Dyffryn Gardens 2018

Rockery at Dyffryn Gardens 2018

A couple of months ago, I paid my annual visit to Dyffryn Gardens, a large Edwardian manor house, surrounded by 55 acres of botanical gardens,  just south of Cardiff.

I won’t write about the house as it hasn’t changed much since I wrote about it last year. But there was a wonderful art exhibition in the great hall by the Japanese artist Takumasa Ono. If you come across an exhibition of his work at another National Trust property, I’d recommend checking it out. I spent ages looking at all the prints and paintings for sale, and eventually bought a traditional Japanese-style painting of cherry blossom.

The gardens were as beautiful as ever, and I spent a lovely, relaxing day walking around. As always, I got a little carried away photographing them, even though a number of the flower beds had been left fallow and there were fewer plants and flowers to see.

Here are some of my favourite photos from this year’s visit, starting with this lilac flower:

Lilac flower at Dyffryn Gardens

The blossom was out in force in May:

Pale pink blossom at Dyffryn Gardens

The dragon flies came out to play:

Blue and green dragonflies on a stick in a pond

The Italian Gardens were as delightful as ever:

The Italian Gardens, with a round fountain at its centre, at Dyffryn Gardens

I liked the shape of these red flowers:

Red flowers at Dyffryn Gardens

A couple of the many flowering cacti in the orangery:

A lonely blossom on a tree branch:

Pink flower on a tree branch at Dyffryn Gardens

In case you’re interested in seeing how the gardens have changed over the last few years, here are 2017, 2016 and 2015’s posts.

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Manuel Antonio

The beach at Manuel Antonio National Park

Of all the places I visited in Costa Rica, Manuel Antonio – the final stop of my trip – was possibly my favourite. Partly because of how close I got to the amazing wildlife, partly because of its divine, golden sandy beaches, and partly because I had so much fun snorkelling in the Pacific Ocean.

I knew I was onto a winner as soon as I stepped into Manuel Antonio National Park and came across a group of people crowding around a tree, staring up at the top where there was a female sloth hanging out with her baby(!). From there, we were treated to one delightful animal encounter after another, interspersed with a few spectacular beaches.

A lizard pops its head up among the leaves in Manuel Antonio National Park

As we strolled through the park – which was much busier than anywhere else we’d been in Costa Rica – we came across some amazing blue and orange crabs, along with lots of lizards, birds and insects. It seemed as though every few metres we’d stumble upon another fantastic species or other.

A raccoon walks across a beach in Manuel Antonio National Park

We followed the trail through the park to Manuel Antonio Beach, a huge stretch of golden sand lined with palm trees, which looked like something out of a holiday brochure. On the edge of the beach, we found a pile of teeny hermit crabs crawling along the ground, and as we ventured onto the beach, we turned around to see three raccoons skulking across the sand, looking to raid the bags of unsuspecting tourists for food.

A raccoon strolls across a beach in Manuel Antonio National Park

While it was incredible seeing the raccoons up close, I also found it rather sad because they’re nocturnal creatures and they’ve changed their behaviour because of the impact us humans have had on their habitat.

View over the Pacific Ocean from Manuel Antonio National Park

From the beach, we continued to hike through the park’s winding trails, following them as they twisted and turned this way then that, past idyllic little coves that looked out over the Pacific Ocean. My favourite moment came when we stumbled upon a troop of capuchin monkeys. I’d briefly seen a capuchin monkey high in the tree canopy in Monteverde, but these monkeys were fearless.

A capuchin monkey in a tree in Manuel Antonio National Park

There were loads of them hanging out beside the trails, some in the trees, some on the fence posts. One, aggressive male monkey strolled right beside my foot, then climbed onto a post to watch us. The monkeys were spectacular and I had to use all my powers of control to avoid smiling at them as baring your teeth is a sign of aggression. I was astonished and thrilled by how close we came to the monkeys, and how unafraid they were of humans.

We continued through the park and made our way back towards the entrance, where we saw yet more sloths, lizards, crabs and insects, unable to believe how lucky we had been to see so many beautiful creatures up close.

