Journalist, producer and media consultant based in Spain working for UK press. My focus here is safe travel and the tourism industry. I also cover current affairs, business, architecture and rural regeneration, and work / have worked for The Guardian, BBC, FT, The Times, Conde Nast Traveller, Business Life, Reader's Digest, Evening Standard.
Costa Rica has its Marriotts, Four Seasons, beach resorts and casinos but to experience it at its best you need to grab your rubber boots, slap on the Deet and head for the hills. Going wild doesn’t necessarily mean adios to comforts – there are many luxurious wilderness lodges tucked away in cloud forests and steamy, dripping jungle, but also many that are basic, super-remote or just plain quirky and what they lack in thread count, bin size and, okay, electricity, they make up for in Kodak moments and indelible memories. If you want nights spent listening to plinking tree frogs, howler monkeys and the splatter of rain on leaves, to see monkeys and flash birds swoop past your hammock, to amble through a reserve or sit on a beach and pretend it’s all yours; if you want spirit of place and to know you are in Costa Rica, these hidden gems – ranging from rock bottom basic to charming – will deliver it.
Southern Pacific: Sirena Ranger Station,
One of the finest places on earth and well-worth the effort of getting there – considerable, given its location at the heart of Corcovado National Park on the Osa peninsula, and the total absence of roads. After getting yourself to one of the three perimeter stations (a feat in itself) there’s a 14km hike along the beach (from La Leona), a 20km slug through orange mud (from Los Patos) or, from San Pedrillo, a 23km hike along sand (mainly) and timed carefully to arrive at two tidal rivers (one at each end) before the water is thigh deep and chock-a-block with hammerhead sharks. The wooden station is in a clearing a grassy airstrip back from the sea, but don’t anticipate a refreshing dip on arrival. As the park office states, the beach is a ‘high energy beach with rip currents and bull sharks’, and the river is ‘home to a population of crocodiles and due to its brackish water, bull sharks and sting rays’, concluding laconically, ‘Swimming is not advised.’ This I can confirm. Facilities are modest – there’s rice and beans for those who book ahead, and space to camp, string up a hammock, plus bunkbeds. These things are irrelevant once night falls and you experience being at the cacophonous heart of a truly wild place, home to tapir and jaguar – tracks often spotted around the station, howler, spider and capuchin monkeys, pizotes and raccoon-like mapaches, toucans, scarlet macaws, trogons, honeycreepers, hummingbirds, parrots, tanagers, hawks, vultures (above the kitchen) and fishing bulldog bats. Don’t even think about hiking (particularly after dark) without rubber boots – poisonous snakes are plentiful. You’ll also need moleskin for blisters, torch and spare batteries, factor infinity sun protection, mosquito net and sheet, water bottle and written permission from the ACOSA office located by the airstrip in Puerto Jimenez. Fabulous stuff.
Non-residents Daily park fee $8/ day; permission to camp $4/ day; bunk bed (bring own sheets, towels and mosquito net) $8/ day. Breakfast $8; lunch $11; dinner $11; No access without ACOSA authorization: Tel 506 735-5036.
Southern Pacific: Tiskita Jungle Lodge
Peter Aspinall began homesteading this piece of land on the coast close to the Panamanian border in the 1970s, and raised his family here, and while the location is remote and wild, the atmosphere at the beautiful lodge – one of the pioneering ecolodges – is heartwarmingly homely. It’s easy – and pleasant- as you amble through the tropical fruit orchards plucking and eating, poke around the rock pools or doze on the veranda of a wooden cabin, to imagine that is your home too. Accessed by plane, and without telephones, television, fax, passers-by, it’s easy – and pleasant – in fact to forget the outside world exists at all. The cabins are in the thick of the local action, with hummingbirds making fly-bys through the outdoor showers, sloths and squirrel monkeys in the surrounding trees. Cas, guanabana, mangosteen, star fruit and other fruity exotica draw the jungle’s flashiest birds into the 37 acres of orchards, while large mammals lurk just beyond in the forest reserve. Guided hikes are available free of charge, and sea and mangrove fishing, riding and various excursions can be arranged for a reasonable price.
