Dom, one of our customized travel experts writes about his travels around Costa Rica in this blog.
When I was a boy growing up in Twickenham I used to dream of far flung adventures around the world, inspired by a love of animals I’d be glued to the TV on Sunday evenings immersed in whatever David Attenborough was talking about. Images of lush rainforests and wild oceans would fill my head with wonder and I was determined to escape the humdrum existence of south west London and venture off into the wilder corners of the globe. It wasn’t just the nature that captivated me, as I grew older it was the thought of the adventure, battling great rivers, scaling huge, smoking volcanoes and traversing crystal seas. I wanted it all and now at the age of 31 I was given an opportunity to live out the swashbuckling characters of my youth and rediscover all that joy and wonder I felt about the natural world. With my life now dominated by battles against mortgage advisors and traversing the perils of the London Underground a visit to Costa Rica was the perfect antidote to a forgotten youth.
Following a brand new British Airways flight into San Jose and a relaxing evening in the country’s capital the first adventure of the trip was upon us. Pacuare River Lodge is a labour of love in the heart of jungle, created 30 years ago as a bare camp site on the river bank the lodge is only accessible via the Pacuare River that’s given the lodge its name. To this day everything is still required to be brought in via the river, no easy feat when said river is one of the prime destinations for white water rafting anywhere on the planet.
This is how I found myself on the second morning of my trip standing on the banks of a deceptively calm stretch of water surrounded by five of my fellow guests nervously listening to Roy our raft captain (or is it cox?!) running through the safety instructions for lodge arrival. I don’t know what it is about safety briefings that ensures one’s pulse begins to race and palms begin to sweat but by the time I took my position crouched on the edge of the flimsy rubber dinghy ready to descend through four miles of twisting turning rapids, I was fairly sure it would be my final outing as a Scott Dunn employee.
We set off instructions booming from Roy behind us, “Forward Three!” “Back Left!” ” FORWARD!!!”. Naively I had thought rafting would be a little like the log flume at Chessington – a case of holding on tight and getting wet. In fact it’s a fantastic team effort guiding your tiny craft through whooshing passages of water boiling up between vast boulders and dodging vicious whirlpools waiting to suck you in and spit you out. It’s tremendous fun and within minutes I was feverishly battling with the rest of the crew against our evil foe the river, a single unit bonded together by a quest for survival (and the thought of lunch). It is the most incredible way to arrive at a hotel that I have ever experienced and as we rounded the last bend surrounded by thick jungle and approached the gentle slope of the bank in front of the hotel’s main building we were all best friends and looking forward to whatever the jungle had instore for us next.
The lodge itself is beautiful and far more luxurious than I was expecting given its ridiculously inaccessible setting. Individual cottages are placed along the river bank all with wide terraces complete with hammocks, some with plunge pools and beautiful touches like freestanding bathtubs and four poster beds. How they got all this here I will never know. Life at the lodge is busy with daily hikes into the jungle in search of wildlife as well as swimming in waterfalls, canyoning and even zip lining through the canopy. There is also a heavy focus on ecology and the indigenous Cabécar tribes that inhabit the surrounding jungle. It’s a truly fascinating place and perfect for couples and families. Departing the lodge is an even more spectacular experience as now a seasoned rafter you paddle through a further 14 miles of incredible jungle scenery with even bigger rapids standing in your way before making your way back to civilization. I’ll never forget my time a Pacuare, I didn’t think anything in Costa Rica could top it but I was wrong…
Following Pacuare we would spend time in Arenal, an area dominated by a huge volcano and home to some serious adventure. I spent time trekking across lava flows and quad biking before a heart stopping day spent on the Sky Trek. A selection of ziplines spanning across huge valleys where I flew through the air at up to 60mph, meters from the ground at times and hundreds of meters up at others. The longest of the cables is half-a-mile and a visit here is a must for any thrill seeker. I didn’t lose the inner 12 year old grin from my face the whole time.