One of the idyllic golden sandy beaches in Manuel Antonio National Park

That afternoon, we headed to Manuel Antonio’s port where we joined a boat tour around the park’s coastline. Unfortunately, by the time we got out onto the ocean, the weather had turned and it had started raining quite heavily. After sailing towards the rocky coastline, the boat stopped so we could go snorkelling.

Despite the ocean being somewhat cloudy because of the rain, I happily plunged into the water and swam out towards a series of rocks where there was a shoal of bright-coloured fish. I swam with the fish for ages, watching them in awe, all the while aware of a slight, but frequent, stinging sensation, which I took to be the rain hitting me as I swam.

When I got back onto the boat, I was itching all over and as I went to scratch myself, a group of Mexican girls, who were also on-board, yelled at me to stop. I looked up astonished as the captain grabbed me and took me to hose me down. It turned out I’d been stung repeatedly by some teeny, invisible jellyfish. Just my luck! After a very thorough hosing down, my skin eventually calmed down and the stinging subsided. It was an eventful, if somewhat ridiculous end, to a fun-filled adventurous day.

Monteverde – El Trapiche coffee tour

Mural of people picking coffee berries at El Trapiche farm in Costa Rica

Coffee is one of Costa Rica’s biggest exports, and during my trip, I was keen to learn more about how the country grows and makes the world-popular drink. So when I was given an opportunity to visit a coffee farm in Monteverde, I jumped at the chance.

View over Monteverde's cloud forest from the El Trapiche coffee farm

El Trapiche is a family-run farm that sits on a steep hillside overlooking Monteverde’s lush, green cloud forest. The farm runs two-hour guided tours around the estate, showing visitors how they grow and produce coffee, chocolate and sugar cane.

A coffee plant featuring green and red berries on the El Trapiche farm

During the tour we walked around the farm’s sprawling plots filled with sugar cane, coffee and chocolate plants, and were shown how they use machinery to turn the fresh produce into the popular food stuffs we know and love.

I’d never seen a coffee plant before my visit and I was fascinated to learn that the beans (or seeds) grow inside small berries (above) that turn red when they’re ripe for picking.

Unroasted coffee beans at the El Trapiche farm

We learned that the farm workers pick the coffee berries by hand and extract the seeds (above), which are then sorted according to size and type, and roasted. Our guide explained that most berries contain two coffee seeds, but some have one (these are the most sought after and most flavourful) and occasionally three.

In a small shed, we were shown the machinery the farm uses to sort the seeds according to their size and quality (above). And our guide explained that the lower quality beans are used to make coffee that’s sold in Costa Rica, while the better quality beans are set aside to make coffee that’s exported around the world.

Cocoa pod at El Trapiche farm in Costa Rica

Having learned how the farm cultivates coffee, we were then shown how it grows and makes chocolate. Now, I’ve eaten a lot of chocolate in my time, but I’ve never spent much time thinking about where it comes from. So I was surprised to discover that chocolate is made using cocoa beans found inside these enormous cocoa pods (above).

Cocoa beans at El Trapiche farm in Costa Rica

Each cocoa pod contains a ton of beans and we were each given a cocoa bean to try. I didn’t find the raw cocoa beans (above) particularly pleasant as they were rather bitter. But our guide explained how they go about turning the bitter little beans into sweet, comforting chocolate.

During the final part of our tour, the focus turned to sugar cane and we learned how the farm extracts the juice from the cane using the machine above, and how it is then used to make products, such as sweets and spirits.

Making sweets at the El Trapiche farm

After seeing how the sugar cane juice was extracted, we had a go at making our own sweets, kneading and scraping the hot sugary liquid that had been poured onto the wooden bench in front of us until it formed a thick, almost fudge-like consistency (above). It was hard work making the sweets and gave my arms a thorough work out, but the delicious end product was worth the effort.

