...images from planet Earth
Many people visit Costa Rica for the surf, others for the beaches and a large number, like myself, go for the wildlife. So I planned to go to places where I would see lots of animals and stay away from the surf spots and other places where large numbers of people tend to visit. I also love taking landscape photos so I look for stunning scenery, and Costa Rica had plenty of that to offer too, as well as lush green rainforests, beaches, and excellent weather.
I flew into San Jose on the night of 31 January. I had reserved a place at the Costa Rica Backpackers, which is always busy but always seems to have enough room. It's a good place to meet people, if you want to, and it's a nice place to relax between trips to the country's natural wonders. There's also free internet access and all the facilities backpackers will need.
The next day I took a bus to volcan Irazu, two hours away. This is an extinct volcano which has a vivid turquoise lake in the main crater. The bus drops you off at the summit and you get a couple of hours there, giving you enough time to relax and enjoy the views. I had the rest of the day in San Jose and prepared for my first main destination the following day, Rincon de la Vieja. I took a bus to Liberia (4 hours) and spent the first day there. I had found, by accident, the Liberia Hotel. It was run by a Peruvian guy called Beto, who was a great laugh. He was able to give me special rates on accommodation and activities at the (normally expensive) Rincon de la Vieja Lodge, just outside the park. So I arranged for him to take me there the following day and I spent a few hours exploring the small town, it's not that great.
There are several hikes to do in the park, and you'll need at least a couple of days. In the morning, we did a four hour hike through rainforest to some fumaroles and mini volcanoes. In the afternoon we hiked to the Cangreja waterfall, another four hour hike, much of which was though open savannah type land, and the heat was quite intense. But it was worth the effort because, not only was the waterfall nice to look at but it was good place to cool off. There's another waterfall you can hike to further north but this one was supposed to be the better one. I should mention the little black biting flies in this park, more annoying than mosquitoes and the bites are more itchy! If you stop for more than a few minutes they'll swarm over you. Apart from the flies, we saw agoutis, coatis but not much else. I had to wait till the second day to see some white faced capuchin monkeys but it was hard work finding them. A lot of people had seen monkeys though, capuchins and spider monkeys. That morning I did a canopy tour. I'm normally scared of heights and I was shitting myself before the first ride but I was so glad I did it, it was one of the best things I did on the whole trip. Platforms were about 30m up and the longest zip lines were more than 200m. The rides between trees are over so quickly though, it would be nice to have time to enjoy the views. Some canopy tours are designed more for wildlife watching.
Back to Liberia that afternoon and the following day I was back in San Jose. I hadn't planned to go to Manuel Antonio. I heard it was too crowded and overdeveloped but I realised it must be popular for a reason and I really wanted to see monkeys after the poor showing during the last couple of days. I took the 6am bus from the infamous Coca Cola bus terminal in San Jose, not knowing whether I should spend a night there or come back the same day. When I arrived I headed straight for the park and started walking. The forest was nice and I saw a deer, lots of iguanas, agoutis and racoons. One trail led to a lookout point overlooking the ocean. All very nice but still no monkeys! I finally saw a large group down by the beach, looking for food in bins and from handouts from visitors who ignore warnings about feeding the animals. It was sad to see but it gave me a chance to get close to them and watch their amusing, human-like behaviour. By about 3pm I decided I'd seen enough of the park and felt I could go back to San Jose tonight and save myself a day. It was a good day but a very long one. I got back to the capital just before 9pm.
I spent the next day relaxing at the hostel by the pool, preparing myself mentally and physically for the gruelling mission that was to follow - a trip to Corcovado. Soon after I arrived in CR, I changed my mind about going there, but then I spoke to a guy at the hostel who had been there. He told me it was one of the most awesome places he'd been to and said it was like a zoo. That did it for me, I decided I had to go. (National Geographic described it as 'the most biologically intense place on earth'). You can do it the easy way but it will be expensive (you have to fly there and stay at expensive lodges outside the park). If you want to take the long hikes into the park you'll probably have to stay at one of the camp sites, like Sirena which is the best base to explore the park from for wildlife. I couldn't get a reservation for food and accommodation there so I just turned up. It was 9 hours by bus to Puerto Jimenez (not as bad as it sounds - the buses and roads in Costa Rica were OK from my experience). I stayed there one night then got the jeep taxi to Carate in the morning. We got there at 9 and walked along the beach for an hour to the ranger station at La Leona where we registered. They don't speak English here so it's difficult if you don't know any Spanish. From here it was about 18km along forest trails and beaches to Sirena. We didn't see any monkeys along this part but there were lots of scarlet macaws (very loud), and some racoons, agoutis and we saw two snakes. It's a flat trail so it should be OK if you've got a good pack with not too much weight and are protected against the sun. I wasn't and after a long beach walk I started feeling sick. That night I couldn't eat but I got plenty of sleep and I was well enough to walk the next day. Just as well because I didn't have any decent food with me and there was nothing at the camp. I left at 7am and as soon as I entered the forest I could tell this was a special place. The forest was alive with sound and smells, and within a few minutes I had seen spider monkeys. I later saw a troop of howler monkeys and at one point I was so close to them that their roaring, wailing and grunting was so load it was almost deafening. Later that day I saw another three troops of spider monkeys, the last of which weren't happy with my presence as they jumped up and down and dropped bits of tree on me. Apart from mammals, there were hummingbirds, lizards, butterflies and loads of insects and spiders. I didn't see any frogs, tapirs or peccaries, animals I expected to see in a place like this. I was relieved to finally get to Los Patos ranger station eight hours later, but I then discoverer it was another three hours walk to La Palma, from where I could catch a bus back to Puerto Jimenez. After a short rest I set off again, through another forest trail and then out into the open, where I had to cross a river about 20 times. Luckily, after about an hour, I saw a 4x4 going the same way and I hitched a ride to La Palma, and I was back to civilisation much quicker than I had thought. I'd never been so grateful for a meal as I was when I had arroz pollo (chicken rice) that evening.
The next morning I caught the 5am bus back to San Jose and spent the rest of the day lying on a sun bed resting my aching body (that was just an excuse, I just love lounging in the sun). As I had returned a day early, I had time to go to volcan Poas, and I was glad I went. It was cloudy in San Jose so I was sure if I should bother. It was also cloudy when we arrived at the summit but I waited at the rim of the crater and after about half an hour the clouds disappeared long enough to give us amazing views of the steaming crater below. There's a lagoon you can walk to nearby. We had fours hours there before the bus took us back to San Jose.
My next destination was the Caribbean. I wanted to spend a day in the port town of Limon. It wasn't a tourist destination and I wanted to see what some of the less desirable parts of Costa Rica were like. Besides, it broke up my journey to Cahuita and allowed me to get there early the next day. I had heard good things about Cahuita but it was nicer than I expected. It's a small village with dirt roads, simple wooden homes, and lots of greenery and palms. There's a strong Caribbean influence, and for this reason you'll finally be able to get some decent food (I recommend La Fe restaurant, go for the fish in coconut sauce). I took a large room with hot water that was right near the entrance to the national park. I stayed in Cahuita for two days and I went to the park on both days. On the first, I walked about half of the trail to the beach past the headland. There were loads of howler monkeys and I saw about four sloths as well. On the second day I walked a bit further but I hardly saw any howler monkeys and instead saw lots of capuchin monkeys and only one sloth. That just goes go show how much the wildlife can vary in one day in national parks. You never know what you're going to see.
I was back in San Jose by midday and was happy to sit by the pool till the sun went down, contemplating my 16 excellent days in Costa Rica...