Day Three – The Incredible Foss of Nature

Skogarfoss, Skogar Waterfall

Sometimes I think I travel to remind myself how small I am, a mere pipsqueak on the planet with less relevance than a grain of sand. I love volcanoes, deserts, wilderness, mountains, raging seas and waterfalls. Skogarfoss, a short diversion off the south west Golden Circle route, was filled with the possibility of that tingle. Back home in Stroud I’d managed to track down a friend of a friend who lived on an island off the south coast of Iceland for a couple of years, “what’s unmissable?” I asked.

“Skogarfoss,” she said “it’s easy to find, there should be a sign to it off your route.”

We had a long drive in prospect but it was on our way to Skogar anyway where the next guesthouse, the Drangshlid (for those Ds pronounce a ‘th’), within range of the black beach, and right by the Folk Museum. It was going to be another day packed with adventure but hey we had all day – or we would have if we’d set off in the right direction. We were on the right number road, Tessa was doing really well driving on a motorway again (I felt terribly guilty but still thought it best to keep shtum ). It was a little while before we realised we were headed north not south. We found an industrial estate to pull into, take a breath, look at the map and turn around.

Stopping by the side of the road in Iceland, unless at specifically designated pull ins, is illegal. Apart from the slick new motorways getting you in and out of Reykjavik the roads are two lanes wide, with drop offs either side and completely stunning National Geographic views all around. Without that law the roads would be full of people slamming on the brakes and taking photos. We had to make good with a lot of moving car photos. “Take that,” said Tessa and I’d try to hold my phone steady enough to get a shot. But we appreciated that because of that law and the moderate speed limit (90kph/55mph at the most) the roads are pretty much a dream to drive on, well maintained and very safe. (Which is more than I can say for Stroud, whose council borrowed a lot of money from Iceland back in the day before the crash and we’ve been paying for it in bust tyres and wrecked suspension ever since.) We had been worried about icy roads and the possibility of snow, it’s a risk you have to factor in if you go when when there’s a chance to see the Northern Lights – but look at the sky in this car picture. It was our luck that, although windy, we set out in gorgeous clear sunshine.

First sighting of geysers

“Geysers, Tessa, look.” Nothing like a geyser to get the blood flowing.

Once we were on the right track it wasn’t long before picked up the Golden Circle road. It was a relief when, after a few hours, we saw the sign to the Skogar Folk Museum. I ran in ahead of Tessa “Hello do you have any loos? Oh, are you Icelandic?” he had to be with that red beard “am I saying this right – Eyjafjallajökull?”

“Not really” he said and rattled it off. I tried again. “Better.”

Tessa and I ate fruit bars we’d brought with us from home and browsed the museum. (Sneaking a sandwich from breakfast hadn’t worked. After the two busy days in Reykjavik we’d slept too late and we’d arrived at breakfast just as they were clearing it away.) I loved the coils of ropes, saddles, a wooden ‘washing tub’ with a kind of rocking paddle to churn it – I lusted after the rows and rows of wooden spoons but I was itching to get outside and look at the reconstructed badstofas.

Wash tub and mangle

I’d recently read the prize winning book by Australian Hannah Kent based on a true story. Burial Rites tells the story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir (I can’t believe it took me all these years to cotton onto the fact everyone from here is either a dottir or a sson). Agnes, Magnus’s dottir, was a servant in northern Iceland in the 1800s who was condemned to death after the murder of two men, one of whom her employer. She was the last woman put to death in Iceland. Agnes was imprisoned in a badstofa with an understandably reluctant family in winter until she was tried. That seemed like an unusual arrangement to say the least. She was found guilty, beheaded and her head stuck on a stake. Here was a chance to see what a badstofa (traditional dwelling) looked like both inside and out to get a feel for that life.

Skogasafn Folk Museum. Badstofa with red roofed schoolhouse in the distance.

The row of badstofas look cosy from the outside tucked up as they are in living turf. But remember the winters are long, dark and freezing cold in Iceland.

Imagine being stuck inside with an unwelcome guest, thought to have murdered two men, in a remote badstofa. The legal system wasn’t exactly in a rush. Things might get a little bit tense spending all winter stuck inside your badstofa in normal circumstances, let alone with a murderess who fascinates one of your daughters. Knitting needles might clack rather more loudly, pots of skyr be thrown. But maybe not. Food would have been too precious to throw.

Outside at last I had a chance to snoop around the row of badstofas and see what life was really like in the 1800s.

I guess you’d want an entrance that keeps out the elements.

And a quiet place in the window near the light to read and write your poems. There aren’t many books published in Icelandic – the population is too small for publishers to bother – I understand it’s a land of poets and spoken sagas instead.

You’d need to be near the light to spin enough wool for all those jumpers.

And maybe send your dottirs early to bed to do a bit more spinning and wool winding.

If it all got too much you could go to the stable and sulk with the horses or sheep.

Or churn a bit of skyr.

Behind the row of badstofa’s we found little houses and a schoolroom that were presumably from the 1900s.

They were obviously able to make babies despite the lack of privacy. I bet they were glad of that potty on a chill night in December.

Schoolhouse

Such was the fascination of the museum it was almost four o’clock by the time we reached Skogarfoss, a short hop from the museum. We stopped at Mia’s adorable fish and chip van.

“He’s closing Tessa, but he’ll stay open for us if you like? What do you think?” It was getting late, nudging 4 o’clock, we decided we’d better go on to the Foss.

We soon forgot our hunger when we saw the Skogarfoss falls. It’s really hard to avoid cliches at this point. So I won’t even try. It was awesome, breathtaking, stunning and not remotely tempting to try and find the legendary chest of gold hidden behind it. Normally I can’t look at a body of water anywhere without thinking ‘oo that looks nice for a dip’. Not there. You’d be thrashed to death by a foss that powerful and this wasn’t even during the spring melt. Imagine. We put our waterproof over-trousers on and got as close as we dared.

Excuse the thumb. Computer says no, can’t edit the video.

We wanted to do at least some of the waterfall walk, a 45 mile hike to Prosmork along the side of the river running into the fall passing several smaller falls with glaciers either side. We reached the top and drew breath. There’s a natural law. Most people only stray 100 ft or so from their cars. As we thought the crowds thinned out and we set off along the path at the top. I just discovered another reason it was so crowded (apart from its beauty) it was one of the locations for filming Game of Thrones. Most people got to the top took a selfie or ten and went back down again. We set off and walked past a couple of other smaller falls, but sadly it wasn’t going to be a long walk for us. The light was already fading and I didn’t fancy those metal steps down in the dark.

Hunger and step fatigue got the better of me as the sun began to set over the fall. We still had to find our way to the Drangshild Guesthouse and we’d only eaten a fruit bar since our rather minimal breakfast and we’d not even got to the black beach.

“How about we get up really early tomorrow and go to the beach and the basalt cliffs first thing?” I said. Tessa was up for that.

As we turned out of the car park it was almost dark and very cold. I saw lights in the distance. “What’s that over there?”I said. “Looks like it might be a restaurant? Shall we check it out?”

Hotel Skogarfoss looked very posh. We waddled in in our soggy layers and asked if we could see the menu.

“Oh my god look at this? Vegetarian lasagne.” I did a quick calculation on my currency conversion app.

I had my second experience of being fed really well as a vegetarian in Iceland. Tessa had fish.

“I don’t care what it costs” I said. “Let’s do it.”

We arrived around 8pm at the Drangshild and saw through the window that the dinning room was packed. We couldn’t make ourselves heard at reception. After a while we gave up and found our way to the dining room to ask if we could check in. The manager looked embarrassed.

“I am so sorry we have no a la carte left” he said “we had a large group of Italians arrive by coach.”

“We already ate” said Tessa. He looked distinctly relieved. .

“I’ll take you to your room. It’s not in the main building.” He led us outside to a separate block. We were desperate for a cup of tea. Our room was very new and smart but bare.

“No sign of a kettle?” I flapped my Earl Grey Tea bag.

“Nope.”

Which was when I got very sweary again. We were both tired and cross and missing that small comfort. It felt like we’d been overridden by a coach load of unexpected guests and given a raw deal. The main building was warm and had a place to make yourself hot drinks.

“I’ll go and ask for a kettle” I said. The outside light wasn’t working. I slipped on the icy decking, more swearing, and made my way over to the main guesthouse. I asked for a kettle. Poured two mugs of hot water which was tepid by the time I got back to our room. We set our alarms for 6, I rubbed the damp off the windows and scanned the sky for lights. Nothing. My bed felt cold. I wished I’d done the sensible thing and brought a hot water bottle like Tessa.

Reykjavik Day Two – Snow on the Mountains

View down to harbour with snow capped mountains in distance.

The bad news from Elding the night before had confirmed that our whale watching boat trip for the morning was cancelled. We had new plans to make. We spread out the city map on the breakfast table. “Look at this Tessa” I showed her the weather chart on my app. The weather map for our area in UK usually maxes the wind chart at 50mph.

