Thursday, 29 October 2015
From jungle zip-lining to getting up close and personal to 19ft crocodiles: Why experiencing Costa Rica's wild side should be high on everybody's list
High above the canopy of Costa Rica's rainforest, I was ready to chicken out of the three-mile zipwire, but for the 75-year-old woman in front of me.
'You can do it,' she said in a Missouri drawl, as she clipped herself into a harness.
In less stressful circumstances I might have appreciated the perfectly formed cone of Mount Arenal belching out white plumes of sulphur and admired the jungle that rolled down to the blue shores of Lake Arenal.
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Mesmerising: See incredible sights like Mount Arenal belching out white plumes of sulphur, surrounded by lush, green jungle
Unforgettable experience: Head to the Tortuguero National Park, and stay at the Pacuare Reserve on the shores of the Caribbean
Misty landscapes: Morning sun rays filter through the rainforest in Costa Rica
Instead, I looked down on the impenetrable roof of jungle and imagined it seething with creatures of unimaginable horribleness.
As I seized the handlebars of the pulley, my hands shook like a pantomime drunk.
I arched my back, closed my eyes and thought of home. I thudded into the padding at the far end to the applause of American pensioners.
'What time's the base jumping?' asked one. I don't think she was joking.
We were in Central America to find out why Costa Rica is considered the place to go.
This politically stable and famously cheerful country on the narrow isthmus that connects the two Americas is a little over twice the size of Wales.
You can surf in the Pacific then cross coast-to-coast and sun yourself in the Caribbean on the same day.
In between, there are volcanoes, cloud forests, rain forests and coffee plantations.
National parks and reserves protect a quarter of the country's biodiversity, including the biggest butterfly count in the world and more than 800 bird species, including scarlet and rare green macaws and six species of toucans, nicknamed 'flying bananas'.
After the ride over the jungle rooftop, my partner Ana and I went back to the Tabacon resort where a hot river, whose waters rise from the bowels of Mount Arenal, thunders through its shady bowers.
Costa Rica is a politically stable and famously cheerful country on the narrow isthmus that connects the two Americas is a little over twice the size of Wales
Costa Rica's national parks, including Corcovado (pictured), and reserves protect a quarter of the country's biodiversity, including the biggest butterfly count in the world and more than 800 bird species, including scarlet and rare green macaws and six species of toucans, nicknamed 'flying bananas'
Scarlet Macaws and just one of the colourful and varied animals that can be seen in the stunning Corcovado National Park
Natural plunge pools and mini waterfalls invite you to loll around in sulphurous warmth.
I ordered a frozen daiquiri and they gave me two.
We hired a 4x4, ideal for the mixture of terrain, and headed east to the Tortuguero National Park, where we stayed at the Pacuare Reserve on the shores of the Caribbean.
Pacuare is a handsome wooden house on stilts and is owned by a British couple, Hilda and John Denham.
Its four-mile coastline is a breeding ground for endangered species of turtle, and their award-winning work in protecting them has seen a marked increase in the number of nesting sites.
Here, you stay among the fascinating, and mainly female, community of scientists who live in a purpose-built village at the foot of the lodge.
What it lacks in luxury, it makes up for in charm.
I rose before dawn for a river trip to see the wildlife. The eerie silence was suddenly broken by the baleful cry of a howling monkey.
Then the whole place came to life in a cacophony of frantic activity like a big city waking up to a new day.
Ana declined to go in the flat-bottom boat owing to the proximity of a large crocodile. Her loss.
The green canopy 160 ft above us was alive with monkeys. Herons, turtles and iguanas lay in wait.
Witness the exotic and diverse Costa Rican wildlife such as this male violet sabrewing in Monteverde (left) and giant crocodiles (right)
One of the quickest, and most fun, ways to travel through the canopies in Moneteverde, is by zip-lining
If variety is what you fancy, then the serenity and isolation of Corcovado National Park, down south near the Pacific border with Panama, is a wonderful contrast to the heights of Monteverde
We observed, at close quarters, a 19 ft American crocodile slide into the water without a ripple.
From here we drove up into the mountains to the cloud forests of Monteverde.
This delicate and cooler ecosystem was bought by the local Quakers in 1972 to save it from encroaching squatters, and is full of trails.
My vertigo was further tested by hanging bridges, but I summoned up the nerve to poke a stick into a tarantula's nest and photograph an anaconda on an overhead branch.
If variety is what you fancy, then the serenity and isolation of Corcovado National Park, down south near the Pacific border with Panama, is a wonderful contrast to the heights of Monteverde.
After a flight and boat journey by river and sea we arrived at Casa Corcovado, a cluster of well-appointed huts in a jungle clearing.
This area is the last tract of tropical rainforest in Pacific Central America.
Head to the waters: Why not take a boat through the Tortuguero National Park in Costa Rica to witness its beautiful scenery
There are many activities available to entertain, including white water rafting down the Pacuare River
One of the guides took us up to the nearby waterfall, following a mountain stream. Above, a harpy eagle rode the air currents, while closer to us we spotted red-eyed tree frogs.
On our way back to the beach we spotted a 13 ft female crocodile guarding her eggs.
The guide assured us it was safe to swim in the sea at the mouth of the river, so we did.
But an increasing uneasiness came over me after I stood on something that was neither sand nor rock.
'What are you doing swimming there?' asked another guide. 'It's the crocodile mating season and the males are very aggressive. River mouths are where they hang out.'
I am pleased that whatever it was I stood on did not eat me.
Not least because the steak course of an unfeasibly large repast on the last night in San Jose, at La Esquina de Buenos Aires, was the best I've ever tasted.
Which is probably more than the croc would have said about me.