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Discover one of the world’s most biologically varied countries as you travel across southern Costa Rica. Whitewater rafting, jungle excursions, and boat rides through tropical rivers that glow in the dark may all be experienced in this place. It is also home to some innovative eco-lodges.

Published on June 14th, 2023

In and out in 30 minutes

National Geographic Traveller (UK) authored this concise piece.

A few minutes ago, the layered birdsong and sibilant river of the rain forest were replaced by the insane shriek of water against rocks as I jab my paddle into the foam at the nose of the bucking raft. A quick yell of “Forw– ard!” came from behind me. Forward!” When I try to row, the inflatable boat pitches, causing me to get up and move around. My feet slide out of their holds, and my oar meets nothing but air. What a terrible mistake this has been, I think as the raft crashes back into the ocean and I realise I’m still on board: I’m positive that humans are not meant to compete with these forces, much less cruise them for sport. As in, “C’mon, down!” “Get down!” the stern guide yelled again. In the split second it takes the raft to hit a massive stone and ricochet powerfully into calm, flat seas, our team of four rowers clumsily gets for the security ropes, raises our oars, slithers onto the cramped flooring area, and braces.

How high did that pace count for? Worse than an IV? A V that defies death? You made it through your first grade II, Marcello Delgado yells. Excellent job! Proceed now! Despite a stream of tried and true jokes about today being his first day on the job, Cello (as we are urged to call him) is a whitewater aficionado who is excited to spend his days advising on the Pacuare River, the lifeblood of Costa Rica’s rafting scene. Alex Cordero, our “security kayaker,” is also an active scout who races down the rapids in front of our raft to map out the route and keep an eye out for dangers. Alex, in the bow, devises strategies for embracing rather than fighting the Pacuare’s currents as he dips, dives, twists, turns, and even drifts backwards along her swirling courses.

Once again, the music of the rain forest fills my ears as Cello anchors the raft in a safe bend so that we can swim beneath a waterfall, this time an unclear, chattering chorus of bugs and birds that seems amplified by the tall canyon walls. He points out a blue morpho butterfly as big as the palm of his hand, flying lazily between trees as we tread water in the sun-dappled plunge pool with fish darting at our ankles. He says, “They like the water,” which is a code for “like me.” Before we continue, Alex capssizes his kayak while he’s still inside and right it with core strength, a la an Eskimo roll, in the shallows for fun. On my first full day in Costa Rica, this peculiar river and this dense forest have gradually become a delightful playground. Which is to say, before we get there.

I’m rafting to one of the best eco-lodges in the country, a water-turbine-powered hideaway in the province of Limón that overlooks the Caribbean. Arriving at Pacuare Lodge drenched and sweaty from exertion sets the tone for my time there. This is a place to let loose, despite the open-sided dining structure and 20 apartments’ grandeur (polished wood, expansive balconies, and flapping draperies). A destination where you can get a tan while wading through mud on nature trails with rubber boots, relax in an infinity pool while it pours outside, work up an appetite while descending waterfalls and racing along zip lines, and finish the day by roasting marshmallows over an open fire on the riverbank as the sun sets.

This is the first stop on a nearly two-week bespoke trip planned by Audley Travel that will take me to four of southern Costa Rica’s most picturesque and biodiverse enclaves. I will be able to avoid the crowds by taking rafts, quad bikes, ferryboats, and even my own wheels to get even further, much deeper, and more off the beaten track. Eco-lodges that live up to their billing by making efficient use of their guests and minimising their environmental impact are preferred. Right now, I feel like I’ve hit the jackpot by avoiding eviction and moving into Pacuare Lodge.

Before I evacuate and raft out, I explore the hotel’s 930-acre woodland reserve with Giovanni Taylor Damien, the lodge’s soft-spoken guide. As we continue to ascend, the roar of the Pacuare River fades further and more into the distance. Giovanni shows me how to pick out the euphonias, flycatchers, and woodcreepers from the motmots, tanagers, and manakins in the treetops, where the periodic sloth drapes the trees like a curtain and the rainbow toucans announce their flight paths loudly. He uses a phone app to play bird calls, luring the birds to him, and then shows me close-up pictures of their striking plumage after each sighting. The 900 species of birds found in Costa Rica were previously the sole burden of the guides. In addition, he says as he steals his device, “You can’t imagine the state of the books after a rainy season in this humidity.

