Our visit to Panama and Costa Rica, March 2015: A feast of ocean, rainforest, rivers and volcanoes.
Our time in Panama City, the Panama Canal, and our visit to see Lauren Sumner-Rooney doing her PhD fieldwork at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Bocas del Toro. We crossed the border into Costa Rica and tracked down sloths.
White water rafting on the Pacuare River to get to the Pacuare Jungle Lodge; treks through the tropical rainforest to see birds and animals, and exploring the treetop canopy on zip wires.
The final stage of our holiday took us up into the central mountains. The cloud forest, the coffee plantations, the waterfalls, the volcanoes and the geothermal springs. The El Silencio Lodge was not as monastic as we feared...
March 15 Panama City
A quick start this morning - 7.30, after pleas for an extra hour in bed. It's Sunday, and the streets of Panama City are a sea of multicoloured Lycra. Joggers, rollerbladers, cyclists, snake boarders - all athletic life is here. In fact the motorised traffic is confined to the outside lanes of main roads, to give more room for physical development.
We're collected by our tiny but very well-informed guide Sonia and driven out to Panama Viejo, the city depredated by the pirate Henry Morgan then burnt by the Spanish to prevent resettlement. It's only ruins, and the visitor center doesn't seem to be open at this godly hour. Definitely a2015 whistlestop tour, so we can fit in with the Panama Canal's lock schedule later in the day.
Then it's on to Casco Antiguo, the site selected by the Spanish viceregency - presumably easier to defend against pirates, as it's set on a rocky promontory with great views, and great seabirds. Notable dungeons on the seafront, where prisoners were often up to their chests (if lucky) in seawater. Also a church with a fabulous gilded altarpiece, tacky ceiling tiles, and an amazing nativity scene - a good 10 meters long - with real-life running water.
We're bussed up to Lake Gatún with a party of other tourists to start our Canal trip. It turns out this is a malaise freshwater reservoir, created to make up half of the Canal's length, and feed the locks that descend to the Pacific and the Caribbean at both ends. Thus up until now the Canal water has been sweet from end to end. Not at all clear, however, since the rocks it's cut through are geologically unstable and the whole thing needs continual dredging. As we pass the mouths of rivers, the muddy water turns a fabulous blue.
The Canal has a one-way system, 12 hours southward (from the Caribbean) and 12 hours the other way. Our trip has been timed so that we arrive at the first set of locks just as the direction changes, so we'll be the first group of vessels going down to Panama City. However, the north-bound vessels have another idea, and they're bigger than us. Much bigger. The Panamax container ships, tankers and bulk carriers have been built to fit the locks exactly, and they are ginormous.
But there's a new generation of post-Panamax vessels already in service. So far, these are only costal, but new locks are under construction for this Canal. They should have been ready for the Canal's centenary in 2014, but are yet to be opened (as we've found, Panamanians tend to be either an hour early for appointments, or infuriatingly late). But the new locks will take five times as long to fill and empty as the present ones, and take a correspondingly larger amount of water. So much so that Lake Gatún will not be able to supply it all, and a recycling system will pump 60% of the water back upstream. The consequence will be that the lakes (Gatún and the smaller Miraflores) will become slightly brackish, and plankton and other sea creatures will eventually be able to migrate between the Pacific and Caribbean, with dubious ecological consequences.
For their part, the fish-eaters such as pelicans and frigate birds are delighted with the current arrangement. As each lockful of freshwater empties into the Pacific, they queue for the all-you-can eat buffet. Saltwater fish are temporarily stunned as they are hit by a tsunami of freshwater, and its load of gasping lake dwellers.
The people of Panama have approved the new expansion plan by referendum, however - the Canal is the economic lifeline of the country. And if it's not widened, other countries may nick their USP. There's a new link being planned in Nicaragua, for example, backed by Chinese investment.
