Borderlines

Peñas Blancas is the formidable border crossing between Costa Rica and Nicaragua. We once spent over eight hours here trying unsuccessfully to export a pickup truck that turned out to be material evidence in a manslaughter case. Today though it doesn’t live up to its fearsome reputation. ‘It used to be such a zoo!’ I mutter to the kids wistfully. Now it is a graveyard. There is only one-way traffic – you may enter into Nicaragua, but the gates back into Costa Rica are firmly shut. And it seems that not many people want to enter Nicaragua.

The touts and plantain sellers, the guides and fixers are still here, lurking along the chain fence like clouds of mosquitos, but their number is somewhat reduced and they seem more lethargic than normal, despite the fact we offer rare tourist blood for them to feed off. A few half-hearted cat calls, a little beckoning, a tug or two at my sleeve. ‘Is this all you’ve got?’ I want to ask them.

We are worried because we have overstayed our Costa Rican travel visa by two weeks. We had heard on the traveller grapevine that the Dirección General de Migración has issued some blanket extension of visa terms to all tourists, though as we step up to the emigration desk we are painfully aware that we never seen this officially confirmed. Perhaps we will get arrested as illegal immigrants and put in a detention centre! The stern woman at the counter chooses to ignore the exit dates in our passports though, and focuses instead on the fact that we haven’t printed out our covid test certificates.
“Están solamente en tu teléfono?” Incredulous shake of the head, “¡No está bien!”

Once this infraction has been resolved with plenty of sighing, tongue clicking and muttered conferences with her superiors, we get our exit stamps and then we are dismissed.  We are free to leave the country, which we must do by walking across the 500 meters of dusty no-mans-land between the border lines.

We have carefully gone over all of our luggage and tried to shed whatever kilos we could for this exact eventuality. Gone are our packs of flour and lentils, my bottles of chilli sauce; the laptops and tablets that we had stolen remain unreplaced; Arthur’s old trainers are now on some Tico street kid’s feet; many of our books sit in a hostel in San José. Even so we are still not exactly travelling light. We have three large backpacks, five bulging day-packs, a camera bag, a handbag, two surfboards, two skateboards, a football, a pillow. It’s quite a load.

As we sweat out that half-kilometre in the noonday heat, I drown out the kids’ moans by thinking about other historical walks to freedom. I can only come up with Nelson Mandela, Mao Tse Tung and the Navajo people, though of course their long walk ended in suffering and imprisonment.

They seem genuinely pleased to see us on the Nicaraguan side. “Your covid test certificate is on your mobile sir?  No problem! What a novel idea.” A friendly fixer appears at my elbow offering unsolicited advice. The immigration officer tries to rip us off for a nominal amount over the border taxes (‘4x $12 does NOT equal $58!’ Arthur tells hims sternly), but it is a half-hearted extortion and when he smiles broadly I am tempted to overpay anyway, just for old times sake. “In the old days,” I reminisce with the kids, “You each needed to have a crisp $20 bill tucked away in your passport for the official if you didn’t want hours of delays…”  

Then we are through the border. There is a ramp and Arthur explodes into Nicaragua on his skateboard. A group of porters applaud him and one of them sees an opportunity for a dollar and takes our bags.

And just like that we are in a new world, or perhaps rather, an older world, bouncing along a semi-paved road in a worn minibus. We look out through the dust and haze at bareback cowboys trotting along on the verge and oxen carts rumbling along in the middle of the highway. There are ancient military jeeps sitting up on breeze blocks by the roadside: monuments to the Sandinista revolution, or the Contra war, or one of the many recent uprisings. Graffiti, statues, flags and slogans – everything here points back to a revolutionary history that never seems to have quite ended.

Our driver is weary of it all – the current protests and uprisings are yet another escalation in a series of attempts to unseat the government that have been going on since 2013, he says. Presidente Ortega was once a hero and a revolutionary it is true, but he has lost his way, as do all those who cling to power for too long. Too much torture. Too much murder. Pero bueno, it is best for everyone if the protests die down now, Nicaragua needs stability. The country cannot take much more. After all the catastrophes they have had – two bad hurricanes, the uprisings and now the pandemic – the only thing that will help is if everything goes back to normal. That is to say, business returns and tourism resumes. Watch out, he finishes quietly. People are desperate here. Times have been tough. They have nothing.

I see our driver’s glance sliding off the piles of bags and boards that are strewn around us. I look at our kids, all blonde floppy hair, white teeth, shiny eyes, accessorised with sunglasses, necklaces and surf t-shirts. We joke sometimes about how we have gone native after months on the road, but in reality we are very far from native. How we will stand out in this dark skinny country.

I never really got to where I was going, never reached my destination. Perhaps the code of the road is as simple as that. You never do get there. There is just the road, and what it reveals along the way.

Charles Nicholl – Borderlines

Adiós Costa Rica

It is with regret that we leave Costa Rica. In our six weeks here we have criss-crossed the country backwards and forwards. We know the dirt roads and potholed highways, the river crossings. We have seen the terrain change from jungle to swamp to grassy plains. We have eaten at roadside shacks on mountain passes and drunk coffee in townships under smoking volcanos.

To have come back here with Arthur and Matilda, and to see it all again through their eyes, has made this trip quite emotional for Menna and I. Particularly in a time of declining biodiversity. We often felt the shadow of generational guilt over the ecological uncertainty that we know our children will inherit. Now in a little minibus, rattling along the northern roads heading to the Nicaraguan border, we talk again about the wildlife and nature in this extraordinarily rich corner of the world. We make sure to preserve the memories.

The flock of toucans circling around our cabin, chattering and screeching, then sweeping down the hillside to attack a fruit tree below us.

An iguana making a suicidal dash across the scorching tarmac as we drive down the coastal highway. His feet flapping as though he was trying to run over water.

Poison dart frogs squatting on leaves, glistening with a strange sticky luminescence.

Dark shaded forests with strange mammals in the undergrowth: agoutis like great ginger hamster-dogs, their hind legs strangely pink and hairless; dark and muscular herds of tusked peccaries shouldering their way through thickets; elegant coatis and giant squirrels; spider monkeys linking limbs to make bridges between branches far above; mossy sloths hanging like green termite nests. Howler monkeys roaring at dawn.

There was an encounter with fer-de-lance, the most aggressive and venomous snake in the region. We passed a step away from where it lay coiled in the leaves, cold and unmoving like a twisted liana, only realising it was there when a park ranger behind us called us back. I wonder how many other snakes we have brushed past unseeing – or nearly stepped on – in all of our forest walks; how often we have unthinkingly grabbed branches from which they had slipped away silently only seconds before.

We leave with a whole mosaic of Costa Rican birds imprinted on our retinas: Tanagers, oropendulas, trogons. A trio of lineated woodpeckers at work high up on a telegraph pole. Kingfishers looping and dipping along the ocean shore. Scarlet macaws at sunset. Ospreys above a volcanic lake. A green toucanet in the Quetzales cloud forest, utterly still on his branch like a mossy outcropping.

We saw an anteater climbing a tree, slow and graceful, inhaling a trail of bugs as he went. It was a frantic morning and we were trying to pack up camp in a hurry, but he held us all transfixed, pointing and grinning, for ten minutes amidst the chaos.

Nature wasn’t always our friend. Matilda remembers being hit in the face as she trailed behind us in the Cahuita National Park. It was a heavy green fruit and the shock and pain of it made her scream. Then another fruit crashed into the sandy path right next to her, and suddenly they were raining down. There were no fruit tree above us though. It took us a while to spot the troupe of white-faced capuchins high up in the canopy. They were cackling and hooting, hopping on their branches, deliberately pelting us. Their aim was good and we had to run.

We have learned to live with the mosquito, the fly, the sea louse and many other biting and stinging creatures that left their marks on our skin. We have rolled in jellyfish tentacles in the waves, leaving acidic burns coiled around my forearm, angry red stripes across Arthur’s torso. I have had a cockroach run across my face in the dark.

