The UK Summer was drawing to a close – 2017 certainly had not been the year of love, happiness and dream fulfilment. Instead it had been a year of unfathomable challenges. My ethereal fairy tale following my trip to Norway, had reached a fork in the road as I tumbled into the pothole of everyday life. I came to define myself by the ecstatic highs and soul destroying lows of professional life. The anticipation of fulfilling the promises I had made to myself in Norway, had morphed into anxiety and internal struggle. The London traffic bellowed, beeped and roared by, and people hurriedly brushed past me seeking shelter from the expanding rainclouds creeping in above. Change was happening all around me. Another summer of sweltering 30 degrees (Celsius) heat, sunglasses, flip flops and cotton dresses had been and gone. I stood by the cash desk of a stationery store, new notebook in hand, looking out at the iconic London red double decker buses beaming past against the cold, and confusing Autumnal backdrop of changing seasons. Little did I know that real change would be awaiting me somewhere across the Atlantic, within the heart of the Costa Rican rainforest.
Whilst I had invested the last few years delving into the global world of wildlife conservation; my knowledge of Costa Rica was minimal. What little I did know came from watching childhood classics such as ‘Jurassic Park’ (filmed in Manuel Antonio National Park) and, a recent natural history BBC Two documentary. My leap into the unknown also meant that I would be travelling around with a group of people I didn’t know or hadn’t met before; they were strangers soon to become friends, and my adventure would not be the same without them. From San Jose, our journey would take us to Manuel Antonio National Park, then up along the Pacific coast, and across to Puerto Viejo de Talamanca along the Caribbean Sea. Open eyes, open heart!
A common greeting or farewell phrase used amongst the locals – no interaction would begin, or end without it. I came to understand that this meant ‘Pure Life!’ And life certainly did feel pure in every way; it was a feeling of happiness and a way of life unparalleled to anything I had ever experienced or observed before. Each person would greet you with a smile, nothing was ever too much. Even the dogs ran around the streets optimistically in pairs and groups, wagging their tails frantically, and falling at your feet ready for cuddles. It was difficult to tell whether they were strays or pets; they all looked so happy, well fed and loved! Sightings of the police seemed few and far between. The Costa Rican government had disbanded their army in 1948, which meant more money could be spent of the country’s infrastructure, education, and its efforts to conserve its biological diversity.
Head in the Clouds
Ducking, bobbing, and weaving along the trails, these forests left an enchanting impression upon the senses. We crossed through primary forests, dry forests, transitional forests, and cloud forests; all home to variety of species from the rarely sighted Jaguars, Pumas and tapirs, to toucans, tarantulas, Scorpios, beetles and millipedes. On our way to the Santa Elena cloud forest, we were treated to a traditional “Costa Rican deep massage”. Travelling along this rocky ascent, my eyes were opened to a magnificent panorama. The canopy’s and treetops tangled a web around civilisation below. We were crossing a biological corridor stretching from the Pacific all the way to Monteverde, which was being restored thanks to a collaboration between environmental organisations, and private landowners to ensure these animals maintained a wild life in their natural environment.
Walking around the small town of Monteverde, I literally had my head in the clouds. Hiking through the luscious woodland, you could see the Arenal Volcano, seeping vapour in the distance. The Arenal Volcano hadn’t erupted since 1968, but it was still very much active. The leaves from the trees played games with your eyes as they morphed in and out of angular shapes like a kaleidoscope. At around 500 years old, this vast expanse of woodland was primary forest, meaning it had never been cut down or replanted. Some of the best views came from hurtling across the 2km long zip line through the clouds, at speeds of up to 70mph. Bucket list check! I had just fulfilled my ambition of taking on one of the longest zip lines in Central America and it felt like freedom!
From the misty altitudes of the cloud forest, we journeyed back down towards sea level, passing by wind turbines scattered around the Costa Rican countryside, eventually reaching the Arenal Lake crossing. The Volcano etched closer and closer. The atmosphere paradoxically mirroring the tranquillity of the lake against the majestic threat towering above the land in all its glory. As we reached the other side, I could see the fencing acting like a dam to monitor the water levels, and prevent them from spilling over into inhabited areas. However, had that Volcano erupted there and then, there was nothing to be done.
Waking up to life
Luckily we were back on the road, but I would soon be back. But, this time I would be cascading down the nearby waterfalls. It was early morning, 2 km outside La Fortuna. We all bundled into a mini bus and headed towards the Volcano again, trying not to awake the “Sleeping Indian” as she had become known as by the locals. There she was again, Volcano Arenal, her outline etched along the horizon, fast asleep like a “sleeping Indian”. We were treated to yet another “Costa Rican deep massage” as the 4x4s sped up to the top of the mountain.
