Pura Vida – the beauty of Tortuguero National Park, Costa Rica

Costa Rica really is awesome, especially if you enjoy wildlife, jungles, rainforests and beaches.

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A beautiful wildlife-rich rugged country in Central America, brimming with rainforest and coastlines on the Caribbean and Pacific, Costa Rica is known for its beaches, volcanoes, and biodiversity. Roughly a quarter of its area is made up of protected jungle, teeming with wildlife including howler monkeys, caimans, poisonous frogs and quetzal birds. The people of Costa Rica take great pride in their country, and the low crime rate and multitude of natural diversity within such a small space makes living there an experience filled with beauty and excitement.  The country offers four types of rain forests and over 60 clearly recognizable volcanoes and one of my favourite parts of the country is at the head of the Caribbean coast.

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Tortuguero is known as the land of the turtles, and this remote National Park area is accessible only by plane or by boat – by boat you are only allowed one small suitcase per person.  Whilst waiting for the boat to arrive, I saw 3 beautiful bright green vine snakes wrapped around the branches of a tree I sat under, hiding in the shade from the scorching sun.  Also known as the Oxybelis fulgidus, these snakes stay high in trees and look down to the ground for a mouse or lizard.   The vine snake has two larger upper teeth at the back of its mouth; these teeth permit the toxic saliva to penetrate the wounds and to immobilize the prey though human envenomation is quite rare!

Tortuguero National Park offer boat trips that allow you the opportunity to see a diverse range of fascinating wildlife from tropical birds, white-faced monkeys, spider monkeys, howler monkeys, caimans, sloths, crocodiles, iguanas, snakes and basilisk lizards as you tour the navigable rainforest canals by boat. Imagine being so close to a caiman, you could nearly touch it, while hearing the deafening sounds of howler monkeys above your head.  This was taken with my mobile phone – it really was this close to me!

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I stayed in a rainforest lodge, in Tortueguero Jungle Lodge, in the middle of the rainforest, away from civilization!! There is a tiny air strip for small planes or you can get here by boat (small ferry boat 20 people max). Arriving by boat, I was greeted by the staff who give you a full run-down on the property. You can lounge in the hammocks, chill by the pool, and mingle with the giant Iguanas that have made their home at the lodge. From your rainforest lodge, you can see monkeys and various other wildlife – all windows are free of glass and have bug screens, to let you take in all the sounds of the jungle around you! Birds, monkeys, boats cruising the water ways, rain trickling down, this place is amazing.  Staff are very friendly and extremely helpful, all inclusive meals are served on the veranda, and the bar offers plenty of cocktails and mixed drinks. The closest store is a ten minute boat ride but you have what you want on site, with guides showing you round the ‘jungle gardens’ pointing out the various tiny poisonous frogs.

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The tropical beaches around Tortuguero are also key nesting sites for endangered but recovering sea turtles and at night, during July to September, green sea turtles come ashore to nest on the beach.

Tortuguero is surrounded by jungles, rivers and beaches, and its incomparable biodiversity makes it the ideal place for ecotourism and research with the National Park offering an ideal alternative to past practices of turtle  hunting and deforestation. The incredible natural resources of this area are well preserved and continue to attract more and more visitors, with the local villagers making a huge effort in organising eco trips and educating the public in protecting the natural resources.

Puerto Limón radiates with excitement and the sights, sounds and smells are inescapable. The culture is vastly different on this coast compared to the rest of the country with its prominent Afro-Caribbean influence.  Its culture is influenced by indigenous people and West Indian immigrants, and life is more rugged and rustic on this coast, allowing wildlife to thrive.   There is a strong African-American tradition with the streets lined with colourful shacks and shanties.  The food reflects a Jamaican influence, with plenty of spices, and the local language resembles English Creole.  There are no cars on the streets here, just small brightly coloured food and market stalls, selling various local goods from hand crafted jewellery to fresh fruits.   This sun drenched zone offers a completely laid back and relaxed atmosphere.