We were excited to see a raccoon and her cubs wandering up to us once as we eat dinner outside. She was so pretty! As I stood to shoo her away, she held her ground and snarled at me, a row of needle-sharp teeth in her pretty little mouth. Then she stepped towards me! She was totally unafraid and I was not sure what to do. I wasn’t overly eager to get a raccoon bite then a series of rabies injections. So I sat back down ashamed and let her forage at her leisure. A long dark night of the soul ensued (faced down! By a small mustelid!) as I was forced to question my place in the food chain.

On goes the memory game, as the miles roll past, trailing us through kingdoms and species, branching down taxonomic lines. Our minibus is filled with the sounds of the forest, with colours and smells, awe and excitement, with fear relived.

We will come home from this trip poorer, and re-entry will be hard. But converting our savings into the currency of memory and experience is something we will never regret.

Costa Rica ¡Pura Vida! Adiós.

Dwarves and Goblins

We part company with our friends for our last two nights on the Caribbean. Josh and Meg stay in Puerto Viejo with a vague plan to head onwards to Mexico. The Nicholls retreat to an ecolodge in the jungle to ponder next steps. For us it is complicated. We had intended to make our way south through Panama and then on to find friends in Colombia, but both countries are now implementing pretty severe government restrictions of the sort that we don’t want to get wrapped up in. Mexico is a hotbed of Covid. Peru and Chile are no longer open to travellers.

Now we are not with our friends, all of our dwarves and goblins can come back out to play, those secret travelling companions of ours. Menna lives with friction drag – a dragon who wakes whenever she hasn’t eaten for four hours – and we must all tread carefully if we are not to get scorched in her devastating fires. Matilda has a host of little dwarves that travel with her – Grumpy, Sleepy, Lazy and Unhelpful are the ones we meet most days, though Disgusted often comes around at dinnertime.

Arthur gets possessed by a leprechaun if he doesn’t get exercised regularly; that is to say he goes all hyper and annoying, sings tuneless songs, asks a million questions, irritates his sister, breaks things.

I myself have wailing spirits trapped deep inside the bones of my battered body: broken shoulders that moan, the rebuilt femur that hums when the weather changes, a neck that won’t turn properly. There is the djinn of apathy too that rises in me in the early afternoon hours.

It is the money goblin though that has become the most insistent recently. He travels around most places with us now and has started to insinuate himself into our conversations in a most unwelcome way. ‘Everything is over budget here in Costa Rica’ he whispers as I drift in the afternoon haze. We had originally planned to eke out our money in various low-cost African, Indian and Asian destinations. Then Covid trapped us in expensive Europe for several months and now we are finding that Costa Rica is hardly the cheap developing economy we remembered. Last time we were here Menna and I would rent a house for $250 a month, but now we are spending that in three nights. We’re not good at tracking to a budget but we have a feeling that if we were, we would be looking at some worrying red numbers right now.

Once the money goblin is riding on your shoulder, he makes everything uncomfortable. ‘Does Matilda really need another set of goggles?’ He is outraged! ‘She has lost six pairs already.’ The kids are hungry and Menna’s dragon is starting to smoulder. ‘We can’t afford that nice restaurant on the beach though’ he wheedles, ‘Let’s head over to the backstreets and find a local kiosk where we can eat cheap. We’ve all got pretty tough stomachs now’. The little ecocabin in the trees where we are staying is lovely, ‘but there is a sweaty little concrete hostel in town where the rooms are half the price and they throw in the cockroaches for free’ he pleads ‘let’s move in there!’.

We have various late night conversations, Menna (safely fed), the goblin and I. And eventually we hatch a plan to get our spending under control. There is a place we know where there is some pretty heavy civil unrest and that is keeping tourism away. Furthermore they have recently been battered by two destructive hurricanes that have destroyed a lot of the infrastructure. You can only enter by land and it’s strictly a one-way deal, the borders back into Costa Rica are shut. Most of the commercial airlines have suspended their flights there. It’s one of the poorest countries in Latin America – in the world even! But the surf is great if you can get to the breaks, and it’s a place we know and love.

Everyone has warned us against it, but at this point that just deepens the appeal. We’ll go to Nicaragua.

We must not look at goblin men,
We must not buy their fruits:
Who knows upon what soil they fed
Their hungry thirsty roots?

Christina Rossetti, Goblin Market

Nymph, nymph, what are your beads?
Green glass, goblin. Why do you stare at them?
Give them me.
No.
Give them me. Give them me.
No.
Then I will howl all night in the reeds,
Lie in the mud and howl for them

Harold Monro, Overheard on a Salt Marsh

Buffalo Christmas

We wind our way through woods and shanty towns, past industrial zones and banana plantations until finally we arrive at the Caribbean coast. There is a mass migratory event that happens on the 23rd December in Costa Rica: cities empty and long lines of laden pickups jam the arterial roads. We have chosen to join them and traverse the country together. For eight hours we drive, inching our way along unlit potholed highways, sandwiched between ancient diesel trucks while Christmas hits rise and fade into radio static. This kind of trip takes its toll. Menna and I argued bitterly about some of my overtaking decisions.

Josh and Meg have come through with the goods though, finding us all a house at the eleventh hour. So it is around midnight that we roll up to our new digs: Casa Mango in Cahuita town. It is a bizarre crooked glass and steel tower, looming four stories high in a clapperboard village where no other buildings venture above two floors. The higher windows enrage the toucans that nest in the facing tree so they periodically launch frenzied attacks on their own reflections. There is a resident sloth too, navigating an arboreal map up in the towering figs; he descends to the ground once a week to deposit a prodigious mound of crap somewhere on the property.

We drive into Puerto Viejo next morning for coffee and last-minute panic buying. It’s a place with some notoriety in these parts. A reggae town where bright coloured paint peels off the driftwood store fronts, where fishermen, hustlers and barefoot surf kids mingle with Tico holidaymakers and stoner ex-pats; where dangerous snare-drum cannonades ricochet out from the beach market and the gridlocked cars on Main Street respond with honky-tonk klaxons; where bank security guards watch the crowds from behind dark glasses, fondling shotguns slung across their chests.

We arrive in town sometime around ten am on Christmas Eve and I guess the festivities must have begun a while ago, for there are already many prone bodies sprawled in doorways and stretched out under the palm trees. More Costa Ricans die with skulls cracked by falling coconuts than from all the crocodile and snake attacks together. This is one piece of wisdom I share with the others as the shopping trip slips into a more sedentary phase where fish tacos feature and cocktails on the beach. And somehow as afternoon surrenders to evening we are still there in town, presents un-wrapped, chatting with the lobster men down behind the fishing boats where the smell of weed is strongest.

The hardships of the road are behind us and we immerse ourselves into the reggae vibe. Christmas week slips past sweetly. Papaya smoothies, hard sun and transistor radio; sweltering nights with mosquito symphonies. The flushed faces of Matilda and Marlowe opening their stockings (‘Father Christmas did find us!’). Volleyball in the pool, a morning surf in Santa hats. We FaceTime our families at home, send WhatsApp messages to far off friends in alternate dimensions. Our playlist is all Lee Scratch Perry and Buju Banton, kids rocking out to the Banana Boat song. Meg cooks turkey and we eat it with chilli sauce and pineapple salsa. Cold Pilsen beers take the edge off the heat. We walk the beaches on Boxing Day, play charades and bake cookies. We are turfed out of our house and find ourselves driving around town knocking on doors in an unfortunately timed rainstorm, looking for accommodation to see in the new year.


