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.

 

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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.

Costa Rica – top tips

A crocodile yawns on the banks of the Tarcoles River

If you’re planning to go to Costa Rica, here are some of my top tips to help you make the most of your visit:

Climate

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

You might expect Costa Rica to be hot and sunny as it’s so close to the equator, but the country’s home to lots of microclimates, which means the conditions vary massively from one place to another. During my trip, it was hot and sunny on the coast, but much cooler in the high altitude cloud forest.

The country has two distinct seasons – the wet season, which lasts from May to November, and the dry season, from December to April. I visited the country in November during the tail end of the wet season and it rained a lot. I’m Welsh and I like to think I know a thing or too about rain, but Costa Rican rain was unlike anything I’ve experienced.

It bucketed down like crazy for at least an hour each day and umbrellas were positively useless against the deluge. It was also too humid for waterproofs, which meant unless I wanted to hibernate indoors for huge stretches of the day, I got wet – very wet – every day. That said, you quickly get used to the rain and learn to live with it. And I’m not sure you can say you’ve truly experienced Costa Rica unless you’ve been soaked to the skin at least once. It’s all part of the fun.

Money matters

The national currency is the Costa Rican colón and its brightly coloured bank notes proudly showcase the country’s wildlife. When I tried to exchange my British pounds before my trip, I was (incorrectly) told by the currency exchange that you can’t buy the colón in the UK. So I headed to Costa Rica with a load of US dollars instead, intending to convert them there. But when I got there I was advised to keep my US dollars as they’re widely accepted throughout the country. I picked up some colón along the way, which came in handy for tipping and small purchases, but other than that I used my US dollars everywhere.

What to wear

View of Arenal Volcano from Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridges Park

I didn’t find Costa Rica anywhere near as warm as I was expecting. There were some hot and humid moments, but equally there were times I felt decidedly chilly, so my advice is to pack plenty of layers. Loose cotton trousers and tops came in handy, especially when hiking through the rain forest. I’m a mecca for mosquitoes and was worried about being bitten, but the long, loose garments kept me cool and protected my skin from the sun and the pesky bloodsuckers. I was bitten a little, but thankfully not too often.

Leafy green foliage flanks the path through Arenal Volcano National Park

My toed-caped waterproof hiking sandals, which I took to go white water rafting, proved to be fantastic for hiking, especially during the fierce onslaughts of rain, as they were super comfy and dried out in no-time. If I’d taken non-waterproof trainers, I’d have been faced with the unpleasant prospect of wearing soggy, stinky shoes every day, so comfortable, waterproof shoes are a must.  And if you’re planning to take part in potentially muddy activities (mountain biking, horse riding, zip lining), take some old clothes you don’t mind ruining as I know from experience the mud doesn’t come out of pale clothing.

It’s also worth making good use of the reasonably priced hotel laundry services if you’re visiting during the wet season. The climate’s so humid it’s impossible to dry your clothes after you’re caught in one of the inevitable downpours and after a couple of days, your damp clothes begin to pong. Needless to say, the laundry services were a life saver.

What to pack

A roseate spoonbill wades in the waters of the Tarcoles River

The usual essentials for visiting a hot country will all come in handy – suntan lotion, sunglasses, a hat, hand sanitiser and mosquito spray. If you’re planning to see the local wildlife, it’s worth packing some binoculars and a long-lens camera if you have them. I took my long-lens camera, and while it’s heavy to cart about, I was so glad I’d taken it as a lot of the animals are high in the tree canopy. Having my camera meant I was able to get a closer look at the animals and take a ton of photos that would have been impossible on my phone.

Eating and drinking

Ceviche with tortilla chips

Ceviche (above), tilapia and tacos pop up regularly on Costa Rican menus, while casados is a popular and tasty option for lunch. This set meal usually consists of fried meat or fish served with rice, refried beans, vegetables, such as plantain, and salad. One of the most unusual foods I had was cactus flower ice cream, a delicious and unusual bright pink, slightly fruity desert.

Be warned, some food combinations can be a little odd – the vegetable nachos I ordered in La Fortuna unexpectedly came with boiled broccoli, carrots and cauliflower. While I ordered a tea with milk at a small bar near the capital San Jose and was given a cup of hot milk with a tea bag in it.

