At One with Nature in Costa Rica

Eleanor Hughes


The Costa Rica Tourism Board states ‘sustainability is not a practice in Costa Rica; it is a way of life’. The country protects 30% of its land with 30 national parks plus wildlife refuges, forest reserves and conservation regions. The country is a world leader in ecotourism, protecting the natural environment, (it has 5% of the world’s plant and animal life), and culture while providing economic benefits to the local communities.

Walk in Monteverde Cloud Forest Wildlife Biological Reserve

Monteverde is a small town within a region in northern Costa Rica of the same name which includes two other towns, Santa Elena and Cerro Plano. At an altitude of around 1400 metres, the forests here are cloud forests as they are almost continuously covered by cloud or mist. Monteverde Cloud Forest is comprised of approximately 25,946 acres. Visitor numbers are limited to 450 per day, with only 250 allowed to enter at a time. A little crowded when you first get in, once groups move on you’ll feel as if you have the forest to yourself.

Take a guided tour. Guides have telescopes and are able to spot camouflaged animals, birdlife and insects which to the untrained eye would be missed. They’re also in contact with others via radio so as not to miss sightings of wildlife. It’s incredibly hard to spot a sloth, their moss-covered fur like a dirty rug, blending into the trees they lie in.

Bromeliads, hibiscus and orchids add colour to the verdant damp greenery of ferns, vines and a huge variety of trees both delicate, forming lacy canopies overhead, and large-leaved. The forest is peaceful with the occasional bird song - one bird with a call like Star Wars’ R2-D2.

Near the reserve’s entrance is the Hummingbird Gallery. Around 14 species of the tiny colourful hummingbird flit around feeders.

Most tourists stay in Santa Elena around 5.5 kilometres from the reserve and a five-hour bus trip from San Jose. 

Explore the Night Forest

Be amazed at what lurks in the forest at night. There are a number of nature parks throughout Costa Rica offering night tours. Just out of Santa Elena, wildlife refuge Refugio Vida Silvestre is a 55-acre property - 27 acres used for guided walks, 17 untouched, 11 being reforested from pasture – and has guided tours at 6 p.m. and 8 p.m., limited to 8 people. Their mission is to ‘give all visitors the opportunity to experience a real, responsible and natural contact with flora and fauna’.

Guides are expert at finding animals by torchlight. Spot sloths high in swaying trees, nocturnal Olingo (one of the rarest racoons) running across branches and birds, heads underwings, sleeping in trees. There are minute frogs, lime green snakes wrapped around branches, rhinoceros beetles, two-inch-long grasshoppers, tarantulas, dead leaf mimicking katydids – resembling brown dead leaves, stick insects and leafcutter ants carrying bits of leaf. With torches off, see luminescent fungus glow and listen to the wind and insect noise. 

See the Turquoise Waters of Rio Celeste

Tenorio Volcano National Park is home to Rio Celeste, an incredibly turquoise river. Check their Facebook page for regular updates, however, as if there has been too much rain the water becomes brown and the park may be closed. Visitors are limited to 1000 per day with the park opening at 8 a.m.

A five-kilometre return trail, taking at least 1 ½ hours to walk, leads visitors to Rio Celeste Waterfall. Around 30 metres high it pummels into a turquoise pool. Stairs down to the waterfall are steep and it’s a long climb back up but catch your breath and enjoy views in and over lush forest canopy with glimpses of the rushing river. On a good day, three volcanoes can be seen from a viewpoint before reaching La Laguna Azul, a small brilliant blue pool. Walking alongside the river it’s possible to smell sulphur and see bubbling circles of water forming on its surface from volcanic gases emitting from cracks in the river base. Metal and wooden swing bridges lead to El Teñidero where two crystal clear rivers meet and form Rio Celeste. See where clear water on one side of the river meets turquoise on the other. Sloths may be seen and guides will point out various plants of interest, some colourful in the lush greenery.

Tenorio Volcano National Park can be explored with a tour from La Fortuna, approximately 1 ½ hour’s drive away, most of which is through the rainforest. 

Spend Time at the Beach at Manuel Antonio National Park

On Costa Rica’s central Pacific coast Manuel Antonio National Park, the most popular park in Costa Rica covers approximately 16 square kilometres. There’s abundant wildlife - 109 different species of mammal and 352 kinds of bird, and also stunning white sandy beaches where the rainforest meets the shoreline. Hanging around are tiny-faced capuchin monkeys which swing through trees and zip line-like across power lines in Manuel Antonio town where the park entrance is situated. The town faces Espadilla Beach which is free to swim at. Beaches within park grounds are included in the park entry price.

Opening at 7 a.m. (closed Mondays) only 600 people per day are allowed in at any one time during the week, 800 at weekends. So popular, the park can reach its limit by 8.30 a.m. Those queueing must wait for people to exit before gaining entry. You’ll be pestered by many uncertified ‘guides’ on the way to the entrance, take a certified one. With telescopes, they are able to spot lizards, reddish crabs, spiders, sloths, and butterflies blending into tropical vegetation, amongst the 346 species of plants, palms, vines, lianas, silk cotton trees and cedar. In areas of mangroves, visitors wander boardwalks. Spider, howler and capuchin monkeys can also be seen as well as coati. Allow around 3 ½ hours in the park, or stay and enjoy one of its three beaches.

Manuel Antonio can be reached by bus, a three-hour journey from San José. There is plenty of accommodation in the area.

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