A birdwatching paradise

December 2016

Taking advantage of the new direct flights with British Airways of 11 and a half hours from Gatwick to San Jose, we arrived in Costa Rica. Filing from the plane in to the immigration area we were greeted with a model of a giant smiling sloth in a Christmas hat. A routine stamp to the passport and a welcomed friendly smile from the immigration officer saw us through to the arrivals area where our driver Carlos was waiting to take us to our accommodation for the next 4 days; El Sol high in the Monteverde Cloud Forest near to the town of Santa Elena. (Website links, contact info etc to all the places we stayed and things we did at the end of this blog entry).CostaRicaMonteverdeEcoSanctuarylookoutSMALLAround 1,600 metres above sea level, the drive started out on tarmac, then to potholed bumpy stretches and finally over loose ground slippery with mud from daily rains. We stopped en route for drinks and local flan and later stopped again at a small, basic shop to buy some water and snacks. The sunset was spectacular; one side of the road blazing with pinks, red and orange whilst a huge rainbow arched up in to cloud on the opposite side. About 3 and a half hours later we arrived around 6.30pm in the pitch black at El Sol. Another Carlos came out to show us to our cabin, accompanied by a small black dog called Negrita who became quite a fixture over the next few days. CostaRicaMonteverdeElSolviewThe cabin is large; loads of space to relax and take in the spectacular views, which we appreciated early the next morning from the balcony at the back which juts out from the hillside, looking down and across miles of lush green vegetation and low hanging mist clinging to mountain peaks. The rains have hung around later in to the season than expected but the setting and views are so beautiful and the green so vibrant, that it does little to dampen the experience. Flocks of parakeets fly by, geckos sing from the roof rafters, frogs chorus in the dark and moths bash around inside the brightly coloured rice paper lampshades at night.CostaRicaMonteverdeElSolDavehammock

Monteverde day 2 -El Sol – Sunday 11 December.  A long sleep and a pancake and fresh fruit breakfast delivered to our room; Dave allegedly allergic to dogs and definitely short sighted doesn’t notice Negrita blending in to the shadow under the table. We head out to chat with the German owner Elisabeth in her cabin to get advice for the days ahead. Dressed in brightly coloured tie-dye and greeting you with a deep embrace folding you in to her ample bosom, she tells us how her inner voice guided her to Costa Rica 19 years ago with her partner and only rucksacks on their backs and little money to start this life in the mountains. I’m sceptical of ‘hippy’ philosophy but Elisabeth’s seems genuine and enlightening and you can’t help but admire her tenacity and intelligence. Perhaps if we all heeded our inner voices a little more we’d be living out our dreams more successfully.  CostaRicaMonteverdeSanta Elena1We got a taxi to Bat Jungle (a Bat museum) in Santa Elena. We were tempted to walk down the hill to the town which would have taken around an hour or so, but recent heavy rains had churned up the road and there’s no pathway to follow. Dave took great relish in exclaiming to the cab driver:  “To the Bat Museum!”. We only made a couple of jokey asides to the bat museum’s door guy before he interjected that he’d heard so many bat jokes that he must have heard them all. costaricamonteverdesantaelenabatjungle4.jpgWe decided against paying $14 each for a guided tour of a very small museum instead paying $5 each to spend 15 minutes in a dark room with a torch each and approx 100 bats of varying species behind glass. Fresh fruit feeders in the tree branches had been replenished so we were able to watch the bats flying back and forth and hanging upside down to eat.  It was fascinating but we felt intrusive shining LED torches straight on to these amazing creatures so we spent the rest of the time in the main part of the museum reading the information on the walls and looking at some very interesting but basic exhibits. It was a worthwhile and interesting diversion but a short one due to the size of the place. costaricamonteverdesanta-elenabatjungle3.jpgA 15 minute walk took us in to the centre of Santa Elena, the main town serving the area. Houses and shops painted in bright colours with tin roofs jostled together to offer tours; zip lining, hanging bridge walks and numerous trips to various reserves in the area. It’s a small town, catering to tourists but in a very unobtrusive way. Banana palms fringe the roadside, labouring under the weight of their exotic flowers. Basic but brightly painted houses decorated for Christmas are tended to by local women watering their plants and cleaning their porches ready for Christmas visitors. CostaRicaMonteverdeSanta Elena3Hand-painted signposts for local businesses dotted amongst the trees perplexing us as we attempted to decipher their meaning.CostaRicaMonteverdeSanta Elena2In the garden at the rear of the building there are bird tables filled with fresh fruit dotted amongst the plants. We must have seen about 15 different types of birds in the 90 minutes we sat there. On the next table along a local bird guide was assisting a group of 4 Americans, 2 of whom were taking hundreds of photos with huge professional lenses. The guide was generous with his information and included us when pointing out the names of the different species. I’m not a professional birder but I do have a keen interest; wildlife and scenery being a main reason for wanting to visit Costa Rica, and you will be rewarded, especially if your bring a decent pair of binoculars. Just in the bakery we saw Grackle, Yellow Crowned Euphonia, Black Guan, Blackburnian Warbler, Red Legged Honeycreeper, Blue Grey Tanager, Blue Crowned Mot Mot, Baltimore Oriole, Brown Jay, White eared Ground Sparrow, Hoffman’s Woodpecker and many more.