“Where you people all from den?” asks the skinny black kid sitting on the bridge. But where we’re from doesn’t really matter now so much as where we’re going. We had been hoping to head on to Bocas Del Toro, an island archipelago across the border in Panama, but the whole country has gone into lockdown and ruined our plans.
“So tell us the news then chico, where’s the fiesta at anyhow?” but he just smiles and shakes his head. He don’t want no gringo white boys at his jam. So instead we come across Hotel Aban, a no-frills basic set of cabinas arranged around a small pool.

We eat lobster on New Year’s Eve, then swim, dance in the shallows, fight off hustlers on the beach, go to a circus show, drink margaritas and mojitos. We play loud games back at the hotel and go for a midnight swim. Time stretches, compresses, and this elasticity propels us into new year. We see 2021 in with something that resembles relief, even as we sprawl under the stars with cicadas whistling and all the dirty luxury of the Caribbean draped around us.

It is the promise of redemption and renewal that New Year brings; the clicking of astronomical gears that will surely return the world to safe kilter. This year will bring some kind of cosmic rebalancing I think, but this becomes an uneasy thought. Those of us who have floated away from the hardships of the pandemic like moths through the jail bars, where will we end up when the wheel of fate turns?

We test out 2021 gingerly: we find a sheltered bay, climb the cliffs, take pictures, get our cars stuck in the sand, eat pizza, have a beach run, make risotto, sleep off last year’s excesses. It all feels suspiciously like it did before. I stand on a rock outcropping at one point and frown out to sea, sun-dazed, spun-out and empty headed, wanting to think of something profound on that first bright day of the year. Then a huge wave surges up out of nowhere and I get soaked through.

No Direction Home

Christmas is coming on like a freight train. Our festive plan was originally to skip across the border to Nicaragua, but everyone we speak to grimaces and shakes their head. Security is so bad right now, they say, hurricanes, revolution, covid, crime, poverty. So we’ve done an about-turn, and decided to go the other way instead. We will head to Puerto Viejo on the Caribbean south coast for Christmas, then we’ll skip across to Panama for New Year. As we’re currently up on the Pacific north coast this will mean diagonally crossing the country – a 500km drive along some pretty poor roads.

Various bear traps lie in our path: our Costa Rican visa expires on Christmas Eve, so does our car hire agreement and our travel insurance too. We haven’t bought a single present yet, and perhaps more pressingly we have nowhere to stay. It is now the 21st December and time is running out.

Directionless and uncertain we start start bumbling our way cross country anyway, for we have been kicked out of our house in Playa Grande. We stop en route to spend a couple of days with London friends, Ohad and Yael, who are on holiday here, bravely travelling with a cluster of four small daughters. This is not a family who believes in relaxing on the beach. No, they have built themselves instead a challenging itinerary of volcano hikes and climbs in the rainy highlands and it is all laid out carefully on a spreadsheet. They are data scientists. We intend to insert ourselves carefully into this schedule for a couple of days as we work our way across the country. Overlay some of their order onto our chaos.

Our rendezvous is on Volcano Tenorio.  It is a four hour drive and we rattle up in our dirty jeep, surfboards bouncing on the roof, only forty minutes late. We have an inflated belief that we are now Costa Rica experts and will be called upon over the next couple of days to deliver a series of impromptu lectures on local flora and fauna, offer some well-meaning snippets of advice.

Falling out of the car in our dirty vests and broken trainers, we immediately see that they are much better prepared for this expedition than we are. Stout walking boots, utility trousers, headwear, large camera, bulging backpacks, exotic kit (a UV ‘black light’ torch whose sole purpose is making scorpions glow in the dark!). Furthermore they seem to be very well researched and with some prodigious wildlife sightings already under their belts (tarantulas, crocodiles, sloths, something called a olingo that I have never even heard of). As we set off on the trail, we find ourselves upstaged: recipients of travel tips, students of wildlife facts.

It is interesting to be back with other humans again. Over the months on the road, as new landscapes have unfolded our social sphere has shrunk, particularly for the kids. Travelling families are rare; local kids don’t hang out at hotels or on jungle tours and when we do meet them Arthur and Matilda have only the most basic rudiments of Spanish and are shy and uncommunicative. So they hang out with us instead. All day, every day, in close proximity. Since arriving in Costa Rica three weeks ago, we have stayed in nine different places – hotels, tents, cabins, hostels. We have all shared a single room for seven of the nine. Now, reunited with their schoolfriends, our kids are suddenly flutter off like leaves in the wind. It feels like having a plaster ripped off – a sudden tear then the forgotten touch of air and sunlight.

Matilda and Shiraz flit along the trails, hand in hand, whispering secrets to each other like a pair of woodland ghosts. Arthur and Eden run, climb, shout, they hang upside down, try to outwit each other and fabricate animal sightings. Menna and I find ourselves deep in grown up conversation. We are rusty.

We trek along the trails and find the psychedelic turquoise waters of Rio Azul. The Ticos say that after painting the sky, God washed the blue out of his brushes in the waters here, but Yael tells us it is aluminosilicate particles expanding in the acidic volcano waters. We cross Indiana jones style rope bridges and see a bold coati that saunters past us like he owns the place. Further on we see an obese family feeding it chocolate bars. Ohad catches a lizard.

It is a new thing for us not to own our time and pace. We are swept along, passive to someone else’s agenda. In a busy 24 hour period we complete the Rio Celeste hike at Volcano Tenorio, then drive cross country over to Volcano Arenal. I blow out a tire on a mountain road and have to do an exciting pit stop with a local lad who is sitting on the roadside. We stay the night in a hotel that reminds me of the Overlook in the Shining, swapping kids between rooms so they can have sleepovers with their friends. We listen to Ohad’s statistical analysis of Covid lockdown efficiency and we play chess. In the morning we loop our way around the 17 hanging bridges of Mistico Sky Park (and spot a Motmot), we grab lunch in La Fortuna (and spot a toucan) then more waterfalls and a swim in the rocky pools (and spot a sloth with a baby on its back). Arthur and Eden are very taken by the big rope swing that drops into the rocky pool and do it time and time again, chattering with the cold.

All the time the spectre of Christmas looms. Yael and Ohad don’t celebrate Christmas and feel no stress – but we do, and our kids have picked up on it. They have no home address to put on their letters to Father Christmas, and are nervously asking if he will even come to find them in Costa Rica. At this point we can’t honestly say that he will.

Ghost Town

When we were last here in Playa Grande we lived with a wild crowd. There was Rob, a Bahamian drug dealer who had done some fairly serious jail time in Miami. I forget his girlfriend’s name but she was pretty with semi-dreadlocks. She had lived through tough times and this had left her with a vicious streak and a tendency to hysteria. Then there was Benny, an alcoholic chef, flushed and vitriolic at work in the kitchen then soft and wet-faced in the early hours; he would occasionally proposition Menna and then pull me aside to apologise, sagging and spitting into my ear. There was another English boy there too at the time: Ollie. They called me posh, but he was posher. He worked as a hotel manager nearby. His parents would periodically send him food parcels and once a hamper from Fortnum & Masons, which he would consume unabashed, occasionally throwing tidbits to the crowd of ravening travellers lounging around.

Other surfers, punks and lost souls drifted in an out of Casa Iguana. We surfed and smoked weed, got loaded, played pool at Kike’s joint. Someone would come home with five bucks of fresh tuna from the fishermen on the beach and we would eat it raw with chilli and tequila shots. We hung Benny’s bike from a tree once while he was passed out drunk in a hammock. It stayed there for a week.

Now we are back at our old haunt. We are staying in Casa Iguana once again, but over the intervening years it has shrunk, the big sunny garden has been divided with a wall and gravelled; shaded by tall cycads and leafy rubber trees. The place is run by a neurotic South African lady. The ghost of Rob is still sitting in the corner though. “You wanna bump?” he asks as I unpack the bags and stack the surfboards.

