Travelling with Audley, we had researched several companies with a view to travelling to both Cuba and Costa Rica, our spec being to see the best of both countries, do some moderate walking and keep within a budget.
Our tailor-made itinerary came in with more days and was less expensive than several well known companies offering single-country trips. The Audley Traveller's Code suited us perfectly and we had a comfortable, totally enjoyable trip with enough hitches to entertain but insufficient glitches to mar our travels.
Both countries were discovered by Christopher Columbus (Cuba in 1492. Costa Rica in 1502) and both are Spanish speaking.
How did they compare?
Contrary to some reports of Cuba, we found a warm welcome, fascinating history, far too much to do in our week there, good food and generally safe for travellers.
We stayed in Havana, further south to the old colonial town of Trinidad via Las Terrazas, the isolated mountain valley on the protected forest slopes of Sierra del Rosario. Walking was varied, finding lots of unusual wildlife including the national bird, the Trogon, and throughout both countries our guides were wonderful, knowledgable and keen for us to be as enthusiastic as they are.
Although our weather was fine, dry and humid throughout, this was manageable and beautifully warm, like our best summers days......not even a cloud in the Costa Rican Cloud Forest!
Costa Rica was more about the wildlife, again, too big to see all the variations in landscape in the available time. The sustainable tourism policy is taken very seriously and recent reports show a huge increase in visitors.
From Cuba, via Panama, we left the Costa Rican capital city of San Jose for Tortuguero, reached by road and boat, suddenly plunged into a bird and beast overload, mostly in the wild but with many research, conservation and breeding projects such as Green Turtles and always with registered guides.
With seventy volcanoes, six of them active, the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve (a huge area) and lots that we did not see, such as the beachlife and the remote Pacific Peninsula de Osa, a fantastic climate and outdoor lifestyle, this was an easy place to love.
Would we go again?
With my lifelong friend, Chris and meeting my Canadian cousins, Janet and Jim en route, this was a wonderful trip which almost anyone would have enjoyed, even those wary of long haul flight and the vagaries of less explored places. Cuba was about history, people and places, whilst Costa Rica is a a wildlife banquet.
Personally, given one choice, I would return to Cuba, in all its rich, revolutionary, communist and colonial history of sugar, slavery, tobacco, now with the incomprehensible dual monetary system, empty shops and, upcoming, a budding sense of entrepreneurship and promise.
Faded splendour in our Havana hotel
The old Stock Exchange in Havana has been beautifully restored, now used as offices....
and similar renovations are underway throughout Cuba
After a morning walk of Havana, a Pink Cadillac was inevitable for seeing more of the city
Strong images: Che Guevara and the Cuban flag
A beautifully restored chemist's shop
Rural Cuba, at Las Terrazas, recalls a quieter, simpler time
A Casa Particulares - a homestay - in Trinidad, Cuba. Ours was comfortable and we were well looked after with delicious food and an insight into local life
The Plaza Mayor in the heart of Trinidad's colonial old town
Costa Rica, the waterways of Tortuguero. A black turtle.From the word 'go', the wildlife was akin to a Walt Disney cartoon ; bright, brash, in-your-face, and EVERYWHERE!
Amongst the lush vegetation of the tropical rainforest, the enormous base of the Blackwood trees rises from the water. Howler monkeys (and they do!) and Spider monkeys love the red sap, which is medicinal
Friday afternoon rush hour in Tortuguero
Our Tortuguero hotel was simple, eco-friendly, and we dined with a view. The Costa Ricans are very environmentally aware and our locally sourced food and accommodation reflected this.
Yes, crocodiles did put us off swimming, but the mountain pools and hot springs were safe to use.
This Owl Butterfly confuses its enemies with the markings on the wings looking like a snake's head (see right wing tip)
Remember the Guiness adverts? I'm wondering what the connection is with Costa Rica's beautiful Rainbow Billed and Chestnut Mandible Toucans? The Blue Throated Toucanette was much smaller and a new name to this novice ornithologist.
Everybody's favourite - the Sloth. Look at the leg, which looks like a raw arm with two toes, each with two claws. There is a three-toed sloth, identifiable by different colouring.
The hanging bridges are great vantage points above the forests
Chris (on the right) and I in front of the iconic volcano, Arenal.
Obviously a popular photo opportunity!
Arenal is not open to the public, so we climbed to the summit of the next volcano, Cerro Chato, now inactive. There are fantastic views across the San Carlos Valley to Arenal, so often shrouded in mist, but also still emitting steam.
Our last few days were in the Monteverde Cloud Forest area where we ventured out at night to find an off-season Pygmy Rain frog....
and a sleeping Green Palm Pit Viper, which is as deadly as it's cousin, the tiny Eyelash Pit Viper, which we saw on a dawn walk the previous day.
Our final afternoon, I recognised the Coati as a fellow-Rambler, head down, striding out and minding his own business, albeit a bit battle scarred - just like us!
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