We took a cab from Santa Elena back to El Sol, not managing to beat the mists that rolled in obscuring the chance of a sunset view but bringing its own magic; shrouding the mountains with a mysterious cloaking that descended rapidly and visibly wandering wispily in to our cabin when we left the door open to the deck. CostaRicaMonteverdeElSolmistview
Monteverde day 3 – Forest walk with guide, Carlos. Woke at 6am but we both crashed out at 9pm the night before. Feels like we’ve beaten the jet lag/6 hour time difference pretty quickly. Had breakfast, joined again by Negrita begging for scraps, then met with our guide for the day, Carlos (the third male Costa Rican we’ve met and all called Carlos). We climbed in to his 5 year old Range Rover and headed to a hire place to pick up some binoculars, his scope and tripod. Great that you can hire binoculars here pretty easily for $10 a day for $400 worth of quality equipment…and definitely necessary for bird and mammal watching in the high tree canopies of the forest. There are so many different reserves of different levels of difficulty in the area and based on us not being regular hikers but also on his experience of where to find plenty of wildlife, Carlos took us to the Santuario Ecologico (Ecological Sanctuary) on the Cerro Plano.CostaRicaMonteverdeEcoSanctuary5
This is a smaller sanctuary on private property comprising Premontane and secondary forest, coffee and banana plantations. The three and a half hours we wandered the trails we didn’t encounter any other people so it was a great experience having the entire sanctuary to ourselves. The different routes around the forest are marked by different coloured sign posts. We followed Carlos along a loop around a large area leading us back to a different route in to another part of the forest. We know from previous experience that wildlife spotting can have its disappointments but luckily the rain held off and we enjoyed a successful day seeing lots of birds and several mammals. CostaRicaMonteverdeEcoSanctuary6
Born in Costa Rica, Carlos has spent some time living and working for the RSPB in the UK and his bird spotting skills and patience in showing us where and how to look, was a fabulous experience. We had a very lucky day with a pretty high count including a Golden Crowned Spadebill, White Hawk, Green Violet Ear Hummingbird, Common Black Hawk, Squirrel Cuckoo, Brown Billed Scythebill. We didn’t see any sloths or Howler monkeys but we did see plenty of squirrels, an Agouti Paca (rodent family but large and similar to the capybara in Argentina) and the highlight; a troupe of White faced Capuchin monkeys who came pretty close directly above in the tree canopy, eating, calling to each other and stopping to watch us inquisitively. A couple of very young Capuchins trailing their mothers. CostaRicaMonteverdeEcoSanctuary1
Monteverde day 4 El Sol.  Took a taxi to Selvatura Park high up in rain forest canopy where they have zip lining and a park with hanging bridges.  We paid $30 each to walk the hanging bridges which takes approx 90 minutes at a slow amble. CostaRicaMonteverdeSelvaturaHangingbridges7
It’s around a 3km walk on easy pathways. The 8 suspended bridges are constructed from metal ranging from 12 metres high to the highest one at an approx height of 60 metres. They do sway and bounce around a bit once you get a few people crossing at the same time, but they feel very sturdy and you get used to it pretty quickly…and the views are fantastic as you’re walking in the tree canopy and often above it. Take a waterproof coat with a hood and/or an umbrella because the weather can change quickly and heavy rain is commonplace in this area. Wear closed shoes and if it’s sunny, suncream and bug spray.CostaRicaMonteverdeSelvaturaHangingbridges1

