We were instructed to wear dark clothes, preferably all black. No flashlights, no camera. Just your self, your imagination, and more importantly, faith in the guide that was to lead you through a two-mile hike in the dead of night through the coastal jungles of Costa Rica. The guide would later casually inform us that the stretch of jungle we covered by foot was the natural habitat of the Costa Rican jaguar, an elusive, rarely seen creature, but in any event, not an animal that you’d like to cross paths with, with nary a flash light to shine on it in vain attempts to keep it at bay.
On this expedition (one of many in Costa Rica) we set out to observe the greenback turtle lay her eggs off the coast of the Caribbean sea in the Tortuguero National Park. As the nesting season for the endangered turtle had just begun, we were told to be prepared for a possible no-show. Having already experienced a bit of wildlife in Costa Rica, we were prepared for any eventuality, knowing that we would still enjoy the walk through the jungle.
We left our lodge and set out on a 40 minute hike through a trail straddling the edges of the beach and the coastal forest. When we arrived at our sector, we were asked by the spotters to enter the beach as they had just seen a turtle laying eggs. There she was, seemingly oblivious to a dozen or more scurrying human feet, laying eggs, one after another. She would have laid about 150 eggs that night. Her insouciance towards us humans was apparently a biological response. When the turtle lays her eggs, she gets in a trance-like mode. Our guide flashed the infrared flashlight on the nest, which the turtle had spent a good hour digging up. Different groups of tourists led by their guides would take turns gawking at her. I wondered how a human female would react were she to experience her birthing pains before dozens of squawking macaques or snorting pigs. I was glad the greenback was in a trance.
The turtle walk in Tortuguero was on day nine of our twelve-day trip to Costa Rica which included stops at Arenal and Flores, home of the Arenal volcano, to Monteverde, home of the cloud forests, Turrialba, where we went on a rafting expedition down the Rio Pacuare and, finally, Cahuita, your quintessential sleepy Caribbean seaside town.
Costa Rica figures high on the charts in adventure tourism destinations, and rightly so. There are plenty of adventures to choose from, even for a first-time thrill seeker, from white-water rafting to rappelling, to rock climbing, and zip lines. While most of these activities are popular enough to be found in most other travel destinations, Costa Rica’s lush rain forests and the sheer diversity of fauna and flora render these experiences particularly enjoyable. One can rappel down any mountain face or cliff. But rappelling down a 180 foot waterfall, in a thick central American jungle amidst luscious canopy is an experience of a lifetime. Or hurtling down the Rio Pacuare frantically paddling to navigate a rapid while keeping an eye out for a rare toucan and a even rarer Blue Morpho butterfly elevate this rafting expedition from others in less enticing surroundings.
The country’s national parks are well maintained, its guides are knowledgeable, and in general, there is a sense that the country and its people assume the mantel of eco-tourism seriously. I pride myself on being a naturalist—a lover of nature, ardent recycler, mostly vegetarian except when chomping down bizarre foods in the interest of adding to the been-there-eaten-that list. But, floating down the canals of Tortuguero National Park in a four-person motor boat on a cloudy, intermittently rainy afternoon, I realized I knew zilch about nature. Here’s a bit of trivia for you to mull over: there are birds that hover around the spider monkeys as the latter are rustling branches on the trees looking for food to eat. The birds then scoop up any insects that the monkey unseats from all their scurrying. How is that for balance in the eco system? Or the theory that sloths (they defecate once every week) dispose off their waste in a hole at the bottom of the tree that they inhabit so as to return to the tree all the nutrients that the they used up. This points to the subtle checks and balances in the eco-system, something that we as humans in our ignorance upset, then learn rather belatedly about and finally scramble to make up for our ignorance.
