2013, a year of extremes in pictures

I’m gazing out of the window, the rain is lashing down in ‘sheets’, driven by high winds that are bending trees at an alarming angle. Although only early in the afternoon, the light has already started to fail, making it seem more night than day. The traditional New Year’s Day walk has been postponed – in truth cancelled – due to a general reluctance to endure the terrible weather in person.

My mind keeps wandering over the year just past: this time last year we were celebrating the arrival of 2013 in Sucre, Bolivia, our home for a year. Although we would spend another few months in Bolivia, we were already planning a journey north that would take us through Peru, Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica and Nicaragua, before returning to Bolivia. In between, we’d visit Argentina and Chile, Bolivia’s wealthier neighbours, for a change of scene and cuisine.

The Fiesta de Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre, Bolivia

The Fiesta de Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre, Bolivia

The Fiesta de Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre, Bolivia

The Fiesta de Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre, Bolivia

So, with one eye on the coming year, here’s my homage to 2013, a year which took us from the heart of South America to the heart of Central America. A journey from the high Andean mountains of Bolivia to the turquoise waters of Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast, and back again, before returning to Britain.

Adobe church and Vulcan Sajama, Sajama, Bolivia

Adobe church and Vulcan Sajama, Sajama, Bolivia

Siloli Desert, Bolivia

Siloli Desert, Bolivia

Salinas Grandes, Argentina

Salinas Grandes, Argentina

Cemetery in the Atacama Desert, Chile

Cemetery in the Atacama Desert, Chile

Fiesta in Cuzco, Peru

Fiesta in Cuzco, Peru

Magical Machu Picchu, Peru

Magical Machu Picchu, Peru

Oasis of Huacachina, Peru

Oasis of Huacachina, Peru

A woman sits on a Botero sculpture, Medellin, Colombia

A woman sits on a Botero sculpture, Medellin, Colombia

Cartagena, Colombia

Cartagena, Colombia

The Panama Canal, Panama

The Panama Canal, Panama

The beautiful San Blas Islands, Panama

The beautiful San Blas Islands, Panama

The Pacific Ocean from La Cruz, Costa Rica

The Pacific Ocean from La Cruz, Costa Rica

The magnificent Granada, Nicaragua

The magnificent Granada, Nicaragua

The idyllic Pearl Keys, Nicaragua

The idyllic Pearl Keys, Nicaragua

Glorious Little Corn Island, Nicaragua

Glorious Little Corn Island, Nicaragua

…finally, returning to reality in London…un feliz y próspero año nuevo por todo.

Tower Bridge, London, England

Tower Bridge, London, England

Barack Obama owes me breakfast…from Nicaragua to Panama

OK, so the President of the United States isn’t entirely responsible for my missing breakfast, but if he hadn’t been arriving in San Jose, Costa Rica, for meetings with Central American leaders I would almost certainly have been able to take advantage of the breakfast included in the price of my room…it would have looked something like this, but this is for illustrative purposes only since I didn’t actually get to eat it.

Typical Nicaraguan Breakfast

Typical Costa Rican Breakfast

After spending so much time in Nicaragua without internet access we didn’t know President Obama was visiting Costa Rica the same day we’d be arriving. This is the sort of thing that happens when you’re travelling. It could have been worse, we met someone on our bus to Panama who’d had his flight cancelled so Air Force One could land…makes missing breakfast seem small fry.

President of the United States and breakfast thief?

President of the United States and breakfast thief?

As it was, the entire centre of San Jose was to be placed in virtual lockdown from 6am in the morning until 4pm in the afternoon. Getting to the bus station in time for the 7.30am bus to David in Panama would require leaving the hotel no later than 5.30am. Breakfast started at 6am, lockdown-time.

I didn’t really mind about the missed breakfast, but losing an extra hour of sleep following a long day of travel the previous day was pretty galling. We’d arrived in San Jose at 9pm after setting off in a boat down the Rio San Juan in Nicaragua at 9.30am. After a delay of three hours in the transport hub of San Carlos, we got another boat to the Costa Rica border at Los Chiles.