Tiskita-lodge.co.cr; Packages 2 night $655, 3-nights $750, 4 nights $840 per person (based on 2 people sharing) including flights from San Jose. Closed Sept 10-Oct 31
Southern Caribbean: The Iguana Verde Treehouse
There’s a sandy lane that runs south to Panama between mountains and forest and the Caribbean sea, flanked by hibiscus hedges, palms and hatch-front pulperias selling cold beer. Cycle along and all you hear is birdsong, crickets and reggae. The lane peters out in the steamy wilderness of the Gandoca-Manzanillo wildlife refuge, a place best explored by dugout in the company of indigenous guides. The treehouse is one of four beautifully quirky properties actually inside the refuge on a 10-acre beachfront property owned by the Green Iguana Foundation. It’s ridiculously comfortable for a tree, with two-storeys, two bedrooms and a kitchen and shower room built from salvaged hardwoods dragged from the forest by oxen into the buttress roots of a Sangrillo, and ideally designed for lying in a hammock and watching the abundant wildlife including large iguanas, the main beneficiaries of your visit. For excursions into the forest – you can even (theoretically) cross the continent on a 6-day trek through La Amistad – contact the Talamancan Association for Ecotourism and Conservation (ATEC) at their office in nearby Puerto Viejo, or by phone (506) 750 0398.
Costaricatreehouse.com; (506) 750-0706; Rates: Two people $225 / night; $1350 / week – 6 people $385 / night; $2310 / week
Caribbean: Selva Bananito
The Stein family made a moral decision to leave 850 hectares of their family farm untouched, and to build a lodge (predominantly out of wood discarded by loggers) as alternative source of income. They demonstrate how environmentally-sound ecotourism can and should be done, restricting the number of guests, eschewing electricity, harnessing solar energy to heat water, using bio-degradable soaps, composting, recycling glass and plastics, and purifying water using bacteria, enzymes, and water lilies. They established Fundación Cuencas de Limón, to boot, a nonprofit organization dedicated to watershed protection and educational programs, and offset carbon emissions produced by your air travel by planting trees. Just as importantly, with its trails, rivers, cabins in stilts and views across to the Cerro Muchilla and Amistad Biosphere Reserve, the Steins have created in Selva Bananito, a place sufficiently sublime as to convert even a casual visitor into a fervent ecologist. There is much here to keep twitchers happy, but it is best enjoyed by those with a spirit of adventure. Not only are 8-hour jungle hikes involving 60 river crossings and rappelling down an 80-ft waterfall, galloping horse rides and tree climbing on the activities menu, but the journey from San Jose, particularly during the rainy season can be a little, ahem, challenging.
selvabananito.com; 3 days / 2 nights package includes transfers from San José, 3 meals introductory tree-climbing, waterfall tour and horseback ride: $355-$375 pp valid until Nov 30 2007. (self-drive deduct $45 pp)
Central Highlands: Bosque de Paz
Few know the steep, deep, forested valley high on the borders of the Juan Blanco National Park, let alone the lodge, wedged at the bottom of it beside a burbling stream – in fact there’s so little traffic round this way that the resident guide has spotted ocelots stretched out on the warm tarmac when returning late at night – but those who do know it, return again and again. It’s a blissful place, thick with dripping trees weighed down by epiphytes, famed for its bustling bird life as well as the plentiful orchids which are collected, catalogued, propagated and researched. Costa Rican owners, Federico González-Pinto, his wife Vanessa, bought the land twenty years ago and have dedicated themselves to conservation and education – as well as top hospitality. Thirteen circular trails meander along rivers and to waterfalls on the 700 hectare reserve although spectacular views, comfortable beds, hearty meals and a well-stocked library make being lazy an easy option. With pizotes ambling along the river bank and 25 of the 28 local hummingbird species buzzing like kamikazes around the flowers and feeders, there’s really no need to move at all to enjoy la naturaleza at its finest.
