Distinctive’s founder Steve Hyde is never one to sit still – even during a national lockdown! Instead he turned those lemons to lemonade and has just returned from a 10-day fact finding mission to Costa Rica.
Costa Rica is our bestselling destination and its borders recently re-opened to UK tourists, so it was the obvious choice for Steve to experience travel’s “new normal” first-hand. The fact that it’s a warm, tropical country with a wealth of luxury lodges and fantastic beaches was just an added bonus!
A nation which prides itself on its commitment to health and education, the Costa Rican government has been praised for its handling of Covid-19. Confidence in its robust health protocols means that visitors are no longer required to take a PCR test prior to arrival. They just need to complete the online “Health Pass” form 24hrs prior to arrival and purchase specific insurance to cover any Covid-related medical or accommodation costs. Over 15,000 tourists (including Steve!) have entered the country since, without any cases being reported.
Steve praised the country’s efforts:
“I travelled extensively in Costa Rica and was extremely impressed by the various public health protocols in place, such as hand & luggage sanitising, temperature testing and mandatory masks for all hotel/shop staff, transfer drivers and tour guides. Local people are also very committed to the protocols and wear masks and observe social distancing throughout the country. Speaking to other visitors it was very clear that they too felt reassured and confident in the measures that had been put in place to protect both tourists and locals”.
Costa Rica is ideal for visitors who literally want to get away from it all post-Covid. It is very much an outdoor destination offering stunning scenery, incredible biodiversity and thrilling soft adventure activities . Many of its hotels and lodges are small locally run establishments in remote locations, and private tours and transfers are easy to arrange. So visitors can enjoy the country’s famous “Pura Vida” (Pure Life) in safety and comfort.
The sounds of the Ecuadorian Amazon and gentle rock of the canoe during the paddle upstream was lulling me to a dreamy sleep; so much so I grabbed a paddle to help Juan and Carlitos with what was actually quite a tiring task! The ‘wind storm’ approaching turned out to be Howler Monkeys (we were becoming accustomed to Juan’s sense of humour). And so engrossed we were watching them run through the treetops, we barely noticed the canoe glide out of the creek and on to the lake.
What a magical way to arrive at Napo Wildlife Centre. The three of us in the boat had of course all seen the pictures, but I don’t think any of us were prepared for such a tranquil and serene scene.
Juan’s radio suddenly came to life – his comrades at the lodge letting us know that Giant River Otters were there. We paddled as quickly as we could to try to catch a rare glimpse of this endangered species. We neared and slowed in time to hear the otters calling to each other as they disappeared and reappeared from the calm water. The munching noise was them gobbling their catch whole. Their teeth were indeed extremely large! It was amazing to see, and we couldn’t believe how lucky we had been to share the experience.
So, imagine my amazement when the family returned almost as soon as we got to our room. The most gorgeous sounds of splashing and playing. Becoming more vocal as they back-tracked in search of one of the three cubs who was hiding in the reeds. He bobbed out, and off they swam together, calling and diving and happy. This was proving to be a very special night in the jungle.
Nim Li Punit is a small Maya ruin found in the jungle of the Toledo District. It is not as big as other sites found in Belize, however what it lacks in size it more than makes up for in beauty, artefacts found there, and shade!!
In the small museum you can find a range of pots, jewellery, and magnificent stones, or carved stelae illustrating the ancient city’s rulers. These rulers can be seen sporting rather fetching ‘big hats’ which gives the site its name – Nim Li Punit means Big Hat in Kekchi Maya.
The site has become famous due to one of its most stunning findings, a beautiful, and large, jade pendant found in 2015. Sadly the pendant can not be seen here, however we got the opportunity to speak to the team of archaeologists who were currently working on the site. Digging and sifting in the heat was no easy task, I think the archaeologist was quite grateful for the distraction our questions gave him. Being a smaller site, and a lesser known one, the archeology major from the US was able to enjoy the wonderful opportunity to dig here. He told of the secrets the site had already revealed, and the many secrets still to be solved. It is easy, in an area so rich in Maya history, to overlook these smaller lesser known sites. Especially with the likes of Xunantunich and Caracol in the Cayo District, however these smaller sites can afford quieter and more serene visits, and as we found, can sometimes offer fantastic opportunities.