San Carlos sits at the confluence of the Rio San Juan and Lago Nicaragua, Nicaragua

San Carlos sits at the confluence of the Rio San Juan and Lago Nicaragua, Nicaragua

En route to the Los Chiles boarder crossing between Nicaragua and Costa Rica

En route to the Los Chiles boarder crossing between Nicaragua and Costa Rica

Immigration formalities complete we had to walk 2km to the bus station in Los Chiles. Why, oh why, couldn’t the bus station be near the port? Failing that, surely some enterprising taxi driver might consider it worth his or her time to hang around the port when a boat from Nicaragua arrives? Apparently not. So in the baking sun we walked.

Dripping with sweat, we made it just in time to catch the last bus to San Jose. Its not far from anywhere to anywhere else in Costa Rica, but buses pick people up along the road and drop people off outside their front door, making Costa Rican buses one of the least efficient forms of transport on the planet. It took five and a half hours of squashed bus travel before we reached San Jose.

It wasn’t all bad. As we crawled up the zig-zag road through the mountains we witnessed a truly stunning sunset over the ocean to the west. Although this was ruined by a passenger two rows in front being violently sick over himself. Actually, it was pretty bad.

After only a few hours sleep we got cab at 5.30am to the bus station in San Jose, narrowly missing the city centre lockdown. We got our tickets and prepared to wait an hour and a half for the bus to leave. It would be a nine hour journey if everything went well at the border crossing between Costa Rica and Panama, and after the previous day’s travel we weren’t looking forward to another long bus journey.

Costa Rican bus

Costa Rican bus

In the end everything was fine, although the border crossing at Paso Canoas between Costa Rica and Panama was one of the most chaotic I’ve ever come across. We arrived in David, Panama in the late afternoon, tired but relieved that we’d managed to cross from Nicaragua to Costa Rica to Panama in a day and a half using only two boats, two buses and three taxis.

We’d decided we wanted to see a bit more of Panama before we headed back to Colombia and then to Bolivia via Peru, so skipped through Costa Rica as quickly as possible. Next up, Boquete, Panama…

La Cruz, beautiful views and wildlife en route to Nicaragua

We finally reached the tiny town of La Cruz on our fourth bus of the day after leaving our B&B in Monteverde at 6am. Our first bus, travelling over 50km of rough dirt roads, was a retired school bus without any discernible suspension that had five child-sized seats in a row. The last time I was actually able to fit into a seat that size was when I was seven years old. The bus was packed.

We had thought to press on to the border and cross into Nicaragua the same day, but the prospect of another bus and another Central American border crossing after a day of uncomfortable and hot, sticky travel was too much. So we put an end to the madness and spent the night in La Cruz.

Sunset, La Cruz, Costa Rica

Sunset, La Cruz, Costa Rica

Sunset, La Cruz, Costa Rica

Sunset, La Cruz, Costa Rica

Sunset, La Cruz, Costa Rica

Sunset, La Cruz, Costa Rica

In the end we were really glad we stopped in La Cruz. We stayed in a small hotel, Hotel Amelia, with the most extraordinary panoramic views down to the Pacific Ocean. With a cold beer in hand, we had ring-side seats to a wonderful sunset. If that wasn’t enough, the trees and foliage just outside the hotel are home to an incredible amount of wildlife, including Spider Monkeys.

Spider Monkey, La Cruz, Costa Rica

Spider Monkey, La Cruz, Costa Rica

Spider Monkey, La Cruz, Costa Rica

Spider Monkey, La Cruz, Costa Rica

Spider Monkey, La Cruz, Costa Rica

Spider Monkey, La Cruz, Costa Rica

It is amazing how much wildlife you could see from the balcony of the hotel. I was watching some birds early in the morning when a Coati suddenly appeared in a tree branch looking for food. A couple of Great-tailed Grackles didn’t like the Coati one bit and started flying around it, squawking and generally being very unhappy about its presence.

Coati, La Cruz, Costa Rica

Coati, La Cruz, Costa Rica

Coati, La Cruz, Costa Rica

Coati, La Cruz, Costa Rica

Other than that, there isn’t a huge amount to say about La Cruz. It is a friendly but work-a-day town that seems a long way off the gringo trail; it does have a very good seafood restaurant where I was able to indulge my love of ceviche.