“Those gusts yesterday were 90mph,” I said “and last night with wind chill it was -5? Doesn’t look much better today.” Tessa looked happy. She loves cool as well as stark. (I had to watch she hadn’t surreptitiously sneaked the room thermostat down when I wasn’t watching.) Last night, while we sweated in our layers and waited to see the light in the mini-van Gunnar said “coaches and mini vans aren’t allowed by law to go out on the roads when the winds are over 50mph.” Interesting. Also interesting is that our instincts about the Jimini jeep looking like it might get blown over were spot on. I’ve since been told by a petrolhead friend Jiminis had a reputation for that when they first came out.

We weren’t surprised our whale watching trip was cancelled. Neither of us would have wanted anyone to risk taking a boat out in the weather we were experiencing, and I suspect if they had all we’d have seen was our own vomit. I’ve seen Fin whales (60ft long, the Formula Ones of the ocean) and the incredibly rare Right whale but I’ve never seen a humpback so it was still very disappointing.

“Maybe we could go and see the Whales of Iceland exhibition instead?”

“I’d like to go to at least one of the galleries in those amazing modern buildings” said Tessa.

I don’t share Tessa’s love of brutalist architecture. I wasn’t sure I could be bothered to schlep all the way over to the concrete block housing the Kjarvalsstadir art gallery which, though still a bit of a trek, was the closest.

“I thought I might make my way to the Penis Museum by the harbour while you do that,” I said.

“I think that might actually make me physically sick,” she’d said.

However, not really wanting her to have to set off on her own, I decided the Penis Museum could wait. We got lost trying to find the Kjarvalsstadir (of course we did) blown off course several times, but isn’t that how you learn about a new place? Or, in this case, come across places you’d wanted to go to anyway.

Ghost house

“Look Tessa, that’s the Sundhollin, that’s the spa we wanted to go to tonight. ” We went in to ask if we had to book. Whilst we are both ‘wild swimmers’ (how I hate that term) and happy to plunge into water of 8 degrees (ME! yes, I know!) and Tessa 12 degrees and up, the thought of lolling in an outdoor pool heated with natural thermal water to 38deg from the oozing lava beneath the entire island excited us both.

Sundhollin Spa outdoor pool

Mostly all we heard was the roaring of the wind, however in the suburbs on the way to the gallery we kept hearing birdsong. Flocks of redwings feasting on berries had moved into the city. I didn’t have my binoculars on me, but as they flew off there was the telltale rusty colour under their armpits.

Kjarvalsstadir Art Gallery

At the Kjarvalsstadir I learnt a sharp lesson in the benefit of ‘giving it a go’. I normally am a person who likes to say ‘yes’. And now I can’t think what got into me – unless it was the wind and cold – that made me hesitate to visit. Anyway, I can honestly say I enjoyed the work of Gudjon Ketilsson in his exhibition called Jaeja as much, if not more, than any in recent times. There was an actual Icelander on the desk. “Can you check my pronunciation?” I asked her. I was determined by the end of the week to get Eyjafjallajökull right – that big volcano that had all the news readers getting their tongues in a twist when it popped off in March 2010 disrupting air travel all over the world. Thought I’d start with the most difficult then everything else would be easy. “No, she said.”Not quite,” and rattled it off perfectly. “Tak,” I said (thanks) “bless,” (bye).

My attempts to remember how to say Eyjafjallajökull, hear that clucking sound?

Jaeja an untranslatable Icelandic word that means nothing on its own but can be used for almost anything…like: here we are. Or: look at this. In Gudjon’s case he means a found object, or any, put in a different context giving it a value. A man after my own heart. “Oh my god look at that” I am prone to say when I see something like discarded rubbish, plastic caught on a fence or beautifully coiled dog shit for instance, in a different way. Plus he loves hats, so what was not to like? We were first drawn to what looked like black calligraphy on the wall. A closer look revealed it was a collection of black plastic jetsam he’d come across pinned to the wall.

Here are some hats, carved in wood.

We thought this was folded linen and a pile of bones – but they were all ceramic.

He is also a very fine draftsman.

We lingered a long time in the gallery, it was warm and out of the wind, but eventually hunger sent us off to search for the vegan cafe we’d clocked by happenstance on the way.

Sky looking rather ominous at Plantan Vegan Cafe.

“My god look at those cakes.”

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But we chose the sensible option and feasted on a delicious brunch.

There was constantly a worry about how much everything might cost. We’d been warned by David at Rickshaw that a simple soup lunch might be £15 an evening meal £30…but that was before Truss and her crashing of the economy and sinking of the pound. This holiday was booked nearly a year ago in February when it came up on offer from Rickshaw Travel. Covid was still an issue. “Safest place,” said David “you won’t need to worry about Covid there.” Plus it is a relatively short haul flight so there’s less climate guilt involved. But then the £1 hit an all time worst ever low.

“That brunch looks incredible I said. Let’s have it as our main meal,” I said “and eat the sandwiches we assembled at breakfast for dinner tonight.”

I learned another lesson the Plantan. Tofu scramble can be delicious, and that it wasn’t necessarily going to be a week of Tessa eating fresh local fish (she’s a pescatarian) and me eating pizza every night. Reykjavik at least has heard of vegetarians, even vegans.

Harbour

By the time we’d walked back up to the top of the city and down to the harbour the Icelandic Phallological Museum was closed. Who knows what I might have seen? It was nominated best local attraction in 2015 and looks like it is run by a real weir…I mean eccentric, I had so many questions I’d have liked to ask.

We walked around the harbour to the extraordinary new concert hall and conference centre, the Harpa.

Harpa Concert Hall and Conference Centre
Windows that reminded me of a honeycomb
Harbour at night. We apparently just missed a showing of the Northern Lights over the sea.

By the time they, very politely, threw us out, it was dark, and time to go back to the Klopp, eat our sandwiches, grab our cozzies and make our way back up to the Sundhollim Spa. Exactly what we needed after clocking up another 22,000+ steps. It cost us next to nothing with our City Cards. Originally built in the 1920s it has been renovated recently. Lit up at night it’s a magical place. There are several pools outside, the smallest right on the roof top with rows of blasting jets. Tessa soon opted for a bit of time in the cool indoor pool but I spent most of the time cooking in the rooftop pools sky gazing. You never knew…. We reconvened in the shallow pool under a kind of mushroom thing which gradually fills with water and rains down hard on you every five minutes or so. (Best to turn on your front when it does this to protect your soft bits.) The pools were mostly filled with local folk. What a great thing to do after a hard days work rather than slump in front of the telly with a glass of wine.

Mushroom shower thingy just visible back left.

We wound our way slowly back to the Klopp drunk on relaxation and warmth. When we arrived there we saw there was an excited huddle on the steps.

“You just missed them” said a young woman pointing excitedly up at the sky “right here, we saw them right here…red and green and curtains and folds and look, here,” she showed me her phone. “Can you believe it? Right in the middle of Reykjavik. Amazing.”

“Bugger,” I said, forgetting how much Tessa hates swearing.

“Must have been while we getting dressed in the changing rooms,” she said.

“Sod’s Law,” I said.

We fell asleep listening to the Archers. For goodness sake Chelsea, make your mind up…time is running out if you do decide to have an abortion. It’s a great storyline, what with Roe versus Wade and all that, but come on….

Blown Away in Reykjavik – Ray-kia-veek

First sighting of Iceland, ice crystal on the window.

I’ve always thought it against nature to get up in the dark. 3am tested Tessa and me as we obeyed the alarm, downed our instant porridge and scrambled out of the Premier Inn Gatwick to catch a 6am flight to Reykjavik. We’d spent the night before listening to the Archers and watching ‘Have I Got News for You.’ Would Chelsea get an abortion? Would Truss see sense and stand down? I fell asleep imagining the emails the PM’s mother might be sending her: “Lizzie Darling, just come home…”

“Look Tessa, a glacier” I woke and gazed out of the frosted window of the EasyJet plane at a 3D contour map of Iceland. “There’s nothing there,” I said “can’t even see any roads.” The plane bumped down just after 9am. Half an hour of paperwork later we set out to search for our Suzuki Jimini (whatever that was). The minute the arrivals doors opened we were buffeted by the ferocious wind.

People who have been to Iceland are often glassy eyed about it. They mention its spectacular landscapes, whales, the Northern Lights, traffic free roads, glaciers, the Penis Museum, but no one, not a soul mentioned wind. Rain was predicted for most of the week and we’d packed for that, but wind? Nary a whisper to warn us. I understood snow would be a possibility (as it is almost any time of year) but I assumed that like most sensible countries they had plans for that. Tessa was sceptical. “It’s the law that they have to use winter tyres from October” I reassured her.

We battled our way to the furthest end of hire car parking lot where the Budget cars were parked. “Is this it?” said Tessa checking the numberplate, “this?” We stared with dismay at the little white jeep. It looked distinctly unstable for windy conditions. While Tessa battled to open the back door I chased my bobble hat which had been snatched off my head and was making its way back to arrivals.

“There’s no room for our suitcases in the boot area” said Tessa when I got back “see if the back seats slide forwards.” They didn’t. We tried manoeuvring our cases onto the back seats through the front doors. The only doors. It was worse than manoeuvring a truculent toddler and toddlers don’t weigh 10k+.

“This is hopeless” we agreed. “There’s nowhere to hide our luggage,” said Tessa “lets see if there’s something else.”

