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Solo in Costa Rica - Part 1

16th January 2012

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I am midway through my solo trip to Costa Rica, and I find myself dangling 164ft above the Monteverde Cloud Forest. I hang from two strained ropes, one soon to be released so I can fall and swoop through the sky at this great height.

Costa RicaThe surrounding air is cool and wet with traces of the morning's rain. Lingering ribbons of mist uncoil amongst the canopy trees below. I kick at the void beneath my feet and my last nerve whimpers its goodbye.

Above me, Quique's relentless voice tells me to look up and smile. It calls from a small, suspended platform. Delicate cobwebs of wire thread through the air. Apparently, my guide insists, this is a moment I am going to want captured on camera. I stare up at the beaming faces of the 'Swing Extremo' team, giving them my best grimace. Click. Flash.

Pura Vida!” Quique bellows, putting the camera away carefully in his pocket, “Are you ready? Let's go!”

“Countdown, please!” I squawk.

“Three, two, one!”

I am falling, stunned into silence. Panicked, I snatch at the air, believing something must have gone wrong. I pump my legs and scramble against my body weight. As the cold chill of fear begins to sicken me, I am caught.

I soar over the home of quetzal birds, jaguars and howler monkeys. A delighted cry of disbelief escapes me as I fly, staring down at the patchwork of green trees and epiphytes.

A cachete! You did it!” Quique's distant laughter trickles down to me. My new friends cheer loudly from the surrounding safety of the cliffs. My body sways and eventually settles to a halt. The forest is close now and I take in its detail. I pick out roots, vines and grassy clearings. I search for green parrots camouflaged among the green leaves. Flocks of them will often fly by, I've been told. I realise I am really doing what I came to Costa Rica to do. Overcoming fear after fear."

At the end of July 2011, during the summer between my second and third year of university, I travelled alone to Costa Rica. Although I joined an STA Travel tour group, this was the first time I would not know anyone before my arrival in another country. I have travelled alone extensively in the past, but always with a friend or relative waiting to greet me. It was a trip that has taught me to face my fears and not worry about the outcome. Often things turn out better than you expected.

My plane landed in San Jose, the country's capital city, late into the night. I grabbed a taxi to Hotel Ricon where I met my guide, Leonel Enrique “Quique” Parrales Jimenez. The group was made up of a British student named Emily Fulda, Julius Urbutis from Lithuania (who spoke fluent English) and a recently married couple from East Australia, Tom and Sarah Rice. I would be sharing a room with Emily for the entirety of the trip.

After a well-needed night of deep sleep, we travelled by coach to Puerto Viejo on the Caribbean side. Our hostel, Kaya's Place, was painted with murals of elephants, tigers and zebras. Hammocks beckoned from hidden corners and the beach was seconds away.

The town dripped with Caribbean culture as we explored its bars and shops in the evening light. Locals played basketball as the sun began to set. We dined on shrimp and rice and we drank “fruit with milk.” I would join Julius and Quique for dolphin watching the next day, it was decided. We would hire a private boat and end the search with a picnic on the beach.

Andrion, a boat owner from France, was waiting for us the following morning. His little speedboat dipped and jerked over the small waves. Black, volcanic sand had disappeared from the beaches of the mainland here, as if swept clean and away. The sand I could see now was almost yellow, bright and beckoning against the dark backdrop of dense forest. The land moved into the distance as we crept towards more open water.

“Here, we will see dolphins,” Andrion promised, turning off the engine to listen. All was quiet, but for the beating and crashing of the lapping waves. They played our boat like a drum.

I searched the horizon for a glimpse of a tail or fin. The three men frowned out over the water, straining and eager. My own frenzied gaze snagged on the sight of another boat, bobbing back towards the land.

“Hey guys, they have found some! Look guys!” Quique cried, his face alive and lit with a grin. As he cheered and clapped and pointed, our boat growled into life. I stared at the other boat as Andrion ploughed over the warm water towards it.

As we approached, I could see them. Dolphins dipping in and out of the dark water. Slippery, shining grey bodies peeping between the waves before disappearing under the surface. Their loud gasps for breath sliced through the silence as we watched them, stunned.

“Welcome to my office guys!” Quique whispered, a smug smile plastered across his face. These dolphins were young, Andrion told us. They were shy and kept their distance from the boat.

We followed them through the warm, early afternoon. Watching and waiting for the rare moments that they would leap 9ft into the air, spinning like acrobats. Sea-spray sparkled in the light of the sun as they splashed back into the water. Small tails flickering.