Creepers and hanging moss, tree ferns and orchids have seeded themselves high on the branches of the trees. We saw Howler monkeys leaping above us in the tree canopy and a Coati just as we were leaving the forest. The forest floor is a riot of ferns, fallen leaves, decaying tree barks and toadstools. It’s a living breathing environment that you can really feel. Rain filtered through now and again but the forest canopy is so dense that we weren’t sure when it was raining as at many points it hardly got through. Palms and banana leaves shone green with moisture. We looked for tarantulas as we were told that they’d been spotted quite close to the path but unluckily we couldn’t find one.

After leaving the hanging walkways we paid $5 to go into the Hummingbird Garden.  Well worth the extra small expense to really close to these incredible birds.

Lots of nectar feeders were hung out for these jewel colour birds who flew so close, that their wings were humming with the speed of their rapid movement right near my ears.

We met an American girl called Gina, also walking the bridges and we all got the free shuttle bus back down to the town of Santa Elena. She walked with us for the 5km along the roadside to Stella’s Bakery where we spent a couple of hours watching birds in the feeders and sharing information with other people coming in to the cafe. 
CostaRicaArenalLeavesLizardsroomviewHeading to the Arenal volcano area today and Leaves & Lizards (room shown above) where we are staying ….but I’m getting ahead of myself and I didn’t know at the time because Dave’s birthday surprises for me continue; I have no idea where we are going til we actually arrive there. Picked up at 7.45am we travelled for 4 hours by shared minivan; accompanied by two Dutch girls and a German brother and sister, to Lake Arenal where we would cross to take another minivan up to Monterrey. The arrival at the lake was amusing. Other mini vans pulled in and disgorged more travellers laden down with huge rucksacks or suitcases. We had to wait for approx 20 minutes for the boat to arrive, whilst a flea-bitten down at heel dog did the rounds imploring travellers for food by rubbing up against their legs. I could only offer plantain chips but they were scoffed down enthusiastically. It was a launch type open sided passenger boat with a roof which everyone had to board by scrambling down a steep, muddy rock and root strewn path to the lakeside. Many folks caught unawares by the obstacle course and hampered by ridiculously huge suitcases. It always amazes me how much people pack to travel. Young local boys gathered to earn tips carrying bags down to the boat, sweating as they lugged bright pink shellcased suitcases to the river bank. On board a guy called Miguel checked everyone’s destinations to organise the onward transport from the other side. Travelling across the lake for 40 minutes to reconnect with minivan transport on the opposite bank actually saves about half a day driving around circuitous rough pot holed roads from Monteverde/ Santa Elena to the main town in the volcano Arenal area of La Fortuna. The lake crossing was smooth but shrouded in low hanging cloud, grey water meeting grey precipitation, so visibility wasn’t great but we still saw hawks hovering over the forest surrounding the lake and herons diving in and spearing fish. We chatted with the German people sitting behind us and bird spotted through the mist. CostaRicaArenalLeavesLizardsroom5
On the other side of the lake we shared a minivan with a group of 4 American ladies from San Diego heading to a large resort with 28 hot springs; celebrating retirement for one of them and the birthday of another. After dropping them we continued on for another 20 minutes searching for leaves and lizards; the name of our accommodation for the next three nights. It took a few wrong turns on bumpy loose gravel roads and past several scrappy barking dogs snapping at the tyres, but we eventually found the place and were checked in by Andrea and Alejandro. One of the American owners, Steve, came to welcome us before heading off poolside to continue hand painting a giant cement crocodile he’s sculpted. As you do when you drop out of the rat race and are free to live your life as eccentrically as you wish to.

