Even though you may never have heard howler monkeys, you can’t mistake their calls.
Considered one of the loudest species on Earth, howlers are aptly named, so when their screeches woke me up at daybreak at my eco-friendly hotel in Costa Rica, I felt exhilarated.
Keen to catch a glimpse, I stepped outside my room to scan the verdant jungle canopy, startling a sleepy iguana sunbathing by the pool.
Yet it wasn’t until we sat down to breakfast on the roof terrace that we spotted the monkeys in the treetops, enjoying their own fresh fruit buffet. Amazingly, in the distance we could also see the splashes of whales in the shimmering Pacific Ocean.
We had been lucky enough to encounter humpback whales with their calves on a catamaran cruise the day before, although I confess the sight of a venomous yellow-bellied sea snake made me think twice about snorkelling.
And during a riverboat trip, we’d been surrounded by hundreds of species of birds – from kingfishers, caracaras and egrets to scarlet macaws.
There were lots of crocodiles, too, lurking amid the mangroves, from foot-long juveniles to a fearsome 80-year-old nicknamed Tornado. According to locals, he earned the sobriquet after clamping a cow in his jaws and spinning it round and round his head.
At 7am one day, our close-knit group touring the country with adventure holiday company Explore was among the first to enter the Manuel Antonio National Park, which hugs Costa Rica’s Pacific coastline.
Our guide, Mario, was keen to find sloths for us that morning – one of the few species we hadn’t seen so far. It didn’t take long. Mario spied one at the top of a tree, and cheeky capuchin monkeys chattered as we went past. Meanwhile, rainbow-coloured hummingbirds flitted around sweetly scented blooms.
Every day of our action-packed tour of the volcanoes, forests and coffee plantations of this extraordinary Central American country brought unique encounters.
We had been plucky enough to zip-wire over the jungle canopy, travelling at up to 50mph hundreds of feet in the air. Despite experiencing butterflies in my stomach as large as the local blue morpho species, I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.
From our vantage point, we could see the Pacific, the Caribbean Sea on the opposite coastline, and even neighbouring Nicaragua.
On another occasion, ash rose from one grumbling volcano – although reassuringly, despite the many peaks, only five are still considered active here.
On our first morning, we’d climbed Poas, the largest active crater in the world, with its bubbling cauldron emitting whiffs of sulphuric gas. Neighbouring Lake Botos is a less threatening extinct caldera, filled with tranquil azure waters.
Exploring the Cloud Forest Reserve by torchlight was even more exciting. We walked gingerly across suspension bridges amid a deafening cacophony of frogs and cicadas, while fireflies sparkled around us.
Night creatures, such as pungent-smelling porcupines, silent bats and hairy tarantulas, weren’t always the most attractive, but were nonetheless fascinating – at least from a safe distance.
A whitewater rafting tour on the River Balsa had also been an adrenaline rush. I’m not quite sure how we managed not to capsize as we rode the rapids with our intrepid guide.
The water was refreshingly cooler here than at the Tabacon hot springs where we’d bathed one evening, sitting behind a curtain of natural waterfalls. There was even a swim-up bar.
Yet for me, the pinnacle of the trip was catching a glimpse of the Pacific coastline for the first time – coconut-white sand fringed by the lush greenery of the rainforest.
This was ‘pura vida’ – the Costa Rican catchphrase which frequently trips from the tongues of tourists and locals alike. It translates as ‘pure life’ – and what a life it is.
For nature, bird and wildlife lovers, this country is simply paradise. From the chaotic capital San Juan, through the country’s fertile plantations of strawberries, bananas, pineapples and coffee, to the dramatic volcanic scenery in La Fortuna at the base of Mount Arenal, and the cooler cloud forest around Monteverde to the wild Pacific coast, our tour was filled with astonishing contrasts.
Our only disappointment was not catching sight of a quetzal – a long tail-feathered bird with vivid plumage. Still, it gives me a great excuse to return one day to this heavenly, unspoilt nirvana.