At the end of the tour, we were treated to some of El Trapiche’s produce, including a cup of coffee, made using beans grown on the farm. I’m not a fan of coffee, but I was keen to try some after seeing how it was made and it turned out to be the nicest cup of coffee I’ve ever had. I don’t think I’ll ever be a coffee drinker, but if I was to take it up, I’d be looking to buy El Trapiche’s coffee as it’s the only drinkable coffee I’ve tried.

Mural of people collecting coffee berries

I really enjoyed my visit to El Trapiche. I knew nothing about growing coffee, sugar or chocolate before I visited the farm and it really opened my eyes to how these everyday foods are cultivated. Our guide was welcoming, friendly and knowledgeable, and did an excellent job of explaining how the farm grows and makes its products. A fascinating couple of hours.

Monteverde

The thick, steamy cloud forest in Monteverde

With swathes of cool, misty tropical rainforest, known as cloud forest, and exceptional biodiversity, Monteverde is a great place for hiking and wildlife watching.

Situated in the mountains in the north-west of Costa Rica, Monteverde has a much cooler climate than the area around Arenal and is home to a number of national parks that boast incredible wildlife. Having left Arenal, our base for our first few days in the country, we headed to Monteverde, where we spent a couple of days exploring the area’s national parks, taking part in a night-time safari, zip lining and finding out how to make coffee, sugar and chocolate.

The national parks we visited included the Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve and the Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve. There we hiked along the many hiking trails, admiring the views over the canopy from the odd hanging bridge and patiently keeping an eye out for the local wildlife, which, when we saw it, was phenomenal.

A teeny frog sits in between two leaves

My favourite creature was this adorable, miniature frog that was hiding between a couple of leaves at the entrance to one of the parks. I would have missed it, had it not been for one of the park’s rangers who seemed to know where all the wildlife was hiding and pointed it out to us. It was so incredibly cute, I could have spent hours looking at it.

There were also lots of insects, including some beautiful beetles and intriguing millipede-type creatures (above), as well as lots of pretty birds. Mammals proved more elusive, but we did spot a capuchin monkey, camouflaged high in the canopy, making its way through the tree tops.

One of my favourite moments was when we joined an after-dark wildlife tour through the Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve. It was great having an opportunity to see the park’s nocturnal inhabitants, having previously hiked along the trails during the day. We saw more wildlife than I was expecting, too, including a tarantula, snakes, frogs and a toucan sleeping in a tree.

During our guided tour, we all kept a vigilant eye out for an armadillo, as one of our group was desperate to see one. After a couple of false spots, we’d almost given up hope, when right at the end of the tour, our guide stopped us and gestured towards a nearby bush. There, in front of it, slowly crawling along the ground, was an armadillo.

Cloud forest in Monteverde

Aside from the wildlife spotting and hiking, Monteverde, which sits at an elevation of 1,400m, is a great place to try your hand at zip lining. I’d never been zip lining before, but was really keen to have a go. So on our last morning in Monteverde, we headed to a nearby zip lining facility and got kitted out.

The tour started in terrifying fashion when we were all given the option of doing a rope swing from a very high platform. I’m not great with heights, but despite being very nervous, I wanted to give it a go. At the top of the platform, I turned to jelly as I stood on the edge and looked down at the ground, 30ft beneath me. When the guide, who’d hooked me up to the rope, told me to jump, I was too scared and had to ask him to push me off instead.

The rope swing was surreal, as I was so terrified I went numb – I didn’t scream or shout, I just clung in silent terror to the rope, taking huge swings backwards and forwards. Finally, after what seemed an eternity, the rope started to slow and the guides on the ground were able to catch me and pull me off, amused to find I was shaking like a leaf.

From there, still shaking, we set off through the canopy, where we climbed up a platform and zip lined to the next one. The further into the tour we got, the higher the platforms became – some were 100ft-high – and on a number of them, they crammed us all on a teeny platform, with only our ropes to stop us plunging to the ground. Only once the entire group had assembled, did we zip line, one-by-one, to the next platform.

The zip lining was fun and I thoroughly enjoyed it, but I didn’t enjoy the platform stays as I’d gingerly make my way along the narrow, sky-high planks of wood, clinging onto the tree trunks for dear life, petrified I’d stumble and find myself dangling 100ft in the air.