Parrot, La Cruz, Costa Rica

Parrot, La Cruz, Costa Rica

White-throated Magpie-Jay, La Cruz, Costa Rica

White-throated Magpie-Jay, La Cruz, Costa Rica

Masked Tityra, La Cruz, Costa Rica

Masked Tityra, La Cruz, Costa Rica

Woodpecker, La Cruz, Costa Rica

Woodpecker, La Cruz, Costa Rica

After watching a lovely sunrise the next morning, we headed to the bus station for the short drive to the Costa Rican – Nicaraguan border crossing expecting a long queue under a hot sun…

Sunrise, La Cruz, Costa Rica

Sunrise, La Cruz, Costa Rica

Santa Elena Cloud Forst Reserve

Its not every day that you get the opportunity to walk through a cloud forest, but for the second day in succession that was exactly what we were doing. After we’d seen our second snake we began to feel that it was a potentially dangerous activity, but spending 3 hours walking 6km of trails through the Santa Elena Cloud Forest was a beguiling experience.

There was less wildlife on display than we’d seen in Monteverde Cloud Forest, but imagine standing in a small clearing in the middle of a vast forest and being able to hear only the wind in the tree tops, the sound of bird song and absolutely nothing else. That’s why people come to this part of Costa Rica.

Reserva Santa Elena, Monteverde, Costa Rica

Reserva Santa Elena, Monteverde, Costa Rica

Reserva Santa Elena, Monteverde, Costa Rica

Reserva Santa Elena, Monteverde, Costa Rica

Reserva Santa Elena is on the other side of the Continental Divide from Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, and while it is almost impossible to tell the difference unless you’re a trained naturalist it is home to numerous different species of flora and fauna. Not that we saw much of the latter.

Reserva Santa Elena, Monteverde, Costa Rica

Reserva Santa Elena, Monteverde, Costa Rica

Fungi, Reserva Santa Elena, Monteverde, Costa Rica

Fungi, Reserva Santa Elena, Monteverde, Costa Rica

Black-faced Solitaire, Reserva Santa Elena, Monteverde, Costa Rica

Black-faced Solitaire, Reserva Santa Elena, Monteverde, Costa Rica

Collard Trogon, Reserva Santa Elena, Monteverde, Costa Rica

Collard Trogon, Reserva Santa Elena, Monteverde, Costa Rica

Fungi, Reserva Santa Elena, Monteverde, Costa Rica

Fungi, Reserva Santa Elena, Monteverde, Costa Rica

Tawny-capped Euphonia, Reserva Santa Elena, Monteverde, Costa Rica

Tawny-capped Euphonia, Reserva Santa Elena, Monteverde, Costa Rica

The trail, Reserva Santa Elena, Monteverde, Costa Rica

The trail, Reserva Santa Elena, Monteverde, Costa Rica

The other thing missing from Reserva Santa Elena were the large number of people that you get in Monteverde Cloud Forest. Perhaps it is because Santa Elena is smaller and less well developed in terms of infrastructure, or perhaps it is because it is just that bit further away from the tourist facilities of the town, but Reserva Santa Elena receives only a tenth of the visitors that go to Monteverde Cloud Forest.

There are  many tall ferns in the forest, these are incredibly slow growing and are a good indicator of a thriving primary forest. Some are 1500 years old, at least that what a guide told us. The forest is also home to hundreds (probably thousands) of varieties of orchid. We saw some lovely examples, including a tiny one that was growing on another plant.

Ancient Fern, Reserva Santa Elena, Monteverde, Costa Rica

Ancient Fern, Reserva Santa Elena, Monteverde, Costa Rica

Ancient Fern, Reserva Santa Elena, Monteverde, Costa Rica

Ancient Fern, Reserva Santa Elena, Monteverde, Costa Rica

Orchid, Reserva Santa Elena, Monteverde, Costa Rica

Orchid, Reserva Santa Elena, Monteverde, Costa Rica

Transparent butterfly, Reserva Santa Elena, Monteverde, Costa Rica

Transparent butterfly, Reserva Santa Elena, Monteverde, Costa Rica

Being deep inside the forest without any noise from the human world was fabulous, it is a place full of mystery. As we returned towards the visitor centre we left behind the mud trails we’d been walking for the previous three hours and found ourselves on gravel trails. Civilisation, or so we thought because at that moment a Black Guan, the biggest bird in the forest, decided to drop out of a tree and almost hit me on the head.