Our room for the next 3 nights is a gorgeously inventive cement built cabin, designed and painted by Steve with his depiction of a giant erupting volcano covering the wall behind our huge bed. Leaves and Lizards is a farm which specialises in horse riding. The cabin is called The Hobbit. It has a big rounded wooden door and all the walls are curved and sculpted. A spacious balcony overlooks cultivated planting, rainforest and the volcano in the distance, which we haven’t actually seen yet as there’s a lot of low hanging cloud. Our bed is hand built and opposite a big picture window with no curtains (private where we are and not overlooked); our view brightly coloured hummingbirds flitting through the tropical flowers. CostaRicaArenalLeavesLizardspool

This place is impressive. Owned by an American couple Steve and Debbie, who bought the farm 11 years ago and have since built it up, there’s around 7 cabins, a riding school, a working farm and a restaurant for guests with great food…the nearest places to go to eat otherwise would be about 20 minutes drive on steep potholed roads.  There’s an infinity pool looking out to the volcano across the landscape. It’s a huge area. They must have plenty of people looking after it all, clearing trails every day etc. Very peaceful.  We saw 3 toucans in the trees right next to our cabin yesterday which was exciting. Loads of hawks flying around. It’s beautiful. They are building a giant crazy tree house a field across from us as an additional cabin for guests.

We went trail walking around the property yesterday, through a re-forested area known as secondary rain forest, passing by two huge bamboos; we’ve never seen any so big…towering golden canes soaring above us. There are loads of leaf cutting ants in the forest which are fascinating to follow and watch for a while. Back to our cabin to chill out and get ready for dinner at 6pm in the main restaurant where we got talking to Asia who lives in London, born in Poland. She’s here on a week’s workshop learning about horses and riding.  Amazingly one of her favourite bars to drink in London was 3 streets away from our house. The world is such a small place.

Monterrey day 6 -15 December – today we go horse riding with Enrique.  Dave had booked horse training and riding for me as a surprise.  What was more of a surprise was that he was doing it too. After breakfast we headed to the horse block comprising of stables, barn, tack room and training ring. Enrique was our horse trainer for the day.   He started by introducing us to a horse called Conan and went through several different exercises including teaching us about the horse and personal space, how to gain its respect so it will respond to instruction, how horses interact e.g. in resting pose (one hoof lifted slightly from the floor), sentinel (the guard), leader etc. We had to choose a horse that we felt we connected with the most and go through some exercises leading them around the ring on foot, dropping the reign in the hope they’d continue to follow, making them stand respectfully a couple of steps behind us and not alongside and never in front.

I chose Conan, a chestnut horse and Dave chose Negro (Spanish pronunciation for the colour black), a larger horse, more muscular and a beautiful glossy jet black. Dave’s horse wouldn’t follow him so he had to do a bit more training using a whip to gently clip the ground behind the horse whilst holding his reign and making the horse trot in a tight circle around him. It was impressive to see Dave working with the horse especially as a bunch of people had shown up and were watching him. He’s never done it before and wasn’t initially comfortable with horses at all. Enrique was a great trainer; amusingly he used Star Wars analogies to help us to understand ‘using the force’ to channel our energy in to directing the horse.

Once saddled up, we put on our helmets; mine was bubblegum pink and looked like a 6 year old’s scooter crash hat. Another of the horse hands joined us and led from the front, Dave and I following on Negro and Conan with Enrique keeping a watchful eye on us from the back as two of the resident dogs ran alongside darting in and out of the towering grasses looking for squirrels. CostaRicaArenalLeavesLizardshorsedayNegroConan

As soon as we left the stables to ride out, a huge downpour of heavy rain drenched us leaving our jeans steaming as the sun came out again to dry us off. For a first ride out, it definitely wasn’t easy or beginner level, but we absolutely LOVED it!  We scrambled up steep slopes churned with mud from recent heavy rains, the horses legs sinking in to the quagmire and being sucked out as they pulled forward, often resulting in them trotting up as quick as they could to avoid getting bogged down or seeking higher ground by climbing up steep slopes to narrow bands of grass above. We joked that Dave’s horse was prissy as it would seek higher ground whereever possible to avoid getting muddy, whereas my horse Conan ploughed through the deepest sections of mud, caking my shoes. If it wasn’t mud then it was slippery loose stones covering some steep descents; leaning back on the horses to prevent sliding straight down their neck. At one point we had to wade through a small river, Enrique having to gently tap Dave’s horse on the rump because it has a habit of lying down in the middle for a soak. As it was, the water was deep and running fast from heavy rain, reaching high up the sides of the horses soaking our shoes and lower legs. Cowboy dreams being fulfilled every extra step we took. The horses scrambled out over large rocks and after another steep and muddy ascent we reached some open ground.

