A Bird In The Hand Toucan do it if you really want

I'm getting really annoyed with Travelex. No, not getting, I already am annoyed. The 'Supercard' is a kind of proxy Mastercard, linked to any number of credit and debit cards you like, especially for travelling abroad as you only pay the actual exchange rate rather than a 3% commission or whatever. So it's really bloody annoying when the card works on day one, and never again. I'm forced to use my debit card and lose every benefit. What the hell?

Such was my experience yesterday morning. Queued for the ATM to withdraw a bunch of cash for our day out, the cab for which arrived 15 minutes early after we'd had breakfast and dropped our laundry off. Our driver was Catherine, who spoke excellent English and gave us a great bit of commentary and conversation as she drove us to catarata de la paz.

Views across Alajuela and towards other mountains and volanoes were spectacular, as always. Our route was almost entirely the same as the one to Volcan Poas, except this time we were told about the coffee plantations change from being family owned to corporate, the relentless march of property prices, the lovely road infrastructure being new courtesy of a recent earthquake which destroyed a village and the existing roads, and why the large fields of strawberries are covered in nets (to stop them being damaged by ash from the volcano).

Turning off the Poas road, we go through a few farming villages which are definitely the "poorest" areas we've seen, but still everywhere has immaculately mowed and carved-flat football pitches. They take it seriously round here; Catherine says when there's a game on is the best time to go shopping.

Within an hour or so, slightly slower than need be because we didn't recklessly overtake the numerous trucks and buses we got stuck behind (unlike our fellow road users), we arrived at the La Paz Waterfall Gardens lodge. Here's our destination: a wildlife sanctuary and short hikes to see some waterfalls. We paid our money, got our phones and camera ready, grabbed a map and went on in.

The weather is fantastic and the gardens look amazing from above. On the first path we are sheltered by huge tree ferns.

Entering the aviary, there are ducks waiting for us.

There's some macaws. They're very pretty 'n that. But while I'm taking this photo Helen is excitedly beckoning me to another inner aviary inside the main one. What's the big deal?


I think at first I don't want a go because I'm terrible and flinchy with animals but then I realise that I'M ALLOWED TO HOLD A TOUCAN so I hold a toucan and it's INCREDIBLE.

This fella is a rainbow billed toucan. He looks away from us the whole time but makes a huge racket. After profusely thanking the toucan house guy and leaving a tip in the box, we leave. We just held a toucan!

There are about 8 toucans in there. All of them are rescue animals, mostly taken off people who had them as pets. It's been illegal for some years now to have many of these wild animals as pets, and throughout the park we won't see any animal that has been taken from its natural habitat; indeed, we're told because of their previous life not many of them would survive if they were placed back out there. So it's a mixture of sadness but privilege. Seriously, having a toucan hop onto your arm because you're holding a little plate with nuts in is amazing.

Then we did a bunch of other stuff but none of it came close. Bye!

OK, only kidding. Even though there's some truth to the statement, you're not getting away with me not going on about it.

Next is the butterfly house. There's loads of them, of various sizes, and if you stand still they'd probably sit on you.

Certainly they weren't all moving all the time.

Normally I'd be terrified, but in such a place it just didn't seem right. Instead I let them fly all around me, only flinching once when one hit my hat, and I happily got close enough to take a few photos.

The range of colours and sizes was quite something.

Back outside to some non-captive animals, but attracted due to the vegetation and food. Hello, hummingbirds. Finally, my camera comes into its own and beats the Pixel to the punch.

They hum right past our faces and ears. There's loads of them and they are way too fast to capture, mostly. If you turn up early enough you're allowed to feed them right out of your hand, but not right now. We just stand amongst them for a while, before eyeing up the expensive buffet and then looking at some snakes. Or monkeys. I forget. Order is probably not significant.

Neither of us could get decent photos of either, because of all the glass. The monkeys stayed stereotypical by tucking into bananas and scratching their arses.

The snakes, well, looked like snakes.

Next up, some cats. There are ocelots and leopards and jaguars. They're cute, because they look just like cats only big, and their life is better since being rescued from their prior predicament, but ... the enclosures are a bit small. The awake ones look bored. One in particular just paces up and down by the window, and while it's great to see a magnificent beast up close there's quite a lot of "this ain't right, is it?" being felt.

As we reached the cats there was a couple already there - some of the very very few people we saw all the way around - and the fella was shoving his selfie-stick up and through the metal fencing. I mean, seriously. Stop it. Get out.

Next, the orchid garden. Rubbish. Most of them not flowering and them that were, bit rubbish. Might as well go to Wisley RHS. But not right now; let's go look at some frogs.

