Category Archives: Costa Rica

The Neighbour – Samara, Costa Rica

 

P1020326

D: There’s something in our hammock.

L: Like what?

L is in the bathroom, rinsing sand and salt and tangles from her hair. D is looking apprehensively out of the living room window.

D: Not sure. It’s wriggling.

L: Is it an animal? Or a bird?

D: No, more of a small human.

L: Like a child?

D: Yes, there’s a child in our hammock.

L: Well I didn’t put it there. What sort of child?

D: A short one. With yellow hair. And no clothes on.

L: Oh. I expect that’s alright. It’s hardly going to catch cold. What’s it doing?

D: Swinging.

L:   Does it look lost? Or miserable?

D: No. It’s singing. In French.

L: Well in that case, you’ll have to deal with it. I don’t speak French.

D reluctantly heads outdoors to investigate.

They have been in the house for five weeks.   They took a risk – booking it, and paying the rent in advance, before seeing the place, but it suits them well. They had been looking for somewhere to live and work for a couple of months, in the sun, away from the gloomy British winter. And on Google Earth, the village of Samara, on Costa Rica’s Pacific coast, looked just right. Not too big and not too small, with a huge safe swimming beach.

And so it has proved. They run along the beach in the early mornings. It is only a short walk back from the supermarket, laden with pineapples, melons and beer. The five minute stroll to the sea takes them past the bakery, a concrete footbridge guarded by four sunbathing iguanas, and the best steakhouse in town.

The house itself is hidden from the road by a thick hibiscus hedge, at which a hummingbird feeds at breakfast. The single storey building, red roofed and yellow painted, is divided into two small apartments, sharing a tiled front terrace and a gravelled back yard. Tall slender trees growing on the steeply rising slope behind the house provide afternoon shade in the yard, and are a popular meeting place for howler monkeys at four in the morning.   It’s not perfect – the bank and the trees and the hedge also shelter the house from any breezes. It is very hot. Right after moving in, they shared the outdoor space for a few days with a Canadian couple, who couldn’t take the heat and fled to Spain. Since then, they have had the place to themselves.   Until now.

D returns and reports his findings through the bathroom door.

D: It belongs next door.

L: Good.

D: But it’s bored.

L: Right.

D: And hot.

L: Yes. Where is it now?

D: In our fridge.

L: What d’you mean, in our fridge?

D: It likes the cool air. I haven’t shut the door or anything. It just sort of climbed in.

L: Oh.

D: It’s fine. Except for the dirty footprints. And I think it stood on the ham.

●●●●

It is morning. D chats with the neighbours while L chops melon, banana and pineapple into two bowls. She brings them out onto the terrace. D joins her and they eat their breakfast. The neighbours are also having breakfast. The child leaves its family and wanders over, sitting contentedly on the floor at their feet, eating bread and chocolate spread. There is chocolate on its cheek. And on its elbow.

D: It wants to go to the beach.

L: With us?

D: Its mother suggested it.

L: But we could be anybody.

D: But we’re not. We’re us.

L: Yes, but how does she know?

D: She can tell. She’s that sort of person.

L: OK. But what if we break it?

D: She says it’s good in the sea. It likes diving through waves.

L: That’s alright then. Can it swim?

D: I assume so.

L: Let’s check.

D: It looks like a swimmer.

L: Let’s check.

D: I bet it swims like a fish.

L: Let’s check.

D goes next door to ask, and returns.

L: All OK? It can swim?

D: Um, no. No, it can’t.

L:   Right. We’d better remember that.

●●●●

It is evening. They are preparing to sit out on the terrace, with beer and peanuts. Appetising cooking smells are coming from next door. The child runs between the two terraces, waving a stainless steel pole.

Child: Shlack!

L: What’s that pole?

D: It’s not a pole. It’s a light sabre.

Child: Shlack!

D: Could you bring me a drink?

Child: Shlack, shlack!

D: I would get it myself, but it’s chopped off my legs.

L: I see.

●●●●

It is morning. They are sitting on the terrace with their bowls of fruit and mugs of coffee. The child spots them. Today it is clutching a slice of cheese on toast.

Child: Salut.

D: Hello.

Child: Qu’est ce que tu fais?

D: Eating my breakfast.

Child: Et après?

D: Then I’m going to drink my coffee.

Child: Et après?

D: Brush my teeth.

Child: Et après?

D: Do some work.

Child: Et après?

D: Have lunch.

Child: Et après?

D: Do some more work.

Child: Et après?

D: Go to the beach.

Child: Can I come to the beach?

●●●●

It is evening. They are on the terrace with beer and peanuts. The neighbours are playing a guitar rather beautifully, but the child is unappreciative and trots over to join them.

Child: Salut.

D: Hello.

Child: How do you say hello in Arabic?

D: I don’t know.

Child: But maman says you’re a translator.

D: I am, but not in Arabic.

Child: Oh. How do you say hello in Japanese?

D: I don’t know.

Child: Oh. How do you say hello in Chinese?

D: I don’t know.

Child: Oh. How do you say hello in Russian?

D: I don’t know. I don’t translate ALL languages.

Child: Oh. Why not?

●●●●

It is morning. L is chopping the fruit, D is on the terrace drinking coffee.   The child is running laps of the building and timing itself on an ipad. It dashes past and stops, panting.

Child: Salut.

D: Hello.

Maman: Breakfast!

Child: Oh. I’m just going to have my breakfast.

D: Right.

Child: I’ll be back.

D: Right.

Child: En 1 heure.

D: OK.

Child: Actually, en 1 seconde.

D: Fine.

Child: No, en 5 minutes.

D: Good.

Child: En 30 secondes.

D: OK.

Child: En 10 secondes.

D: OK.

Child: En 20 minutes.

D: OK.

Child: En 5 secondes.

D: OK.

Child: En 20 secondes.

D: See you later.

Later…..

Child: Salut. I’m back, can we go to the beach?

●●●●

It is evening. On the terrace. There is beer and peanuts. There is no sign of the child.

D: They’re leaving tomorrow.

L: Oh. I’m going to miss our little friend.

D: Yes. Except for the light sabre.

L:   Careful with your big feet kicking the table – you’re spilling our drinks.

D: It’s not me. It’s our little friend. It’s under the table.

L: Oh. What’s it doing?

D: I think it’s stuck.

L: Should we do something?

D: I don’t think so. It doesn’t seem to mind.

Child: Shlack!

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Into Nicaragua

Granada - first pic

L: What if I need the loo?

D: Then go. There’s one at the back of the bus.

L: But lots of men have already used it while we’ve been swerving round corners. It’ll be vile by now.

D: Do you actually need to go?

L:   No. But what if I do? Would you go and clean it for me first?

D: I most certainly would not.

L: Oh. But what if I need it?

D: But you don’t. Anyway, we’re nearly at the border.Granada - Ticabus

The bus they are on is travelling from Panama through Costa Rica, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala to eventually arrive in Mexico three days later.   Their journey, however, is only a small segment of this, a mere 8 hours from Costa Rica’s capital, San José, to Granada, on the shores of Lake Nicaragua.

The bus stops at dusk. An announcement is made over the tannoy.

L:   Did you get that? What did they say?

D: No idea. We’d better copy everyone else.

They disembark at Peñas Blancas, on the Costa Rican border, clutching passports, completed immigration forms, and receipts for exit taxes collected from all passengers – the tariffs many times higher for tourists than residents. An orderly queue forms, stretching in through the door of a new glass and concrete building.

L: Blimey – how long is this going to take? Some people seem to have been here for days!

Next to the building is a cluster of tents, people dozing on benches, children milling about, and women hanging out laundry on washing lines.

D: That’s the Cubans.

L: What Cubans?

D: Cubans trying to get into the US.

L: So what are they doing here?

D: Nicaragua won’t let them through. They’re stuck.

L: But Cuba’s next door to the US.   About 1000 miles north of here. Why on earth are they all the way down here?Cuban-map-route_21

D:   Lots of Cubans fly to Ecuador and then travel 5000 miles overland back up through South and Central America, rather than risk the incredibly dangerous 90 mile crossing of the shark infested Florida Straits on an overloaded homemade raft.

L: Right.

D:  And there’s the wet foot-dry foot policy.

L: The what?

D: The US have an extraordinary policy – if a Cuban can get into the country, they can stay. But only if they have dry feet – if they arrive overland. If they come by boat, the US can still turn them away in US waters, before they get ashore.

L: OK……. But why go all the way down to Ecuador?

D: Direct flights from Havana and no visas needed. It’s hellishly difficult though. First most of them get robbed of their life savings in Colombia. Then they pay through the nose to get into Panama in one piece – seeing as most of the land on the border is full of impenetrable jungles and swamps and gangs with machine guns that are best avoided. And now they’re stuck here.

L: Why won’t Nicaragua let them through?

D: It’s political. They’re generally a bit touchy about their borders with Costa Rica, and Nicaragua also has a lot of Communist history with Cuba. I found an interesting article about it. You should read it. Here.

http://fusion.net/story/229892/exodus-of-cubans-walking-to-the-u-s-is-quickly-becoming-the-americas-own-refugee-crisis/

L: Thanks. I will. What makes them leave Cuba in the first place? To make all this worthwhile?

D: Poverty. Lack of opportunity. Temptation of all things golden just across the water in Miami. Following family.   Read the article.

L: I will.  So what’s going to happen to these people? They’re not even half way.

D: All the countries between here and the US, except Nicaragua, are rallying round to get them moving again. They won’t be here for ever, but it’ll take some time. There’s 8,000 of them waiting. Read the article!

L: I will! But not now – look, our turn next.

The queue moves, they reach the front and, unlike the beleaguered Cubans, have their passports swiftly stamped, and get back on the bus.

The bus drives on. For 500 metres. And then stops again. An announcement is made over the tannoy.

L:   Did you get that? What did they say?

D: No idea. Just copy everyone else. This must be the Nicaraguan border.

They hand over entry taxes to their bus driver, along with their passports. He disappears. This time everyone removes all their hand luggage from the bus, and their suitcases from the hold. They stand around in a hot dusty car park. It gets properly dark. A man tries to sell them a hammock. They stand some more. Money-changers circulate, fanning 4-inch thick wads of cash.

L: Are you excited?

D: About getting back on the bus?

L: About being in Nicaragua.Granada - lake and volcano

D: What’s everyone waiting for?

L: It’s got 28 volcanoes.

D: Good. I might ask someone.

L: And the largest lake in Central America.

D: Great. I can’t see anyone to ask.

Eventually a couple of officials are spotted wearing blue T-shirts and carrying clipboards. The crowd drifts towards the officials, dragging their bags until they are all standing on a large raised platform, as though waiting for a train. Lollipop sellers weave through the melee, men with baskets on their heads brimming with cigarettes, women selling leather goods: belts and wallets. There are no counters, no instructions, no clues.   They stand around. The T-shirts with clipboards are passing randomly from one traveller to the next.Granada - architecture

L: And there’s wonderful Spanish architecture, dating back to the 16th century.

D: I want to join a queue.

L:   There isn’t one. And they had a revolution.

D: What, in the 16th century?

L: No, in the 1970s. Which ended a 40 year dictatorship but left the country massively in debt.

D: I’m miserable. Don’t they understand the British are only happy when queuing?

L: It’s the poorest country in the Americas.

D: Right. Shall I start a queue? Stand behind me.

L: But they’re on the up. They reckon they’re about half way through a 50 year economic recovery. You’re not actually listening, are you?

