I arrived in Nosara, a sleepy village on the Nicoya Peninsula in western Costa Rica, in time for the 1 May Recorrido de Toros - the local version of the rodeo. The arena was built of straw and matchstick-thin wood, and draped with a single string of cloudy lightbulbs. There we sat with the local oomph-pah-pah band who do the rodeo circuit every year. All evening we watched the Costa Rican cowboys, saboneros, rope massive Brahmin bulls (the bulls are never killed - this is peaceful Costa Rica).
After the rodeo everybody retired to the airstrip - Nosara's only real contact with the rest of the country - for the salsa party (the part with the white lines is the dance floor). Under the most spectacular ceiling of stars I have ever seen, I was waltzed by bachelor cowboys and received two proposals of marriage.
I love pot-holed, frantic San Jose, Costa Rica's capital city. The nightlife is fantastic, with great student bars, salsa clubs, the odd blues and jazz venues, and the cinema clubs of the Goethe Institut and the university. After weeks in the rain forest, or in some far-flung mangrove, San Jose is my Paris.
Many parts of Costa Rica, particularly the Mosquito Coast in the north east, are best reached by light plane. Peter, my pilot, and I flew there detouring over the smoking craters of volcanos Poas and Arenal, which erupt almost every day. Then we flew through the enjungled waterways of Mosquitia, often just below tree level, so close to the water we could see alligators and other wildlife basking on the banks. Peter has built a sound system into his cockpit and at sunrise we flew to Massive Attack and Mahler, skirting the treetops, then sailing out over the Caribbean.
To get to the Buenavista Lodge in the beautiful dry-forested north of Guanacaste province I drove up one of the worst roads ever seen, in the company of three large melons - one of whom didn't make it.
True to its name, the view over the serene, rolling hills and volcanoes from the Buenavista is staggering. In the day one can visit volcanic hot springs or mud pools, soak in a hot pool, or ride out with the peones to check on the cattle. In the evening, the family-run kitchen serves massive meals of chicken and beans. Guests - in the low season they seem to consist of French vulcanologists and stray guide-book writers - converse around an enormous table.
"Mal educado" - badly educated; a gentle riposte to a certain faction usually urban, of Costa Rican men who feel impelled to make endless but harmless "Hey, baby" remarks.
Most of the time it is hot, and refrescos - drinks with fresh fruit, water or milk, and ice - are one of the best ways to cool off. Every soda (lunch counter/diner) has ancient Osterizer blenders, into which are thrown wonderful concoctions; papaya en leche, moro (blackberries), or pina y banana - pineapple and bananas.
Costa Rica is famous for its wildlife. One of the more elusive is the manatee, or sea cow. Now endangered, due to the pollution of its favoured waterways, the manatee will sometimes surface in the saline canals of the Caribbean coast. Friendly and very curious, at first they look like a bewhiskered log floating on the water, until they turn over on to their stomaches and gaze at you with their saucer- wide eyes.
The fishing town of Montezuma is poised on the tip of the Nicoya Peninsula. The beach isn't perfect for swimming, being a little rough, but the tidal pools that harbour urchins, fish, and the most persistent crabs known to man, make up for it.
These orange-and-purple crabs are fierce-looking but gregarious; they will sneak into your knapsack, pop out from under the door of your beach- cabina hotel room, and scuttle on to your breakfast table, pincers held aloft, as if looking for an argument.
One night, long after nightfall, when I had forgotten my torch, followed by a line of crabs competing for my company as the horizon was slashed by lightning far out in the Pacific.
Jean MacNeil wrote `The Rough Guide to Costa Rica'. Keep up with the latest developments in travel by subscribing to the free newsletter `Rough News', published three times yearly. Write to Rough Guides, IoS offer, 1 Mercer Street, London WC2H 9QJ. A free Rough Guide to the first three subscribers each week.
When to go
Costa Rica has two seasons; the rainy (May-Oct) and the dry (Nov-April). The best time is on the cusp - November or April - when there are fewer tourists and you are neither drenched nor parched
How to get there Any way you go, expect to spend about 16 hours in transit. From Britain you can fly with KLM (0181 750-9000) via Amsterdam, or Iberia (0171 830- 0011) via Madrid. The US route is faster, but not cheaper. American Airlines (0181 572-5555) has good connections via Miami, and United (0181 990-9900) can fly you via Washington or Miami. In the low season (Easter until December) you can expect to pay pounds 600, but prices can double at Christmas. Where to stay The Buenavista Lodge is 31km N-E of Liberia, Guancaste province. (Phone/fax 00-506 695-5147.) For all accommodation, contact Camino Travel, San Jose; (tel 00-506 257-0107; fax 257-0243, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Scenic flights Contact Pitts Aviation in San Jose: phone/fax 228-9912.