There are three frog rooms, of increasing heat and humidity, to accommodate the frogs which live in different climates. They are all kinds of colours.

Mostly green, though.

This handsome chap took some finding. Neither of us could get a great shot. We had no idea what any of these frogs were, until leaving - apparently through the entrance, because there was the sign saying "that one's poisonous".

That was pretty much it for exotic animals, though we did immediately run into two oxen - Sanson and Hercules.

As luck would have it, they were just being brought out of their barn. They had a cart attached to them, and the handler invited Helen to go have a stroke. To say she was tentative is a slight understatement, though at least she did it - I wouldn't go near the things.

These guys are outside the traditional Costa Rican farmhouse, which we enter and are treated to some snacks: sugar cane water with milk, and a kind of corn cake which tastes like a solid block of rice pudding. There are fruits of many colours, and outside some lazy cows and a rabbit hutch.

And that's it, that's all the animals and culture and stuff complete. But the name of this venue is the La Paz Waterfall Gardens, and we're now at the beginning of the short trail to the eponymous falls. The first one is to the left, so let's go have a look and listen.

It's a lovely cloud forest walk.

Blimey. That's a loud waterfall and a lot of spray. We go temporarily silent, staring open mouthed, then look at each other and simultaneously say "wow!". It's a forceful demonstration of power. This is the upper lookout, sadly the lower lookout can't currently be reached though you can get most of the way there for some other spectacular views.

Helen went for a bit of a sit down.

Next, lots of steps. The trail is short horizontally but there's lots of steps. Hardly a surprise, since it's a long trail of 5 waterfalls of varying heights. The steps to the next one - the biggest of the lot - are moderately perilous and Helen feels a bit wobbly so doesn't quite make it. I do, and am very glad to have done so. You get to stand behind the fall! It's deafening and phenomenal.

Getting a bit wet here. I SAID GETTING A BIT WET HERE. GETTING. A BIT, wait, hang on, I'll tell you when I'm not next to a bloody waterfall.

Helen was just a few steps away via a different set of stairs. She'd managed to get a view of both the falls we'd seen in one. Pretty damn spectacular.

More steps. Lots more. We find a sign that says right and up for the shuttle bus back to the lodge and park entrance, or left for the remaining 3 falls. I'm reasonably sure the final one - La Paz - is the real attraction here, but anyway I want to see them all. Halfway down the slippery windy descent (73 steps, I later count) Helen's legs go. The knees are all a-wobble and she doesn't feel able to carry on. We both acknowledge that she's a wouss, I hand her the rucksack and tell her I'll meet her at the end of the trail.

Down at the viewing platform it's, yawn, yet another great, loud waterfall. I take one of the cheesiest selfies I've ever taken.

There's only two falls. I go back up, and remember the sign says all three are down there. So I go halfway down but think, what? I'm sure I got to the bottom last time, so maybe that one is La Paz and the little tiny falls to the side are the other two. So back up again to the sign, and it taunts me one last time and wins: I descend the 73 steps a final time.

This is getting tiring now. But I'm rewarded with another 12 steps down to one last viewing platform, which is above La Paz waterfall. It's actually not the most impressive of the lot, certainly from this angle, but for the fact that there's a goddamn rainbow forming right in front of me!

Wow! Like, seriously, wow. An actual rainbow poking out of the waterfall. That's quite the finish to this tour and worth the ridiculous stair charade of a minute previous. I wait a bit, looking over at that bridge because I think it's where the shuttle bus goes from and I'm waiting to see if I can see Helen. I don't, so I head back up.

12 steps. Then 73 steps. Then 95 steps up to the gift shop. I am now a heaving sweaty mess with a big smile on my face, and there's Helen and she's saying "it's a bar! Let's get a beer!". She's right, it's a bar and we get a beer. Takes me a couple of minutes to get my breath back, not only due to the ascent of stairs in hot sunny weather but also because I'm trying to talk a million miles a minute about having just seen a rainbow right in front of me. Shut up and sit down and have a beer, she says. Oh, they do Costa Rican craft beer here!

It's not a bad setting to finish the tour. It's a pretty expensive place, when taking travel into account but totally worth it and oh, did I forget to mention YOU CAN HOLD TOUCANS!?

By now it's just past midday, but feels way later given all that we've done and seen in the 3 hours or so. Catherine had quoted us a price to wait until 1200, plus extra money for each hour. Not that we expect her to be charging by the exact hour, but we're quite happy that after some gift shop purchases and a wait for the shuttle bus we're deposited back at the lodge at 1257.