They spot a Clipboard riffling through a suitcase on a wooden workbench, and shuffle towards him. Another Clipboard approaches from behind. He gives D’s rucksack a brief squeeze.

Clipboard: Clothes?

D: Yes.

Clipboard: OK.

He inclines his head, suggesting that they are now free to leave the platform. They haul their luggage back to the bus, which is locked. They stand around. They buy lollipops.   They wait. The bus driver opens the hold and the passengers surge forward. He is impatient.

Driver: Managuamanaguamanagua!

Some passengers are waved forward, others have their luggage rejected. They wait.

Driver: Granadagranadagranada!

D: Granada – that’s us. He’s shouting the destinations and grouping the bags together.

They hand over their backpacks. At the bus door, the crowd regroups, and a uniformed female calls out names. People push through, take the proffered passport and board the bus. They wait. D’s name is called. He claims his passport and returns to L. They wait. The woman is cross. She waves a passport.

Woman: Honey. Honey?

No-one steps forward.

Woman: Honey?

L: Maybe that’s me.

D: That sounds nothing whatsoever like you. Why would she call you honey?

L: Maybe she’s saying “Jane”. In Spanish. My middle name.

D: That’s really quite a big stretch. But we can go and check.

L steps forward and reclaims her passport. The woman gives her a long, weary look, for being stupid, and foreign.

Two hours after disembarking, they get back on the bus.

D: Well, that was all fairly straightforward, wasn’t it?

They see nothing of Nicaragua beyond the windows of the bus, until they pass through the small town of Rivas. An important baseball game has just been won. Everyone is out in the streets, thronging both sides of the main road. Hundreds of vuvuzelas are crowing triumphantly and scooters and motorbikes buzz to and fro, carrying pairs of youths or whole families, bare-legged children wedged between parents. Bicycles weave through the crowd, with passengers perched on crossbars or handlebars, some with toddlers tucked under one arm.

In Granada they are left in a dark scruffy side street. No other tourists get off.

L: We need a taxi. A proper licensed one. The fare should be two dollars, but they’ll ask for five. Let me do the talking.

They approach a battered looking vehicle. It’s the only taxi in sight.

L: How much to the city centre?

Driver: Ten dollars.

L: Oh. How about five?

Driver: (looking resigned): OK.

D:   Neatly done.   I am impressed. You really told him.

L: Shut up.

They are driven through a grid of deserted streets. The buildings are low, just one or two storeys, colonial in style, all peeling ochre paint and wrought iron window grills.

L: We’re staying right in the centre so that we can walk everywhere easily. Accommodation in Nicaragua’s a lot cheaper than Costa Rica.

D: Great – so we’re saving some money.

L: Err…no. I just spent the same amount as I would in Costa Rica, but got a much nicer hotel.Granada - hotel courtyard

They are dropped outside a large and pretty colonial building on a pedestrian street.   Inside, beyond the reception desk, terracotta roofs enclose a beautiful central courtyard, with porticos, greenery and a fountain. They walk up creaking highly polished wooden stairs to a wide open balcony overlooking the courtyard, off which open several pairs of immense double doors.

L: Here we are.Granada - hotel

Their room is high ceilinged with parquet flooring, and a large bathroom. At the far end of the room is another set of double doors.

L: I booked one with a balcony. Apparently it’s got a volcano view.

She throws open the doors and steps out, leaning over the stone balustrade. D comes out of the bathroom, looking alarmed.

D: What the hell is going on?

A great wave of noise washes into the room. Below them is the pedestrian street. It is lively.   A dozen restaurants have outdoor seating, crowded with diners, all talking and laughing. A cacophony of music drifts out from the interiors, mixing not altogether harmoniously in the street. Directly opposite their window is the proud green sign of an “Irish Pub”, music and drinkers overflowing out of the door. Street vendors sell jewellery, drinks and snacks, lottery tickets, and song-stones of painted birds, all shouting out their wares. A pair of traditional dancers performs to the beat of a drum, whirling and clapping, before moving on. Pedestrians and cyclists amble up and down, chatting and eating ice creams. Children run shrieking, chasing a puppy. A group of acrobatic breakdancing kids set up, beatbox booming, spinning on their heads and contorting impressively. A mariachi band pass by, a trumpet solo soaring up to their balcony.Granada - street 1

L: I’m afraid I might have booked the noisiest room in town.

D: You think?

L: But it’s fantastic for people watching. It’s all happening, right here, under our balcony.

D: Yes. It certainly is.

Later….

L: Are you awake?

D: No.

L: I wonder how soon it’ll quieten down?

D: Go to sleep.

Much later…..

D: Why don’t you shut the windows?

L: They are shut.

D: I hate mariachi. Go and tell them to leave me alone.

L: You do it.

D: I can’t. I’m asleep.

Much, much later….

D: That bloody trumpet! What time is it?

L: 4.17am.

Granada - last

A day in the life of Playa Samara

playa first

5-9am

Before dawn, the howler monkeys start to roar ferociously, like lions, or dinosaurs – huge terrible sounds to burst from such small herbivores. Great-tailed grackles fly to and fro, warming up their orchestra of whistles and rattles.

On Playa Samara, hermit-crab trails criss-cross the dry sand, looking like tracks from a team of unicyclists, while the wet sand is strewn with the swirls and doodles of a thousand unseen snails.

The Joggers are out, heading east towards the pinkening sky, nodding to each other as they pass. There are some who are serious, their sneaker-shod feet staying well above the tide line, sweat shining on toned muscles as they push themselves on. And others who splash barefoot through the shallows, tiptoe over scattered coral, and stop to pick up shells.playa - romantics

The Romantics are out to catch the sunrise, sitting side by side on driftwood logs, waiting patiently with cameras poised, for the brief flare of orange to rise from behind the palms, before swiftly strengthening and paling to yellow.

The Walkers with Purpose are out, ladies sporting visors or large floppy sunhats, pastel-coloured sports shoes, marching in pairs across a mirror lake of sky reflected in wet sand.

The Dogwalkers are out, both owners and animals relishing their social mingling, the early morning breeze cooling warm skin and carrying messages to wet noses of excitements to explore.

A pair of whimbrels are at work on the shoreline, their long curved beaks tweaking tiny crabs from the sand. Eleven brown pelicans are fishing in the shallows, diving into water no deeper than their beaks.playa - boats (2)

A lone fisherman reels in a big flat fish, line-caught from the shore. Two black vultures stand expectantly close by. A dozen small fishing boats are pulled high up the beach, another dozen bob at anchor in the bay, and beyond them, two yachts. Skippers come out to check their vessels, to prepare them for the day.

An egret and a small blue heron stand side by side watching the ocean, where a single line of swell rises to a clean green wall before tumbling into white confusion and roaring shorewards, fading to a soft ripple sliding gently up the beach to lap their ankles, and then retreating.

The Early Swimmers head out, first wading, then ducking, then striking out beyond the break, to where the sea becomes smooth.

playa - ternsA flock of black-capped terns takes off suddenly, startled by a mother chasing her arm-banded child, dashing full pelt towards the water, out to enjoy the beach before the sun’s strength sets in.

The Commuters are out – the beach as their highway – a bicycle flying by with the wind behind it, a motorbike briefly ripping the sounds of the morning in two. A high-gaited horse with cowboy-hatted rider, snapping dogs in hot pursuit. Children in dazzling white shirts, heading for school.

On the great length and breadth of Playa Samara each of them has the beach to themselves.

9am-3pm

playa - hammocksThe Shade Loungers arrive, slinging brightly striped hammocks in between trees, spreading towels on soft sand and settling down for the day, breezes rattling through the palm fronds above their heads.

The Sunbathers arrive, lying determinedly in the dazzling light or walking the length of the two-mile beach to top up their tans.

In the ocean-facing camping grounds, iguanas bask on hot tin roofs, and cicadas whirr unseen.

The heat builds as the sun beats down from the cloudless blue and the beach empties of all but the hardiest – most seeking shelter in the shade. From time to time, a wild howling dash is made, barefoot across burning sand, to cool off in the sea.

The temperature peaks, settles and eventually begins to fall.

3-6pm

playa - surfersAs high tide approaches, the Surf Dudes are out, learners and experts, bobbing and ducking out through the breakers, waiting and waiting, turning and paddling, standing and carving, for the brief addictive thrill of catching the right wave just right.

The cooling afternoon beckons all to the ocean, but still on the great length and breadth of Playa Samara each of them has the beach to themselves.

Locals and holiday-makers take to the water, standing shoulder-deep in groups, wallowing lengthily, chatting. The Sunbathers and Shade Loungers venture back out to soak up the sun in its fading ferocity.   playa - volleyballThe Ticos play football with much fancy footwork, shouting and laughing, and at the volleyball nets the Golden Kids pat a ball to and fro, jumping and diving and whooping.

The howler monkeys return, munching leaves from low branches, and once more staking their territory with bloodcurdling roars. Frigate birds wheel overhead, sweeping through the sky like aerial dancers. Shadows lengthen, and colours soften and blur as sunset approaches.

The Dogwalkers return, the bicycle and motorbike heading for home, and the high-gaited horse trots back up the beach, haughtily ignoring the insolent hounds once more at its heels.

playa - barDaytime activities mingle with evening ones, late sun-seekers share space with early cocktail-drinkers, on cushioned loungers.   Four free-range horses stroll through the palms and trample across unguarded towels. They pause at the loungers, roll exultantly, thoroughly, spraying the occupants with sand before standing, shaking, and trotting away. The dogs spot new prey and set off after them, shouting with delight.

The bars fill with people-watchers, observing fitness fanatics perform sand-sticky sit-ups and stretches, over-tired kids coaxed out of the sea, and Smart-phone selfies and sunsets. Then without ceremony, the sun slips quietly behind the headland, and is gone.

6pm-late

After dark the restaurants turn lively, wooing diners with music and fairy lights. Reggae and dance beats bounce from buildings to beach, jostling each other for attention. Geckos gather round decorative lighting, chirruping cheerfully as they hunt, and a band of raccoons scuttles by, snuffing.

Strains of a mariachi band drift along the beach front, and as they move between venues, joyous bursts of trumpet solo – just for the love of making music. In the village quadbikes thunder back and forth on limited stretches of tarmac, and later, revellers shout out to each other as they make their way home, wishing each other goodnight.

The beach is now dark and empty, the sand underfoot almost refreshingly chilly, and out in the black the surf still roars rhythmically, heard but not seen. Overhead the cloudless night displays a spectacular spread of stars on an inky dome stretching all the way down to where sky meets the sea.

playa - last

Rincon de la Vieja National Park

Rincon - Cangreja Waterfall 1

L: I wonder what it means.

D: Rincon de la Vieja? “The Old Lady’s Cranny”.

L: The Old Lady’s WHAT?

D: Sigh. I said Cranny. Cranny as in nook and cranny, or corner.

L: Thank goodness for that. I thought you said….

D: I know what you thought. I didn’t. Obviously.

L: No. Right. Anyway, it should be called “Rincon de las Rainbows.” They’re everywhere!

They drive slowly along empty tarmac lanes skirting the foot of the wooded hillside, under a bright blue sky. Way above, where grey clouds are obscuring the volcano’s peak, it is raining, and the buffeting wind carries a mist of sparkling water droplets. Shimmering rainbows, large and small, spring from the road, from gullies, from valleys, and arch over their heads.

