Going Green in the Garden of Eden
If you like the colour green, you’ll LOVE Costa Rica! Although it’s always portrayed in the travel brochures as something akin to the Garden of Eden, it’s very much a poor relation. That’s not to say it’s not worth a visit: there’s a good deal to see and the people, though poor, are friendly. Just don’t believe all you read and don’t trust the photo montages. There are other colours to be seen; but in the autumn most things colourful have fled elsewhere. An occasional orange or red flower braves it through the green but without the morph butterflies (electric blue and stunning) and toucans, it’s green all the way. On the plus side, a high percentage of the country is designated as protected environmental areas, encouraging a healthy and growing eco-tourism. Perhaps for just this reason, it's worth considering a visit to this central American destination.

The rain means it in Costa Rica. It doesn’t just dribble out the sky or start and stop. It just dumps it down on you relentlessly with a vengeance for hours on end. It’s really quite a feature and extraordinary to watch (though less fun to be out in). Take a trip to Costa Rica by all means but expect to be pleased rather than thrilled.

Something NOT Green in Costa Rica

Arriving in San Jose.
The capital’s airport is surprisingly large for a small country. No doubt this is because tourism is a major industry (along with coffee and microchips) depending largely on Americans for whom the trip from Miami is but a short hop.
[Speaking of Miami, it has one of the worst airports in the world. It seems to be designed like a half doughnut: landside ‘facilities’ (poor and expensive) around the outside and airside gates (and even worse facilities) in the centre. The landside part seems largely populated by people who have no obvious reason for being there. They have no baggage, are not with anyone and don’t seem to be waiting for a flight. They’re just there – loitering. It’s all very intimidating. Like most airports there are not enough seats (and those there are are occupied by people not going anywhere). The catering is dire. Don’t even think of making a call back home from a public phone. The United States is shockingly old-fashioned when it comes to phones. The payphones are no use for international calls, so off you go to a credit card phone which involves calling the operator, and so it goes on. In the end, forty minutes later, you speak a couple of sentences and are charged £20 for the privilege. (And all the while you’ve had to keep your eyes peeled for what the people who are going nowhere are up to). Worse is to come. United Airlines (and all the others for all I know) operate a system where everyone joins a single line, whatever flight they’re on. Sounds good, doesn’t it? There’s no need to find the right desk or wish you’d joined the line next door as it always seems to be moving more quickly. The result is not so convenient, however. As the line serves thirty or so desks, it’s always on the move. Constantly, you snake round the roped maze, shuffling baggage forward, bumping into those in front and being buffeted by those behind. Perhaps I was unlucky, but everyone checking in with me had been on a once in a lifetime shopping spree in Miami with all the family and were going home with their gotten gains: crates of all proportions, 1:1 scale models of intergalactic battleships, suitcases bulging in every direction – and that was just the hand luggage! Suddenly you’re at the front of the queue. Everyone behind knows which check-in desk is free. You don’t, of course, but they do. And they tell you. All of them. All at once. But there are thirty at least! And all of them seem busy. At last you spot a gap and you race off to beat the people behind who’ve decided you’re not really travelling - you’re just one of those who should be loitering aimlessly landside. It’s just that you’ve somehow got caught up in a check-in queue by mistake. Exhausted you collapse in front of the check in guy. What’s that? What’s he saying? Of course, this Miami! This is Latino Land. It’s Spanish he’s speaking! Er… what do I do; what do I say? “I’m from England”, does it quite well enough and the clerk changes to English, his first language after all.

Eventually, we were all aboard our flight, squeezed in absolutely choc-a-bloc.   Americans are bred to be friendly and informal, as my neighbours were.   The plane was built in the days before the craze for triple-decker double cheese and bacon giantburger with extra fries had kicked in.   Seats and people being mis-matched in size, we were close neighbours for the duration, so perhaps talking was one way of coping with mutually invaded personal space.   Certainly the Captain was a chatty sort.   My guess is that having served as a fighter pilot in Vietnam, he'd moonlighted herding cattle in the Wild West.   We were going to 'hang a left' right after take off to avoid Hurricane Rita on the right.   What he didn't tell us was that the plane had a square joystick and could only make 90 degree turns.   Every manoeuvre was an exercise in evasive action.   Thank goodness no food was to be served on board.]

Back to San Jose. Although the airport is surprisingly large, the baggage claim hall is predictably small. If there's more than one flight disgorging baggage, the authorities employ staff to remove cases as soon as they appear on the carousel and pile them in the centre of the hall. Of course, this keeps the carousel nice and clear but almost defeats any attempt to claim your bags easily. If you're particularly tired, stupid or unfamiliar with the ways of airports, you could easily while away a whole lifetime folornly waiting for the belt to deliver up your luggage.

San Jose, Costa Rica from the Jade Museum

One of the great joys (and risks) of my sabbatical leave was not knowing the people (or how many there would be) I'd be spending my time with. I was quite pleased to find myself as one of only eight and in a minibus for the duration of the tour. So it was that we went off (through driving rain - there was a lot more of that to come!) to the Hotel Fleur de Lys, a Victorian-style mansion some twenty-minutes' walk from the centre of San Jose. It's not an unnattractive building and the write-up in the guide books is quite promising. It's an individual sort of place, Swiss-owned and therefore efficiently run. Rooms are basic (mine, Narcizio - they are all named after flowers) but adequate. It is boasted that "each room is indiviually decorated, each furnished with equisite taste, guaranteed to please even the most demanding traveller." Hmm. "Original artwork adorns the walls of each room." Yes, a naive sort of art, romantising the local wildlife in a 1960's inspired ecological frenzy. It's OK as long as you don't look at it.

