05 October 2022

The colourful wildlife is abundent in Costa Rica
On cloud nine!
When the sky touches the rainforest in Cost Rica, wonderful things happen. For John Stapleton and his wife Lynn Faulds, the exprerience was incomparable
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ur world weary male travelling companion was adamant. ‘Seen one rainforest, you’ve seen them all,’ he said gloomily on learning that our respective partners had organised what they described as ‘an adventure in Costa Rica’. As someone with little appetite for trekking anywhere, let alone through what I imagined to be a sodden jungle, I shared his lack of enthusiasm – until we arrived. Costa Rica is, quite simply, one of the most beautiful countries I have seen in more than 40 years of travelling the world. And there can be few more spectacular views than that from the Villa Blanca, an eco-hotel sitting on top of a hill near the town of San Ramon.

Built to resemble a Victorian settlement, it houses guests in cosy cabins with log fires for chilly nights. But its greatest charm is its location, offering a 360-degree panorama of treeclad mountains and not a rainforest, but the somewhat bizarrely named Los Angeles Cloud Forest. The cloud that shrouds the forest in the morning gives this 2,000-acre site the moisture it needs for its astonishing abundance of flora and fauna. It’s a paradise for twitchers, with no fewer than 250 species of birds, including toucans and more than 30 types of humming bird.
The eco-hotel, Villa Blanca
Villa Blanca, the former home of a Costa Rican president, is owned by a company dedicated to conservation and sustainable tourism. But the environment they are so anxious to protect is under threat. Unless the rest of the world takes drastic action to cut carbon-monoxide emissions, they say the cloud will no longer come down low enough to give the forest the water it needs. And locals reckon that within ten years the forest could be dry and the animals forced to find a new habitat. It would be a tragedy for the area but only a setback for Costa Rica. For such is the dramatic contrast in its landscape – low wetlands in some areas, spectacular mountains and coast in others – that there will still be plenty to see. For example, just two hours by car up the well maintained road from the Los Angeles forest is the Arenal Volcano.

Dormant for 400 years, it erupted in 1968, killing 87 people and destroying three small villages that were buried beneath hot lava, rock and ash. The volcano still spews out potentially deadly avalanches of lava and red-hot boulders – and the Lost Iguana Hotel, sometimes feeling uncomfortably close by, is an ideal location from which to view this breathtaking show. That said, it doesn’t happen every night and some days the top of the volcano is covered in cloud. If you don’t mind paying £5 for a plastic tumbler of wine or bathing with hundreds of others, you should also visit the nearby Tabacon Grand Spa and Thermal Resort.

Set in tropical gardens, it has cascades, waterfalls, and steamy hot pools of geothermal water bubbling up directly from the heart of the volcano. Spurred on by our Los Angeles experience, we opted for a walk through the local rainforest along elevated swaying bridges listening to a wildlife symphony of birds and monkeys. Four hours by road to the north-west of Arenal, on the Pacific coast, lies what the brochures call Costa Rica’s Gold Coast. To get there, you drive up twisty roads that suddenly, without warning, run out of tarmac and some that have never had any.
It has wild cats, wild pigs, snakes, raccoon and coyote. And for the adventurous, there are canopy tours – speedy rides suspended on a line 100ft or so above ground past fig trees full of howler monkeys doing what they do best: howling. Even our travelling companion was impressed.
The atmospheric cloud forest
"Set in tropical gardens, it has cascades, waterfalls, and steamy hot pools of geothermal water."
Then you pick up what they grandly call the Pan American highway – a highway in name only with sections that give even the most experienced drivers cause for concern. The bonus is that now, after the mountains and lakes around Arenal, you are in flat gaucho country – going through dusty little towns and past mile upon mile of haciendas where they breed some of the world’s finest horses. Our destination was the Playa Pan de Azucar, where we stayed at the remote but idyllically situated Sugar Beach Hotel – with an iguana for company outside our front door each morning.
But it is worth the effort, serving steak that melts in your mouth and a carpaccio of raw fish beyond compare, accompanied by a stunning Sauvignon, for less than £20 a head. It was the closest we came to sophistication in our entire time there. From a tourist’s point of view, Costa Rica is not, thank God, fully developed, not quite up to speed. On a sailing trip we took, the skipper left port with 20 passengers on board but without an auxiliary engine.

He didn’t go through a safety drill and had no lifebelts on board. The mainsail ripped and was rendered useless, and when we nearly came to grief on a reef he had to cut loose and abandon two anchors to get us out of trouble. Quite an afternoon! Getting to and from Costa Rica isn’t always easy, with flights not necessarily being direct. Our journey home comprised four legs and took the best part of 24 hours. But it’s worth it. Whichever way you get there, hurry – just in case more of that cloud and those rainforests do disappear.

Original article published in Feb 2008. All info and prices correct at time of publication.
"We opted for a walk through the local rainforest along bridges listening to a wildlife symphony of birds and monkeys."
Smoking Arenal Volcano
Enjoy the wildlife
Rincon de la Vieja National Park
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