“The beach is this way.” says Menna brightly to the kids, “Let’s go and watch the sun set.” We have been in the car all day and now we can hear the waves, or perhaps it just that we need to step out of this garden that is full of shadows and nostalgia. We head out into the dust and sunlight of the road, but the access routes have changed and we go the wrong way, down into the forest, past barking dogs, on a winding swampy path that leads us for twenty minutes to the estuary edge.

We finally emerge from the twilight of the trees. We find the river mouth lit up like tin foil under strip lights and I am rocked by a deep sense of déjà-vu. For a few months in 2005 we lived in Tamarindo, on the other side of the river, and we used to paddle our surfboards across this estuary every day to seek out the better surf break. Sometimes if the tide was coming in fast and the water was high, we would get swept right up-river when we paddled homewards at dusk. Menna and I would wind each other up with tales of the huge apocryphal crocodile which was said to live in the muddy river waters. It turned out the crocodile wasn’t so apocryphal after all. It surged out of the water a couple of years ago and took a bite out of an elderly man who was standing in the water. It mangled his leg pretty bad and he had to have it amputated. The victim was a high court judge and he took the town to court, won himself a big pay out. The upshot is that these days you can’t paddle across the river any more, but have to use one of the boatmen that sit like mosquitos on the water, whistling at you from their dugouts.

Today we don’t want to cross the estuary to Tamarindo anyway, we want to walk back around the headland to get home. The sunset is pretty much over and it wasn’t a good one anyway. The moon will be full tonight and we have a springs tide at its peak, running high and stormy. Waves are swamping the beach, throwing foam and flotsam right up to the tree line. We can’t walk around the point to make the main stretch. We get soaked trying and are forced by the waves back into the undergrowth. We clamber back over broken foliage, get scratched by brambles, sink into waterlogged sand. The ghost of Benny rattles dimly along the forest path behind the tree line. He is weaving erratically on his bike and shouting something I don’t understand. Matilda falls over and cuts herself. Dark is falling.

We finally make it back to our apartment, which is both hotter and smaller than we remember. We bargained hard on rent and in a last negotiation twist, the neurotic South African lady removed the air conditioning remote and will only give it back for another $10 a night. A thin phantom dreadlocked girl sits in the hammock and nods with a tight smile at this righteous manoeuvre. The kids don’t understand what is so special about this cramped apartment anyway; they are tired of listening to our old stories and don’t want to share a bed in a cramped room. Without the chatter of the ghosts and the film of drunken stories the place is just a rundown set of rooms. “This place is absolutely totally nowhere near as good as our last house” says Matilda definitively.

The surf is glorious though over the next few days, mellow and glassy, visible lines stretching right out to the horizon. Arthur and I surf morning and night. The break is near empty yet at the same time it is crowded with ghosts and memories. I fail to catch a cracking wave and watch as Rob slips silently into the barrel. “I missed so many good waves while I was inside,” goes his calypso lilt as he paddles back out afterwards, “Now I’ve got my freedom again man, I’m just gonna catch right up.”

And over there is Bob on his sky blue epoxy board, paddling and hollering. Behind him is the German man we call Jesus, with his flowing blond hair and Teutonic precision, his girlfriend on the beach applauding another text-book ride. There are those dark Mexican brothers with the perfectly trimmed beards and the film-star cut-backs. I can see that scary muscle guy with the neck tattoos who keeps snaking my waves. A crowd of ghosts live in this ocean and they are waiting for us every evening. Together we see in the sunsets, call out the sets, we fight for the peaks and float in the lulls.

But Arthur is out there too, my own warm little surfer boy, my flesh and blood; full of life; smiling and chatting non-stop, wanting to make sure that I’ve seen every single wave he’s caught. He silences the ghosts and pulls me back to the present.

Trouble in Paradise

It is a perfectly timed crime. Arthur and I are out surfing, the girls have just arrived on the beach, half hour behind us, bringing the school bags. Matilda is now doing spins on her bodyboard in the white water while Menna guards camp.

The light is perfect and the waves are good. Menna steps away – just a few feet down towards the water to take photos. This is enough. While her back is turned, they slip silently out of the mangroves, snatch both of our bags, and melt back through the wall of leaves and twisted branches.

We chase them of course, right out of the water, all bare-foot and salty. Or rather we chase shadows and the idea of who they might be. Menna and Arthur run over the rickety walkway back home to find our car and then tour all the coast roads, peering suspiciously at anyone they pass, checking in litter bins for discarded possessions. Matilda and I push into the mangroves and come across a tracery of overgrown trails that lead back into the darkness. We find the first bag ripped open and dumped just behind the tree line, our swimming costumes, goggles and towels not worth their effort. Of the rest of our stuff there is no trace.

We talk to a pair of lazy police officers, who are reluctant to leave their car, and we ask at Lola’s Beach Bar. This kind of theft is fairly common, we hear, there have been a few this year. Nicaraguans probably, or Colombians. Or someone from somewhere else anyway, indicates our waiter, smoothly shifting all blame to those symbolic ‘others’.
“They will have been watching you” he adds ominously over his shoulder as he walks off to serve a new table. A local gringo emerges from the undergrowth, barefoot and carrying a machete, and is initially a suspect but then he speaks long and bitterly about the time he himself was robbed, and his theories about the thieves.
“They dig holes in the floor man and they stash the shit in there.” He says, waving vaguely at the mangroves, “So you can’t catch them with your stuff. And then they’ll walk out all casual. Someone’ll come back later after dark to collect it all. Assholes!”

We hold a family council in Lola’s. The police aren’t going to help, the locals aren’t interested, we are on our own. The school bag contained a lot of stuff: two iPads, a laptop, a GoPro, Menna’s diary, the kids school books, pencil cases, suncream. None of it is covered by insurance.

We will head into the mangrove swamp, we decide. We will follow the paths and look for tracks, try to see signs of fresh digging. Perhaps they have discarded some of our less valuable stuff – the books and diaries will just be excess weight to them. Perhaps they are still in there and we still surprise them with a crafty little ambush. The hunter will become the hunted!

We buckle up with our remaining possessions and walk along the beach. We find an entry point and plunge into the mangroves. It is dense in there and there is lots of scratchy undergrowth, thorns pull at our shins and leave toxic scratches that burn long afterwards. It is nearing noon and the day is hot, but we have no water – they have stolen all but one of our bottles. Things move in the undergrowth and we wonder how many of Costa Rica’s twenty three species of venomous snake are native to the mangrove. I am only wearing flip flops. At the beginning we carefully note each broken twig, and stop to examine indentations in the mud.
“Fresh footprints” Arthur mutters knowingly “probably half an hour old”, relishing his role as child sleuth. After while our conversation gets more sparse as we get hotter and more parched, then it dries up completely. We grimly fight our way onwards.

Sometimes we step ankle deep into swamp mud and pull back hastily, for who knows what is squirming away down there beneath that thin surface crust? The tracks twist and fork and I find them disorienting – the mangroves go back half a kilometre inland and run for several kilometres along the beach. Arthur and I get separated from the girls and then we quickly get lost. The impracticality of this quest is starting to weigh upon me. What if we do suddenly come across a gang of hardened Colombian thieves in their swamp hideout? What will we do then? Wave Arthur’s penknife and the one remaining water bottle at them, then perform a citizens arrest? Mosquitos bite our ankles and spiders get in our hair, magpies shout mockingly at us from the canopy.

We decide to call it a day and head blindly towards the sound of the ocean. The path has disappeared and so we must fight our way out through brambles and the clutch of dead wood fingers. We finally emerge hot and sweaty out of a thicket, right behind an elderly couple sunbathing on the beach.

We walk back along the sand to join the girls. Arthur and I have a deep discussion about materialism, wealth inequality and the ethics of punishment. But as Arthur sets out his case for knifing the thieves to death in the mangroves I am only half listening. I am distracted by a noise in the background, carried faintly on the wind. It sounds like a far-off chuckle, drifting out from the woods.