Mobile phones in Costa Rica are rigorously controlled. There are only two networks and they have no roaming agreements with other operators. So unless you buy a local simcard, your mobile is good only for games. I discovered this when it turned out I had made the mistake of leaving my travel insurance document with my papers from the Normandy tour. No luck with the mobile, so it was a matter of negotiating the hotel switchboard to phone home to arrange a call to the insurance company to ask for the policy number. All very complicated but in the end it worked and the message got through sure enough. NOTE: the cost of the international call was extremely reasonable, thank goodness. But always, always, check!

San Jose highlights
San Jose tries hard. So do its people. Not quite up to Italian couture, the locals dress well nevertheless. The men wear jackets and ties. The women wear clothes that match. None of the slashed jeans and ill-fitting (and ill-suited) cropped tops and body hugging outfits from back home. In fact, the guide books warn you as much. Avoid dirty, scruffy clothes – and never wear shorts. Good advice. The ‘Ticos’ as they are known may be of modest means but they’re rich in pride. Those of us who are much better off than they should show some solid respect for them.

Jade Museum
Full of jade, of course. Though part of the indigenous culture and no doubt of immense value, you’d have to be a jade fanatic to want to spend more than 45 minutes looking round. The displays are not overly imaginative but there are interesting views over San Jose from the windows as the museum is on the eleventh floor of a tall building. The great exception is the surprising item which seems to combine being a cooking pot with acting as a table, stool and ornament. At least, that what I think we were told. If you were ever to see it, you’d recognise it from my description!

Gold Museum
This is much more interesting! Apparently the gold in here would pay off the Costa Rican national debt three times over but national pride is worth more. Good for them! Security is tight, and expect to deposit all bags at reception and undergo a scan and/or search. This takes but a minute and is worth any inconvenience. Entry to the museum is down a spectacular hardwood staircase made from local wood; a good preparation for the treasures that await. The gold, thousands of pieces, some large, some minute and delicate, is well displayed and nicely described. Small brooches vie with neckchains made from plate-sized discs for attention. Be prepared to spend plenty of time here. And venture beyond the gold itself (when you can tear yourself away) to see the costumes, the photographs and the display of Costa Rican currency through the ages. When the Conquistadors arrived they were astounded at the amount of gold so conspicuously on display. Everyone, highest to lowest, sported some. A form of ‘forced barter’ was soon instituted and worthless trinkets were swapped for impossibly precious jewellery. The locals seemed to think it a fair exchange but the Spaniards knew who was getting the better of the bargain.

Five Colones note (no longer legal tender)

National Theatre
To Ticos this is an iconic building speaking of their aspirations in the cultural fields of opera and theatre. Dating from 1897 in a very pleasing style (Belgians and Italians contributed to its design and building), its capacity has been drastically reduced since the earthquake in the 1990s to about 700. (Structural damage limits the parts of the theatre which can be used). The tour is worth doing. There’s the opportunity to visit the presidential box, the salon where receptions are held, and to see the wonderful painting Alegoria a Las Exportaciones which was featured on the old 5 colones note (no longer in circulation but mint notes can be bought for $1 from the ladies outside. Buy one – and some postcards, too. It all helps the poor to make a living.) The café is also worth visiting.

Local Drink
All the international brands are available at the bars and hotels - but why not do as the local do and drink the local drinks? That means Imperial beer (a 4.6% perfectly drinkable lager) and Costa Rican brandy. Three beers and two brandies came to 2,500 colones (about £3.50) and lasted a good three hours in the hotel roadside bar. Got talking to a young couple who were backpacking their way round central America. She was from Sutton, he was from further afield. A Cuban twosome entertained us with vocals, guitar and drums. The management handed over 35,000 colones at the end of their act - about £50. They were worth it, even overcoming the hammering of the rain on the roofs.

Local Food
Exciting it isn't. But what it lacks in variety in makes up in solidity. After two bowls of rice and beans for breakfast you'll not want to snack before your lunch of beans and rice. Apart from that, the food is a bit Mexican (but on the bland side). I had no complaints and if you want international food in the hotels and restaurants you can usually get it. If there's fresh fruit available, go for it.

Off to Tortoguero!

One of the many channels at Tortoguero - no roads, so the only way to travel

It may be a long way to Tipperary but it takes a good deal longer to get to Tortoguero. How far it is, I couldn't say; but the roads are so bad (even the main roads have huge potholes) that travelling at speed is impossible (unless, of course, you have a 48-tonner bearing down on you from behind, when the potholes seem the lesser threat). As we had left the hotel at 6am, we made a breakfast stop at an excellent hotel in Guapiles and fortified by rice and beans (and more, to be fair) we took a short walk to see a three-toed sloth moving oh-so-slowly but with great grace high in a tree.

