Costa Rica (January 1995)

What did I think of Costa Rica? Words cannot describe how spectacular it was, although the following might give you a hint:

Pacuare River Whitewater Rafting

The first two days consist of a two-day whitewater rafting trip on the Pacuare River. It is me, a friend, the raft guide (who turns out to be an expert in steering a raft), and his girlfriend. Just as we start out, a black snake swims by in front of the raft. Not too big, but nevertheless an exciting way to start things off. After a few hours of negotiating rapids and enjoying the scenery, we stop at the newly-built camp of the company which provides the rafting trips. It has a two-story building with kitchen, dining, and hammock areas, and separate buildings housing restrooms/changing rooms, as well as 8 or 10 rustic cabins (complete with two beds, bathroom, front porch, and candles). Our cabin is within 30 feet of the river, which we can see from our beds. The grounds are manicured and dotted with exotic tropical vegetation such as papaya trees and banana trees (the country is a huge banana exporter, as you probably know). That afternoon, our guide treats us to drinks and finger foods as we lounge in the hammocks. We also hike on a tropical forest trail. For dinner, we are served an excellent vegetable stir-fry. Have you ever tasted heart of palm?? Delicious!!

The next day, we set off in a light drizzle (even in the dry season, certain parts of Costa Rica have at least a light rain on most days). It turns out to be a treat. The weather is warm enough to make the rain a non-problem. The treat was that the drizzle adds the stereotypical mist to the forested canyon walls that you so often see in movies set in tropical jungles. On the second day, the rapids are more challenging, although not as difficult as other rivers I’ve rafted (Deshutes in Oregon, Ocoee in Tennessee, Kennebec in Maine), primarily because the dry winter has brought the river down to low water levels.

On the way down, we stop at a waterfall where the guide shows me how to slide down a slippery natural water slide along a rock-formed semi-funnel that shoots you into a pool of water five feet below where the slide ends. It was so much fun that I do it twice. He also stops at another point to show us these tiny frogs with bright orange bodies and black legs. They turn out to be poisonous frogs that you cannot touch without serious consequences.

Perhaps the best part of the rafting was the scenery. Rio Pacuare is the most beautiful river I’ve ever been on. Aquamarine blue water, huge and draping tropical trees overhanging the river, and forested, nearly vertical canyon walls that at times must have been hundreds of feet high. The heavy rainfall the area gets made the vegetation especially lush. If you visit Costa Rica, I highly recommend the Pacuare.

La Paloma Lodge

After the rafting, we are whisked by small bus to the San Jose airport (which, I discover, is an ugly, dirty, noisy city), where we were flown by small propeller plane to the tiny town of Palmar Sur in the southwestern corner of the country. We are then taxied to the town of Sierpe, where we jump on a “taxi” boat for a one-hour ride down a tropical river to our destination at Drake Bay and the La Paloma Lodge, where we spend the next few days.

From here on, the weather remains balmy, with light breezes to keep things from getting too warm.

The Lodge turns out to be wonderful. Our open-air cabins and communal dining area gives us breath-taking views of the Pacific Ocean (just outside our bedroom was a hammock facing the ocean). Again, the grounds were manicured and filled with exotic tropical trees. Here, though, the trees are filled with toucans, colorful green and red parrots (Amazon Loree variety, one of which keeps hopping on our breakfast table each morning, demanding food), white-faced monkeys, a tree sloth, hummingbirds, and tanagers. While there, we are served tropical fruits, juices, fresh-baked bread, and fresh seafood.

On our first afternoon, we opt for a kayak trip along a tiny river near the Lodge, where we are able to hear lots of typical tropical wildlife noises, and spot a few howler monkeys in the trees. Despite the wildlife, it is extremely serene. It is also so remote that we surprise a couple who are sunbathing nude on a small beach around a corner. (I give some thoughts to taking my clothes off at that point in case they felt uncomfortable.)

 Corcovado Preserve

The next day, our “taxi” boat takes us down the coastline to the fantastic Corcovado Preserve (a huge rainforest owned by the national government). The trip there is nice since we were given great views of the very tropical beaches along the way (Lots of tropical coconut trees and no signs of development or humans. The photo below shows one of the beaches we enjoy at this location.). Once there, we need to be transferred from the taxi boat to a small rubber raft which brings us to the beach. At the preserve, we hike all morning in the rainforest, spotting monkeys, parrots, strange balalisk lizards, and toads. The trees are enormous, and many are covered by huge strangler fig vines that give the tree trunks large buttresses, and which eventually kill the tree. While eating lunch, we are visited by a very colorful, red-crested bird (a drogan), and also watch a huge colony of “leaf-cutter” ants. The ants are amazing. They march to the tops of trees, where they cut off huge hunks of leaf (some about the size of a dime) and then march back to the colony (what you see is a long line of cut leaves moving along the ground). Once back to the colony, they combine the leaves with saliva and fecal matter to create a fungus that they then use to propagate their young.

In the afternoon, we hike to a 50-foot high waterfall to cool off in the pools below.

But the most spectacular sight on the hike is clearly the scarlet macaws. These birds are large, and are so colorful that they look like flying rainbows. Their gorgeous, striking appearance startles me. We are able to get within a few feet of them as they feed on almond trees along the beach we are hiking on.

