Edinburgh travel guide

View over Edinburgh New Town and the Firth of Forth from Edinburgh Castle

Settled around two extinct volcanoes and steeped in history, Edinburgh is a cultural, culinary powerhouse boasting dramatic scenery, excellent food and fabulous shopping. With lots to see and do, it’s a great destination for a weekend city break. If you’re planning a trip to Auld Reekie, here’s my mini travel guide to the Scottish capital…

History

The entrance to Edinburgh Castle

Perched atop one of the city’s two ancient volcanoes, Edinburgh Castle is not to be missed (above). The huge fortress is home to a royal residence, the legendary stone of scone, the Scottish crown jewels, the city’s oldest building (St Margaret’s Chapel), the national war memorial and a few museums (a couple of regimental museums and another on prisoners of war). While the ruined David’s Tower was the site of Scotland’s very own ‘red wedding’ when the young head of the Black Douglas clan and his brother were murdered during a banquet in an event known to history as ‘the black dinner’.

The Palace of Holyroodhouse, Edinburgh

Down the hill from Edinburgh Castle, at the end of the Royal Mile, is Edinburgh’s other royal residence, the Palace of Holyroodhouse (above), the Queen’s official residence in Scotland. The palace is also the site of another infamous royal murder – that of Mary, Queen of Scots’s private secretary David Rizzio by her husband Henry, Lord Darnley, and his cronies. Inside the palace you can tour Mary’s apartments and explore the ruined Holyrood Abbey (below), which once upon a time hosted the coronations and marriages of many a Scottish monarch.

A passageway inside Holyrood Abbey

Delve into the capital’s more recent history and pop inside the Scottish Parliament opposite Holyrood Palace. The parliament, which is free to visit, offers guided hour-long tours focusing on different aspects of the building – you can choose from a parliament tour, a photography tour, an art tour or an architecture tour.

Museums and galleries

There are a number of world-class museums and art galleries in the Scottish capital, but the best by far is the National Museum of Scotland. The enormous museum extends over multiple floors and features exhibitions about Scottish history, the natural world, technology, science, fashion and more.

The museum’s most famous artefacts are the Lewis Chessmen, a series of 12th century ivory and walrus-tooth chess figurines discovered on the Isle of Lewis. Eleven of the glorious chessmen – they each have unique facial features – are on display here, the remaining 82 pieces are in the British Museum in London.

The statue of Greyfriars Bobby

On leaving the museum, don’t miss the statue of Greyfriars Bobby opposite (above), outside Greyfriars Kirk. JK Rowling found inspiration for many a Harry Potter character’s name in the churchyard – the names on the gravestones include Thomas Riddell, McGonagall, Potter and Moodie.

Art lovers should make a beeline for the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. Housed in a gorgeous red brick building in the New Town, the enormous gallery is home to a host of portraits of fascinating, world-leading Scots (I had no idea how many Scots had shaped our world until I visited). Flora MacDonald, Sir Walter Scott and Robert Burns are among the famous Scots whose portraits are on display.

Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh

The Scottish National Gallery (above) beside the city’s Princes Street Gardens features works by a slew of famous artists such as Constable, Monet, Degas and El Greco. While modern art fans should plan a trip to the city’s Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art where you can see works by the likes of Joan Miro, Alberto Giacometti and Rene Magritte.

Plants and wildlife

Edinburgh’s most famous gardens are the Princes Street Gardens in the shadow of Edinburgh Castle. The popular gardens are a great place to while away an hour or two with a book on a sunny afternoon. The Royal Botanic Gardens to the north of the city centre span some 70 acres and are home to more than 13,500 plant species. RZSS Edinburgh Zoo, meanwhile, looks after the UK’s only giant pandas (Tian Tian and Yang Guang) and koalas (Alinga, Goonaroo and Toorie), along with penguins, lions, vultures, hippos and more.

Walking

View of Arthur's Seat from the grounds of the Palace of Holyroodhouse

When a city boasts two extinct volcanoes, you know there will be plenty of opportunities for long walks and hikes. The best hike in the city is the magnificent Arthur’s Seat (above), which overlooks the Palace of Holyroodhouse and has breathtaking views over Edinburgh and out towards the Firth of Forth. There are various trails you can follow to the peak, some steeper than others, and depending on the weather, it can get pretty windswept at the top.