March 16 Panama City/Bocas del Toro
I badger our travel agents to make up for the cursory city tour yesterday. Our reward: a free trip to the BioMuseo - the Museum of Biodiversity - a multi-coloured pile plonked by Frank Gehry at the start of the marina causeway. From a distance, it looks like a heap of children's building blocks, but close up starts to make an impressive sort of sense - at least as architecture. The collision of roofs at different heights, angles and forms are a great screen for the shadow-play of swooping pelicans above.
We're told that Gehry took the commission to appease his Panamanian wife. The pretext for the buildings is even less apparent. There's a long list of donors to the project on the Wall of Appreciation, include many multis and eminent-sounding private families. It must be political, but why?
A possible answer is suggested by the audioguide tour. It starts geologically - two American continents separated by one Atlantico-Pacific Ocean. Then, volcanically, Central America arose, and reversed the situation. Beasts raced north and south, in a bizarre mingling of species. The Caribbean and Pacific were sundered, and went their separate ways from a planktonic point of view.
It's not stated, but perhaps implied, that Eden could be restored by splitting off the two continents again. But how? By building a giant Canal?
Intriguingly, there's no display that analyses the impact that the Canal has already had in hindering the movement of non-swimmer megafauna along the isthmus. Two bridges exist, and of course a number of lock gates, but it's difficult to imagine anything bigger that a rat or a raccoon making the crossing. Neither is the potential impact of allowing maritime species to pass into Lake Gatún as it becomes brackish, and then pass from Pacific to Caribbean (or vice versa), when the new locks are introduced. The whole museum is a deification of the Canal project in total, made all the more persuasive by not mentioning the Canal at all.
Then off to Bocas del Toro. The domestic airport is very low-key, complete with baffling warnings against the use of double-funded suitcases. Signs indicate that they mean false bottoms – stuffed with yankee dollars.
The flight follows the Canal towards the Caribbean, and we get a bird’s eye view of yesterday’s trip. Lake Gatún is truly enormous – a bit chunk of tropical rainforest has disappeared beneath it forever. So much for biodiversity.
We arrive at Bocas in a rainstorm – but Lauren is there to meet us as we get off the bus at the hotel. Wonderful to se her!
March 17 Bocas del Toro
We set off to meet up with Lauren at the Smithsonian Institute, about 10 mins walk down the road. We give her name to the guard at the gate, and it's immediately clear that's she's already a favourite around the station. She bounced up and drags us away - no time for photos - since she's supposed to be guarding the laptop of a colleague who's gone for coffee. Andy will have to wait for the necessary photo at the Institute's entrance sign board.
Lauren's brittlestars are real stars - active and ticklesome but not aggressive. She admits she doesn't give them names as she'll have to kill them eventually to examine their physiology. Meanwhile they happily respond to her simple experiment, using light and dark boxes to see if they'll respond to light. But the more complex one, with a shark themed paddling pool out on the deck with degrees marked out on the floor, hasn't produced the expected results. She doesn't seem impressed by our theory that it's the shark cartoons that are the problem. The poor brittlestars must be in a compete state of shock.
Further exploration of the Institute reveals several skittish iguanas and a troop of leafcutter ants that don't seem to have realised it's still daytime. One poor creature is struggling with a leaf three times as big as its colleagues' burdens. It stumbles, and soldier ants with massive mandibles descend to persuade it onwards.
Allegedly there's a caiman too, a boa constrictor and several sloths. But they don't show up. Just too paradisiacal for a workplace.
March 18 Bocas del Toro
A great day out, booked - surprisingly - from the hotel. Lauren has bolloxed up her preparation of chemicals for the last round of her experiments and left her lab to de-fumigate overnight. She'll have to spend most of today making up time before she leaves for a break with us tomorrow - hence we're on our own for much of the day. But she's booked dinner at the legendary Firefly restaurant, so there's a grand evening to look forward to.
The day in fact starts rather badly. A naughty Italian 2-yr old is with us in the boat departing from the hotel's dock. She's been a terror - strewing the lobby with beads, racing out alone into the road, veering nearly off the gangway to the bar that sits on stilts above the bay. Now it seems she's on our nautical trip.
