By Alex Bear
Getting to Costa Rica is not particularly difficult: a flight from Madrid takes you straight to San Jose, Costa Rica’s capital, and from Gibraltar there are various ways to get to Madrid including train or flying from Malaga. The San Jose airport arrivals lounge is reminiscent of Gibraltar’s old airport; small, outdated and lacking in order, but its compactness means you won’t get lost trying to find a taxi. The air in this city is cold despite the soaring temperatures engulfing the rest of the country. Jeans and a cardigan will help you blend in upon arrival. It is a hectic city with few pedestrian crossings and mostly four-lane roads. Men in yellow vests populate the surroundings as they chaotically usher cars into ‘parking spots’. We chose to spend a night here to refuel our tired bodies and collect a hire car.
If, like me, you want to immerse yourself in the Costa Rica you have seen on Planet Earth so many times, Arenal should be your first stop. La Fortuna is a sleepy town used by travellers as a gateway to the Arenal Volcano National Park. The drive takes about 3 hours and is mostly spent ascending and descending a very windy mountain. Ghostly white mist dominates the air for much of the drive but, as you leave the mountain, watch as blue skies cascade above. In Arenal there is wildlife in abundance. From nature reserves nestled near the Arenal Volcano, where the landscape is enveloped by lush emerald thickets, to local, small trails for sloth spotting, the surroundings breathe more life than the people visiting. The humidity is inescapable but the magnificence of the surroundings makes for an easy distraction. Make sure to book a guide when going on a nature trail; their gear will supersede yours and, from afar, termite nests look remarkably similar to sloths.
The surroundings breathe more life than the people visiting.
The Proyecto Asis wildlife sanctuary does a brilliant job at rescuing illegal wild pets and injured wildlife and provides an educational insight into the fundamental importance Costa Rica places on protecting all of its species. Fly across the jungle and marvel at its sheer grandiosity on the Sky Adventures zipline and submerse yourself in one of the free hot springs that can be found a short drive away.
A few days of adventure also requires a few days of relaxation; the west coast is littered with beaches which stretch further than your eyes can see. Which beach town you choose depends very much on you. Jaco is a rambunctious town heaving with gap year party students. Tamarindo might be populated with resorts and more Americans than locals, but it also is home to the best tacos and sushi I have ever tasted. It also works as a base for exploring some local beaches. Tamarindo beach provides the stage to behold a majestic sunset, as a spectrum of orange dances across the sky. Playa Conchal is mesmerising, where the sand is composed of tiny crushed seashells. If crowds are not for you, the village of Samara emits serenity. Some of the hotels are situated opening out onto the deserted beach where tiny grey crabs scurry across the sand and disappear below as if by magic.
For the ultimate immersion in Costa Rica’s wildlife, a trip to Corcovado National Park is essential. Bahia Drake acts as a base to enter the park but ensure you have rented a 4×4 if you make the drive down, and only do this during the dry season months. The terrain becomes tumultuous as paved roads are a long-forgotten luxury. When you approach a river, get out and use a stick to check the depth before driving through. Corcovado requires all visitors to take a licensed guide or entry will not be permitted. A personal guide will change your experience and give you the gratification of immediate answers to all the questions streaming through your mind. The Park is home to four species of monkey, the silky and regular anteater, tapirs, coaties in abundance, peccaries, scarlet macaws among many more – and beware for nasty ticks ready to latch onto your skin. There is no need for an alarm clock when sleeping in this enchanted forest; howler monkeys make the sky tremble and jostle you awake.
For Gibraltarians this is just an ordinary interaction.
If this seems a little too hazardous for a holiday, Manuel Antonio National Park offers a more mellow and easy-to-reach experience. Unlike Corcovado where the wildlife is inconspicuous and wary of our species, Manuel Antonio houses squirrel monkeys that try to steal your food and white-faced capuchins running away with backpacks. Of course while most tourists laugh and stand in awe of this behaviour, for Gibraltarians this is just an ordinary interaction with our primate neighbours.
Costa Rica cannot be discussed without acknowledging the tranquility and beauty of the local people. Unlike many of its surrounding countries, Costa Rica is very much non-violent, it hasn’t even had an army since World War II. Locals take a genuine interest in where you are from and many of the bar staff are quick to spot Andalusian Spanish a world away. Ask for directions when you are lost and trust that they are sending you the right way, even in the most rural and wild of areas. Costa Rica is possibly the most hospitable and warm place I have ever visited and I am so glad that I still have so much more of it to see.