By 11 o’clock, our first morning in Reykjavik ticking away, Tessa who’d generously agreed to be the first to drive us in and out of Reykjavik (it’s two years since I’ve driven a manual and I thought it best to relearn on the open road) was trying to find how to start the Vitara. I scanned a huge guide I found in the glove compartment. “Wouldn’t you think ‘how to start the car’ would be easily found?” I said. We tried every which way.

Luckily a man arrived to collect the car parked next to us. “Try keeping your foot down on the clutch, then turn the key,” he advised. Bingo.We were off…on what looked remarkably like a motorway into central Reykjavik. Tessa doesn’t drive on motorways. “It’s Ok, “I’d said “Iceland doesn’t have any.” I kept quiet. Better not to say anything and spook her. Perhaps she wouldn’t notice?

Our phones refused to talk to the car system, and weren’t up to date with all the one way streets consequently we had a frustrating half hour driving around one way streets trying to find the multi story by our hotel which we knew was near but couldn’t get to. There was a horrible moment when, stopping to ask directions, my car door was snatched out of my hands by the wind and banged a bollard hard. Only after checking for dents I saw the sign on the window advising you wind down the window first in strong winds and use two hands to open the door. This seems like a great tip even for here.

It was a huge relief when we spotted the hotel and multi storey and drove straight down a slope to the basement and stopped. Tessa wanted to reverse to adjust our parking. Could either of us find reverse? On every attempt the car slid dangerously closer to the wall, at one point with me braced between car and wall to stop it crashing into it. We re-examined the angle we were parked at. “Looks fine anyway,” we agreed.

The Klopp Central Hotel in the old town, lived up to its description (thank you David at Rickshaw Travel) we couldn’t have been better placed. What’s more, Miro on reception not only explained how to get into reverse but also that there was cheaper parking on the street a short hop away. I put on a few extra layers to combat the wind, closed all the windows Tessa, who loves the cold, had opened and at last around noon we set out to explore.

Reykjavik makes up for its surrounding spectacular, snowy mountain landscape with a riotous paintbox of colours on its little houses. Most are faced with galvanised metal, many are decorated with fabulous graffiti. Every turn in the Old Town was a delight and had views down to the harbour, across to the mountains and up to the Hallgrimskirkja, that tall pointy church iconic to Reykjavik.

We had ideas of where we wanted to go: the jumper shop, the tall pointy church, Bakari Sandholt, (mouth watering review in the Lonely Planet guide), Sundhollm Spa with an outdoor thermal pool, the National Museum, The Old Harbour, the Penis Museum, the Harpa concert hall, and (particularly important to Tessa who loves brutalist architecture)Reykjavik Art museum: Kjarvallsstdir. Everything turned out to be within walking distance give or take 22,000 steps and quite a bit of getting lost. Checking the flimsy map in those winds was a pantomime palaver and my Icelandic pronunciation was clearly way off. You try Snaefellnes…the double ll in the middle has to have a clucking sound like a chicken, just to confuse those of us who know a little Welsh pronunciation where the double ll sounds like you are clearing your throat of phlegm.

As it happened the Icelandic jumper shop turned out to be just round the corner from the hotel. For years I’ve had a dream of owning one inspired by all those Scandi Noir dramas I watch on Walter Presents. I factored in the expense when I booked the holiday.

I gazed at the billowing piles of them and asked an assistant “did you knit some of these?” “Ah yes,” she said “I go home at night. I knit. Imagine, an entire life revolving around these gorgeous jumpers. Tall women looked stunning in them, but no matter how badly I wanted one they looked absolutely rubbish on me. I’m too short to carry them off. Besides, although they looked so soft, they were incredibly itchy. “Ah well,” I sighed, “I’ve just saved myself £300.”

Bakari Sandholt, our laudably frugal choice for lunch.
Bakeoff Perfection
First sighting of the pointy church.
Hallgrims church
Hallgrimskirkja

The priapic Hallgrimskirkja, dominating the top of town, is every bit as imposing as it looks in the picture. Built originally in 1945 its buttresses of concrete columns represent the basalt cliffs prevalent in Iceland. We may have staggered around like drunks in the wind, but to see it on such a sunny day set against puffy clouds was an unexpected bonus. Tessa loves stark, and stark it was in a magnificent way.

Mira at the hotel had been dismissive about the National museum “they don’t have much, and make a lot of what they do have.” Perhaps that was why no-one seemed to know where it was. Mind, it was difficult to find anyone actually from Reykjavik to ask. When we eventually got there I had to partly agree with Miro…see one metal stirrup, see them all, but I loved the reconstruction of life in a Badstofa (country dwelling of old), and Tessa loved it and especially enjoyed the intricate wooden carvings on crosses and bedheads.

Badstofa (interior of a dwelling past century)

We had a background worry all day that our Northern Lights boat trip booked for the evening would be cancelled and thought it best to go to the Elding Office to check at the harbour to check. Our fears were confirmed. “Sorry ladies it’s too rough. Probably the Whale Watching trip in the morning will be cancelled as well. I will call you tonight.” Our faces fell. Hadn’t I come to Iceland specifically in October to see the lights? “But you could go on a minivan trip to see the lights if you like? Our men know where to find them. I’ll see if there are spaces…you are in luck. Wear plenty of clothes.”

On the way back up to the Klopp we picked up a slice of pizza for dinner and ate it while we listened to the Archers. (They are still keeping us on pins about Chelsea.) I piled on more layers: merino wool vest, long sleeve tee shirt, wool polo neck, jumper, gilet, raincoat, wooden long johns under my trousers. At 8 we set out in plenty of time to find the mini van pick-up spot at 9pm and promptly got lost again. With 9 o’clock ticking ever closer, trying to follow directions on Tessa’s phone, we ended up following my instinct of where it might be and joined a long queue. We piled into Gunnar’s van with a dozen or so other people and set off to search for the lights.

It takes a lot of patience to see the Northern Lights unless you are incredibly lucky. Gunnar drove us here and there, stopping every now and then to park up and look. And look. We all rubbed condensation off the windows and scanned the skies around us searching for a sign in the dark sky. Gunnar kept calling his boss. We moved on, and on again. Gunnar kept us entertained with tales of Icelandic folk lore (children are threatened with getting an old potato from Father Christmas if they’ve been naughty) and with handouts of hot chocolate and cinnamon buns and subtle hints that we might not get lucky. A self educated, well travelled Icelander he quoted Dickens, Wuthering Heights and recommended various books – yet his day job was police dog training. Iceland is full of poets I understand. There is scant literature in Icelandic…the market is too small.

We wound up bouncing off road down a track in the middle of deserted heathland somewhere near the south coast, maybe near Grindavik, and piled out to shelter from the wind behind some abandoned buildings. I was thrilled, it couldn’t have been more Icelandi Noir if it tried. At last, quarter to midnight, just when Gunnar was about to give up, we saw a patch of lightening sky. “Check with your phones” said Gunnar “if you have an iPhone 12 and up you will see the lights in a photo before they become visible with the naked eye.” He was right. There they were. As we watched they got brighter and brighter and we could clearly see them with the naked eye. Ok, not the most spectacular showing with ribbons and folds and patches of pink, red and purple, but we saw them. Plenty of people come to Iceland and never see them. They are random. 90% of the time they are just green. They can last for hours or only minutes. Ours lasted for about an hour fading gradually. We watched, we froze and we probably bored half the minivan occupants waiting till the last fade.

“I can’t believe it” I said to Tessa “on our first night. We actually saw them.”

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The red colouring on the heath is from the tail lights, running to keep the less intrepid inside the van warm.

Fire and Ice

Northern Lights, Iceland

Did it start when I couldn’t resist creeping nearer to the erupting Mount Merape volcano in Java ignoring the sign saying HALT. We heard it first before we saw it; great cracking, thunderous bangs as it hurled out glowing lava the size of an average council house that cooled as it crashed down the cinder fields. Or was it the plopping, steaming mud pools in Costa Rica? No, it goes further back than that. It was the charity hike from hell through the Alaskan Wilderness 20+ years ago. Flying home over Greenland I flagged down the airhostess.

“I wonder…could you ask the pilot if I can watch the Northern Lights from the cockpit if there’s a showing on this flight?”

“Hey, great idea” she said. It was before 9/11.

Three times during the flight she woke me up and we walked the path of the privileged (I dream of one day turning left on a plane) to enter the holy grail of first class then the cockpit.

“There you are m’am see that?”said the pilot. It looked like someone had gone ‘bouf’ with a tub of green talcum powder into the sky. No curtains or ribbons or reds, but enough of a thrill to log into my brain that one day I’d go to Iceland and see more.

There’s no guarantee. It might be overcast all week, and a week it will be because Iceland is scarily expensive. My dentist’s receptionist was thrilled by her weekend break there but said a pizza and two beers cost them £70. However the more I learn about what we can see there it’ll be a bonus if we do see the lights. I have an alert app on my phone and fingers and toes are crossed.

David from Rickshaw Travel sends us a list of extras we can do. (We already have whale watching and Northern Lights boat trips, Glacier cave adventure, and Secret Lagoon trips planned.) I read we could also see the statue of the last Great Auk (extinct because, being flightless, they were easy to catch, and both they and their eggs rather tasty.) There are museums and so on but we could also see the place where someone was beheaded, a crashed American plane on a black sand beach and the place where a lighthouse was demolished…it’s all very Icelandi noir don’t you think?

