I buckled up my seat belt for landing. Flying low over Costa Rica’s highlands, I looked down on green jungle dotted with single storey wooden dwellings with corrugated iron roofs. A twenty minute taxi ride took me from San Jose airport to my friend Ros’s coffee farm, where I stepped out into the glorious scent of jasmine and looked over to the horizon where volcanoes rose up, silhouetted against a grey sky. Ros greeted me warmly, despite having arrived home only 6 hours earlier on a flight from Europe. We’ve known each other since 1966, when we were lodged together as room mates in our first year at university. After a long shower and a glass of refreshing home-made lemonade, my Costa Rican adventure began.
To stretch my legs after the long haul flight I strolled lazily around the plantation, between coffee bushes, bougeanvillea and hibiscus, as thunder rumbled, but no rain came. I was collecting cass fruit or guava, to use in drinks later on. I felt sticky, but relaxed, as I wandered past the coffee farm workers’ dwellings, all adorned with pots of colourful flowers.
Ros prepared a salad lunch using fresh, organic vegetables from her garden. After catching up on each other’s news, we dined on fish cooked in a teriyaki and passion fruit sauce, and retired at 8.30pm. It was so quiet that sleep washed over me within seconds.
Next day was the Dia de los Abuelos (grandparents day) at the international school which Ros’s grandson attended. It was a very chic affair, with rich Costa Rican ladies showing off their best attire and most expensive jewellery, sizing each other up whilst ostensibly watching each year group perform a suitably enchanting song. Afterwards we lunched at The Costa Rica Country Club where I sampled a local version of the Mexican drink Michelada, served with salt around the rim of the pint beer glass instead of the original chilli.
I visited the Guadalupe organic market for a breakfast of arepas cheese patties with huevos rancheros spicy eggs and bought smoked trout, giant avocados, and goldenberries. The latter apparently work like Viagra, but I didn’t have the opportunity to find out how effective they are. The market was busy with locals, known as ‘ticos’ or ‘ticas’ depending on their gender, crying out the quality of their produce, or shoving samples of it under your nose to tempt you to buy. ‘Pura Vida’ is the greeting here: ‘pure life!’, and my internet search revealed that the ‘ticos’ have been designated the world’s happiest people. Certainly, everyone I spoke to wore a smile.
After a few days Ros drove me to the family beach house, a beautiful condo at Playa Escondida on the Pacific Ocean shore north of the farm. And ‘escondida’ it was, hidden away among lush trees and down a long winding road to the ocean. We stopped on the way to buy pineapples and mangoes as scarlet macaws, pelicans, vultures and yellow-breasted fly catchers swooped and dived above us. The house is set among cashew and flame trees, the garden is filled with scented shrubs, and the view from each of the six bedrooms is calming and restful. I watched waves rolling onto the sand and palm trees bent low. The shore crackled as its pebbles were dragged back into the ocean when each wave receded. I attempted to swim and had difficulty getting out of the water as the undertow was so strong, and I still have a few scratches to prove it. The insects here are big, and the lizards very big!
We visited the beach housemaid’s new home, walking along the bank of what in the rainy season is a river but was now the dried up bed. Ros was curious to find out where her employee now lived; she treats all her workers like members of her family. Angelica used to live in a cardboard house until the previous month; now she has been adopted by an uncle who lives in a tin hut with children and chickens galore. Moving up in the world is on a different level here. On the way back to the beach house I tried out a coconut granizado. It was made with condensed milk poured over crushed ice and when I stood up I felt drunkenly dizzy from the sugar rush. An hour later I was suffering from what I can only describe as a hangover; I have never consumed so much sugar in my life.
We had a few days at Escondida, and all too soon it was time to leave the peace behind and set off to drive back to San Jose. We stopped at a roadside café for a breakfast of gallo y pinto, a typical Central and South American dish of rice and beans, with spicy eggs, fried plantain and corn tortillas.
La Cusinga Lodge is a rainforest resort run by Jack Ewing, author of Monkeys are Made of Chocolate and Where Tapirs and Jaguars Once Roamed. He had the brainwave of establishing wildlife corridors so that endangered species can move freely when local food supplies become exhausted due to mankind’s plundering of the rainforest. I had the honour of meeting this charming, self-effacing man, who has done so much to bring the plight of forest creatures to the world’s attention, when Ros and I called in to visit and walk in the forest on our way to her home.
By the time we left for San Jose the weather had broken and finally, the rain came. Torrents of it, so that we couldn’t see anything through the windscreen. This was made worse by the lack of working windscreen wipers on Ros’s Hilux 280 truck. Driving along a winding coast road in zero visibility was scary, but Ros wanted to press on, and I bowed to her local knowledge: apparently spending the night en route in a hotel with dubious standards of morality and cleanliness could have been even more dangerous!
Rising at 05.30 next morning I was astounded to see red and yellow butterflies fluttering around me. It was steaming hot, the air was filled with luscious juicy jungle scents. The sun was shining, and Poas volcano beckoned; I wanted to see the turquoise-blue crater lake, only visible occasionally when the skies are clear. We hiked up gently in the sweet mountain air and were lucky to glimpse the lake below us before the clouds regrouped to cover the sky with grey again.
That night, my last, we enjoyed strawberry and mint granizados and fresh lemonade with basil before our dinner in a local restaurant of camaron (huge prawns) with garlic whilst watching a fantastic flamenco dancer swirl and twirl and stamp her feet.
Pura vida, ticos!