From the water, Bocas Town looks more Caribbean than the Caribbean - tightly-packed wooden buildings painted in pink and green and orange, with curly barge boards and shutters, and decks that spill invitingly onto the seafront. The IndiLounge, where Lauren took us to dinner the night before, is one of them. Delicious fusion of local and Indonesian cuisine, with belting music to draw in the hipster hippy crowd. We're certainly getting the benefit of her local knowledge.
We breathe a sigh of relief when the urchin's parents extract her from the boat as it pulls into the Bocas dock to collect more passengers. They're going birdwatching, apparently.
We, on the other hand, go first to the Baia de Delfines, scooting through mangrove groves along the way. The dolphins turn up on cue, in small pods of two and three. The boat approaches a group of youngsters, which shyly disappear. Then Alice hears a strange clicking noise forward of the boat. No engine failure - it's the young dolphins playing a game with us. They pop up alongside and flip their tails for photos.
Then time to put in for elevenses, and order lunch from a pithy menu - we return a short time later to the most delicious pasta mariscos in the world (but far too much, considering the choppy boat ride that follows).
In between, there's a wonderful hour of snorkelling at Caya Coral, that lives up to its name as much as the Bay of Dolphins did. We are specifically warned against touching the famous fire coral, but that's only for starters. The reef is unbelievably like the world's best aquarium displays - Sydney, for example, or Florida Seaworld. There are corals of every conceivable colour, plus more. Green coral, for example, who'd have thought? But there it is. Sulphur yellow too, blues and crimsons and subtle pinks and mauves. Brain corals and fans and tubes - one of them harbouring a brittlestar! Lauren is thrilled when we tell her later.
There are fish too - blue stripey parrot fish, chequered one with rose red bellies, tiger- striped little ones and big grey ones with surprisingly yellowdorsal fins. But the corals are definitely the stars of this show.
After lunch we zoom off again through the mango groves - we just hope there's an informal one-way system operating on the narrow bits - and pull in to an inlet to see small sloths clinging to the trees. Pygmy sloths - unique to the area - or just juveniles? At that stage, we don't have the expertise to say. And then the captain lets our boat drift towards an islet in an expanse of sandy shallows. Huge starfish, some over a foot across (or so it seems through the sparkling water) appear beneath us. They seem to move away much faster than the boat's movement. Is this an illusion? It would seem not - starfish can in fact move quite fast on their hidden tube feet.
We tip the boatman well, and persuade him to leave us on the island of Bastimentos, where Lauren has made our table reservation. Signs are hand-painted, rudimentary, but we find ourselves immediately on the right road to the Firefly. It's the only road on the island, where the most pratical means of transport is by boat.
Bastimentos has a different population from the rest of the Bocas archipelago - Afro-Panamanian in culture and skin colour. The settlement of Old Bank is super-laid back, and disinclined to engage with outsiders. We've just reached a sign which points down an unlikely-looking shoreline path when Lauren suddenly appears - she's finished her alchemy and grabbed a water-taxi to the island.
The Firefly is wonderful. We're two hours early for our dinner, but spend the time happily shootings the breeze, quaffing cocktails and destroying the furniture - to whit a massive daybed that too many of us were lounging on at the same time. The guesthouse residents, uniformly tanned and stick thin social x-rays, glare down disapprovingly from the yoga pavilion. But the meal's great. We take a water taxi home, in pitch dark, at terrifying speed.
March 19 Bocas del Toro/Costa Rica - Puerto Viejo
Tony shows up after a couple of cross phone calls to the London office. Uncle Tony. He immediately takes us under his wing, explains with embarrassment that there was an unexpectedly delay in refuelling the boat, and whisks us off by sea to the mainland port of Almirante.
The port is lined with Chiquitos containers - there's no doubt about the principal export of the area. As we pull into the dock, a swarm of urchins (of all ages) descends to help us unload. Tony ticks them off roundly - it seems he knows everyone by name - then makes a pantomime show of rechecking that all our bags are on board the minibus.