Tying our horses to trees and our backpacks slung over the pommel of the saddle, we headed by foot down a steep muddy trail to a waterfall. Declining to change in to swimsuits and jump in because the forest was humming with mosquitoes, I’d already been bitten to bits, we clambered back up where the guys gave us a packed lunch and guanabana to drink. Sitting on a rotting log in the grass we watched as a Howler monkey clambered through the tree canopy above looking for food.

Riding back we saw a pair of Crested Chacachaca feeding their young in a nest at the top of a tree that had been struck by lightning. Red barked trees locally nicknamed ‘tourist trees’ for their blistered red appearance dotted the route and Motmots, squirrel cuckoos, blue grey tanagers flitted through the landscape as hawks circled above and vultures rested in trees.
An early dinner and a chat with Gary and Wendy, originally from South Africa and the US but now residents in Monterrey, both studying the week long horse-training course.  We sat at the bar where one of the owner’s dogs jumped in to Dave’s lap; I tried not to laugh as Dave tried to ignore it.  Never a dog fan for some reason they always gravitate to him. We collapsed in to our beds and were fast asleep by 9.30pm. What a fantastic day.CostaRicaArenalLeavesLizardsDavedog
Monterrrey day 7 – 16 December.  We were picked up by a taxi at 7am to drive 1 hour to Proyecto Asis; a volunteer animal rescue sanctuary near La Fortuna in Costa Rica. The parrot at the front is a hybrid; artificial insemination results in more colours; note the additional green on the head. Sadly, this bird is viewed as a ‘freak of nature’ by other parrots and will never be able to be released. It wouldn’t be accepted by other macaws in the wild and would be singled out and killed. Hybrid parrots can exchange for as much as $50,000 on the black market. It is an illegal practise in Costa Rica. They are born sterile but hybrids can live up to 60 years. That’s a likely possibility of a monogamous bird having to spend 60 years alone. A very sad example of mankind playing Frankenstein with nature purely for monetary gain. The parrot at the back is a red macaw. There is a chance that if successfully paired with another red macaw, that this bird will be released back to the wild…leaving the hybrid macaw alone.
Proyectoasis try to rehabilitate every bird or animal brought in to their care with their ultimate goal being to release them back in to the wild wherever possible. Many of the birds and animals have been kept as pets or as attractions in a hotel; they have no natural skills for the wild such as hunting or self defense. In the case of a macaw, this can mean a lifetime in captivity. A naturally born macaw can live up to 100 years. There was a racoon with nerve damage, jerkily negotiating the natural wood climbing frame in his cage; hit by a car and very thin when rescued but steadily improving it was an incredibly moving and sad thing to watch. A young porcupine hit by a car and a toucan with the top half of his beak missing where someone had poured acid over it.