Back on the road to Siquirres, a largish town and being Saturday alive with football matches and market stalls. As we were bound for a resort from which there would be no escape for two nights (no roads, no shops) we were encouraged to stock up on any snacks and drinks we might prefer to buy at the local supermarket rather than pay resort prices all the while. It was like any supermarket anywhere, really. The wine selection was very poor but there was an extensive choice of spirits. They even had proper Scottish Scotch (unknown brand) for under 5,000 colones (around £10). Resisted temptation.

Just after Siquirres, the road, poor as it is, runs out. This means the last 20 miles is by rough ash track first through del Monte banana plantations and then through ranch country. The first dozen craters are quite amusing but the novelty soon wears off. It was two hours of 'hold very tight' and weaving round the worst of the avoidable holes. Bones were shaken well and truly. Most workers live in small accommodation blocks provided by their employers and there are facilities for families too. It doesn't seem to be much of a life but I guess if you're poor, it provides an income of sorts. The locals live in roadside shacks. The plantation owners have palatial dwellings.

Along the way we spotted egrets, vultures a-plenty, herons and flycatchers. There were many more birds to come!

At last, we arrived at the embarkation point for the boat to Tortoguero. Seating around 40, this slim craft raced along the canal leaving a savage wake which crashed up the banks. It didn't look too environmentally friendly to me. But boats are the only way to get there and it made a change to be travelling more than 10mph and with fewer bumps. There wasn't a great deal to see from the water, though a flock of spoonbills (tinged with pink, rather like flamingoes) put in an appearance and a freshwater turtle swam by. The greatest view was of a family of spider monkeys moving high in the waterside trees. We called in for a toilet stop for the ladies (apparently they were overcome by all the water and the bumping) and a beer stop for the men (700 colones a bottle) who seem to be of a more robust constitution.

At the Evergreen Lodge it was clear that although the party had arrived safely, my suitcase hadn't. In fact, it had taken an extension to the lodge further down the canal. There was nothing I could do (except worry) so I took myself off to my log cabin and read my book on the verandah until the mislaid bag was returned two hours later. The cabin is rather similar to one I stayed in at Yosemite back in 1985. Apart from the verandah and a room with two beds there's a very decent bathroom a with a hot water shower. Although advertised as a single room, it seems I must share it with a spider the size of a decent saucer and a bug-eyed green and yellow frog who live in the bathroom. Perhaps one will eat the other. Although intellectually convinced that they are more afraid of me than I am of them, psychology suggests the opposite. I'm told by the guide books that there are no poisonous spiders in Costa Rica and that (unless you lick them or eat them raw) the frogs and toads can do no harm. There is a note in the room warning guests not to put a hand down anywhere in the room without looking there first. This includes the floor, walls, chair, bed, pillow ... . In fact, it seems to preclude moving at all. So I unpack my bags carefully (looking first) and put them on the highest shelf, even though I'm sure whatever I must be careful of can climb perfectly well.

After lunch we went for a stroll through the local forest. Here we saw our first howler monkeys, large, graceful and intruiged by our interest. Soon the forest closed in, as did the mosquitos. Fortunately, I'm not as attractive to them as others, so I got off lightly with just a bite or two. Others were polka-dotted all over in spite of the bug spray. The trail was quite tricky. The ground is too wet to walk in comfort, so the trail is set with tree-trunk stepping stones. They're not all at quite the same distance from each other and they tend to be slippery, so great care was required. The narrow, rail-less wooden bridges are challenging, too. Only when stationary was it safe to look up and about and even then there was the danger of overbalancing from one of these wooden stepping stones. A couple of frogs were seen and a bird of the quetzal family (but not the real thing, unfortunately) - not much reward for those half bitten to death.

A shower and an evening meal refresh me for a while but a post-prandial beer ($2 - it's a dollar resort) tires me, so off to bed at 8.30pm. Awake just before 1am to discover that I never actually made it into bed (I can't remember checking the pillow either) and that a huge moth has now joined my other flatmates.

My room at the Evergreen Lodge with amusing towel arrangement

Put the moth out of its torture by turning off the light and get into bed proper. Outside the frogs are chirping away and the trees creak. Now and then a monkey can be heard.

Come dawn, around 4.30am, I hear more than monkeys. I discover that my cabin is right next to the staff quarters. The staff, of course, are not on sabbatical. It seems that part of their wake-up procedure is to make as much noise as possible. I suppose it stops them dropping off again. A few minutes later the monkeys join in the chatter, soon to be joined by the maid whose contract evidently states that she must sweep my verandah (and be heard to be about it) before 5am.

At least I'm wide wake for a boat trip at 6.30am. We saw an astonishing array of wildlife: caymans, herons of various hues, fly-catchers (which come in many sorts), kingfishers and hummingbirds. Three types of monkeys: howlers (who howl, naturally), capuchins (who look a bit like the monks of that ilk) and spider (who have eight legs [they don't, of course: I just made that up!]). The capuchins and the spiders had a fight before our eyes (result inconclusive).

For the most part, the birds simply sat there feigning indifference to our presence, even though we were but yards away. Some wags suggested they were stuffed or nailed to the branches for our benefit. One bush was awash with butterflies and another hid an almost perfectly camouflaged iguana.