If you’re not feeling quite so energetic, the nearby Calton Hill, which is topped by the  distinctive, unfinished Parthenon-like national monument, is a better bet. For those who dislike hills, the Water of Leith walkway follows the path of the River Leith from the suburb of Balerno to the port of Leith and extends over 12 miles in total. But for a shorter walk, start in the city’s picturesque Dean Village and follow the river through the city to Leith, home to the Royal Yacht Britannia.

Shopping

Princes Street is Edinburgh’s shopping mecca, awash with the usual high street names such as H&M and Marks & Spencer, but make sure to explore the streets and alleyways behind it in the city’s New Town. The area is filled with independent boutiques that are well worth a browse. Edinburgh’s quirkiest and most interesting shops, though, are to be found in the city’s Grassmarket area and along steep Victoria Street that curves from the George IV Bridge down to Grassmarket.

Food

Outside London, Edinburgh is one of the UK’s brightest culinary hot spots featuring a host of exceptionally good restaurants and cafés. One of my favourite places is The Scran & Scallie gastropub, co-owned by renowned local chef Tom Kitchin, which serves modern, seasonal British fare. Be sure to rock up on a Sunday evening when folk musicians play in the bar area – there’s a lively atmosphere and it makes for a fun evening.

Chez Jules, an unpretentious French bistro in the New Town, is also worth checking out, as is Hendersons, an Edinburgh institution that serves excellent veggie and vegan dishes. It’s my go-to breakfast place in the city. For a quick caffeine fix, Wellington Coffee in the New Town is a tiny, basement delight. Order the hot chocolate – it comes with a giant, pillowy chunk of marshmallow on the side.

Day trips

Fancy seeing some sights outside the city? You’re in luck as the area surrounding the Scottish capital is brimming with places to visit. Fans of symbolism and/or The Da Vinci Code should hop on the number 37 bus from Princes Street, which will take you to the village of Roslin, home to the romantic 15th century Rosslyn Chapel and its copious, intricate stone carvings. Sadly, there’s no sign of the holy grail.

The courtyard inside the ruined Linlithgow Palace

If Edinburgh Castle and the Palace of Holyroodhouse failed to satisfy your appetite for all things royal, the haunting Linlithgow Palace (above) is a short 20-minute train ride away. The ruined shell of a palace was the birth place of Mary, Queen of Scots. While the imposing and impressive Stirling Castle is around 50 minutes by train from Edinburgh Waverley Station.

Inchcolm Abbey

The beautiful Firth of Forth is also a short train ride away – alight at South Queensferry where you can catch a boat to Inchcolm Island. The small island in the middle of the firth is home to a splendid, partially-ruined abbey (above). While sailing across the firth, keep your eye out for puffins (their distinctive orange beaks make them relatively easy to spot) and soak up the magnificent views as you sail under the iconic Forth Bridges.

Getting there

Edinburgh Airport is well served by airports in the UK and abroad. Once you’ve arrived, the easiest way to get into the city is via the express bus service. Buses run every 10 minutes and cost £7 for a return ticket. The bus’s final destination is Waverley Bridge, overlooking Edinburgh Waverley train station, in the heart of the city.

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Wells – Bishop’s Palace and Gardens

The Bishop's Palace in Wells

Welcome to part two of my Wells adventure, which after Wells Cathedral and Vicars’ Close focuses on the remaining part of the city’s triumvirate of medieval masterpieces – the Bishop’s Palace and gardens. The partially-ruined Bishop’s Palace has been the home of the Bishop of Bath and Wells for more than 800 years and is steeped in history.

The medieval stone gatehouse and drawbridge that provides entrance to the Bishop's Palace

The palace, along with the 14 acres of gardens that surround it, lies in the heart of the city, a stone’s throw from Wells Cathedral, concealed behind high stone walls. To get inside, you have to cross a large moat, which is home to a number of swans that have a bell they ring when they want feeding, and pass through an impressive stone gatehouse (above).