The Parque Nacional Rincon de la Vieja is surprisingly wild. Although less than an hour’s drive from Costa Rica’s second city of Liberia, the roads leading to it are mostly unpaved, and the landscape in between is dry, dusty and empty. There is no town to host visitors when they arrive, just a few isolated hotels and lodges, hidden away in the forest.   There is a feeling of unpredictability about the place – of uncontrolled energy. The perpetually strong winds feed an extensive windfarm on the barren uplands between two volcanic peaks, and the land within the park bubbles with hot springs, boiling mud and sulphurous gases. A number of geothermal plants have been established to capture some of this unharnessed power.

The park is divided into two sectors, each with their own ranger’s station, 10km or so apart. The main one is Pailas, on the north-west edge. They arrive at a building site, crammed with parked cars and buses. A huge white visitor’s centre is half-finished – workmen with bandana-wrapped faces turning their backs to the wind to keep swirling clouds of dust from mouths and eyes. A ranger is manning a tiny wooden hut in the middle of a field.

Ranger: Buenas dias – welcome! Here’s a map. I’m afraid some of the trails are closed for construction. There are two you can do – here and here, both out and back. No, the volcano summit trail has been closed for four years – it’s very active. Every day.

D: Excellent! I like my volcanoes a bit lively.Rincon - hot mud pot

They choose Las Pailas, a 1½ hour walk through thick woodland, over a rickety chain-link bridge, and out into the open. A maze of half-built concrete paths criss-cross the trail, broken plastic ribbons of “Don’t Cross” tape snapping in the wind. There are whiffs of rotten egg, and a number of muddy pools. The whitish-grey mud is dry in some places, or steaming gently from yellow-crusted fumaroles, but in others is bubbling thickly, gurgling and spitting like an enormous pan of sauce on an over-hot stove. Las Pailas means “Cauldrons”.Rincon - boiling mud

D: (happily) Look – read the sign. We could be scalded and gassed at any moment.

He waits eagerly for a catastrophe, but remains unscathed.

At the far end of the trail, they reach a pretty stream, crossed on a wide log. They pause. L bends to wet her hands.

L: Weird! Feel this – the water’s warm.

 

Their second walk is longer – 2 hours each way – to reach the Cangreja Waterfall.   They check with the ranger that the water will be flowing, despite the dry season, and set off, through deeply shaded woods.

D: I think I’m being bitten by something.

L: Here – put on insect repellent. It’s called “Deep Woods”. It should be perfect.

They stand in the twilight of the forest floor, listening to the wind sweeping through the canopy above, and to the isolated call of an unseen bird. The path ahead is wide and flat, criss-crossed with innumerable tree roots.

D: It should be known as the “Forest of the Stranglers.”

L: Err…why? Are there murderers?

D: No. Well, actually, yes, in a way.

L: Seriously? Have people been strangled in these woods?Rincon - strangler fig

D: Not people. But look. A lot of these trees are strangler figs. They grow in dark forests like this, where they need to reach the light fast to survive. It’s clever evolution.   Their saplings sprout half way up trees, from seeds left by bird droppings.

L: That’d give them a good head start on anything growing up from the forest floor.

D: Exactly. The saplings shoot quickly upwards to get their heads into the light, and downwards to get their feet into the ground.

L: Which explains all these damn roots I’ve been tripping over.Rincon - fig roots

D: But all that frantic growing tends to strangle and kill the original tree.

L: Poor tree. That’s a bit evil. Is that why some of the trunks are hollow?

D: Yes, the cavity’s the space left by the dead tree. And see – sometimes the figs grow these great buttress roots, so that when the original tree dies, they don’t just fall over. Ouch. I think I’ve been bitten by something.

L: You can’t have been. You’re covered in bug-spray. It’s psychosomatic.

Rincon - path to waterfallThey walk on, and emerge into open grassland, the path now sloping gently downhill, giving far-reaching views down towards the coast. The strong breeze ensures that even in the midday sun they are not too hot. Occasionally they are “spritzed” with a mist of water blown down from the hilltop.

L: It’s a long way for a waterfall. It’d better be worth it.

D: We’re nearly there. I can hear it.

L: I bet there’s 300 people and no room for us to sit.

D: I can see it. There aren’t 300 people. There are……seven.

A final rocky descent through woodland leads them to a large clear pool fed by a white curtain of water cascading from 40 metres above.

L: It’s absolutely beautiful! Definitely worth the walk.Rincon - Cangreja Waterfall

D wades in. The water is refreshing, but not painfully cold. He swims lazily across, climbs out and stands happily under the fall, which pummels and needles the top of his head. The water is colder here. However, on the other side, in a little corner, a small stream trickles down a boulder and into the pool. The water from this stream is as hot as a bath.

The following morning…

L: Sorry. Not my best choice. But at least we had a bed.

D: Which was too small. You pushed me out.

L: And a bathroom.

D: With no hot water. And bare wires poking out of the shower head. It’s a miracle I wasn’t electrocuted. And dinner was horrid.

L: What are you saying? The pudding was tremendous!

D: There’s nothing tremendous about rice pudding. Unless you’re a very small child.

This morning they are driving to the other Ranger’s Station, at the south-west corner of the park, known as Casona Santa Maria. The 3km track is barely passable in places and they weave their way around boulders and in and out of deep ruts as though on a 4WD obstacle course. Eventually they arrive at a flat manicured grass clearing surrounded by forest. To one side is a dilapidated barn, which is empty apart from a small desk and a filing cabinet in one corner, on top of which are several decomposing snakes in glass jars. A cheerful ranger appears, shakes hands with them, and signs them in.

Ranger: There’s one trail – 3km out, the same back. No, not steep, but it can be a bit slippery in places. Have fun amigos!

They set off along a broad path in the woods. Their first stop is at a waterfall.Rincon - waterfall

L: Gosh – I don’t think we’ll be swimming here!

They admire a torrent of angry white water crashing over a 10 metre drop and into a swirling, frothing pool below.

L: I read somewhere that 32 rivers have their sources in the park. It’s a really important water catchment area for the region, because most of Guanacaste’s so dry.

D: Oh. Fascinating. Can I have the insect repellent? I’m being bitten.

He sprays himself carefully and thoroughly.

Further on, they encounter a large family group, arguing noisily in French.

Teenage boy: We’ve had to turn back. There’s a river to cross and no bridge and our parents wouldn’t let us wade it. You could do it, but you’ll get wet!

On they go.

L: That doesn’t sound right. The ranger would have mentioned it, surely. He just said things might get a bit slippery. They must have taken the wrong path.

D: Umm….Oh.

The broad track stops at a wide, fast flowing river. There is no bridge. Downstream it drops steeply over boulders.Rincon - wading river

L: I expect this qualifies as “a bit slippery”.

D: It’s not so deep.

L: Let’s wade it then.

In the middle, the current tugs at them, the water swirling around their thighs. They stagger across and out, slipping on wet rocks, and carry on, feet squelching. After a while they stop to wring out their socks and air-dry their feet. Then continue.

D: Oh.

L: Another stream. This one’s smaller though.

She wades straight in and across.

L: Shall we squeeze out our socks again?

D: Yes, but hurry up. If I stand still I get bitten.

L: That’s impossible. You’ve sprayed. You’re imagining it.

Further on, they descend to a wide shallow river bed giving off a strong smell of rotten eggs. Rocks have been arranged to form a cluster of knee-deep hot-tub-sized pools. The water flows in clear and peaty-brown, and out white and silty. They wade across the first pool.Rincon - hot springs

D: Cold.

And into the second.

L: Freaky! It’s properly hot, like a bath. And seriously eggy. Where’s the heat coming from?

They sit in it for a bit, trying to work it out. The third and fourth pools are tepid, fed from the hot pool flowing into them and then cooling. However this pool must be being heated from the ground.

D: Well, we’re sitting on volcanic magma – molten rock.

L: Are we? That doesn’t sound awfully safe.

D: Cold water seeps into the ground, and when it reaches the magma, it’s heated up and pushed upwards and back out. Either as hot water, like here, or as steam like in the fumaroles we saw yesterday.

L: What about mud pots?

D: That just happens when the hot water gets mixed up with mud or clay underground and so breaks through the surface as bubbling hot mud.

L: Have you been reading about volcanoes again?

D: Yes. I like them.

When they get out their skins and swimwear smell of eggs.

On the way back, they detour, following a small meandering path through the forest, promising “cold water pots.” Rincon - cold water potsAt a deserted clearing edged with dead trees, is a wide muddy area with water trickling through it. The stream is cold, and yet vigorously bubbling away. Here the fumes are heady, nauseating, almost overpowering. They explore, in places finding holes within which the water is boiling fiercely as though from a jacuzzi on full power.

L: I don’t understand. How can the water be bubbling and cold?

D: It looks like a spring – I reckon cold water is emerging from the ground here, but there are volcanic gases escaping too, through the water, making it bubble.Rincon - cold water pot

L: What sort of gases? Poisonous ones?

D: Umm… carbon dioxide, and the stink is hydrogen sulphide I think. Which is very bad for you.

L: Oh.

D: We’d probably better go – I think my eyes are melting.

L: I thought you liked your volcanoes a bit lively.

D: I do. But now I’m feeling queasy. And I’m sure I’ve been bitten.

L: Do you think you’ve got a neurological disorder? Maybe your imaginary itches are a form of Tourette’s or OCD. I’ll book you an appointment.

They reach the car.

L: Ah.

D: What?

L: I think I might have been bitten.

D: Ha!

Despite all the insect repellent, they are both covered in swollen red bites.

Rincon - Cangreja Waterfall 2

Spanish Immersion in Samara

Samara - palm trees and beach

Chapter 1

L: Oh my goodness. What HAVE we done? It’s so hot!

D: (getting out of the car with a grimace) And sandy. I hate sand.   Why didn’t you tell me that there would be sand?

L: We’ve been planning to base ourselves here in Samara all along. On the Pacific coast. I told you. The idea of the heat seemed blissful when sitting in a cold English winter in the rain. I’m sure we’ll get used to it.

D: (doubtfully) It all looked less itchy on Google Earth.

L: Just look how gorgeous it is! The blue sea, the palm trees. It’s like a postcard. We’re going to love it. You can learn to surf.

D: I suppose….

L: And I can see rocks at the far end of the bay.

D: (perking up) I like rocks. Rocks means no sand.

L: We are incredibly lucky to be able to do this.

D: Yes, we are very lucky. (He mutters) And sandy….

L: So. D’you think you might be able to bear it here in paradise?   As we’ve paid for two months’ rent in advance. And for a week of Spanish classes to start us off.

D: I can try….

L: That’s very brave of you. Here’s the school. Shall we go in?

The Intercultura Language School campus in Samara has an enviable waterfront location, only separated from the beach by a triple row of tall palm trees. In reception they are greeted with a smile, in Spanish, and hesitantly respond, managing to introduce themselves and confirm that they have signed up for one week. The school’s approach is total immersion, and it is taken seriously. There are pledges to be chanted and signed promising to speak only Spanish within the grounds, and notices up around the place sternly reminding people that they could be expelled for not complying.  Samara - Intercultura Language School

L: (in Spanish) Err…there is very heat today?

Reception: Today? It’s what? 37C (100F) degrees? No, that’s about normal. It’s like this every day. Except in the rainy season when it’s humid too. Today, we’re lucky – there’s a breeze to cool things down a bit.

L: Oh.

