Costa Rica: Boutique with bite
Seeking out the wildest parts of Costa Rica needn't be an ordeal. Award-winning writer John Gimlette discovers that, as well as incredible scenery, the country has some of the most comfortable - and spectacular - lodges you'll ever find.
Time Zone: UTC-6 hours
Flight time from the USA: 6 hours 45 minutes + (New York to San Jose)
When to go: Costa Rica is a tropical country with abundant rainforests, so expect rain at any time of the year. On the Pacific coast there is a dry season (December-April) and a wet (May-November); the heaviest rainfall is in September and October. It is harder to define the seasons on the Caribbean coast though it tends to rain less between March and September. Generally the best time to visit is between December and April. View our 'Best time to visit Costa Rica' guide.
In brief: Small and safe but full of adventure and activities, there really is a staggering amount to see in Costa Rica. There are smouldering volcanoes, lush tropical forests, serene cloudforests, unspoilt beaches and a diverse range of flora and fauna on show everywhere in a riot of vivid colours.
"This one,” bellowed the helmsman, “we call The Nose-Breaker!” Ahead of us, an abyss appeared in the middle of the river. For a moment, we skimmed along its glossy rim before being sucked down into the froth. It was like plunging into a washing machine that’s rinsing out old rocks. There was then an exhilarating, terrifying moment of helplessness before our little, podgy dinghy was spewed out, and sent bowling down the river.
At moments like this, I’d look up, and see a garden rising vertically up the walls of the gorge. Costa Rica is covered in gardens. Sometimes, it’s easy to forget that this little country, the size of Scotland, wasn’t devised solely for the pleasure of Man. That’s why it has the River Pacuare – to beat some sense back into you, and send you home with a few souvenir bruises. “Whose nose?” I shouted. “Mine!” said the helmsman, and gave a snort of lopsided laughter. But the River Pacuare was far more than just a beautiful, watery mugging. It was also a quick way to my jungle hotel.
For decades, people have been coming to this country, and following the pineapple trucks up to the nearest four-star. Usually, it was enough to have a view of the Pacific, or ringside seats next to some billowing volcano. Nowadays, some of the best places are right out in the wilds, on land once thought habitable only to crocodiles and cowboys. But are these places really fit for royalty or just Indiana Joneses? It was time to set off, into the wilds.
I began gently, in the Central Highlands. Although the capital, San José, isn’t famously inspiring (pastel suburbs festooned in cables), within a few miles the great garden begins. My first lodge was perched high up in the coffee, at 4,000ft. With its own jungle and Art Deco ramparts, Finca Rosa Blanca (1) feels as though it’s been here for ages, and yet it hasn’t. Forty years ago, this mountainside was just a churned up motocross track. Its salvation might well be a metaphor for that of Costa Rica. Once facing ecological ruin, now a third of the land is protected, and it’s home to 5% of our planet’s species.
Across the valley, the horizon was purple with volcanoes. Soon, I was up among them, dipping in and out of gorges, and gazing upwards into the ash. It’s an odd phenomenon, the seismic world, with its sulphur-coloured rivers and its one-storey towns. One place (Grecia) even had a cast-iron church, the size of Westminster Abbey. The crumpling of the earth’s crust has also created a little Switzerland at Arenal, where you can live in a chalet, or fill up on bratwurst.
But, higher still, things got wilder. It must’ve been a mad idea to put a hotel up here – where the sky’s full of forest, and waterfalls tumble through the clouds – but the effect is stunning. El Silencio (2) may not be the country’s newest lodge but it’s probably the most defiant. Log fires, hot tubs and walls of plate-glass make even the storms seem luxurious. But, for me, there was barely time to enjoy the rage before the vapours would part, and a hummingbird garden would burst into life, whirring with pleasure.
I came across the Río Celeste, which glows an improbable chemical blue. “This,” said my driver-guide Herman, “is where God rinsed his brushes after painting the sky.”
Around the outer edges of the Central Highlands, there were plenty more surprises. Once, I went riding through woods full of sloths. Another time, after padding through three miles of jungle, I came across the Río Celeste, which glows an improbable chemical blue. “This,” said my driver-guide Herman, “is where God rinsed his brushes after painting the sky.” Elsewhere, I encountered day-glo frogs, a hill that smelt of eggs and a waterfall that was steaming-hot. Whilst the lodges out here weren’t quite so plush, they were just as bold. One, Rio Celeste Mountain Lodge (3), was slung between two volcanoes, and made of recycled steel. With its delicate French cuisine, it was the ultimate in chic volcanique.