We've asked to find a bank, as we're almost out of dollars. Tony asks the driver to pull in at the next town, which is full of shops stuffed with plastic crap of all kinds: kiddies' animal shaped buggies, electric fans, buckets, tablecloths etc etc. 'You can buy anything here,' he boasts, 'less than the cost of making it!' Sotto voce, he explains that it's all a crossborder money laundering scam. But there are beneficiaries, and not just local ones. He points out a bus overloaded with delighted customers who're starting their return journey to Panama City, 12 hours away.
We join the queue at a bank. Ten minutes later, we reach the counter - only to be told to go outside and use the ATM. When it gets to the border crossing, we're much less British about proceedings.
It's a real border crossing, a foot march across a decaying railway bridge. Not sure why Tony chose this crossing - there must be alternatives where one can simply drive across in the normal way. Maybe you don't have to wait as long at this one, or perhaps Tony is just more familiar with a clandestine way of operating. Anyway, the bridge is clearly little used and little guarded, although a trickle of rat-tailed backpackers and local imp-ex entrepreneurs have also selected it.
We climb one embankment to have our passports stamped by the Panamanian side, then drive round a hairpin and debus. A gaggle of porters appears, keen to shoulder our roller suitcases. Tony doesn't shoo them away this time - they've been preselected, it would seem. Up another embankment, with crumbling concrete steps and a balustrade of rusting scaffold pole. It becomes apparent why the porters are carrying the bags, not wheeling them.
We step out onto a railway bridge that must have modelled the one from the River Kwai. A single rail track, disused for years, runs down the centre. On either side of this are three thick planks of teak, nailed in places to the substructure. As we progress across the 100 years or so of bridge, the gaps between the planks become wider, the rotten points more frequent. We become conscious of the thick green mass of kudzu choking the gorge beneath our feet. A schoolboy, maybe 8 or 9 years old, is marching alongside us on an iron walkway. I'm about to follow him, but he abruptly switches to the main timber structure. A closer look at the iron walkway show that the decking is only millimetres thick, and rusting too around almost every rivet hole.
A change of truck and a drive through miles of banana plantations. Each tree is permitted one bunch, which is wrapped in a blue plastic bag to delay its ripening. Later we're told that occasionally these blue bags wash down to the sea and are mistaken for jellyfish by the leatherback turtles, which choke on them and drown.
A word on our destination, the Hotel le Caméléon. It's quite awesomely cool, like living inside an iPad - or even the mind of Jonathan Ives as he designed it. Everything in the rooms is pure white, including the rubberised floor. Oh, there are a few coloured accents, different for every room - scatter cushions, abstract arty panels, flannels cunningly swiss-rolled into the pure white hand towels. These can be lime green, or orange, or turquoise. Any colour you like, as long as it could be specified for the Apple Mac, circa 2002. And it changes every day! Even the pictures on the walls are replaced, each day, for ones in the new colour scheme, by the hotel staff. Lights behind the bedhead flutter soothingly like the aurora borealis, and the restaurant's signature hue switches from meal to meal to match the colour of the LED's behind the eponymous beast stretched out behind the bar. And the lobby area - al fresco of course - is built of whole culm bamboo, a local yellow species of bambù. How cool is that?
March 20 Hotel le Caméléon, Puerto Viejo
Another great morning of snorkelling and hiking in the Cahuitas National Park. The fish are much more numerous than at Bocas del Toro - including the evil invasive but spectacular lionfish. However, the coral's not nearly as pretty. Apparently run-off from the banana plantations is slowly bleaching the coral, and global warming doing its bit too.
However, there are spectacular large formations of cypress-like fronds, "palm trees" and something called lettuce coral that really lives up to its name. There are brain corals whose angular folds look just like Aztec carvings (wonder where they got their inspiration from?) and another pillowy pink formation that's cracked and hollowed in the shape of a face. Extra lettuce stuff give it a Christ-like air - if only I'd had an underwater cameraman at the ready.
