In the Costa Rican tropical rainforest, if you stand very still, a strange and secretive world gradually begins to open up around you. Among the huge palm leaves, veiled by the giant ferns and bromeliads, the tangles of lichen and moss, flit birds of extravagantly colourful hues and sweetly varied song. Howler monkeys sit high in the trees, little black bundles of watchfulness. Down amid the fallen leaves and knotted roots are the reticent creatures of the forest floor: spiders, insects, frogs, extraordinary rodents, reptiles (some, like the fer-de-lance and the bushmaster, among the most venomous in the world), raccoons – and, were you to be quite extraordinarily lucky, you might perhaps see a puma or an anteater.
Rainforests are magical places, filled with natural wonders that are still largely unexplored. In them can be found something like half of all living animal and plant species, and there’s scarcely a better place than Costa Rica to begin to understand their ways. It is one of the world’s most biodiverse countries, with 200-odd species of mammal, about 900 of birds and over 250,000 (yes, 250,000) sorts of insects. They take rainforests very seriously in Costa Rica. Not only do they understand their importance as a draw for tourists (which they are), but they know that the forests are vital for the health of the planet and that, very possibly, somewhere deep in the greenery lie the answers to many of our physical ills. During the 1980s, after decades of logging and charcoal burning, forest coverage in Costa Rica was as low as 21 per cent; by 2005, thanks to the country’s impressive efforts in education, government aid and putting in place carbon-offset schemes, it was back up to 52 per cent.
For a small country (you could have your morning swim as the sun rises over the Caribbean and sip sundowners as you watch it set over the Pacific), Costa Rica is more than doing its bit; there are swathes of tropical rainforest in and out of national reserves and a myriad different ways to explore them. Best of all is the fact that Costa Rica purveys a particular sort of cool relaxed luxe, which is to be found in small eco-lodges dotted around the country. Some 60 per cent of the hotels have fewer than 30 rooms. All this means that you can, as minister for tourism Wilhelm von Breymann Barquero puts it, “go into the jungle by day, but come back to the safety of a pampering eco-lodge by night”.
A good way to start is by taking an hour-long flight in a small plane from San José, the capital, down the Pacific coast to Golfito, and then on – rather excitingly – by boat to Playa Cativo, a very new, ultra-luxurious, enchanting seven-bedroom luxury lodge sited in a little cove on the shores of one of only three tropical fjords in the world: the Golfo Dulce. The views of the Pacific as you fly south are spectacular, the curving coast fronded by thick forest right to the shores of the blue, blue sea. The point of the lodge is the peace, the tranquillity, the beauty of the views, the natural life. In front of it lie palm trees and behind it a strip of secondary forest (land where the original vegetation had been cut down, but the jungle has now regrown) that morphs up the hill into miles of dense, rich primary forest stretching back into the Parque Nacional Piedras Blancas. Out at sea swoop frigate birds, while round the lodge jewel-coloured hummingbirds hover like helicopters, brilliantly feathered scarlet macaws (now quite endangered) flap through the trees and sometimes in the morning you are woken by the strange, haunting shrieks of the black and white owl patrolling its territory. From June to October, humpback whales come from the north to give birth and then linger in the warmth and safety of the gulf. Fishing is restricted to lines; the spawning grounds of the local needlefish are protected; and though the beach at Playa Cativo isn’t particularly inviting, the water is, and it’s well worth kayaking out into the bay or up one of the nearby rivers.
But what you can’t miss is the beauty of the forest. My walk with the guide is a revelation. He knows every plant, insect, bird and track. We see the rare white hawk, lots of crimson-fronted parakeets and a lineated woodpecker walking vertically up a palm tree, lunching on insects as it goes. Often the crystalline-clear air in the morning (which is when you should aim to do your excursions) would be shattered come one or two o’clock by grey clouds, thunderous claps and great flashes of lightning, followed by pelting rain. Then the howler monkeys begin to howl with pleasure (it cools them down), the raccoons scatter into the foliage, and the flycatchers sit on branches shaking their feathers.
