Ave Maria

“Maria!” calls Angel in a high falsetto. “Hola! Maria.” There is the sound of water trickling over leaves, wind in the canopy, far off birdsong. The forest is breathing around us but of Maria there is no sign. Arthur and I shuffle awkwardly but Angel gives us a reassuring smile. “Sometimes she is far away. She might need some time. Oh Mariiiia!” He cups his hands at his lips and lets out a mournful quavering hoot. “Venga, venga, venga!”

We walk up and down the forest trails following Angel. He rattles the tub of maggots, our gift. He makes his haunting calls. A perplexed note enters his voice, “Maria ¿donde estás? Yesterday she was just here,” and he indicates a thicket of vine leaves, as if we might pull aside that glossy curtain and find Maria crouched there, a wing coquettishly folded over her eyes. You found me!

“Who or what exactly is Maria anyway?” murmurs Arthur again. I shrug, I have no idea. Twice I have asked Angel this but he always responds in his birdwatcher’s whisper which, together with the thick Andean accent, makes things difficult. We should have done our research before the tour.
“He just said something about pitta,”
“Do you think you can just call a bird and it will come like a dog?”
“It doesn’t appear that you can.”

Angel seems crestfallen. Our sighting of the prized Andean Cock of the Rock was only a flash of scarlet tail feathers and now Maria has let him down too. The tour is going badly. Angel Paz is a titan of the birdwatching world and he has a reputation to uphold, even if it’s only in front of two gringos who clearly know little about birds. We might still write disparaging things on Trip Advisor. He mooches along for a while, then he pulls himself out of his gloom, he smiles. “There is still the quails to see,” he says waving at the wooded ridge above us, “We will find the dark backed wood quail here. Very rare. Very beautiful. Come, come!” Onwards and upwards we trek.

But wood quails will not come out to play today either. They are away with Maria. We squat for a long time on a little mountain trail above a clearing where they ‘always’ come. Angel makes new bird calls; lower with staccato throat sounds.

Arthur and I have a moment of mild excitement when it seems that his calls are answered. The response draws closer. The creature that emerges from the bush is no quail alas, but clearly cut from Angel’s genetic cloth. Stocky, dark, dressed in forest green, eyes like woodland pools. “Mi hermano Rodrigo”, Angel mutters to us, and they converse for a while in low voices, pacing, shaking their heads. Then Rodrigo melts back off into the jungle, his clucking and whistling soon lost amid the leaves that rustle in the wind.

It is nearing ten o’clock now and we have been out here in the woods since half past five. Slow dawn hours watching for birds, but all we have actually seen so far is a single fleeting blaze of red tail feathers through a gap in the trees.

The elusive Andean Cock of the Rock

We have not had any breakfast yet, no coffee even. I am getting grumpy and Arthur is bored, snapping twigs and hurling pieces into the undergrowth, badly imitating Angel’s bird hoots. Angel himself is reduced to showing us videos on his phone of other more successful tours when rare and beautiful quails pecked around camouflaged ankles as real ornithologists tower serious and awkward above them, bristling with long lenses and military-grade optics.

After we have had enough of staring at leaves we drive up to the mountain lodge and Angel’s wife brews us a coffee. “We have a bird watching hide somewhere over there,” indicates Angel sadly, “perhaps you might see something. There are plenty of tanagers and hummingbirds who come. They are not rare of course but they are pretty…”

The bird hide blows our mind. Strange crucifix wood sculptures are staked out in the woods with bananas tied onto them. A vivid blizzard of birds swarm around, wheeling, landing, jousting, swooping; fighting balletic midair duels for a peck of gloopy banana. We see a toucan barbet, tanagers of all colours, golden orioles, a fairywren, cotingas, trogons. I fumble around with Menna’s camera, which I have borrowed, but the autofocus can’t cope with the frenetic motion and I give up quickly.

Later Angel and Rodrigo march us back into the forest, down to a gully where to their delight we see both Shakira and Beyoncé. We are told with some reverence that they are rufous antpittas: small round brown birds, neckless, tailless, long blue legs; quite plump and cute as they hop around on the forest floor, but perhaps a little unflattering to their namesakes.

Arthur and I try to look interested but really we just want to go back to that rainbow glade, sit with a coffee, watch those hypnotic streaks of colour shoot across the mottled green like a Jackson Pollock painting in motion.

Angel sits himself down on a stump and a kind of calm settles on him. We have seen antpittas. He has delivered. The trip has been redeemed. Now it is time for a tale. It is about a child from a poor family, one of seven. He has little schooling and is destined for a life of labor in the fields, but a love of birds saved him. A tourist paid the young urchin ten dollars to lead him into the forest to find the Andean Cock of the Rock. A dream was born. A business was started

Then one day tracking deep in the mountains, our hero spotted a strange bird. A giant antpitta. So rare! So misunderstood! “I decided this bird with long legs and a big beak should be my friend” says Angel dreamily. So a strange courtship began, Angel calling and singing deep in the forest, bringing gifts of worms; shunned at first, his resolve tested, before the relationship began to bloom. “The forest was my new home. Day after day I try so hard to make friends with her…”

Shakira

I later look at Angel Paz’s website where this exact story is repeated almost word for word under the bold heading Antpitta Man. He has built a life and an identity around this small nondescript bird. He is famous in ornithological circles. He has created a bird sanctuary on reclaimed farming land. A true legend of the cloud forest.

I look at Angel’s crucifix necklace and think about his faith, his acts of devotion deep in the woods.
“You named her after the Virgin Maria?” I whisper, “Because of her purity, her spiritual nature? She is a miracle!”
“No! Maria I am naming after my wife. She is like this bird!”

I nod solemnly, appreciating the gesture. No greater love can man show his woman than to name a small fat bird after her. God willing I too may one day bestow this honour on my wife.

Maaarriiiia!

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.

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.

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.