TRAVEL; A night out with a turtle

Avoiding crocodiles and snakes in Costa Rica, John Carlin settled for peaceful reptiles and a violent volcano
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The Independent Culture
CROCODILES don't chomp you to death. What they do is grab you by, say, the leg and drag you down to the bottom of the river until you drown. Then they find a quiet, secluded underwater cranny and leave you there to rot, nature's decay doing for crocs what cooking does for us. So they swim around smugly for three or four days, depending on the weight of the carcass, and when the aroma is just right they pop down for a bite. For crocodiles, in common with many other creatures, prefer their meat tender, gamey and moist.

This I learnt from a nice man I met at a bar who said it was his job to promote tourism in Costa Rica. The lecture on the feeding habits of his country's most dangerous animal was occasioned by his desire to explain the circumstances by which a local river guide had met his fate a week earlier.

I mention this by way of coming clean from the start about my failure to explore the possibilities of Costa Rican "ecoturismo" as vigorously as I might have done. For I could have gone river-rafting or paddled down a mangrove swamp in a canoe. But I didn't. I could have taken a hike through a tropical rainforest. Which I didn't do either because, while I might have enjoyed running into monkeys, parrots and sloths, the prospect of stumbling across a boa constrictor, a fer de lance snake or an eyelash viper made me pause. But I did take great delight in gazing at the rainforests - lush and dense with lianas, like in Tarzan movies - during a meandering, week-long 1,000-kilometre drive around the north-west of the country. Had I had the time I might have splashed out 50 dollars on the Rain Forest Aerial Tram, a gondola-like contraption, I'm told, that takes you on a toucan's eye view ride over the treetops.

The point is that if you are an eco-enthusiast, Costa Rica is the place for you. It's a country of two million souls - timid, gentle people, "fanatical moderates", a friend of mine calls them - who had the wisdom to abolish the army in 1948 and have made a point at every election since of voting the incumbent party out of power. While strife raged during the Eighties in Panama to the south and Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala to the north, Costa Rica remained a haven of dozy tranquility. In 1987 President Oscar Arias, a lugubrious man with a good heart, was rewarded with the Nobel peace prize for his efforts to calm down his noisy neighbours. Costa Rica's coffee and banana economy is, by regional standards, prosperous - more than Third World, less than First. The houses, even those of the poor, are neatly painted, tidy and fenced. Literacy is in the high 90 per cents; the phones work; the roads are fine; and the water is safe to drink. The countryside is universally green and, for the most part, mountainous.

For all of these reasons Costa Rica is often called "the Switzerland of Latin America". It is said that the benign Panamanian dictator Omar Torrijos, one of Graham Greene's heroes, turned to an aide once on a flight over Switzer-land and said: "Look. There's the Costa Rica of Europe." The gentle disdain of the remark echoed that of Greene's Harry Lime in The Third Man when he scoffed at the Swiss, saying their only achievement in 800 years of peace had been the invention of the cuckoo clock.

I sort of shared that sentiment towards Costa Rica during six years I spent covering the Cen-tral American wars. Landing in San Salvador always got the pulse racing in a way that landing in San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica, did not. But I also knew that should I ever want to take a holiday in this part of the world, Costa Rica would be the first country I'd choose. It is almost beautiful as Guatemala and far more relaxing. (Guatemala, actually, is so sinister, the military so barbaric, that tourists ought to boycott it.) Also, Costa Rica has the best beaches in the region, and so many of them are utterly virgin that, with a bit of enterprising exploring, you can have one just for yourself. Which is exactly why immediately on arrival in San Jose, a sleepy little city of very limited charm, I headed north to Guanacaste province and the Pacific.

The Ocotal Hotel, on a promontory overlooking Ocotal beach, has large, air-conditioned rooms with CNN, a barman who does the world's best frozen strawberry daiquiris and a restaurant that serves meat, fish (both excellent) and good Chilean and Spanish wines. Grizzled Hemingway Californians run deep-sea fishing operations from little bars on the beach You can go scuba diving too, if you like. I could cheerfully have remained here all week - all year - doing nothing, but the spirit of adventure led me to take my Toyota Corolla down a severely pot-holed track (my one regret of the trip was not renting a four-wheel drive vehicle) to Playa Grande, an empty white surfing beach about four miles across where the largest sea-turtles in the world have been coming to lay their eggs between October and February since several hundred million years before the concepts of October and February were invented.

