by Michael Shevlane.
We peered into the thick fog, trying to see the car in front of us and hoping nobody ahead braked suddenly. We had been in Costa Rica an hour or two, and we were understanding the “cloud” in cloud forest, as we made our way up into the mountains on the winding roads, shrouded both by night and by the thick, impenetrable mist that had descended almost immediately upon the road beginning to elevate.
We were only going to be in Costa Rica four nights; two in a treehouse, followed by a night in a hotel overlooking the Pacific, with the final night back next to the airport. We had picked up our hired car, and were tentatively making our way deep into the jungle-covered interior to the north, hoping that our combination of road map and written directions would guide us safely into the tree house facility (we don’t take phones on these types of trips, so any directions and navigation would have to be ‘old school’). The blanket of fog had brought immediate tension with it, and this was exacerbated by growing increasingly hungry, even as the night deepened. This is not the sort of region you can stop at a 7-11 for a snack, after all…
An hour or so later the fog had lifted, but the tension remained. We were finally in the one town that we were scheduled to pass through, and our directions referenced taking a certain fork past a certain church, and we could not tell if it was the correct church (it wasn’t) or the correct fork (see previous answer). If we left by the wrong road, we could end up who knows where in the vast canopy of blackness surrounding that town. After some frenetic consultation, we reverted our course past a second church, hoping this was the correct one (thankfully, it was this time), and continued on our merry.
An hour or so later, starving and tired, with the clock pushing past midnight, we successfully navigated the last set of directions, driving over a small bridge, taking a sharp left past a row of ramshackle buildings, and then looking out on our right for the gate to the tree houses. It appeared suddenly, and we had almost driven past, but we gratefully rang the bell and were admitted through a tunnel of foliage to the main building, where the groggy host met us, and regretfully informed us that the only food he had at that time of night to satisfy our gnawing hunger pains, was “some popcorn”. Thankfully, the local man who worked in the grounds was still on the premises, and after some consultation, the host told us he would take us to a local restaurant to see if we could still get food. The local man (let’s call him Jose), jumped in the back of our car with a smiling countenance, and directed us the mile or two to a large palapa that was hosting a local karaoke and dance night.
We took our seats doubtfully as Jose informed us the kitchen was closed, but that he would ask them to reopen in order to serve us something. His optimism was not infectious, and we expected a mildly better repast than the popcorn on offer back at the tree houses, if indeed they opened at all. Much to our surprise and joy, plates came out shortly afterwards with thick, juicy steaks almost the size of the plates themselves, along with delicious sides, such as the local plantain dish. Gratefully, we began to satisfy our hunger, washing the delicious food down with cold cokes, as we watched the locals sing and dance away, a cool breeze blowing in from the sides of the palapa.
Upon finishing, we drove back up to the accommodation, and climbed up the narrow steps to our own tree house, gently swaying with the tree it was fastened to. With full stomachs, we drifted off, looking forward to what the next day might bring.
The following morning, the sun was shimmering through the canopy of leaves as we woke up, pleased to find that the proprietor had the thoughtful habit of dropping off a flask of coffee outside the front doors of the tree houses early each morning. With breakfast also included, we made our way down to the eating area, where we were treated to a tasty first meal of the day, as tropical birds flew all around, and a sloth was spotted high in a nearby tree, like a pirate in a crow’s nest.
Having eaten our fill, we hit the road, heading towards the hanging bridges walk near Arenal volcano. The day was bright and beautiful as we drove past cheerful fields, through banks of trees, and by a lake, as the majestic volcano loomed proudly in the distance. Locating the trail without too much difficulty, we embarked upon the breathtaking walk, which wound along jungle paths, before periodically passing over chasms in the form of suspended footbridges, and these bridges rose higher and higher as the trail went on, until even the tops of the massive jungle trees were below our feet in places. We walked by a beautiful waterfall in the midst of the trail, and as the bridges over the gorge became higher, Arenal became visible in the distance, framed by the green cliffs on either side.
After completing the trail, we stopped briefly in a butterfly sanctuary next to the bridges, where we walked among fields of flapping wings, before driving back towards the tree houses. We were looking for a palapa restaurant to eat at (there are many roadside eateries of this nature) when we saw some kind of strange mammal we could not identify by the side of the road. We called out a warning for him to be careful and stay safe, hoping that he did not choose the wrong time to cross the road! Finding a restaurant shortly afterwards, we ordered sublime garlic steaks and were settling down to eat, when who should come lolloping up the road to the restaurant but our furry friend! It turns out he was much more streetwise than we gave him credit for, and he appeared known to the staff. Christening him as ‘Toby’ we were charmed to make his acquaintance, and watched as the staff fed him, with the funny creature standing on his hind legs at times to receive the food from their hand.
