You have to keep your eyes open all the time. As soon as I arrived it became apparent. Every moment a branch snaps. What was that noise? Human or animal? Is that a rock out to sea or a whale? Was that the screech from a car or a primate? And it's fascinating how much driftwood takes on animal shapes. Is that a log or an iguana?
For I had come to Quepos and to Manuel Antonio. Despite being warned against the Pacific side being deep into its rainy season in mid October I was fortunate to experience the very opposite with a refreshingly broad contrast of weathers: all of them equally welcome from heaven-opening thunder and lightening and dramatic downpours to intense heat of 34 degrees at eight in the morning and all the spectrum in between of the moody, the breezy, the misty, the humid, the cloudy and the rain creating its colours of imminent gloom.
I arrived to a mixture of sounds, of chirps and tweets and of trills and howls. This jungle orchestra late at night was certainly quite an introduction to me. An important tip is to make the most of the mornings, which is when I chose to walk the half hour length of the beach taking me to Manuel Antonio National Park.
It cost me $16 to spend a day here and I went on some of the many trails to see a caiman and a blue butterfly without using the guides who with their binoculars would only charge if I saw what they pointed out. The privacy of the beach, right by Cathedral Point and where the original Quepos tribe performed their ceremonies, lured me into a deep rest before suddenly I heard and then felt a raccoon rifling through my rucksack that was acting as my pillow. You have to keep your ears open all the time too.
Friends back home implored me to see the miles of sandy beach of Playa Matapalo, the glorious stretch all the way from Manuel Antonio to Dominical and then onto Uvita where the famous whale-shaped beach is a special natural feature. Inaccessible by foot, I took a boat trip. The beautiful marina in Quepos, where I boarded, has a good scale to it and the pelicans like it too as they roosted nonchalantly in numbers upon the sails. Quepos is the local town and to qualify for this status requires three things: to have both a church and a school you would expect but the third is a football pitch: such is the nationwide passion for the game.
What a day of adventure and such a personalised way to see the glorious coastline with turtles, whales and dolphins visible at nature's whim as it decides what it wants to show, if any, though it always seems to provide some of its splendour.
Wherever I ate, the food in Costa Rica was fresh and delicious. I enjoyed "gallo pinto" the country's staple diet of rice and beans with the traditional primary seasoning being "salsa lizano", a mix of tamarind and spices. And what a range of tropical fruits there are, literally from a to z, with exotic names like anona, caimitos, granadilla, guanabana, loquat, mombin, nanzi, pejibaye, rambutan, sapodilla and zapote.
Next I took the long journey further up the Pacific coast to Guanacaste. While the roads are in better condition than I wastold, it is difficult to obtain a consistent sense of scale or journey time. I reached Culebra Bay to visit Papagayo, a private peninsula surrounded by pristine beaches with white sands. It's like a giant estate but with the wilderness preserved and where during the whale season of June and July humpbacks can be seen along with dolphins, manta rays and flying fish.
Up from the water and into the sky, wildlife was equally apparent as I applauded a Red Arrows-like air demonstration from a flock of forty-odd birds. The smallest ones often deliver an exuberance of explosive colour as they came close, almost perching on my toenails. I looked through the index of the definitive book on Costa Rican birds to find exquisite and exotic names like bananaquit, yellow-breasted chat, chuck-will's-widow and, of course, the national icon, the resplendent quetzal that feasts on aguacate, a wild avocado.
Papagayo has a number of exquisite beaches and indeed the ocean laps at three sides of this peninsula, in coves and inlets with 31 beaches along its 15 miles of coastline. The water is calm and as stiff as an ironed tablecloth one moment and rough and rippling as a scruffed up napkin the next. I went on several of its trails amongst mountainous terrains of tangled, sunless, tight-knit forests, as giant leafy ferns and vines encircled the trunks of massive trees.
I also enjoyed a wonderfully calm boat trip across Culebra Bay. It was where the Chorotegas began settling in 800 AD to trade in quetzal feathers, deerskins, seashells, jade and obsidian. I was guided with great serenity across the flat water towards the magical beaches of Playa Panama, Playa Hermosa and the renowned Playa del Coco.
One of the really special delights of ocean life is the "arribada", the mass nesting of the turtles. Massive mothers had dragged themselves onto the shore weeks ago to leave their precious eggs covered with sand in a secret place only to then plod back to the sea never to see their young again. These miniature newly born then made their way out of their cracked eggs onto a sandy mound at the top of the beach. As tiny babies they waded into the murky waters without fear with thousands of little heads bobbing about on the water waiting for the right time to come out. Yet tragically only a few were ever to make it as they got picked off by predators.
What's great is that the consequence of direct flights now from London's Gatwick to the capital San Jose makes it so much easier to get to Costa Rica. And the country is keen to promote her nature, wellness, luxury, rural tourism, chocolate, coffee and, of course, wildlife. I could just as easily have taken the more conventional route, especially it being the height of the rainy season. I could have spent ten nights just as joyfully by visiting the gold museum of San Jose, of seeing a coffee plantation in the Central Valley and the recently reopened Poas Volcano in the Highlands before a visit to the two main tourist attractions: the Arenal Volcano near Fortuna and the Cloud Forest at Monteverde. I couldn't get enough of this delightful country. I have to go back. Whenever but soon. And I'll remember to keep my eyes open and ears alert!