A Heron feigning indifference

We returned to the lodge after three hours (two more than we were promised) to enjoy a hearty breakfast. The rest of the morning being free, I read John Simpson's latest book around the pool and. when the young Americans vacated it, took a swim in the pool. After a hearty lunch (a feature of these trips if you’re not careful) off to the CCC, which is the abbreviation for the local turtle conservation trust. Tortoguero, of course, takes its name from the thousands of turtles who arrive each year to lay their eggs in the soft Caribbean sand. For generations, the turtles and their eggs have provided the means of living for the villagers. In former years, this was by way of food: now it’s the tourist trade. It’s a pretty meagre living.

At the CCC there’s a small exhibition with video presentadtion and the opportunity to purchase postcards. A local youth waylaid us outside. He carried a large machete and told us that for a few colones he would show us the turtles on the beach. It was an invitation we felt we could not refuse. We went off with him through the beachside undergrowth. There, in a small clearing, was a pile of green coconuts. The youth informed us that for only C250 he would slice the top from a coconut and give us a refreshing drink. Not surprisingly, given the size of his weapon, we all said, “Yes, please!” He was as good as his word and with one deft strike a clean cut was made and we each drank the cool syrup inside. This lad’s skills did not end there. He could certainly make money. I had the right change, C250. But others, who had only C500 or C1,000 notes, found that no matter how much over the odds they proffered, no change was forthcoming. This was a lesson well learned and one that stood me in good stead for other trips! Finally, he took us to the turtles. To our horror, he scooped out several handfuls of sand from the beach, laid bare a nest and dug out a few hatchlings that flapped helplessly in his palm. Half a minute later they were back in their nest and covered over. Perhaps it did no harm but we all felt uneasy about the intrusion.

Our guide took us for a turn around the village. First impressions were positive. A rough paved road (Main Street) with a couple of colourful shops either side looked quite quaint. A brightly painted school room to one side completed the picture. But further down the road, the scene changed – and not for the better. Away from the ‘tourist’ end of town, the road became broken and unrepaired. Stagnant pools of dark evil-smelling liquid had to be stepped over. The locals exuded an attitude at best indifferent, at worst faintly hostile. The houses were ramshackle with rubbish heaped around. We decided we’d stick together for the remaining 90 minutes of our stay.

Tortoguero's Local School

Some relief was to be found at the Rangers’ Station. A small exhibition on local life, flora and fauna occupied a few more minutes. The local nature reserve, of which Tortoguero is a part, encompasses some 10% of the whole country. This dedication to ecological conservation is a deliberate government policy and looks as though it pays off. On the back of the local turtles, the rangers organise night tours to see the turtles in action, striding up the beach, laying their eggs and plunging back into the surf. Some of the party booked this trip and had a pretty good time. I thought better of it, reckoning the turtles needed a break from human interference.

Our return to the craft took us past more hovels. A group of youths were kicking a football around a scrap of grass with goal posts. We went down to the beach: coarse volcanic sand with a couple of anglers and a single family, Dad in the shallows. This is not a resort of any kind. It’s dull and dreary with strong sea currents, sharks and barracudas.

The better end of Main Street, Tortoguero

My feeling is that the local responsible bodies (National Park / Town Council / whatever) should invest in the town. If the place were done up, the homes repaired and repainted, visitors might be tempted to stay a little longer. Unbelievably, there are a couple of rental complexes and a bed and breakfast establishment; but who, apart from fugitives from justice and the most determined drop-out, would ever come to stay here? We left at 5.15pm – and not a moment too soon! A shower, a book and a drink restore my equilibrium. An excellent dinner finishes off the day. Back in the room, it seems the frog had gone but the spider still very much in evidence. In bed by 10pm.

Monday 26 September 2005
Woken suddenly at 4am by frog hopping on Venetian blinds – a strange sound indeed! This is followed by the unmistakable sound of ‘missiles’ (possibly fruit) being dropped onto roof. This could be monkey-business. No chance of further sleep, so showered, packed and on the veranda reading by 5.30am.

The insomniac frog

After the usual breakfast (the meals here are excellent – and there being nowhere to buy anything to supplement them, they need to be) it’s soon time to board the craft out of Tortoguero. Stopped to see some roosting bats in a canal-side tree. Finally disembarking, we walked the remaining half mile to the mini-bus for another bone-shaking ride. We made a brief break at a banana processing plant to watch the fruit being washed, graded and sorted. We’re told that the pick of the crop is for export only, the second grade for local consumption. The remainder is sold for processing: smoothies and baby food mainly. As a souvenir of our visit we’re presented with strips of little stickers just the same as you find on bananas back home. We receive these worthless gifts with unfeigned delight.

Going bananas on the rocky road

Finding ourselves at Siquirres again, some go off to buy rum, others antihistamines. Fortunately, no-one buys both. Our final leg today is broken by a short stop at a roadside pull-in where the local delicacy of palm hearts (which I’d had before) and a strange hard fruit which when cooked tastes very much like a potato are offered free and gratis (to us). There are a few knick knacks on sale, enough of which we buy for the stall holders to recoup their costs. We hear there’s a rare bird in the field next door, so twitchers to a man we scramble down a steep slope to take a look. Our guide thinks he sees something in the rushes the other side of a muddy pond. It’s curious how distance convinces the eyes and we all ooh aah and agree; but it’s not enough to mark down in the book so we are obliged to home in on foot. If we did see it, it had seen us first and being more at home than we in those surroundings had gone very effectively to ground. It is a disappointed group that reboards the bus.