I don’t like to travel somewhere without being able to, at the very least, say hello, goodbye and thank you in their language. One Minute Icelandic on YouTube is tells me to say godan dag (pronounced go than dach) for hello but gets complicated when you could also say Saell to a man but Sael to a woman (pronounced cycle and sile). At least I’ll remember how to say goodbye: Bless!

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Riding to Rincon

 

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Chestnut Mandibled Toucan

I dunno, you spend hours tiptoeing through the jungle hoping against hope to see a toucan, binoculars scanning the canopy, and blow me if there isn’t one sitting on a garden fence at the minivan  station. And not just sitting there either, showing off like a Hollywood matinee idol whilst enjoying a shower from a garden hose.  “Toucans like it cool” Oscar had said – don’t they just. Forget binoculars, there he was, making sure his wing pits were thoroughly clean, improbable bill wiped dry back and forth, back and forth on the railings, then feathers tucked back in neatly for the admiring crowd that had gathered.  I got out my phone.

“Nils, it’s Granny… happy birthday.” What fabulous synchronicity to have the chance to impress this uber-naturalist, now 13 years old, boy.  “Guess what? I’m watching a toucan having a shower, and …oh my god… there goes a flock of green and red macaws. Are you having fun?”

“Yes Granny, thanks for the money, we’re all having tea now….”  Of course they were, they were 6 hours ahead in Machynlleth, and I was interrupting cake “I’ll take a picture for you” I said releasing him to get on with the important stuff.

Everything about the toucan is extraordinary.  Their giant bills, their huge size, their spectacular colouring – who wouldn’t want to use them to advertise a creamy glass of beer? They are jaw dropping. This one was a Chestnut Mandibled  ‘who likes to bathe in water-filled hollows high in trees’ says the bird guide.  9cm larger than the Keel-Billed which ‘makes harsh and monotonous croaking crick crick crrik, with a resonant wooden or mechanical quality like sound of winding an old clock’, in chorus, like a pond full of frogs’. Birders really go for it description-wise, like connoisseurs of fine wines, and I’d love to hear that and even more see it, as they apparently head-bang their great bills back and forth in all directions as they sound off.  Had it been less absorbed in its ablutions, the Chestnut Mandibled, on the other claw, makes ‘a shrill yelping KeeuREEK or yo-YIP a-yip, a-yip, and expresses aggression with a mechanical sounding rattle deeper than that of the Keel Billed’. No surprise that they dominate in the fruit trees, size matters in the bird world. Are you sensing a toucan obsession developing?

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Chestnut-Mandibled Toucan

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Keel-Billed or Rainbow Toucan

The ride to the minivan swap station had been a right old bone shaker, twisting round, up and down a roller coaster road, torment for Tessa and the little Russian boy whose parents seemed singularly unsympathetic to his toucan green face and gritted teeth.  I know that look well… the yawning that’s one step from an up-chuck. He gratefully chewed one of Tessa’s ginger sweets.   “Little boy sick” I called out to the driver, who immediately stopped for the poor kid to take a walk up and down and have a breather. His parents told him not to make such a fuss. I felt for the poor little chap.  I suffered terribly as a kid. For a while crisps stopped me being sick, then it was ice-creams.  Can you believe my parents bought that line?Image result for map of rincon de la vieja national park

It was good to shake off the journey with the Toucan show, and then be chivvied into a different van and set off due north west, almost to the Nicaraguan border, for another volcanic hot spot. Rincon de Veija is a volcanic area, not a pointy kind of volcano like Arenal, more a range of steaming, puffing ‘fumaroles’ that help to make Costa Rica the carbon neutral country it is, the steam cleverly piped and utilised.  It  has the added excitement of the possibility of firing off in any direction.

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Rincon de Vieja National Park

First the driver had to locate our accommodation and he’d not been there before.  When at last he saw a sign for Casa Aroma del Campo he dropped us off by some impressive iron gates with a drive leading to an imposing Spanish style house.  They were locked.  It didn’t seem right.  I rang the bell next to a key pad. Nothing happened.  I rattled the gates a little. Weren’t they expecting us?

“I can’t remember what Casa Aroma looks like, can you?” I said to Tessa.  “I don’t remember it looking like this.” I rang again. We stood there, somewhat forlorn, way out in the middle of the ‘campo’, suitcases at our feet, hot and dusty, contemplating the locked gate.  “Something’s wrong, stop the driver. Quick.”

A head popped out of an upstairs window.

“Casa Aroma? Up the track, over there” he waved us away, gesticulating at one of the roughest tracks I’d ever seen (though Gloucester County Council roads take some beating at the moment).

“Surely the minivan isn’t going to attempt to go up there?” Tessa said.

We bumped and swayed our way uphill, hoping to god that ‘Smell of the Countryside’ would be at the top. The driver was not happy; nor would I have been if it had been my vehicle.  In the kerfuffle of finally reaching the top and seeing a Casa Aroma del Campo sign and hauling our cases up the last few metres, I left my shade peak in the minivan. We watched the driver bump his way back down, ignoring our waves and shouts. Ok, it wasn’t the most fashionable object and my kids would die to be seen with me wearing it, but I’d found far more effective than sunglasses. It made taking a quick photo or raising binoculars far less faff.

We called out. Nobody came. We wandered around the hacienda style bungalow even more confused.  A bright green parrot, perched on top of its cage eyed us suspiciously.. A large black dog, seemingly completely harmless, thumped her tail a couple of times, setting up a cloud of dust from the concrete.

“Hola, hola…welcome, I am Eric, that is Liberty, and this is Coco…say ‘hola’ Coco.” Coco sidled away from him.

Eric showed us to the most orange room I’d ever seen “net is just for romantic” he explained when we noted only one of the beds had a mosquito net.  “Pool is down there, very natural. Liberty is friendly dog, Coco likes her neck tickled …come on Coco, Coco cop, Coco cop,” he  chivvied. Coco glared at us with her red eyes.  “Vegetarian, no problem” he said chalking up a seven course menu on the board. He checked us in and easily persuaded us to take up his offer of personally driving us to some hot springs “very natural, very nice, you can have mud, I only charge petrol.”  IMG_2840

Can I blame Christmas? Getting the decorations down and things prepped for my house sitter?  Woefully unprepared, Tessa and I realised we had miscalculated our cash stash, and hadn’t allowed for paying for evening meals. Everyone had been reluctant for us to pay for anything in colones and when we paid in US dollars, gave us change in colones.  Same old story.  I should have known. Now here we were, goodness only knows how many miles from a hole in the wall with mostly colones in the stash, and me with just $10. We really wanted to do the hot springs.  Would he accept colones? Eric sighed deeply, he shrugged OK.

With time to spare before the evening ride to the springs Tessa hooked up with her family on Skype, and wandered around with her tablet for an hour or so showing them all around.

“This is Liberty…we’d stroke her but she’s sticky with dust…and this is Coco the parrot…and this is our room, and that’s Mary reading in the hammock…”  I looked up from the New Yorker and waved at them.  There are times when the world shrinks beyond belief, and, seeing them all in Tessa’s Cotswold cottage sitting room was one of them.  Sometimes I look at the stars, an extraordinary thing that is a human being with eyes and fingers on hands, and my mind is blown. Really, who needs drugs?  Life is some weird trip. I wandered off to find the pool.

On the way to the springs Eric stopped for us to photograph a site that to me seemed to sum up Costa Rica. Why fell a tree when you can split the road around it? the hot springs at Rincon were much more like what I’d expected from my experience of hot springs in Thailand, though more contained.  There I’d just made my way up a hot stream, dammed from time to time to make pools, increasing in heat until it was so intense I’d had to clamber back down to where it was bearable.

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Over the road from the main springs were the ‘natural’ ones, so we thought we’d try them first. The stream trickled downhill through woodland, it was still and deserted. We  picked our way carefully along the paths till we found a shady pool we particularly liked.

“Ow, christ, ow, watch out” I shouted across to Tessa who was just picking her way in carefully.  I’d just swam right into the submerged branch of a fallen tree, and was having trouble escaping from more hidden branches.  No wonder it was so quiet. The natural pools were indeed natural, unkempt and set like traps for the unwary. Hightailing it back across the road to the main set up we were relieved to find a series of pools roughly fashioned out of concrete beside a larger stream with no overhanging branches.  They even had approximate temperatures chalked on boards next to each pool.  The place was heaving with people, chatting, taking selfies and generally having a ball shouting and splashing around.

“Come on lets get muddied” I said to Tessa and we joined the queue for an attendant to slather us all over with mud using a huge paintbrushes. We staggered away like zombies to wait for the mud to dry and absorb until we looked for all the world like a a row of  Gormley figures. Once we’d dried to pale grey and started to crack we slithered over to a row of cold showers set in the rocks. I found the ‘just perfect’ pool to wallow in, like Goldilocks porridge not too hot, not too cold, with only a smattering of other people. I floated on my back, eyes closed, thinking ‘this is the life.’ It seemed like I’d floated like that for an age when I had a very shocking awakening obliviously floating right into a bunch of young men sitting around the edge drinking beers. I spluttered my apologies and paddled away embarrassed. “Did you enjoy that” giggled Tessa, who had watched the whole incident unravel from a distance.