Meet the wildlife

A sloth climbing a tree in Manuel Antonio National Park

If there’s one creature you have to see before leaving Costa Rica, it’s the sloth (above). The lethargic fur balls are ubiquitous throughout the country and are usually to be found hiding in plain sight in the trees. Depending on which parts of the country you visit, there’s a good chance you’ll spot monkeys, frogs, tarantulas, iguanas and snakes, as well as lots of spectacular birds and unusual insects. Crocodiles, macaws, toucans, raccoons and an armadillo were just some of the many creatures I saw.

Get active

Looking for an action-packed, adrenaline-fuelled holiday? Then Costa Rica’s the place for you. The country’s diverse landscapes make it perfect for hosting a range of activities. Whether you prefer water sports to hurtling through the trees on a zip line, tracking the local wildlife or getting mucky quad biking, there’s something for everyone. I tried my hand at zip lining, white water rafting, horse riding, mountain biking and snorkelling during my visit, while I also joined lots of hikes, canopy tours and wildlife-spotting trips.

Have your say

Have you been Costa Rica or are you looking to go? If so, please share your thoughts and tips about the country in the comments below. And if you have any questions, please let me know – I’ll try my best to answer them!

Costa Rica

The beach at Manuel Antonio National Park

Lush green rain forests, golden sandy beaches and active, lava-spewing volcanoes are just some of the many diverse landscapes in Costa Rica. The small Central American country, which is nestled between Nicaragua and Panama, and is flanked by the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, is home to some 4.9 million people, as well as an abundance of extraordinary wildlife.

A teeny frog sits in between two leaves

The country is one of the most biodiverse in the world and around four per cent of all the species on Earth call it home, which means it’s nigh on impossible to go anywhere without coming across a spectacular bird, mammal, reptile, amphibian or insect.

A capuchin monkey in a tree in Manuel Antonio National Park

I spent nine days in Costa Rica, travelling around the country, and “oohing” and “aahing” at its natural wonders. My trip was ostensibly an activities-based tour as I was keen to have an active holiday, but while the zip lining, white water rafting and snorkelling were great fun, my companions and I soon turned into budding naturalists more concerned with spotting and photographing the local wildlife than thrill seeking.

A raccoon strolls across a beach in Manuel Antonio National Park

It helped that our guide, Pedro, was a walking encyclopaedia of the wildlife and an expert at spotting animals that were hiding in plain sight. I felt incredibly privileged to see so many fascinating creatures in their natural environments, including frogs, monkeys, crocodiles, tarantulas, sloths and macaws, to name but a few.

Arenal Volcano

My journey began on the outskirts of the capital San Jose, and from there, I headed north to the town of La Fortuna, which lies just below the country’s most famous (and active!) volcano Arenal (above). I spent two days in the region, exploring Arenal Volcano National Park, meeting the local wildlife, relaxing in the volcanic hot springs, and horse riding and mountain biking through the countryside.

The lush, dense cloud forest at Monteverde

From Arenal I travelled south-west to Monteverde, high in the mountains and home to the rare cloud forest (above). The climate is perfect for growing coffee, sugar cane and chocolate, and in between numerous hikes through the forest, I joined a tour of a local farm that grew all three. I also tried my hand at zip lining, which was fun and terrifying in equal measure, taking place in the 100m-high tree canopy.

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

After two days in Monteverde, I continued travelling south-west to the Pacific coast and the beach town of Manuel Antonio (above). The small, relaxed town boasts stunning sandy beaches and a national park that’s home to sloths, monkeys, lizards, crabs, raccoons and more. I spent my time exploring the national park and snorkelling in the Pacific where I was stung all over by microscopic jelly fish.

Voted the happiest country in the world in 2016, the Costa Rican people, or Ticos as they’re known, are exceptionally warm, friendly and full of life. Everywhere I went I was greeted by two little words: “Pura Vida!”. Meaning “pure life”, the motto represents the laid back way of life in Costa Rica and it’s a fitting saying for a country that’s so committed to being a peaceful nation, it has no army.

