• Map: Steven Fick/Canadian Geographic

“I found myself in a dark wood,” Dante famously wrote, “and lost my way.” Wandering through the Monteverde cloud forest, I can’t help feeling the same. In the dull jungly light, my eyes strain to adjust to the meagre colour scheme: green, greener, greenest. All I can make out is a tangled mosh pit of alien plant life.

To reach the world-renowned nature reserve, my wife Jenny and I had weathered several hours on the jackhammer back roads of Costa Rica, and now I want more bang for our butt pain. “Dónde están los monos?” I demand, in my Berlitz Spanish, to no one in particular. (Loosely translated: “Show me the monkeys!”) Costa Rica, I know, is home to four simian species — the howler, the capuchin, the squirrel and the spider monkeys — and yet the forest remains mute, except for the drip-dripdrip of the moist air perspiring off umbrella-broad leaves and the bill of my hat. Then a twittering to our left, a rustling to our right, the disorienting sense of being watched — and not knowing what, exactly, we were looking for. A dark wood can have that effect on travellers who arrive expecting ready-made revelations.

On his mythic journey, Dante had the poet Virgil as his point man to lead him through the underworld and onward to paradise. As a frequent traveller and wilderness wanderer, though, I always thought that guided excursions were better left to the Club Med and Love Boat set. If you really want to get off the beaten path, you shouldn’t have to rely on hired help.

However, even before we departed on our trip, Costa Rica — known as the “Switzerland of Central America” for its economic and ecological prosperity in a socially troubled region — had begun to erode my hardline attitude about travelling the do-it-yourself way. Jenny and I had agreed that we needed a break from the greys of another Canadian winter, but I balked at the suggestion of a prepackaged sun-and-fun vacation. I wanted something more adventurous and more educational.

Jenny knew my weak spot: monkeys. I have long suffered an inexplicable fascination with our tree-swinging cousins. That’s why she casually pointed out that Costa Rica boasts both white-sand beaches and white-faced monkeys. We could book a beach stay for one week and then extend our trip for seven more days of ecotouring all on our own. I was sold.

I imagined spending that first week lying by the pool, reading bad paperback thrillers in a sun-numbed, vaguely hungover torpor. Instead, during our stay at the Barceló Langosta Beach Hotel, the anxieties of city life were scrubbed clean with regular doses of boogie boarding in the warm Pacific, kayaking through bird-thick estuaries and learning to surf (badly). On excursions into the town of Tamarindo, dark-furred howler monkeys luxuriated in the trees, as common as squirrels in Canada, and emitted throaty catcalls as we passed, like a cheeky gang of construction workers on a coffee break. During a nocturnal tour of the Playa Grande Marine Turtle National Park, we tiptoed past the nesting grounds of the endangered leatherback turtle and watched a female lumber back into the surf after burying her eggs. We did little more than eat and sleep at our resort. By week’s end, we felt confident — perhaps too confident — that we could explore the country’s natural wonders on our own.

It’s no accident that Costa Rica has become one of the world’s hot spots for ecotourism. Since 1963, the Central American nation has set aside more than 70 parks and conservation areas, including several private, non-profit preserves, such as the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, protecting nearly a quarter of its land mass and foreshore. Citizens are justly proud of this natural heritage. The average Costa Rican can opine about tropical birds with the same knowledge and passion that Canadians reserve for hockey scores and political scandals. That means, for impatient visitors like myself (and the nearly two million other tourists who arrived last year), well-qualified guides are always on call to reveal the silver lining in every cloud forest — if you’re willing to ask (and tip well) for their help.

The morning after getting shut out by the wild things in Monteverde, we decide to pony up the colónes for a guided trip. Before our chaperone Jorge begins his spiel, he surveys our small group and, like any true leader, critiques our footwear. “These shoes are good,” he dryly observes of Jenny’s sneakers, “for a tennis court, maybe.” Then he leads us down the muddy trails of the Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve, on the same mountain spine as Monteverde.

We quickly realize that Jorge sees both the forest and the trees — and a whole lot more. He parses for us the tiramisùlike layers of the heaven-high canopy. He lifts a patch of moss and has us peer — not too closely — into the wary eyes of a tarantula in her earthen lair. He retells the murder ballad of the strangler fig, which wraps thick vines around its spouse tree in a sometimes terminal embrace, leaving only the hollow latticework column that rises before us. From the moist air, he plucks birdsong and names every elusive vocalist. Farther down the trail, he reaches into the undergrowth and reveals, with a prestidigitator’s flourish, an orange and black tree frog the size of a thumbnail, a miracle of miniaturization.

We shouldn’t be surprised. For so many species to flourish in an area as compact as Costa Rica, evolution has encouraged its critters to choose camouflage over cabaret — even if it’s the latter that ecotourists long for.

Not everyone is so keen on the country’s eco-make-over, though. A few days later, we hire a guide named Hugo for a hike through the dry forest in Santa Rosa National Park. We pass a work crew repairing the park’s museum, a hacienda that was burned to the ground by displaced hunters. The arson had been a cause célèbre in this small nation, says Hugo, and while the culprits landed a long jail sentence, the incident only underlined the competing pressures placed on ecosystems by farmers, poachers, developers and tourists. To ease such problems, Costa Rica has received funding from the World Bank to pay landowners not to saw down forests. Some parks, like Monteverde and Santa Elena, now limit the number of walkers allowed on the trails each day; others, such as Playa Grande, restrict visits to guided tours of at most 15 people per guide.

Getting off the beaten track has become that much harder. But Hugo welcomes the chance to show off the hidden corners of his favourite forest. We follow him through a labyrinth of narrow pathways, navigable only by the resident biologists, past bat caves and owl roosts — and, yes, enough white-trimmed capuchin monkeys to shut me up — as he chronicles the natural mysteries of Santa Rosa.

Then, in the middle of another dark wood, we confront a project of Blair Witch weirdness. Spaced across the forest floor are squares of plastic that contain ritual scatterings of twigs and bugs. Hugo explains that one of his colleagues is measuring the precise quantities of insect dung excreted over these spots. It is another example, we realize, of the microscopic dedication of many Costa Ricans to understand their natural environment — to see, if you will, the forest for the feces.

Our time with Hugo is done, or so we think. But our guide has one more secret up his khaki sleeve. He is heading to another park to count parrot nests and invites us to join him on his afternoon expedition. In his four-by-four, he chauffeurs us north toward the Nicaraguan border and then westward to the Pacific over washboard side roads, stopping only to joke in Spanish with a few curious rangers about the “two blondies” in his back seat. We arrive at a long crescent of sand framed by sumptuous greenery. Distant enough from the resorts of the Nicoya Peninsula and off backpackers’ tick lists, the beach barely rates a mention in most guidebooks. We are the only gringos, in fact, and we lounge for hours in this pocket of postcard perfection.

Then, his parrot census done, Hugo emerges from the woods. Our guide has led us to paradise, and he is ready to ferry us home again. We’ll follow him wherever he wants to go.