Like most of the students, they have opted to enhance their immersion experience by taking homestay accommodation with a local Spanish-only speaking family. The receptionist makes a phone call, and before long two young women arrive on a moped, bouncing down the dirt track with a toddler balanced between them. They disembark and introduce themselves.

Woman: (in Spanish) Hola! We’re your hermana-ticas (tica-sisters), and this is my niece. Are you ready to go? You have a car? Follow us.

They all get back on the scooter. D gets busy reversing the car in order to turn around. L looks towards the beach, from where appears a goddess walking towards them: a deeply bronzed, impossibly long-limbed dudette with a surfboard under one arm, wet hair streaming down her back. She passes the car, which swerves suddenly and very nearly hits a wall.

L: What the….? We have to give the car back in an hour. Don’t crash it now!

D: Sorry, got distracted. Lost concentration.

L: Sigh. Why don’t I look like that?

D: You do. You’re just a bit paler. And quite a lot shorter. And of course you’re much older than her. But otherwise you look just like that.

L: Thanks.

Chapter 2

A kilometre west of town, Samara’s tarmac ends and they unwillingly throw up a cloud of dust as they approach. The house is squeezed between its neighbours on both sides, but stretches a long way back. It has a tin roof, which doesn’t seem to always meet the top of the walls. The enclosed front yard leads to a comfortable open-sided living area with sofas and TV, dining table, and kitchen. Whilst providing shelter from the seasonal rains, the design efficiently takes advantage of any breezes, and allows the heat of the day, and of cooking, to escape quickly. Beyond, they are led through a warren of dim rooms, to their base for the week at the back of the house. It is furnished with a double bed, a single bed, and a large fan. Unlike many homestays, it also has the luxury of a private bathroom. They look around.Samara - homestay

L: It’s lovely and clean. I’m going to unpack our clothes into piles on the smaller bed.

D: There are nails around the wall that we can hang things on too.

L: Open the curtains. What’s our view?

D: Ummm….it looks into another bedroom.

L: Oh – better keep them closed then. Never mind – we’ll only be in it when it’s dark anyway.

D: Without an outside window, the bugs and mozzies won’t get in.

L: Good point. And the room’s well lit.

They glance at the bulb hanging from the ceiling which is swinging gently in the breeze from the fan.

L tests the shower.

D: Remember we were warned that houses here don’t tend to have hot water.

L: In this heat, I can’t even imagine needing hot water. The pressure’s good. The water comes straight out of a pipe which is far better for washing my hair than all the half-blocked shower-heads that we’ve come across recently.

That evening, they are given an orientation tour of the school and the village of Samara, and warned of the frequency with which to expect to be fed gallo pinto (rice and black beans) by their host families. Once daily, at the very least. The school itself is well equipped, with small air-conditioned classrooms (maximum class size is 6 students), a large garden with plenty of shady seating, lockers, and outdoor showers for those coming to lessons straight from the beach. There is WIFI throughout the grounds, and one small designated outdoor area where students are allowed to speak in their mother-tongue to make a phone call or skype.   There are free daily activities, in Spanish: yoga, Latin dance, Zumba, cooking, jewellery making. On a tour of the village they are shown where to find the bank, the cheapest supermarket, the doctor, the police, the tastiest tapas, and the best value surfboard hire.Samara - main street

They walk back in the dark. The road is teeming with unlit cyclists, pedestrians, free-range dogs and the occasional grazing horse, in addition to vehicle traffic tearing past with alarming urgency. Miraculously, it seems, there are no incidents.

Back at the house, they meet their mama-tica who has been attending a local council meeting about litter. She speaks quick-fire Spanish at them. Their hermana-tica gently interjects, slowly and clearly, whilst entertaining her tiny niece who is tapping away at a tablet with dazzling proficiency.

Mama-Tica: The weekenders are the worst. They come down from the city, spend one or two nights, leave rubbish all over the beach and then leave again. The kids are educated in school about litter nowadays, but the parents are a real problem. Fines don’t work. Nobody cares enough. But they should. The beach is our livelihood. If it’s covered in litter, what will the tourists think?

She produces freshly squeezed fruit juice, large bowls of spaghetti, and garlic bread. Not a black bean in sight. D eats hungrily. She sits at the table and watches him with evident satisfaction. The family dine separately, later.

Chapter 3

The hermana-ticas find bicycles for them to use, to shorten the commute to and from the language school. D’s is new-looking, black and shiny. L’s is pink and child-sized with a little white basket on the front. They have no gears, and no brakes.

L: How do you stop?

D: Back-pedal. Like this.

He skids.

D: It might take some getting used to.

L: Do I look ridiculous?

D: Of course not.

L: Are you ashamed of me?

D: No, I am proud of you.

L: Tell me the truth.

D: I am proud. And you look ridiculous.

On their first morning at the school, their Spanish skills are assessed separately, and they are pleased to be put into the same group. They are directed into a classroom. As they enter, D trips over a chair leg, knocks a side table and overturns a plastic tub of coloured pencils which cascade onto the floor.

L: What the…..?

D: Sorry, got distracted. Lost concentration.

There, at the whiteboard, welcoming her class for the week with a broad smile, is their profesora, the surf-goddess.

Chapter 4

The profesora proves to be as engaging as she is beautiful. Everybody loves her, and they work hard. The classes are fun, interesting and varied – nevertheless, the week is intense. Four hours of lessons each day with two 15-minute breaks. Only Spanish is spoken in class. And during breaks. Samara - Intercultura GardenThey have lunch in the school gardens and sit in the shade of the palms doing homework, speaking Spanish laboriously to each other and their fellow students throughout. It works – they learn, they practice, they remember. They progress. Their heads are stuffed so full of Spanish that there is no room for anything else.

One morning, for an exercise, they collect images from magazines. They are working together, but D has a problem.

D: Oh.

L: (in Spanish) What’s up?

D: (in Spanish) Give me a minute. No. It’s gone. How is that possible? Oh, I’m so embarrassed.

Profesora-Goddess: (smiling supportively) “Embarazado” means pregnant. What are you trying to say?

D looks understandably startled. The class laugh gently.

D: (in Spanish) Sorry, wrong word. Look, I can’t remember their names.

L: (in Spanish) Who? Those two? That’s easy. Oh. Hang on. Errr….

They stare earnestly at their cut out pictures of two of the best known faces on the planet. Spanish whirls through their heads. No names come. They stare. They think. They open their mouths as though the words will come out. They don’t. They dig deep, and eventually excavate one, and then the other. They write them down: Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama.

Chapter 5

Mama-Tica feeds them delicious and healthy meals throughout the week. Quantities of fresh fruit for breakfast, and a continued – almost disappointing – absence of the Tico staple of rice and beans. She returns from another council meeting, peppering them with sharp and rapid Spanish.   They are getting better at grasping her words as they fly past, concentration running at full pelt to keep up with her.

Mama-Tica: The water supply is a real problem. There’s enough for now, but it hasn’t rained for two years.

They gape. Two years without rain is inconceivable to the English.

L: But the rainy season…..

Mama-Tica: Hardly any rain. Not like it’s supposed to be.

D: So where does Samara’s water come from?

Mama-Tica: Wells. There are wells. But they won’t last forever. We need to be careful, plan, conserve water, stop watering lawns and dirt roads to keep the dust down.

This they are familiar with, as in the UK, despite around 150 days of rain per year, there are regular hose-pipe bans. Mama-Tica’s attention is drawn away to her grand-daughter.

Mama-Tica: Come here, mi princesa. Come to your grandma, you beautiful treasure.

She scoops the child onto her lap.

They turn the Spanish conversation to their hermana-tica, who tells them that her sister returned to work eight weeks after giving birth. And that it was tricky – for the next three months, they had to take the baby to her restaurant for hourly breast-feeds. There is a pause. Breast-feeding is not their area of expertise. She changes the subject, and asks how they slept.

L: Very well, thank you. The bed is very comfortable.

L wants to say how unexpectedly bug-free their room is, but stays silent in case the comment would be impolite. She considers, and decides against, saying that the school had warned them to expect scorpions, but there have been none. Or relating a rather horrifying tale overheard today, of a student who woke in the night because she felt she might be being tickled by an insect. Or possibly more than one. So she turned on the light, to find her room swarming with thousands of termites who had broken through from a nest in the roof.

D: But there was a dog.Raccoon

Mama-Tica: Oh yes, barking at the mapache. There was a mapache, on the roof.

They are puzzled by the word, ask for clues, make some guesses, and then look it up. In the process, D notes with dismay that their dictionary is gritty with sand from the beach.

L: Oh, right! A raccoon!

Mama-Tica nods, rocking in her chair, crooning her grand-daughter to sleep.

Mama-Tica: (softly) Mapache viene por bebé. Mapache viene por bebé.

The baby nods off happily to the murmured threats of a raccoon coming to take her away, accompanied by the rhythmic sound of D, in the yard, fastidiously brushing sand from between the pages of his book.

Samara - boats on beach

Volcan Arenal National Park

Arenal - volcano 1

D: I refuse.

L: (patiently) You refuse to go to Arenal National Park. Why?

D: Because everybody else goes there.

L: There might be a reason for that. Maybe it’s really worthwhile.

D: So, what is there to do?

L: There’s the volcano.

D: But the volcano’s broken.

L: Umm….yes. Yes it is.

D: It sounded excellent in our old guidebook. You could see it exploding and glowing red every night, and my brother Tom said it spewed so much ash and cinders all over them while they were on a walk, that their guide got really worried. I want all of that.

L: Well, I’m afraid it’s stopped. Hardly a puff or a grumble since 2010. It could start again at any moment though. Today even. It was perfectly calm for nearly 500 years until suddenly in 1968, it woke up, and produced several huge explosions and a gigantic lava flow which wiped out two villages, killing 80 people and 45,000 cows.

D: Blimey. How awful. I don’t want all of that.

L: No. You certainly don’t.

D: But if it’s now dormant again, why hasn’t that stopped the tourism? Why do people still go there?

L: Well….firstly, the volcano itself is an enormous perfect cone rising out of a gorgeous landscape, so it looks really iconic. Secondly, there’s lots to do. We could go for a walk at the foot of the volcano, or on some hanging bridges through the forest canopy, or wallow in some hot springs, or go to a waterfall, or ride a horse or an ATV. And thirdly, the Laguna de Arenal is the biggest lake in Costa Rica, and is one of the best places in the world for windsurfing.

D: I hate horses – they bite. I’m rubbish at windsurfing. And there are hanging bridges at Monteverde.

L: (tactfully) Gosh, is it that time already? I had no idea it was so late. Let’s have a big drink. And some peanuts.

D drinks a glass of beer, and urgently eats peanuts, in intense silence, for a few minutes, and then grins.

D: Thank you. Better now. It seems I was a bit thirsty. And hungry. What were we talking about?

L: Your enthusiasm for Arenal.

D: That’s right. It all sounds splendid. When shall we go?

Three days later….

They drive to Arenal. The journey takes four hours. Although at only a couple of hundred metres above sea-level, and therefore hot, the surrounding landscape is green and lush, with crops and rich pasture land sprinkled with cattle ranches. They are now on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica’s central mountain ridge, which gets plenty of rain. Ahead of them, a rugged range of lowish mountains rises from the plain, with Arenal standing impressively at one end.

L: Lovely. I didn’t realise that the volcano was part of a range of hills. It always looks as though it’s on its own in the photos. Pity that the top is in the cloud.