Black Guan, Reserva Santa Elena, Monteverde, Costa Rica

Black Guan, Reserva Santa Elena, Monteverde, Costa Rica

I’m not sure which one of us was most surprised or terrified, but my heart rate didn’t calm down for quite a while.

Flower, Reserva Santa Elena, Monteverde, Costa Rica

Flower, Reserva Santa Elena, Monteverde, Costa Rica

Beetle, Reserva Santa Elena, Monteverde, Costa Rica

Beetle, Reserva Santa Elena, Monteverde, Costa Rica

Reserva Santa Elena, Monteverde, Costa Rica

Reserva Santa Elena, Monteverde, Costa Rica

Reserva Santa Elena, Monteverde, Costa Rica

Reserva Santa Elena, Monteverde, Costa Rica

Flower, Reserva Santa Elena, Monteverde, Costa Rica

Flower, Reserva Santa Elena, Monteverde, Costa Rica

“My God it is…it’s a Sunbittern!” Monteverde, twitchers paradise and ecotourism central

Monteverde, pioneer of ecotourism in Costa Rica, is a small village at the end of a dirt road that has become iconic in green circles. It is home to some of the most pristine primary cloud forest imaginable, straddling the continental divide that runs down the centre of Costa Rica, protected in perpetuity by a series of privately owned reserves that are home to a mind-boggling number of birds, amphibians, insects and mammals.

Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

For me the forest was the star, but it is the birdlife that draws many to Monteverde, and amongst the plethora of extraordinary and rare specimens on display there is one bird in particular that bird stalkers, or twitchers as they are known, seek out amongst the lofty trees of the cloud forest: the Resplendent Quetzal.

The name alone is enough to make you want to catch sight of it, and truly it is an extraordinary sight when you do finally see one. The Quetzal has luminous feathers that have been sought-after prizes for thousands of years. Mayan, Aztec and Incan royalty wore them as symbols of their status thanks to the birds reputation as a flying serpent; it is also the national animal, official symbol and name of the national currency of Guatemala.

Flower, Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

Flower, Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

Bird of Paradise flower, Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

Bird of Paradise flower, Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

The Bird of Paradise Flower is normally pollenated by Hummingbirds, but the example above is turned upwards rather than the traditional downwards. The reason? It is pollenated by bats who don’t fly upside-down and sideways, so the plant has evolved to aid pollination by bats.

The Quetzal is not alone in having an exotic name. We also saw the Orange-bellied Trogon, Black-thighed Grosbeak, Great Kiskadee, Emerald Toucanet and the Black Guan (the largest bird in the cloud forest and a relative of the humble chicken). We also saw the Sunbittern of the title, which moved a grown man to utter the words, “My God it is…its a Sunbittern.” At that moment, as I looked at a bird and he looked at a mystical creature, I realised I’d never be a twitcher.

Emerald toucanet, Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

Emerald toucanet, Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

Orange-bellied Trogon, Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

Orange-bellied Trogon, Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

Sunbittern, Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

Sunbittern, Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

Great Kiskadee, Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

Great Kiskadee, Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

Hummingbird, Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

Hummingbird, Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

Collard Redstart Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

Collard Redstart Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

Black Guan, Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

Black Guan, Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

Early morning at the entrance to the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve you can see a gathering of typical twitcher types: huge telephoto lenses mingle with telescopic tripods powerful enough to spot alien life on Mars; the conversation is expectant, excited but reserved, no one wants to seem too keen at the prospect of seeing a Quetzal just in case they don’t see one…or worse, others see one and they don’t.

I love to see animals in their natural habitat, but I fail completely to understand the obsession (there is no other word for it) of the twitcher. We went with a Reserve guide for a three hour naturalist walk through one part of the Reserve. In our group was a fanatical twitcher, who talked of nothing but the Quetzal. Yet when we spotted one and trained the telescope on it he didn’t even take a look. It was enough to tick it off in his book.

