Face to face with an orange-kneed tarantula

Matthew Brace acquired a healthy respect for wildlife on a journey through the Costa Rican rainforest

How to get there

There are no direct scheduled flights from the UK to Costa Rica. Specialist agencies can offer cheap flights to San Jose on a variety of airlines; Viasa via Caracas is usually the cheapest. South American Experience (0171- 976 5511) is selling a Heathrow-San Jose return for pounds 508, increasing to pounds 537 next month. Journey Latin America (0181-747 3108) has had a few special deals available on this route for as little as pounds 427, though the company says prices this low are unlikely to be available until the autumn. Steamond (0171-730 8646) has a return London-San Jose fare of pounds 545 on KLM from numerous UK airports until 19 June, with flights going via Amsterdam.

Who to ask

Send a stamped addressed envelope to the Embassy of Costa Rica, Flat 1, 14 Lancaster Gate, London W2 3LA (0171-706 8844) for a package of tourist information, including maps. Or call Valle Dorado Tours on 00 506 228 9933.

Driving in Costa Rica, my friend Jorge Montero warned me, is a game of chance. If the gaping pot-holes didn't swallow me, I would strike a tree in mist, misjudge a mountain hairpin bend or be run off the road by the truck driver from hell.

Yet I was on a mission to cross this small Central American country by road. I had planned to drive from its Pacific coast to its Caribbean shores through the diverse natural beauty its citizens call "pura vida", or pure life. Such is the staggering diversity of Costa Rica, that it is one of the world's top eco-tourism destinations, welcoming more than one million foreign visitors a year.

Almost all hire experienced tour-guides like Jorge who shepherd them from one natural wonder to another in convoys of plush 4-wheel-drive Jeeps. However, I wanted the independence of my own vehicle and ended up with a tinny rental car with no number plates and a boot that wouldn't shut.

Heading east from the sweeping beaches of Playa Hermosa on the Pacific coast, I learnt my first lesson with a jolt: keep your eyes on the road. As I watched the dazzling ocean retreat in my rear-view mirror, my tyres took a direct hit from a pothole the size of a small swimming pool.

Things did not improve at Liberia, capital of the Guanacaste region and a hop, skip and a jump from the Nicaraguan border. Here traffic swings on to the notorious PanAmerican Highway, the world's longest motorable road which winds from Alaska down the west coast of the United States, through Central and South America, and peters out somewhere near Antarctica. The Costa Rican stretch is frantic.

But between near-death experiences, the scenery is stunning. The mountains that make up the central spine of Costa Rica are blanketed in emerald forest. Their peaks snag passing clouds, releasing their moisture.

Each forest is an ecological treasure chest harbouring a fantastic diversity of species. Costa Rica is home to 850 species of birds (including one fifth of the world's 330 species of hummingbird), 1,000 species of butterfly (a tenth of the world's total), and 220 reptiles. All this crammed into a land area two thirds the size of Scotland.

One of the most spectacular parts is the Monteverde Cloud Forest, which lies at the end of a torturous rocky track high in the Tilaran mountains. The route winds through sugar and coffee plantations and five-house hamlets with sweet-smelling log-fires and lazy dogs.

Monteverde is a 10,500 hectare biological reserve draped in eerie mist. Although popular, only 100 tourists are allowed into the reserve at a time, and then only into one corner of it. The rest is undisturbed save for the odd tip-toeing botanist.

A peaceful alternative to joining the crowds queuing to enter Monteverde is to head for the nearby but little known Los Angeles Cloud Forest. I found the forest's owner, the former President Rodrigo Carazo, sipping black coffee on the veranda of his lodge overlooking the treetops. He was stressing his concerns for wildlife and how important it was that a quarter of the country was now protected, when our talk was interrupted by the highly appropriate appearance an orange-kneed tarantula that had crawled out of the surrounding undergrowth.

Snr Carazo has employed some of the country's best guides at Los Angeles. Ivan Brenes Cambronero knows the forest so well he can conjure up troops of howler monkeys by imitating their calls and hold tuneful conversations with birds in the trees. From the depths of the Los Angeles forest, the thunderclaps of Arenal, Costa Rica's most active volcano, can just be heard.

Another bone-crunching drive brings you within reach of it. Hollywood's most creative minds could not have dreamt up a more thrilling scenario than the hike to the base of this rumbling giant. I passed bubbling hot springs, sweated through rainforests infested with much-feared fer-de- lance snakes and clambering over a cooled lava flow. Above me Arenal boomed, sending rocks clattering down its grey cone.

I made my descent to the safety and pampered luxury of the Tabacon Hot Springs Resort down the valley. Here, in the evenings, well-heeled Americans lounge in outdoor jacuzzis, sip their Bahama Mamas and cheer when the volcano crashes and spits red juice from its crater.

But I couldn't linger. My quest for pura vida was only half-completed. I had been offered a "flight through the forest" on the world's first aerial rainforest cable car in the Braulio Carrillo National Park.

Here, Don Perry, an American scientist and pioneer of rainforest canopy research, has built his Rainforest Tram - a converted cable car which cruises through the uppermost branches, 100ft above the forest floor. Riders get breathtakingly close to the forest's inhabitants - toucanettes flit by, eyelash vipers snooze on branches and coatis snuffle about in the undergrowth below.

From Braulio Carrillo, the forests of Costa Rica's eastern mountain slopes sweep down towards the Caribbean, giving way to vast banana plantations near the coast. With every few miles, the temperature and humidity increase. Reggae replaces salsa on the car radio and black faces outnumber Hispanic.

This is the English-speaking part of Costa Rica, where inhabitants are more likely to have their roots in Jamaica than Latin America. Although the people are poorer here, the wildlife is as rich as the rest of the country. Nearby lie the beaches of Tortuguero, a large stretch of virgin coastal rainforest.

The main Caribbean town of Limon, a key trading port, has still not recovered from the 1991 earthquake which damaged it badly. Such was the force of the quake (7.4 on the Richter scale) that the coral reef running off-shore was thrust up four feet above the waves.

Just before the beach, the road I had followed from the Pacific gave up in a whirl of dust. I had reached the end of my trek. The sun set, the Caribbean sea crashed on to the sand and a barman served me a cold beer. Pura vida.

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