IMG_2856Eric diverted along a back road on the way back.  We were itching to see a puma, and he assured us they were regularly seen there, as the sign would indicate, but it was not to be. Truth to tell, puma’s don’t want to see people, and so well camouflaged are they that you could walk right past one and not know it. There are constant rumours of them living in my valley back home in the Cotswolds, carcasses of deer eaten from the hind quarters forwards found, but only rare sightings.

Back at Casa Aroma del Campo Eric’s seven course meal turned out to be the best we’d eaten so far in Costa Rica. Veggies fresh from the campo, bean soup, a kind of tasty scrambled egg with spring onions and herbs rounded off with a ‘flan coco’.  Paula’s description of Casa Aroma came back to me: ‘a little bit arty and funky’. “Perfect” I’d said.  And yes, we found it right up our unbeaten track,

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Still soporific from the spa, we both turned in early to read and for me to catch up on my journal. We marvelled at how soft our skin had become from the mud. There were curious night sounds I couldn’t identify, but it was a deep sleep nevertheless.

Coco woke us at the crack with a hideous squawking.  It only stopped when the cook arrived from the village and slip-slopped over to her with a piece of toast.  That bird is spoiled. I tried to ingratiate myself with her like Eric suggested “Coco cop, Coco cop” I said inching my hand towards her to indicate a neck rub. She made to stab it with her vicious beak

“She only like men” called out the cook, well thanks Eric, pity you didn’t mention that.  I felt sorry for the bird, the cage was filthy, partly because she seemed to spend all her time standing on top of it, crapping and clutching at her clawful of toast, glaring. Were her wings clipped? I asked Eric when he re-appeared.

“No she flies free.  Goes away sometimes and comes back.” Well I hope she goes off for hot sex with a secret lover and has some fun in her life.

IMG_2869 (1)The next morning our guide Freddie picked us up early.  ‘Rincon is famous for its tall trees’ said Paula…she wasn’t kidding, but I have to say that by then I felt that if I had to endure hearing about the lifecycle of the ficus tree once more it’d go crazy.  I’d come to realise that when guides are a bit stuck for something to show visitors they resort to this patter. Freddie was well meaning, studying hard to upgrade from minivan driver to full time guide, but when you hear an unusual bird call and ask “What’s that?” “A bird” doesn’t really cut it. Bernie the driver, a trained guide was actually more knowledgeable.  Freddie redeemed himself when he pointed out an anteater way up high in a tree.  Did you know they did that?  My vision of an anteater is of an animal pottering along on the forest floor hoovering up ants with it’s long snout. To see one eating high up in the canopy was a revelation, as was the sandpaper tree. Yes it is very wise to keep your arms to yourself in the rainforest.

We smelt it before we saw it – sulphur. Then we heard it. Plop, hiss, plop.

“Oh my god, look at that” steam was rising up among the trees. We’d reached the active area, and there was the vent of a fumarole right in front of us.  Crusts of colourful chemicals surrounded the vent, boiling water in it.  Nearby was a large mudpot.  Plap, plop, plop.

“They should have films of this showing in dentists surgeries” said Tessa. “And at the post office” said I.

I feel a bit guilty being so excited by volcanoes, especially when people in Hawaii are fleeing for their lives from one at this very moment while I write. But it’s like looking at the stars.  I am amazed that we can survive on a round rock, with a furious furnace of molten rock in the centre, barely contained in places by a thin crust, sicking up lethal rivers of larva.  The sharp smell of sulphur caught in my nostrils.  How can this be? Existence was blowing my mind again.

Tessa filmed it on her phone.  I stared and stared at it, mesmerised so I jumped when Freddie reappeared from making a phone call right behind me.  I turned around. He looked at me closely.

“Are those real?” he asked.  He pointed.

“My eyes? You mean green? Yes, they are. Cowpat green.”

“Beautiful,” he said and walked away. Curiosity or a come on? You decide.

 

Hanging out in the Cloud Forest

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Hanging bridge in Monteverde Cloud Forest canopy

Rickshaw travel gave me a choice “you can take a zip wire over the canopy” said Paula “it’s really thrilling.”  For a moment I was hooked (in a kind of ‘poop poop’ Toad kind of a way) then I thought ‘I can do that in the Forest of Dean…in fact I have done it in the Forest of Dean accompanying my friend Lesley in a terrifying 60th birthday celebration at Go Ape.’  “You’re the only friend I thought would say yes” she said when she invited me. True, it was really thrilling, and more than a little challenging for someone whose knees go weak when anyone goes near a cliff edge, and I was excited by the zip wire bit  flying half a mile over the tree tops to skid along some wood chip and crash into buffers at the end. However, why would I want to speed over the rainforest when I could be in it, wandering about avoiding snakes and looking for sloths and monkeys?  I changed my mind and Paula booked me a hanging bridges hike instead.

It was clear on the day we went for the skywalk in the Monteverde Cloud Forest.  That’s unusual; most visitors walk through a bean souper.  It was also cold and a bit drippy.  Our guide Oscar wasted no time telling us “I knew a woman, tipped me big because I found her a bird that has 8 different songs.”  He found us that bird too, not so rare as it happens, and what birdwatchers call an LBJ (little brown job).  I don’t remember it’s name, he was too busy telling us about the size of another tip he’d had from another woman. After quite a lot of wandering and seeing nothing he found us a red kneed tarantula holed up in a bank.  Tessa was thrilled.  “Oo look… don’t you want to see it?” I peered into the hole reluctantly.  Couldn’t see a thing.  I tried again, without success.  Tessa loves spiders, and tells me I should leave them alone in my house.  I’ve had to train myself to remove them to the garden (gently in a hankie) but she will have none of it.  I can’t bear it when they plop heavily onto my bed and wake me up. I tried again, and, once I’d realised I needed to put my reading glasses on, got a faint glimpse of its hairy red knees. We walked on to our first hanging bridge.  I was fine on the ones like the one above, with opaque sides which gave me a false sense of security.

“Anyone afraid of heights?”asked Oscar. I took a deep breath walked carefully to the middle, avoiding looking down and the bounce that had begun as the others crossed ahead of me.

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We walked on to the next bridge the sides were just flimsy looking netting. Clear sided bridges are another thing altogether. Tessa stopped to take a picture down to the forest floor. What you see is the moment before she leaned over, phone in hand to get a better shot.  “Argh don’t do that” I shouted “you’ll drop your phone.” I felt a jolt in the base of my spine watching her. “I probably will now you’ve said that” she complained.  Of course what I was really afraid of was that she’d drop over the edge.

One of our party made the mistake of holding on to the rail supporting the netting. “Euww, what’s this gooey stuff?” he asked. We had just reached to the place where howler monkeys are known to hang out. People we’d passed earlier going in the opposite  direction said they’d watched howlers dancing about on the bridge for a full ten minutes.They were there alright, way up high in the canopy, making a wild rumpus in a face off with some capuchins.  Their ‘hoo hoo hoo’ resonated around the forest, a sound that is audible many miles away. I don’t think they appreciated the interruption of a good fight by a bunch of gawping tourists. We heard a loud SPLAT a few feet away, and another, and another. Our companion realised what he’d just put his hand on.

“Jeeze we’re under attack” I said “shit hurling howler monkeys.”

“Shall we move on?” said Oscar.

Whilst I have to admire a creature that can shit on demand, in its own hand when needs must, I was happy to move swiftly on.  I recalled a family story, oft recounted with mean sniggers by my brothers, of their visit to London zoo with their friend Giles Dymock.  They’d been admiring monkeys in a cage when one of them, seemingly sitting innocently on it’s hand, took aim and got Giles smack in the face.  I wonder if it was a howler? Giles grew up to be a stock broker, I bet he often had a shit day.

DSC01141We tipped Oscar reluctantly, it stuck in our craws tired of the dozen or more brazen hints he’d dropped for us to do so. Until then we had followed the Rickshaw advice and had been only too happy to acknowledge the guiding we received. 

It was soon forgotten when we noticed a coati pottering about in the car park, tail up like a happy cat, reminding us of its racoon cousins. It was rooting around in the scrubby margins looking for something to eat. Tessa said she thought I looked just like one rooting about in my backpack for a snack bar.

It had been a bit of a shoo-in to arrange a guided hike in Curi Cancha. I’d struck up a relationship with Darlene in Monteverde Travel over our emails. At first it seemed impossible, costing over £100 for an afternoon with a guide and then being told it couldn’t be arranged for just one person anyway. Then Tessa joined me on the trip and with good natured cooperation between Darlene, Paula and myself we juggled the timings and managed to fit it in.  Tessa and I would have our own guide for the whole afternoon and it would cost us just $46 each.  “Call in to the office and you can practice your Spanish” Darlene said in her last email.  I was saved the shame (come on Duolingo, 50%?) by the rush to get back to Cala Lodge in time for a quick turn-around for our ride to Curi Cancha.

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Davide met us at the visitor centre. Tall, skinny, 22 years old, with a stylish flat mohican, his face lit up when he saw our binoculars “you are birders?”