A howler monkey perches on a tree branch

Costa Rica is a diverse, friendly and fascinating country, and I loved every second I spent there. The wildlife is exceptional, and I was surprised by how awed and excited I was by the remarkable flora and fauna I encountered. Add to that the warm people, exhilarating activities and great food (lots of tacos and ceviche), and I ended up having the most fun I’ve ever had travelling. It was the trip of a lifetime and an unforgettable experience.

Pura vida!

London – The Impressionists at the Tate Britain

When I was in London at the beginning of April, I was looking for an exhibition to visit and the one that caught my eye was The Impressionists at the Tate Britain. The blockbuster exhibition, which closes today, has been running since November and centres around the French Impressionists who fled France for Britain during the Franco-Prussian War of the 1870s.

Impressionism is one of my favourite art movements and this exhibition didn’t disappoint with notable works by the likes of Claude Monet, Camille Pissaro and Auguste Rodin on display. Spread over eight galleries, it took a little over an hour to see everything there was to see, and while the exhibition was heaving in the first few galleries, the crowds eased off the further into the exhibition I got.

The exhibition began with paintings depicting the horrors of the Franco-Prussian War in Paris, with paintings of dead or wounded soldiers, and buildings alight or in ruins. The artworks were vivid and haunting, and brought home the tragedy of war. The exhibition then introduced some of the most notable members of the Impressionism movement in London, including Monet, Pissaro and Alfred Sisley.

Having introduced the key players, the exhibition then focused on numerous works by James Tissot, which depicted his take on London high society. The paintings were fantastic and some of the best on display, and I was taken by the way Tissot realistically depicted the fabrics worn by the many women in his paintings – one in particular stood out, and that was a painting of a woman in a white dress with yellow bows. The detail and the life-like way he captured the fabrics was superb.

From there I wandered into a large room dedicated to Alphonse Legros, one of the first French artists to seek shelter in London and friend to the likes of Whistler, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Monet, Tissot and Pissaro. There was an array of paintings and sculptures on display, but the standout for me was Rodin’s captivating bust of Legros, which displayed his superb craftsmanship to full effect.

The fourth gallery revolved around the French sculptor Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux during his time in London, while the fifth looked at British sports, crowds and parks from an outsiders’ perspective. I really enjoyed this gallery, there was lots to see and some exceptional pieces. I particularly liked Pissaro’s Bank Holiday, Kew and Guiseppe de Nitti’s Piccadilly Wintry Walk in London. Monet’s atmospheric Leicester Square at Night and Hyde Park were also showstoppers.

The sixth gallery focused on foggy scenes of the Thames and Westminster. I’m often captivated by paintings and illustrations where London is shrouded in fog as they’re so far removed from my experiences of the capital. It isn’t something I’ve witnessed, yet it’s a popular 19th century image of London. The gallery featured a number of excellent works, including three pieces from Whistler’s haunting Nocturne series. Pissaro’s Charing Cross Bridge, London and Guiseppe de Nitti’s Westminster were also fantastic.

The penultimate gallery showcased Monet’s work. To me, Monet is the epitome of Impressionism and I’ve been a fan of his since I was introduced to his work in school. The gallery was packed with recognisable works including two paintings of Charing Cross Bridge and countless depictions of the Houses of Parliament.

What I particularly liked about Monet’s paintings of the Houses of Parliament was the way he captured the iconic landmark at different times of the day and in different lights – at sunset, in sunlight and the effect of sunlight in the fog. It was great to see all these similar paintings together in one room as it really helped showcase the varying effects of the light.

The eighth and final gallery explored André Derain’s colourful depictions of the Thames. He painted traditional scenes of the Thames, such as Charing Cross Bridge, in bright, vivid, unrealistic colours and it was a complete contrast to the other Impressionists’ more realistic depictions of London’s most famous river. It was an interesting, unexpected and playful end to the exhibition.

I really enjoyed The Impressionists exhibition – it was packed with exceptional pieces and  showcased works by lesser known Impressionists alongside the blockbuster names. I was introduced to a number of great artists I was unfamiliar with, but I also liked that it featured some of the most iconic of the Impressionists’ works. It was fantastic to see so many of Monet’s works, for example, in one room. A great exhibition and well worth seeing.

Info

The Impressionists, until 7 May 2018
Tate Britain, Millbank, London SW1P 4RG
Adults £17.70, many different concessions available
tate.org.uk