Macaws with broken wings which will never fly again, beautiful spider monkeys and Capuchin monkeys handed in on leashes and wearing baby diapers, unwanted household pets.  We were encouraged whilst being overseen by our guide, to hold the hand of one particular older capuchin monkey because she seeks human comfort and interaction and needs it on a daily basis. The stupidity and cruelty of man resulting in so many animals now too domesticated or too damaged to be returned to the wild but finding a home here with this amazing volunteer run rescue centre.  CostaRicaArenalLaFortunaProteyctoAsis6
Exiting the sanctuary we saw our first sloth of Costa Rica; we could only determine a brownish sleeping ball in the branch of a tree above us. It has becoming a quest to see them and each time we meet someone new on this trip they will explain how they saw 5 sloths in one small group of trees, or 13 of them in one day trekking, 1 basking right next to their pool or hanging from a tree right outside their room. I walk away each time quietly seething. CostaRicaArenalLaFortunaEcoTarmaleshotsprings
Steven our driver was waiting for us and drove us for around 40 minutes to Eco Terminales Hot Springs just outside La Fortuna.  Based at the foot of the Arenal volcano, there are several hot spring places along this stretch of road. Reservations are required and had been made for us by Leaves & Lizards the day before. We were in the pools by 11.30 allowing ourselves 2 hours before having lunch in their restaurant. Lockers and immaculately clean, spacious private changing rooms, showers and toilet facilities are a 3 minute walk away from the pools where the hot springs empty in to. We walked along black volcanic sand down to the pools (there is also a paved wheelchair access path) which lie under a canopy of rain forest trees with the sunlight filtering through and dapple get light across the pools. It’s beautiful, and being here just before peak season in the morning, it was almost empty with only one other group of people here. CostaRicaArenalLaFortunaEcoTarmaleshotsprings2
There are 3 large pools at 37, 38 and 39 degrees, a larger pool lower down, a small inset pool at 40 degrees and one smaller inset cold pool (approx 22 degrees) to cool off in between relaxing in the hot thermal pools. They recommend that you spend no more than 15 minutes in the hot pools before dipping in to the colder one to regulate body temperature before returning to the hot pools. A series of small waterfall features are built in to some pools with a larger fall of water running down a stepped pool area from the volcano base where you can also lie in the water. The bottom of the pools and surrounding edges are all made from stones or volcanic rock, some people prefer to keep flip flops on whilst in the pools but I liked the feeling of the water smoothed stones on the soles of my feet. Built in stone seats are around the edges of the water and stone ‘beds’ line one of the pools. On the decked area there are sun loungers and free towels are provided at the locker rooms. Absolute bliss floating in the thermal waters or lying on a smooth stone bed looking up in to the tree canopy for birds whilst sipping on cocktails sold at the bar. After 2 hours we got out to change and have lunch in the restaurant. CostaRicaArenalLaFortunaEcoTarmaleshotsprings3
We both felt extremely relaxed and restored; in my case struggling to stay awake on the short ride back to Leaves and Lizards. We relaxed in our room for a few hours, Dave vainly attempting to dry out his shoes from the day before with my feeble travel hairdryer, before heading up to join everyone for ‘make your own taco night’ in the leaves and lizards dining area overlooking their infinity pool. A Fishing Bat circled the pool, dazzled by the underlit blue water, flying figure of eights looking for fish.  We spent a couple of hours talking travel adventures and horse training with Gary (now a travel guide specialising in night walks as well as day treks in the rain forest), his partner Wendy who runs a successful local business. the owners Debbie and Steve, Asia visiting from London, Alejandro local to the area and several other people at a long table we had tagged our table on to. A lovely evening spent eating great food with fascinating people. We will miss this place when we leave tomorrow. I could stay here for weeks, it is really quite an incredible and uplifting place.
A surprise detour to Panama City from Costa Rica for 3 days! Head here to check it out:

After our detour to Panama city we had an early start again for the 1 hour 20 minute flight back to San Jose airport in Costa Rica where a driver called Alex picked us up around 10am. From the plane window the propellor looked totally bizarre during the flight, I’ve never noticed this effect before in all my years of travel!


Dave was still keeping it all a secret and I had no idea where we were heading, but hoping to get there quickly was delayed by a huge traffic jam due to an accident which took about an extra 45 minutes to get through.  I started to read the road signs, guessing aloud as to the end destination but as Dave had explained to Alex the birthday surprise element of our holiday, Alex wouldn’t give anything away either. We approached a bridge over the Rio Tarcoles and were encouraged to get out and walk across to see the infamous crocodiles. CostaRicaRioTarcolescrocodiles

It was pretty hairy walking single file on a narrow raised area of the bridge with other people trying to squeeze by as lorries and cars hurtled by, and looking down seeing about 25 crocodiles idly floating around. One of them was absolutely huge. Apparently a few years ago, three Nicaraguan men were ejected from a bus at the end of the bridge as one of them was very drunk. They wandered to the river for a wash, remarkably two of them walking away unscathed but the third eaten by one of the crocodiles…allegedly his head was washed up a few days later. Different versions of the story online report that a sole male Nicaraguan had jumped off the bridge but according to Alex this wasn’t the case. Whatever version of events, you’d have to be blind drunk not to notice all the crocodiles in that stretch of the river. Alex told us that there are approx 6 beaches in Costa Rica unsafe to swim in because of them.CostaRicaManuelAntonioGaiaHotel1