I explained “No, not really, but we like birds very much, bird appreciators I’d say, and plants and animals. I’d really love to see a Resplendent Quetzal.”

“Ah, difficult” he said sucking on his teeth “but I will try my best.” 

The thing about Curi Cancha is that being at a lower, warmer elevation there is a much better chance of seeing the abundant wildlife that lives there. It’s a small private reserve, with far fewer visitors than the Cloud Forest.  It wasn’t ideal to visit in the afternoon you always see more birds in the early mornings, but it was our only chance.

Davide reminded me of my grandson Nils, bursting with enthusiasm on all matters related to wildlife. I could picture Nils (with his hair recently styled just like Davide’s) being a guide himself one day.  Now 13, he has grown up without television but allowed to watch David Attenborough documentaries for a treat. He can name nearly every animal on the planet. (It was Nils who sat through my bird pictures with a loaned guide book helping me to identify them.)  A few years ago I wrote to Attenborough to thank him for the profound and beneficial influence he’d had on Nils and his sister Nina, and their cousins Indigo and Rubin…children all over the world in fact.  I’d got them to do him some drawings. Such is the graciousness of the man I had a hand written reply to them from Sir David.  I read it out  to them at our Christmas dinner. They blushed with delight. He thanked them for their drawings not in a ‘that’s nice dear’ kind of a way, but showing he’d taken a real interest in the details. I love that man.

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Napping Agouti photobombed by a bird

We knew we were on a winner with Davide when he led us off on the hike making bird calls.  He took us to a meadow and showed us a coati waking from it’s nap in the fork of a tree branch and made a video for us with his scope.  Walking past a coffee hedge on the outskirts of the tended garden we were startled when an agouti raced past chased by a coati, then settled under a tree for a nap. Like giant terrier size rats on long legs they would be really spooky if those legs were shorter and they had a long tail.  But I think I know now what the ‘giant rats’ were that were caged with a bored, gum chewing woman in a green sparkly bikini in a kind of glass box at Gloucester Fair when I was a child.

Padding silently around the trails, we only passed half a dozen other people.  Davide led us to an area where tall avocado trees were in fruit – a favourite of the Quetzal.  We stood near him for a half hour or more waiting. Davide wandered around making their soft call from time to time, we stayed still and silent.  Nothing. I tried not to be too disappointed.  The problem was we were just a bit too early in the season and the fruit was not yet ripe.  The bird that had entertained me for two years or more as my ringtone with it’s crazy alarm call would have to remain a future wish of mine.

Hot and thirsty we rested a while in the ‘hummingbird garden’ under a lemon/tangerine type of citrus tree watching the birds work the blossom on the cat-tail hedge and quenched our thirst with the sour fruits. “What’s that bird up in that tree over there?” I asked Davide.

“Oh my god, oh my god, you found me my favourite bird…oh look at that, it’s a squirrel cuckoo.”  My chest puffed up, I’d just found a real birdwatcher his favourite bird, and if anyone deserved it it was the extremely knowledgeable Davide. If any place in the world was going to make me a birdwatcher proper it was Costa Rica. And if you do go to Curi Cancha I’m going to bet you won’t do better than to ask for Davide.  I wish you well young man, you have a great future ahead of you, and if I ever find your business card I will send you the promised picture of a badger in my garden.

The Resplendent Quetzal, left and Squirrel Cuckoo Centre Right

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The magnificent motmot

 

Was it the effect of two hours lolling in a hot spring under the stars the previous night? Tessa and I packed slowly, retrieving our (still slightly wet) socks and knickers off the deck and getting the cleaners to show us how they do that clever towel folding thing.

“Dos huevos flip side over por favor may I take your picture?” The egg chef (there is always an egg chef in Costa Rica) sizzled in some oil.

“You all packed?” asked Tessa as I joined her with my breakfast.

“Mm, mostly” I took another slice of toast and drizzled on some honey.

“That’s not our minivan is it?” said Tessa.

“What? Can’t be. It’s not due till 8.55?”

“7.55” said Tessa “thought you were unusually chilled.”

“Aargh.” We scrambled to get our luggage. “Shit, where’s my passport, I had it last night?”

“My phone, where’s my phone” said Tessa.

I can’t bear to rush. My friend Caroline is the same, leading to a tendency to arrive hours before a film starts and sitting through interminable adverts and the scary ones that remind you you forgot to lock up properly.  Tessa is much better at a flying start.  Jose the driver was patient, the missing items were found, and we joined two French pharmacists (does that sound like a song to you?) in the van. The road wound and climbed up tangled string roads towards the mountainous centre of the country rocking us side to side and dipping us up and down. Torment for Tessa, sucking another ginger sweet and concentrating hard on not being sick. But we were on our way to the mysterious cloud forest.

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We arrived at Cala Lodge Monteverde shaken and stirred but once again thrilled with our accommodation. Built 20 years ago by its ornithologist owner the hotel is on the edge of town, surrounded by forest with pretty flowered gardens and mini nature walks. Two lovely Blue-Grey Tanagers gorged themselves, on the table by the open sided restaurant until the more dominant, cackling grackles deposed them. We hauled our suitcases up the two stories to our room which had the feel of a trees house with sunny balcony overlooking a magnificent view.

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Motmot

Tessa asked the receptionist if the Quaker School was anywhere nearby. A lifelong Quaker herself she is now a governor at her old school, Sidcot in Somerset. It’s part of what makes Tessa Tessa. A compassionate person, ever happy to read the best into a person. When she discovered there was a Friends school in Monteverde she emailed to see if there might be a chance to visit. It didn’t look very hopeful.  There had been recent flooding and landslip, and the address minimal. We weren’t sure how far it was, or how big Monteverde was, or if there would be time in our schedule to visit. Experiencing how advanced the Costa Ricans are in conservation and sustainability we suspected the strong Quaker presence might have had a great deal to do with it.  They even got rid of their army.  On December 1st 1948 President José Figueres Ferrer gave them their final marching orders. In a ceremony in the Cuartel Bellavista, Figueres broke a wall with a mallet symbolizing an end to Costa Rica’s military spirit. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Public_Forces_of_Costa_Rica

“One hour walk up the road” said the receptionist “or you could take a bus or a taxi”.

“And Curi Cancha? Is that nearby?”

“It’s right by the school” said the receptionist “you can see it from your balcony.”

Now Curi Cancha was my number one wish. I’d spotted a short paragraph about it in the Lonely Planet Guide described it thus: “Bordering Monteverde but without the crowds, this lovely private reserve on the banks of the Rio Cuecha is popular among birders…with a hummingbird garden and view of the continental divide.” I’d managed to arrange a private visit with Darlene from Monteverde Travel, after a long, and sometimes confusing, exchange of emails, for just the two of us with our own guide. It wasn’t cheap (around £46 each) but understanding that there was a chance of seeing abundant wildlife there I couldn’t bear to miss it. It took some juggling but we’d managed to wangle it into the itinerary. It wasn’t ideal to go in an afternoon, but it was worth a try as that was our only chance. I’m not exactly a birder (memories of freezing afternoons in February on the edge of sewage farms on the outskirts of London with my birder first husband had done for that years ago) but it is creeping up on me.

Discarding boots for sandals we slathered on sun cream and set out along the dusty road to look for the school, hardly able to contain excitement at our luck.

“Look at that, a little pastry shop.” Two women in floaty skirts and Birkenstocks passed us “just like Stroud,” I said “we’ve even got the right footwear.” Further along we saw  large wooden round house that looked like it had a Rudolph Steiner stamp. A couple of dread-locked hippies carrying yoga mats opened the door and went in.  Further up the road we came across where the landslip had scoured it’s way down the hillside taking half a row of houses with it. It was a long hot slog, broken with a visit to the women’s co-op shop, initiated by the school to help local women earn money from creative projects. The receptionist said everyone liked the school, and she often went there just to sit quietly.  We loaded up on more gifts, very happy to support the project.

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We found the school eventually, passing a sign to Curi Cancha just before it. While I sat quietly in the meeting room Tessa found the headmistress and had a rewarding hour swapping information and hopefully sowing the seeds for a future link between Monteverde Friends school and Sidcot. I joined them in a tour of the classrooms, thinking how lucky some kids were to have access to this sort of education only wishing it was available to all kids.  On the way back we stopped off at Jiminez’s cafe for a claggy guava jam bun with fake cream and chocolate on top. I had no idea Tessa had such a sweet tooth.

The receptionist at Cala had persuaded us to take a night hike. Tiptoeing around the forest in groups of ten or so we shone our torches into the forest searching for animals, in the undergrowth and up in the trees. Well, most of us did. I for one was very relieved when a woman ticked off her American husband for speaking too loudly and shining his torch in other people’s faces. We drew the short straw with our guide Maurice, who seemed only to find things previous guides had scouted out, but I suppose everyone has to start somewhere.

DSC01099Just after we’d slithered down a muddy bank one by one to cautiously admire a fluorescent green side-striped pit viper, Maurice was alerted to a sleeping rainbow toucan, it’s improbable beak tucked under it’s wing, high up in a tree.  To be honest it was  pretty much a blob with a bit of yellow and orange showing, but a toucan nevertheless.  I could finally say I’d been to Costa Rica and seen a toucan.