Another place could only sanely be reached by river, which is how I found myself bouncing down the Pacuare. Pacuare Lodge (4) had been inserted into a deep, narrow gorge and was an astonishing hotel, with an enormous carapace of thatch. Built on the site of an old Indian farm, wild pigs still came here for fruit. More recently, the hotel’s cameras had picked up ocelots and jaguars, an exhilarating thought when there’s only gauze between your bed and the jungle. In the morning, I lay in bed, listening to a distant roar: howler monkeys, the loudest creatures on earth.
The waiters were all naturalists, some from a local tribe, the Cabécares. One of the boys, an ex-hunter called Geraldo, couldn’t read or write, and yet was an engineering genius. Across the mountainside, he’d constructed a network of steel hawsers so that guests could zip through the canopy like great, screaming, struggling moths. As thrills go, only swimming in the river came close. “It’s too rough,” said Geraldo, “even for crocodiles.”
Another day, a boy called Giovanni took us off to the Cabécares’ village. It was an unforgettable walk, four miles over the mountains. Giovanni chattered away about the oddities of the forest: potato flavoured pears, natural bandages and blankets that grew on trees. Then there were the leaf-cutter ants; 3,000,000 females burning a motorway through the jungle, with their own natural weedkiller. By contrast, the Indian village seemed rather quaint, on the edge of a plateau. Only the shaman was at home, in a hut full of masks and arrows.
'The lodge was slung between two volcanoes, and made of recycled steel - with its delicate French cuisine, it was the ultimate in chic volcanique'
My next lodge was also reached by river. It was a journey that took me right to the edge of the country, and even – briefly – into Nicaragua (along the Río San Juan). This time, there were plenty of crocodiles. They’re the thugs of lowland Costa Rica, Not so long ago, I might also have found the CIA along this river, feeding Contras into their war. Now, it’s back to what it always was: sleepy and remote. At the Nicaraguan checkpoint, a soldier came down to chat. He liked everything about ranch country, he said, except for the crocs.
Just when I thought things couldn’t get sleepier or hotter, the old ranch of Maquenque (5) appeared. It’s only been a lodge for six years, but already the wildlife was reclaiming the land. The gardens blazed with parrots and heligonias and, each morning, a troupe of coatis appeared, raiding the fruit. Often, it felt as if the fauna were laying down a siege; monkeys watched me at the swimming pool and, at dusk, the fruit bats crammed themselves into my cabin roof. Sometimes a frilly, blue-spotted basilisk appeared on the lagoon, looking like a lizard in drag. Naturally, I loved it all. This is how the world would be if it was photo-shopped, and then set to a soundtrack of birds.
My last few days we spent on the Caribbean coast. Oddly, it was more remote here than anywhere else. For hours, Herman drove me through banana country, and then banana ports (with names like Liverpool and Beverly). Then, eventually, we found ourselves bouncing through coconut palms, along the shore. This road was only built in 1977, and people still came out to stare at the cars. There’s plenty of drama; toucans fighting over the fruit, or vast pineapple trucks painted-up like a fairground ride. Once, we even spotted a policeman next to a small mountain of bootleg whisky. Until this road arrived, there were no checkpoints between here and Panama, and it seems even the smugglers have taken time to adjust.
Until 1986, the Talamanca region’s little sandy town – Puerto Viejo – didn’t have a single light bulb. Before that, the only people who’d lived here were BríBri Indians and a few turtle-hunters, who’d wandered over from Jamaica. It was the English who first recognised its charms, and in the 17th century, it became a bolt-hole for pirates. These days things are less hurried. My favorite eatery, ‘Koki Beach’, had been built round an almond tree, and once suffered a rare indignity for a designer restaurant, being plundered by monkeys.
It felt funny, ending up here, in this world apart. Caught between the jungle and riptides, most people had settled down to a life of ease. ‘WE FISHIN’, said the signs, ‘HEALING SPACE’. The beaches went on forever, and everything important was made out of driftwood. The older people even spoke an ancient dialect, called ‘Mek I tell you’, which was the sound of Jamaica, circa 1815. Only my hotel seemed out of place: Le Caméléon (6) was incongruously elegant and modern, and all the interiors were a startling dental white. Less like a chameleon it could not have been.
Next to my hotel was an animal refuge. Among the rescued owls and monkeys there was a small alligator that had turned up in an American tourist’s shower. “She got quite a shock,” said the keeper. I bet she did, but then she’d probably forgotten the first principle of Costa Rican travel: it may look boutique but it’s got some bite.
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