Eventually, the warm, red muck of the river valley gives way to the crisp air and sandy soil of the higher elevation, a few hours later. As we emerge from the dense forest, we are greeted by a breathtaking panorama of the Sierra Nevada, including the Talamanca Range, whose misty foothills are continually being reshaped by tectonic processes. The Cabécar people are the largest of Costa Rica’s eight indigenous groups and make up 2.4% of the country’s total population, and Giovanni has taken me into their home in the Nairi Awari Indigenous Reserve to meet them. At the first ranch, where we meet Ananias Jiménez Jiménez, we see a cluster of traditional round wood homes with cone-shaped palm-leaf roofing systems. With a hearty “Jishtu mashkina,” he wishes us a wonderful morning in Cabécar.

Even though this isn’t his home (it belongs to Vivian Däküey Bä, a shy, raven-haired youngster who welcomes us strangely and whose mother also works at the lodge), Ananias is helping me understand the local culture by providing some insight on behalf of his neighbours. This is one of the very few places in the country that provides this swap; many Cabécar communities exist in isolation, on designated grounds.

These days, a gathering of five neighbourhoods on the Cabécar hill to watch a rowdy football game is considered a major cultural event. When the invitation arrives, the Cabécares will walk for days to meet. The women can meet the young men, and we can drink d,” he says with a chuckle, referring to the local sugar-cane alcohol.

There is a lot to learn and acquire if you live close to the Cabécar, and it has nothing to do with the plants, woven bags, and totemic, balsa-wood animal carvings they sell. Giovanni boasts, “We’ve gotten natural treatments that we can even use visitors to,” such as maracas flowers to fight off mosquitoes and ortiga leaves for muscle problems. They’ve been living in harmony with the forest for millennia, taking only what they need. We give that a lot of thought.

Birds of a plume

It’s a brilliant plan. The name of the mountain pass I am currently traversing through as it grows darker and thick fog descends escapes me. I might have noticed the words “Cerro de la Muerte” (‘ Hill of Death’) written in a zigzag of barrette flexes if I had paid greater attention to the map. With my ears popping at an altitude of nearly 3,500 metres above sea level, I’m just cruising the busy bends of the Pan-American Highway, looking at passing road signs to find the exit to a challenging but rewarding destination: the bird-watching refuge of San Gerardo de Dota.

The trip gave me a taste of the wide variety of terrain in Costa Rica in just half a day. After the rapids brought us ecstatic canoeists back to civilization, I picked up my rental car in the city of Siquirres. I had taken a diversion interior while the Pacuare continued raging towards the Caribbean shore, winding my way up and up through the Central Valley’s farms and puffing volcanoes to the cool, cloud-covered peaks of southern Costa Rica. The night is pitch black, chilly, and clear when I go to the comfortable Trogón Lodge, which is tucked away in a sizable mountain fold on the outskirts of Los Quetzales National Park, and the Milky Way is splattered across a glittering tapestry of stars.

This area’s simple, almost Alpine charm is a major magnet for birdwatchers and other nature enthusiasts who travel here from all over the world. The resplendent quetzal is a mythical bird held in high regard by many ancient Mesoamerican cultures. Maya and Aztec royals had their three-foot-long tail feathers plucked for use in headdresses. I meet supervisor and expert birder Greivin Gónzález in the lobby of our hotel at first light, where I have signed up with a bunch of fellow pilgrims dressed in colourful puffer coats and clutching telephoto lenses. Saying, “Every time I see one, it’s like my very first time,” he walks us through town to a grove of wild avocado trees where the birds have been known to graze first thing in the morning.