The drive up to Kura Design Suites was unnerving. 400m up a mountain side is not something that would normally phase me, but I am not normally driving a brand new Hyundai 4×4 that has only 9km on the clock and I had not appreciated how steep and uneven the terrain would be. And it was dark.
Finding the understated electric gate was a relief, but also a slight concern. Was this it? Where had I brought us? I definitely did not want to retrace the track down!
But then the gate opened and the wonderful haven hidden behind reassured us that we were unmistakably in the right place. Arriving at Kura at night meant that the view the following morning was the true sense of breath-taking. We woke up in our brand spanking new Junior Suite, perched on the edge overlooking the immense Pacific: 180⁰ ocean to the front, 180⁰ rainforest to the back, and toucans crossing playfully between the two. Nothing more. Utter privacy. We had had intentions to explore Bahia Ballena (Whale Bay) down below in the town of Uvita, but with the suite’s private heated infinity pool and cocktails and snacks being brought in (without us even noticing), we decided to stay put and watch the bay from our private paradise.
One of many highlights from my recent trip to Cuba was the colonial city of Trinidad . It is a wonderful place just to wander around and explore the maze of cobbled streets that link lively plazas and local markets. When even this seemed a little too energetic, I’d order a take-away mojito from one of the numerous street vendors and sit on the church steps and people watch to my heart’s content!
Founded by Diego Velazquez in 1514 and declared a World Heritage Site in 1988, Trinidad truly feels like stepping back in time. Isolated from the rest of Cuba for many years, the city experienced little developed so kept much of its original charm and lay-out. Today, the city has been wonderfully restored and has the feeling of an open-air museum. Many of the town’s finest buildings are testimony to the wealth of landowners who made their money from the Sugar Mills in the surrounding valley. I found a visit to these Sugar Mills both interesting and poignant. Many of the mills have observation towers that afford excellent views over the fertile plains that were once the centre of the global sugar cane industry. Their purpose, however, was to supervise and watch over the slaves that worked the land and was a timely reminder of the pain and suffering that much of Trinidad’s wealth was built upon.
I found Cuba to be unique, fascinating and thought-provoking and there was no better example than this colonial gem of a city.
Mallet in hand, I griped the reins with one hand moving them up the horses neck, a signal for him to move forwards, at the same time as giving him a good kick. Gringo, my polo pony for the day, sprung into action and the chase was on. Darting and weaving past the other players, little white ball fever had well and truly gripped me, as we sped after the ball trying to get to it first. It was all set up, world class polo pony, other players who also had no idea what they were doing behind us, some of which had never ridden a horse before arriving on the Estancia, and the words of advice from Argentina’s Ladies Polo Playing champion ringing in my ears. As we neared the ball I lowered the mallet lined it up with the ball and swung, I heard the satisfying clunk as the mallet found its mark. Elation filled me as I turned to my team mates expecting to see happiness; I was met instead with cries of “Wrong way!” I had hit the ball towards our goal, but this meant the race was on again and Gringo knew just what to do as we wheeled round to line up the ball once again.
The Polo at Estancia Los Potreros, Córdoba Argentina was something I had been rather nervous about. As a horse rider in the past I had very much been looking forward to the visit to the estancia but having watched many a game of polo I knew how vicious and brutal it could be and wasn’t sure if my rather rusty horse riding skills would stand up to the challenge. However with the expert polo pony Gringo helping me, he even kicked the ball and moved back under me when I lent a bit too far, I was in safe hands. Instead of the terrifying experience I had thought it to be it became the highlight of my entire trip.