I stayed at Las Tortugas, the one hotel on the beach, where I spent much of the time sitting on a terrace drinking beer, listening to the nice man who told me about the crocodiles and staring down on a garden crawling with mesmerisingly beautiful red, purple and yellow crabs. The sea turtles, known as "leatherbacks", make their visitations at night. Led by a guide, four of us walked a mile down the beach, a protected national "park", and came upon a turtle 5ft long and weighing, the guide said, about 600lbs. She was digging a hole in the sand with her back flippers. We stood in a semi-circle within touching distance as she hollowed out a cavity the size of a large beer barrel. We waited and waited for the eggs to start dropping. For she set about her job with painstaking application, smoothing the edges of her nest with the patience of a potter. It took her about half an hour to get the job done. Then, peering into the hole, which our guide illuminated with an ultra-violet light, we saw the first egg drop. White, the size of billiard balls, you expected them to break on impact. They didn't because the shells were soft as suede.

After about 30, of a total of 60, had gone down the hatch I started to feel a little uncomfortable. What I felt, actually, was the embarrassment of a voyeur at a very private act. There was something vaguely pornographic about standing there in the dark peeking at the dino-sauric female's imposing genitalia. I conveyed my feelings to the guide but he said not to worry, when the turtles lay their eggs they go into a total trance. It didn't make me feel a lot better but I could see what he meant. After she had filled in the hole she began a strange, clumsy sand dance around the nest. The idea, the guide explained, was to lay false tracks, to fool potential predators by disguising the site of the nest. Eventually she pointed her tiny, wizened head in the direction of the waves. Advan-cing in lunges, utterly drained by her night's work, it took her 10 minutes to travel 15 yards to the water's edge.

The night out with the heroic she-turtle - the males spend their 120 years of life just gambolling around in the high seas - was about as good as it was going to get on the seashore so I headed inland to take a look at Arenal, the busiest volcano in the Americas.

I stayed at the Arenal Lodge, a small hotel with spacious rooms, each with a terrace positioned to give you a perfect view across a valley and a lake at the rumbling cone. A few minutes after checking in, I was startled by a sound like thunder which, as a burst of sulphurous grey smoke rising over the volcano's rim revealed, had actually been an eruption, a phenomenon that has taken place every 40 minutes or so since 1968, when Arenal exploded awake after 200 years of dormancy, destroying a village, killing 78 people and providing the local tour-ism business with a boom.

The spectacle really takes off once darkness comes. You sit on your terrace and look out on the sort of scene you believed existed only in children's pictures: a volcano emitting a constant jet of fire straight into the sky and hot red lava spilling, at tremendous speed, down the sides of the mountain. After a while, like three hours or so, you become a bit blase. You begin blinking again and open your mouth to talk. I was doing just that over a beer with a friend when suddenly I was forced out of my seat by an almighty bang. An explosion of fire violent enough to power a rocket to the sun lit up the night sky. Torrents of lava cascaded down the valley. Even the hotel staff, who had been sitting in the kitchen watching a dubbed American sitcom, ran out to take a look. It was the mother and father of all fireworks' displays. On Guy Fawkes Day, you might respond to the pyro-technics with an "Aaaah!", or a "Weeeh!" Here the only possible response was - well, it would be too profane to print exactly what I said but a local variation might be "la putisima madre!", which translates literally as "the extremely whorish mother". Such was the alarm of the guests that the manager felt compelled to rush out of his office and tell us that, no, it wasn't the end of the world. It was a big one, no doubt about it, but nothing out of the ordinary. They had a blast like that every couple of weeks.

After that, the rest was silence. All that was left to do was drive to the airport, head back home and hope that Costa Rica remains the way it us until the next time I visit: a place where the nature is wild and empty and the people are few and friendly. Things will probably change. And sooner rather than later. Spanish and Italian developers are working on a giant holiday complex in Guanacaste that threatens to become the region's major tourist destination by the start of the next century. So if you have a bit of money, go now. If you have a lot, get in quick and buy yourself a beach. !

GETTING THERE: Iberia (0171-830 0011) flies from London via Madrid to Costa Rica's capital, San Jose, for pounds 555 return. American Airlines (0345 789789) has daily flights from London via various US cities for pounds 953 return.

TOURS: Trips Worldwide (0117 987 2626) tailor-makes trips to Costa Rica; two-week itineries start at around pounds 1,400 per person; they also arrange flight only and fly-drive programmes. Cox & Kings (0171-873 5001) offers both tailor-made and group tours, flying from London via Amsterdam. Their "Costa Rican Odyssey", a 16-day tour of the country including accommodation and return flights, costs pounds 1,995 in July and August and pounds 1,875 year round.

FURTHER INFORMATION: Costa Rican Embassy (0171-706 8844), Lancaster Gate, London W2 3LH. British passport holders do not need a visa for visits of up to three months.