Costa Rica is filled with unspoilt tropical rainforest, towering volcanoes and long sandy beaches, and is one of the most biologically diverse countries in the world.  A sunrise experience through one of the national park rainforests on a boat has to be the highlight of any trip to Costa Rica.  Seeing and hearing the rainforest come to life, after waking up to the sounds of the jungle insects and birds, and being absorbed in nature is truly fantastic, and leaves a mesmerising lifelong memory.

Costa Rica really is paradise.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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La Isla Bonita – the Beautiful Island

La Palma, Canary Islands

If you are looking for crazy nightlife and wild parties, La Palma is definitely not the place for you.


However, also known as “Isla La Bonita”, La Palma is reputedly the most beautiful of all Canary Islands, and I personally found this volcanic island to be worthy of its reputation when I visited earlier in February this year.

Engulfed in prehistoric forests, deep gorges, incredible landscapes, banana plantations, huge volcanos, pretty beaches and unforgettable star-filled night skies, this island has no nightclubs, making it one of the least visited Canary Islands, especially compared to Tenerife. This means, therefore, far less groups of young booze cruisers with more of a focus on ‘unwinding’ and relaxing, rather than partying hard until the early hours.
Strict light pollution laws mean that La Palma is an ideal location for star gazing and astronomy with UNESCO declaring it a World Biosphere Reserve in 2002, and the volcanic island has even earned a Starlight award. The night skies are reputedly the world’s best for stargazing, and the quality of the sky is protected by the Law for the Astronomical Quality of the IAC Observatories, having three Starlight Reserves, a hallmark that confirms the low level of light pollution in the area.

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The Roque de los Muchachos, has observatories 2,420 metres above sea level and it is home to the Astrophysics Observatory. You can visit the Observatory by booking a day in advance but be aware, night-time visits require warm clothing and drinks as the nearest catering services are an hour away by car and it can get very cold, especially during February! However, it boasts one of the clearest skies on the planet, thanks to the climatic conditions and its unique physical characteristics. The location of the island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean and its particular climate see cloud formations taking place between 1,000 and 1,500 metres high. Clouds act as a natural mirror and block light pollution from the towns beneath the cloud cover that might otherwise impede night vision.

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I stayed in the Hacienda San Jorge in Los Cancajos, which comprises small apartments, each with its own bedroom, separate lounge/kitchen diner and separate bathroom, with a delightful little balcony right on the beachfront. The large pool is surrounded by beautiful mature gardens, filled with lush vegetation and colourful flowers and shrubs, Ficus trees, numerous palm trees, and several pre-existing Dragon trees. Going half board, the food was delicious and varied, even for a fussy gluten free vegetarian like me, and the service was impeccable, with friendly staff and outstanding scenery from the lounge and outdoor seating area overlooking the pool.

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The capital of the island, Santa Cruz, has beautiful colonial properties, painted in bright colours, with cobbled narrow streets, very reminiscent of Cuba. Buses can take you there for a couple of Euros, and there are plenty of quaint little clothes shops and gift shops to browse, as well as a fairly impressive Museum and Art Gallery, and lovely little cafes with outdoor seating to watch the world go by.

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One of the most important laurel forests in the Canary Islands is Los Tilos and it really is quite enchanting. The lack of wildlife in this forest is immediately noticeable, especially for those who enjoy jungle trekking and hearing the sights and sounds of rainforest creatures. Another hotspot to visit is La Caldera de Taburiente, which is an ancient volcanic park, formed millions of years ago, full of lush green trees and beautiful waterfalls. Rocky peaks surround dense pine forest, carved into deep valleys.

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The natural pools of La Palma are also unforgettable. The archipelago is rich in natural resources, full of charm and strikingly beautiful. These pools are purely enclosed spaces into which the sea water seeps, with a few steps, walkways and diving points. They are free to everyone, as it is deemed too dangerous to swim in the ocean itself especially at certain months, and you often see the waves crashing over the rocks into your pool. This is why they are a must for all those visitors who, apart from having a refreshing dip, look for authentic and natural perfection.

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If your road trip philosophy is to travel slow and relax, to look for a break away, for some peace and quiet, to walk and hike in natural beauty, visit some banana plantations and do a spot of midnight stargazing, La Palma is an excellent choice.