I was astonished, it was beautiful. My photos don’t do it justice, not by half.

Quetzal, Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

Quetzal, Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

Quetzal, Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

Quetzal, Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

After we finished the guided tour we took off down some of the more remote trails in the reserve. For nearly three hours we didn’t see a another human being, but we did see a lot of birds, some fleetingly, some hidden in foliage and some out in the open as if inviting us to photograph them. In addition we saw Howler Monkeys and White-faced Coati – who were feeding on the ground on fruits being thrown to them by another Coati high in a tree above.

Howler Monkey, Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

Howler Monkey, Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

Howler Monkey, Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

Howler Monkey, Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

White-faced Coati, Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

White-faced Coati, Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

White-faced Coati, Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

White-faced Coati, Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

White-faced Coati, Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

White-faced Coati, Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

As if that wasn’t enough, on the walk back to our hotel we saw more birds, a tarantula and a poisonous frog. This whole area is teeming with wildlife, even looking out of our bedroom window we can see two or three types of Hummingbird flitting between the many flowers.

Green Dart Poison Frog, Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

Green Dart Poison Frog, Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

Tarantula, Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

Tarantula, Reserva de Monteverde, Costa Rica

All-in-all a fabulous day of spotting wildlife…looking forward to tomorrow already.

San Jose’s fascinating Museo de Oro

I know calling something ‘fascinating’ immediately makes it sound worthy and probably not much fun, but the Museo de Oro Precolombino in San Jose really was fascinating…and I found it fun.

Gold museums seem to have spread far and wide in this part of the world. It amazes me that there were enough gold and silver objects left after the Spanish finished looting the civilisations they colonised in the Americas to warrant building even one Museo de Oro, but I’ve already been to three and they have all been wonderful.

Perhaps it is testimony to the wealth of gold objects that pre-Hispanic civilisations created as symbols of authority or religion, or, perhaps, the fascination most of us have with this shiny and valuable metal, but the gold museums of Colombia and Costa Rica are some of the most interesting museums I’ve visited.

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

The Museo de Oro Precolombino in San Jose is excellent, justifying its US$12 entrance fee…although to be fair the entrance ticket also gives you access to two other museums and a special exhibition of paintings by Lola Fernandez. Its housed (and owned) by the Banco Nacional, and is home to some of the most important and priceless gold objects that survived the Spanish colonisation.

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Thanks to vast trade routes connecting Central America to the Incan, Aztec and Mayan civilisations, there are many similarities with gold objects I saw in Cartagena and Santa Maria. Some of the pieces, however, are truly unique. I loved the representations of sea creatures, which I’d not seen before. There are representations of all the animals that played a key role in the life of Central American cultures prior to the arrival of the Spanish: frogs, bats, crocodiles, jaguars and a host of birds.

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

One of the advantages of visiting the Museo de Oro Precolombino is that there is a detailed explanation of how many of the objects were made. This involved creating a wax model, forming a clay mould around the wax, melting the wax and then pouring the gold/silver/alloy into the clay mould. It was an amazingly advanced artistic method that required skilled execution if the objects weren’t to be ruined.

One of the features of many of the more recent (i.e. 600 -800 years old) items is that the gold was mixed with copper to create an alloy that had very different visual properties to a solid gold item. This shows that gold wasn’t valued in-and-of-itself, and that Central American metallurgists were experimenting to create new and unique items for use as religious and political symbols.

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

There is also a fabulous short film about the cultures that created the items you’re viewing, which really helps understand the cultural significance of the objects.

Do you know the way to San Jose? San Jose Costa Rica, that is…

San Jose, capital of Costa Rica, comes with a certain reputation and it is one very far removed from the San Jose that Dionne Warwick made famous in 1968. San Jose, Costa Rica, is a difficult town to love: it has a surplus of ugly buildings and areas in and around the city centre feel at best edgy and at night out-and-out threatening.

