Inside the biodiversity of Costa Rica’s national parks, from spotting sloths to hiking through the cloud forest


It’s something of a crash course Costa Rica. Rattling along the roads, admiring palm trees and sweeping valleys, we slow down to approach a bridge before we – clunk – run into the car in front of us. It appears to be a minor fender-bender, but we hold our breath as the drivers arrive to inspect the damage.

Then, seconds later, both drivers shrug their shoulders, smile and sit back behind the wheel. No insurance information exchanged, let alone crossword puzzles.

Perhaps it is the “pura vida” mindset that prevails here. The term – which loosely means “simple life” or “no worries” – is a kind of hakuna matata equivalent in the Central American country that is used for “you are welcome” and almost everything else.

I thought it might seem gimmicky, but when you hear it delivered several times a day, always accompanied by an infectious laugh, it’s hard not to get sold on the philosophy.

Maybe it’s pura vida, or maybe it’s just that motorists here are used to vehicles screaming for an abrupt stop without warning. We do it several times when we spot something in the bushes next door, or in the treetops high up.

Snakes and sloths

Our first experience is on the way from the airport to the hotel, where our driver enthusiastically leads us out of the minibus to take a look at “one of Costa Rica’s most venomous snakes”, ominously wrapped up in the darkness on the road ahead. No thanks, I think, before it turns out that this particular copy has expired.

I’m far more eager later on the trip as we spy on an uncharacteristic energetic sloth on top of a tree showing us with languorous parallel-bar gymnastics among the branches.

Smiley sloths in the wild are just some of the many natural side shows in Costa Rica. With only 200 miles between the Pacific and Atlantic coasts, the country makes up 0.03 percent of the world’s land mass, yet it is home to about 5 percent of the planet’s biodiversity with half a million species.

Lazy animals are one of Costa Rica’s many native species (Photo: Tui)

This is partly due to the fact that the small country has 12 different ecosystems from the oceans to the mountain tops, including tropical forests, wetlands and coral reefs.

At least two of these occur in Tenorio Volcano National Park in the northwestern part of the country, which is covered by rainforest in the lower regions and primary cloud forest as you ascend higher up.

Hike through nature

We hike towards the Celeste River, which illuminates an almost unnatural shade of aquamarine thanks to the presence of sulfur and calcium carbonate in the water. This is how the park entices that Chino, our friendly driver, even takes us on a hike. “I need to lose weight,” he laughs.

Chino turns out to be an amazing unofficial tour guide, pointing to toucans, snakes and capuchin monkeys among the branches and sticking to spider nests in the dense foliage to see what might emerge. The park unfolds as Jurassic Park with feathered ferns and twisted stems until rugged steps descend toward the park’s counterpart – the Celeste River Waterfall.

Conservation is a key issue in Costa Rica – it became the first tropical country to completely reverse deforestation after the government banned unauthorized deforestation and created incentives for people to help restore forests.

Today, about 60 percent of the country has returned to forest cover. “Ecotourism,” though not without its critics, has also helped provide Costa Ricans with economic incentives to preserve their surroundings.

The government is currently working with Stanford researchers and Nasa, combining satellite data and social media to map the country’s wildlife and infrastructure. The aim is to gain a further understanding of how nature supports tourism and determine the most sustainable model for the future.

Learn how to make chocolate with Don Juan Tours

Things that break at night

While there is no shortage of wildlife to see during the day, the night feels just as lively. We arrive at Danube Biological Reserve – close to Arenal, the country’s most famous and until recently most active volcano – just as the sun goes down and is given LED torches that are less likely to disturb wildlife

It does not take much time on the short path to make an observation where fireflies appear as soon as night falls. Our guide, Elias, gently pulls leaves aside to reveal tiny blue jeans arrow poison frogs (so-called because their hind legs look like they are denim-clad), snakes, and spiders.

We crawl through a sleeping butterfly house, its occupants happily unaware of our presence. However, not all creatures are equally ignorant – the Caymans look sneaking from a lake as we orbit the shores.

It is not only animals that thrive in this green country – it is known for the quality of its local ingredients, not least coffee and chocolate. On Don Juanwe inspect coffee cherries and raw cocoa plants before following the production process from bean to cup or bar, along with the all-important taste test.

Head in the clouds

The following day we head to Selvatura Park for a unique vantage point over the Monteverde cloud forest – a moist tropical forest area usually shrouded in low-lying clouds. Climate change is challenging the existence of these forests as rising temperatures push the clouds to higher altitudes, disrupting habitat.

Explore the hanging bridges between the forest canopy at Selvatura Park (Photo: Tui)

In fact, it is bright and sunny, although it is still shady and cool when we dive deeper. The park is traversed with eight suspension bridges that sit between or over the treetops, and the heights provide an extra freeway to the already quite exciting landscape.

It turns out to be a good preparation for what lies ahead. For what better way to appreciate nature, it seems, than by zipping past it at up to 60 miles per hour? I’m skeptical when we get in Diamante Eco Adventure Park, and even more so as I get helped into the straps and shifts. When I say skeptical, I mean scared silly. The long zipline disappears into the foliage beyond. But hey, pura vida, right? I take a deep breath, my legs will stop shaking and let go (or at least do the guy holding my pulley). And it is, after the first belly flip, wonderful.

Back to the beach

Still, after a few days of canopy elevation platforms and ziplines, I’m happy to be back on solid ground, or to be specific, the golden beaches of Guanacaste Province. We live on Riu Palace hotel, 40 minutes drive from Liberia airport, and although it is tempting to spend the days around one of the four pools, we are eager to explore the area.

The five swimming pools are among the highlights of the Riu Palace Costa Rica (Photo: Tui)

In hacienda style Father Hane restaurant near the popular resort of Coco Beach, we eat patacones – crispy plantain chips – with guacamole and salsa, fish tacos and margaritas the size of my head.

A little further south along the coast is Tamarindo Beach, which has attracted surfers since the 1970s. Today, there is an Ibiza vibe, its shops selling chic white dresses, local art and tourist tat. Its many bars are the perfect perch for sunset.

After just a few days here, it’s easy to see why Costa Rica is one of the world’s five blue zones, known for its longevity and well-being, and which also tops the Happy Planet Index. I can not help but think that there may be something with this pura vida thing. Hopefully some of it is infected.

Travel essential

On the way
Tui offers seven nights all inclusive at Riu Palace Costa Rica (below) from £ 1,089pp, with Gatwick flights and transfers, tui.co.uk

Visiting there
Tui offers group excursions, including hiking in the Tenorio Volcano National Park (from £ 107pp); Don Juan coffee tour (from £ 31pp); and the Hanging Bridges Monteverde Tour (from £ 29pp).
www.sinac.go.cr cloudforestmonteverde.com
donjuantours.com

More information
There are no Covid restrictions on arrivals to Costa Rica
visitcostarica.com

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