D: Not to worry – it’ll clear in a bit.

L: Rather than stay in town, I’ve booked the most basic room in a posh hotel near the lake. It won’t have a volcano view. We’ll probably have a view of a wall. Or the bins. But there’s a pool, and nice gardens. And it’s close to the things we might want to do.

They drive through the little town of La Fortuna and out the other side, towards the volcano. And on past other hotels. And on past the National Park entrance. And on, until they begin to worry that they are leaving the area altogether.

L: There! On the right. There’s a sign. And a barrier. And a man with a clipboard.

They are scrutinised with some suspicion. L wishes that the back seats weren’t draped with drying underwear. The security guard shakes his head, but then reluctantly lifts the barrier and they are through.

D: Crikey – this is one of the worst roads I’ve ever come across!

He changes into 4WD and carefully picks his way up the impossibly steep drive, paved and yet riven with potholes and erosion channels and loose rocks. Two kilometres further on, they are greeted by a cheerful hand painted sign: “You’ve Made It!”

They park, brush biscuit crumbs off their fronts, and walk into reception, where they are greeted effusively.

Reception guy: Welcome! Long journey? First time here? You are from where? England! I just love the English accent! It’s so fancy.

D: (seriously) Ah yes. The way I speak certainly is rather fancy.

L snorts.

Reception guy: One night? Let me just check. Oh. Oh dear. I’m so sorry. Your room isn’t ready yet.

L: Never mind. Maybe we could just leave our luggage and come back later?

Reception guy: Hold on. Just a moment. Let me speak to my manager. Yes? OK. Follow me please. We do have a different room, which just might be suitable. It’s an upgrade. Come and see if you would find it acceptable.

He leads them past a sign saying “Matrimonial Suite” onto a private terrace, and through a door into a wood-panelled sitting room. Beyond is a king-size bed next to a huge picture window looking directly across the gardens to the volcano, which is still wearing a little hat of cloud. To the other side, a door leads to a cavernous bathroom and dressing room.Arenal - room with a view

Reception guy: What do you think? Will it do?

L: Really? Can we really have this one? Are you sure? There’s no mistake? Oh, yes please!

D: (holding L back) No, you don’t need to kiss him. He’s just doing his job. Really well.

Having emptied the car, they head out again reluctantly, as though if they take their eyes off the room it will disappear. They negotiate the drive once more, which is even more adventurous downhill.

L: Stop, stop!

D: What? Rock? Pothole?Arenal - coati

L: There’s a fluffy bottom on the bank with a really long tail.

The bottom turns and a pointy nose and pair of beady eyes assess the car curiously.   The coati decides that they are no threat, and potters on along the bank, paralleling the drive, in full view. Car and coati continue on companionably side by side for a while, until he spots something interesting in the undergrowth and scampers off.

They cross the dam at the foot of Lake Arenal, which sparkles enticingly in the sun. Small boats are tied up to a quay.

D: (knowledgeably) Rainbow trout.

L: What?

D: (spotting a fishing trips sign saying exactly that) The boats take people out fishing for rainbow trout.

L: (surprised, thinking D knows nothing whatsoever about fish) If you catch one, d’you get to keep it?

D: No idea. I know nothing whatsoever about fish.

They follow a dusty, pot-holed dirt road until they arrive at the Parque Nacional Volcan Arenal.

The walk they have chosen takes them along a sandy path through tall groves of sugar cane and then low growing dry forest.

L: What’s that rustling?

D: Quite a big animal, I think. Hang on, I can see it. It’s a sort of giant pheasant.

L: Where? Gosh, it looks like two different birds stuck together. Its body is a lovely chestnut brown, but its long tail feathers and fabulous head crest have black and white stripes. How curious!

(They later identify her as a female Great Curassow.)

On they go.

D: Stand still – you’re about to do it again.

L: What?

D: Stand on a snake.Arenal - snake

L: Yikes! Oh, he’s pretty.

They take a step back to admire a small brown and cream snake, beautifully striped.

(Note – we have failed to identify it. Does anyone know what it is?)

On they go, passing an elderly tour group watching a family of capuchin monkeys feeding in the canopy.

L: Here we are. At the foot of the volcano. Standing on volcanic rock.

They look up. The summit is still in the cloud.Arenal - volcano danger zone

D waits for a few minutes, hopefully, on the wrong side of a wooden sign promising “Danger – Area of High Volcanic Activity”, but nothing happens.

D: Now what?

L: To the end. I think there’s a viewpoint just along here.

They climb a flight of wooden steps to re-meet the tour group, who are resting, perched on rocks thrown down by the volcano. From here, there are spectacular views across the Laguna de Arenal, ringed by blue hills.

L: Imagine, there are a couple of little towns under there. They were flooded when the dam was built, in the 70s. I can’t see anyone windsurfing.

D: I think it all happens at the other end, where it’s windier.

American lady: Would you like us to take your picture?

D: No, that’s OK. Oh, well, yes, alright.

He climbs onto a volcanic boulder, and pulls L up to stand beside him.

American lady: Oh my – will you look at you nimble young things!

D overbalances, staggers backwards off the rock, and falls into a bush.

L: Congratulations. Neatly done.

D: Thank you.

The Americans are all watching politely. Nobody laughs. Except L.

D climbs back onto the rock.

American lady: Ready? There you go. Say “rice and beans!”

They thank her, and reclaim the camera. They check the photo. They both look like chumps.

On the return walk, L suggests they seek out some thermal springs.

D: Why would I want to pay to sit in a thermal spring with a bunch of strangers when our hotel has an outdoor hot tub? And piña coladas.

They head on back. The hot tub is on and has views straight across to the volcano. Which is still in cloud.

L: Do you think we’ve come all this way, to not quite see the iconic Volcan Arenal after all?

D: It’ll be clear in the morning.

The following morning….

L opens one eye.

L: How was your run? Yuck, you’re impressively sweaty – you are actually dripping onto the floor.

D: It’s raining.

L: (shooting up in bed and turning to look out of the window) It’s what?

Beyond the garden there is nothing. Just grey sky. Not a hint of a volcano.

L: That’s that then.

D: We’ve still got a beautiful drive along the lake shore this morning.Arenal - Lake

Two hours later…

L: D’you think it’s going to pour all day?

D: It’ll clear up in a minute.

L: Funny how much it looks exactly like England. We could be in the Lake District.

Arenal - Laguna

 

 

Impressions of San Jose, Costa Rica

San Jose panorama 1

Chapter 1

After 24 hours of travelling from England, they land in darkness, and take a taxi from the airport to the centre of San José. Traffic on the four-lane highway is leisurely, considerate, with the choice of lane seeming random, unrelated to the speed of travel. Within the city, Christmas lights reach across broad avenues, and transform dusty trees into magical sculptures. The night creates a sense of displacement – they have arrived, and yet have few references to define where they are.

A few hours later….

L: What the hell is that awful noise?

D: I don’t know. A warning siren? What time is it?

L: Err….5.10am. Maybe there’s about to be an earthquake. Or a tidal wave.

D: We’re 1200 metres above sea level, so probably not a tsunami. Look out of the window and see if there are flashing lights and things. I’m asleep.

L: I can’t see any. But there’s a train. In the road. Coming past the end of the street.

D: A tram, do you mean?

L: No, a massive goods train. Coming along the street.

D: That’ll explain it then. Nighty night.

10 minutes later….

L: Here comes another one.

D: Shush. I’m asleep.

10 minutes later….

L: And another. Are you really asleep?

D: Sigh.  I’ll get up and go for a run – it’s getting light anyway and it’s mid-morning back in the UK.

L: I do apologise. The booking website didn’t mention that this was the noisiest hotel in the world.

Chapter 2

D runs through the wakening streets as the light turns from grey to gold and the city reveals itself. It sprawls across a vast green plateau, ringed on all sides by the ridges of forested hillsides. The architecture is for the most part practical and undistinguished – low-level concrete buildings, many roofed with corrugated iron. Paintwork peels quickly here under a harsh tropical sun.   Pavements are high, with frequent uncovered holes providing access points to services. Between kerb and street are concrete gutters, dry at this time, harbouring litter. In contrast to many European cities, there is, however, a pleasant absence of dog-mess. Along the main pedestrian avenue there is already a bustle of people heading to work. Pavements overflow with passengers at bus-stops, and shaded benches in parks and squares are occupied by those enjoying the cool early morning air.

 

L: How was your run? What does San José look like?

D: Lovely temperature. Plenty of friendly people about. I nearly fell into a lot of holes though. The streets are all laid out in a grid – numbered avenidas going horizontal, and calles vertical. Oh, and the pedestrian crossings make noises like chirruping birds. And clown horns.

L: Interesting. Did you talk to anyone?

D: I did. I stopped to look for a cash-point, and a cheerful fellow came up to me and offered to sell me some marijuana and cocaine.

L: At six in the morning? That’s a bit early. Did you run away?

D: No, I felt rather pleased to think that I might look cool enough to be after marijuana or cocaine before breakfast. Then I explained that I didn’t actually want to buy anything from him, but was looking for an ATM.

L: Then what happened?

D: He kindly pointed out where the bank was.

L: Very helpful.

D: And then he followed me there.

L: Uh oh, you didn’t get robbed did you?

D: Not at all. Once he’d made sure that I’d found it, and I’d told him that unfortunately, even once I’d got the cash I really wasn’t going to buy any drugs, we exchanged friendly Pura Vidas and off he went.

L: That was nice.

 

Chapter 3

They amble along the main pedestrian drag, noticing the refreshing scarcity of global brands above shop doorways. There are a number of street vendors selling identical battery-operated, neon-coloured fluffy dancing dogs. They reach the Plaza de la Cultura and sit on a bench, watching people and pigeons going about their day. Across the square is the National Theatre. D is in his element, pointing out the central pediment, the smaller echoing pediments topping first floor windows, the half columns dividing the arches over the entrance, the contrasting grey and honey coloured stone exterior, and the roof with its distinctive red fly tower, providing height above the stage into which to lift scenery.

 

D: The National Theatre is probably the city’s oldest and prettiest building. It dates back to the 1890s and the inside is rather beautiful. My uncle Christopher said so. He was here in 1957.

L: Shall we see if we can book tickets for a concert or something, so we can experience the place properly? Music if possible. Not a play in Spanish.

Ticket office attendant: No, I’m afraid no performances this week. Or next week. Or the week after. How about the 29th? No? But you can visit today on a guided tour. Starting right now. $15 each. Just over there.

Guide: Bienvenidos al Teatro Nacional.San Jose - National Theatre auditorium

L: Oh dear.

40 minutes later…

L: Did you get any of that?

D: Not much. I hadn’t realised the tour was in Spanish.

L: Never mind. The auditorium was lovely – imagine sitting in one of those beautiful private boxes. And having interval drinks in that grand salon on the first floor with its chandeliers and frescoes and all that gold. And the theatre wasn’t too big – I reckon that wherever you sat, you’d still feel quite close to the stage.San Jose - National Theatre salon

D: Did you pick up that the architect was Italian? And the huge ceiling fresco above the stairs showing the commerce of the time – coffee growing and bananas and such like – was painted by an Italian too.

L: What was the bit at the beginning about taxes?

D: In order to build the theatre they raised a specific tax – on coffee I think – to raise funds, so everyone in the country felt that they had contributed to it, and it became a great source of national pride.

L: How very good natured of the general public – if that happened in England, we’d do nothing but grumble.