Then on the hike back along the shoreline, we see:
- Jesus lizard that can run on water. It wasn't showing off its miraculous talents, but the back feet had enormously long toes and claws
- lovely big furry two-toed sloth, up a tree. It was looking right at us with a doleful expression
- a couple of tiny eyelash pit vipers. Live up to their name in the superciliary department, but even our guide can't tell us why they've got the lashes, or why other vipers don't.
- iguana, also up a tree
- hermit crab in a beautiful whorled shell
- black heron in a swamp
- blue crab that scuttled down a hole as soon as we looked at it. Apparently they only go out to sea twice a year to mate, and lots of them drown as they forget how to swim
- many fallen trees on the shoreline, as rising water levels take their toll.
March 21 Hotel le Caméléon, Puerto Viejo
Off to the sloth sanctuary, although we haven't exactly been busy bees for the past few days. The sloths - both two and three-fingered varieties - are super-sweet. None of the ones we encounter have algaic fur, and seem well cared for except for the missing limbs, eyes and brain cells that remind me of the raptor rescue centre back home. Most of the residents have been deprived of their parents by 10-tonne trucks, power lines or just abandonment - the latter group made up of the sick, the feeble and the hyperactive whose mothers have simply got fed up of picking them up from the forest floor. Five chances and that's it, kid. No wonder sloths are the way they are, if the lively ones are selected out from the gene pool.
Most of the babies have been rescued by powerline workers or forest rangers. There's no captive breeding programme, although "happy accidents" do occur. One wonder how, through the bars of a cage. Then there’s a couple Johnny Depp and Tash, who have been together - although not siblings - since early childhood. But they haven't produced offspring. Marco the sloth keeper thinks it's because each of them has some idea that the other is their mother - and they're not Oedipally inclined.
We then set off by boat the search for the American crocodile. We don't find it, needless to say, despite its fabled 6m length. The best is a foot-long baby caiman, plus numerous free-range sloths, a troupe of howler monkeys, bats, and birds including a heron, oreopendulas, jacanas, and the utterly unremarkable lbj that is the National Bird of Costa Rica.
The afternoon is spent on the beach (half sand, half iron filings - playing havoc with the magnetic hinge on my iPad, and the catch on my bag). Candy the waitress knows us now, and we know her. We order lunch a good hour before we expect to eat it, and it turns up - exactly as ordered, and delivered with her trademark Disneyfied giggle. Pity we'll be moving on in the morning.
March 22 Hotel le Cameleon - Pacuare Lodge
Disaster! No box breakfasts. Ultimate Travel will have to answer for this. The drive starts at 7 am - we're hungry, but of course not desperately so. And the scenery's pretty, particularly after we start climbing towards the hills. A blue mountain in the distance has the shape at least of a volcano, and grassy fields fall away to the valley below. The only annoyance is a tourist bus blocking our way as we turn off the highway.
Oh shit! Not only are we going to descend 500m, almost vertically, to the river. We will not have the river to ourselves when we get there - a bevy of springbreackers will be right there with us.
Thanks heavens, they're packed into their helmets and lifejackets and loaded up on the rafts well before us. They whoop and giggle, splash one other, fall in the water, climb back in the rafts and disappear down the first set of rapids before we've even had a belated breakfast. This a white bread and spam sandwich provided by the rafting guides' camp followers. That and a plastic cup of black coffee, strained through a sock - ten bucks very well spent.
Off we go with helmets and lifejackets in place. Basic dragonboating skills are in play. It's fun, and not nearly as difficult as the "safety" demonstration implied. Basically, you only need to fall in if you want to - and the hardest part is getting back in the boat. All an extended ad for the more adventurous rafting option that's on offer for the following days. But my ankles do ache the following morning.
The lodge is fabulous, set amidst primary forest. The palm-thatched cabins are lit by candlelight - wifi and electricity available only in the hotel office. Mosquito nets wreathe the bamboo bedsteads, and each cabin has a private outdoor shower enclosure.
