scenic and passes the less active volcano of Poas. Until 1968 the Arenal Volcano was believed to be extinct. Since then there have been frequent eruptions and the area has developed into one of the most popular tourist attractions in Costa Rica as visitors flock to the natural hot springs and to see the almost nightly lava spectacular. We signed up for our hotel’s ‘lava wake-up call’, went to bed and hoped for the best. Unfortunately it wasn’t our lucky night and the only wake-up was from the alarm clock.

Kioro Springs
Primary cloud forest and rainforest cover Arenal National Park with an abundance of flora and fauna species in multiple life zones, innumerable rivers, waterfalls and thermal hot springs. Several of the hotel resorts have their own on-site hot springs. The Tabacon Resort has some of the most popular springs in the area but are not exclusive to hotel guests and resemble more a Disney-esque theme park than a place to relax and unwind. The private springs for guests close to the Kioro hotel are far more tranquil and exclusive. Some of the springs are too hot to stay in for too long, but rather like Goldilocks you can pick and choose until you find one that is not too hot and not too cold.

Monteverde Cloud Forest
Located up in the mountains at an altitude of 1440m (4662ft) Monteverde is known as a cloud forest rather than a rain forest because the clouds go through the forest. The rainy season runs from May to October but this doesn’t mean it never rains at other times! The Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve is a non-governmental, private non-profit reserve containing 6 distinct ecological zones. The canopy is extremely rich with birds, insects, butterflies, and thousands of plants. The nearby Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve is a smaller reserve but offers similar flora and fauna and far less visitors. The best way to appreciate the cloud forest is to walk along the trails with your guide and a pair of binoculars.

Sighting the Quetzal
Driving south from San Jose along the Pan-American Highway, the road climbs high into the Cerro de la Muerte mountains. The village of San Gerardo de Dota is located in a picturesque valley on the western slopes and has a plethora of plant and bird species. It is also the primary habitat of the quetzal, the most famous of all Costa Rican birds. The Resplendent Quetzal features heavily in the pre-Columbian civilisations of Central America and was revered by the Mayans and Atzecs who believed the bird to be the god of the air and a symbol of goodness and light. The Mayan rulers wore headdresses made of the vibrant green tail feathers to connect them symbolically with Quetzalcoatl, the god of creation and wind. The bird can be seen most of the year but is more frequently found in the breeding season of April and May, amongst the avocado trees (its favourite food). We were lucky enough to see a mother and baby Quetzal before the male flew back to complete the set. Very satisfying after such an early start!

The Pacific Coastline: Playa Grande
The Pacific coastline offers 3 distinct areas for wildlife protection. On the northern peninsula Playa Grande is thought to be one of the most significant nesting sites in the world for the baula, or leatherback turtle. However, despite the ever-increasing efforts to protect the turtles, fewer leatherbacks are nesting on the beaches. Between December and April it is possible to visit the beach during the night on a guided tour to watch the hatching of the baby turtles. The beaches around the town of Tamarindo are some of the finest in Costa Rica, and are ideal for sunbathing with a freshly-made cocktail.

The Pacific Coastline: Manuel Antonio National Park
On the centre of the Pacific coast lies Manuel Antonio National Park, the second smallest but perhaps most visited national park in the country. Thickly forested volcanic hillsides rise steeply from the shoreline, which provide stunning views and plenty of walking opportunities. These tropical forests are home to a range of animals including different species of monkeys, toucans, iguanas, sloths and scarlet macaws and the beaches provide homes for a number of sea birds.

The Pacific Coastline: Corcovado National Park
Situated on the very southern stretch of Costa Rica’s Pacific coast, the Osa Peninsula and the Corcovado National Park are home to the largest population of scarlet macaw in the country as well as many endangered animals such as giant anteaters, Baird’s tapir and the harpy eagle. In the surrounding water of the Pacific Ocean and the Golfo Dulce dolphins and whales can also be seen. These, and the countless other species of fauna and flora have led the area to be considered by National Geographic as ‘the most biologically intense place on earth’. Here beautiful and remote lodges allow visitors to experience nature away from the crowds.Nature lovers will adore Costa Rica, and those with even the most minor interest in birds will find themselves inspired to get out of bed at 5am, pick up a pair of binoculars and go out in search of the quetzal.

Cox & Kings’ 9-night Natural Splendours of Costa Rica group tour explores the highlights including Tortuguero, Arenal and Monteverde Cloud Forest, and starts from £1,445 per person.
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