Maurice moved us on along. “Look up there” he directed his red pointer light at a fine branch with a tiny nest danging precariously from the end. It had what looked at first like a sharp needle sticking out of the top. “Humming bird sleeping” he said “when there is no sunlight they are just grey, the colour only comes from the light, it’s a grey bird.”  That was quite a thought. I found a Jay’s feather once, and was astonished to learn the same thing about the tiny blue and white striped feathers on its wings that are so distinctive. There was the grey bird blending in nicely, snoozing away but, because of the delicate branch, unlikely to be disturbed by that viper. Nearby two very spotted white chested thrushes cuddled up closer when our searchlights found them.

As the hike ended, and the different groups merged one of the guides spotted a sloth. A sloth in action. At a tortuous pace it was picking its way down to the ground from its tree top home for its weekly shit.  Fortunately for us it was almost down – or we’d have been there all night waiting. Poor creature.  Possibly it was not thrilled to have such a large audience for what most of us prefer to be a private act. (There was more on the sloth in journey to the top right of )

Dripping wet, we stopped by for dinner at Don Lucia restaurant.  Their aubergine parmigiana, melty soft, was as perfect as ever I’ve tasted. We walked back to the lodge well fed, fairly content with what we’d seen (but not with the $25 fee we each paid for the hike) and on the way back I narrowly escaped being eaten by a crocodile.

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Journey to the steaming bit in the middle

A fiery love affair

Not everyone followed advice on dressing appropriately for a jungle. As we sped away from Tortuguero, churning up the canal, a delightful Argentine woman, clearly comfortable in her own skin and very little else, had chosen what looked like baby-doll nightie (remember those?) and bikini ensemble.

 

“Spider monkeys” called out Oliver and the captain slowed the boat and turned it sideways and back, like a pointing bee, so everyone could get a view.  I watched them closely, grateful for my ex-husband (a retired nature reserve warden) advising on which binoculars to buy.  Binoculars, which by then were practically welded to my chest, because at any moment, who knows, I might see a tapir, or a toucan? The spider monkeys reminded me of a sticky stretchy thing the kids had when they were little that would slowly climb down the walls (leaving greasy slicks that never came out).

The drive to La Fortuna, where I could continue my love affair with volcanoes, rewarded us with glorious views of little houses painted in a pallet rarely dared in the UK.  Tessa spent the journey snapping away, consequently making herself thoroughly sick.  She offered me a ginger sweet and I learnt that she is best left to close her eyes and get through it without me fussing over her. We arrived at La Fortuna around lunch time, and were dropped off at Montechiari Lodges, tucked on the outskirts of town.

“Oh my God, she’s done it again,” we exclaimed “look what Paula’s found us and it’s hot. The view of the Arenal Volcano, one of the only 5 active perfectly pointy ones in the world, was framed by the lodges. We rushed to shed our stuff and take pictures – completely unaware at the time how lucky we were. Some people, we discovered, visit La Fortuna and need to be convinced there is actually a volcano there.

This was the place to go shopping our friend Amanda had said, and where I discovered we both like to shop. With gifts to buy, we quickly hung out our socks, umbrellas and shirts (on Tessa’s part who had exchanged trying to dry clothes in a soggy climate for a lighter suitcase). Our toes welcomed the relief from entrapment in walking boots into flip flops. La Fortuna is a pretty little town arranged around a square with restaurants, gift shops and upmarket chocolatier.  We baulked at paying $8 for a slim bar and opted for one small coffee chocolate each.  we bought real dried bananas in the health food shop, the like of which hasn’t appeared in the UK for a few years now since a hurricane.  Quite unlike the crispy banana discs you find in muesli and trail mix, these were about 6 inches long, slim and gooey. A treat in my lunch boxes as a child, along with honey and ground hazelnut sandwiches, they marked me out at school in the 1950s as a totally weird vegetarian. I didn’t care, I loved them. My own children loved them too, though I suspect they were often swapped for crisps.

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Tessa in pizza cafe La Fortuna

Encouraged by an American woman, a regular visitor to Arenal with groups of students, we had supper that night in the local pizza restaurant.

“If you like birds” she said “get up at dawn.  They feed them near the restaurant, it’s amazing. Go watch.”

The pizza was, well, a pizza. Conversation was drowned out however by her students, off the leash from home and away from teach, and football on an overhead screen.

At 6am I quickly dressed and tiptoed out so as not to disturb Tessa.  Taking my place, by the bird tables I waited, aware that I was not the only one: the bushes stirred.  Just after 6 the bananas arrived and slowly at first, then in a rainbow flurry, the birds began to arrive led by chattering orange chinned parakeets.  A mere 4 or 5 feet distant I watched as they were joined by a yellow crowned euphonia, scarlet thighed dancnis and scarlet rumped tanager. It must be what tripping is like. I shared a picture with my cat sitter back home in Gloucestershire. She returned a picture of mine with a squirrel on it.

“Look” said Tessa “that tree is covered in iguanas.” We tried to get pictures, but they were too high up for anything really satisfactory.  We crossed over to the office to wait for the mini van for our next expedition, dressed in swimming costumes, shorts and skirt ready for a trip to the hot springs.

“Oh my god, look behind you, don’t move.”

Right beside the bench, keeping a close eye on us, but also not moving except for a that following eye, sat an iguana, more than a meter long head to tale, with claws you really wouldn’t want to mess with. What a poser.

We thought we were just going to the hot springs. Once again though, through lack of properly checking, we had failed to realise there was a scheduled hike up the volcano first.

“We are going to the dark side’ said Gabriel our guide, “the one where the lava flowed down, not the one you see now.  The last eruption was in 1968, 120 people died, mainly women and children who were at home on the slopes; the men were out at work. It erupted from the top, keeping its perfect cone shape. Most people died from the gas, like Pompeii, slowly, hiding in their houses.  Only 87 bodies were found.  The rest were probably buried under huge lava bombs the size of our minivan.”

“Will we go to the top?” I asked, ever keen to see a bubbling cauldron waiting to blow.

“Too dangerous” said Gabriel “tourists not allowed.”

“Do toucans live up here?” I asked Gabriel.

“Yes, they do, I think I hear one” we scanned the trees “but maybe not see one. Toucans like cool weather. This is a bit hot for them.”

We cursed that we were in sweaty bathers, unprepared for a hike. We passed a lake covered in green algae, and watched a wattled jacana pick its way carefully over the scum with those huge blue feet. As we crunched up the solidified lava flow, now regenerated with trees and bushes,  I was constantly aware of this fact, that in we were trespassing on a graveyard, that some of the bigger clods of lava were grave boulders on top of the  missing.  I wondered how people can live so close to volcanos?  How do they sleep at night?  I remembered the rumbles of Mount Merape in Java, the massive ejections of lava from the top the size of my house, every 10-15 minutes. The noise they made of cracking and banging as they cooled and solidified tumbling down the cinder slopes. We were thoughtful as we picked our way carefully down, and delighted and grateful by the sight that met us when we rejoined our driver.

“For you” he beamed.

“But for you too” we insisted.

 

Ecotherminales was our next surprise – quite unlike the hot springs I’d enjoyed in Thailand which were what you could call truly natural and rustic.  Ecotherminales was more like a smart spa, subtly lit, with a series of very posh springs, with graded pools from comfortably bearable to ‘would you really want to do that to yourself?’

Men with Kindles held aloft lounged reading in the comfortably warm lowest pool.  We lolled about and swam around for a bit, lay on our backs and watched the stars come out, swam to the waterfall and gave our shoulders a thumping massage.  There was a surprise for us in the next pool, the cocktail bar pool ,filled with American students intent on getting wrecked.  I indulged in a cocktail. This is the life, I was thinking…when I saw two familiar faces.

“Hi ” I said “remember us?”  The Argentine woman and her husband floated past. The woman looked puzzled…but then with wet hair only she could look distinctive.

“The boat,” I said “Tortuguero?”

It went on like this for a bit and Tessa and I floated off to another corner. Then “Ah si,”pura vida” said her husband saying something to his wife in Spanish. Her face lit up.

“I’ll try my Spanish” I said to Tessa.  My understanding is definitely better than speaking. I learnt that she was a belly dance and salsa teacher (of course she was, what else?).

“Tessa and I met at belly dance classes” I attempted in Spanish, already out of my depth, but gestures help a lot.  Then, and I still don’t know why I said it, but maybe it was because he said he was a vet and they had 6 dogs and would understand the pain of losing a pet, I launched into what I thought was “my cat died just before we left, it was a shock.”  Actually I don’t know what I said but surely morte is dead?  And gatto is cat?  But as I was duel learning Spanish and Italian at the beginning I may have got in a bit of a muddle.  I tried again. They still looked blank.

“At least you tried” said Tessa “and you understood what they said.  Well done.

We showered and dressed in the changing rooms to the accompaniment of one of the American girls kneeling on the floor of one of the loos vomiting loudly. The friend who’d been holding back her hair said “it’s time to go in to dinner, do you want any?” What was she thinking?

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Journey to the skinny bit in the middle.