D: Look – there’s a tour in English just started over there. We could go and join it if you like.

L: Or we could go and find an ice cream instead.

 

Chapter 4

L: Are we fleeing the scene of a crime?

D: Not that I’m aware of.

L: Then why is our taxi driver going quite so fast? We nearly ran someone over back there. Can you ask him to slow down?

D: Not really. He seems quite cross. And he’s talking to himself.

L: What about?

D: Colombians, I think.

Taxi driver: This is a bad area. Full of Colombians.

L: (observing friendly looking families and mothers pushing strollers on the pavement) Oh.

Taxi driver: We are taking a short cut. To avoid the traffic. I don’t want to get stuck. My boss doesn’t like it.

L: Oh.

Taxi driver: He’s Colombian.

D: Right.

L: I don’t see why he has insisted on charging us such a massive rush-hour surcharge. There’s no traffic on these back streets at all. Only pedestrians! (She gasps as another fatal accident is narrowly avoided.) At this rate we’ll get there quicker than usual.

The car screeches to a halt outside their hotel. D argues with the driver at length over the price. The car drives off.

D: That didn’t go well. He kept demanding more money. Very unreasonable. I told him so. He was even crosser when he left.

L: Outrageous – he quoted us over the odds to start with!

D: (peering into his wallet). Hold on a minute. Oh dear. I think I got my notes muddled up.

L: (wailing) Oh no! Have you hugely overpaid him?

D: Err, no. Quite the opposite. I’ve very definitely, and quite by mistake, underpaid him. Significantly. No wonder he kept asking for more money. And was quite so cross.

 

Chapter 5

L: Isn’t this fascinating? So many different shapes and colours of jade. And such variety – jewellery, deities, animals, tools.

D: Well we are in the Museum of Jade.

L: And Pre-Columbian Culture. It’s both.San Jose - Jade Museum - pottery

D: Right. Good.

L: Apparently it’s the world’s largest collection. Of American Jade. But there are so many beautiful pots too.

D: So many pots.

L: Really interesting to see Costa Rica’s indigenous culture explained through the ceramics and artefacts that they left behind. It’s all here: food, shelter, music, family, battles, traditions, and death.

D: I think there’s something wrong with my eyes.

L: It’s wonderfully arranged. Beautifully lit.

D: It could be because of the train.San Jose - Jade Museum metates

L: What’s the train got to do with anything? Do look at these stunningly carved stone grinding stools. These ones can’t have been used for grinding maize flour – I think they were ceremonial metates, for decorating burial mounds.

D: Or because all the rooms are all so dim.

L: What might be? What’s the problem? What’s wrong with your eyes?

D: I’m having awful trouble keeping them open.

 

Chapter 6

L: We need to keep coming back to San Jose for a night or two in between trips. Where do you want to stay?

D: What’s wrong with this hotel?

L: What about the train? It seems to hoot deafeningly every 10 minutes between dawn and 10pm.

D: I’ve got used to it. I like the train. The train is my friend.

 

Chapter 7

They head towards the entrance of the National Museum.

D: Seventy years ago it was still being used as an army barracks.

L: I wondered why there were bullet holes in that turret.

The first room appears to be a greenhouse.

L: It’s good that the museum has a butterfly garden in the middle of the city.

D: But there aren’t really any butterflies.

L: No. Still, it’s the thought that counts.

They continue into a large central courtyard.

L: Look – they’ve got a couple of diquis spheres.

D: Who’s Dickie?

L: Not Dickie. Diquis. They are mysterious ancient stone balls that were discovered in the far south eastern corner of Costa Rica, in an area called the Diquis Delta. All sorts of different sizes have been found, ranging from cricket ball sized right up to about 2 metres in diameter. It says here that there are around 300 of them known about but there may be more still lying around in the forest.

D: What were they for?

L: That’s the mystery. No-one really knows how they were made or why. But there’s a couple of archaeological sites down there which are still being studied.

D: You’re full of interesting facts today. What else is here?

L: No idea. I only wanted to read about balls. You take the book.

 

 

Note: In the above snippets I have done no justice whatsoever to either the Museo de Jade or the Museo Nacional, each of which we found very interesting and enjoyable to explore at length. They introduce visitors to the pre and post Columbian culture of Costa Rica and are well curated. I would recommend them both!

 

 

San Jose - panorama 2

Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve

P1020275 (2) - small

Unpaved roads to Monteverde

 

10am

L: I think I’ve dislocated my shoulder.

D: Sorry about that.

L: Do you think you can get massages to realign all your internal organs?

D: Sigh.

L: Could you go a bit slower? Everything’s rattling. My teeth are coming loose.

D: Four wheel drives are designed for these sorts of roads.

L: How much further?

D: Err, 40 kilometres.

L: Sigh.

D: I’m still not sure why we’re going to Monteverde anyway.

L: Pothole! Everyone says it’s amazing. 50 years ago a few Quaker families from Alabama built a settlement up here, and set up the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve to protect their land. Now there are several reserves, and lots of tourists. And hanging bridges through the forest. And ziplines and stuff.

D: (swerving) What happened to the Quakers?

L: They’re still there. Making cheese mostly. Owww! Slower, please……

D: (pulling the car patiently to a halt). You drive.

They set off again at a pitifully slow crawl, and are overtaken at regular intervals by hired jeeps and minibuses bouncing happily past them and leaving clouds of dust in their wake.

D: If the area is now so popular, I wonder why they haven’t paved the roads?

L: Inexplicably, I think they like it like this. It’s one of the Quakers’ last defences against the hoardes.

 

1pm

L: (musing aloud as they walk out through B&B reception) How come it’s raining out of a clear blue sky?

Reception guy: (overhearing and laughing) – Oh yes, it rains 500 days a year here – and do you know why? Monteverde is on the Continental Divide – where damp air from the Caribbean meets dry air from the Pacific. The result? All the rain in the world falls right there on that ridge top. And wind too – it’s always windy here. The wind blows the rain off the mountain straight down onto the village. Don’t forget to take your coats!

 

1.30pm

L: It’s raining. And we’re in the cloud.

D: It’s a cloud forest. It’s supposed to be like this.  So, what’s the plan?

L: There’s a walk through the forest that we can do on our own, with hanging bridges high up in the canopy. It should be interesting to be looking at the trees from half way up or above, rather than just looking up from the ground.

D: Any wildlife?

L: Lots of birds, I think, including the resplendent quetzal which everyone gets excited about.

D: OK then. Good.

L: Yes.

D: Right.

L: Yes.

D: So shall we get out of the car?

Off they go, bundled into waterproof clothing.

L: My bet is that we see nothing.

D: What do you mean nothing?

L: Not a single living creature. Here’s the first bridge.P1020238 (2) - small

D: Lots of bromeliads. Fabulous trees – very atmospheric in the cloud. The bridge is quite bouncy isn’t it?

L: (Hanging over the bridge railing) Look at the amazing shape of those tree ferns, seen from above. And the mosses hanging from the branches up here. Shall we whisper so as not to frighten the wildlife?

10 minutes later….

D: (whispering) Does a fly count?

L: (whispering) No. And anyway I didn’t see it. We both have to see it.

15 minutes and 4 bridges later…

L: (whispering) It’s lovely, isn’t it? Hearing the rain patter down onto the leaves. Very peaceful.

D: (whispering) Does a beetle count? Oh, actually, it’s a leaf. False alarm.

Another 20 minutes and 2 impressive bridges later…

L: (whispering) What’s that whistling sound?

D: (whispering) A bird of some sort.

L: (whispering excitedly) Where is it? Can you see it? Is it a resplendent quetzal?

D: Hold on, it’s coming from….Oh.

L: What?

D: It’s not a bird. It’s an American.

The bridge they are on wobbles as an elderly couple sway across it, talking loudly and whistling intermittently. Their voices carry into the forest as they disappear from sight ahead on the path ahead. They are followed by a cheerful and noisy group of Canadian teenagers, who step onto the bridge and then stop to carry on their conversation and photograph each other.

L: Well that’s blown it.   We’ll never see a quetzal now. Let’s go and eat crisps.

 

5pm

L: Still raining out of a clear blue sky.P1020261 - small

D: How’s this night tour going to work?

L: We’ll be taken to the Hidden Valley and led on a 2 hour guided walk in the dark.

D: Aren’t we quite unlikely to spot a quetzal in the dark?

L: Yes, but apparently all sort of other things come out at night.

D: I want to see a frog. A little red poisonous frog. One frog.

6pm

L: It’s so strange to be in the forest in the pitch dark. If the guide walked off we’d be lost in an instant.

Guide waves his torch around, high and low, looking for things to show his group.

Guide: Guys, guys, over here. See that?

L: I can’t see. What is it?

D: It’s a moth. Looking like a bit of newspaper.

L: Oh.

They walk on carefully, in silence.

Guide: Guys – over here guys. See?

L: Where? Can you see it?

D: There, on that leaf. It’s a cricket.

L: Oh.

They follow the light of the torch through the trees.

Guide: Over here guys. To me. See there?

L: Eek – big spiders in big webs. Run away!

Guide: And here guys, on the ground. These are leaf cutter ants.

L: (whispers to D) We see those all over the place.

D: Shh…he’s trying his best.

On they go.

Guide: Guys – up there. Do you see?

D: Not there, THERE, just above your head. It’s a little yellow and green bird, just sitting there, despite the torch lights in his eyes.

L: I see him. How odd that he doesn’t fly away. He can’t be asleep – his eyes are open.

They walk on. Suddenly there is a loud rustle nearby and someone says “Pssst”.

Guide (sounding excited): Guys, see over there, that’s a coatimundi!

D: (Whispers to L) I startled it and drove it towards the guide. Did you hear me hiss to warn him it was coming his way?

The group watch the pointy nosed, terrier-sized long tailed mammal snuff his way along the river bank and disappear. Everyone is pleased to see such a large animal.

D: (muttering) I found him first.

Guide: So, does anyone want to see a toucan?

L: Wow, yes please, that would be amazing.

Guide: Above your heads, guys. Who will spot it first? Errr, no-one? It’s just there! Where? There!

The group look doubtfully at a distant green smudge among some distant green leaves high in the canopy.

L: Where’s its head?

Guide: It’s sleeping, and so its head is tucked down, maybe under its wing.

D: (muttering) Not sure it counts if it hasn’t got a head.

On they go, into open ground, where they come to a pond.

L: We’re not in the forest any more.

D: I can see that.

L: No, I mean, I think we’re in somebody’s garden. There’s a hammock over there.

Guide: So you want to see a frog? There, amigos, is a frog.

D: (looking keenly for his scarlet poisoned frog) Oh. It’s brown.

He dutifully photographs the tiny dull looking creature.

Meanwhile the guide steps away from the group and talks into his radio in desperation, seeking tip-offs from other collleagues also stumbling around the area with tourists in tow. Suddenly his tone changes and he begins to sound triumphant.

Guide: Guys, guys, over here!

The torch waves excitedly and the group wander politely over. There in a tree just two metres off the ground is a very long green snake, knotted many times around itself and a branch, tail dangling. The mood lifts and cameras start clicking enthusiastically.

L: D’you think that our tiny underwater camera is perhaps not quite the best sort for wildlife photography? Everyone else seems to have simply enormous paparazzi cameras.P1020266 - small

D defends the palm-sized orange device vigorously whilst proudly reviewing his blurred images.

D: What do you mean? We’re clearly ahead of the game. And it’s perfect in the rain.