Stone archway beyond which lies the Bishop's Palace's south garden

After paying our entrance fee, we made our way past the large croquet lawn towards the palace, turning off before we got there by passing through a stone archway into the gardens (above). The archway forms part of the palace’s ruined great hall, which, along with the chapel, is one of the oldest parts of the palace, having been built in the 1290s. Only a couple of its walls and a few turrets remain, and it’s now enveloped by large, idyllic gardens, creating a picturesque scene.

The ruins of the great hall and the surrounding gardens at the Bishop's Palace in Wells

It was a warm, sunny day when we visited and there were quite a few people spread out on the lawn in the south garden (above), reading a book or enjoying a picnic, and I couldn’t help but think that if I lived in Wells, I’d definitely be doing the same when the sun was out. It’s such a pretty, tranquil space.

We strolled around the gardens at a leisurely pace, taking in the sights and enjoying the peace and quiet. The gardens were dotted with pieces of art, including a large wooden carving of a hand and a statue of a monk praying (above). The art was a fun, quirky touch and added a playful element.

Along the far side of the south garden, we climbed up onto the ramparts and walked the length of the wall. If you stand on tiptoes and look over the wall, you can just make out the deer park on the other side of the moat. Despite trying my best, I didn’t spot any deer but the large tract of land has been home to the ruminants since the early 13th century when King John gave the then-bishop Joscelin permission to establish a park, which he later filled with the creatures.

From the ramparts, we wandered through the east garden, which is home to lots of delightful plants and flowers, along with a giant swing, and then passed through a doorway and over a stream into another part of the gardens, which is home to the city’s namesake wells.

The Well Pool in the Bishop's Palace gardens, with Wells Cathedral in the background

The well springs are formed when water in an underground river, which flows down from the nearby Mendip Hills, hits a series of rocks and is forced up through the ground. There are three wells in total, the largest of which is the Well Pool (above). The Well Pool is stunning and we took our time walking around it, admiring the picture-perfect scene and scanning the surface of the water to see if we could spot any bubbles, which form when the water rises through the ground.

We then strolled around the other two wells and the remaining parts of the garden, including the arboretum, which features a large play park for children, and the community garden, before making our way back towards the Bishop’s Palace.

The Bishop's Palace from the east garden

The palace is still in use by the Bishop of Bath and Wells so only a small part of it is open to the public. The most impressive parts on display are the long hall, a long corridor filled with paintings of previous bishops, and the chapel, which features a high-vaulted ceiling and lots of stained glass windows.

By the time we’d finished looking around the palace and its gardens, it was mid-afternoon, so we stopped at The Bishop’s Table café within the palace grounds for lunch. The friendly café sells hearty fare such as ham, egg and chips, burgers and ploughman’s, along with a range of sandwiches and salads. There’s also a great spread of cakes. I had a cheese and pickle sandwich, which came with a side of coleslaw and salad, and really hit the spot.

Saint Andrew's Well in Wells

Having seen all the main sights in Wells, we spent the rest of the afternoon pottering around the market (there was also an antique fair in the city hall) and the city’s shops before making our way back to the bus station. I loved my day out in Wells. It’s a charming place full of pretty medieval architecture and great food, and is the perfect place for a day trip.

Info

The Bishop’s Palace, Wells BA5 2PD
Open 10am-6pm, daily (25 March to 28 October); 10am-4pm, daily (28 October to 31 March) 
£8.05 adults; £7.15 concessions; £3.55 children aged five to 18 years old
bishopspalace.org.uk

Wells

Wells Cathedral from the city's Bishop's Palace Gardens

I’m a little ashamed to admit I hadn’t heard of Wells, England’s smallest city, until a couple of months ago when my Bristol-based sister and brother-in-law took my mother there on a day out. My mother came back raving about the place, insisting I had to go as she knew I’d love it.

Fast forward a few weeks ago and my mother announced she was treating me to a day out in Wells for my birthday. Wells may officially have city status because of its cathedral, but in reality, it’s more like a small, traditional English market town. One that also happens to boast a beautiful cathedral, the UK’s only street that’s completely medieval, a partially-ruined Bishop’s Palace surrounded by idyllic gardens and, of course, a series of wells.