Andrion bought us to a small yellow beach, dotted with scattered driftwood and rotting young coconuts. The water here was bottle green, clear and clean. I pulled on my snorkelling gear and jumped off the boat. Floating on the cool surface, I peered down at the coral and fish darting in the shadows below. As Julius, Quique and I swam and explored, Andrion began preparing our picnic on the beach. He chopped up fresh bananas, pineapples, and watermelons. He spread the fruit out onto large banana leaves and placed them on a rock. We swam, ate and searched for wildlife amongst the plants. Ants and crabs crawled through the dry forest debris. Fat spiders sat and waited at the centre of large webs, and a snake watched us from the trunk of a tree.

The following evening we gathered on the black beach, collecting dry palm leaves and grasses for a bonfire. Slowly, the sun melted into nothing and our pile grew larger. We lit the fire and wrapped freshly caught fish and marinaded chicken in crunchy, silver foil. Vegetables curled and softened on skewers as hot sparks sprayed into the dark sky. The food was delicious and filling. Samson, the Great Dane from Kaya's, hoovered up any remains. Once full we wandered to the town. We drank in the local bars and danced to Caribbean music as fire eaters performed through the night.

An early start and coach journey bought us to La Fortuna, home of the lucky volcano, in the late afternoon. After checking into our hotel, Hotel La Fortuna, we were driven to Balti Hot Springs. A warm mist hung thick in the air. There were many pools. Some hot. Some freezing. Some with slides and some with jet streams. We sat sipping cocktails from pineapples and coconuts at the swim-up bar. Julius and I spent the evening, much to Quique's amusement, running back and fourth from the coldest pool.

“You must cool down your sunburn! Otherwise the hot water will leave a scar guys,” he insisted. Unwilling to take the risk, Julius and I dragged our pink bodies from the warmth of one hot spring to the freezing depths of another, dancing together for as long as we could stand. We dressed and finished the evening with a meal. Bottles of red wine and steak. Eventually we stumbled back to our mini-bus, dizzy, full and happy.

The next day, I embarked on a solo adventure. I made my way to a nearby river boat tour where I spent the day spying crocodiles, lizards, and vultures amongst the surrounding trees. Mid journey, the boat paused at a small farm where I tried some white, slippery cheese and local coffee. Skinny chickens and cows grazed as I explored the fields, fields dotted with cocoa trees heavy with pods in red, green and yellow. Faded, blended traffic light colours. The farmer and his wife sat watching me from rocking chairs in the garden, their skin crinkled and brown like parcel paper. On the way back to the hotel, the mini-bus stopped at a roadside restaurant swarming with iguanas. Everywhere I looked, I could see their small mean faces. Peeping from the branches of every nearby tree, chewing lettuce by the door, perching on rocks and restaurant chairs. They'd hiss and run when I tiptoed towards them, their thick pink tongues darting between thin greedy lips.

Emily and I spent our final day in La Fortuna swimming with the local people. Hidden a small walk away from the town, under a bridge, there was a stunning natural pool. A small waterfall splashed down into the dark, cool water. We spread our towels out on the smooth, surrounding rocks which were warm underfoot from the sun and dotted with lounging locals. A thick rope dangled from a tree, around 20ft above the water. Children and adults alike lined up to swing from the rope and drop into the deep pool below. Emily laughed as I ran to join them. I spent the day challenging myself to leap and swing from higher and higher heights, preparation for times ahead. I swam under the heat of the strong sun and held my breath to explore the cloudy depths of the pool.

After spending the day with people from the town, Quique suggested dinner with a family that lived just outside of La Fortuna. Our hosts were Edgar (Cucu to friends) and his wife, Mara. They welcomed us into their large, colourful kitchen where they would teach us how to make our own tortillas. We adorned aprons and milkmaid hats, men included, and watched in silence as Mara made the perfect tortilla. My own attempt wasn't quite as perfect and a little on the small side! I mixed the flour and water with my fingers and shaped the dough into a shape. The shape was then cooked on Cucu's sizzling hot pan and stuffed with cheese and sour cream. I made several and although small, they were delicious. When we had all made enough tortillas we sat down to the meal Mara and Cucu had cooked for us. Chicken, rice, beans, chilli and vegetables. Quique translated as Mara told us about her life and family. They had seven children, only one of which still remained at home. The family did a lot of work in the community and would often have foreign visitors stay at the house in order to learn Spanish. They said that we were all welcome to stay any time in the future.

The following day we would travel to Monteverde where, much to my surprise, I would soar above 164ft above the Cloud Forest.

Part 2 to follow

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