The tour ended with a huge zip line that extended as far as the eye could see over the canopy. It was so high I could see as far as the Pacific Ocean. Zip lining over such a massive area was an exhilarating experience as I hurtled through the air at a super-fast speed, watching the cloud forest zip past beneath me.

I enjoyed my time in Monteverde. I especially enjoyed the many hiking trails and the night-time safari tour, and it was good to see slightly different wildlife to that which we’d seen in Arenal. The zip lining, while heart-stoppingly terrifying at times, was also enormous fun and I’d do it again in a heartbeat. It was an amazing, exhilarating end to a fantastic, fun-packed, adventurous stay in the region.

 

Tárcoles River safari – in pictures

A crocodile hidden behind some branches on the Tarcoles River

I thought I’d share a few more photos from my safari on the Tárcoles River in Costa Rica. I wasn’t able to identify a few of the birds in the photos, so if you’re able to enlighten me please let me know.

A yellow crowned night heron on the banks of the Tarcoles River

I’m pretty sure the elegant bird above is a yellow crowned night heron, while the pretty, distinctive bird below is my favourite of all the birds I saw in Costa Rica – the roseate spoonbill.

A roseate spoonbill wades in the waters of the Tarcoles River

A partially submerged crocodile swims close to the river bank.

A crocodile swims in the Tarcoles River

I believe the bird below sitting on a branch on the river bank is an osprey.

An osprey sits on a branch on the banks of the Tarcoles River

An iguana crawling out from behind a rock on the river bank.

An iguana on a rock on the muddy banks of the Tarcoles River

I haven’t been able to identify the bird sitting on the tree branch below.

A bird sits on a branch on the banks of the Tarcoles River

A couple of cows minding their own business on the banks of the river.

Cows on the banks of the Tarcoles River

A little blue heron wades on the water’s edge.

A little blue heron wades in the waters of the Tarcoles River

Four birds hanging out on a massive tree branch on the edge of the river.

Four white birds on a branch on the Tarcoles River

It’s hard work being a crocodile as this young croc shows!

A crocodile yawns on the banks of the Tarcoles River

Tárcoles River safari

A crocodile watching a roseate spoonbill wading in the Tarcoles River

I love a river cruise, so when I was asked if I wanted to break up the long journey between Monteverde and Manuel Antonio with a safari on the Tárcoles River looking for crocodiles, I jumped at the chance. The river, which flows into the Gulf of Nicoya on the Pacific coast, is renowned for being home to one of the world’s largest crocodile populations, as well as lots of wading birds.

A crocodile on the banks of the Tarcoles River

The jungle crocodile safari boat set off down the river, past the surrounding tropical mangroves, and it didn’t take long before we found our first crocodile. And after we saw one, we saw more and more of the majestic creatures. Some were casually lying on the muddy river bank watching the world go by, others were swimming in the water, their enormous, strong bodies partially obscured by the river.

A roseate spoonbill wades in the Tarcoles River

We also saw tons of birds. Before we got on the boat, we’d each been given a guide to the types of birds we might see during the cruise and every time I spotted a new species I eagerly looked it up. One of the first birds we came across was the roseate spoonbill (above), a magnificent wading bird with white and hot pink feathers and a large spoon-like beak. It was spectacular, and with its vivid, distinctive plumage possibly my favourite of all the birds we saw.

Two birds on a branch on the Tarcoles River

I also spotted great egrets, a yellow crowned night heron and a little blue heron, along with countless birds I couldn’t identify. There were also iguanas roaming around the river banks, as well as cows, much to my amusement, who were hanging out beside the river (below), looking quite out of place among the crocodiles and the birds.

Four cows on the banks of the Tarcoles River watch our boat go past

The river safari lasted around an hour and a half, and it was a fun, relaxing way to see more of Costa Rica’s amazing wildlife. I got a little carried away taking photos of the fantastic species I saw, so here are some more photos, starting with this elegant great egret.

A great egret on the banks of the Tarcoles River

I think this is a heron of some description, but I haven’t been able to identify it. If you know what it is, please let me know.