Bosquedepaz.com; Tel (506) 234 6676; Rates: $129 pp (double-occupancy), includes 3 meals and access to trails.
Central Highlands: Leo’s House, Rancho Mastatal
Driving west of San Jose and beyond Puriscal towards the spanking new and pretty much overlooked national park, La Cangreja, takes you into breathtakingly beautiful mountain country with small farmsteads perched on ridges, wooden houses smothered in bougainvillea, and horses tied up outside rudimentary bars. Leo’s House on the park boundary is a good base for complete rural immersion, close enough to villages and pulperias for beer and gallo pinto, but sufficiently remote for the only sounds at night to be strange screeching and snuffling. It’s looked after by Tim and Robin O’ Hara, owners of the nearby environmental learning and sustainable living centre, Rancho Mastatal, who built it with their own bare hands, and comes with 250 acres of rainforest and 5km of trails to explore either alone or with Mario the groundkeeper. There are an increasing number of cabins for rent across Costa Rica, but this stands out, not only for the setting, but for the house itself, built from bamboo, cob and adobe with porches and hammocks, and a showcase for green building techniques. Meals can be taken (with advance notice) with the interns and volunteers at Rancho Mastatal – a good opportunity to request a tour and to learn more about natural construction and compost toilets, or, given that the house is fully equipped with fridge, stove, electricity and running water, in the privacy of your own retreat.
Ranchomastatal.com; $75 per night per couple for private double with shared bathroom or $175 per night for entire house (sleeps up to 6) including all meals
Southern Talamancas: Las Cruces Biological Station, Wilson Botanical Garden
Italian farmers settled in the foggy ridges and ravines of San Vito, but beyond the farms rises a 472,000-hectare expanse of partly impenetrable rainforest draped over the southern ranges of the Talamanca mountains and extending into Panama: La Amistad Biosphere Reserve. Within it is the Wilson Botanical Garden, a world-renowned collection of phallic flowers, tumbling orchids, great big bromeliads, gingers, heliconias and palms now run by the Organisation of Tropical Studies which has a base station here for scientists and researchers. Twelve comfortable cabins with balconies and spectacular views are available for guests who can explore the garden, and also venture off along steep forest trails either alone with maps or for less experienced hikers, with guides. This is a legendary destination for birders as well as botanists; the setting is spectacular and raucous with parrots and toucans, as well as the ubiquitous howler monkeys. Hearty meals are served family-style – the ideal opportunity to identify birds, snakes, mammals spotted on hikes and to learn something of the constant struggle conservationists face to protect even this remotest of areas from developers.
Tel (506) 773 4004; email@example.com; Rates single $86, double $62 discount for residents, include lodging, three meals, half day guided tour, taxes.
Northern Central: Curubanda Lodge
In the dash to the Guanacaste beaches, most people bypass the farms and volcanic mountains of the northern interior, but life here is sweet and slow, the culture rich and traditional. Curubanda is one of a string of community tourism projects up and down the country allowing visitors to get an increasingly rare taste of Costa Rican food, life and hospitality. The owners of this albergue on a ranch in lush, rolling grassland, encourage you to ‘feel like a cowboy between two volcanoes’ which is probably not something you do every day. Guests can saddle up and ride out, or hike to swimming holes beneath waterfalls, climb the forested flanks of Rincon de la Vieja – one of the aforementioned volcánes, or tread cautiously around the burbling mud pools at its base. Or justhang out back at the ranch. In over eight years of living in Costa Rica, staying as the guest of farmers in Rincon still ranks as one of the highlights. Most community-run tours and lodges belong to one of two efficient networks: ACTUAR (actuarcostaria.com) and COOPRENA (turismoruralcr.com) who have united to produce a useful guide, The Real Costa Rica, available in local bookshops.
Finca Nueva Zelandia, Quebrada Grande de Liberia; For reservations in English, and to co-ordinate transport contact actuarcostarica.com.
SORREL DOWNER / THE TIMES