They are in there somewhere. In their underground den perhaps, beneath the hollow tree. They are reading Menna’s diary and listening to my playlists on Spotify. The kid’s drawings are pinned up neatly on their wall. They are writing this blog post on my iPad.

And we are not from Colombia cabrón! We are Venezuelan!

Beach Bums

Guanacaste is the northern Pacific region of Costa Rica. The hottest region in the country, it was once covered in tropical dry forests. In the seventies, much of this was cut back to make way for cattle ranches but now under government sustainability programs you can see stretches of new growth as the land is rewilded and reforested. It is still cowboy country though, where they breed bulls and ride hardy Spanish criollo horses.

It is also where the best surf breaks are found and consequently where Menna and I made our home when we lived here in 2005. Cold and damp from the cloud forest, run-down, a little stressed, we make our way back there now.

We choose the beach of Avellanas as our base. This was a secret spot for us all those years ago and we share bleached memories of endless waves, pelicans, creamy banano con leche under the palm trees. Menna got tumbled in a barrel here and sliced her back to the bone on a fin, leaving a perfect crescent scar that we agreed was better than any tattoo. I think it was here too that I once saw a sting ray leap straight up out of the water. There was a difficult river you had to drive through back then, so Avellanas would be inaccessible for most of the wet season and somewhat off the main tourist circuit, but the surf here was always worth the trip. The wave was famous for holding a perfect shape in almost all conditions.

The area has been developed of course in the intervening years. There is a paved road now, more cabins and hostels, a handful of beachfront bars. Overall though the feeling is much the same: a dusty, sun-dappled, village where nothing moves fast except the hollow right at Little Hawaii peak; it is an outpost for the more adventurous expat settlers (mainly Dutch and Canadian). We stay with a delightful Quebecois couple who have just emigrated to Costa Rica to work remotely, learn surfing and run a handful of eco-cabinas down in the shade by the river.

Fine sands, rock pools and crazy sunsets, a dark mangrove jungle framing the beach – the location lulls us. We loosen our grip, let down our weary guard. It is hard to be street smart in a place with no paved streets and we need a break. We don‘t think about bogey men hiding away in the shadow of the trees. When you are in the sunshine you don’t remember the clouds.

It’s nice to be back here again after all these years, Menna and I whisper to each other. Who would have thought that one day we would be surfing here with our kids. It’s like a dream!

We go to a night market at the skatepark and eat burgers and drink beers with the expat crowd while Artie loops relentlessly around the concrete bowl with a pack of feral skater kids. We light an evening bonfire in our garden. We befriend a huge locust in our outdoor kitchen. Arthur and I get stung by jellyfish in the waves. Our alarm clock is the roar of howler monkeys in the trees above our cabin, as they define their territorial limits at 5am each morning.

We ease into a routine that is perhaps too relaxed, too predictable. Breakfast at six, early morning surf, morning homeschool at our favourite beach bar, Lola’s, where we can always find good coffee, cold smoothies and fast wifi. Then a picnic lunch, a siesta, a sunset surf, dinner, games, bed.

For three days we float around like this in a happy state of sun-dazed lassitude. But on day four they get us…

An intelligent hell would be better than a stupid paradise.

Victor Hugo

Jungle Extraction

Once we have made the decision to go to hospital it all becomes a race. We bundle everything into our bags, wolf down a coffee and say a hurried goodbye to a worried Josh, Meg and Marlowe who we are now abandoning alone in the middle of nowhere.

Felipe our hotel manager is full of exciting options: a helicopter airlift out of La Leona perhaps or a private jet charter from that little disused jungle airstrip over in Carate? We are carried along by this for a while – (Menna thinks I’m about to haemorrhage and wants a speedy extraction) but we lose enthusiasm when we understand that this will run to several thousands of dollars which we cannot claim back. There is always the internal flight from Puerto Jiminez to San Jose this afternoon, offers Felipe, a little deflated, I could fly ahead while the rest of the family follows by car. We work out timings and see that although the drive to San Jose will take nearly twelve hours, if we set off now we can arrive about the same time the flight does anyway. It will cost considerably less and we will all be together.

Felipe is disappointed but like a trooper he guns up the quad bike, hitches on the baggage trailer, and drives us back along the beach to Carate at full throttle. It is a hot and exhilarating ride and I forget for a while that I am supposed to be ill, taking selfies and spotting hawks along the way. We then clamber into our car, finding it hot and humid with a strange smell after five days parked in the jungle rain.

We drive three hours back to civilisation, jolting our way through the Osa peninsula over mud-drifts and trenches, fallen branches, rocks and rivers. We make it to Puerto Jiminez by midday and pick up a paved, though heavily potholed road. We then settle into an eight hour drive up to the capital, made much longer by the weekend traffic clogging up the roads into the city.

As long as I am upright I am able to breathe fine. I do much of the driving in a tripped-out half-awake state, while Menna taps up a network of medical contacts, gets recommendations for doctors, digs out insurance details (for several horrific hours we can’t find any record of my policy at all. Did the transaction not go through?). She evaluates hospitals, chats with specialists, books accommodation, checks my stats.

Menna is amazing in a crisis, I think to myself as I sing along to eighties hits on the radio, occasionally spitting blood out the window. The kids are unusually quiet and well-behaved throughout the long journey.

When we walk into Emergencias there is a nurse waiting for me and I am able to sink into the torpor and passivity that hospitals are designed to create. The check-in is like arriving at a hotel chain, they copy passport details, fill out forms, give me a smiling welcome and then take a large dollar deposit on my credit card. Then I get a blood pressure cuff on my arm, thermometer in my mouth, COVID swabs up my nose, cannula into my wrist. Blood goes out, pills go in, radiation goes through. X-Rays and CT Scans show a cloudy view of my inner landscape. Doctors mutter and confer and tell me half the story. Menna asks probing medical questions and they open up fully to her.

This is a well-rehearsed drill that I am familiar with, and as I am poked and punctured, I am able to lazily rate this hospital against various other ones I have stayed in over the years. NHS hospital have a certain flavour: they are bustling, full, usually slightly tattered but with an underlying sense of heart that I always find touching. They have cream walls with scuff marks, overworked stern nurses, those ancient iron wheelchairs, eclectic art, hidden interior gardens, children’s wards with peeling underwater murals.

I once stayed some weeks in an Italian hospital after a road accident, and it had a unique sense of Latin verve – constant bubbling volume, flamboyant and inefficient doctors, crowds of relatives chatting and eating pasta round the bed where grandpa lay dying, barely suppressed chaos everywhere.

The CIMA hospital in San Jose, on the other hand, is silent, clean, new, empty. Its spotless white and grey palette doesn’t seem to reflect the diverse and colourful country of Costa Rica. Everyone here speaks quietly and deferentially and you can’t see any of their features behind the layers of PPE. It feels like a hospital in a sci-fi film.

Eventually I am moved into a room on the top floor, overlooking the mountains. I am given a fetching set of yellow pyjamas. The doctors agree that my lung is full of blood, but they don’t know why, so I stay overnight and go into theatre the next morning for a bronchoscopy: a probe with a fibre optic camera is sent down my throat, deep into my lungs to investigate further.

It turns out that I have ruptured a blood vessel deep in my left lung and it is leaking like a burst pipe. The diagnosis is haemoptysis caused by extreme coughing. The surgeon removes the clots and hoses it all down to stop the bleeding, he squirts in some antibiotics to prevent infection, all while I slumber peacefully on the operating table.

I wake up a few hours later in my room, feeling surprisingly good. I have not eaten for 24 hours and when a nurse brings me a steak and ice cream I nearly burst into tears. It must be the cocktail of anaesthetics and sedatives still washing around my system I tell myself. My room is peaceful, the view is good, I am well rested, I can breathe again. Menna and the kids pop up for a visit, we do some homeschooling but then they disappear again on a mission to the skatepark. I settle back into bed and find a superhero movie on TV.