Flying from Tortuguero National Park back to San Jose was a real highlight of my recent visit to Costa Rica . Nature Air operate an extensive network of internal flights in Costa Rica and each flight (providing the weather is good) is like a scenic tour in itself.
Tortuguero airstrip is not what you’d normally expect from an airport. Macaws flew overhead and as I left my bag on the tarmac (no check-in and security required here!) I wondered to the beautiful beach that ran along the airstrip to enjoy a make shift game of ‘boules’ with some recently fallen coconuts and dipped my toes in the Caribbean for the final time as I waited for the plane to arrive. Taking off from the Caribbean Coast heading back to the capital, the flight gave fantastic views firstly of Tortuguero’s famous canals, then banana plantations and finally the erupting Turrialba Volcano. A great way to cut travel times but also an enjoyable way to see the country from a different perspective, Costa Rica from the air is highly recommended!
The notorious Patagonian wind blasted dust into my eyes as the setting sun lit up an eerie treeless landscape ahead. I gripped the reins tightly with one hand, my saddle with the other and held on for dear life as we clambered up a steep ridge. As first horse riding experiences go it will take some beating!
My trusty horse was slightly less impressed – he simply trotted on, bouncing me up and down with malicious glee. Near the top we got off (or in some cases fell off) our horses and hiked up to a viewpoint where we huddled together to toast the spectacular sunset with a well-deserved glass of Malbec.
When we returned to the Estancia after dark, we were welcomed with more wine, a roaring fire and a delcious asado (Argentine barbecue) in the ‘Quincho’ with its huge sunken firepit. Just four hours into our stay at Estancia Huechahue (‘Way Cha Way’) we could already understand why so many guests fall in love with the place.
The horses are so well trained that even our group of amateurs were soon at home in the saddle – and mostly managed to stay in it! The Estancia has over 15,000 acres to explore, and as a genuine working farm, guests are encouraged to help (or hinder!) the gauchos round up and lasso the cattle.
It also has access to some of the world’s finest fly fishing rivers, as well as birdwatching, hiking and sightseeing, making it an attractive option for non-riders too. There’s simply no better way to understand the unique appeal of Patagonian life than to spend some time at Estancia Huechahue.
It took around 40 minutes of paddling to cross Picinguaba Bay by kayak. Any effort required was easily outweighed by the views of the idyllic beaches, the bobbing of small fishing boats and the steep densely forested peaks in the distance. Pulling up the kayaks on to Praia de Fazenda, we had this kilometre long beach to ourselves. It was our very own deserted beach for the morning and was ‘I need to pinch myself’ beautiful!!
This was just one of the many unique adventures to be enjoyed between relaxing at the paradisiacal Pousada Picinguaba. Located on a forested coastline half way between Rio and Sao Paulo and within a state park, this nine room property sits above a small traditional fishing village and has the sort of swimming pool that would set any travel magazine editor’s pulse racing. Relaxingly active, my stay here was the perfect authentic reminder of the beauty of nature and simplicity.
Hard to choose a favourite spot in the Galápagos but I think it would be Fernandina Island.
The Galápagos Islands were formed by a “hot spot” that causes the crust above to erupt into volcanoes. Fernandina is the youngest volcanic island and is still active. Because of increased volcanic activity and its relative youth, Fernandina is home to less plant life than some of the other islands.
The only visitor site on Fernandina, Punta Espinoza is a maze of sandy trails through interesting lava flows with large colonies of marine iguanas. As we stepped off the zodiac boats it wasn’t immediately obvious where the iguanas were, but looking more closely I realised rocks don’t usually move! The black iguanas are brilliantly Camouflaged against the black volcanic rocks but once I’d realised …. there were hundreds of them climbing on top of each other, occasionally fighting but often just sitting or allowing others to use them as stepping stones.
The volcanic rock formations on Fernandina are equally impressive, with the lava fields flowing out to sea, creating blow holes and tubes as they cooled.