I assure you, you won’t be disappointed.

 

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Sun Rise in Kefalonia

DSC_3927WordPress – The Weekly Challenge “Oooh Shiny”…

You know when you wake up and within seconds, you just have that lovely warm feeling that today is going to be a good day? Well, this was one of those days.

I woke up last week in Kefalonia, Greece, to my partner shouting excitedly, “Come quick, you’re gonna love this!”. He led me outside onto the balcony, where the hot air hit me, coming out of the cool air conditioned hotel apartment. We sat on the hotel balcony, overlooking the rooftops and thatched umbrellas, peering towards the sun as it rose above (what I assume was) Zakynthos and over the Mediterranean sea. The sun was already hot, and yet it was still so early in the morning. The sun was a big bright pulsing, amber balloon, sparkling and glittering, changing from different shiny shades of reds to oranges and glistening deep yellows. The whole process took a good 15-20 minutes and it was simply stunning.

Apparently, these orange and red tints that the Sun sometimes takes on are caused by the particles in the Earth’s atmosphere, and occur when the Sun is rising because that’s the time when the light has to travel through the most atmosphere to get to you, allowing it to light up the horizon red and orange. It was, in any case, a beautiful scene to witness and it made me think how sunrise can have a profound impact on our day.

Sunrise is a truly a magnificent time of day, and is an awakening of the planet, the birds, trees and wildlife. It is always a new beginning, a new start to a new day. Sun-gazing is an old method of healing, and our ancestors worshipped the sun for many reasons. It has such a brilliant peaceful energy, it really does make you feel happier. Your life can take on a brighter hue, you can notice the ‘little’ things, and it can make you realise that each day is a gift. I always remember our next door neighbour as we were growing up, an elderly lady who we became close to over the years and called our ‘pretend Grandma’. She had lived to witness the death of her husband, her son, her brother and outliving all her friends, living to a ripe old age of 99. One day I asked her how she managed to keep so positive and motivated in life, to which she answered “Waking up is a gift my dear. I wake up every day, grateful to be alive. It is another day I am going to live!!”. Her comment has always stuck with me, whether I’m feeling happy, or when I have a tough day.

Given that Vitamin D changes to calcium in the body, which encourages our ‘happy hormone’ endorphin production, and that a lack of sunlight is now linked to PTSD, it makes me think no wonder we genuinely do feel much happier on hot sunny days. A lack of Vitamin D is also linked to various other diseases from breast and colon cancer to multiple sclerosis, psoriasis, TB and Seasonal Affective Disorder and can be quite high particularly among the elderly.

The beauty of that shiny sunrise in Kefalonia truly was amazing, and it honestly gave me a real sense of joy, with the sun gleaming down, beaming its light right through me. The red and orange hues of sunrise over the horizon were spectacular and this, without a doubt, has to be my favourite sunrise of all time.

As the saying goes “Another sunrise, another new beginning….”

Hornbills, Camp fires and Water Buffalo in Malaysia

Whilst backpacking in Thailand in 2000, my travel companion and I decided to further our adventures and discover the wonders of Malaysia.  From the Southern tip of Thailand, in Krabi, we made our way by boat over to Langkawi, a tax free haven island next to the larger, more popular island of Penang. Although Langkawi is not necessarily a backpacking hotspot by any means, Langkawi’s rainforests, mangroves and secret caves are brilliant to explore and admire. We had lots of fun dodging the HUGE flying hornet bees in the local taverna we eat in, and the cockroaches in our “room” (which was actually an outside shack with basic cold water shower). It turns out the reason why we found so many half pieces of cockroaches was because backpackers were under the impression this was how you could exterminate the vermin without spreading its eggs.