I ask the doctors if they will let me stay a couple more nights.

A most malicious cough!

Oliver Twist. Charles Dickens.

Masque of the Red Death

The blood coughs became more frequent over our stay in the Corcovado. I tell Menna but no one else. Her hypothesis is that I have a minor laceration somewhere in my lung. I managed to inhale a mouthful of nuts last week and I was bent double in an epic coughing fit that lasted around twenty minutes. Perhaps my lung tissue has been nicked by a sharp fragment of peanut. I like this theory, because we are a very long way from civilisation right now, so I certainly wouldn’t want it to be anything more scary like tuberculosis or lung cancer. Once I tell Menna about a medical problem there is a sense of delegation, a transfer of ownership, and I generally cease to worry about it. Whatever the cause, I have developed a deep melodious cough with a frothy gurgling undertone that isn’t entirely unpleasant, a bit like blowing bubbles through a straw. It brings a salty iron taste to my throat. The blood I spit out is profuse and shocking in it’s red glow; freshly oxygenated, it looks so vibrant – so healthy!

We go on a long jungle trek and see herds of peccaries in a hurry; they are being pursued, we are told, by an invisible puma. We see groups of coati with glossy black fur, striped tails held high, hunting the purple and orange halloween crabs that infest the sandy walkways at the forest’s edge. We watch a rare white hawk circling silently through the branches of a huge Guanacaste tree, flitting round and round like a jungle phantom. She was hunting howler monkeys, waiting until the mothers slept to snatch a baby from their grasp. We waded across rivers that may have been frequented by crocodiles, although we didn’t see any – which I suppose is the way with crocodiles, until they have a hold of your leg. At the end of the walk I take myself away quietly and cough for a while on the beach. Menna pats my back. Matilda comes up to us and is very disturbed to see a wet pool of blood between my feet in the sand. We pass it off as a cut lip. She nods silently and wanders off.

When we surf again that evening I am caught inside by a set of waves. Held underwater and unable to breathe for a long while, I splutter as I surface and then my gasping causes more coughing. I try to swallow down the blood as I am scared that I will attract sharks.

The fourth night of our stay in the jungle is the worst yet. I cannot lie flat without gargling and choking. I drift in and out of sleep propped up on pillows on my single camp bed.

In the darkness I relive old M*A*S*H tv episodes where sweating soldiers bleed out in tropical field hospital tents; I float down the oily jungle waters of Apocalypse Now in thrall to some undefined twilight danger, pulled towards horrific moments of dark self-realisation. I think of the descent into fever and tropical madness in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness; I retrace Allie Fox’s tracks in Thoreaux’s Mosquito Coast, knowing that I too have dragged my family deep into the jungle on a wild quixotic quest that can only lead to death and disaster. I think of Kafka slowly dying of consumption and Yeats, Orwell (did Camus go this way too?).

I piece together fragments of poetry and worry away at scraps of lines: piecing together Dulce et Decorum Est in the early hours, dwelling on the blood that comes ‘gargling forth from froth corrupted lungs’, repeating the line over and over to myself. I remember the masked figure that moves silently through the ball in Poe’s gothic tale Masque of the Red Death. Prince Prospero and his men were hiding from the plague too, I remind myself, naively thinking they could lock themselves away and outlast the disease – but the chime of midnight brought darkness, ‘and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all…’

Menna is awake most of the night of course, watching me cough and bubble and mutter to myself, staggering up to spit blood into the loo and replace my damp clutch of tissues. There is no electricity in our tent and we don’t want to wake the kids, but when the sun rises at 5:30 she examines me. One side of my chest is no longer rising as I breathe, the lung is hard and full of blood.

We agree that it is time to get to a hospital.

And now was acknowledged the presence of the Red Death. He had come like a thief in the night. And one by one dropped the revellers in the blood-bedewed halls of their revel, and died each in the despairing posture of his fall… And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all

The Masque of the Red Death Edgar Allen Poe

The Landlord

On our second day in Corcovado I wake early, around five am, and go down to the beach to look for nesting turtles before the sun rises.  I walk for a couple of kilometers but see nothing, so I creep back into camp, grab my surfboard and paddle out for a sunrise surf. I make my way through the break and out to deep water, and then there is a moment when the sea softens and quietens, flattening like a mirror as the first rays of sun break over the horizon. I am totally alone in the limitless ocean and it is one of those quasi-religious experiences. It is briefly marred by another round of coughing, and there is the blood again. I spit it out in bright red swirls that float on the water’s surface.  There is no pain and I feel physically fine, it is just like my body has decided to remove some excess ballast. It passes. I float on.

A couple of minutes later a fin slowly breaches the water dead in front of me, very close. It glides along silently for a few metres and then sinks back under the surface. I am mentally far-away in that moment and I watch it with detachment. Dolphin or shark? I ask myself. How amazing it would be if a bottle-nosed dolphin was to suddenly jump out of the water and maybe come to play. I lie down on my board and carefully lift my legs out of the water. I see the fin again a few seconds later, now five meters to my left, gliding smoothly away. It is a substantial fin, not sharp at the tip but slightly rounded, a deep charcoal grey and matte; sunlight does not seem to reflect off it. Then a third time in the distance it breaches again, still on the same bearing, heading away up the coast. I lie and ponder things for a minute, but then the swell picks up and the set comes through. I catch a long ride through many rolling sections, right in to the beach. It is a good enough wave that I decide to paddle back out for more.

I catch another three or four waves until I see Meg on the beach, waving furiously at me and beckoning. I can see that she is anxious and I paddle in hurriedly, thinking that one of the kids had been bitten by a snake. It turns out to be no less of a tragedy: Meg has seen an anteater being savaged by one of the guard dogs in the camp. The dog was pulled off, but the wounded creature has limped away along the beach into the undergrowth by the water’s edges to die. We can hear it panting and rustling in a nest of fig vines that tangle back into the sandbank. I am very keen to see an anteater and we attempt to lure it out with coaxing noises, thinking perhaps that we might nurse it back to health, tame it, adopt it. Unsurprisingly it does not come out.

After breakfast we meet Alvaro, a local guide who we have booked to take us deep into the Corcovado jungle. I tell him about my fin story and he chuckles.
“Dolphin? No! A dolphin is swimming with leaps and jumps. No, no, no. My friend it is a shark that moves in straight lines with the fin like this,” Does a gliding move with his hand. “It is mainly bull sharks we have here, but he will look at you and think you are too big. He is going to the river mouth. A tuna or mahi-mahi is nicer for him. Bueno! It is worse for you if you get a crocodile in the sea moving between the rivers.”

Josh and I check this out on the internet later and got a stern list of shark risk factors: surfing alone, at dawn, near a river and various others. It seemed that I had broken every single rule. Nonetheless the three of us go surfing again that evening, but this time we take Arthur along as bait.

I never got a sense of threat from that smooth gliding fin, rather an insulting lack of interest, as I think back on it. There was no change of course as it cruised past me. We simply cohabited for a moment in the waves.

In surfing slang, sharks have many names: ‘the men in grey suits’ sometimes or the ‘Noahs’ (a cockney riff I suppose on ‘Noah’s arks’). My favourite term though has always been ‘the Landlord’. It has the gravitas that this apex predator is due. We humans are out of our milieu in the sea, we float and submerge ourselves temporarily for kicks, then we return to dry land. As unreliable short-term tenants of the ocean we might get our eviction notice at any point. We must know our place, make sure to pay our dues and never disrespect the Landlord.

Avoid swimming at dusk, dawn or night since some sharks are more active during these times.

Avoid entering the ocean near a river mouth

Avoid entering the ocean with a bleeding wound.

