Dear Readers, Costa Rica is a place that I have longed to visit for many years now. It isn’t just the extraordinary diversity of plants, birds and invertebrates that throng its rainforests, but the country itself. In an area of the world racked with poverty and corruption, it manages to provide free healthcare and free education to its population, in part through the abolition of the army. Hunting is forbidden. There is 100% renewable energy. I wondered how such a country would feel to the casual tourist, and what it would be like to spend a brief ten days exploring its varied landscapes.
We started in Tortuguera, right up by the Nicaraguan border. Our guide, Walter, was very much in favour of immigration: Nicaraguans do most of the coffee harvesting (and are paid a minimum wage), and other places in Central America and the Caribbean provide doctors, lawyers and teachers.
”We are a small country’, Walter said, ‘And we need people to come and work. It benefits everybody’.
And what a refreshing outlook that was.
Tortuguera has a river full of crocodiles on one side, and the Atlantic on the other. We travelled to our lodge by boat, and the female guide who made the safety speech demonstrated the Costa Rican sense of humour.
‘In Costa Rica’, she enunciated carefully, ‘lifevests are MANDATORY and this is because if you fall in the river, there are crocodiles, and they will eat you but you will FLOAT and so we can ship your HEAD back to your relatives for identification’.
Our lodge consisted of separate ‘bungalows’, and the grounds were full of heliconias and other tropical plants. Within 5 minutes I was getting acquainted with the local wildlife.
I had begged the other people on the tour to let me know if they found any interesting creatures in their rooms, and even volunteered to be on call for such purposes.
‘Room 54!’ I said. ‘Don’t forget!’
But in fact the place was remarkably insect free, maybe because at night there were bats of all sizes flittering and fluttering about.
My favourite birds here, though, were the Montezuma’s Oropendolas (Psarocolius montezuma). These are the world’s largest weaver birds, and they were in the process of constructing a huge communal nest. This involved a lot of squawking and arguing, and occasionally one bird would hang upside down, open his or her wings and let loose a sing-song cry.
Of course, a lot of the wildlife action here in Tortuguero is on the river, and we took a boat trip to see what was going on. The rainforest here is quite a narrow band along the bank in some places, and occasionally our excursion took us along the edge of someone’s garden, where Costa Rican music blared out from a transistor radio and a party of puppies pounced on one another. Tortuguero was originally exploited for logging, and the ‘canal’ that we visited was used to haul out the rosewood, teak, lacewood and tigerwood from the forest.
‘All the most beautiful trees were taken’, said Walter.
There is evidence for this in the village of Tortuguero, a short walk from where we were staying. Nowadays it had plenty of coffee bars and small restaurants for the tourists, but it also has a school, a clinic and a little supermarket. Everywhere there are the rusty machines that were used to process the logs, being gradually reclaimed by the forest.
Logging is now banned in Costa Rica, except for where it’s sustainable, but there are large areas of secondary forest, where the trees are gradually coming back. Fortunately this seems to be enough for the sloths.
I always wondered why sloths come down to the ground to defecate, when they do everything else from the treetops. There are two theories. One is that a pile of poo under your favourite tree will attract more predators, so it makes sense to come down from your tree and walk a little way before doing your business. The second theory is that there are chemical messages in the poo about the breeding condition and dominance of the sloth that are so valuable that it’s worth risking getting eaten by a jaguar. Things in nature are never simple, and so it could well be both, or neither.
The river bank was rich in birds and reptiles. I loved the plumed basilisks (Basiliscus plumifrons), who have the common name of ‘Jesus Christ Lizards’ because if disturbed they will run on their back legs on the surface of the water.
There was a Bare-throated tiger heron sitting on her nest, and relying on her extraordinary camouflage to keep her and her eggs safe.
A yellow-crowned night heron sat very obligingly on a fallen tree while we all took our photos. I wonder if the birds are so much less worried about humans because they aren’t hunted? I’ve certainly noticed a difference in the behaviour of the birds in London and in Dorset, where the woodpigeons scatter as soon as I raise my camera.
We watched metres from a great egret as it spotted and caught a fish. I had never noticed before that the eyes of these birds look down their beaks and are slightly hooded, maybe agains the glare. The combination of stillness and sudden coiled speed is exciting to witness.
And then we headed back to shore. As we left the boat, there was an enormous kerfuffle, and a cloud of dust, and it became clear that an enormous iguana was enacting his territorial rights. In full breeding colours, with orange spines and a huge dewlap, he was a creature to be reckoned with.
And you can see him in action (briefly) here:
So, after a few days in Tortuguero it was time for us to move on, to our next location close to Mount Arenal in the centre of Costa Rica. I had already fallen in love with the country. What would we see next?