Meanwhile, the guide is announcing his find to his colleagues who soon arrive with their groups. Job done. Time to go.

 

4 days later

Now on the coast, on being introduced to a retired Canadian couple:

Wife: So nice to meet you. We just got here too. We’ve had such a great time. We went to Monteverde. So amazing. No, no rain. The weather was wonderful and we just saw so much wildlife – even the quetzal. Yes. And the ziplining was simply awesome. Oh you must go there, you’d love it.

L: (opens mouth to speak)

D steps gently and deliberately on L’s toe.

L: (through gritted teeth) Wow, that does sound amazing. Unbelievable, in fact.

D: (turns to L with broad smile) We should definitely go there, shouldn’t we?

P1020257 (2) - small

View from Monteverde to the Gulf of Nicoya

Volcan Poas & La Paz Waterfall

P1020141-small

Lush green meadows below Volcan Poas

 

D: We need to get there as early as possible, before the cloud rolls in, or we won’t be able to see into the crater.

L: Nearly there – look – “Volcan Poas 12km”.

D: It’s so lovely and green up here. And meadowy. It looks just like Wales.

L: It must rain a lot. Uh oh. All the cows are lying down.

D: The air’s so fresh. We’re at about 2500m I think. That’ll be why.

L:   The cloud’s building. Drive a bit faster.

D: It’ll be fine.

L: We’re in the cloud.

D: It’ll blow though and clear in a minute.

L: We’re still in the cloud.

D: OK, we’ll try again later. Shall we go and find La Paz Waterfall instead?

 

Half an hour later, at the Waterfall Gardens entrance…

L: HOW MUCH?

D: Stop shouting.

L: Sorry. It’s the shock. FORTY dollars? Per PERSON?

D: You’re shouting again.

L: Sorry. But FORTY dollars?

D: Still shouting.

L: Sorry.

Ticket office woman: Here’s a map. You can walk down through the gardens, visit the hummingbird enclosure, the butterfly enclosure, the snake enclosure, the frog enclosure, and view the waterfalls. The circuit takes about 2 hours.

L: But, FOR…….

D: (Interrupting and steering L out of the door) Thank you very much. We’ll just go away and think about it.

L: That’s more than the Cotswold Wildlife Park. Which takes all day to see around. They’ve got a RHINOCEROS for chrissakes!

D: The guidebook says the La Paz Waterfall is really close to the road. Let’s just carry on down the hill a bit further and see what we can see.

L: OK.

D: Good. In you get. I’ll drive.

L: (muttering) Forty dollars…..!

D: Sigh.

The road winds steeply downhill for a few hundred metres, and then hugs the near vertical walls of the hillside as it crosses the head of a gully on a clattering steel bridge. And there, right there in front of them, a fierce cascade of water tumbles 120 feet down the cliff from above, to a rocky pool, and then under the bridge and away.

L: Wow.

D: Cool.

L: (indignantly)   You wouldn’t even have been able to see it from the Gardens.

D: Yes you would. I can see a sort of viewing platform right up at the top. Anyway, let’s go and look.P1020129-small

They walk down to the pool at the foot of the falls. The slippery rocks are hazed in a great mist of spray being thrown up by the force of the water. They make their way back up to the car, where two other vehicles have also pulled off the road.

D: But the book says you can walk right behind the waterfall.

They look around.

L: Well, any path there was has clearly disappeared. There was a really bad earthquake here in 2009. People died. The path must have fallen. No-one else is expecting a path – they’re just taking photos from the bridge. Wherever are you going?P1020140-small

D leaps nimbly across a muddy ditch by the road, and sets off along an almost invisible and very narrow ledge half way up the cliff.   Water trickles down the face of the rock wall and the tiny path is crumbly underfoot, and slippery with spray.

L: What are you doing? Come back! It’s too dangerous!   You’re going to fall! I can’t watch! Oh, hang on, stay there, let me take a photo. Go right a bit.

The path widens and D finds that he can walk easily to a spot right under the falls, watching the immense angry curtain of water cascade over his head and down into the pool 60 feet below him. He beckons to L who disappears, re-emerges, and makes her way cautiously along to him.

D: See, it’s not so bad. The first bit’s the trickiest. What on earth happened to you? You’re covered in mud.

L: (grinning). This is fantastic! Oh, I fell in the ditch.

 

Later that day….

D: I think we’ll be OK. The cloud’s much higher than this morning.

L: Nearly there. “Volcan Poas 3km”. We need to get a move on – the Park closes in half an hour.

D: We’ll be fine.

L: The cloud’s coming down.

D: It’s not. If anything, it’s lifting. We’ll be fine.

They reach the entrance to the Volcan Poas National Park. The gates are still open. The woman at the ticket booth is eating a sticky bun. They wait politely for her to finish. She smiles gratefully and licks her fingers.

Woman: Do you want to go in?

D: Is there still time?

Woman: Yes, but you won’t see anything. The crater is full of cloud.

D: Oh.

Woman: It’s better in the mornings.

D: Except this morning.

Woman: Yes, except this morning.

D: We’ll try again tomorrow morning.

Woman: We open at 8.

 

The following morning….

D: Look, it’s a beautiful morning.

L: Yes, but for how long? Hurry UP! This is our third and final chance to see the volcano. Run!

D: There is no point whatsoever in running to breakfast. It doesn’t start until 7.30.

They pack the car, check out, and are at the breakfast room door at 7.25.

L: The door’s locked.

D: It’s not 7.30 yet.

The door opens and they rush in and sit down.

L: OK, eat fast. We need to be out of here at 7.40.

The proprietor turns on the coffee machine and begins to cut up fruit, very slowly. At 7.35, cutlery arrives, followed by glasses of fresh strawberry juice.

L: I cannot believe that this is happening so slowly.

D: The strawberry juice is very good. They grow them up here.

Fruit arrives. They eat it. And wait.

L: Shall we go?

D: What about my scrambled eggs? They’re included.

L: Am I the only one who understands that this is an emergency?

The eggs arrive. And toast. D munches happily. L fidgets.

L: There’s a puma in the garden.

D: It’s a goat.

L: Oh. Have you finished yet? The cloud’s building.

D: There are no clouds. D’you need any more of that jam?

Eventually they leave, drive up the now familiar road to the Volcan Poas park gates. They arrive at 8.20.

D: Told you. Still no clouds.

L: Well. They could be hiding just around the corner.

They walk along a broad track towards a look-out point over the edge of the crater.P1020150-small

L: Holy moly.

D: Very cool.

They lean over the wooden railing and gaze across a mile wide crater below them, complete with a milky turquoise lake at the centre, from which steam is gently wafting. It looks huge, and beautiful, and dangerous.

L: Did you notice the evacuation instructions on the board back there?

D: Yes. This is one of the world’s largest and most active volcanoes. Every so often it gets a bit lively and they have to close the park.

L: How d’you know?

D: I’ve done my research. If I wasn’t a translator, I think I’d be a vulcanologist.

L: Since when?

D: Since yesterday. Ask me anything.

L: Does it spit fire?

D: No – sulphuric acid. It makes acid rain and acid fog – you can see over to the left, which must be downwind, how bare the hillside is, and how brown and stunted any vegetation is. Apparently every now and then it damages the nearby coffee and strawberry crops.

L: It looks pretty calm today. Can we go down into the crater? Are there any paths?

D: No – no-one’s allowed down there. Too much acid in the air. It’d burn your lungs. And your eyes. It might look calm, but it could shoot a massive geyser of hot sulphuric steam miles into the air at any moment.

L: Miles?

D: Well, maybe not miles. A couple of hundred metres. But we should be OK up here – the crater’s 300 metres deep.

L: Alright then. Go and stand by the edge, and I’ll take a photo. And another one. Hold me while I stand on the railing. Just one more. Oh, and one from over there.

D: Get on with it. D’you want to go and see the other crater?

L: Definitely. Is it like this one?

D: No. The other one isn’t active – hasn’t been for 7,500 years. It’s got a good lake though. Here’s the sign – Laguna Botos. Follow me.

They follow a paved path winding uphill, for about a mile. Overhead, dwarf cloud-forest vegetation closes over their heads, creating a twilight tunnel. They overtake an elderly American couple in matching sunhats, holding hands, stopping to breathe. A little further up, they suddenly emerge into dazzling sunshine, and in front of them is a deep blue crater lake surrounded by lush green forest and flowering shrubs.

L: It’s so beautiful!

L shades her eyes from the glare of the mid-morning sun reflecting off the clear, cold water. The American couple reach them and sink gratefully onto a bench.

Man: I’ll sell you my hat if you like. A hundred dollars.

L laughs. He grins, holding out his floppy sunhat. His wife pats his knee fondly.

 

P1020169-small

Laguna Botos- Volcan Poas

Climbing Cerro Chirripo – Costa Rica’s Highest Summit

5-P1010353 (3)

3-P1010383 (2)

The two of them stand alone at the trail head, adjusting their walking poles.

L: What time is it?

D: Err…6am.

L: Where’s everyone else? There were a dozen people queuing for permits with us yesterday, just during the hour that we were there, and presumably lots of others we didn’t see. I think they let 50 people a day climb the mountain.

D: They must all be starting later than us. Or earlier.

L: So this sign says we’re at 1520 metres. What time d’you reckon we’ll get to the refuge? Normally a 16km walk would take us about 5 hours, but we’ve also got to gain almost 2000 metres of altitude. That is a LOT of climbing. What if we don’t make it before dark? We could be trampled to death by tapirs. They’re nocturnal. And enormous.

D: It’ll be fine. We’ve got 11 hours of daylight. And torches. And tapirs are really shy.

L: Alright then.

D: It’s the jaguars we should be worried about.

They start walking steeply uphill on a clearly-defined path, past acutely sloping meadows carpeted in blue flowers, and a well-tended coffee plantation. The views are of forested hillsides and the scattered tin roofs of the village on the valley floor.

D: It’s a great path.

L: (panting) A lot less muddy than Devon.

L: (pausing) A lot less rocky than Italy.

L: (setting off again) Quite steep though.

D: Look, we’re coming up into the cloud forest.

L: (panting) Lovely mosses trailing off the branches.

L: (pausing) Gorgeous ferns.

L: (setting off again) Fabulous bamboo.

D: Stop. What’s that?

L: Yikes. Am I about to step on a snake?

D: No. Look – monkeys, way up there. Lots of them. With babies. I think they’re capuchins.

L: (craning her neck back uncomfortably) Wow, seriously tall trees! Apparently the biggest ones are oaks, which can get up to 50 metres tall. They poke out above the rest of the canopy.

She stretches her neck and looks at the ground.

L: Why is the path littered with leeks?

D: They’re not leeks. They’re bromeliads. Epiphytes. The monkeys must be throwing them down.

They continue.

L: (panting) D’you think we’ll see a quetzal?

L: (pausing) D’you think we’ll see an ocelot?

L: (setting off again) Do you think there’ll be a café just ahead?

D: Don’t be ridiculous. We’re now 7km from the nearest driveable track. Stop. What’s that?

L: Yikes. Snake?

D: No. I see a café just ahead.

L: Don’t be mean. That’s just mean. I need a fizzy drink.

Astonishingly, there is indeed a café – a small wooden hut, with decked terrace, four tables and a large list of available drinks.   D orders coffee, in a big white china mug and L enjoys a fizzy orange sugar-rush.