We arrive at La Quinta resort around 3.30pm, though it feels good deal later. To greet us, the weather puts on a fine show: torrential rain with flashings and bangs for six hours. An evening barbecue ($10 – another dollar resort) is plentiful and, to my mind, good, though it seems I’m in the minority. Returning to my little bungalow, I’m disappointed to discover that unlike others I have no hammock on my veranda, so have to while away the hours before bedtime with a book propped up in a locally designed armchair with the rain beating down all around.

Tuesday 27 September 2005
A bright enough morning and a good enough breakfast cheer us for our 7.30am start. Caught sight of a decorated ox cart on the road but not enough warning to get a photo. At a local ecological centre a young man called Jeffry is to be our guide. He has a sense of humour and an excellent grasp of English. At his direction we spot several iguanas, frogs and birds, including a young male umbrella bird which excites him greatly. It would have even more impressive had it been a more mature specimen with the typical red plumage but we couldn’t complain. There are toucans in the trees, too, which are always fun to see. Best of all are the hummingbirds which, although tiny and furiously fast, give themselves away by a dart of vivid colour. The air and the mud are both sticky. Distant thunder warns us there’s another storm on the way.

Back at the ranch the storm has come. I’d give the rain 8 out of 10 for effort, so not such a good mark for it as yesterday’s. A slight break in the weather affords the opportunity to take a turn around the grounds which are pleasant enough. Call in at the butterfly farm. Surrounded at once by winged monsters of every hue.

So much to eat lately and rather on the tired side, so I decline the offer of a seat at a local restaurant (which is a disappointment to me as seeing the locals at work and play is usually quite fun) and opt for an early night. In fact, the night begins earlier than I planned as I fall asleep as soon as I sit on the bed and wake up the next morning fully-clothed having missed Marco’s special evening lecture. I have to apologise in the morning.

NOTE: I had a most peculiar dream that night involving a Sabina Sibox (otherwise Harriet), a woman crossword complier for The Times and Michael Alore (might have been Alove) who was a suspected murderer. No idea of the plot but it would be interesting to see if either name checks out!)

Wednesday 28 September 2005
Early breakfast and usual 7.30pm start. Sergio, the driver, stops every time there’s a bird to be seen but in time we arrive at café cum iguana reserve. The owner brought six animals here some years ago but nature being what it is, some 300 now roam the grounds. Actually, for the most part they just occupy space. Until, that is, it’s time to be fed. A few scraps thrown from the balcony stir them into action and it’s a mad rush to the table.
The small iguanas are quick – and they have to be. The giant adults aren’t slow and once they arrive the minions scatter. No actual fighting but a stand-off or two. The little gift shop sells iguana-themed souvenirs and I succumb without a fight.

Big Daddy Iguana

Next stop: Talbacon Hot Springs. This up-market complex depends on the heat from the nearby Arenal volcano, still active and whose last active eruption killed forty or so people ten years ago. The series of pools, varying in heat from cool to decidedly warm depending on how near each is to the volcano, is inviting and within minutes we’re all splashing about and hopping from one to another. It would have been helpful to have been told to bring ‘jelly shoes’ as their use was recommended by the spa. I coped, of course, but underfoot was a bit stony and uncomfortable. Two hours at Talbacon was enough (just!). On leaving, bought a two-bottle gift-pack of Costa Rican coffee liqueur. Leaving the hot springs we saw the most remarkable sight. Marco spotted a pair of eagles circling high above in the distance. The road being as it was, we were moving quite slowly. By degrees, the birds came closer together. It was clear they were on a collision course. Suddenly, they were at talons-locked, plummeting in a tight spiral. At the last moment they separated and one flew off in a straight line at full speed while the other, the victor, regained his height and took up his circling station. To have seen this gladiatorial combat was exhilarating. Clearly a battle for territory had been enacted before our eyes, something we’d not expected and certainly we’d never forget it.

Today’s lunch stop is Toad Hall. Its setting overlooking Arenal is delightful, though we’re not blessed with continuous clear skies. When the cloud clears, the view is spectacular and the volcano does not disappoint, puffing out a little smoke from its cone as if on demand.

Mount Arenal puffs obligingly

The food is OK, Californian in style. This Californian connection is clearly up and coming. Having lived there for a year (1980/81) I recognise something of the plusses and minuses of this situation. Californians are convinced, beyond any argument, of the rightness of their cause. Since the 70s they have pretty much adopted a left of centre attitude to all things political, social and ecological. Though they would be mortified to acknowledge it, they have more than begun to colonise their backyard and export soft, woolly-headed, flower-power-inspired preconceptions backed by ethically-correct dollars to the poor ignorant masses ( = anyone anywhere who can’t afford to put up any resistance). The result is a soft-focus, touchy-feely gesture providing a thin veneer of trendy posturing. Whether, in the end, it will prove to be more than short-lived froth, I don’t know. What I do know, is that they brew good coffee and bake excellent brownies. What the long-term effect on the Costa Rican culture will be, I’ve no idea. Perhaps we could take a guess?