Supper is on the communal deck - set mealtimes, and orders placed from a short iPad menu. Jungle noises all around, and the rushing river to lull us to sleep.
March 23 Pacuare Lodge
Morning: full-on jungle hammock experience. Me and my iPad.
Afternoon: rainforest canopy tour, by zipwire. Pretty much like Go Ape, with a more varied and exotic setting than the spruce plantations of Thetford Forest. And thankfully, no-one tries to talk us into a Superman impression, as in the Ecuadorian cloud forest.
We'd in a group with Americans Mark and Nancy. Mark is big boned, and scrapes across palms and cheeseplants along the route. We manage to avoid the foliage, and minimise the inelegant landings. It's much easier to control speed and direction with this system, where you are allowed (nay, ordered) to grab the zipwire behind you with a gloved hand. There's an interesting vista of Henry's shower area - this explains why he refuses to ablute in the mid-morning or mid-afternoon, when the canopy tours are passing overhead.
All in all, not too scary an experience. Until that is we complete the final traverse and find ourselves on a small platform, still 20m or so from ground level.
Time to use the curious piece of equipment that was hitched to our belt before we started out. It's shaped like a beer bottle opener, but with no sharp or serrated edge. It's for rappelling. Yes, we have to commit ourselves to the tender mercies of our guide Carlito - push ourselves out into thin air and hope he'll let us down smoothly. Of course he doesn't. It must be pretty boring to do this job day after day, and the shrieks he can extract from terrified tourists are probably a major perk.
Evening: a huge gecko scrabbles at the screens that constitute the walls of our room.
March 24 Pacuare Lodge
We take the morning bird tour with Willman, the Lodge manager. His telescope is to die for, so it's well worth the 6 am start. Within two hours (including a very civilised coffee break) we've seen 28 species. Pick of the bunch is a pair of black-mandibled toucans: one brings the other two stolen eggs, they share a breakfast on the bough, then mate. Willman shows us the nesting hole they use each year, right by Henry's cabin.
[Bird sightings at Pacuare Lodge:
Collared aracari toucan
Purple crowned fairy hummingbird
On the Pacuare River:
At El Silencio
Common chlorospingus (aka bush tanager)
Ruddy-capped nightingale thrush
Chestnut-capped brush finch
Grey-breasted wood wren
On Arenal hike
Later we go off with Giovanni, our guide from yesterday, to go horse riding. We're winched across the river on a gondola contraption to pick up our horses. No horses there - only a work party building a more durable gondola (!). We wait. No horses arrive. It transpires that no horses were ordered, so no horses have come. We go back to the lodge.
On the plus side, Giovanni has found for us a colony of sand-burrowing wasps, a striped American lizard with a bright turquoise tail, a huge spider and several tiny frogs. These include the "blue jeans" frog, scarlet with cobalt blue legs. It's very poisonous - don't touch, then lick your fingers!
Before lunch, we take a dip in the river. It's much colder than we remember from the other day - the sun's now in - and the current is vicious. Henry and I succeed in making it to the other side, then collapse on the rocks to recover. The others just take photos.
March 25 Pacuare Lodge - El Silencio Lodge, Bajos del Toro
Back in the rafts again - allegedly the only way out, although they must have found some other (possibly extreme) solution for the elderly American woman who insists on wearing a bright pink cutaway top, and her even older husband. They are gone before breakfast.
Rafts as before, but the rapids now have fetching nicknames such "the rodeo", "the pin-ball alley" etc. I fall in. It's fun.
After lunch on the riverbank, the scenery starts to change. There's a narrow, green-hung canyon crossed by a rickety rail bridge that doesn't seem to go anywhere. The remains of an ill-fated project to dam the valley, explains Jorge our guide. A tunnel goes into the mountain, then out again - an experiment to test the local geology.
Then the river opens out onto the plain, and the noise of 20-tonne trucks replaces that of oreopendola song. We put out (technical term!) at Siquirres, change, and are met by Abelardo for the next stage up to the cloud forest.