On the other hand, it has a couple of excellent museums and some even better restaurants that make coming here worth the effort. At one point we didn’t think we’d make it to San Jose. We got our 9.30am bus in Cahuita for the 5 hour journey and for an hour things went to plan. Then we hit solid traffic and didn’t move again for another three hours. There was a nationwide taxi strike and they were blocking the road…who knew?

Once in the city our first port of call was the Museo de Jade, the Jade Museum. Our guide book wasn’t enthusiastic about the museum, but it was fabulous. An extraordinary collection of pre-Hispanic jade artefacts sitting alongside some exceptional pieces of pottery, in amazing condition, that chart the history of the cultures that existed wedged between the Mayan civilisation to the north and the Inca civilisation to the south.

Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Jade was valued as a religious and political symbol in pre-Hispanic Central America. The nearest jade quarries are deep inside modern day Guatemala, making its transport difficult and its price high. Despite the fabulous jade artefacts on display, some of the most captivating items in the museum are made from clay, many of them in excellent condition thanks to being found intact in burial chambers.

Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

There were a number of thriving pre-Colombian cultures in Central America, with hundreds of thousands of people inhabiting the region. Unfortunately without written histories, and the sudden impact of Spanish colonisation, very little is known about them. The artefacts in the Museo de Jade show influences particularly from the Mayan culture, with whom they had extensive trade links, but trade routes were also well established as far afield as Peru.

What is clear is that the artistic skill of the civilisations that inhabited Central America was of the highest level. Jade, gold and volcanic rock carvings, as well as numerous pottery pieces, depict all kinds of human and animal themes, including some incredible fertility pieces…some of them a little like the Kama Sutra.

Fertility symbol, Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Fertility symbol, Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Fertility symbol, Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Fertility symbol, Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Fertility symbol, Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Fertility symbol, Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Fertility symbol, Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Fertility symbol, Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Fertility symbol, Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Fertility symbol, Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Of the many animals on display, frogs and birds are most abundant, but there are crocodiles, bats and snakes amongst others. Like all cultures, those in Central America took their inspiration from the natural world and their art reflects their experience of what would have been a much more pristine environment than the one we can see today.

I was struck by the ability of the artists in creating lifelike and yet symbolic human figures out of volcanic rock. Some appear to be smoking, while others carry the decapitated heads of those they have killed in battle.

IMG_6865

Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Parque Nacional Cahuita, small but perfectly formed

It is probably one of the smallest national parks I’ve ever visited but it has a level of biodiversity that would make many larger parks weep…and Parque Nacional Cahuita is only a short stroll from Cahuita village making it one of the most accessible.

Capuchin monkey, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Capuchin monkey, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Capuchin monkey, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Capuchin monkey, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

The park is divided between the ocean, which contains one of costa Rica’s few remaining living reefs, and tropical forest lined with white sand beaches, which hosts a wide variety of birds, reptiles, insects, crustaceans and mammals. Thanks to a high and rough tide we didn’t go snorkelling on the reef, but we hired a local guide and spent four leisurely hours walking the well-marked trails in the park.

Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Crocodile, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Crocodile, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Bird, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Bird, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Iguana, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Iguana, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Iguana, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Iguanas, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Bird, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Bird, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Bird, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Great Kiskadee, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Bird, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Acorn Woodpeker, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

I have never been so grateful to have a guide; within thirty minutes of entering the park we’d seen more biodiversity than we’d seen since being in the Amazon several months earlier: monkeys, sloths, agouti, snakes, crocodiles, birds and iguanas all made it onto our ‘spotted’ list. It costs US$20 for a guide, yet we met several people without guides who hadn’t seen a single animal.

Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Flower, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Flower, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Howler Monkey, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Howler Monkey, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Crab, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Crab, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Sloth, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Sloth, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Sloth, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Sloth, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Perhaps the highlight of the visit, if it can be described as that, was spotting the small but deadly snake, the Yellow Eyelash Viper – if you get bitten you have 2 – 3 hours to get to medical assistance before death. We would never have spotted this colourful and deadly bundle of fun, which is all the more reason never to go into the jungle without a guide, but once spotted it is hard to look away.

