‘I went to Costa Rica and it’s like Jurassic Park but in miniature’

Sometimes you don’t mind the noisy neighbours giving you an early morning wake-up call – not when you are in Costa Rica and that racket is the howler monkeys in the rainforest just outside your window.

It’s not the sweetest of music, to be honest. The clue’s in the name. Howlers gotta howl!

But it is thrilling, especially when you catch a glimpse of them in the ceiba trees.

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All you need is a little patience (and perhaps decent binoculars). You won’t be disappointed.

The wildlife is the best thing about Costa Rica, which specialises in the cute and the quirky and definitely not the humdrum.

At every turn you see jewel-like ­hummingbirds, extravagant macaws, dapper toucans and, of course, the sensational sloths, surely now challenging the giant panda as the world’s favourite animal.

You see two- and three-toed versions by the side of the road. Amazing.

Then there are prehistoric lizards, happily sunning themselves in full view, including iguanas and the basilisk “Jesus Christ” lizard, which can walk on water.

It’s like Jurassic Park but in miniature.

The howlers were in Tortuguero National Park, where the rainforest runs down to the Caribbean.

Taking a boat trip through these narrow, sinuous waterways, with the trees crowding in on either side, is a highlight, if a little spooky.

The waters are dark brown and the wildlife is, well, pretty wild. It’s a jungle out there.

You may see a friendly turtle, but this is home to caimans.

They thrive at the water’s edge and Tortuguero is the most popular spot to watch these basking beasts. And jaguars hide in the foliage.

A short boat ride from the mainland is plush resort Laguna Lodge with its fabulous beach, but you are strongly advised against swimming in the sea.

Stick to the hotel pool, they say – for once, I was glad to abide by the rules.

It’s good to know that this country values its breathtaking landscape.

You can travel with a good conscience, knowing that the government works hard at making tourism sustainable.

A quarter of the land is a national park or reserve, and they’ve reversed deforestation.

So this is one of the only places in the world that has more trees this year than it had last year.

And hunting for sport is banned. Hooray!

In this relatively small part of Central America you can pack a lot into a shortish trip.

From Tortuguero, 75 miles from the capital San Jose, it was 55 miles to the town of Sarapiqui, on the doorstep of Braulio Carrillo, one of the country’s largest national parks, where the zip-lining is (apparently) utterly thrilling, but thankfully not compulsory.

Instead I opted for whitewater rafting, a white-knuckle ride through an exquisite landscape.

Here there are herons, egrets, hawks and kingfishers, though I have to admit I was concentrating mainly on paddling for dear life.

And screaming, lots of screaming. I can give those howlers a run for their money.

The Selva Verde Lodge in Sarapiqui was my favourite hotel of the holiday.

Not the poshest, but very comfortable and characterful with dreamy hammocks on the balconies.

It’s a beacon of eco-tourism, too, with 500 acres of protected rainforest.

Breakfast was memorable, watching strategically placed bird feeders mobbed by winged wonders of every hue.

I love our British birds, but they were seriously outclassed by toucans of every shape and size and beautifully named birds like the blue-grey and scarlet-rumped tanagers and shining honeycreepers.

Watching them was awesome. You could have left me at that spot for the rest of the week.

The food here was top-notch, as indeed it was everywhere I went.

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This time a simple omelette for breakfast with fresh passion fruit juice and the wildlife for company. With freshly cut guava, pineapple and melon on the side, it was a treat to have such beautiful in-season tropical fruit.

My porridge back home just didn’t compare. Evening meals were more international, though rice and beans is universal.

All of it was impeccable – these guys know how to cook. And did I mention the coffee? It’s Costa Rica, not Costa.

Central America is famous for volcanoes, too – hot lava as well as hot java.

Fuego in Guatemala erupted shortly after my return to Blighty.

Thankfully, CR’s volcano has been chilling for the past few years, old Arenal limiting himself to steamy blasts and the occasional deep rumble.

It’s a mountain of natural grandeur, a perfect cone, like a child’s drawing of a peak.

You can get close, but not too close, via the spectacular Sky Tram, a gondola that takes you up through the rainforest with views of Old Grumpy and Lake Arenal.

Save some energy to tramp to the La Fortuna waterfall with its ice-cold water and to swim among its 230ft torrent which, at its wildest, pushes you down river.

You’ll need a store of fortitude for the 530 steps in and out to the beauty spot. Worth it? Definitely.

At the Arenal Vida Campesina, I joined a cooking class, using only organic farm produce hand-picked on this estate.

In a collaborative effort, which made it more fun, we made an impressive arroz con pollo with tortillas, and veggies and still finished with all the fingers I started with!

In the evening I retreated to the stunning location of the Arenal Paraiso Hotel and Spa, dominated by the volcano in the near distance. Surrounded by lush tropical gardens, the hotel has its own natural hot mineral springs.

More Brits are taking the 12-hour flight to San Jose, keen to venture to somewhere out of the ordinary.

Costa Rica is six hours behind the UK, so you follow the sun as you cross the Atlantic and Caribbean, saving a couple of hours on the return leg, thanks to the jet stream.

For me it was a dream come true. I did it. You toucan do it.

Get there

British Airways flies to San Jose, Costa Rica, from £509 return; britishairways.com

Book it

  • Rooms at the Selva Verde Lodge in Chilamate, Costa Rica, start at around £119 a night B&B; selvaverde.com
  • Rooms at the Laguna lodge in Tortuguero, Costa Rica, start at around £195 a night B&B; lagunatortuguero.com
  • Rooms at the Hotel Arenal Paraiso Resort & Spa in La Fortuna, Costa Rica, start at around £120 a night B&B; arenalparaisoresort.com



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