Costa Rican Mafia and polyamory in the swamp

Type in something http://www.rickshawtravel.co.uk

Cute aren’t they? The White-Faced Capuchin monkey, as gorgeous to look at as a decorated cup of the brew it’s named after, as well as the hooded friars, is also known as the Costa Rican Mafia.  It didn’t take us long to go from ‘oo, wouldn’t it be amazing to see a Capuchin to ‘oh my god, it’s trying to steal the sugar.’ Sadly, where they are around easy pickings (i.e. tourists) they’ve developed a sugar addiction, making them relatively easy to snap, but a nightmare for restaurant staff. They are also extremely clever.  We were told about two beach capuchins putting on a bit of a show dancing for a charmed tourist, while their accomplice unzipped his backpack and necked a bottle of coke.

We arrived in Tortuguero well in time for lunch and, such was our lack of checking, had the unexpected delight of finding two tours were included as well as the canoe trip at dawn the next day. As we waited to go into the dining hall capuchins did their best to cement their reputation. Someone thought they saw a toucan, we missed it, only catching the post-seeing-a-toucan excitement.

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Oliver gathered us together at the dock to take us by boat down the canal for a jungle hike. Some guides, you can tell immediately, get it – have a passion for the environment, oodles of experience and are full of knowledge.  As soon as I heard him imitate the call of the rare Trogon, I knew we were in the hands of an expert. I used to help my ex (a warden with the RSPB) with bird surveys and that’s how you do it, especially in the UK where most of them are LBJs (little brown jobs). It worked.  Soon a pair of Trogons answered his call and came to check out the competition.  For those that are curious they were either Orange Bellied (4, below) or Elegant (No.7 below) close relatives of the iconic, extravagantly tailed Quetzal.  I have a particular interest in seeing a Quetzal because for years their truly crazy call startled my friends when I used it as a ringtone on my mobile.  The trogon however has a soft 5 or 6 descending note call.IMG_0091

Our little group walked quietly along the concrete path through the jungle – concrete because a law was passed a couple of years ago in Costa Rica to make everywhere accessible to wheelchairs. Whilst it might take something from the experience of adventuring in the jungle, it actually protects tourists from it in many ways and the rainforest from them. “Don’t touch anything, or lean on a tree without checking first” said Oliver “there are snakes, insects, and some plants have savage spikes, same are  poisonous. Be careful.” A row of leaf cutter ants flagged up a warning on the handrail.

One woman complained it was too dark to take photographs. rain drenched us, but as Oliver pointed out “it’s a RAIN forest”. Swathed in capes and waterproof jackets, binoculars and cameras (the lucky few with long lenses) at the ready, we hoped to see a jaguar slinking by or a tapir sloshing about. How can anyone live in a jungle let alone find time to build fantastic temples?

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The soggy forest floor was lit in places by a tiny fungus like glowing cups of fire; sap from the ‘blood tree’ bled a massacre onto the concrete path. A spiny nut had provided a good bite for a monkey or a possum.

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Blood Tree

I heard the young woman travelling with a woman around 80 years old, call her  ‘Nanny’. I was curious. As we boarded the boat to go back to Evergreen Lodge I asked if she was travelling with her grandmother. She was doing  exactly that, she said, and what’s more, they were having a great time. I was inspired. I resolved to offer to take each of my four grandchildren on a special trip, somewhere they really wanted to go, when they reached 18. How cool would that be? The plan risks it being a bit naff for the youngest of the four, who is only 10, if I’m a bit decrepit by then, but hey, what better incentive to keep fit?

The next trip  to Tortuguero village was an exercise in how to keep jolly in the rain. Easy for a couple of Brits, neither of us moaners.  ‘No such thing as bad weather, only wrong clothes’, we reminded ourselves.  We looked at the ice-cream stalls along the ‘high street’  (mostly a row of tourist shops) but it was hard to work up an enthusiasm for one under our umbrellas. No wonder Tessa and I are good travel companions.  She and I share a passion for hardware shops.   I’ve  visited hardware shops all over the world, and usually find something different to bring home, though I never did have the nerve to fit the squirty loo hose I brought back from Thailand.  (What was I thinking? A hose attached to the loo in a wooden floored upstairs bathroom with four grandchildren?) Sadly Tortuguero hardware shop had little to intrigue, though I regret not getting a picture of the leather machete sheaths hanging in a row.

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We headed for the beach instead, behind the row of shops, famed for the turtles who, in a spectacular event each November, heave themselves ashore in their many thousands to lay their eggs. “Don’t swim” Oliver had warned “there are crocodiles and sharks in the sea.”  A sea, despite being Caribbean, that churned and crashed angrily on the shore. Funnily enough I wasn’t in the least bit tempted.

As night closed in I went for a soggy walk alone along the path from our cabin. Always a good mimic I repeated the Trogon call.  Birds stirred nearby, but they weren’t coming over to play. The night shift was starting, and I stopped to listen to the ringtone frog, the alarm clock frog, the faulty smoke alarm frog and the dripping tap frog. It was another world, and I loved it.

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“Listen” I said to Tessa when I woke next morning “hear that?”

“No, what?”

“That’s it. Nothing. Nada. It’s stopped raining.”

The light was different, it was warmer, and in the far distance we could hear Howler monkeys call.

It couldn’t have been a better omen, for this was the day I’d anticipated for over a year when I saw a picture of my friend Amanda canoeing up a tropical river. It had been the stuff of my dreams for so long I can’t actually remember when it began but it was undoubtedly inspired by a plethora of wildlife documentaries and reading about female explorers.

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We assembled at the jetty at 5.45 a.m. and were introduced to our guide Ray Brown.  We wobbled onto the small rowing boat with a German and Swiss couple, Ray standing at the back doing the paddling.  A black vulture circled overhead. Someone thought they saw a shark fin.

“Possible, said Ray ” there are sharks and crocodiles in the canal here, manatees sometimes.” Ray explained he grew up in Tortuguero village.

“Did you swim in the canal?” I asked him.

“Of course” he said paddling across to the other side, “ask me any questions you like” he said “what do you want to see?”

“I’d love to see a tapir” I said.

“Ah, difficult” said Ray “but I’ll try my best.  They like to graze in the shallows.  They eat Water Hyacinths.  Look Howler Monkey” and he paddled us over to look. “Iguana” he said poking the boat into the canal side. Iguanas, explained Ray, change colour from green to orange, depending on what they eat. It reminded me of an acupuncture patient I had once who’d turned herself bright orange with her serious carrot habit. The iguana we saw was half way there. Ray knew where things hung out, poking the boat into the side canals and lagoons. The cayman’s lair was empty that morning.

“What are those ?” The trees on the banks looked from a distance as if someone had thrown tissues up them.  He paddled in close. They were exotic flowers, as big as a head with red stamens and phallic pistle (if I remember my biology right).

“I used to be a Rastafarian,” said Ray “can you believe that? But I had to cut my dreads off to get work.”  He picked a flower to show us close up. “This is what we used it for. Not allowed now, national park.” Tearing up and mushing all the parts of the flower into canal water he mixed it to a pink slime.

“There,” he said pouring it onto his head “makes your hair grow very nicely. Anyone want to try?”

“I will” said Tessa, to my astonishment “come on Mary, you too.” The others in the boat declined while Tessa and I rubbed it into our hair. I can report my hair has grown very fast this last month, though I’m afraid it’d take me till I’m 80 to grow dreads.

As he paddled Ray told us how there were no doctors or clinics in the village.  His father had helped in all the births of his brothers and sisters . Such was his natural skill, he was midwife to all the children in the village.  I wonder if he learned something from the amazing Feminista bird?

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Bobbing on a boat doesn’t necessarily make for great photos, so I share this with you from a bird guide.  The Jacana, with its improbable feet for walking on floating vegetation, has a habit I can’t resist sharing.  Ray said it was known as the ‘Feminista’ bird explaining she took no part in the upbringing of her eggs…but he left out half the story.  She is actually polyandrous, defending a territory of 2 – 4  males at a time. She puts in a bit of effort at the beginning, helping her first male to build a skimpy nest on the floating vegetation. Then she lays him 4 buff coloured eggs, scribbled over with blackish crisscrossing lines (like a very young child might decorate an easter egg).  He incubates them, (without any help from her, carefully tucking his wings under the eggs to insulate them from the damp of the floating nest) while she buggers off to make eggs with her other paramours.  He has even been observed rolling the eggs to safety over the vegetation if a flood threatens the nest.  They hatch after 22-24 days, when he carries them to safety tucked under one wing, like recalcitrant toddlers, legs dangling. ‘The mother may help to guard them’ says the bird guide.

Ray Brown steered us into the side canals, where crocodiles lurk and vegetation brushes the arms of the unwary. Honestly, it was one of the biggest thrills of my life.

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On our last morning in Tortuguero Tessa and I went for a bit of an explore on our own.  Walking to the far end of the lodge “do not eat in the wrong restaurant, stick to the one I direct you to” was clarified. Our pool was a rather sorry affair, even despite the weather it didn’t look at all attractive. The other half however had a luxury pool with bar and loungers.  No doubt the food was an upgrade too. But we were content without the luxury, we agreed we didn’t need clipped lawns and stylish ‘tropical’ planting. Our only regret was we hadn’t had time to take a couple of kayaks into the back canals on our own…but maybe that wasn’t such a bad thing after all.

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