Rough Guide: Jean McNeil, author of `The Rough Guide to Costa Rica', remembers the night when the heavens opened ...

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The Independent Travel
Worst moment

Inevitably, when researching a travel guide, there are rather a lot of these. One rainy-season night, at the height of the downpour, things were not going well for Roxana, my host. She had three children, a house in a lower middle-class suburb of the capital, San Jose, and a husband (well, sometimes).

That night, the rain had caused the bank of grass and earth beside the house to collapse and three or four inches of water had seeped into the house. I was weary from volcano-viewing but there was no choice but to muck in, and, with the help of the 12, six and two-year-old, turn the house inside out, throwing everything outside and mopping up until 3am.

The really bad news, though, was that it was this very night that Roxana's husband encountered his girlfriend's spouse. Infidelity in Costa Rica is as common as anywhere - there is a highway motel outside the city that is known as the "Fabrica de Ninos" (The Baby Factory) - and that the limp, kind but obviously feckless Enrique had been going out with a 24-year- old secretary was common knowledge (he had been with her the night Roxana gave birth to their youngest child).

What was less well-known was that he had promised to take her to the US. Unfortunately, her husband found out and came to Enrique's workplace that night. Enrique, with plasters stuck all over his bruised and cut face, came home to find his wife and kids sitting on the sofa in front of the house and their guest mopping up the kitchen. No one slept much that night.

Best bar

On a crowded street in San Jose's university district, Bar La Villa is a kind of throwback to the revolutionary years of the 1960s and 1970s. Nowhere else in Central America can you dine on good cold beer and tasty bocadillos, surrounded by a museum-like collection of Che Guevara posters, while Mercedes Sosa drones leftist anthems on the CD-player, and "intellectuals" (in Costa Rica, anyone who wears little glasses with light frames and a goatee) discuss life insurance and credit-card interest rates.

Best German film-industry stories

Susanna Stoiber and Haymo Heyder left Germany about five years ago for Central America, taking with them their shared dream of setting up a hotel. They settled on Santa Elena, a village high in the mountains of the Cordillera Central. Only a few miles away is Costa Rica's best-known tourist attraction, the Monteverde Cloudforest Reserve, and just north of the village is another, less known and unspoilt patch of high-altitude rainforest, the Santa Elena Reserve.

Susanna and Haymo built the Albergue Arco Iris (Rainbow Lodge), a number of beautifully constructed cabins set in the landscaped gardens around their house. There is something really special about the place. For me, the treat was to sit out on a starry night, hearing the occasional whoops of oropendolas and the ringing cry of bell-birds, and listen to Haymo's stories about his years as a soundman for Werner Herzog. According to Haymo, it was a life-expectancy reducing job, with torturous shoots on Cobra Verde in West Africa, and the notorious shoot for Aguirre, Wrath of God in the Amazon jungle, not to mention snakes, disease, mutinous extras and the strain of working under a fanatical director. He had met Susanna, a costume designer, on the set of a film. Eventually, years of working in such a backbiting industry gave them a very strong desire to head for this misty, hushed little town high in the Costa Rican mountains.

Best National Park

The dry landscape of Rincon de la Vieja National Park, in north-western Costa Rica, is my personal favourite within the country's impressive system of national parks. It is not what you think of when you imagine the tropics: miles of grassland are studded by volcanic mud pots and steam- holes sending up little plumes of smoky steam like so many campfires. The ground is excellent for walking and camping, and a trail leads straight up the volcano to the crater. The trip can be done in two days, and the views over the province of Guanacaste and the Pacific Ocean are stunning.


costa rica

Getting there

British Airways (tel: 0345 222111) flies once a week from Gatwick to San Jose from pounds 428 return.

Getting around

Buses, the main form of transport, are cheap, frequent and reliable. There are also two domestic air carriers, Sansa (tel: 00 506 221 9414) and Travelair (tel: 00 506 220 3054), that connect San Jose with the main beach destinations.

What to experience

Costa Rica's most popular park is the Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio (tel: 00 506 777 0644), 150km south-west of San Jose, which has all the appeal of a tropical jungle and some amazingly white beaches. In the Parque Nacional Rincon de la Vieja, you can stay at the Albergue Buenavista (tel: 00 506 695 5147), a working cattle ranch from where you can take riding and hiking tours.