Monteverde (MV) is a major eco-tourist destination in Costa Rica thanks to its cloud forests and its massive nature reserve, the Reserva Biológica Bosque Nuboso Monteverde (the Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve). Monteverde was first settled by a community of Quakers who fled the United States to avoid the Korean War draft. The Quakers’ efforts to preserve Monteverde’s virgin forests later led to the creation of the preserve. Their impact in the local economy is also evident in the local dairy and cheese factory. Ninety percent of the forest in MV is virgin and the cloud forests are so named because of a ever-present low-hanging cloud cover on the canopy. A guided walk through the forests exposed us to species of birds and plants that we had never seen before. We saw tiny, lilliputian orchids (this region is home to the most orchids in the world), several close cousins of the resplendent quetzal, tanagers, dozens of hummingbirds, and wrens. You do not have to know about birds to enjoy and soak in what Monteverde has to offer. Hiking in the cloud forest, I reflected on how starkly different it is hiking in the North Georgia mountains with no bird songs, or frog calls, or howling monkeys. Birches and oaks are no mean companions, but the Costa Rican forests are the forests of your childhood imaginations; big leaves, creepy crawly insects, a full range of cacophonies, and lurking shadows that add just the right amount of fear and thrill.
Arenal is one of the most active volcanoes in the world. Some statistics list it one of 10 most active volcanoes in the world. It was inactive until 1968 when it blew up and buried in its wake a small town called Tabacon. The nearby town of La Fortuna escaped the wrath of Arenal and instead became a tourist stopover point for volcano seekers. Having visited a more active volcano in Guatemala, I was not as impressed by Arenal. Of course this was no fault of the volcano. Some active volcanoes are just more active than others.
As twilight sweeps in, one does get to spot the lava flow down, glowing red against the dark night sky.
Recent research on pain suggests that humans are prone to benign masochism (eating chillies for example)—a bizarre quality unique to our species. We don’t just sit back and enjoy nature and her infinite beauty, but we somehow feel the need to earn it. Thus we will climb mountains in freezing weather, hurtle down from hundreds of feet above with only a cord between us and eternity, and throw ourselves down a waterfall. Why enjoy it passively when you can rappel down it? Waterfall rappelling is a very popular adventure sport in Costa Rica and there are many outfitters who arrange rappelling tours. Although the definition of rappeling on their websites sounds intimidating—“a vertical sport that involves descending a series of waterfalls using techniques like rappelling, jumping, sliding, and boulder scrambling”—in reality, the experience is quite exhilarating. The actual rappelling down the waterfall happens too fast for you to just “hang around” on the ropes and soak in the scenary from your high perch but the adrenaline rush from the quick descent makes it worthwhile.
Costa Rica is a country where one can make do with a guidebook, a backpack, and some decent hiking shoes. Having planned previous trips in agonizing detail, this time around we threw caution to the wind and decided to wing it. We cut short our trip to Tortuguero, and hit the beach a day earlier at Cahuita. Instead of heading back to San Jose after the rafting trip, heeding the advice of our hotel manager, we hopped on a bus from Siquirres (where the rafting ended), to Guapiles, then got on another bus from Guapiles to Cariari, spent the night at a brand new hotel a kilometer from the bus stop (this was the only hotel listed in the guidebook), and then the next day, took another bus to La Pavona and finally got on a motor boat that took us to Tortuguero. Laid out this way, it does seems fairly ordinary. But for folks that weren’t very conversant with the local language, weary from several class 5 rapids and beaten down by heavy rains, this was quite exciting.
Fellow budget travelers that we met would often lament that Costa Rica was the most expensive of Central American countries. Food does tend to be more expensive, but we managed to find fairly decent and comfortable accommodations for $10-$12 a night per person. In fact, our most expensive stay was at Cahuita where we rented our own cabana (beds with mosquito nets, private bathroom, a tiny fridge) for a grand total of $45 for three adults. What does tend to get expensive is the adventure activities—white water rafting, rappelling, zip lines etc They work out to anywhere between $40-$100. When most low-end budget travelers expect to spend between $40-$60 a day, this may overshoot your budget by a bit. But with enough reasonably-priced accommodations and good, cheap food to go around, Costa Rica would fit most budgets.
The food. while not very diverse, was flavorful and well-balanced. The role of the well-balanced Costa Rican diet is telling in the country’s health indicators—life expectancy rates in Costa Rica are between 76 and 81 years. Rice and beans here are called gallo pinto, which translates to spotted rooster.—the idea being that rice mixed with beans appears spotted. Another staple is fried plantains which are delectable. Though bananas and plantains are native to the Indian subcontinent they were brought to Costa Rica by the Spanish settlers as they grew well in its rich and fertile soil. A traditional lunch or dinner plate is called the casada—so called because a typical home cooked meal (prepared by the wife for the husband, who is “casado” or“ married” in Spanish) would have a little rice, a little beans, some plantain, meat or fish and a tortilla. The flavors of the Caribbean coast however, were markedly different from the highlands or central Costa Rica. In Cahuita we tried our first snook and marlin, fish that are found in plenty in the Caribbean waters, cooked in a rich coconut sauce.