Greivin is a seasoned pro in foreseeing structural elements. In the hours that follow, when no quetzal can be seen, he fills the chilly air with facts, using a soft voice so as not to scare away a potential breakfast. During the months of February through May, when mating is most likely to occur, the brightly coloured males grow their long plumes, while the females are more subdued in appearance. Sightings are rare in neighbouring Central American countries due to environmental damage, but they are increasing in Costa Rica, where 28% of the area is protected, and where locals in and around San Gerardo de Dota carefully cultivate food supplies.

How loud is that? A woman has arrived! Greivin drops a bombshell. A plump bird jumps onto a shaky branch and rests, her head bobbing, amid a picture-perfect scene with hanging lichen and growing bromeliads as a backdrop. Her plumes on her tail are patterned like scallops in black and white, and she has a deep blue-green with rippling over her wings and neck and a cherry-red chest. “Do you see how the sun turns her green and gold?” Greivin says, commenting as seriously and quickly as a sportscaster. “And to look at, a man!” Our group of birdwatchers anxiously adjusts the tripods holding the spotting scopes so that we can have a better view. The male, whose colours are even brighter than the female’s, cuts a long, serpentine form in the air, bobbing like it’s floating on waves. His thin, twin, forking tail plumes are nearly full length. It’s a dazzling but fleeting visitation; the birds eat and then dash back into the woods, leaving me with vivid recollections that could have been hallucinations.

When it rains

It takes the better part of a day and a relay of transport to get to my next resort in the nation’s most remote and biodiverse area, the turtle fin-shaped Osa Peninsula in the deep south. I’m back on the winding Pan-American, this time in glorious sunshine, passing through breathtaking vistas of soaring mountains and wispy clouds snagged on dragon-spine peaks. I switch to the Costanera Highway at the backpacker resort of Dominical, where the road meets the Pacific; from there I travel through the Golfo Dulce Forest Reserve and on to the low-lying hamlet of Puerto Jiménez. My ride to Carate begins adjacent to the airstrip (the edges of which serve as the local cemetery) and continues in a more robust vehicle over rutted dirt trails and across raging streams. Here, at the edge of a stunning dark-sand beach that seems to go on for miles, a cart horse and a quad bike have finally fulfilled me.

The manager of La Leona Eco Lodge, Agustn Briones, speeds up the quad bike and explains, “Normally we’d simply load your bags on the horse and ask you to trek the two miles to the camp, however the tide’s come in quick– and a storm.” “You’d better move along” We race along the desolate beach under mutinous, lead-grey skies, dodging strewn coconuts and fording shallow streams seeping out of the dense tree zone. The water pulls and hisses to my left, the waves slapping the ground with lace-work froth as we roll over them. As I turn to the right, I see movement among the trees; the woods are clearly full of life.

very my opinion, the lodge fits very perfectly with the surrounding landscapes. In the nighttime, the property’s rustic pathways and open-sided canteen are illuminated by little more than stars and candlelight, and basic ocean-front safari tents come with alfresco showers. Dinner that night was fried snapper, plantain, and beans and rice, all traditional fare in Costa Rica. “Sometimes you can look for days for an animal and then it simply appears at the lodge,” Agustn says. The raging Pacific is doing battle with the canteen’s iron roof as rain pours down in sheets. When it was quiet around here out of season, a puma even strolled right through the resort. We had to act as tour guides for guests. Despite the rain, I decided to visit Corcovado National Park with local nature guide Alvaro Montoya. It’s the largest in Costa Rica at 164 square miles, and it was built in 1975 to serve the logging and gold rush communities that had relocated there. It’s a short stroll from the lodge to the trailhead. As soon as we enter the forest, we begin to see signs of wildlife. A group of squirrel monkeys grazes in the treetops, an agouti rodent burrows in the underbrush, and an anteater confidently strides forward.

Above the trees, a flock of scarlet macaws flapped their wings. Alvaro can easily translate his surroundings and other sources of inspiration into stories and facts. I didn’t go to college, so I can’t claim to be an expert, but I’ve grown up here and can make sense of things.