Geared Up, within minutes I was already waist deep in water. Each fall became more vertically challenging than the other. “Lean back, look down and try and bounce off the rock faces” you were told, otherwise you would go crashing into the jagged rock faces. It wasn’t the icy cold mountain water splashing over every nerve ending in my body like a Tsunami that proved tricky. Instead, managing to stay upright as I navigated each step over the slippery pebbles, rocks and streams had me catching my breath as if I was walking a tightrope. To follow, would be a heart pounding, difficult to breathe, vertical, 15 minutes hike back up to the top of the mountain. In spite of the multi-coloured bruises that I would spend the next few days inspecting all over my body, this was the sudden jolt of energy I needed! Life was happening and I never felt more awake! I spent that evening, embracing the adrenalin fuelled water slides, and treating myself to a hydro therapy massage in the warmth of the local thermal hot springs, cocktails in hand.
Economic Growth Vs Human Wellbeing
Swapping a cocktail glass for a coffee cup, we made our way to ‘Mi Cafecito Coffee Cooperative’ in San Miguel de Sarapiqui, 600m above sea level. Whilst Coffee is a plant native to Ethiopia, it has become big business in Costa Rica since 1816 (when it was first introduced), ranking within the top 5 exports in the country. Big business may mean making a profit, but this plantation produced Fairtrade coffee by forming a co-operative with 140 local coffee farmers. It meant equal money was being invested back into the local people, land and lifestyle. I sampled some of the different blends, from light, medium and dark roast to liqueurs; with light roast holding the most caffeine (these beans spent the longest length of time in the oil). Coffee would no longer baffle me each time I walked into a coffee shop. Travelling around the country, we would breeze past banana plantations, fields filled with lemons, passion fruits and guava ready for export to the worldwide economy.
Nature – The Only Therapy
There were moments on this adventure that I expected a dinosaur to boldly appear from the depths of this faraway land, particularly, when we took a 2 hour tractor drive deep into the heart of the Sarapiqui Rainforest. Locals rode past on their bikes as our trailer bounced up and down along the undulating trail. Thirteen kilometres later, we arrived at a beautiful, rustic, wooden lodge set against the backdrop of a white water river. This was home. We hiked through the forest spotting birds, we jumped off the banks of the river, and I battled with the current as it attempted to carry me downstream. I even got my wellies stuck in the muddy tracks, but a nearby shuffle in the bushes soon alerted to move on quickly, was it a tapir? The footprints in the mud certainly suggested that, but being such shy creatures, we would never know.
Nature had never felt so therapeutic – the afternoons were spent swaying back and forth in a wooden rocking chair on the open air balcony, over-looking the passing river. After 5 days of humidity and glaring heat, the clouds finally opened and rain thundered down onto the tropical rainforest, not only giving it nourishment but giving it life! Greens became greener, the rivers faster, the frogs sang louder, the insects battled the sounds of nature for their voice, the flies circulated my head as if a plane getting ready to land at Heathrow Airport. The cool air quickly sent us all to sleep, only to be awoken again by the call of the free roaming hens. Waking up from my dream state, I walked back through the lodge still a little disorientated, when I was suddenly jerked awake by a bat flying closely past my head. Frantically ducking, I turned – I had never seen a bat in daylight. In stories they always seemed more at home in the mystery of the dark. It rested quietly against the walls of the balcony, in search of mosquitoes, their prey of choice. I guess, the living soul required everyone to step into the light at some point.
Land of The Turtles
The conflict of city life had become a distant memory. I was sad to leave the beating heart of Sarapiqui Rainforest – it not only gave life but created it. My journey was about to take a wild turn as we floated into the island village of Tortuguero. Up until now, Earth’s furry friends had remained well hidden. I had heard that the best way to view Costa Rica’s wildlife was by boat, so in I jumped. The boat engine bubbled through the shallow water of the canal. Thousands of trees lined the banks of the canal as it twisted and turned. The sunlight peaked through the entwined leaves and branches arching above my head. All you heard was the sound of singing birds, and leaves rustling as spider monkeys swung from tree to tree in search of fruit, howler monkeys did what they did best; howling to one another to either signal their location or tell each other “the humans have arrived!” – Nevertheless, all was still as if untouched by time. Birds stood proudly on their respective logs patiently waiting for prey, white faced capuchin monkeys scurried along the treetops, whilst Cayman crocodiles bathed in the morning sun, cleverly hidden underneath the facade of leaves in the shallows of the lagoon, with only their distinctive oval eyes staring across the surface of the water to give them away.