Yellow Eyelash Viper, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Yellow Eyelash Viper, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Yellow Eyelash Viper, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Yellow Eyelash Viper, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

The park is also packed full of plants and insects. I saw a very pleased looking squirrel munching on a fresh almond plucked right off the tree. There are literally millions of leaf-cutter ants and, my old friends, mosquitoes. It was a brilliant experience, the park is free to enter (donations welcome) and you can use the beach and swim in the ocean after you’ve finished looking for wildlife.

Agouti, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Agouti, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Flower, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Flower, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Leaf-cutter ants, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Leaf-cutter ants, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Leaf-cutter ants, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Leaf-cutter ants, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

A taste of the Pura Vida, sampling the culture of Costa Rica

The phrase Pura Vida has been adopted wholesale in Costa Rica and you can see it spray-painted onto walls, adorning t-shirts and in advertising campaigns on TV. It literally means pure life, but could perhaps be more accurately translated as living the good life, something we thought we should investigate while in Costa Rica.

That said, our first experience of Costa Rica wasn’t exactly encouraging. Standing in a queue at Panamanian immigration at the Guabito border crossing we looked in slight disbelief at the rickety bridge over a wide river leading towards Costa Rica and had to double check that this was the official border crossing. Once across the bridge we queued again at Costa Rican immigration before being whisked off in a minibus towards Cahuita.

Bridge over the border between Panama and Costa Rica

Bridge over the border between Panama and Costa Rica

The border between Panama and Costa Rica

The border between Panama and Costa Rica

If you’re looking for a relaxed Caribbean village to spend a few days without purpose, Cahuita is the place for you. This is Afro-Caribbean Costa Rica, with wild beaches backed by tropical forest stretching for several kilometres, great snorkelling, a national park full of wildlife and Caribbean cooking to help wile away the time.

Main street in Cahuita, Costa Rica

Main street in Cahuita, Costa Rica

Food stall, Cahuita, Costa Rica

Food stall, Cahuita, Costa Rica

House in Cahuita, Costa Rica

House in Cahuita, Costa Rica

Tree, Cahuita, Costa Rica

Tree, Cahuita, Costa Rica

Jungle fights back, Cahuita, Costa Rica

Jungle fights back, Cahuita, Costa Rica

Caribbean food, Cahuita, Costa Rica

Caribbean food, Cahuita, Costa Rica

Booze advert, Cahuita, Costa Rica

Booze advert, Cahuita, Costa Rica

The history of this part of Costa Rica isn’t without controversy. While slavery brought the first Afro-Caribbeans to Costa Rica, much larger numbers, particularly Jamaicans, came to work on the railway and banana plantations operated by the infamous United Fruit (banana plantations still cover the region today). These settlers had few rights, they weren’t allowed to become Costa Rican citizens, yet as outsiders their presence and cultural differences led to racial tensions.

This racism was given legal status by the Costa Rican government who introduced a form of apartheid preventing Afro-Caribbeans from leaving the Caribbean coastal area and settling elsewhere in Costa Rica. This situation ending in 1949, but the Caribbean region has historically been underdeveloped and more deprived than other areas of the country. Today the vast majority of black Costa Ricans still live in the Caribbean region.

Playa Negra, Cahuita, Costa Rica

Playa Negra, Cahuita, Costa Rica

Playa Negra, Cahuita, Costa Rica

Playa Negra, Cahuita, Costa Rica

If there is one positive to this discrimination it was that it allowed a strong cultural identity to develop without interference from outside. It is that unique Caribbean culture – the food, the language, religion and the music – that draws tourists to Cahuita today. Well, that and the lovely wild beaches and fascinating wildlife of Parque Nacional Cahuita located at the edge of the village.

The whole feel in Cahuita is relaxed, friendly and peaceful. We stayed in a cabana at the far end of Playa Negra, a wild black-sand beach stretching a couple of kilometres away from the village. Walking along the beach or dirt road day or night we’d be greeted by just about everyone we passed. How long it will be before tourism and development start to change this dynamic is anyone’s guess, but it doesn’t feel like it is going to happen soon.

Playa Grande, Cahuita, Costa Rica

Playa Grande, Cahuita, Costa Rica

Playa Grande, Cahuita, Costa Rica

Playa Grande, Cahuita, Costa Rica