The minibus crawls along the highway behind a succession of trucks carrying bananas, pineapples and palm hearts to market. I feel like a nap, but Abelardo has made a rule against it - enforced by prattling about the local economy, wildlife, and his entire family history. He's named for his father, who came from such a large family that his mother gave up on deciding the kid's names before birth, and just consulted an old French almanac for the appropriate name for the day they arrived. Hence Abelardo.
We arrive after dark at El Silencio. It's chilly - but there's a private hot tub on the balcony of each site. Warned they take 2 hours to warm up, we turn ours on before descending the hillside to dinner. The dining room is reached over a small bridge beside the trout pool, which clearly provides half of the menu. Delicious.
Hot tub and then to bed, with even more welcome hot water bottles.
March 26 El Silencio
A walk with Orlando the naturalist this morning. I mention we're thinking of doing the waterfall hike later, and he immediately diverts to this trail (Mystic Four Elements had been threatened). Many birds are heard - including the "creaking gate" black-headed solitario - but few are seen [see list]. Sounds like we'll need another trip to see the Resplendent Quetzel. But we do visit three rather charming waterfalls, and see the holes where armadillos come and play after dark.
Orlando shows me pictures of collared peccaries on his camera - cute little maned wild pigs, nothing like as aggressively bitey as the white-lipped ones. They can be seen between 3 and 5 in the afternoon, allegedly, on the upper trails of the Lodge. Later, we set out to find them, and see the hummingbird garden along the way. This part is not too difficult, once we've circumnavigated the spa complex and crossed the river on a wibbly-wobbly bridge. It's a bit weird - a formal layout enclosing squares of ritualistic oddity: pebble spirals, butterfly pictures, a grove of lingam-like bottle-and-stone combinations. The hummingbirds seem rather shy - it's probably too overcast to see them in their glory. But we have more luck by lurking just outside the garden and peeking in with binoculars.
We meet up with Henry, who's taken a different loop of the trail and let's us into the secret of the Four Elements. He takes off to the hummingbird garden, and we (H+A+M) head up to the Lookout. Not a peccary in sight, but a great view over the lodge and suites. After a couple of wrong turnings we find ourselves in our Elements. You can sit in a stream or among tree roots, plant a candle on a rock oven or (my favourite) swing on a circle of aerial seats. All part of the slightly spacy Silencio ethos.
Our early afternoon torpor is disrupted by a coffee-tasting session - all Costa Rican coffee, but brewed three different ways. Yes, you can train your taste buds, given a knowledgable tutor and the leisure to appreciate the subtleties of flavour.
March 27 El Silencio
We take an all-day trip to Arenal volcano and its hot springs with super-chatty guide Christian. I'm kind of hoping he'll open the back of the bus and whip out a collapsible cross. But he does have his uses - we stop at a sloth tree along the way, and an iguana store. Sadly you can't actually buy the iguanas (although one climbs right into Alice's lap) but the store does sell essential supplies for the metaphysical tourist, so I buy green shades.
Arenal is a classically volcano-shaped volcano. Christian finds us the best view for our family pics, and then leaded us on a hike to the spot for a close-up (at 3k) panorama of peak and lava fields. It was still spewing ash and gases until two years ago, so the slope on this side hasn't greened up yet, and as we later find, the tourist industry is also immature it only got going after a major eruption in 1968.
On the way down, we pass a vaquero rounding up cattle on his mule - while chatting on a cellphone.
Then to the hot springs, dubbed by Andy the Last Resort. We're prepared for the hot and cold swimming pools, with underwater bar stools already occupied by spring break jocks, but not for the extensive tropical gardens interspersed with steaming waterfalls and plunge pools. A lot of fun for an hour - if only to admire the blinged-up kamaki of either sex.
Back to El Silencio for a final evening - delicious food (the beef filet with a coffee-and-port sauce a highlight), pretty good wine, hot tub on the deck of the suite, and then to bed. Back to Blighty in the morning...