We travelled up to the Gunung Raya mountains, at the centre of the island, and saw some beautiful wildlife, including the fascinating black and white speckled langurs/dusky leaf monkey and the magnificent colourful hornbills. The langurs have silver grey tails, with white patches around their eyes and mouth, making them particularly beautiful animals and their special stomachs allow them to consume poisonous plants. They are much shyer than macaques, generally considered much less aggressive, and are protected in Malaysia. There are also three different species of Hornbills in Langkawi, including the Great Hornbill which has a wingspan of up to 1.70m and a 30cm long bill.  These magnicifent birds can be heard as well as seen in the jungle, with their “Whoosh Whoosh Whoosh” sounds of their wings beating the air, and also their husky barking sound. They too are protected in Malaysia, and hold mystic importance to some, signifying ‘change’, with their black and white feathers used in traditional ritual dances giving ‘power’ and ‘courage’ to the bearers.  The rice paddies dominate the surroundings in this part of Langkawi, and the water buffaloes still have their mudbaths to protect themselves against nasty sandflies. Rice farmers in Langkawi practice the cultivation of swamp rice where the monsoon rains flood submerging the rice fields and the rice is sown, with decaying plant materials acting as natural fertilizer, along with the water buffalo dung. This part of the island really does look like time has come to a standstill.

The highlight of the holiday in Langkawi was doing a jungle zip wire trek, run by a German gentleman called Jurgen Zimmerer, who lived in Langkawi with his Malay wife, daughter, son and monkey called Judy. In those days, zip wiring was fairly unheard of, apart from in Costa Rica. Jurgen would guide visitors on adventurous nature walks through the canyons and mangrove forests into remote villages, and his knowledge of the flora and fauna, geology, geography and biodiversity of Langkawi was excellent. He showed us how to stop a bleed with a leaf, and a type of root ginger that was used to treat cancer. It took me a good 15 minutes to force myself to jump off the tall ledge (after rock climbing up to the highest ledge), as despite my protestations, Jurgen refused to allow me to be pushed by anyone else and felt very strongly that I had to do it for myself, with no help. After speeding through the tall trees like a monkey, I landed on the next ledge, only to burst into tears in front of the rest of the group. Yes, I was that petrified! But at the same time, it was so unbelievably exhilarating!

One of the highlight of our travels around Malaysia was the Perentian islands, with its white sandy beaches and crystal clear waters to snorkel in. The two islands, which are reached by ferry, are very different.  The two main islands are Pulau Perhentian Besar (Big Island) and Pulau Perhentian Kecil (Small Island) with Kecil attracting more travellers as it has cheaper accommodation, while Besar was more expensive, catering more for couples on honeymoon.  We stayed at Kecil, which was fairly quiet in those days, with a tiny population, electricity only a couple of hours a day, and lots of huge monitor lizards (more like komodo dragons) walking around the island. Daylight would dissipate very quickly, and early on around 7pm, and without any electricity, there was little else to do but drink alcohol, walk along the beach or go to sleep. It was a very small island, but the tiny boat trips were amazing, allowing you to snorkel amongst the white tip sharks.  There is an abundance of sea life, and we took a short snorkelling boat trip with rich marine wildlife from turtles, beautiful tropical fish, clownfish, and little sharks. The vegetation on both islands is high and the jungle is dense. Here are no real roads but there are walking paths.  Days would be spent relaxing under the shade of a palm tree on the soft white sand, gazing at the aqua blue waters.  Evenings would be spent dining on the beach, with a BBQ set up on the beach for anyone who wanted to join in.  Given that I was a vegetarian, I can’t recall eating much more than mangos and bread. Entertainment came in the form of flashing lights, with the opposite Perentian islanders flashing their lights over to us, and us reciprocating – our only method of communication with the outside world!

One of the popular places backpackers go when travelling to Malaysia is the Cameron Highlands. The views overlooking the rice paddy fields and tea plantations is amazing, and it really does take your breath away. We stayed in a friendly backpackers lodge, spending the evenings sitting round a campfire, playing guitar, smoking and drinking. One of the nicest meals we had was in the main town itself, close to where we were staying. It was a fairly basic little Indian “restaurant”, which served the most amazing curries in large leaves, lentil daal and fresh warm Indian breads.

