“We call this one the nose-breaker!” bellowed the helmsman. Ahead of us, an abyss appeared in the middle of the river. For a moment, we skimmed along its glossy rim before being sucked down into the froth. It was like plunging into a washing machine rinsing out old rocks. There was then an exhilarating, utterly terrifying moment of helplessness before our little podgy dinghy was spewed out, and sent bowling down the river.
At moments such as this, I’d look up, and see a garden rising vertically up the walls of the gorge. Costa Rica is covered in attractive jungle. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that this little country, the size of Scotland, wasn’t devised solely for the pleasure of man. That’s why it has the Pacuare river – to beat some sense into you – and dozens of temperamental volcanoes. And, of course, the snakes. No paradise is complete without the odd serpent (162 species, to be precise, 22 venomous).
“Whose nose?” I shouted.
“Mine!” said the helmsman, and gave a snort of lopsided laughter.
But the Pacuare river was far more than just a beautiful, watery mugging. It was also a quick way to our jungle hotel.
For decades, people have been coming to this country and following the pineapple trucks up to the nearest four-star. Usually, it was enough to have a view of the Pacific or ringside seats next to some billowing volcano. Nowadays, some of the best places are right out in the wilds, on land once thought habitable only to crocodiles and cowboys. Setting out with my wife and Lucy, our seven-year-old, we began our adventure gently, in the Central Highlands.
Though the Costa Rican capital, San José, isn’t famously inspiring, within a few miles the great garden begins. With its own jungle and art deco ramparts, Finca Rosa Blanca, perched high up in the coffee fields, at 4,000ft, feels as though it’s been here for ages, and yet it hasn’t. Forty years ago, this mountainside was just a churned up motocross track. Its salvation might well be a metaphor for that of Costa Rica. Once facing ecological ruin, now a third of the land is protected, and it’s home to 5 per cent of earth’s species.
Across the valley, the horizon was purple with volcanoes. Soon, we were among them, dipping in and out of gorges and gazing up into the ash. It’s an odd phenomenon, the seismic world, with its sulphur-coloured rivers and one-storey towns. One place (Grecia) even had a cast-iron church, the size of Westminster Abbey.
But, higher still, things got wilder. It must have been a mad idea to put a hotel up here – where the sky’s full of forest, and waterfalls tumble through the clouds – but the effect is stunning. El Silencio may not be the country’s newest lodge but it’s probably the most defiant. Log fires, hot tubs and walls of plate-glass make even the storms seem luxurious. But, for us, there was barely time to enjoy the rage before the vapours would part, and a hummingbird garden would burst into life, whirring with pleasure.
Around the outer edges of the Central Highlands, there were plenty more surprises. Once, we went riding through woods full of sloths. Another time, after padding through three miles of jungle, we came across the Río Celeste, which glows an improbable chemical blue. “This”, said our driver-guide Herman, “is where God rinsed his brushes after painting the sky.” Elsewhere, we found day-glo frogs, a hill that smelled of eggs and a steaming-hot waterfall. While the lodges here weren’t quite so plush, they were just as bold – Celeste Mountain Lodge, for example, was slung between two volcanoes and made of recycled steel. With its delicate French cuisine, here was the ultimate in volcanic chic.
Another place could only sanely be reached by river, which is how I found myself bouncing down the Pacuare. The girls took the land route and were nearly shaken apart. But they soon recovered when they saw the lodge. It had been inserted into a deep, narrow gorge on the site of an old Indian farm. Peccaries still came here for fruit and, more recently, the hotel’s cameras had picked up ocelots and jaguars. Meanwhile, the building itself was like a stately home for indigenous Indians, with an enormous carapace of thatch. As we lay in our beds the next morning, we listened to a distant roar. It was the howler monkeys, the loudest land animals on Earth.
The waiters were all nature lovers, some from a local tribe, the Cabécares. One of the boys, a former hunter called Geraldo, couldn’t read or write and yet was an engineering genius. Across the mountainside, he’d constructed a network of steel hawsers so that guests could zip-wire through the canopy like great, screaming, struggling moths. One day, he took Lucy up there, and – from 85ft below – all I could hear was the squeal of child and steel. For days afterwards, all Lucy wanted to do was zip-wire. As thrills go, only swimming in the river came close. “It’s too rough,” said Geraldo, “even for crocodiles.”
Another day, a boy called Giovanni took us off to the Cabécares’ village. It was an unforgettable walk, four miles over the mountains. Giovanni introduced Lucy to a few oddities of the forest, and she soon forgot she was tired. There were natural bandages, potato-flavoured pears, blankets that grew on trees, and a cicada that lives 17 years underground before coming out and screaming for the last two weeks of its life. By contrast, the Indian village was rather quaint, on the edge of a plateau. We met only one inhabitant – the shaman – but he never got out of his hammock.
Later, there was another chance of river travel. It was a journey that took us right to the edge of the country and even, briefly, into Nicaragua (along the Río San Juan). This time we all travelled together, and there were plenty of crocodiles. They’re the thugs of lowland Costa Rica, big enough to snap up a thirsty cow.
Our ranch Maquenque has only been a lodge for six years, but the wildlife is already reclaiming the land. The gardens blazed with parrots and heliconias. Coatis raided the fruit, monkeys watched us at the swimming pool and, at dusk, the fruit bats crammed themselves into our cabin roof. Sometimes, too, a frilly, blue-spotted basilisk appeared on our lagoon, looking like a lizard in drag. We loved it all. This is how the world would be if it was Photoshopped and then set to a soundtrack of birds.
We spent our last few days on the Caribbean coast. We were more remote here than anywhere else. For hours, Herman drove us through banana country before, eventually, we found ourselves bouncing through coconut palms, along the shore. Until 1977, there was no road to the Talamanca region, and our destination, the little, sandy town of Puerto Viejo, didn’t get its first lightbulb until 1986. Before that, the only people who’d lived here were Bribri Indians and a few turtle-hunters, who had wandered over from Jamaica.
It felt funny, ending up here, in this world apart. Caught between the jungle and riptides, most people had settled down to a life of ease. The beaches went on for ever, and everything important was made out of driftwood. The older people even spoke an ancient dialect, called “Mek I tell you”, which was the sound of Jamaica, circa 1815. Only our hotel seemed out of place: Le Caméléon was incongruously elegant and modern, and all the interiors were a startling dental white. Less like a chameleon it could not have been.
Next to our hotel was an animal refuge. Among the rescued owls and monkeys there was a small alligator that had turned up in an American tourist’s shower. “She got quite a shock,” said the keeper. I bet she did, but then she’d probably forgotten the first principle of the Costa Rican travel: it may look boutique but it’s got some bite.
John Gimlette’s ‘Wild Coast: Travels on South America’s Untamed Edge’ (Profile) won the Dolman Travel Book Prize 2012
John Gimlette was a guest of Audley Travel (www.audleytravel.com). A 14-night trip like the one described costs from £3,175 per person based on two people sharing, excluding flights. Flights from the UK to San José start from £695 per person return with United Airlines. The writer stayed at Finca Rosa Blanca (www.fincarosablanca.com;doubles from £163); El Silencio (www.elsilenciolodge.com; doubles from £185); Maquenque Eco-Lodge (www.maquenqueecolodge.com; doubles from £71); Celeste Mountain Lodge (www.celestemountainlodge.com; doubles from £113); Le Caméléon (www.lecameleonhotel.com; doubles from £156). In each case (except for Le Caméléon), a £13-£31 charge is made for an extra bed for a child.