Costa Rica: Close encounters of the animal kind.

13 07 2009

Monkey leaf

Have you ever had the feeling that someone is watching you? You look around and lock eyes with the person, then quickly break eye contact so as to avoid embarrassment on either side. Well this tends to happen quite often in Costa Rica, except that the pair of beady eyes staring back at you belong to a monkey. Or a raccoon. Or a sloth. Well actually the list of animals is endless, and yes – they all stare!

Costa Rica is a nature lovers paradise. The lush, tropical country located in Central America contains an impressive 5% of the world’s biodiversity. Around 25% of the country’s land area is in protected national parks and protected areas, the largest percentage of protected areas in the world. All of this translates to an amazingly unbridled experience of nature at its finest. It is clear that these animals are not visitors to our environment, we are visitors to theirs.

On a recent trip to Costa Rica, I made my way to Manuel Antonio National Park. Located just south of Quepos and about 80 miles from San Jose, Manuel Antonio offers adventure immersed in nature. Whether you are on a budget or looking for luxury, Manuel Antonio has it all – nature, adventure, excitement and relaxation. Miles of white sand beaches merge into fertile green forests, teeming with hundreds of native flora and fauna species for your viewing pleasure. There are endless options to satisfy your adventure cravings on both land and sea. Options range from zip-lining, canopy tours, river rafting and horseback riding to diving, snorkeling, surfing and sailing to name but a few.


We made our way through Manuel Antonio park, following the natural dirt paths en route to one of the beaches and stopping every so often to watch as monkeys jumped from tree to tree overhead. Tucan’s were perched stoically on branches while sloths moved about in ultra slow motion. Once we reached the beach we settled down under a shady tree looking out at the sparkling Pacific. Only a couple of minutes had passed when a girl called out to us in Spanish while pointing behind us, “Cuidado! Cuidado!” We spun around just in time to spot the bespectacled thief attempting to steal our bag.

Sneaky racoon

Sneaky racoon

Caught in the act, the raccoon sheepishly walked away empty handed. I presume he was plotting his next attack on some unwitting tourists further down the beach. We kept a watchful eye on our belongings as we swam in the ocean, when a small crowd of people began to gather around our things. As we approached the tree, we joined the crowd in looking up to spot about a dozen white-faced Capuchin monkeys casually chilling on the branches. There is little more thrilling than being so close to witness the behaviour of animals in their natural environment. Even better was the fact that they paid no attention to us at all! They went about their business and then were gone just as quickly as they came, jumping to the next tree on their way back into the forest.


Photos and Post by: Merav Benedetti © 2009

The Golden Arches

16 06 2009


My name is the Adventure Blogger and I have a problem: I’ve eaten in McDonald’s in more countries than I have fingers.


Now, before you denounce me as one of “those” who won’t try local foods and instead always heads to the nearest McDonald’s or Pizza Hut, I should hasten to add that I have never been to an overseas Pizza Hut. It’s not that I am afraid of local food – indeed I’ve eaten sheep’s eyeballs, mopane worms, bottom-dwelling jungle catfish and man-eating Malawi crocodile – but sometimes McDonald’s is just so convenient. Like in airport departure lounges.


Although there’s something quite captivating, almost hypnotic and suspiciously addictive about the aroma of McDonald’s fries, I really do prefer many local dishes. Like mouthwateringly fresh feta, delicious savoury samosas or a divine bowl of pad thai. But sometimes it’s easier and quicker to dash into the Golden Arches and order Uno Big Mac or Ein McNuggets than to grapple with a foreign language and end up with raw liver instead of a chocolate croissant.


I’m not proud, just honest.


There’s one academic justification to frequenting McDonald’s, I’ve always told myself, and that’s comparing the menus or the prices around the world. Austria breads their McNuggets and serves beer; Atlantic Canada offers McLobster in-season and Australia has a selection of deli-style sandwiches – a veritable goldmine of information for social anthropologists. As for prices, a Quarter Pounder in Iceland costs about the same as an entire meal (super-sized…no less!) in Canada.