Do not surf, dive or swim alone

“How Common Are Shark Attacks in the Beaches of Costa Rica?” The Costa Rica Star

The End of the World

There’s a dead macaw in the sand. Arthur finds him on our first afternoon and calls me over excitedly. He was damming a stream and suddenly he spotted the bird there, propped up on a tangle of roots with wings half-open, reclining. He has clearly been dead for a while and the vultures and coatis have been busy. Much of the upper body has been eaten away but his head is still there, attached by a length of vertebrae. His beak is closed, his eyes are open. We hook a long stick into the base of the skull and pick him up with it; he is surprisingly heavy. We take him ‘flying’ over to where the girls are sitting. Menna loves macaws.

After all the screaming is done, we start to feel bad about the desecration of such a magnificent creature, so we take him back, retracing the trail of vivid red and blue feathers to his final resting place. Earlier that morning I had been walking along the beach in the mist, searching for a wayward son. I was seized then by a coughing fit that came out of nowhere and surprised to find my mouth full of blood. I spat it out, and it made bright red frothy trails on the white sand. Now looking at the confusion of scarlet feathers I am reminded of that secret moment and then I wonder what it would be like to find yourself propped up, dying, on this beach. We place our Macaw upright against a tree, looking out over the ocean. The next morning he is gone, reclaimed by the jungle.

This is a wild land that we find ourselves in. There is nothing for several miles in either direction of us, just an endless sand strip that fades away into cloud and water, a dark line of jungle behind, large birds of prey circling above. Waves smash down on the beach with a relentless roar. It is haunting and obviously beautiful, not like a postcard scene, but in a lonely and savage kind of way.

Together with our friends Josh and Meg, and their daughter Marlowe, we’re staying in an eco camp out by the Leona ranger station on the edge of the Corcovado National Park, a place that National Geographic calls “one of the one of the most biologically intense places in the world”. All that separates us from this biological intensity is thin canvas, for we sleep in safari tents under the strangler figs. We must carefully shake out any folded towels before use, we are told, as scorpions or snakes often crawl inside. We seven are the first visitors to the camp since March and it seems that in the interim the jungle has moved to reclaim it: twisted roots and hanging lianas have swallowed the rearward row of tents; the spa cabin is now nothing but collapsed bamboo struts and palm shoots, and has been colonised by Capuchin monkeys; the hammocks are covered in moss and lichen. We have a cheery hotel manager and a cook staying somewhere on site. A food delivery comes daily by cart. The bar is empty.

To get here we had to drive to the southern outpost of Puerto Jiminez, an erstwhile  gold-mining and logging centre, now a dusty jump-off point for eco-travellers wanting to provision before heading into the wilds.  We handed over a large amount of cash there to a chatty big man with a tour-operator’s wolfish smile. He directed us onwards – three hours bouncing over potholed dirt tracks, driving fast against a tight deadline – to make a rendezvous with the pony cart before high tide. We forded several rivers, saw brown water pouring through our engine grills and agreed to forget the car rental disclaimers that very specifically forbade us from doing this. We crossed wooden bridges one car at a time. We stopped to photograph monkeys, coatis, toucans, caracaras picking ticks from oxen. We reached the end of the dirt road and abandoned our vehicles besides a disused airstrip in Carate, and in the driving tropical rain we set out on foot for a further five kilometres along the beach to find our camp. We were late and we missed our rendezvous with the cart driver, so we left our luggage piled up in a palm frond shack, not knowing if we would ever see it again. 

Now we are here at the end of the world and as the sun goes down, everything bleeds into crimson: red-gold stains of sunset, a swirl of scarlet feathers, the veins of my eyelids lowered against the glare, secret blood streaks in the sand. There is single macaw that flies low across the beach, squawking, and I wonder if it is the surviving member of the pair. These birds are said to partner for life. She is calling out to her mate perhaps, wondering where he has gone.

When the eagles are silent, the parrots begin to jabber

Winston Churchill

Welcome to the Jungle

Arthur and I are somewhere in Los Quetzales cloud forest, high on the mountain face. We are starting to wonder if we have made a mistake. A jungle after dark is a scary place, full of whispers and insinuation. Spider webs brush across our faces and we have no idea how large or how venomous are the weavers. Roots twist and curl under our feet – or are they snakes? Things fly at us out of the darkness. It has been raining most of the afternoon and the path is slippy, the undergrowth around is thick. Our head torches cast thin beams straight ahead, but the light bounces back off wet leaves and the shadows behind have the glistening fluidity of ink. Every time I look towards Arthur he dazzles me with his torch and I lose my night vision.

This is our first foray into the forest, and venturing out at sunset was misjudged. The girls turned back a kilometre ago and now Artie is starting to get that quaver in his voice that says that his courage is failing. But we are men! We don’t admit fear or acknowledge our mistakes. Misadventure is a burden we must bear. We are still on the trail at least, or I think we are.

“Do you think we should turn back soon Dad?” It is the opening I need.

Happy to go back if that’s what you want…”

“Is it what you want?”

“Well, I could go on a bit. But I don’t want you to be scared.”

“I’m not scared! I just feel a bit tired. Hungry I mean. Hungry and tired.” Next to us in the undergrowth something large suddenly rustles and I jump.

“Jaguar!” I shout. It is intended as a joke but I get the volume wrong and Arthur leaps like a gazelle. His sudden movement startles me, and then we are both running, slipping, slithering our way back down the trail, through the spider webs and over the snakes. We are both hungry and we are tired, but we are not scared. It is time to go home.

We take the trail again at 5:45am next morning. Walking through the forest at sunrise is a whole different experience. Although once again we are in near complete darkness when we start, it is not so terrifying. We can feel the house lights are being gradually raised, black turns to grey and then to drab green. Olive notes show through then mossy tones, it gets brighter, deeper, until finally around us is every shade of green imaginable. At a point we know that the sun has hit the canopy because the leaves are glowing and painted in impossible colours and some have gold lining. The bird song gets louder and wilder. There is a ticking humming, buzzing that seems to rise from the forest floor. We come across gullies and streams, deep clearings with mossy floors, pockets of mist, sudden sunbeams slanting through the trees. We see a toucanet, hummingbirds, a flock of large black and white birds. There are always movements in our peripheral vision.

After about an hour hiking we emerge from the forest at the top of the mountain and into the sunlight. We find ourselves in coffee and avocado fields. A huge valley stretches out below, vultures and eagles circle above. We walk back down the mountain like heroes and have rice and beans for breakfast.

This is the start of our jungle life. By the time we leave Cedrela Eco Lodge two days later, Arthur and I have done the 5km jungle trail four times. We are hungry for more off-grid adventuring. When Menna and I were last in Costa Rica fifteen years ago, our focus was firmly on surfing, bars and beach life. This time around we are chasing nature not waves.

We move from the highland cloud forests of Quetzales down to the humid tropical jungle of Manuel Antonio and see monkeys at last – capuchins and squirrel monkeys – a huge emotional moment for the kids. We meet a tribe of iguanas on a deserted beach, a ranger points out the deadly fer-de-lance, Costa Rica’s most venomous snake, coiled on the edge of a path we have just walked. Fat agoutis scurry past us like dog-sized hamsters. The skies are alive and the kids are constantly spotting new birds, thumbing through their field guides to call out bright yellow kiskadees, hawks on telegraph wires, red tanagers, cinnamon hummingbirds, a pair of lineated woodpeckers. Then – raising the stakes – a pair of macaws blazing a rainbow streak against a misty blue evening (Matilda), a flock of toucans lunching on a fruit tree (Arthur).

We move on to Uvita where we stay in a ramshackle tree house up in the forest and get up close with the darker side of nature. There are scorpions in the beams, we see a poison dart frog on the terrace, a crocodile head surfaces in the lake, huge spiders give Matilda nightmares. We surf on black sand beaches and see more macaws flying against the forest backdrop, blood soaked and screaming murder.

