It’s a wall of rain. Rain. Falling — torrentially — and flooding the boat. And then it’s over. My feet are wet. My trousers are wet. The children are wet. We are all, completely, utterly soaked through. No complaints though; we’ll wait for the passing sheets of rain to pitter patter out. This is rainy season in Costa Rica, officially from May to November (though I’m convinced it’s longer) and we’re lucky to be seeing the country in full bloom, phosphorescent green, buzzing, thriving, pulsing with life. Welcome to the rainforest.
The giveaway is in the name. Walls of green and, at times, walls of water. It also partly explains why Costa Rica is renowned for packing around 5% of the world’s bio diversity, despite accounting for only 0.03% of the earth’s surface. Water literally brings with it the building blocks of life. And Costa Rica is unique in that it has an ocean — the Pacific — and the Caribbean sea relatively close to each other. Classified as tropical because of its close proximity to the equator, it doesn’t really have a winter period. The sun shines here throughout the year. Between the rain that is.
We’re on an open-roof boat (crazy, I know) on a nature tour, travelling through the Tortuguero National Park with our always-smiling guide, German Rojas, a very keen and infectious birdwatcher, who stands at the fore of the boat, binoculars in hand, he’s one of two travel directors supplied by our specialist Costa Rica operator, Trafalgar. The canals and lagoons here are teeming with life: agile howler monkeys, white-faced capuchins, scary-looking caimans, numerous exotic bird species, rare ocelots, river otters and manatees. Yet in the rain, we struggle to see them.
We’ve been given thick, plastic ponchos in electric blue; impenetrable and indispensable in a way no brand-name jacket can live up to. But less than 25 minutes in, we start to hear the animals and the sun arrives almost as quickly as the rain stops. In the dry, we can differentiate green macaw, tiger heron, the kooky black-and-white piano bird, woodpecker, parrots (in a pair), vulture, caiman and basilisk.
We pause to seek out the grey potoo bird, posing as part of the tree bark, with the hawk-like guides pointing out its position as we city-dwellers struggle to focus our unaccustomed eyes. The rain continues in spells of start and stop: soft, downpours, then full-on deluge, with thunder, before stopping once again.
The sun arrives, belting out rays, leaving the forest steaming in its wake. It’s not long before the howler and spider monkeys make an appearance — hollering, shouting, even seeming to sing as they swing through the forest, a highlight for many of the group. On our return to Laguna Lodge, where we’re staying, we’re rewarded with a rare sighting of an adult and baby sloth, hanging from the branches. The adult almost waves, an arm stuck mid-motion. Their low metabolic rate means it can take days for them to digest their food and make any sort of movement. They’re also often difficult to spot and so slow, algae can grow on their furry coat, further hiding them in the trees.
This is our second rare sighting. The lodge is positioned between three strips of land interspersed by two canals, a lagoon, and on to the east, the Caribbean Sea. Earlier at breakfast, we’d been rewarded with a viewing of a dolphin, unusual in a lagoon; the waterway here is bracken, a mixture of fresh and seawater.
The afternoon is ours to hang out by the pool or to find out more about the wildlife with our guides. Today, there’s the chance to learn all about frogs: specifically, the little red-eyed, green (leaf) frog, the poster-animal for Costa Rica. This trip is about making the most of the destination whatever the weather.
Later, I head to the Sea Turtle Conservancy Foundation to hear a talk on the incredible turtles that nest in Tortuguero, while the children choose to stay by the pool. As the clouds swell and deliver more rain, they’re happy getting wet in a game of their own making. Still, they join us for the ‘practical’ part of the turtle experience, an evening walk to the beach to see green turtles laying their eggs. The guide leads us to the beach, red light in hand (no torches or phones). The turtle has already nested and is in the process of laying her eggs. This 100kg hulk of a turtle, ‘Flo’, as she’s nicknamed by my daughter, needs space, as we crowd round to watch. Suddenly there are cries and pounding of feet, impromptu movement, and lots of extra space is given. Someone has trodden on a nest of red ants, a too-late reminder to wear closed-toed shoes.
The children are rightly jumpy and nervous — red ants bite! Flo is indifferent, though, doing her thing, laying egg after egg, then using her large paddles to cover the eggs with sand. She soon heads back crossing the sandy beach to the roaring sea, with rip tides even the locals don’t dare challenge at this time of year.