I thought I was a genius to think of using McDonald’s as a gauge of the local cost of living…until I discovered that The Economist publishes the  “The Big Mac Index” every year as an informal way of measuring the purchasing power parity between two currencies. After all, you can’t really use the local price of bananas in a direct comparison between Greenland’s Danish krone and Costa Rica’s colon but a fry is a fry is a fry is a fry…


The Economist introduced the “Big Mac Index” in 1986 and although it’s obviously not as scientific as comparing genuine economic data, it’s easier to understand and tastes better. It’s also not necessarily an indication of how much lunch costs in the various countries as a bowl of ramen in Tokyo will likely always be less expensive than a McHappy Meal in the Ginza, but it is still interesting.


As of February 2009, the five most expensive Big Macs in the world (converted into US dollars) were to be had in the following countries:


  1. Norway (USD 5.79)
  2. Switzerland (USD 5.60)
  3. Denmark (USD 5.07)
  4. Sweden (USD 4.58)
  5. Eurozone (USD 4.38) 


And the five most affordable Big Macs were found in the following countries:


  1. Malaysia (USD 1.70)
  2. Hong Kong (USD 1.71)
  3. China (USD 1.83)
  4. Thailand (USD 1.86)
  5. Sri Lanka (USD 1.95)


Now, please excuse me while I sink my teeth into some more valuable economic research.


Post by: Simon Vaughan © 2009

Possessions or Experiences?

18 05 2009

Serengeti sunset mw

                 “Do sunsets usually growl?”                           (Serengeti sunset)

If you were given the choice between a 60” high definition plasma flat panel television with Dolby Surround Sound or a luxury two-week South African safari with private guide, which would you choose? If you said ‘both’, you are a person after my own heart. But greed aside it does raise the interesting question of whether you cherish experiences or possessions more.

Of course, there are some people out there who do have both, but we don’t like them much. For the rest of us mere mortals, if we are very lucky we might be able to pick one or the other once every 5 or 10 years. So what provides the greatest satisfaction in the short-term…and in the long-term?

I am a homebody who has the unenviable burden of also enjoying travel. I say unenviable because while some of my acquaintances are quite happy to live in a shoebox over a subway grating with 43 roommates and live on day-old birdseed in order to pool all of their money into travelling the world, I really do like a few special home comforts and lots of travelling. Alas, not being married to Donald Trump’s daughter, I usually have to pick between the exotic trip or the slab of apple-smoked cheddar.

As I get older I find that experiences seem to be gaining more and more importance. Perhaps it’s a taste of my own mortality, but when I reflect on my life the things that give me the greatest satisfaction and fondest memories are not things at all, but experiences. I rarely sit back and think to myself “Wow, I loved that triple-speed pastel-green mixer with ice-crusher”, but I do remember the first time I smelled the heady scent of eucalyptus in Australia, standing in a jungle-clearing in Costa Rica watching lava cascade from a volcano late one night or hearing a leopard prowling around my tent in Kenya. I will never forget the first glimpse I had of a wild mountain gorilla after several hours of arduous trekking, of waking to a spectacular view of the pyramids from my Giza hotel room or of a wonderful evening in a small basement jazz club in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe.

When I’m 80 years old, I can probably still have a pair of 2,000 watt speakers with 12-inch aluminium woofers, titanium mid-range drivers and .75 inch tweeters… but I may not have the ability to trek the Himalayan foothills, photograph Angkor Wat at sunrise or camp on the farthest reaches of the Great Wall of China.

I think for now I’ll make do with my 18” TV and continue to indulge my passion for adventure.


Photo and post by:  Simon Vaughan © 2009

A to Z of Adventure Travel: C is for Costa Rica

27 01 2009


A rare image of a deadly sin caught in action.       (Costa Rica)


Whether your idea of adventure travel is sharing a pristine white sand beach with a herd of cows, or trekking the side of an active volcano, Costa Rica will satisfy everyone’s tropical wanderlust.


Situated between Nicaragua and Panama and bordered by both the Caribbean and Pacific, this Central American country has long been a success story in a region that has seen more than its fair share of trouble. While its neighbours were struggling with war, despots and upheaval, Costa Rica was boasting one of the highest literacy rates in the world, regularly topped United Nations lists for quality of life and environmental protection and became the first country to constitutionally abolish its army… although with border guards as heavily armed and intimidating-looking as theirs, who needs an army?!


Needless to say, the residents are justifiably proud of their nation and that is evident in the warmth and friendliness they show travellers.


