By Richard Mellor
Richard Mellor discovers that the most interesting wildlife encounters in Costa Rica are not always what you might expect.
I feel short-changed. In this land of jaguars and crocodiles, of pumas and poisonous spiders, my guide Paolo has just revealed that his only feared local creature is… an ant? Yup. An ant. “Come on, Paolo,” I feel like saying. “Man up. Don’t be scared of the diddy-widdy ant.”
But I let him explain. Because Paolo claiming an animal scares him is rather like a doctor warning an injection will be painful – these people just don’t follow normal scales of fear or pain. If a doctor says something hurts a bit, it’ll be utter agony. Similarly, if a man like Paolo is frightened, then the beast in question must surely be terrifying. For this is a man who routinely kayaks down croc-infested rivers and goes diving with bull sharks. Mosquitoes don’t bite Paolo; he bites them.
Still, an ant? “Ah, sí, but is the bullet ant,” he explains, as we follow twisty paths around a semi-rainforest estate. Night has fallen and we’re using torches to sidestep watery pockets. “It is the second-biggest ant in Costa Rica, venomous and really aggressive. When it stings you, oh man, it hurts so bad, for two days! The worst pain of my life. Oh yes, there we are.” Paolo’s beam illuminates a palm leaf across which marches a lean, inch-long dark-red insect. No doubt about it, the bullet ant is decidedly mean-looking. Fair enough, I think.
We’re not actually meant to be finding ants. The estate we’re exploring, found just south of the central town of La Tigra near the famous Arenal volcano, has been cultivated to shelter Costa Rica’s many incredible amphibians. You should see (and hear) at least ten varieties during two-hour nocturnal tours, from the iconic red-eyed tree frog to Blue Jeans, navy-legged poisonous-dart firers which aren’t, disappointingly, named after the Lana Del Rey song (or vice versa).
Yet my favourite is the glass frog, which is leaf-coloured. Or tree-coloured. Or earth-coloured. Because, in fact, it’s no-coloured – or rather, completely transparent and effectively see-through in an innovative take on camouflage. If you handle one, as I do, you can see all its internal organs, and then your own hand on the other side.
Impressive. But outward appearance – or non-appearance – isn’t everything. For sheer importance, few critters trump the miniscule marvels I’d met the day before at El Silencio. Buried in the volcanic Central Highlands, this Relais & Chateaux retreat offers horse-riding tours, spa therapies and zip-lining. Less headline-grabbing but most fascinating are its Mystic Tours. As well as local legends and environmental trivia, I learn about fig wasp queens. I am told that they alone pollinate huge strangler fig trees, which support and feed much of the surrounding ecosystem. Talk about vital.
At dawn, a birdwatching tour departs in search of Costa Rica’s prettiest bird: the resplendent quetzal. After lots of peering through loaned Swarovski binoculars, we see one, briefly: a flash of that spearmint-coloured head, red body and elongated green tail as a male flies by. Our small group smiles at each other, that shared thrill of seeing something rare, of our mutual wildlife-spotting prayers being answered.
Mine continue to be. In Manuel Antonio National Park, over on the Pacific coast, a troop of capuchins daringly cross the gap our path makes in the forest, each monkey just barely making the large leap. I’m just as delighted at seeing a three-toed sloth, moving in perennial slow motion along the branches. Apparently, sloths descend from the treetops once a week to defecate; no one knows why, as they could just as easily unload from high up and better avoid predators. Perhaps they’re just polite.
Many sightings come when least anticipated. The sprawling, leafy Parador Resort & Spa near Manuel Antonio is as productive as Manuel Antonio itself. I see grizzled giant iguanas and more sloths while on the way to and from dinner – mostly excellent Costa Rican steak – plus howler monkeys playing in the trees. My favourite residents, however, are a type of tanager: small songbirds with intense scarlet breasts which dwell in the trees beside reception.
With Costa Rica being relatively small and traffic slight, my trip utilises car transfers to get from A to B. These too prove unexpectedly prolific. At roadside Cafe Colibri, there’s a small hummingbird garden in the rear, with nine varieties of the hovering beauties easily spotted. Soon after, we spy two rowdy toucans in a tree, their giant beaks and tropical yellow splashes bringing instant cheer.
One thing we don’t see are snakes, god be praised. I’m petrified of them. Paolo laughs at my confession, before unhelpfully revealing that Costa Rica boasts 22 poisonous varieties, including pit vipers and rattlesnakes. He has – of course – encountered most of them.
“They’re great,” Paolo says, fondly. I know what’s coming next. “Not like those bullet ants!”