Our arrival at the Ecolodge was around 4pm. The cabins were spacious, well-appointed and had towels skilfully folded into puppy shapes nestling on the beds. To the rear there are terraces with an ‘infinity’ view of Mount Arenal. The green swathe seems to give way without a break to the surrounding valley. I had to sit and take in the view. Eventually I succumbed to writing postcards but had to glance more than once at the vista.

Dinner provided plenty of entertainment. We were the only guests that night and the management had prepared an excellent menu of minestrone soup followed by steak, potatoes and veg. Californian sensibilities had not percolated this far, so no provision had been made for our three vegetarians. Not unreasonably, they asked for a meatless meal. Two ate rice with prawns (though they didn’t enjoy it) but a third (give her the credit at least for realising that proper vegetarians won’t eat fish) insisted she wouldn’t have the crustaceans. However, she was less than pleased to find just vegetables on her plate! Quite what would have satisfied her conscientious requirements I can’t imagine. I’d have thought vegetables would have been just what the vegetarian ordered! After dinner, we took coffee by a roaring fire (though you couldn’t all the evening cold). All very civilised.

Our evening was completed by a staged encounter with two members of the local Maleku tribe. We were a few minutes early and walked in on them while they were still changing. It seems that the indigenous people wear western clothes when not on display! Having been ushered out we waited until the native transformation was complete. Before us stood two men, muscular, half-naked and rather darker than the average Costa Rican. One was self-assured and stood proudly in his native dress; the other didn’t seem quite to fit the bill, being nervous and not quite filling his clothes. Perhaps he’d been supplied by Central Casting to stand in for a sick colleague. Who knows? The chief of the two greeted us in his native lingo and hen repeated this in Spanish which Marco interpreted for us. We were told how they still live together as an extended family as one of only three remaining tribal groups in the country. Although they are very proud of their heritage and try to keep up the native skills, they are clearly perfectly adapted to the prevailing culture. We ask them a few questions which they are happy to answer. “What do they think of the ‘Spanish’ invaders?” They are guarded in their response. It seems they harbour dreams of ousting the incomers one day and regaining their rightful place. Marco translates all this with a perfectly straight face, no doubt having heard all this already. Of course, it’s entirely unrealistic. There’s no chance that will happen but who would deny a proud people their hopes? They have a much better chance of selling us their native-made crafts. There are drums, carved gourds and rain-making sticks. We’ve seen similar items in souvenir shops and these are priced a little higher. However, because we feel we’re doing good by buying direct from the ‘suppliers’ we do our bit to fund the coming revolution. I buy a rain stick for $20 and I’m quite happy.

Maleku tribesmen. They moved, I didn't.

Once the sale has gone well, the Maleku reps relax. The braver of the two recites some poetry in his native tongue and is then persuaded to sing a native song. The translation is what you might expect: hunting in the forest, nature, love, life. It’s haunting and most un-Spanish. I ask if they’d like to hear a traditional English folk song. I think their enthusiasm is genuine. I render The Foggy, Foggy Dew, such a contrast to their song. Marco translates my song for them (though I’m not sure he got more than a vague impression of the sense) and they nod appreciatively. I hope I’ve my bit to redress the balance, so they don’t feel like exhibits, performing animals for the tourists. A good visit in the end, I think, no matter how contrived. Back to the Ecolodge bar for a final drink and then off along the dark windy path back to our beds. We missed a dramatic display from the volcano overnight. Sergio tried to wake us but to no avail.

Thursday 29 September 2005
Morning broke with just the cone of the volcano showing above the mist. The sun came up and the mist disappeared, a magnificent view. Two lakes completed the panorama. As Arenal puffed away, a family of howler monkeys lounged languidly in the trees. It was a great pity to be leaving this wonderful scene after just one night.

We made a short stop at Taliran to post cards and meet Marco’s sister who works in a drugstore there. I broke loose to visit the local church. It was not untypical of any modern RC church in any part of the world. Only the Costa Rican flag set it apart.

The road to the Monteverde was the worst so far and as we made progress (that’s an exaggeration) the heavens opened once again. We rather upset Marco en route. Shortly before our destination, Marco told us of a recent incident in the town. It seems a group of desperados held up the local bank, emptied the safe and made good their escape. Having been shaken to bits for tens of miles travelling at a snail’s pace, we couldn’t believe our ears! How did they succeed? How did they get away? Surely, a one-legged octogenarian could have outrun them? The giggles took over. Indignantly, Marcos told us it was no laughing matter. The robbers had held two female tellers hostage and had killed them both in the making of their escape. We were shamefaced and embarrassed. Of course, we would never have made fun of such a tragic event had we known; but we still couldn’t believe that a slow motion getaway could ever be successful.

The Belmar is constructed in the style of an alpine cabin; not so surprising given that like so many others in this country the hotel is Swiss-owned. With so much heavy wood around, the effect is dark and faintly claustrophobic and although my room is of a decent size, it’s on the oppressive side. With no sign of respite from the rain, we’re off to the Monteverde reserve for our afternoon trek.

Room at the Hotel Belmar. Almost dark enough to develop photographs

There’s a ‘village’ just before the park entrance: a gift shop, general stores and a couple of cafés. All are ‘Bay Area’ exports whose wares make up in ethical messages what they lack in additives. Their wholefood and fair-traded coffee are good, all the same, and as it’s far too wet to keep to our tour schedule, lunch is the only sensible option. The forest expedition will have wait until tomorrow.