L: This is the best sort of mountain. All the blog accounts I’ve read just talk about the struggle and the steepness. None of them mention how beautiful the forest is. None of them mention the CAFÉ!

On they go.

Ahead, they hear shouts and laughter, and are passed suddenly by four heavily laden pack horses thundering down the track, followed by their keepers, descending the mountain at a comfortable jog.

L: What were they carrying?

D: It looked like laundry. And maybe rubbish. From the refuge. That would explain how the café gets stocked – probably by the horses on their way back up.

L: (panting) We must keep a look out for a bird called the buffy tufted-cheek.

D: Good name. What does it look like?

L: No idea.

L: (pausing) Do you hear that? Maybe that’s him. It sounds like a violinist tuning up.

L: (setting off again) Or a squeaky hinge blowing in the wind. He’s excellent.

(Days later, L identifies the bird as a black-faced solitaire. She types “squeaky hinge bird” into Google and he pops up immediately.)

On they go.

At the 11km mark, they find themselves at 3200 metres, having done the majority of the climbing.   The cloud forest has thinned at this altitude, and there is evidence of an old but widespread bush-fire, with great columns of bare tree trunks thrusting skywards. For the next 3km the path undulates, with lower shrubby plant growth to either side, pink cystus and wild lupin in flower. The views open up to reveal forested ridges devoid of any evidence of man, for as far as the eye can see. They stop for lunch.

L: D’you know that this is one of Costa Rica’s largest National Parks?

D: I didn’t.

L: Other than Cerro Chirripo, which of course is the highest peak in the country, the park has two other mountains over 3800m.

D: Excellent. Shall we climb them all?

L: I think one might be enough.

Then the clouds roll in and envelop them.

L: I think it’s raining.

D: It’s not rain. It’s cloud.

L: It’s rain. Can we stop and get out our waterproofs? I might have to sleep in these clothes. I don’t want them to get wet.

D: It might be drizzling. It’ll stop in a minute. Our waterproofs aren’t waterproof anyway.

L: It hasn’t stopped. It’s getting worse. I’ve got some excellent duct tape on mine. They are as good as new.

The heavens open.

D: OK, it’s raining.

They stop in the shelter of a tree to pull on their jackets and waterproof trousers. And then continue. For the last hour, they walk in a steady downpour.

L: It’s nice and cool walking in the rain. If it were sunny we’d be miserable. And hot. And thirsty. This bit is seriously steep.

D: I’m glad we haven’t needed the 4 litres of water I’ve been carrying. Not heavy at all.

L: I read that Chirripo means “Land of Eternal Waters.” They get up to 7 metres of rainfall a year.

D: Are you sure that’s right? We’ll be lucky not to drown.

L: (changing the subject) Look how fit we are – overtaking those people.

D: They’re in their sixties.

L: Oh. Still. We won’t get there last. Uh oh.

D: What?

L: Catastrophic duct tape failure. My coat is leaking like a sieve.

The path eventually levels out and ahead they see a cluster of breezeblock buildings with tin roofs, in a rough grassy cleft between two jagged ridges.

D: That is the Crestones refuge. I think we’ve made it. What time is it?

L: Half past two. I don’t think we got here very fast. But at least it’s not dark.

They enter through the dining room, which is crowded with around 40 hikers of a dozen nationalities. An efficient woman ticks them off a list and then leads them along a long concrete corridor and up a steep flight of stairs to a line of dorms. Their room contains two pairs of bunk beds. The other pair has been claimed. The mattresses consist of a wooden board covered with an inch of foam and a layer of vinyl. Innumerable blogs mention how uncomfortable they are.

Woman: Here you are. You have a pillow and sleeping bag on each bed. There are lockers for your stuff. The bathrooms are at the end of the hall. There are showers but no hot water. Dinner is 6-7pm and lights out at 8pm.

D: Lights out?

Woman: We turn off the generator. After eight, there is no electricity in the building. Do you have torches?

D: Umm….yes.

They thank her and she leaves.

L: This is actually much nicer than I feared. And spotlessly clean. That last flight of stairs nearly killed me though. I’m really puffed and I’ve got a headache.

D: Not surprising. We are at 3400 metres.

L: So I’ve got altitude sickness. Am I going to die?

D: Probably not. Take a painkiller and have a kip.

They drape dripping rucksacks, coats, trousers, socks and other clothes around the frame of their bunk bed, where it fails to dry in the chilly little room. L dons extra dry clothes and has a rest. D, as though not having taken quite enough exercise yet, goes for a walk.

At sun down, the temperature drops like a stone. After a mountain of spaghetti Bolognese, there is nothing for it but to go to bed before being plunged into darkness. They wriggle into their sleeping bags. D has kept his T-shirt on.

D: Are you going to be warm enough?

L: (happily) Oh yes, I’m wearing everything I brought. Two pairs of socks, two pairs of leggings, four tops including my thermal jumper and my fleece. And a woolly hat. And gloves. I’m toasty.

They set their alarms for 2.40am, and the lights go out.

3am

They creep along the refuge corridor by the light of their torches and let themselves out. To their surprise, almost no-one else is around and they can hear snoring from nearby rooms.

L: I thought everyone got up at this time so as to be on the summit for sunrise.

D: Maybe they all walk faster than us and so don’t need to get up quite as early.

L: Well I must say, it’s very efficient sleeping in all one’s clothes. I got straight out of bed and was ready to go. Just needed to clean my teeth. I might do that more often.

D: There’s a temperature gauge on that pole. What does it say?

L: Three degrees. Balmy. The coldest ever temperature recorded in Costa Rica was up here somewhere. Minus 9.

They set off. It is pitch dark. They won’t see a glimmer of dawn for at least two hours.

L: Oh my gosh, look at the stars. I had no idea there could possibly BE so many stars!

The night is cloudless and there is a total absence of light pollution. The sky is truly magnificent.

They start walking, swiftly realising that their torches should be as close to the ground as possible, held at arms’ length, mid thigh, so as to sufficiently light their way. Without them on, they cannot see their hands in front of their faces. The path is flat, but crossed by numerous ditches and drainage channels. After a while, a crescent moon rises, on its back, from behind a silhouetted peak. They can just about make out that they are crossing a huge plain, encircled by mountains. They are above the treeline – up here the vegetation is mostly coarse grass and clumps of dwarf bamboo.   Several times the path leads them to wide expanses of limestone bedrock, where it is necessary for D to scout around to find the onward route. In the distance, way ahead of them, they glimpse a cluster of four tiny torch lights, and another group of two. A long way behind, a few more torches have appeared but get no nearer.

An clearing of short rabbit-grazed grass shimmers at their feet. There is the barest sprinkling of frost.

They begin to climb, picking their way slowly up the rock-strewn path, step by step.   All focus is on the ground and the careful placing of feet, but every time they pause, they are again entranced by the great dome of night sky above them.

L: (for the twentieth time) Just look at those stars.

The path gets steeper, and rockier, and eventually the sky begins to lighten through a pass between two peaks.

L: Is that the one we are going up?

She points at the taller of the two peaks.

D: No, it’s deceptive, it must be nearer to us. The one we need to climb is over there.

L: Oh yes, I see the torches now, heading vertically up the side. Hell that looks steep.

They reach the pass as the horizon begins to glow a vivid orange, blackening the wisps of cloud above in sharp contrast.

The last half hour is a vertical scramble and a race against time.

D: Pass me your sticks. Turn off your torch. You’ll be better off without them. Use your hands.

They reach the summit, breathless, before the sunrise, and greet a dozen others who have also made it – half of them Ticos, but also a sprinking of Europeans: German, Austrian, Norwegian. Some sit silently, almost meditatively, others chat, delve into their packs for snacks, or take photos. There is a brisk, chill breeze snapping at a proudly flying Costa Rican flag, and a large wooden board proclaiming: Cerro Chirripo – Altitude 3820 metres.

L: Take a photo of me. By the flag. By the sign – can you read what it says?     I know I’m wearing 20 layers, but make sure I look thin.

The sky lightens – the blackened wisps of cloud flare orange and the landscape around them is revealed. Layer upon layer of wooded and grassy peaks stretch away in every direction, and below them, at the pass beneath the summit, is the glimmer of several small lakes.

And then the moment that they have all been waiting for. The sun rises and immediately paints the landscape golden. A moment savoured, and shared, is then over, and the climbers start to pick their way back down.

The return to the refuge is easier, but shocking.

L: I can’t believe we did this in the dark, without breaking all our legs.

She skids on loose rocks and catches herself.

D: Look how beautiful it is. The peaks, the cliffs, this great big grassy bowl. Paramo, they call this landscape – above the treeline. There’s even a proper mountain stream. With a pool. Right, I’m swimming.

In an instant D has shed all his clothes and is standing naked on the bank.

L: Blimey – at least get in the water. Everyone can see you!

D: What everyone, there’s no-one around. It’s perfect. And anyway, the water is going to be unbelievably cold, so I’m not getting in until you’ve got the camera out to capture the moment. Are you ready?

L: I’m ready.

He leaps into the pool with a bellow.

D: Bloody hell that’s freezing! Quick, take it, stop messing around, damn you, take the picture, so I can get out!

Back at the refuge, they are too late for breakfast, but the kitchen staff produces tea and buttered toast.

L: What are you doing?

D: Sprinkling sugar on my toast. You should try it.

L: That’s delicious. I think we were fed this when we were children. More sugar please.

D: We’d better get a move on.

L: I’ve done some sums. Today, including where we’ve already been this morning, we will walk 27km, up 420m and down 2300m. That is one giant day.

D: But the sun is shining and the birds are singing. It’ll be great.

So down they go.

D: Stop, what’s that?

L: Yikes! Snake?

D: No, orchid. I need to take a photo.

And…

D: Stop, what’s that?

L: Yikes! Snake?

D: No, a blue and green lizard.   I need to take a photo.

And…

D: Stop. Stand still.

L: Now what do you need to photograph, for pity’s sake?

D: Nothing. Just walk gently back towards me. You are about to step on a snake.

In front of L’s shoe, a metre of black snake slithers casually across the path and regards them from the safety of the bank.

L: (weakly) Thank you for saving me. Please can I have a biscuit?

And…

L: It’s a long way down. My feet hurt. And my knees.

D: You walk much too slowly – you’re prolonging the agony. Let’s whizz-path.

L: Let’s what?

D: Whizz-path. It’s what we did when we were kids. You run downhill letting the momentum carry you. I still find it much the easiest way to lose altitude.

So they whizz-path. And it works. For a time.

L: Stop, stop. My brain isn’t talking to my feet any more. I’m going to fall over and break everything.

D: OK. We’re nearly down. Only 3km to go.

And….

D: Only 2km to go. How are your feet?

L: Comedy.

D: What do you mean, comedy?

L: You know when someone in a cartoon hits their hand with a hammer and their hand turns bright red and starts throbbing? That’s my feet. Comedy feet.

And…

D: Only 1km to go. Don’t sit down now.

L: Go on without me. Just leave me here to die.

D: Don’t they have an outdoor hot-tub at our hotel? Next to the pool?

L: Do they? I don’t know. Maybe. I didn’t notice. I don’t care.

And finally….

L: Oh my goodness – this is complete bliss. It’s as hot as a bath. Put your feet against the jets – it’s a perfect foot massage. I’m in absolute heaven.

D: (wallowing happily up to his neck in bubbles) Well, of course it’s difficult to compete with my morning dip, but it’s not a bad way to end the walk. Not bad at all.

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