After getting back to the lodge, we watch the sunset and are served another delicious dinner. My friend and I also get up about 4 a.m. to gaze at the stars (complete with meteor shower and the Milky Way Galaxy).

 Cano Island

On our final day at the lodge, we boat out to Cano Island. (Along the way, we enjoy a pleasant surprise of seeing porpoises breaking the surf.) There we set out on a morning hike to see ancient burial ground ruins, and are also treated to parrots and a large sleeping boa constrictor (he is in such deep sleep that we are able to get within inches of him without waking him). That afternoon, we snorkel in the coral reefs just off the island. The reefs are not as spectacular as in the Florida Keys, but the fish are just as colorful. As for semi-dangerous excitement, we swim amongst a school of about 100 large and menacing barracuda, swim over a white-tipped shark…and live to tell about it.

A nervous feeling comes over me while snorkeling, because there are areas where I would look around and see nothing but a hazy blue while under water. I am a bit nervous because I cannot tell whether my inability to see anything in any direction is due to my distance from the reefs, or if the visibility is poor. “Am I, at this very moment, being stalked by a huge shark?”

By the end of our couple of days at La Paloma Lodge, we feel sorry we have not spent the entire week there, due to how pleasant it is. I guess it will just have to be another place to return to.

Arenal Volcano

Next stop is the Arenal Volcano in the north central part of the country. Just before getting there, we lounge in a river with water heated to about 85 or 90 degrees by the heat of the volcanic magma.

We stay at the Arenal Observatory Lodge, which is only 1.6 miles from the volcano, and gives the best view of any of the nearby lodges. The volcano is touted to be the most active in the world, and we soon notice why. Every hour during the 20 hours we are there, the volcano erupts-shooting rocks, smoke, and lava out of its cone. It sounds and feels like a jet airplane (or a herd of stampeding buffalo). Since the most impressive sight is to watch the volcano do its thing at night, we are awakened every hour from 9 p.m. till 3 a.m. Everyone rushes out of the rooms (we sleep in our clothes to avoid public embarrassment) when an eruption occurs, and over the next 30 to 60 seconds we watch red rocks and lava come streaming down the sides of the volcano in a molten fury. The next morning, we are fortunate to have clear blue skies to give us a tremendous view of the volcano (see photo at right showing Arenal erupting during daylight) filling the northern sky just beyond our rooms (our guide tells us it is the sunniest day he had seen in his four years there-the volcano is almost always shrouded in clouds, being as close as it is to a cloud forest and rainforest). From 6 a.m. till 2 p.m., we see 4 or 5 more eruptions. Our hike that day is out to a lava flow that had stopped flowing only two years ago. Indeed, it is so recent that the rock is still hot from recent lava.

 Monteverde Cloud Forest

Our final destination is the Monteverde Cloud Forest (a privately-owned preserve). Even though it is only 17 miles from the Volcano “as the crow flies,” it takes us 8 hours to get there (there are few roads in the country, and what few you find are in poor condition). Once there, we see more monkeys, toucans, parrots, and lush vegetation. We are also treated to a hummingbird garden at the trailhead which attracts large numbers of small and colorful hummingbirds to hanging feeders. I am able to get within a foot of them to shoot photos. New birds we see are the silky flycatcher and the blue-crowned mott mott. We also see the Costa Rican version of a raccoon eating a banana out of a banana tree (this guy looks like a squirrel, only the size of a dog in this case). The big event at Monteverde is our spotting of the much-celebrated but rarely seen resplendent quetzal (considered by many to be the most beautiful bird in the world). It has bright green feathers on top, with bright blue and red on its chest and flanks. It also has a huge tail the extends about two or three feet from its body. We almost miss it, since after a long wait at the place best known for spotting it, we are starting to leave. But as we were walking off, I spot one flying into a nearby tree, and we are then treated to about 30 minutes of viewing three of them. Speechlessly, we watch them.

On our final day in the country, our van stops along a roadside produce stand, where we are treated to a coconut that has been macheted open and a straw inserted into it. That night, we are lucky to find an excellent restaurant, after which we have fun at a disco where we enjoy salsa dancing.

By the end of the trip, my friend and I are shaking our heads about how well the trip went. The weather was perfect, and the things most tourists dream of seeing but usually don’t were seen by us. Costa Rica is truly a special place that I will surely be back to enjoy again.

An amusing coincidence in Costa Rica: While at La Paloma Lodge, we meet two couples from Gainesville (one of whom I’ve seen at the fitness center I work out at). We talk about Gainesville politics over dinner, and I am invited to join them in the pick-up softball games they play every summer. There are only 10 or 20 people at the Lodge at any one time, so it is not like being at a huge hotel where there is a reasonable chance that you might see someone from the community you live in.

Our tour company in Costa Rica is Geo Expeditions.

This YouTube video consists of photos I shot while in Costa Rica:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SghalpSQmtY

About Costa Rica

When I visited, 3,300,000 people lived there. The main products of the nation are bananas, coffee, sugar cane, rice, corn, and livestock. Nicaragua is to the north and Panama to the south. The nation is roughly the size of Vermont and New Hampshire combined.

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Categories: 1991-2000, Caribbean, Hiking, Paddling | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

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