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So what were the attractions of the National Parks we visited? The snapshots given do scant justice to the wonders of this small Central American country. Our first visit was to Tortuguero National Park and its network of winding, twisting waterways teeming with extraordinary wildlife. A variety of herons, including the curious and curiously named boat-billed heron. A spectacled caiman lurks in the shallows. Overhead a spider monkey is leaping from branch to branch. The guide/boatman is amazing at discovering hidden wildlife, even down to the water spider on the trunk of a ceibo tree. On land the accommodation, here as throughout the trip, was excellent. The gardens at Pachira Lodge are not short of a surprise or two either: take care on the main path not to disturb the hummingbird nest, with its two chicks. Admire the brightly coloured freshwater crabs. And then there are the flowers and the foliage.
But onward and upward. After Tortuguero, our next destination was the very different volcanic landscape of Arenal. It is a live volcano, and in a cloudless sky, we enjoyed the view of a fumarole pouring from its top. A pleasant walk through the forest at the foot of the volcano brought more interesting sights including “the dinosaur tree”.
The Monteverde Cloud Forest was a different world altogether. Our favourite bird was the multi-coloured blue-crowned motmot, and we doffed our caps respectfully to whoever dreamed up that name. A treetop walk was one of the highlights. Also unmissable was a night walk, featuring snakes, a tarantula, and myriad fireflies. Slumped over a branch high up in his den, a snoozing sloth remained blissfully unaware of the attention he was receiving below. I’ll have to gloss over all the other flora and fauna we saw here.
The delights of the Pacific, and in particular Manuel Antonio, were next on the list. Wonderful beaches, splendid walks by the sea, capuchin monkeys everywhere, lizards blocking the path, and the sauna-like warmth of the Pacific waves. Unbeatable! Whilst we were enjoying our gallo pinto a brightly coloured toucan made a guest appearance. He posed gracefully on the palm tree just long enough for everyone to get their photos.
The next stop, Esquinas Rainforest Lodge, was, by a small margin, our favourite place. Owing to a mix-up somewhere, they were short of beds and 4 of us were required to sleep in 2 villas, a 5 minute walk away from the main complex. We volunteered immediately. The villa was located on a little hillock, and you reached it by a flight of steep (but not too steep) steps. The hammock was the first thing we saw and the spacious veranda. From our eyrie we had a splendid view of the foliage below us, especially the wonderful variety of ferns. Walking back in the evening we would stop to admire the caiman lurking in the pool below the villa. His eyes gleamed in the dark.
I’ve mentioned birds but I haven’t done justice to the flora of Costa Rica and for keen gardeners the country is a must. Several varieties of heliconia and orchid, the brilliantly coloured lady’s slipper, angel's trumpet, and the huge variety of ferns and trees are a constant delight and make every walk an eye-opening discovery.
Our last nature stop was the tropical rain forest of Savegre. A hummingbird paradise with lots of them constantly at the feeders and amongst the flowers. But pride of place here must go to a pair of nesting Resplendent Quetzals – Costa Rica’s national bird. To see the male quetzal perched on a branch, with its vivid scarlet breast, bright turquoise feathers, and above all its 3 foot long turquoise tail, is to understand why the Mayans considered this the most sacred of birds. An unforgettable sight.
Reluctantly we bade goodbye to these natural wonders and made our way slowly back to San José. The final chapter in our adventure was a visit to a school where the children performed some traditional songs and dances. A charming interlude. Lunch was taken at a picturesque farm nearby where we enjoyed some home-made delicacies after which we admired the beautifully kept gardens.
We had some time on the Saturday to explore San José. Frankly there is not much to see, but the National Museum is a must not only for its pre-Colombian art but for the brilliant butterfly garden that acts as the entrance to the museum. There are one or two markets worth a languid saunter and the interior of the Opera House is surprisingly ornate.