He wants to pierce my naivete about surviving in the jungle and give me a far better grasp of Osa’s natural wealth. Nature at its most raw and untamed. Alvaro showed me a video he had taken of a puma hunting earlier in the year on his phone; he said, “hear how his teeth split the howler monkey’s skull?” The colourful toucans we see are straight out of a children’s book; “they consume other birds’ eggs”; charming white-faced capuchin monkeys drying their fur in the early morning sunlight; “really sharp teeth; I’ve seen them eliminate birds!” The ground beneath our feet is littered with colourful, dismembered skeletons of Halloween crabs, a favourite delicacy of the larger birds.

It’s hard to resist the allure of the place, even while aware of this grim reality. And as the days go by, I begin to understand my place in the cycle of nature. I get up early so that I can be the first person to set foot on the freshly painted sand after high tide. I become familiar with the sounds of the red-lored parrot and the fiery-billed araçari, and I learn to spot their nesting sites. In the hours before a storm, I like to burn candles and watch the sky and sea become dark.

Let there be light

A couple of days, a Cessna flight, and a ferryboat ride later, I’m bobbing in a kayak on the crystal waters of the Gulf of Nicoya, the nose of my craft pointing in all directions as I paddle. Tectonic forces have recently shoved rugged islands and rock stacks into the cloudless sky, giving them a pristine, new appearance. Just behind us on the forested islet of Jesusita is the eco-friendly glamping resort Isla Chiquita, which runs primarily on solar power. “I’ve seen humpbacks there, just where you’re kayaking; whales, too,” says Christian Rosáles, who oversees activities at the resort. Christian guests at your waterfront mansion. He tells me about rebuilding mangroves and saving giant turtles from fishing nets while whistling at the kingfishers and pelicans we pass.

While the platinum beaches and drier climate of the northwest coast of Costa Rica usually provide some of the country’s most industrialised tourist facilities, days here at the tip of the Nicoya Peninsula are rustic, governed by the tides and the arc of the sun, with the only soundtrack being the guttural whooping of resident howler monkeys. The water is the focal point of the activities. When I’m not relaxing in the plunge pool of my tent at the island’s highest point, I’m at Christian’s “office” on the beach, a wooden gazebo draped with all the necessities of cruising adventures, including a life vest, oars, snorkelling equipment, and the gear we’ll need for our next outing: fishing tackle.

As Christian explains when we turn off the boat’s motor a little distance from the jetty at the hotel, this is a lesson in artisanal fishing, in which we will catch our dinner using a hand-held line, bait and some skill. Above us, in the orange dusk, a flock of worried frigate birds flies around looking for food. With gritted teeth, I spear a moving ghost prawn onto my hook, then lower it to the ocean floor next to the boat. In order to catch the fish, I have to feel the almost imperceptible nibble of the fish and then jerk the hook far upwards. Christian regularly catches and releases groupers, puffer fish, and catfish, while I repeatedly have my bait snatched without noticing. Let the breeze in and try again with fresh bait. I’ve hauled in a red snapper, and it’s flopping around in my hands as I bring it on board. Supper. We won’t be returning home immediately. Instead, we take a joyride into the night, zigzagging between distant islands. It’s hard to tell where my flesh finishes and the night begins since the air is so soft and warm. Christian is looking for a shady cove, away from the rising sun and waning moon. “Trail your hand in the water,” he advises when we are much less. When I put my fingers into the water, there’s a flash of light, and when I draw my arm out, the light stays on for a few minutes, an onslaught of bioluminescence.

Adapting vision helps us to follow the glimmering movements of fish and rays in the shallows; I had no idea the underwater world could be so intricate and dynamic, or that it could glow from within with sapphire fairy dust. Christian identifies them as dinoflagellates, a type of rare marine plankton regularly found in the tropical bays of Nicoya. So that I may examine the glistening particles more closely, Dad fills a jam jar and places it in the boat, where the bluish coal glitters under our sandaled feet. For the past two weeks, I’ve been experiencing a feeling I’ve come to treasure: that of being a youngster again, of being blissfully confused at my location in the vast web of creation. It’s Christian that I look into. My guide is splashing his hands in the water and laughing. It seems that he hasn’t been completely oblivious to the magic.

Audley Travel helped make this narrative a reality.

Publication date: June 2023 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK).

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