In its place, we have a couple of hours of rest to recover from the discomforts of the bus ride and the promise of a trip to the local frog farm. Although there are but ten of us (including Marco and Sergio) we overwhelm the other visitors, a young German couple. They are already a couple of minutes into the guided tour and are enjoying the commentary in their own language when they are dragged back to exhibit 1 and must now endure the rest of the attraction in English. The glass cases contain all manner of frog life together will all the paraphernalia required for their happy enjoyment and entertainment. This seems to consist largely of rocks and foliage in which they hide, well out of the way of prying eyes, English or German. They must also be kept in subdued lighting which serves simply to show up the condensation that covers most of the inside of the glass case. I forgot to mention that frogs like it damp. Combine concealment, mist and darkness and you have the ideal conditions for a successful visit, in any language. Still, it’s important conservation work and it passes away a couple of hours in a less than thrilling day.

We escape from Camp Belmar (which only serves breakfast) for our dinner at a local restaurant, Italian, of course. We’re not quite the only diners as we recognise our two German friends from the frog farm on the only other occupied table. They see us but don’t greet us, no doubt believing that we’ve been sent out to stalk them en masse. Whether they are a course or two ahead of us, we’ll never know; but they don’t last more than 15 minutes in our company before heading for the door. She glances back as they leave but he pulls her arm quite firmly to ensure their escape is not delayed. We never see them again (perhaps they see us first!).

The restaurant’s atmosphere departs with the Germans. The service is charming and the food perfectly good but I’m much relieved I’m paying my own bill. Fettuccine and a beer comes to C3,800 including tax (never forget to add the tax in Costa Rica’s restaurants as it comes almost to an additional 25% to the listed prices) which isn’t so bad. But then, I ordered sensibly. Others, who had been suckered into having the ‘special’ pressed on them by the charming waiter, had to stump up over C12,000 each! Still, whatever was the special ingredient was well worth the extra cost as they raved about their meal all the way home. I only thought they were raving mad.

Friday 30 September 2005
The weather has cheered up from rain to drizzle, so yesterday’s walk is on today. A decent breakfast featuring the ubiquitous rice and beans (and much else, I have to admit) sets us up.

It’s a long trek involving a number of high-level bridges (metal, not rope) over deep chasms.

High Wire

When the rain stops, the birds come out, hummingbirds among them. We return to the worthy Californian café for lunch. An hour later we’re back on the trail and committed to the expedition when the heavens open. Within a minute we’re as wet as we can possibly get, so giving up is no option. We plough on regardless, our only reward being a tarantula lured from his hole by the noise of a stick being tapped nearby.

It’s a challenge to fill the time at the hotel, so we watch a recorded football match on the lounge TV. It’s between two Argentinean teams, apparently, and full of theatricals. Goals, when they come, are met by the outbreak of World War 3.

Tonight we have a night hike. Having seen little enough in daylight, our hopes are not high in the dark. A surprise is in store, though! Having failed to spot the sloth who is always in a particular tree (except tonight) and spending an inordinate time training our torches on a sleeping bird, our guide for the night jumps feet into the air, gives out a nervous shriek and ushers us back along the path we’ve come. It’s all to do with a snake coming towards us, dark and glistening. On it comes but, sensing our alarm, it slithers aside and sits in the undergrowth, pretending not to see us. But we have seen it – and its sighting must be recorded. Our guide’s backbone has returned sufficiently to get us close enough to the snake to take photos. “Don’t get too close,” he warns us, “it looks like a jump viper!” Now, I know what vipers are (poisonous) and I can work out how that combines with ‘jump’, so the warning even in the mouth of an English-as-a-second-language-speaker is pretty clear. But duty calls and two of us edge forward and get as close as we dare, cameras to the front.

Can you tell what it is?

Upon closer inspection (of the images rather than the animal itself) we’re told it might not be a jump viper at all (sighs of relief) but it could be a bushmaster, more deadly still (gasps of horror) but generally disinclined to attack (back to relief) unless approached (revert to horror). We look round anxiously but the beast has gone its way (well away, we trust) and we are left with the warm glow of survivors. The green tree snake, the salamanders, lizards and the ‘things that are like monkeys but are not monkeys’, hold no fear for us now.

Dinner (a different Italian restaurant) presents a greater challenge for some of the party. The $18 for a lasagne, salad and a beer was almost worth the money just to hear one vegetarian complain that her pasta with pesto only came ‘with a bit of basil sauce’ and wasn’t a bit to her liking.

Saturday 1 October 2005
The Hotel Belmar has become a drag. It is dull, dreary and dog-eared. They are undermanned this morning as it’s a staff holiday. I’m told they’ve gone to the beach, which will take them all day given the state of the roads. It is a cruel management that dangles before its hard-pressed employees the prospect of the seaside when it will be time to turn back just as the waves are sighted over the horizon. I used the inevitable gap between breakfast and departure to complete my final round of postcards (I’m sending 35 from each country I visit) and put them in the hotel post box at reception. They hit the bottom with a resounding clang. The receptionist confirms the post has just been collected and she can’t be sure when next the postman will come. I despair they shall ever arrive, though they do!

