You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

Rich pickings to be had in Costa Rica

Press AssociationPress Association 2/04/2016 Karen Bowerman

As any fashionista will tell you, there are countless ways to wear a silk scarf, but wrapping it round the neck of a soggy goat, retrieved from a river in Costa Rica, probably isn't one of them.

I'm on a boat on the river Frio near Los Chiles, a sweltering village a few kilometres south of Costa Rica's border with Nicaragua, when the drama unfolds.

In trying to persuade a goat, pursued by dogs, to scale the river bank, we accidentally cause it to jump into caiman-infested waters instead. My group, all girls, reacts hysterically, not that I mean to be stereotypical.

Our (male) guide, Arturo, abandons our sloth-seeking to initiate a rescue. With the goat on board and tethered (the scarf looped into a lead), we return it to its owner, upriver.

"Great!" I say, for although I refrain from mentioning it, I don't want to come all the way to Costa Rica, that most bio-diverse of countries, for a goat.

Thanks to its location, wedged between the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea, Costa Rica has multiple microclimates and the most species, per area, in the world. It is home to more than 200 types of reptiles, 800 kinds of birds, 35,000 varieties of insects and, what excites me most, five species of sloth.

"Look for a ball of 'moss' in a tree," Arturo suggests, the goat saga over. Bearing in mind we're in a tropical rainforest, it doesn't reduce the options much. But somehow, we spot one - a shaggy brown two-toed sloth hanging casually by all fours in a cecropia tree. It swivels its squashed, snouted face, mid-snooze, to see what all the fuss is about.

Moments later, a bright green "Jesus Christ lizard" (an emerald basilisk) walks - or rather zips - across the water, explaining, with agility, its nickname. A boat-billed heron looks down, rather imperiously, and parakeets, keen not to be excluded from the action, bomb through the canopy above.

Then suddenly, the forest bursts into grunting sounds. Admittedly, we've heard them before. The first time, a member of our group, who shall remain anonymous, thought it was "a tropical dog".

It's actually a troop of howler monkeys, the second-loudest mammals after the blue whale, thanks to a special bone in their throats which acts as an amplifier.

"You hear the sound and think it's a monster!" Arturo says.

"But why do they have to make so much noise?" I ask.

The troop responds with a cumulative roar: "Because we can!"

Unsurprisingly, howler monkeys were absent from the squawking, chirping soundtrack that filtered through our green-tinted, jungle-themed plane when I set off for Costa Rica a few days earlier. It was Thomson's first flight to the country, and the only direct flight from the UK, hence the unique celebration.

We fly into Liberia, in the northwest, staying first at El Mangroove, a rather funky, boutique beach retreat, overlooking the Gulf of Papagayo in Guanacaste province. It's just a 30-minute drive from the airport, so I'm soon relaxing in a hammock on my balcony, to the sound of "tropical dogs".

The region is known for its dry climate and fine sand beaches but these, I'm told, come later. The next morning, we head about 160 kilometres east, through villages of squat houses and fields of wispy sugar cane, to Arenal Lake and volcano.

Our drive turns into a game of hide and seek, as the clouds, the light and the mountains toy with time-tight tourists desperate to glimpse the volcano's near-perfect cone.

It first erupted in 1968 and is still active - what I think is a halo of clouds is, in fact, steam.

There's steam, of a gentler kind, at the Tabacon hot springs near the town of La Fortuna, on the lake's northern shore. As we approach, Arenal volcano seems to straddle the high street.

I intend to keep an eye on it that evening, but a few cocktails later, I'm delighting in a series of thermal pools fed by mini cascades. I'm not even fazed by sharing the springs with a friendly, lethargic lizard.

If I'm in need of a pick-me-up, it comes the following day in a caffeine-filled visit to a coffee plantation near Monteverde, 160 kilometres south.

I meet the owner, Don Juan, a wizened 78-year-old, who tells me his coffee's the best I'll ever taste "because of all the love that goes into it".

He confides he "didn't even like the stuff" until he was 37, when it was all his father-in-law offered him to drink after a hard day's work in the mountains. Now he sells his organic, fair trade beans to leading supermarket chains.

Monteverde is a settlement that appears to have been built in the clouds. It's damp and atmospheric, with roads that dissolve into sky. I'm inclined to linger but Arturo herds us on (we girls need a bit of herding, I can tell you). He tells us it's time for adventure.

We're soon bouncing across suspension bridges among giant ferns and 49-metre-tall trees in Monteverde's cloud forest. But it's not the main reason we're here - that's the Superman zip line at the end of our canopy tour.

It's a bit disconcerting signing up to a ride that plunges you into the sky, head first, before you've even tried it seated, but our guide, Tony, who handles hysteria well, persuades us.

It proves exhilarating; with the wind in my face and the canopy below, I feel like I'm almost flying.

That evening we check into the all-inclusive Dreams Las Mareas resort on Costa Rica's northwest coast: it's time to enjoy those beaches. But first, I take a dip in my room's swim-up pool, as a neighbour enjoys his jacuzzi.

The resort's set in gardens with tiered pools leading down to the private Jobo Bay. It's sandy, sheltered and hot. There are manta rays in the sea, pelicans on the rocks and hawks overhead.

Add to this a sighting of an armadillo near a restaurant, and the rare, owl-like great potoo, which apparently birders would have died for, and I come to realise I've spotted a lot of Costa Rica's wildlife without much effort at all.

Stinky scarf aside, I guess I should say sorry to that goat.

* The writer travelled as a guest of Thomson.

image beaconimage beaconimage beacon