A wading bird in the Tarcoles River

A bare-throated tiger heron makes its way across the grass on the banks of the river.

A bare throated tiger heron on the banks of the Tarcoles River

Costa Rica wildlife – in pictures

A howler monkey perches on a tree branch

I found it really hard to choose the photos to accompany my post about Costa Rica’s wildlife because I saw so many incredible creatures I couldn’t decide which ones to feature. So rather than leave those photos on my hard drive never to see the light of day again, I’ve put together an extra post to share them – I hope you like them!

The photo above is of a howler monkey sitting in a tree near a roadside café close to Lake Arenal. Below is a sloth climbing a tree in Manuel Antonio National Park.

Sloth climbing a tree

This beautiful bird was sitting in a tree in the thick tropical rainforest of Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridges Park.

A black and red bird sits on a branch in Hanging Bridges Park

This raccoon was sneaking across one of the beaches in Manuel Antonio National Park looking to rifle through the bags of unsuspecting visitors.

A raccoon strolls across a beach in Manuel Antonio National Park

A tiny lizard pops its head up from among the leaves in Manuel Antonio National Park.

A lizard pops its head up among the leaves in Manuel Antonio National Park

I’m normally scared of spiders, but it’s hard to be afraid of such delicate looking creatures. They were all over this plant in Arenal Volcano National Park.

Lots of spindly spiders on a leaf in Arenal National Park

On our second day in Costa Rica, we stopped at a roadside café and found these magnificent iguanas sauntering around outside. The male had turned orange because it was mating season.

Two iguanas walking around outside a roadside cafe

I stupidly and accidentally stood on an ant’s nest while trying to take this photo of the only macaw I saw in Costa Rica. It might not be the best photo of a macaw, but it caused me a foot’s worth of pain so I’m including it.

A macaw high in the trees

A gorgeous green and gold beetle on a leaf in a park in Monteverde.

A green and gold beetle on a leaf

A (very obviously) male howler monkey stares at the camera while walking across some wires near Lake Arenal.

A male howler monkey walks across some wires

One of my first encounters with a frog in Costa Rica was with this teeny orange critter while on a night-time frog hunt near La Fortuna.

A small orange frog on a large green leaf at night

 

Costa Rica – wildlife

A sloth climbing a tree in Manuel Antonio National Park

If there’s one place on earth that’s destined to turn you into a David-Attenborough-in-training, it’s Costa Rica. The Central American country is home to a variety of climates and habitats, and some four per cent of the world’s species call the country home. As a result you can barely move in this magnificent country without coming across one spectacular creature or another. From venomous snakes to noisy howler monkeys, shy armadillos, sleeping toucans and hairy tarantulas, Costa Rica is a wildlife lover’s dream.

Here are some of the many incredible creatures I was lucky enough to meet during my trip…

Monkeys

A howler monkey walks across some cables

Costa Rica is home to four species of monkey – spider, capuchin, howler and squirrel. I studied primatology as part of my anthropology degree and it’s been one of my lifelong dreams to meet a primate in the wild. Despite coming super close to seeing monkeys while kayaking in Vietnam, it wasn’t until I went to Costa Rica that I really encountered them.

Rather aptly given their name, I heard howler monkeys before I saw them. I was walking around Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridges Park just before dusk when the monkeys began (very!) loudly marking their territory, and while I didn’t see any that day, I was certainly aware of their presence – howler monkeys have the loudest call of any monkey.

They’re also the biggest primate in Costa Rica and can be found throughout the country, so I didn’t have long to wait until I laid eyes upon them. The next day we found a large troop (above) outside a roadside café near the shore of Lake Arenal.

There were quite a few of them moving through the trees and along the telephone wires, and while they briefly stopped to look at the humans who’d congregated below, they soon went back to ignoring us. It was amazing seeing so many of them all at once and I couldn’t believe my luck. My first time seeing monkeys in the wild was a moment I’ll never forget.

