Pure Adventures in Costa Rica

I had long wanted to visit Costa Rica. Travelers from around the world had extolled its virtues – a land of great natural beauty with the Caribbean on one side, the Pacific on the other and a lot of wild mountains and rainforests and friendly people in between.

On my Costa Rica holiday, this was not immediately apparent in San José, the grubby little capital in a highland valley. There are no elegant structures, but no one ever said that Costa Rica was known for architecture. Its beauty lies not in its buildings but in its environment.


Monteverde Costa RicaCloud Forest
Driving northwest of San Jose we travelled up into the clouds to Monteverde, the most peaceful place on Earth. Monteverde is a place to make oneself at home in an eco-friendly lodge and settle into the beauty of the Tilaran Mountains.

This stems from a community of Quaker farmers who arrived in the area from Alabama in 1950, after refusing to register for military service in the United States. At the time, they were looking for somewhere they could raise dairy cattle, without being called upon to shoot anybody. They chose Costa Rica largely because it had taken the surprising but enlightened decision to abolish its armed forces, following a brief civil war. To this day the little country of about four million people has no army, no navy and no air force.

The Quakers soon grew harmony with nature and their neighbours. From the beginning they had been careful to preserve the forest above their land, and now the botanists and the tourists were coming, and this benefited the wider community. “I’m content, I’ve been able to live according to my conscience,” Says Alejandro, one of the first Quakers to have settled there. “There is a sense of achievement.”

“I don’t feel I am the owner, how can anyone own a forest that has existed for thousands of years?” he said quite sensibly as we strolled towards his house through a meadow. “I think of myself more as a custodian.”

Arenal Costa Rica – Volcano
Like most travellers, we travelled to Arenal volcano, the most spectacular feature of Costa Rica. Travellers generally contend themselves with seeing the volcano but there is more to that. The vegetation in the region is exotic. I was drawn to every plant, to every flower that I admit, had not seen before.

The last time the Arenal volcano blew its top on July 29, 1968, it wiped out two villages, killed 80 people an incinerated 45,000 head of cattle. When we walked to its base, it continued its ominous rumblings like an angry bull terrier tied to a mast and belching ash and lava at us. The region is spawned with resorts from which one can observe its fiery convulsion; from a respectful distance.

It is also an activity destination; you can go biking, hiking, horseback riding, quad biking and canopy tours or take a guided rainforest walk. Later, try one of the many hot baths.


Tortuguero Costa Rica – National Park
A long journey through a banana plantation we reached north of Puerto Limon. From where adventurous tourists take a shallow-draught boat to Tortuguero, and get to see the wildlife at close quarters on canoe trips through the sort of jungle favoured by Indiana Jones.

The gods did not design the Atlantic coast of Costa Rica for mass tourism. It is hot and humid, and characterised by mangroves, swamps and rain. The local joke is that it rains 15 months a year. Because of the nature of the land, or rather the lack of it; there are no roads in or out of the Tortuguero National Park which encompasses a coastal swamp forest interlaced with rivers and canals. This is good news for a colony of green sea turtles that breeds there, as well as a menagerie of monkeys and sloths and anteaters and iguanas and crocodiles and frigate birds and kingfishers.

Poison-arrow frogs
It is useful in such places to have a guide who knows where to find tiny, scarlet poison-arrow frogs, and to explain the life and death dramas enacted on Heliconia atisphata. This is a plant with strings of red beak-shaped fruits that attracts humming birds which feed on its nectar, and in the process transfer pollen dusted on their foreheads. Unfortunately this little-known fact is common knowledge among eyelash vipers, who lie in wait for humming bird suppers.

Veragua Rainforest Adventure:
On our return, we visited the area’s newest attraction, the Veragua Rainforest Research & Adventure Park, located 40 minutes from the town of Limon. The Veragua experience, with guided tour and lunch, includes a gondola tram ride through the rainforest canopy, a butterfly garden, a reptile vivarium, a hummingbird garden, the largest nocturnal indoor frog garden in the world, spectacular walking trails through the primary rainforest, a grand waterfall and a working scientific research station.

“Everything has a purpose, and everything is recycled,” Diego, our guide observes. He explains that the leaves and mosses of cloud forests act as condensing surfaces, converting mist into drops of water that nourish the forest and form streams that provide local communities with fresh water. He has an expression for this perennial cycle. Ecological karma, he calls it.

The government shares his appreciation of wilderness areas, and has passed laws protecting more than a quarter of the country in one form or another. The ethos of a country that prefers wildlife to warfare is summed up by a popular T-shirt bearing a declaration by a North American native chief in 1854. “Only when the last tree has died and the last river has been poisoned and the last fish has been caught will we realise that we cannot eat money.”

Costa Rica thus has its head in the clouds and its feet firmly planted in rich volcanic soil and a stable democracy that has soared it the violent upheavals of its unruly neighbours in Nicaragua and El Salvador. The philosophy of its good- natured people is expressed in a popular saying, pura vida, meaning literally “pure life”.