Although a small country, Costa Rica satisfies both would-be adventurers seeking a gentle initiation to something a little more exotic, and more experienced hardcore veterans looking for new challenges and plenty of local culture. The Pacific coast offers superb beaches, fringed with palm trees and forests teeming with monkeys and colourful birdlife. The water is warm and clear and whether opting for a small locally-run hotel in a quiet fishing village or using a large international resort as a base for exploration, the west coast is a wonderful alternative to more crowded destinations like Mexico.


Whether hiking tropical rain forests in search of enormous morpho butterflies, resplendent quetzals or elusive ocelots or standing in a meadow after sunset and watching lava spew from an active volcano while fireflies flit about your head before retiring to your comfortable hotel room, Costa Rica is one of the easiest destinations in the world to satisfy your need for rejuvenation and relaxation.


The more diehard can try white water rafting on wild jungle rivers, zip-lining through the lush canopy, horseback riding or gruelling hikes through thick forest. The more sedately adventurous can opt to explore calmer rivers by motorised canoe in search of crocodiles, enormous iguanas or troops of noisy howler monkeys. If you enjoy soaking up the sun but only in small quantities, you can alternate your sun-loving with snorkelling or scuba-diving from white or black sand beaches with pelicans flapping gently overhead.


To properly explore Costa Rica from its urbane capital and historic sights to its steamy Caribbean coast and jungle-clad mountains would take several weeks. But Costa Rica is also a perfect destination for those with just a week who either want to fill every moment with activity and adrenalin, or just crash on a beach with a fancy drink and perhaps embark on a couple of day trips for a hint of adventure. Whether for a week’s break in the middle of a bleak winter or a longer exploration, Costa Rica is an ideal adventure destination for veterans and virgins alike.



Photo and post by:  Simon Vaughan

Bird-watching 101

10 04 2008


The Common Potoo: so named for its poor manners and swearing


The common potoo is not actually common at all. If it was common, the park ranger wouldn’t have jumped up and down with glee when he saw one for the first time in several months. The excitement he showed was extremely contagious and although I had no idea whether a potoo was a root vegetable or a musical instrument, I nodded appreciatively and strained to get a closer look.


I followed his outstretched arm to a dry leafless tree several metres away. The focal point of his attention appeared to be a brown – apparently dead – branch. His eyes were still wide with awe and I smiled enthusiastically, not wishing to spoil his reverie by telling him that I’d seen dead trees before. As I was preparing to back away and leave him to his derangement, I detected a subtle movement and discerned an impeccably camouflaged, perfectly still bird clearly designed to fool amateur birdwatchers, unappreciative tourists and hungry enemies alike. I trampled the ranger to one side to get a closer look.


As a 6 year old, I had once used my pocket money to join a junior bird-watching club. I was torn between it and a rubber crocodile that had a small reservoir in the centre that enabled it to float in the bath and spit out streams of water. In a moment of scholarly madness the club won out and I duly received my membership certificate, a small lapel badge, a little guidebook and a piece of ruled-paper on which to record all the species I spied. I started earnestly enough listing the usual sparrow, blackbird, starling, robin and thrush before losing interest and confining the entire package to a drawer never to see the light of day again. Several weeks later I bought the crocodile. 


My uncommon potoo experience in the tropical dry forest of the Santa Rosa National Park in northern Costa Rica had me wishing that I still had that list so that I could gloatingly record the rare sighting and drive some diehard twitcher to paroxysms of envy. I must confess that my new-found ornithological enthusiasm was actually quite genuine and the potoo was the highlight of a great morning spent hiking in the park.


However, it would have been even better had I known anyone back home who would have been suitably impressed and gratuitously and magnificently jealous!

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008

Travelling around the world…going around the bend

12 03 2008

The author on holiday in Nassau

 The blogger on holiday in the Bahamas

A friend of mine once proclaimed that adventure travel was any hotel room that didn’t have a hair-dryer. Considering that the little hair he had was coiffed into a beautiful comb-over that would stand perfectly vertical in even the slightest breeze, I tend to think he was joking. However, it does raise the valid question of what exactly does put the adventure in adventure travel (apart from lost luggage!).

I believe it’s anything that challenges your senses or takes you out of your comfort zone. Depending on who you are, that could be lying on a beach in Costa Rica, sipping a coffee in an outdoor cafe in Croatia, or climbing K2 in the Himalayas.  If you get culture shock in the noodle section of your local corner store, you’ll probably find anywhere beyond your own borders rather challenging, especially if there’s a different language spoken or it’s less developed than home.