A capuchin monkey in a tree in Manuel Antonio National Park

The other monkey I was lucky enough to encounter was the capuchin monkey (above). I first spied the creatures high in the trees in a national park in Monteverde, but when I was hiking around Manuel Antonio National Park I got to see them up close when they ran past my feet and perched on branches within touching distance. I had to be really careful not to smile in their presence, which was easier said than done, as baring your teeth to them is a sign of aggression. I couldn’t believe I’d come so close to these wonderful creatures and spent most of the day with a huge grin on my face.

Sloths

A sloth hangs upside down from a tree

These sleepy, slow-moving creatures are the animal I most associate with Costa Rica as I came across them all over the country, usually super high in the trees so you needed someone with good eye sight (not me!) to spot them. There are two types of sloth – the three-toed and the two-toed. The two-toed sloth is the bigger of the two, while the three-toed sloth can turn its head a terrifying 360°. Sloths are super cute, but a nightmare to photograph (they just love to camouflage themselves among the trees) – the photo above was one of the best I could manage, despite countless attempts.

Birds

A beautiful white and pink roseate spoonbill wading in the Tarcoles River

Some 800 species of bird call Costa Rica home at some point during the year, and as a result, it’s a paradise for ornithologists. I saw a wide variety of birds during my trip, from pretty plumed song birds to scarlet macaws and long-legged wading birds. Not to mention lots of toucans, with their spectacular distinctive beaks, both asleep and awake in the trees. I spotted a number of wading birds while on a safari down the Tárcoles River, including the magnificent roseate spoonbill (above), great egrets, the yellow crowned night heron and little blue heron.

Snakes

A viper curled on a tree trunk in Arenal National Park

There are lots of snakes in Costa Rica, some 135 different species in all, but for those of you who aren’t fans of the slithering reptiles, don’t worry they tend to keep themselves hidden, usually on tree branches. My guides spotted all the snakes I encountered, including this cute viper above.

Most of Costa Rica’s snakes are harmless but there are a few venomous ones, including one that a guide told me has such a strong jaw it can bite through a helmet into your skull and inject you with venom. I wasn’t sure if that was entirely accurate, but I nevertheless kept a safe distance, and when I was on a night-time safari through the cloud forest in Monteverde, made sure to keep a look out for any snakes hanging off tree branches just in case.

Insects

As a mild arachnophobe, I was less keen on some of the country’s spiders and did run past a fair number of massive spiders’ webs to make sure I kept a respectable distance between myself and their inhabitants. I also met a few tarantulas on various hikes – the good news is, they were mostly tucked away in their nests on the sides of the hiking trails, so I could have a quick peak without disturbing them. Terrifying, but magnificent.

Frogs

A teeny frog sits in between two leaves

I love frogs. I’m not sure why, but I think it’s because I find them so adorable – just look at this gorgeous specimen above, is it not the cutest thing you’ve ever seen!?! Luckily, frogs are ubiquitous in Costa Rica and I was fortunate enough to see quite a few during my trip.

A small green frog on a large leaf at night

My first encounter with the bug-eyed amphibians was on a night-time frog hunt near Arenal Volcano, where we made our way along a pitch-black trail through the jungle to a pond, guided only by our torches. Once we reached the pond, our guide spotted a number of frogs on the leaves surrounding us.

I don’t have the best photos of the frogs as I didn’t want to use my flash and scare them, but one of the frogs we found was this delightful little green creature above. It was incredible seeing these fabulous amphibians in their natural habitat and we all turned into excited, awe-struck children on seeing them. So beautiful!

Armadillos and raccoons

A raccoon walks across a beach in Manuel Antonio National Park

The crab-eating raccoon, above, is one of 212 species of mammal in Costa Rica and despite looking all kinds of adorable, they’re actually quite crafty critters. I came across three of the creatures, despite being nocturnal, on a morning hike on one of the beaches in Manuel Antonio National Park, where they were brazenly trying to rifle through the bags of unsuspecting tourists looking for food. It was incredible to see the raccoons in the flesh, but I was also sad that we’ve had such an impact on their habitat that they’re no longer living in their natural nocturnal state.