We carried on driving, I was getting impatient and asked Alex how much longer, I reckoned on about 15 minutes based on the time Dave had originally suggested and factoring in the traffic jam, but Alex said another hour. I watched as the town of Quepos rolled by, local people out Christmas shopping, kids playing and small shops doing a brisk trade. We drove up a steep hill and the car took a sharp right past a sign reading Gaia Hotel and Reserve (photo shown above). Dave broke in to a grin (as did Alex now enjoying being complicit!) and we were dropped off inside the main gates and piled on to golf buggies, yes….golf buggies – this is a first for us – to go up a really steep path, passing a large spiny back iguana with a striped back sunning himself on a wall. This place is really bloody POSH!

CostaRicaManuelAntonioGaiaHotelIguana5I could hear squawking in the beautiful tree canopy around us and our golf buggy driver explained that the hotel we were staying at was a luxury 5 star retreat that was also a Red Macaw  rescue rehabilitation reserve based only 5 minutes from the entrance to Costa Rica’s most famous national park; Manuel Antonio. Knowing my love of wildlife Dave had secretly arranged all of it. At check in we met Ayrene, would you believe our personal concierge. It was a bit overwhelming but they’re not stuck up here, it’s all privately owned and run and the staff have very definite personalities.  Whenever we walked in to the concierge room, all of the staff behind the desks stood up….sitting down again once the guests have sat. It could have been a great Monty Python sketch. It was a lot to take in; I’m not used to places like this. Ayrene showed us around; a spa, stepped pools, a beautiful restaurant at the top of the property overlooking the rain forest trees with incredible views and finally to our lovely room with a long walkway overlooking trees with red macaws squawking in them.

The hotel owned its own reserve and a free guided tour of the trail and through the red macaw sanctuary was leaving 40 minutes after we checked in. We dumped our stuff and hooked up with a small group of 9 people and the flamboyant guide. Walking down a steep muddy trail leading directly from the hotel grounds we were in the red macaw sanctuary. What we hadn’t been told was that the rest of the walk after seeing the macaws was a back breaking uphill climb in sweltering heat with precarious drops in to the undergrowth…but hell what are these types of trips for if not to push you out of your comfort zone and make wonderful discoveries….CostaRicaManuelAntonioDragonGrasshopper…like this bloody huge Dragon grasshopper.

We wandered back and up to the open air dining room at the top of the building,  collapsing in to sofas we ordered cold drinks and wallowed in the luxury of Gaia Hotel.  It’s not stuffy, not pretentious, it’s comfortable and the service is great…it does have incredible attention to detail and I’ve got to hand it to the owner for creating something so unique. CostaRicaManuelAntonioGaiaHotel4We lounged around, eventually getting changed and coming back up for a great meal and to watch the sun set over the rainforest canopy we overlooked. It definitely feels a privilege to be here.

Next morning we got up early to join a tour heading off in to Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio. The main gates are actually very close to Gaia Hotel in Quepos… a very short trip in a minibus to the entrance with a guide. There’s been so many trips around the world where we have turned down the opportunities to explore with guides because of the element of self discovery and independence that we generally covet but in this instance I was glad we paid to go with a guide. The paths through the park are wide and paved with no genuine sense of ‘exploring’ but with a guide and his scope you will see so much more and learn about it. CostaRicaManuelAntoniobeach1

Manuel Antonio is the smallest of the Costa Rican National Parks but known as the most beautiful. With independent hiking trails if you go without a guide… and beautiful wild natural beaches, the park is based in a tropical forest amidst mountains and stunning foilage, with access to four beaches: Manuel Antonio, Espadilla Sur, Teloro, and Playita. It’s definitely preferable to go early as the park gets more crowded as the day goes on plus the temperature rises. If going with a guide they will lead you around the park and in our case gave us the choice to go back with them or to stay on the beach and follow one of the hiking trails alone. We saw a fair amount of wildlife including raccoons on the beach harmlessly attempting to steal food from tourists, lots of lizards which the guide helpfully let us view in close up through his scope and take photographs by holding  iPhones to the lens of the scope…a trick that pays off well and produces decent results.