The best meal I’ve ever had was in a place called “Little India”, not far from the centre of Kuala Lumpur, which was a fair walk away, down dirty side streets, and smelly cobbled yards, with stray skinny dogs and the strong stench of urine. The spices could be smelt from miles away, and as we arrived in the market square, I actually felt queasy thinking of eating on the rickety dirty wooden tables, with cockroaches skittering by, stray cats meowing for food and toilet waste running down the side of the kerbs. However, after bracing myself and forcing myself to attempt to at the very least try some authentic Indian food, I was pleasantly surprised. The food was outstanding, and so cheap, we could afford to spend the rest of our money on wine.  The evening was then spent singing along with the locals in Little India, chatting merrily until late into the night, early hours of the morning.

 

Re-charging our Batteries

Isn’t it funny how simply removing ourselves from our daily routines, and immersing ourselves into another country, another culture, and relaxing in a hot climate can change our whole emotional well-being?!  The weather definitely has an impact on our moods – the sun, to me, represents ‘happy’.  The sunnier the day, the happier I will be, the better the day ahead will be, the nicer the general disposition of those around us will be and thus the happier we will all be!

Whilst away recently, I went on social media on a couple of occasions, and found myself becoming anxious and annoyed at what I was reading – whether it was an article about narcissistic sociopathic World Leaders, or a bull committing suicide when its horns were deliberately set on fire, or the story of a young child’s horrific neglect by his parents or some bloody national sports shop refusing to allow its staff to speak their own language in Wales – I realised I needed to completely switch off from the gloom and horror out there.  I needed to ‘properly’ escape.

Having just returned from 11 nights in Greece, re-adjusting back to the gloomy rainy weather of the UK, muddy wet floors, beeping horns at busy traffic lights, listening to moaning customers in the local Sainsburys checkouts and general high stress levels of day-to-day general people, is actually pretty grim.  When did life for so many, become so dull and gloomy, and when did people become so angry and aggressive? When did it become so hard to trust other people? Believe in what others tell you? Have faith in other people’s integrity? In fact, coming back from a holiday is a bit like January.  That bleak dreary feeling that envelopes us, after a period of celebration and laughter.

However, going on holiday without a doubt enables us to deal far better with, well, basically angry, aggressive, moaning, whinging people.  It helps us to cope and to see things clearer. To put things into perspective, to keep calm, and deal with situations as they arise.

Holidays, therefore, are crucial to our psychological wellbeing.  Going on holiday helps us to relax and unwind, to put our feet up, and forget about our worries. We need time to get out of our normal routines. Creatures of habit still need a break from the chores and demands placed on us in both our personal and working lives.  The boundaries between work and play is constantly blurring with instant access and social media, so nowadays people really do need a holiday in order to ‘re-set’ and get a change of scenery. They don’t have to cost a fortune.  How much do we spend a year on Starbucks takeaway coffees on our way to work? How much do we spend over the year on our lunchbreak on sandwiches, drinks and snacks?  On clothes or cigarettes? On SKY TV or mobile phones?

That said, it is not essential for everyone that they go to far-away destinations with scorching heat to recharge their batteries.  Even taking a couple of days off work to go camping in Snowdonia with a few friends, or going for a long hike somewhere new with a lush picnic full of your favourite treats, nibbles and chocolate with the kids, try a different dish in a new restaurant after a few cocktails in a city bar, or even sleep in your tent under the stars in your back garden can radically change our mindset.  Although for me personally, my ultimate holiday is somewhere hot, where they speak their own language as well as English, with new food to try, a different way of life to observe and an abundance of things to do from trips to weekly food and trinket markets to mountain hikes or visiting local villages, a day out in the UK or a short weekend break in Europe can have just the same positive impact on our psychological wellbeing.

It is argued that people who take regular breaks to spend time with their partners, or children, are likely to have much better self-care skills.  And as I have always said, when it comes to the workplace – it is vital that we look after ourselves in order for us to be able to look after others.  So for all you whingers out there, if you are owed some annual leave – take it! Go and give yourself a break, whether it be a weekend in Scarborough or a week in the Maldives.  If you have the opportunity, take it! Grab it by the horns and GO!!!! 🙂

 

 

#holidays#backpacking#relax#unwind#psychologicalwellbeing#outofyourcomfortzone#justdoit

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