The other nocturnal animal I saw during my trip was an armadillo. I was on a night-time safari through a park in Monteverde and one of the women in our group was really keen to see an armadillo. All through the hike we kept our eyes peeled, and at one point thought we saw one, only for it to turn out to be a different mammal. But then right at the end of the hike, we saw one shyly shuffling beside a bush. The encounter only lasted a few seconds as it quickly ran off when it realised it had been spotted, but it was such a treat and we were all elated we’d seen it.

Crocodiles and iguanas

A crocodile lies on a river bank in Costa Rica

Never smile at a crocodile, at least that’s the advice of Captain Hook in Disney’s Peter Pan, but it’s pretty hard not to when they’re this magnificent. I came across a whole host of these majestic creatures while on a jungle crocodile safari on the Tárcoles River. The crocodiles were casually chilling on the sandy river banks or swimming in the river, surrounded by tons of wading birds and cows, their laid back demeanour belying the threat they pose. It was wonderful to see these enormous olive-green beasts up close.

An iguana in Costa Rica

Crocodiles weren’t the only reptiles I encountered, I also came across a bright green basilisk lizard and some iguanas. The iguanas were roaming around a patch of land opposite a roadside café – the largest of which was bright orange. Male green iguanas turn orange during the mating season to attract a mate and I have to say he looked pretty fetching as he casually sauntered across the ground, ignoring his human onlookers.

Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridges Park… and the bike ride from hell

Lake Arenal

My second day in Arenal began with a morning bike ride through the countryside, near the shores of Lake Arenal. Now cycling is not my thing. In fact, I loathe it. However, I’d had a good time cycling through the countryside around Hue in Vietnam the year before, so I decided to give it a go, thinking it would be fairly similar. Big mistake.

I got on my bicycle, and right away, everyone else was off in the distance and I was left straggling behind. The ground was uneven and I struggled getting up the many hills. By the time I’d catch up with the rest of the group, who’d stopped for a break, we were off again and I was lagging behind.

Our cycle guides were really nice and sympathetic, and sweetly kept insisting it wasn’t me, it was the bike. So much so, they swapped my bike twice, which unsurprisingly, given I was the problem, made no difference and I stayed miles behind everyone else.

After cycling for a good hour, my thighs could take it no more and I found myself hopping off the bike whenever I reached a hill and walking up it instead. I also didn’t have the thigh power to push myself through some really muddy parts of the path and I ended up wading through the mud with my bike.

By now, I’d had enough and had decided the next time we stopped for a break I was going to excuse myself from any more cycling and join one of our guides who was driving behind the group in a truck carrying our spare equipment. But when I got to the next rest stop, I discovered this was the end of the trip, and that somehow, miraculously, I’d made it to the end.

The bike ride was a gruelling, painful experience and I hated pretty much every second of it. But I was proud of myself for persevering – despite lagging miles behind the entire time – and making it to the end. I’m glad I did it, if only for the experience, but the next time someone asks me to go cycling the only word leaving my lips will be “no”.

View of Arenal Volcano from Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridges Park

After going back to our hotel and changing (for I was covered head to toe in mud), I spent the afternoon in the much more genteel surroundings of Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridges Park. The park, which is situated in the rainforest close to Lake Arenal, is home to six hanging bridges that provide spectacular views over the jungle below and as far as Arenal Volcano (above).

We followed the marked trails through the rainforest, which was hot, humid and dark. The lack of light in the jungle made it difficult to take photos and I was reluctant to use my flash as I didn’t want to disturb the animals. There were lots of interesting flowers and plants, in particular numerous orchids and miniature orchids that I would have missed if it wasn’t for our knowledgeable guide, Pedro.

Looking up at the tree canopy in Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridges Park

The jungle canopy painted a pretty picture across the sky, the swirling shapes of the branches and leaves making for a picturesque scene. As we hiked through the forest we came across lots of different creatures, including venomous vipers, a tarantula and other spiders who’d weave huge webs between the trees.

