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?
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?
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.
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.”
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.
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.
Eric 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,
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.
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.