When we get off the bus, there's a queue of probably 50 people waiting to be ticketed. The car park, empty when we arrived, is full of buses - Catherine says 5 turned up just in the last 10 minutes or so, and another 2 arrive as we head out. What's more, the sunshine has been replaced with a horrible overcast sky and low mist. I'm pretty damn smug about this. We saw very very few people in the park - maybe 12 or so in total? Bet we wouldn't have had toucan time with all them crowds.

Catherine asks if we've had lunch, and we haven't, so she offers to take us to a restaurant in Frijanes on the way back which does very typical Tico food. We're happy to accept, since we are pretty hungry, and when we get there we also offer to pay for hers. What follows is a plate of rice, beans, vegetables, fried plantain, chicken, some little croquette thing, potatoes, and a large fresh strawberry milkshake kind of thing which was amazing. All this stuff came straight from the farms very recently and is delicious, especially when wrapped in a tortilla. It's by far the biggest lunch we've had, and well worth the jeopardy of Helen being unable for some minutes to figure out how to get out of the loo - which was not within shouting distance.

The drive back is calm and without much noteworthy, with us mostly sitting in the back looking at our photos of that time we each held a toucan. There is one bit where a huge truck approaching us veered onto our side of the road because the driver was texting, but whatever.

Back at the hotel by 2.30pm we pay Catherine and are gushing with thanks and praise for the day out. It was amazing. She's a driver attached to the hotel but also Uber when no-one wants anything, and we can't say enough nice things about how perfect she was. Helen had been quite nervous beforehand that whoever drove us would be some reckless loon in a clapped out banger but nope.

In the room, our laundry is back already, warm from the dryer and folded up neatly. Perfect. I have a warm leftover beer and we spend a bit of time looking at photos of that time we each held a toucan, plus Helen spams facebook with dual selfies and instagram with loads of other stuff too. We don't really want a siesta, so we do some arithmetic about money requirements for our upcoming days. Seems we might need more money than it's possible to draw out in a single day, so we go to the cash point and both fail to get any out. Oops. Never mind, I'm sure we'll figure something out. Let's go to the pub.

We'd not seen many bars that looked like bars, but every day we'd walked past one close to the hotel which was a restaurant, cocktail bar, and had a sign mentioning artisanal beer. On the previous day we'd been put off by the fact there was a dapper waiter standing in the doorway, as if to attract people in, in a town where no other venue did this. Why would you need to? Suspicious. But anyway, today we tried it.

Oh, it's a place that has 12 craft beers and loads of cocktails and the dapper waiter is fantastic. In his well pressed shirt, trousers and tux he introduces himself and gives us 3 pieces of information, presented in vocal list form:

  1. Here is our drinks list. Many of them are craft beers, made in Alajuela, and we are the only venue which sells most of them.
  2. Here is our food. We particularly recommend the steak.
  3. We accept all credit cards as well as US Dollars, Costa Rican Colones, and Euros.

What? Euros? Who would go out with Euros on them? Anyway. Let's have a mojito and some beer shall we?

The mojito is apparently great, so I try it - I don't like mojitos - and I can't help but agree. It's by far the best one I've ever tasted. The local stout is decent, but the coconut porter I have second is amazing, making it worth the effort of searching for it with a torch that our man had put in. Originally we'd planned to just have a couple of drinks here and then go eat back at Jalapeños Central, but someone else has some great smelling food and I want to stay because of the beer, so we do.

Papitas bravas y quesadilla con pollo arrives, along with two more drinks, and a box of condiments which includes some scissors to ease opening. What a great idea!

The food is bloody lovely. We're hungry enough that it gets eaten before I even think to take a photo of it. Then we're offered dessert, which I unilaterally accept and it's this delicious cheesecake with wonderful chocolate sauce and nom nom nom.

We're now properly stuffed, more so than on any previous day on this trip with the exception of Sunday's posh travel blow out. We're also out later than on any previous day, but that doesn't mean we have to fully break with tradition. So, down to MegaSuper and some beer - Rock Limon and Imperial Silver, since we're trying new things.

Back in the room we discover Rock Limon has salt in it, which is not entirely to Helen's taste. Imperial Silver, meanwhile, tastes indistinguishable from Imperial Regular. US TV is awful, some dreadful sitcom with a terrible Stephen Fry cameo role. More entertaining is the advert for a drug: if you're on anti-depressants but still depressed, take this other drug. You might get high blood pressure, irreversible uncontrollable muscle spasms, and about 45 seconds worth of other terrible side effects, but hopefully you'll be a bit less depressed, so go buy Rexulti!

No thanks. The TV goes off and on comes a Mark Steel Radio 4 thing, to fall asleep too. Our last minutes before lights out are spent with our iPads, looking at the photos of that time we each held a toucan.

Created By
Darren Foreman

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