Our slow drive back to San Jose is brightened by the sighting of a number of birds. One of the group is a keen ornithologist and it’s fun to help him tick newcomers off his list one by one. A woodpecker is spotted (actually it’s a different variety!) and we see a cluster of colourful specimens whose trait is to pluck their tail feathers quite off, leaving only a little pompom at the end. It’s as though they are rebellious teenagers showing off, defying sensible parents. Curious behaviour for birds!

Calling in at a roadside café for lunch provides an amusing distraction. The staff speak Spanish only and not a word of English is understood. I order what I can ask for, even though some of the other dishes (unidentified, even in Spanish) look more appealing. Some of the vegetarians have ended up with ham! Is there no end to their misfortune?

A souvenir shop at Sarchi is our last chance to pick up a present or two. It’s run as a co-operative and has the keenest prices we’ve yet seen. I buy a few more postcards by way of keepsakes and take my place on a bench outside. By now, the rain has returned, fervent as ever. A couple of super-sized American ladies waddle out of the shop and squeeze themselves improbably into their hire car. They are clearly unused to reverse gear and make three feints at the store window before setting off in the direction intended, only to be blasted by car horns as they lurch into the path of passing traffic. Stoically, they keep their eyes firmly to the front and exhibit commendable sangfroid towards drivers who have the right of way.

We’re glad to be returning to the Fleur de Lys. If we’re to have a final night in San Jose it’s best to be on familiar territory. Reception hands me the key to Magnolia, a different room from last time. As I ask the desk where I’ll find my room a loitering dwarf grabs my suitcase and hoves rapidly upstairs. I set off in hot pursuit. Up and down the staircases we go, this floor, that floor, this room, that room despite my following protestations. Finally, he launches my case into a room where two people are already ensconced. Not thinking clearly (for it would have better to have paid him off there and then), I point out that this is not Magnolia and I am not sharing a room with these people, whereupon he grasps my bag once more and so begins the Benny Hill chase again. Many stairs later and back near reception I spot the right room and I drag my case and its unwanted minder inside the door. I’m rid of him at the cost of C300 and have the chance to recover my senses at last. It’s a windowless room (again). I have a television this time but it doesn’t work (unless the station was broadcasting an endless snowstorm from Siberia). When you pay a single supplement, this is what you expect. Never mind. A shower and a beer in the bar soon restore morale and there’s good news: we’ve got a reservation at a quality restaurant round the corner to celebrate our last night together. Given the fun round the table so far, I can’t wait.

Our table is ready for us, nicely laid and menus on the table. I keep it simple: sirloin steak, beans, salad salsa, plantain. It’s a typical Costa Rican plate and only C5,000. Not bad. Including tax. But others want a more interesting evening. They’ve spotted a board advertising ‘specials’. It’s all in Spanish, of course, but specials include a bottle of wine between two. That much I can understand. These specials seem a bit pricey at C10,000, though. I can tell the waiter, a pleasant enough man, is having trouble getting the order right. After several bouts of miscommunication he goes off pencil behind his ear and shouts the order to the chef. I await the outcome with interest.

The dishes are served. Mine’s first and just as I ordered. Someone else gets his and all is well. Now for the fun. Someone has ordered the fish special by accident. Someone didn’t order the fish but has accepted it, not recognising what it is and has made a start only to see what was really wanted going to someone else and claims it back. The people who did want the fish have been keeping strangely quiet but now that they’re offered the steak specials they find their tongues and send them back. A vegetarian (once again) doesn’t like what was ordered because it has come with melted cheese (which can’t be stomached) and not with a cheese sauce (which can be). The evening’s only disappointment is that the other two get exactly what they expected and are quite content.

There is a clear moral here: read the menu carefully, don’t try to modify dishes because you won’t be understood, avoid the blackboard specials, learn a little of the local lingo, and, if all else fails, point to your selection on the menu. Above all, REMEMBER WHAT YOU HAVE ORDERED. If necessary take a crash course in what food looks like. Learn to distinguish between steak, fish and chicken. Don’t be afraid to ask to see the menu at any point, especially when the bill is presented. Then you can check what you’ve been charged for. Finally, if you must be a vegetarian, expect trouble.

I pay my bill and leave the rest to sort out theirs, something which is already becoming a pantomime as most have eaten someone else’s meal.

Sunday 2 October 2005
A last breakfast in Costa Rica and round the corner to a public phone where, unlike in the US, it’s a simple matter to call the UK and confirm flight arrangements. The transfer to the airport is straightforward. Marco has brought his young wife and baby daughter to meet us as we leave. We wish them and Sergio well and disappear into the terminal building. There is a departure tax to pay US$ only, note – and in exact money or by credit card at a supplement. (Jules Verne don’t tell you that when you book).

Departures is no better organised than arrivals, so we join the wrong queue but are soon put right by others standing in line. Eventually we find the right queue and end up at the correct departure gate. The leg to Miami is uneventful. In contrast to the outward flight, the BA plane back to Heathrow is full. I share my row with a group of black British teenage girls who have the biggest lungs you could ever hope not to meet. It is a tired me that touches down.

Home just before midday. Opening the mail, I discover that my Italian trip has been rebooked for an earlier flight and no sooner have I unpacked my case, I’m repacked and off on the train to Gatwick.