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Monkey business


Mike Unwin and family go thrill-seeking in the tropical forests of Costa Rica

If there's one thing you learn from a family adventure in Costa Rica, it's that some animals are better adapted than others to life in the rainforest.

Take the howler monkeys that awoke us at dawn this morning with their throaty roaring. Blessed with a prehensile tail and not the slightest concept of vertigo, it seems that dangling upside-down above a terrifying abyss leaves these primates utterly unfazed. I, on the other hand, have been rather less well prepared by natural selection for handling heights. And right now, perched on a rickety platform halfway up the jungle-clad slopes of Arenal volcano watching my 10-year-old daughter, Florence, being hitched to a zipline, it seems a significant failing.

Before I can get cold feet, however, she's off. I hear the hiss of the cable and watch her rocket out into space, helmet swiftly shrinking into the merest fluorescent dot above the tangled green canopy far below – until a rattle on the line and a distant chorus of whoops indicate that she's alighted on the next platform down, a full 600 metres away, where my wife awaits.

"Next?" asks the guide, dangling the empty harness clip. I swallow and step up. And 10 seconds later, launching out into the void, I discover that, while lacking a howler's monkey's agility, I can at least make a passing attempt at its long, despairing howl.

That afternoon, soaking in the thermal warmth of the Arenal Hot Springs Resort, we reflect on the morning's adrenalin antics. "But only the first's one's scary, Dad!" Florence chides me, as I ponder whether ziplining was ever going to be the sport for me. "After that, it's really, really cool!"

She has a point. By the final platform of our morning's high-wire high-jinks, I was relaxed enough to take in the glorious backdrop. And this was no Alton Towers: behind us was the picture-perfect cone of Costa Rica's best-known volcano; below us was the world's most biodiverse tropical rainforest. From one platform, I had even spied a tamandua – a small, tree-climbing anteater –clambering through the canopy in search of arboreal termites. There are surely worse places to scream yourself senseless.

We arrived in San Jose five days ago for the start of our Costa Rica family activity tour. First stop was Guyabo Lodge in the cooler highlands. Our guide, Daniel Monge, pointed out the spiky pineapple fields and scented coffee plantations that lined our route into the hills – which was fitting, as our activities here were all about discovering Costa Rica's tropical produce. At the lush Tayutic Estate, Florence separated good macadamia nuts from bad as they tumbled down a chute (a tip: the bad ones float); shouldered a grindstone, literally, to discover just how much effort it takes to mill coffee beans; and gawped with wonder as a bubbling gloop of pure sugar – crushed from raw cane before our eyes – boiled down into glutinous golden molasses. A little quality control product testing of the resultant hot fudge was, of course, integral to the process.

That evening, back at the lodge, we tried out some of Costa Rica's raw ingredients for ourselves, producing – under the chef's supervision – a sumptuous spread of local fare, including tortas de platano (fried plantain and cheese fritters), ensalada de palmito (heart of palm salad), and the obligatory gallo pinto (rice and black beans). My daughter even baked a chocolate cake using pure local cacao. Again, quality-control sampling was strictly enforced.

Next up were the eastern lowlands, where Selva Verde lodge made for a sweaty contrast with the cool terrain we'd just left behind. Here, activities centred around wildlife. Not that much activity was necessary – we soon spied a three-toed sloth suspended above the pool, a large iguana outside the restaurant and thumbnail-sized 'blue-jeans' frogs hopping along the path to our cabin. But it was when we stepped out into the nearby Tirimbina Reserve under the expert eye of ecologist Willy Aguilar that the forest really gave up its secrets: the stitched-leaf retreats of tent-making bats; the pungent fruit of a kerosene plant; and a tiny pit viper coiled on a heliconia. "Careful," warned Willy, as I tried to photograph the last of these: a reminder that some things in this tropical Eden are strictly look-but-don't-touch.

For the last part of our tour – after surviving the ziplines and hot springs of Arenal – we continue northwest, into the dry country of Guanacaste Province. Here our base is the Hacienda Guachipelin, a working ranch with a sideline in adventure activities. The first part of this combination kicks in before dawn on day one, when we are up at five to milk the cows. The lowing and clanking of pails could almost be Ambridge, were it not for the toucans overhead.

The second part starts with a scramble down the hillside to a gorge, where – with excellent guides – we zipline (we're now old hands) and abseil our way to the bottom. Next, we saddle up on the hacienda's patient horses and ride for an hour downstream to the Rio Negro, where a pile of inflated inner tubes kitted out with canvas seat and handholds suggest we're about to go tubing. Scarcely is the safety briefing over when we're bobbing off into the current like human Pooh-sticks, one minute admiring the scenery, the next emerging wet and shrieking from another set of rapids. After each watery cataclysm I look around anxiously to check that all are present and correct – but every face emerges beaming.

So, our time in Costa Rica is almost up. We've been zip-lining, abseiling, tubing, horse-riding, jungle-trekking, thermal bathing, bird-watching, volcano-climbing, coffee-grinding and even cake-making.


Any activities left?

Well, since you ask, a little inactivity wouldn't go amiss. And so it is that our last two nights see us beneath the gently waving palms of the Casa Conde del Mar resort overlooking the glorious Pacific. True to form, a troop of howler monkeys hangs out around reception, entertaining all-comers with their tree top acrobatics. 'But can you do this?' I think, as I put down my pina colada, pick up a pen and start a postcard home.

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