The most spectacular creatures in the park were the birds. There were lots of small birds, many with brightly coloured feathers flying around or perched in the trees. We had to be really still and quiet when we encountered them because any sudden movement or noise would cause them to fly away. It was amazing to watch such beautiful birds in their natural environment and we all got very excited whenever we spotted a new species.

Blue Morpho Waterfall in Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridges Park

Towards the end of our trek, as we were approaching the park’s Blue Morpho Waterfall  (above), we heard howler monkeys calling out to each other. The primates made an incredible racket as they staked out their territory before nightfall, but unfortunately, despite sounding as though they were within touching distance, we didn’t see any.

The rainforest at Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridges Park at sunset

By the time we got to the end of the trail, it was dusk and we were lucky enough to see a beautiful pink sky peeking through the canopy. As we stood by the park’s entrance, we stopped to look out over Arenal Volcano as the sun was going down – it was a breathtaking sight.

The day may not have started out quite as I’d hoped, but I had a fantastic time that afternoon at Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridges Park. I really enjoyed seeking out the park’s varied fauna and flora, and becoming an excited wildlife nerd whenever we saw another new species. The park’s beautiful and calm, and a great place for encountering Arenal’s native wildlife. I’d recommend it to anyone visiting the area.

Arenal Volcano National Park

Arenal Volcano

Standing at 1,670m tall, it’s impossible to miss Arenal Volcano, Costa Rica’s largest active volcano. The enormous volcano dominates the surrounding area, which includes Costa Rica’s largest lake, Lake Arenal, and the town of La Fortuna, which was my base for the next two days.

The slumbering giant’s been quiet these past few years, having last erupted in 2010. But between 1968 – when it burst into life after 500 dormant years – and 2010, the volcano was a hive of activity.

Leafy green foliage flanks the path through Arenal Volcano National Park

Most of Arenal Volcano is closed to the public, but the surrounding area is home to hiking trails and activity centres where you can have a go at activities and water sports such as mountain biking, kayaking, quad bike racing and horse riding.

One of the best places for hiking is Arenal Volcano National Park, which covers some 26,900 acres around the lower flanks of the volcano and has a number of well-laid out hiking trails to explore. It was here we decided to spend our first morning in the area.

We set off along a well-trodden path through the jungle, stopping constantly to look at the wildlife around us. The park is home to lots of interesting and unusual plants and flowers, as well as some intriguing creatures. One of the most curious animals we saw was a large black bird that looked like a turkey sitting in the trees. I was also delighted when we spotted a tarantula, which was doing its best to camouflage itself among some leaves.

Leaf cutter ants carrying leaves along the ground in Arenal Volcano National Park

There were also lots of leafcutter ants walking across the paths (above), which meant we had to be really careful where we stood. It was fascinating watching the ants at work as they diligently carried leaves bigger than themselves to their nests. The ants were amazing and I could have spent ages watching the clever, hard-working insects.

Black lava stones in Arenal Volcano National Park

We walked through the park until we came to the end of the path, where we climbed some rocks to a viewing platform that overlooks Lake Arenal. The area around the viewing platform was surrounded by black lumps of volcanic rock (above), a stark reminder of the volcano’s immense power and it’s potential to devastate this otherwise tranquil spot.

A misty looking Lake Arenal from a lookout point in Arenal Volcano National Park

There was low cloud hanging over the lake (above) as we reached the viewing point, which gave the lake a sense of forboding and mystery. It was a beautiful sight and a great reward at the end of the trail.

A path through Arenal Volcano National Park

After taking lots of photos, we headed back down the path, where at the end of the trail, we decided to hike another shorter trail through the jungle. This path wasn’t as well-trodden as the first path, but I enjoyed having an opportunity to see more of the park’s plants and insects – especially the leafcutter ants, as there were lots of them on this trail.

A sign detailing the evacuation route in Arenal Volcano National Park

The trail didn’t take long to hike and we were soon back where we began at the park’s entrance where I spotted a sign (above) that showed the evacuation routes to take in case of an eruption. I really enjoyed my hike around the national park and seeing the fascinating plants and insects that call it home. It was a fantastic place to begin my Costa Rican adventure.