Nestled at the foot of the Mendip Hills in Somerset, the city is named after its three wells and has been inhabited since Roman times. We visited the city on a Saturday, and when the bus dropped us off in the city centre, we found a huge outdoor market taking place. The market stretched all over the large central square (the aptly-named Market Place) and was filled with stalls selling everything from candles to ceramics, cacti and local produce, such as cider, jams and honey.

The medieval houses with their very tall chimneys in Vicars' Close, Wells

After a quick look around the market and a brief sustenance stop (tea and scones) in the cathedral café, we headed to Vicars’ Close, which my mother had correctly predicted I’d spend ages photographing. The street is said to be the only complete medieval street left in the UK and it’s mindbogglingly attractive.

The entire length of the street is filled with small, picturesque stone cottages, each with a distinctive tall, thin chimney. There’s a tiny chapel at the far end (above) and a covered entrance at the other. Walking up and down it, I felt like I’d stepped into a scene from Harry Potter or The Chronicles of Narnia; it has such an otherworldly feel, it doesn’t seem real.

The stone cottages in Vicars' Close, Wells

Built in the 1360s as homes for the cathedral’s choir, the street is still occupied today. And despite looking like a picture-perfect idyll, I can’t imagine it’s much fun to live there. I suspect the steady stream of strange visitors walking up and down the street taking photos of your home must be quite tiresome.

Wells Cathedral

From one medieval masterpiece to another, we made our way to the city’s showstopper – its magnificent 12th century cathedral (above). The cathedral’s facade is unlike any other I’ve seen in the UK as it’s covered with sculptures and boasts one of the largest collections of medieval statues in the world. The sculptures represent a variety of kings, bishops, angels and apostles. There’s also a statue of Jesus.

Scissors arches and the ceiling in the nave at Wells Cathedral

Inside, the cathedral (and the nave in particular) is just as spectacular boasting unusual architecture and rare features, and is the earliest Gothic-style cathedral in England. The highlights include the unique scissor arch design in the nave (above), which was added in the early 14th century to stop the tower’s foundations from sinking. It’s a tremendous piece of craftsmanship and is so beautiful, not to mention practical, that I’m amazed more cathedrals didn’t follow suit and copy the design.

The Chapter House at Wells Cathedral

Just beyond the scissor arches, to the left of the nave, there’s a rickety old staircase that leads up to the mesmerising Chapter House (above). The stunning octagonal chamber dates back to the beginning of the 14th century and is still used today.

The Wells Cathedral clock

At the bottom of the rickety staircase, we stopped for a brief sojourn on a bench opposite the cathedral’s celebrated clock (above). The medieval clock, which dates to around 1390, is said to be one of the oldest in the UK. Every 15 minutes, a series of knights come whirling out onto a ledge above the clock face where they take part in a “jousting contest”.

The knights were amusing to watch and I was impressed that the clock is still in such good working order after more than 600 years. It’s a remarkable piece of machinery. I also enjoyed the little figurine of a man in the top right-hand corner who rings his bell when the knights come out to play.

The quire and Jesse window at Wells Cathedral

The rest of the cathedral, which includes a couple of chapels and cloisters, is fairly typical for a medieval English cathedral. The old quire in the centre of the cathedral is pretty, as is its exquisite stained glass Jesse window (above). I really enjoyed looking around the cathedral and Vicars’ Close, and admiring their charming architecture. It’s remarkable that after so many centuries, these incredible pieces of medieval craftsmanship are still in one piece.

After leaving the cathedral, we ambled over to our final destination, the medieval Bishop’s Palace and gardens, which I’ll write about next week – stay tuned for part two of my Wells adventure!

Getting there

It’s really easy to get to Wells using public transport. The 376, which stops just outside Bristol Temple Meads train station, runs every 30 minutes and takes around an hour to get to Wells. The bus drops you off in the city centre, but on the return journey, you’ll need to go to Wells Bus Station to catch the bus back to Bristol.

Info

Wells Cathedral

Wells Cathedral

Wells Cathedral, Chain Gate, Cathedral Green, Wells BA5 2UE
Open 7am-7pm, daily (April to September); 7am-6pm, daily (October-March)
Free – donations are welcomed
wellscathedral.org.uk

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.

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