The image of Costa Rica that I had in my head as I left the UK was of deep blue sea backed by thick impenetrable jungle. I finally found this dream destination on our next stop but first I had to make it there. We left San Jose by small plane headed for the Osa Peninsula, these journeys across the country were another highlight of the trip and it really lets you appreciate just how green and natural a country Costa Rica is. There are no swathes of land given over to ugly industrial practices, just miles and miles of jungles, high valleys of cloud forest and infinite stretches of golden sand bordering the emerald ocean. We landed in the small port town of Golfito about an hour’s flight from the capital and it was here that we would board a boat to our next adventure.
We were headed to Playa Cativo, a small eco-lodge backed on one side by some of the most unspoiled and diverse rainforest in the world and on the other by the calm waters of the Golfo Dulce. This promised to be true paradise and there was no hesitation in nature welcoming us; as our speedboat crossed the gulf, storm clouds brewed in the distance, thunder rattled around us and rain threatened. We were making quick time but before we knew it the boat had pulled up and a dead silence was ordered by our guide as he scanned the horizon. “There” he shouts and points towards a grey bump moving through the water. Before I knew it we were surrounded by dolphins. About 10 or so swam alongside the boat and followed us all the way into shore. It was unforgettable, close enough to touch but quickly dipping under water out of reach and frustratingly away from camera lenses. As we finally reached the beach outside of the lodge the rain had started to pour and everyone was wet but as we clambered out greeted by warm towels and umbrella wielding staff the mood was ecstatic and the real adventure had begun.
After a delicious lunch I went to explore the property. Having only seven rooms the hotel has a very small footprint within the jungle but they do a great job of making it feel calm and unthreatening. The grass is kept very short to deter snakes and I was happy wandering around in flip flops, chasing after the Coatis (sort of racoony, foxy things) and Agutis (sort of bunny, squirrelly things) that hop around the grounds. I spotted howler monkeys that looked down mischievously from above dropping or throwing nuts I couldn’t be sure, the unmistakeable outline of toucans perched in trees and a pair of scarlet macaws screeching their way through the sky. In fact I’d seen more wildlife within a couple of hour’s arrival than on the rest of the trip combined. After a communal dinner and another thunderous storm it was time for bed. We would be rising early for a kayaking tour. I set my alarm but I needn’t have worried as the howlers do a perfectly good job as soon as the sun is up. I was angry for a moment as I opened my eyes an hour before my alarm was due but then I looked out the window at the sunrise and realised sleep would have been a waste anyway. Instead I made coffee and sat mesmerized by the colors.
We set out at eight, the sun was up and it was already sweltering. Geraldo is the head naturalist at the lodge and leads all of the guided tours. He is incredibly passionate and knowledgable and like me was soon letting out his childhood excitement as we made our way by boat towing the kayaks behind us along the coast headed for the mangroves. He was describing the diversity of the local howlers and how their fur was slowly changing color due to a rare genetic trait that had been prevalent in one alpha male years before. Then we were making our way upstream through thick mangroves. Geraldo explaining with great care how this amazing ecosystem is formed and how the trees have each adapted their own way of dealing with the incredibly harsh environment covered with salty water one hour and exposed to the scalding sun the next. Finally we reached the point that we would board the kayaks but not before stopping off by a large gum tree that was home to a humongous boa constrictor. This was nature not for the faint hearted. It was only as we made our way tentatively into the kayaks that Geraldo thought to mention the alligators. Thanks mate…
We made our way paddling slowly through the great system of tree roots spotting incredible bird life and thankfully no more reptiles, all the time Geraldo drawing our attention to fascinating details. I’d spent my youth watching Attenborough on television and now here I was in those very same jungles he had explored accompanied by my very own Costa Rican version of him expertly guiding my way. We made it back to the main branch of the river and begun our long paddle back to the boat – this was when we passed the bank with the alligators. Fortunately they were not as large as I feared and my attention was instead back on Geraldo as he told us about the way the temperature of their nests dictates the gender of the embryo inside. We made it back to the boat and picnicked before heading back towards the lodge, on the way we would stop to snorkel in huge shimmering schools of fish. The rich waters of the gulf are abundant in wildlife and they even have whales and orcas visiting during summer months. The Osa peninsula is a truly amazing part of the world and one that I will never forget even now as I sit writing this in our Putney offices, back in South West London again after all these years but determined now to never let that inner wonder for the natural world that I had first felt as a child leave me.