Snow & rain
The Inuits are said to have 50 different words for snow. Surely in the UK, we debate with the children, we should have at least as many for rain? Then again, maybe with our measly 885mm (33.7in) and just 133 days of rain a year, we really are no authority. The province of Limón alone, on the other hand, can lay claim to 3,586mm (141in) of rainfall a year and more than seven months (217 days) of rainy season, from May to December. Let’s be clear: the dry season isn’t really that dry.
Still, there’s plenty of time to air these thoughts as we’re hiking up the lava rocks of the volcano at Arenal National Park, each parent with a giant red and white umbrella in one hand and a child’s hand clutched in the other. We’re all wearing our fetching blue-and-red ponchos and being needled by the pointed rain.
Costa Rica is basically formed from a series of volcanic eruptions. There are 121 volcanic formations and seven are classified as active. Arenal Volcano is one of the world’s 10 most active, and this path is as close as we’ll be able to get to the smoking giant. At first we dodge or step over the puddles, but soon the volume of rain makes it impossible to do so and we settle into a natural walking rhythm, pausing to have the different plants pointed out to us — sensibly, the animals have gone to ground. Wet feet is a given, regardless of hiking shoes, trainers or Crocs.
A sodden arrival at the top point is a bit of an anticlimax; while the view is terrific, we’re told, it isn’t particularly so today. But how quickly things can change. Later that morning we find ourselves having our picture taken with a smoking Arenal Volcano as the backdrop for our next excursion: the hanging bridges and cloud forest.
Our botanist-guide Cesar Flores is totally animated talking about the flora, fauna and animals in this lush canopy, from the purple mimosa plant that closes at your touch, to the jagged-red Heliconia flowers, swinging spider monkeys, humming birds, snakes and toucans. It’s a wall of green again, but he sees things we don’t, hears things we’re not accustomed to, and guides us excitedly. He points towards the thicket as he spots a pack of peccary pigs — rarely seen wild brown swine.
Crossing the suspension bridges, we pause for epic panoramas and photo shots. My daughter is nervous, but having fun. “It’s like an adventure park, but the animals are doing all the adventures,” she says. Her brother, Luca, is enjoying himself too, doing that boy thing of swinging and running across his sister’s path to agitate her. With some respite from the rain, there’s suddenly time to talk. Luca is discussing snow with Cesar, who is unacquainted with this form of solid rain. “It’s cold, and fluffy. And cold. It doesn’t always snow at Christmas. And you can throw snowballs and sled.” I hang back behind, listening and smiling, chatting to the granddad of a multi-gen family on the same trip, prompted at first by talks of snow. Funny, I’d thought this trip was about the rain. I guess it’s also about the weather, and in this instance, water in all its different guises.
In the afternoon, at one of the country’s many volcanic hot springs, we bond with a family from Sacramento over a cocktail at the swim-up bar. It can feel like a crazy trip to undertake with a young family, yet many of the visitors here have taken an escorted tour with Trafalgar before; one couple is here on their honeymoon.
The adventure has been exhausting and exhilarating, and we still have more to do: explore the nature reserves of Sarapiquí, and a wildlife centre for amphibians and reptiles; zip-lining; coconut and palm-tasting with a local Tico family; a visit to the Manuel Antonio National Park and the Pacific Coast — and, more importantly, conversations to be had and friendships to be made. All in just eight days.
And the good weather has travelled with us. From east coast to west, it’s noticeably getting drier. Throughout this trip, German and Cesar have been extolling the virtues of ‘pura vida’, meaning pure life. For me and mine, in the thermal springs, drink in hand, children laughing-playing-laughing, it certainly feels like we’re learning how to live it, too. Rain? Water? Snow? Whatever. Happy? Yes.
Maria and Chad, Rae (9), Luca (7). Best for adventurous families.
The turtles, the zip-lining, the howler monkeys, the sloths and the people.
Nothing dries. Ever.
Need to know
Add a day before and after to chill by the pool as there are a lot of early starts and packed days. Bring lots of layers and thin, easy-dry clothing. Closed-toe footwear is a must. Anti-Zika insect spray is also crucial, the guides remind you daily. Plastic ponchos are supplied.
How to do it
Trafalgar’s eight-day Monkeys, Jungles & Volcanoes trip starts, from £1,475 per person (based on a 12 February 2017 departure). Includes seven nights in four- and five-star hotels; daily breakfast, three lunches and five dinners; airport transfers; sightseeing and travel director. Children (aged 5-17) receive a young traveller discount of £173.
British Airways flies direct from London; Air France via Paris; and Lufthansa from Zurich to San Jose, starting in April 2017. We travelled with United Airlines via Houston.