We had said our goodbyes to Toby and the friendly restaurant staff, and picked up some provisions for the tree house at a general store, when it began to rain, the downpour increased in volume, until it was a violent storm by the time we arrived back at our accommodation. Thunder and lightening crashed and echoed among the trees, as we huddled doubtfully in our swaying structure, wondering how we might fare should the tree we were fastened to take the worst of the storm’s displeasure. It was a fearful, awesome spectacle. As the storm died down, we settled in for the night, knowing we were due to leave for the coast the next day.
As dawn came, we decided to take a walk after breakfast before leaving. There was a waterfall somewhere on site, and we got directions from the proprietor, walking along a corridor of fruit trees, and making our way gradually downhill over the course of twenty minutes or so, until we came to three pools, fed by a small waterfall at the top. It was a beautiful little spot, and a delightful walk overall, and upon returning to our tree house, we were ready to take the road trip down to Via Caletas, a hotel on the Pacific Coast.
Driving through the cloud forest by day was an incredible experience, as we would wind around the jungle covered mountains, and upon cresting a hill, we would see nothing but verdant green mountains in every direction, as though we were a boat tossed upon a leafy sea. The sun was shining, and the country was gleaming with unspoiled majesty. It was a drive of two hours or more, and we stopped off at the obligatory palapa restaurant on the way to the coast.
We had been driving south along the coastal road for a little while, when we came to the turn off for the hotel.
Unassuming as the entry was, the road to the hotel began to climb sharply immediately, and we gasped at the increasingly stunning views on either side of the hill we were driving up. Upon reaching the top and finding a charming boutique hotel perched upon the edge of the mountain, we were met with one of the most incredible views possible, which we enjoyed from the infinity pool for hours; the hotel overlooked the hills dropping down to the ocean, so that far below us were the tops of jungle covered mountains, and beyond those, the blue ocean. Pink flowers ornamented the foreground, and it was quite simply an unforgettable sight, and the whole axis upon which that hotel experience turned.
The hotel had a faux ancient amphitheater built at the edge, and at sunset, most of the guests came out to sit upon the stone steps and marvel at the burning hues of the western sun. My wife and I gazed again upon that stunning vista, incredulous at the spectacle. The hotel restaurant was also situated near the edge, and when night had fallen we shared a lovely meal, as the lights began to cheerfully come on all over the coast, shining out of places that were hidden by the leafy canopy during the day.
On the morning of the third day, we were eating breakfast at the restaurant and gazing at the view as usual, when two scarlet macaws suddenly appeared, swooping down side by side towards the green mountains and ocean below. Their bright red bodies contrasted marvelously with the jungle greens and sea blues, making it quite an unforgettable moment.
After checking out of the hotel, we made out way south along the coast for a couple of hours, heading for the famous Manuel Antonio National Park. We had only seen one sloth in the distance so far, as we were hopeful that visiting this park would help us finally see one up close, and other wildlife besides. We arrived outside the park to be greeted by a classic beach town, that would probably not have looked out of the place anywhere from the Caribbean islands to southeast Asia. As we were locking up our car, we were accosted by a few men, asking if we wanted a guide for the park. Normally, we might well have turned them down, preferring to experience the park privately, but the proprietor at the tree houses had specifically advised us to hire a guide if we did end up at Manuel Antonio, so we acquiesced, and a friendly Costa Rican named David became our host for the duration of our time in the park.
Within minutes of arriving at the entrance, we saw the wisdom in hiring a guide. David had brought a high quality camera with him, and also binoculars, and he would spot things in the jungle undergrowth that we would never have found ourselves. Whether a butterfly, or a bird perched high in a tree far in the distance, he enriched the experience far beyond what we could have hoped for without his help. We had not gone too far when he found the first sloth, sleeping up in a tree, and in such a place that we would certainly not have seen the beautiful creature otherwise. Moving on through the park, we saw a howler monkey, raccoons, and various other creatures, with gorgeous plants, trees and flowers framing the experience.
We ultimately came out onto a beach, which appeared to be a kind of focal point for the park, and it was there we got our best view of a sloth, as David saw another one in a tree, and through the binoculars the sloth’s face was perfectly visible. It acted as a kind of finale, as David said his goodbyes shortly afterwards, and after enjoying the surf for a while, we made our way back to the car.
It was a long drive back to our final hotel, which was right near the airport, so that we could catch our morning flight. Night fell when we were still hours away, and traffic was bumper to bumper. Gradually, painstakingly, we made our way back to the edge of the city, and thanks to my wife’s exceptional navigational skills, made the correct exits and choices of streets in badly lit areas, to finally arrive at the hotel with no misadventures. Upon walking in, there was American sports on the massive flat screen TVs, American snacks for sale at the counter, and in general, it was a kind of reverse culture shock, as the developed world came to meet us early. The next morning, we caught our flight and said goodbye to Costa Rica after such a short, but wonderful stay.