‘More,’ we shout after two weeks of gorging ourselves on nature, ‘Iguanas no longer cut it, monkeys are commonplace. We need bigger game!’ Where are the tapirs and sloths, the anteaters and pumas? Where are the jaguars? We are forest experts now, hardened to insect bites, tuned into to patterns and shapes against the foliage. Our footfall is muffled, we communicate with hand signals, we dress in khaki and strap things to our belts. We need to get into real wilderness.

In the Osa Peninsula, at the southern most stretch of the Pacific coast, there is one vast untamed tract of proper primary rainforest that is said to contain sixty percent of all the biodiversity of Costa Rica and this is where we will head. We need to go to Corcovado.

Welcome to Gran Hotel Costa Rica

For the first two nights of our trip we stay in the Gran Hotel Costa Rica, an old haunt of ours in downtown San José.

This place is full of nostalgia for us; it is where I took Menna straight after she landed in September 2005. I had already been in country for three months at this point; wisely using that time not only to tour the land and find us a house to live in, but also to shave off all my hair, turn brown, lose ten kilos, lose my shoes, lose my manners, start wearing vests with local beer slogans and generally go native. Menna found it difficult to recognise me as I stood grinning at her in Arrivals, she later told me. She felt uneasy and lost. She imagined she had been kidnapped by a Mexican refugee.

¡Hola muchacha! Hey, you real pretty… Wanna ride in my car?

It was also here where we spent our last night in Costa Rica – happily restored by this point to a state of harmony and mutual recognition – and where we returned one set of good quality cotton sheets, now slightly frayed, which we had borrowed a year before and used in most of the cheap hostels throughout Central America.

The Gran Hotel Costa Rica has now been taken over by the Hilton chain and is recently refurbished. There is a slick new cocktail bar on the top floor now, but I’m sure it is the same tired old pianist who sits in the background, coaxing out another mournful rendition of Yesterday. The hotel is a lot smarter but I feel it has lost something of its ramshackle colonial charm along the way. I wonder if this is a sign of things to come, whether the fifteen years since we had last been here may have brought a kind of progress to Costa Rica that we might not find entirely welcome.

I look out of the window of our hotel room as the sun sets. At this moment the city is painted in a soft, forgiving light. The mosaic floor of the Plaza de la Cultura stretches out in front of us, then an ornate church, the Teatro Nacionál, a concrete tower block. I look past the shop lights and neon, beyond a sea of corrugated iron roofs, through barbed wire and electric cables and away to the cloud-topped mountains that surround the city.

I know the forests out there are teeming with nature in all its many forms. I can imagine the shifting, slithering, scuttling aliveness of it all. There will be furtive movements in the shadows, swinging shapes in the canopy, sudden bird calls, huge strangler figs silhouetted against the sky. Exotic bacteria are fizzing in the waters; snakes, frogs, sloths and howler monkeys hide among the leaves; jaguars slip through moonlit clearings; leeches wait to suck out our blood. It will be humid. There will be ancient layers of fungus and mud and leaf silt underfoot. All the sludge and the glory of the tropics is just there, outside our window, on the horizon.

After a couple of days in the city we all feel that it is time to head into the wild. Artie straps his new bush knife to his belt. We pick up a hire car, buy a map, pack up our room and check out. Wanting to set a good example for the children we do not borrow any sheets this time.

The jungle looked back at them with a vastness, a breathing moss-and-leaf silence, with a billion diamond and emerald insect eyes.

Ray Bradbury

Tropical Thunder

The thing that really hits you when you arrive in the tropics isn’t the crazy sights and sounds so much as the feeling of the place. A warm damp blanket wraps itself around you the moment you step off the plane. The air is thicker; it sits heavy on your skin. There is a smell too: musky, humid, slightly rotten perhaps. It says that this is a place of fertility but also of decay. The very atmosphere is teeming with life, but it will sap you and make you lethargic. You move slowly here, you must fight your way through an environment laden with micro organisms, with heat and entropy. You must live out the dog days.

We are already dog tired when we arrive. The lead up to this trip has been a nightmare of logistics, planning and bureaucracy; skills that don’t come naturally to us. We flew from Madeira to Lisbon, holed up in an airport hotel for 48 hours, disgorged our life possessions into our budget family room. We made piles of things to come and things to leave and like shifting sand dunes they rose and fell by the hour.

We did bag-loads of laundry. We disposed of clothes, pots, pans, shoes, a spare surfboard, packs of pasta, half-full bottles of chilli sauce, olive oil, whiskey and aftershave. We struck a deal with a guy called Pablo to store our car for six months in a marine warehouse among the unsold speedboats. We conducted hushed phone conversations and tapped laptops late into the night while the kids slept beside us. We had a sudden panic when we realised Costa Rican immigration would require proof of onward travel and we only had a one-way tickets, so we spent frustrating hours on a badly designed website trying to purchase cheap coach tickets to Nicaragua. We spent more hours trying to upload insurance policies to a Costa Rican immigration portal, fill out covid declarations on a Spanish health portal, book our surfboards onto an Iberian travel portal.

Then came the trip itself. A 4AM rise for our first flight from Lisbon to Madrid. Then the layover – eight dull hours in a deserted airport where most of the shops were shut down. Arthur and I were carrying our skateboards in hand luggage so we amused ourselves by buying a Go-Pro camera and filming an epic skate video until we got busted by security and threatened with ejection from the airport. The twelve hours from Madrid to San Jose really dragged, we were stuffy under our masks, trapped on a decrepit Iberia plane that offered no hot food, alcohol or anything much really.
“No hay cerveza señor. Es por Covid” bored shrug. We heard that a lot. Es por Covid – a catch all term for anything unwilling or unwanted, anything you can’t do or can’t be bothered to do, a conversation killer.

But now we’re here: San José, Costa Rica. A rambling, unlovely, low-rise town that has all the energy, diversity and frenetic activity that you would expect from a Central American capital. Our hotel sits above Avenida Central and here we can see the region in microcosm. Most the business happens out on the street: there are lottery sellers with their talismans and lucky numbers; touts with bus tickets offering routes anywhere right up to Mexico City and beyond; street artists clowning around; clusters of mestizo women in traditional Guatemalan dress sitting with their textiles laid out in front of them on sheets. Old Indian men with creased faces squat down, trilling bird calls on ceramic pipes; sellers of plantains and pig hide stroll around shaking packets in our faces. Behind the action there are shady guys with missing teeth and prison tattoos who sit on doorsteps and stare at us.

The shops here are open-fronted and amazingly eclectic or amazingly specific – one store seems to specialise in a mix of flip-flops, car radios and push chairs, while another sells only watch straps. We go into a hunting shop to buy Arthur a bush knife and are offered tazers and pepper spray, ‘perhaps a machete for sir…’. Many shops have a DJ in the doorway, mic in hand, blasting out pop and static, shouting at ladies and crooning the high notes. Everything is loud here, everything is bright. People grab you by the elbow as you try to walk. There are butchers with tinsel entwined around cuts of meat. There are grocers with mad fruits that I have never seen before.

There is one thing that unifies this chaos: Christmas is coming to San Jose and it is a serious matter. From the nut seller with the dirty Santa hat to the giant inflatable elf above the auto store, everyone has made an effort. Garlands, streamers, tinsel, fairy lights, Santas and festive skeletons are out on display. While the decorations are varied and extreme, it seems that everyone agrees there is only one Christmas song that is worth playing, so one may as well put it on repeat. It is José Feliciano’s Feliz Navidad, a catchy jingle approximately five minutes long and with a grand total of five different words. After a few minutes the kids are swaggering down Avenida Central belting it out. We have arrived.

Feliz Navidad

Feliz Navidad

Feliz Navidad

Próspero año y felicidad

Feliz Navidad

Feliz Navidad

Feliz Navidad

Próspero año y felicidad…