Thursday, 27 November 2014

Manuel Antonio National Park, Costa Rica

Our final stop in Costa Rica took us to the stunning national park of Manuel Antonio. World famous for being one of the most bio-diverse places in the world, the park has everything from tropical forests to mangroves and white sandy beaches, making it the perfect environment for thousands of different types of plants and animals to flourish.

Our journey to the park was eventful. Our bus pulled over on a bridge and we all piled out to see a huge float of crocodiles basking on the bank below us. There were at least thirteen of the little beasties, all resting in the sun with their huge jaws wide open... It was a slightly scary sight to say the least!

Once we'd arrived at the Manuel Antonio National Park we got stuck in straight away, heading deep into the vegetation to see if we could spot any animals. We weren't disappointed and before long, we came across a shy little lizard.

And then a not so little lizard....

Then came the monkeys! There were two different varieties- the small, chattering spider monkeys and the larger, more boisterous cappuccino faced monkeys. Both troops were flinging themselves through the trees and playing with each other and there were even baby monkeys clinging to the backs of the older ones!

Then, the best thing happened! We spotted the one animal I was desperate to see- a two toed sloth! Even better, for some reason it was surprisingly active, climbing up its tree and swinging between branches.

Just look at its little smiley face!

Can you see that little green patch on the sloth's back? That's a symbiotic algae which lives in the sloth's fur which helps the sloth camouflage!

After quite a walk, we emerged from the forest and found ourselves digging our toes into pure white sand. The beach was just beautiful. The waves crashed on one side, while monkeys played in the trees on the other and racoons scampered on the sand. We even found another sloth and its baby in a seaside tree!

Day two in Manuel Antonio took us to the mangroves. We started at our guides house where we had a traditional Costa Rican meal and he told us about the importance of tourism in Costa Rica. Tourism is a relatively new industry out there and it became very clear very quickly how important it is, having risen to be the biggest economic sector even over the long established trades, such as the exportation of tropical fruits. We'd seen first hand how welcoming many people working in tourism had been, but it was fascinating to find out just how much it meant to the individuals in the industry and how it had lead to a boom of small businesses.

Before long, we found ourselves bobbing through the mangroves on the lookout for more exotic animals.

The mangroves were teeming with life. Little birds hopped around and jewel coloured crabs scuttled up and down the tree roots. Then, our guide excitedly pointed upwards where a tiny silky anteater was dozing in the branches!

We also spotted some snakes and more giant lizards!

Our last day was spent relaxing beside the pool at our hotel, Plaza Yara. From my sun lounger, I could see the jungle and in the morning and evening, monkeys came and played in the trees. The hotel was also shockingly lovely- we had an absolutely huge room with a jungle view and the entire place was decorated beautifully! The hotel also used the restaurant next door, Z, which turned out to be absolutely wonderful. (It kept my mother very happy as they had a choice of three different seafood platters!).

Manuel Antonio had to be my favourite area of Costa Rica. The entire country has been incredibly vibrant, but Manuel Antonio took this vibrancy to an entire new level.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Rincon De La Vieja Volcano National Park, Costa Rica

Our third stop saw us staying on a working horse and cattle ranch in the volcanic Rincon de la Vieja National Park. This area is famed for its abundance of natural hot springs and rich, therapeutic mud, so naturally we were pretty keen to put on our swimming kit and dive in!

Getting to the hot springs turned out to be more of an adventure than we anticipated. After a short minibus ride, we found ourselves on the edge of a tropical forest where there were some little changing rooms. We donned our bikinis, wrapped ourselves in our towels and put our trainers back on before trekking into the forest. We followed a winding path through the trees before reaching a long hanging bridge across a fast flowing river which took us to the the first of the hot springs.

The springs were just heavenly. The water was a toasty 40 degrees or so (it varied from pool to pool) and was pretty clear. The forest came right down to the edge of the pools and the river flowed past, a mere arm's width away. We were well and truly in our own little woodland paradise!

Before long however, the evening was rolling in and it was time to retire to our hotel room and rest before the next day's excursions.

The next morning, we rose bright and early, and went to meet some new furry friends. We were going to take out some horses and ride to the waterfalls in the national park!

We saddled up and rode off, our guide (a real life cowboy!) initially taking the lead. Before long, we saw our first extraordinary sight. Ahead of us, an entire heard of horses was coming towards us down the road, with a cowboy following shortly behind. On seeing us coming, the cowboy whistled to his horses who all immediately stood aside to let us pass! I had never seen such well trained horses before in all my life and soon found that the same training extended to my own mount! I have to say, I have never ridden such a responsive horse before, which I felt was especially surprising since horses used for 'touristy' hacks tend to know exactly where they're going and don't listen to you at all!

We rode onwards through the surrounding forest, climbing up bouldery banks and wading across rivers before arriving at the first of the waterfalls. A beautiful torrent of water spilled over the rocks high above us and before long, we discovered that we could climb up the rocks to get a closer look.  

The second waterfall was not quite as impressive as the first, but was definitely beautiful nonetheless. Apparently, this one is where people come to swim but I have to say the river looked a little fast flowing for me!

A little while later, it was time to return our tired horses to their stables and so we set off on the last leg of our ride. I have to say horseback was a lovely way to explore the area just because we could get to places which would have been tricky to reach by car and a rather long walk on foot. I really enjoyed our ride, especially since the places we'd visited and the landscapes we'd seen along the way were just so stunning. A definite highlight (although the sore thighs we had for days after were not...!).

Monday, 17 November 2014

Monteverde Cloud Forest, Costa Rica

Our second stop in Costa Rica was Monteverde where we were to explore the cloud forest. A cloud forest is essentially what it says on the tin- a tropical forest which is cloaked in a consistent cloud. This moist environment is ideal for thousands of different types of animals, making Monteverde the perfect place to go searching for some interesting little beasties...

Our hotel, the El Establo Mountain Hotel, offered us the first surprise. They'd set up bird tables in the trees outside the main reception area, where beautiful brightly coloured birds could be seen to flit amongst the branches.

One evening, a coati paid us a visit, slinking out of the trees to steal a banana from the bird tables. It happily sat on a branch, peeling its prize and gobbling it down... Before moving onto another banana!

Our first activity was a night walk. We donned our raincoats, picked up our torches and delved into the forest in search of some animals. Despite the rain, we spotted a surprising amount. Two little birds had made tunnel nests in a muddy bank and another tunnel housed a baby tarantula! We also saw a green toucan with bright blue head feathers napping in a tree and a tree climbing porcupine, as well as all sorts of creepy crawlies...

The next day saw us clambering in the treetops. We were off on a hanging bridge tour to meet the animals that inhabited the tree canopy.

All the different plants were simply stunning. Huge vines hung down from the trees while lush ferns and soft mosses sprung up everywhere. Tiny flowers peeked out from behind bright green leaves and unidentifiable fruits grew in clusters. There were birds everywhere and we even spotted a little hummingbird in its nest! We were really lucky however when from one of the bridges, we saw a troop of howler monkeys!

Monteverde was also home to some brilliant food. We ended up visiting a little restaurant called Café Orchid twice, where we had the most fabulous crêpes and some delicious yet interesting drinks such as a pineapple and basil juice!

On our last evening, we also found a lively restaurant near our hotel called Don Luis, where we were entertained by a guitar player while we munched on some more traditional Costa Rican food. If that wasn't the perfect way to round off our short visit, I don't know what would be!