It was September 2017, and green turtle hatching season in Costa Rica was coming to an end. However, as you walked along the volcanic ash sand beaches, you could still see the trails and nests that the turtles had made over the course of the summer months. Translated, Tortuguero means ‘Land of the Turtles’. Every year 190,000 green turtles migrate to the area to lay their eggs, each laying between 500 to 600 eggs over the course of 5 or 6 visits to the beach each season. Unfortunately, as we passed by some of the nests, we could see that not all the babies made it back to the sea alive. With up to 35km of beach, at least 5km is protected by the ‘Sea Turtle Conservancy’ (founded by Archie Carr in 1953), and it’s rangers, to monitor and conserve this endangered species. The other 30km is left to nature to select who survives and who doesn’t. Rangers found that during turtle hatching season, Jaguar populations in the park rose. Research revealed that Jaguars were killing between 7 to 10 turtles every night. The water splashed against the shore gently as I walked along the beach that afternoon, unusual for this time of year. We came across a hollowed out large turtle shell. I could only assume she was on her way back to the shelter of the sea.
Later that evening, under the pitch black of night, with only the romance of the stars as a guiding light, we walked quietly in single file back to the beach. A thunderstorm loomed in the distance, creating sparks of lightening along the horizon. Shadows of the palm trees swaying in the night breeze bounced off the sand. Up in the headlights of the night sky, the milky way stamped it’s presence on Earth’s nightlight. I could feel all Earth’s elements whispering to one another, uniting to tell the story below. Stepping out onto the coast line, one of our party tumbled into a turtle’s nest, which thankfully wasn’t occupied. However, one of the park rangers was watching over a nearby newly formed nest, and it was giving life. Facing away from us, she lay her eggs. We maintained a safe distance under the watchful eye of a park ranger to ensure she was comfortable and not disturbed. Surreal!! I had never seen anything so beautiful. Once buried she began to use her flippers to flick back the dirt to cover her eggs and shield them from any predators. She etched forward with each movement to create a whole new nest. I could feel her determination and fight for survival as the dirt catapulted out of the hole and all the way back onto my clothes. Two hours had passed, and it was time for her to return to the ocean where she would wait and keep a watchful eye, before returning to check on her eggs in 2 weeks. We watched as she gracefully carried her shell back towards the moonlit waters of the Caribbean Sea.
The clouds wept as we sailed away in our water taxi – my final stop, the beach town of Puerto Viejo de Talamanca. It was Independence weekend in Costa Rica, and the streets were filled with parades of school children proudly marching with their homemade lanterns alongside other locals rejoicing in their culture and history to the rhythms of reggae beats. It’s long, black, sandy beaches stretched for miles and are considered some of the most beautiful in the Caribbean.
Puerto Viejo de Talamanca is also home to the Jaguar Rescue Foundation, although I liked to call it ‘The Non Jaguar Foundation’ since it didn’t actually house any rescue Jaguars, but it once did when it first opened. Specialising in rescuing injured, abused as pets, and orphaned baby animals, this is a non-profit organisation, run by volunteers and funded by donations. The recovering jungle babies varied; sloths, spider monkeys, howler monkeys, white faced capuchin monkeys, toucans, pigs, Cayman crocodiles, parrots, horses and venomous snakes. The majority of animals are returned to the wild; some stay days whilst the more fragile such as sloths sometimes stay for years because of the trauma they have suffered. It is a haven for animal lovers, with a side order of cuteness overload! Nevertheless, to ensure these creatures retain their natural and wild instincts to survive, we were warned not to make any contact with the animals so they didn’t get used to humans. Many of the volunteers agreed that maintaining emotional distance from the animals is hard, but seeing them heal and back to full health, and then returning home to the wild, is the most rewarding part of the role.
It was time to say goodbye to this dreamer’s paradise. I’d found everything I loved about life in Costa Rica. Upon landing back in the UK, the cool air gushed past me as I zipped up my fleece. Words such as “office”, “deadline”, and “meeting” buzzed in my ears. I’d left feeling the whirlwind of change around me. I’d returned “home” feeling change within me. Costa Rica was my natural wonder; rich in stunning wildlife, and a drive to conserve the beauty of Earth and all its life forms. Life continued happily and peacefully without an army. With all the tragedy of the bombs going off in various public spaces around the world, and hurricanes tearing up people’s homes and lives just north of their borders, the threat of war and devastation may have been present, but it certainly didn’t show. Their secret – Pura Vida! I wanted to get back on a plane and fly back, or off towards my next adventure; salsa dancing in Cuba, embracing the southern charms of New Orleans, exploring Canada’s wilderness in search of wolves and bears or, uncovering the secrets of Ancient Rome in Italy and Greece. Instead, it was time to jump back on the career bandwagon. Nevertheless, with the spirit of Pura Vida running through my veins, a new story in my life awaited me just around the corner…..