And finally – we saw sloths! They are such fascinating gentle looking creatures. Apparently we saw a Hoffman’s Two-toed sloth and a three-toed sloth.  These images were photographed through the scope. We were able to watch them moving through the trees for several minutes before they disappeared from view. We also saw a Squirrel Monkey which we were told was very rare to see…but amusingly on returning to the Gaia Hotel we saw an entire family of them swinging through the tree canopy very close to the hotel.  CostaRicaManuelAntonioparkslothscope2CostaRicaManuelAntonioparkslothscope1

We went out to explore some local bars and restaurants which line the hill all the way down from Gaia to the town of Quepos. To be honest it’s rather underwhelming; the place we chose to eat at was okay but the food was expensive for something pretty basic. It feels a little over touristy and I’m sure that had it been daylight we would have wandered off the beaten path and found something more authentic. But being dark and no footpaths along the side of the main road we decided to stay quite local. CostaRicaManuelAntonioGaiaHotelElAvionbar2We dropped in to the infamous El Avion bar; a Cold War relic, Fairchild C-123 plane now turned in to a bar and restaurant photo credits: http://www.elavion.net/   When the C-123 was shot down over Nicaragua in 1986 by the Sandinista guerillas, it left behind an American owned sister plane.  This Fairchild C-123 was a part of one of the biggest political scandals in the 1980s known as the Iran-Contra Affair. You can read more here in an article written by Gail Harland for the Permaculture blog:


Sadly our trip was coming to an end…time to leave the incredible Gaia Hotel and head back to San Jose to stay one night in the city before flying out the next morning back to London, arriving on Christmas Day. We had a walk around San Jose where Christmas shoppers were in a frenzy. San Jose stood true to general opinion; it is not an attractive city; nondescript buildings, a lack of a true centre, ugly streets and some very run down areas to pass through before reaching anything you’d want to explore. It sadly didn’t engage us and was a huge cntrast to the wonders we’d seen in the wilder parts of the country. San Jose feels like it’s been grafted on as an afterthought to the rest of the country. It is a more realistic view of the country and the economic struggles the local people have to struggle with.  As a tourist it’s an entry point to this beautiful country but not a place you need to linger. Skip the capitol and leave the country with images of spider monkeys and rain forest canopies.I wish we’d stayed the last night at Gaia and driven from their for our flight the next day.
Places we stayed
El Sol Monteverde Cloud Forests. Elisabeth doesn’t have her own website but can be contacted here: Puntarenas Province, Monteverde, Costa Rica Phone+506 2645 5838 or through the i-escape website who take her online bookings. Book way in advance if you want to stay; El Sol is very popular and one of the more quirky and private places to stay in the area.  Can provide a car service and airport pick up.
Arenal Volcano area Monterrey. Leaves and Lizards  http://www.leavesandlizards.com/  Can provide a car service and airport pick up.
Manuel Antonio Gaia Hotel and Reserve https://www.gaiahr.com/
Can provide a car service and airport pick up.
Places we visited and Guides
Monteverde Santa Elena Guide Carlos is a very experienced and educated guide who genuinely knows his stuff. You can contact him directly: Carlos Mora Cavallini: email oznog123@yahoo.com Tel: Costa Rica 506 843 83611. I definitely recommend taking a guide, if you don’t you will have no idea where to find anything or know what you’re looking at if you do find something.  Carlos brought his own scope which was a great expereince in itself.
Monteverde Santa Elena Bat Jungle http://www.monteverdeinfo.com/bat-jungle
Monteverde area Selvatura Park Hanging Bridges Hummingbird Garden and Zipwires https://selvatura.com/
Arenal Volcano area Monterrey Horse Riding and  https://Retreat Workshops http://www.leavesandlizards.com/tours/horseback_riding/
Monterrey area near Fortuna Animal Rescue Centre Proyecto Asis If you’re an animal lover and can make time to visit, to volunteer or to donate to them, this was a really impressivley run set up with very well trained considerate guides. https://www.institutoasis.com/
Monterrey area Fortuna Eco Termales Hot Springs https://ecotermalesfortuna.cr/
Manuel Antonio area El Avion Restaurant and Bar  http://www.elavion.net/

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