In the early morning, we left the sprawling city of San Jose heading in the direction of the jungle. A busy winding road climbed up into the Braulio Carrillo national park, cutting between dense vegetation and vast green views.
The day before jolly smiles and volcanic mountains had welcomed us to Costa Rica, proudly known as being the happiest country in the world.
Welcomed at the airport by our guide, we were then introduced to the crumbling city of San Jose, the country’s capital whose last remaining beauty had been demolished in several earth quakes that had struck during the last century.
Now it was a whirlwind of taxis, dirt, pollution, mess and people. A lavishly decorated National Theatre, as the oldest surviving building, seemed odd between all the chaos.
Hotel El Presidente was home for our first night in Costa Rica. Sleek, smooth, urban and modern is was a luxurious first night thanks to our upgrade to a suite. On the morning of our departure we enjoyed a typical breakfast of fresh pineapple, mango and papaya along with the national dish of Gallo Pinto, simply put, Rice and Beans.
On our way to Tortuguero National Park, dense jungle filled either side of the road. Above 1000 metres we experienced the cool and misty cloud forest environment, but soon plummeted into the hot and humid rainforests of the Caribbean coast.
We passed pineapple and banana plantations interspersed with colourful huts, wet football pitches and tin roofs. Our guides, Mariano and Rafael explained that one could only reach Tortuguero national park by boat or by air. 1000 people lived in Tortuguero village, a jumbled settlement scattered along a thin strip of land between the main Tortuguero river and the Caribbean coastline. The only income for locals being tourism and fishing, Mariano told us, buy a beer, help the local economy.
The motor canoe took us up river and into the park. Along the way skating past two crocodiles, two skinny herrings, thick jungle on either side, muddy water below.
Our hotel was hidden in the jungle on the river side. There were small wooden cabins with splashes of bright colour painted on the walls and towels arranged like swans. Howler monkeys could be heard screaming from the balcony.
In the village I spotted a giant spider hanging from the beams of the tiny church, while small children played along the dirty paths. Colourful, chipped sculptures of toucans dotted the narrow path while wild waves battered the beach.
That night we swam in the hotel pool shaped as a turtle, in the lightly falling tropical rain.
Heavy rain and howler monkeys woke me the next day. In the morning we headed along a trail through the jungle behind the lodge. As we clambered through the mud, Rafael pointed things out to us, such as bullet ants or walking trees with roots like tepees. He recounted the story of how once he had seen a jaguar swimming in the Tortuguero canals. He said it had been a heart beating moment.
Full of stories he then talked about jungle survival and a pilot that had crashed in the middle of the jungle and survived 3 months alone simply because he had adapted to his surroundings, partly by eating insects for protein.
Up river at the Manatus lodge we ate lunch. A gathering of hotel staff were there to greet us as our boat pulled up to the jetty and we were offered a fruity cocktail and cold towel on arrival. We spent the next hour lounging in the riverside restaurant, eating ceviche and sushi, drinking mojitos, all under the canopy of the Costa Rican Amazon.
On our way to the village we stopped off at the Mawamba lodge and spotted 2 toucans singing in the manicured gardens. With their large, long, yellow beaks, they seemed almost cartoon like. We then spotted tiny red frogs and large blue butterflies hopping and fluttering around the green houses.
Thankfully the tropical down pours then subsided for our afternoon adventure into the canals of the Tortuguero national park. In a small boat, fit for ten along with our guide Mariano, we headed down the wild cacao-coloured river under the tangled trees painted in many shades of green.
We saw more wildlife then I could have ever imagined. The journey was a jungle picture book. Capuchin and spider monkeys jumped through the branches, giant green iguanas slumbered on the trees, Caimans hid at the waters edge. Gradually the canals got smaller and smaller with the only noise surrounding us, the humming of the frogs and the distant rustle of hidden creatures. The low hanging leaves drew a rippled shadow across the murky waters.
After the tour I sat down a while to chat to Mariano. He proudly showed me his name in the acknowledgements of his guidebook, he was friends with the author. Then flicking through the pages of bird species, nearly 4,000 in total, I asked, “Do you know them all?”
“Nearly” He smiled with childish glee.
Monday morning eventually arrived and we sped back along the jungle clad river in the pouring rain to continue our tour through Costa Rica.