But besides the forests, there are the volcanoes. Costa Rica has over 100, and the Volcano Arenal area, with its double whammy of rich primary and secondary forest and the volcano itself (which exploded dramatically in 1968, killing 87 people), is much visited. Until recently there hadn’t been anywhere very special to stay, but now the Nayara Hotel, Spa & Gardens (which, to be frank, is clearly a favoured destination for rather large bus parties) has built Nayara Springs, a complex of 16 much more private and luxurious villas. They are set in wonderfully rich, jungly vegetation, beautifully done, each with a private plunge pool, and there is a rather good restaurant that overlooks a bigger pool.
But the real point of staying here is, once again, the forest, and there is, again, a host of ways to explore it: hiking on trails, whizzing along a zip wire for adrenaline junkies, or white-water rafting down the tumbling rivers. The forest here seems to have a rather different hue from Playa Cativo; it is much greyer and wetter, and to reach it one has to drive through cloud forest, which is to be found on the peaks where the air from the ocean hits the highest point of the mountains. With Edward Sanchez, my guide, I go on a wonderfully mysterious two-hour walk. We see little – mostly sharp shots of colour accompanied by snatches of birdsong up in the canopy – but it is a great experience, giving a real sense of what the forest is like. Sometimes we walk along bridges that give us a hawk’s-eye view over the canopy itself, and down into vast gorges with waterfalls and rivers far below. Then there are guided walks around the volcano (though since 1968 nobody has been allowed to walk by the rim for fear of poisonous gases and molten rocks).
Alongside the rich biodiversity of the land, there is of course the sea – and a brilliantly designed modern little hotel, Kurà Design Villas (kurà means jaguar in the local Boruca language), has opened, calibrated to offer its guests both something of a forest experience and, more importantly, a marine one. It is set in the hills above the little town of Uvita on the Pacific coast, and has just six very swish, very comfortable rooms – each with spectacular views over the forest canopy across to the ocean – and all the walkways are flanked by lush foliage and flowers: ylang ylang, heliconias, red and torch ginger plants. Over a morning cappuccino, hawks and vultures fly past at eye level and toucans perch in the trees, while beyond, the ocean rather tantalisingly beckons. To get to the nearest good beach (a picture-postcard curving tranche of sand fringed by palm trees), there is a service that takes just over half an hour, leaving guests there with a chair, an umbrella and a cooler box until they want to be picked up again. Better, in my view, to book (essential to do it in advance) one of the forest or marine expeditions.
In the forest there are peccaries and howler monkeys, tayras and anteaters, three-toed sloths and all manner of tiny, precious living things. Down in the road we come upon a laughing falcon searching for reptiles; it bites off the heads and brings the bodies back to its arboreal eyrie or perch, where, according to my guide, it sings a duet with its mate before they both begin to dine. There are whales and dolphins to see while snorkelling at Cano Island nearby, and also in the Corcovado National Park, which has been rated by National Geographic as “the most biologically intense place on Earth”.
Most visitors have to pass through San José, where you will almost certainly need to spend a night or two – and Hotel Grano de Oro makes a charming base. Carved out of an appealing old private house belonging to a family who made a fortune out of baking cookies, it has just 40 rooms, each different and idiosyncratic, many with little private patios. In its restaurant, set round a courtyard with a fountain, I had the best food of my stay.
However, food, it has to be said, isn’t one of Costa Rica’s strengths. The locals, according to my guide, have “beans and rice for breakfast and rice and beans for lunch”. There is fresh fruit everywhere and ceviche of every kind of fish for those who like it, but gastronomy isn’t one of its big draws. Nor is there a rich cultural hinterland. Only 2.4 per cent of the population is descended from the original Bribri, Cabecar and Boruca people, who were living there when Columbus and his men arrived, but most were wiped out by European diseases. Adventure and the natural world are what Costa Rica does best, and those it does formidably well.
It has also long been one of the best places both to learn to surf and to enjoy surfing, with Nosara and Santa Teresa being cited as great surfing centres that aren’t too engulfed in hippie culture, while Pavones, the experts tell me, has the second-longest left wave in the world. Though the months between December and April are officially the dry season and therefore the best time to go, the skies seem not to have got the message – it pelted down on most days while I was there in early December. The key thing to remember is that Costa Rica is famous for its rainforests, and in the rainforests… it tends to rain. But if you love tramping through lush forest, white-water rafting, physical adventure and the natural world, then Costa Rica has riches to offer.