Cabuya, Costa Rica
It’s a jungle out there. Literally. From the Caribbean coast at Cahuita to the mountains of the Orosi Valley, the beaches of Tortuguero and the Nicoya Peninsula – hell, even in capital San Jose – Costa Rica is a wildlife wonderland.
It is a humbling experience to sit in the midnight darkness watching a 150kg green turtle dig a nest, lay more than 100 eggs, bury them and then make her way back to the sea. At Tortuguero we were treated to this amazing spectacle – made even more wonderful by the fact we’d travelled there upriver an hour from La Pavona, through a muddy, jungle-clad river, replete with crocodiles resting on the banks.
In the past fortnight we’ve had close encounters with howler and capuchin monkeys, raccoons, Lora snakes, hummingbirds, Pava birds – and frankly hundreds of other birds, marine life and mammals we can’t identify.
Even yesterday, at a tropical swimming hole in Cabuya, a shadow passed over the sun and overhead a glorious pink flamingo flew, then perched and posed for us.
And we actually thought someone was having a laugh the other day when we came across banana trees adorned with bright pink versions of the fruit. No, really!
Not all the wildlife is of the cuddly variety though. Cuddle the bright yellow eyelash viper we encountered in Cahuita and you’d be dead within a couple of hours. Of course we didn’t know that when Paula stuck a camera lens in its face and I moved the leaf it was resting on to get a better shot.
A few years ago, when we were in Syria, we camped next to a lake. As we settled down for a peaceful night in our open-sided bedouin-style tent the owner of the restaurant in whose grounds we were pitched said: “There are no snakes here”. What! We hadn’t even imagined there were – now we couldn’t sleep, the fear of the unknown amplified when a couple of what turned out to be stray cats ran across us in the early hours of the morning.
Back in Cahuita, by the time we came across the startling green and black frog we took the precaution of asking if it was poisonous. No, said Maria. Yes, said Alex. So that’s clear. Poisonous or not it was incredible. As was the wonderful Maria’s Camping site – a little haven on the Caribbean.
Tourism in Costa Rica is a double-edged sword – and there are two sorts. Some areas are being overdeveloped with exclusive resorts and foreign businesses buying up all the best beach and mountain land, constructing zip lines and other adventure activities. Hundreds of non-environmentally sustainable places are given names like eco-this or green-that. They are advertised in shiny brochures and on massive billboards lining roads the length and breadth of the country.
On the other hand there is wonderful community tourism, barely even noticeable. Sometimes literally. We’ve camped at sites that are not even known about by many locals, with, at best, a tiny handwritten sign propped up against a lamp-post to alert you to its existence. Needless to say, we’ve been the only people at any of these sites and yet have met lovely families who couldn’t be more welcoming, camped on the banks of amazing rivers, had sweeping vistas of the cloud forest or woken up right on an empty beach.
But before you switch off, it’s not all been unending sunshine and joy.
It’s rainy season (or as the clever marketing people now call it: the Green Season) and the van has developed a leak – or two. Twice we’ve carried out repairs and sat back content at our handiwork. Each time a new leak appears. The problem is we can’t find the source of this one. Our response? Head to Parque Nacional Tapanti-Cerro de Muerte (yes it does mean mountain of death!), the wettest place in Costa Rica – with an average of 7000mm of rain per year. Most of it fell the night we camped there I think – just after our propane gas ran out and we had to resort to cooking our stew on the hastily-assembled barbeque in a storm. Then the leak reappeared in the night. On Paula’s head.
All of which seems a trifle ironic in light of the fact that when we went white-water rafting on the Rio Sarapiqui we were restricted to class II-III rapids because the river was too low due to lack of rain. I say that as if I had wanted more adrenaline-fuelled thrills and spills. Some things are easy to say with hindsight.
And it’s not all been fun and frivolity – there’s been work too. In San Jose I spent three days working for the International Federation of Journalists alongside union leaders from across Latin America and the Caribbean. It was inspirational, as we heard from those standing up against death threats, corrupt governments and powerful commercial media interests. When we left we had gained new friends and comrades (and a few packets of butter from the breakfast buffet!), but also the realisation that just when we thought our Spanish was getting better we’d struggled with a bewildering array of new words, accents and pronunciations – including finding out that words which mean one thing in El Salvador or Panama are insults in Argentina or Uruguay. There may be trouble ahead…
So now we’ve come full circle. Before we headed to the US to begin this journey last summer we had a month-long break in Costa Rica, here at Cabuya. (As my sister so delicately put it: “What! You’re having a bloody holiday before your massive bloody holiday.”)
We’ve returned to see friends we made then – Patricia and Simon – and because it feels like a real milestone to come back to where it all began. And actually getting back here, especially when our transmission problems made it look like we might not make it, feels like a real achievement. It seems the perfect place to reflect on all that has happened and changed in the last 12 months since we left home… for example, you really know life has shifted gear when you can spend over an hour watching an immobile sloth. But more of that next time.
Things we now know to be true: Bananas can be pink, snakes can be yellow.