Just because you’re not diving with sharks off Cape Town doesn’t make you less intrepid than those who do, however.  Adventure travel is all about exploring the world around you. Experiencing different cultures, trying new foods or sitting in a cozy club on a quiet back street and listening to some amazing local music.

Adventure travel is “pinch me” travel: that feeling you get when you’re somewhere truly remarkable, doing or seeing something you never thought you’d see or do and you suddenly get that “pinch me” sense of realization that’s absolutely priceless and certainly unforgettable.

The more you travel, the wider your comfort zone becomes. What once seemed impossible, becomes normal. What was once daring, becomes mundane. My first bit of adventurous travel was 3-days in the Bahamas when I was 21 years old. Now, I would be the first to agree that that’s not particularly adventurous, but as I was more accustomed to Europe and Canada, bartering in the straw market and eating a plate of beans was pretty wild and I strutted like Dr Livingstone. What that trip did do – apart from leaving me with a painful sunburn and a peeling nose – was to whet my appetite for more and more travel and to more and more exotic places.  Nassau pushed my boundaries and I’ve never looked back.

Post and photo by: Simon Vaughan © 2008

Destination Spotlight: Costa Rica

3 02 2008

Costa Rica is high on the list of places to visit for many people due to it’s peaceful reputation, abundant wildlife, beautiful beaches, and amazing scenery. It is also one of the least expensive foreign countries to fly to from the United States, which makes it even better.  Located in Central America between Nicaragua and Panama, Costa Rica exists at the convergence of two continents and two huge bodies of water, making it a geographic bottleneck which produces great ecological diversity illustrated in the abundance of flora and fauna that awaits the traveler, including many endangered species. Howler monkeys, jaguars, pumas, poison dart frogs, toucans, tapirs, anteaters, sloths, macaws, turtles and crocodiles are just a few of the animals you may encounter during your visit to the pristine forests and tropical jungles. A true nature-lover’s paradise, Costa Rica has set 25% of its land aside as protected reserves, the highest percentage of any country in the world and an example to many of its neighbors who are struggling with land-use management. 6% of all the world’s known species can be found in Costa Rica, which represents just 0.03% of the world’s land- giving some idea of the rich diversity of flora and fauna in the country.

HISTORY: This region of Central America has been inhabited for over 10,000 years, proved by many artifacts left behind including most impressively dozens of perfectly shaped granite spheres, from the size of a baseball to a Volkswagen bus. The first European to set foot on Costa Rica was Christopher Columbus, who arrived in 1502 on his fourth and final journey to the Americas; however the name of “Rich Coast” was given by the Spanish explorer Gil Gonzalez Davila who was impressed by the gold bands worn in the noses and ears of the natives. Costa Rica has been a democratic nation since the 19th century and has the highest literacy rate in Latin America, 95%. Many of Costa Rica’s inhabitants are descendants of white European settlers, though there are African and indigenous peoples as well- some say over 90% of Costa Ricans have a little mestizo, or mixed blood. Today this vibrant cultural heritage comes through in the cuisine, communities, and way of life in the stable country which the traveler will appreciate as she journeys through the country. The main language spoken is Spanish and the currency is the colon.

GEOGRAPHY AND CLIMATE: Costa Rica has a wide range of geographic features as well. A string of mountains, offshoots of the Andes-Sierra Madre chain, form a backbone down the middle of the country from low hills in the north to high, rugged mountain in the south which offer incredible views of the diverse landscape. The eastern, Caribbean coast stretches for 132 miles and is known for its magnificent turtle habitats and heavy rainfall (300+ days a year), while the western, Pacific coastline is 780 miles long and boasts warmer weather and long, sandy beaches. There is no spring or fall in Costa Rica, just verano (summer) and invierno (winter), but the temperature often has a greater variance between night and day than between winter and summer! The average daily temperature is 80 degrees, the warmest months being March, April and May and the wettest months are September and October, and each season brings it’s own colorful flowers and plants.

HOW DO I GET TO COSTA RICA? Most flights will have one stop in the United States before continuing on to San Jose, Costa Rica’s capitol and economic center. From there, rent a car and head towards one of the many national parks or take a bus and hit the beach, or another option is to join a small group adventure tour that takes care of all of your accommodation and transportation and arranges activities for you.

posted by: Shilo