Travel review: Costa Rica
Gliding weightlessly through a white tunnel with the view obscured by a soft, billowing mist must surely be what it feels like to die.
Except, in the final moments before shuffling off this mortal coil, I shouldn’t be seeing monkeys gibbering away metres below me. And that fine spray of mud angling annoyingly onto my face was certainly not a fitting way to enter the afterlife.
A splodge of mud in the eye does wonders to bring you back to reality. Of course I wasn’t dying - I was zip wiring, careering high above the Costa Rican cloud forest.
The extreme sport is fast becoming as synonymous with Costa Rica as bungee jumping is with New Zealand.
Costa Rica is also an ecological hotspot. Its position as a land bridge linking two continents, its climate and over-active geology, combine to create one of the world’s leading environmental destinations.
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Wildlife lovers and more intrepid travellers have known this for years, flocking to the cloud forests, reefs and volcanoes to glimpse its seemingly endless variety of wildlife.
Costa Ricans, or “Ticos”, are fiercely proud not only of their ecological riches but also of their country’s stability and prosperity in the unsettled Central American region.
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A telling boast is that Costa Rica employs more teachers than police. And, even more remarkably, it has no army.
These factors make Costa Rica, or the “rich coast” as its Spanish translation testifies, a unique tourist spot and now the larger travel companies are cottoning on to its vast potential.
Packages by tour operator First Choice are centred on the magical Guanacaste region, straddling Costa Rica’s north west Pacific coast.
One of the first surprises about Guanacaste (it’s named after a tree whose seeds look like a human ear) is that it is cowboy country. Despite the profusion of jeeps, the horse is king.
We got into the saddle at the Hacienda Guachipelin, a working farm in the foothills of the Rincon de la Vieja national park.
The ecological richness of the country doesn’t take long to surprise and delight. We took a horseback ride through butterfly-strewn meadows, the tropical giants littering the grassland like cobalt and crimson confetti.
Costa Rica is actively volcanic and Rincon boats devilish-looking mud pools, that blister and spit at temperatures hot enough to strip flesh from the bone.
We retreated from the sulphurous stink into a jungle which quickly began to reveal its secrets.
Capuchin monkeys screamed indignantly from high in the canopy. An agouti - a sort of giant, swollen hamster - crashed in the undergrowth metres from our feet.
Following our exertions on horseback, an afternoon by the river had been promised. Relaxing it was not. The Hacienda, like much of Costa Rica, specialises in terrifying outdoor activities. We were to “tube” down the Rio Colorado.
Tubing, like zip wiring, requires the temporary abandonment of one’s sanity. Arriving alongside the raging torrent, we were presented with crash helmets, life vests and a large rubber ring.
The ring, it transpires, is a giant inner-tube, hence the term “tubing”. We were instructed to sit upon it and abandon our fate to the current.
Despite the ever-present and deeply alarming sensation of terror, tubing down the river was utterly exhilarating.
You plunge down the steeply descending, boulder-strewn river, the ferocious, frothing flow often twisting and turning you backwards, the impending roar of the water and screams of your companions the only clue that you are once again about to plunge down the next set of rapids.
Respite came the next day in the guise of cocktails, coatis and lava. We were heading inland towards Costa Rica’s volcanic spine.
Dramatic bursts of rainforest bulged from the roadside as we rose higher. The journey was momentarily curtailed by a group of badger-like coatis commandeering the road.
An inquisitive male, furious at being denied entry to our van, lifted his metre-long tail imperiously into the air at us before haughtily stomping off.
The brooding Arenal Volcano dominates this part of the country and provides a patchwork of volcanic pools, some of them cool enough to enjoy without needing immediate first aid.
From one such oasis, the Ecotermales Hot Springs, we supped sundowners made from the local fire spirit - guaro.
Steam rising up from the pools added to the Jurassic feel of the place as the vapour mingled with the dripping muddle of tropical vegetation before twisting off into the darkness.
Tiny poison arrow frogs supplied evening entertainment as we sat down to the Costa Rican rice and beans staple of gallo pinto, their chirping, squeaking calls leading a veritable frog chorus from the undergrowth.
The Monteverde Cloud Forest, high in the mist-wreathed mountains, is a haven for both scientists and tourists. The former attracted by the mind-boggling variety of species, the latter by the numerous ways of terrifying themselves.
But before we went zip wiring like latter-day Tarzans, we met some of the forest’s more spectacular inhabitants.
Costa Rica is a hummingbird hotspot, boasting more than 40 species, with evocative names such as mangoes, emeralds and sabrewings.
A small clearing of Selvatura Forest Park was set aside and decorated with small bird feeders luring in what on first glance seemed to be a squadron of flying jewels.
The hummers, resplendent in emerald and turquoise plumage, buzzed in to gorge on the sugary solution laid out for them. Despite being wild, they came close enough for you to feel their wing beats on your face.
But it was no good trying to put it off any longer, it was time for zip wiring. We were to shoot down 10 different wires, some two kilometres in length, with only a thick leather-gloved hand as a brake.
We traipsed like condemned men up the iron scaffold start point, high above the treetops.
Being a cloud forest the view was, well, pretty cloudy. The wire in front of me disappeared into the impenetrable mist.
As you sit in your harness, there is a sudden jarring contact of metal on metal, gravity takes you and, slowly, you edge out of the platform and into the abyss.
Then you’re transplanted into a wildlife documentary as the forest presents itself from a totally unexpected angle.
Below my feet, tops of jungle giants loomed momentarily as I sped by, their branches gloved in slime-green lichen and decorated with luxuriant bromeliad plants, nestling in crevices like elaborate, leafy nests.
All too soon the final zip wire was completed. I realised I couldn’t stop smiling. I wanted to do it again.
But Costa Rica is not just about adrenalin hits in the great outdoors. A catamaran voyage out from the black sands of Potrero Beach into the inky Pacific had started our trip in style.
And it was back to the coast for recuperation at our final destination, the jumbo-sized RIU hotel on the butter-coloured crescent of Playa Matapalo beach.
I sat in the surf supping guaro as a damson sunset bleached into the sea. Thirty metres away, pelicans dived into a bait ball of fish hiding below the surface, the giant birds joined in the inky water by the occasional flippers of dolphin joining the feast.
Heaven seemed very close at hand. - Liam Creedon
Key facts - Costa Rica
:: Best for - Stunning scenery and wildlife, exhilarating outdoor activities, luxurious beachside retreats.
:: Time to go - Rainy season subsides in late November, with glorious tropical sun from December to mid-March.
:: Don’t miss - Zip wiring above the pristine cloud forest.
:: Need to know - Most places take US dollars as well as the local currency, the Costa Rican colon.
:: Don’t forget - For activities like tubing, you need a pair of old trainers or pumps.
Liam Creedon was a guest of First Choice and flew on Thomson Airways’ weekly flight ex-Gatwick to Liberia, Costa Rica, starting at �469 return.
Thomson Airways reservations: 0871 231 4787 and www.thomsonairways.co.uk
First Choice doesn’t have a Costa Rica programme for 2011/2. Other operators there include Explore, which offers a 15-night Active Costa Rica tour, with horse-riding, canyoning, zip wiring, cycling (all optional) from �2,693 in 2011/2, incl return flights, 14-nights’ B&B, eight other meals, activities and guiding. Add �100 for reg deps ex-Manchester and Glasgow.
Explore reservations: 0844 499 0901 and www.explore.co.uk