Costa Rica, like its Central American neighbors, is known for its coffee. Although not the leading cash crop, it still accounts for 10% of its export revenues. But the coffee that one consumes in Costa Rica is sub-par and nowhere close to the Costa Rican blends at your neighborhood coffee shop. Perhaps this is because they export all the good beans. The black coffee was weak, with no strong flavor. The more popular coffee drink is cafe con leche, coffee with milk which renders the coffee too milky to taste its original flavors.
Die-hard desis that we are, we did manage to find a restaurant called the Vishnu in Costa Rica. They didn’t quite serve Indian food, but the menu was vegetarian, and organic. The food was good but the watermelon milk shake, exquisite.
Another of Costa Rican oddities is its currency. An American dollar is around 550 colons, give or take a 100 colons. Prices in colons are quoted always starting in the 100s. One wonders why this currency system still remains, as a majority of businesses there accept American dollars or international credit cards. The great news is that most ATMs provide U.S. dollars as well as the local currency. Perhaps it serves to remind the tourist that they are after all only visitors to its verdant lands, as you will no doubt make a spectacle of yourself counting out 7345 colons in exact change for lunch at the local soda (cafeteria). The one unintended consequence is of course to render even the most frugal of travelers appear to be millionaires when they get their printed receipts from the ATMs. Your balance is declared in colons, and even a balance of a 1,000 dollars in your American bank translates to half a million colons.
Indian travelers will find the scene at once familiar. Stray dogs are everywhere. But they are friendly and let you be for the most part. American travelers will also find some familiarity; there are pet supplies stores galore! Pet supply stores abound even in the smallest of towns.
Tour books will often open with a note on culture shock. All I can say is that for tourists from America, Costa Rica has none of that, at least not culturally. We landed in the international airport at Alajuela and took the local bus the very next day for Arenal. The bus journey was pleasant, and the bus well-appointed. There were Jehovah’s witnesses and young Mormon graduates traveling with us to spread the word in Costa Rican villages. There were entire tour groups of American Christian church group volunteers leaving to work in small villages. There were regular all-American families going on rafting or adventure trips. In short, in the more popular of tourist destinations, like La Fortune, Americans abound. You turn a corner here and hear the southern drawl. You turn the next corner, and then it’s the Californian surfer dude or the clipped Mid-western accent. Where did we take the bus to, we wondered? Disney land? While at first one is annoyed at the familiarity of faces and voices that you assumed you’d left behind, you get used to it. And you soon forget these minor annoyances and lose yourself in the sheer grandeur of the cloud forests, the volcanoes, and the diversity of plant, animal, insect and bird life.
And language was never an issue, whether during planning or actual travel. If ever you were agnostic about nature but were willing to give it a shot, then go to Costa Rica—you will return a believer.
Now, I look around from my third floor perch in a sun room. The branches from a big green tree are caressing the two adjoining walls of my apartment building. The cool morning breeze gently rustles the resplendent leaves. Notwithstanding the constant whirrs of the air-conditioning, the planes above, the leaf blowers below, or CNN’s Morning Edition, I hear a chirp, a whistle, a tweet, and a tinkle. I peer into the dense green foliage outside my window. I see cardinal red. Black eyes, masked, not unlike Zorro, bright orange beaks a perfect foil to my batik printed table cloth, reddish crest, and altogether a treat for the eyes. The less colorful female version is hopping around close by. Google tells me the birds are Northern Cardinals. I nod my head knowingly. I am after all in North America.
The trees had always been there. The chirps, tweets and whistles too. But it took a trip to the rain forests, a visit with the turtles and a rendezvous with sloths to appreciate my own backyard eco-system.
I knew Costa Rica was on my mind even months after the trip when one day while waiting for a light at an intersection I spotted a fairly large bird of prey gliding in the sky. As it neared us and grew larger and larger, I noticed that its wings were almost angular and its eyes an unnatural greenish yellow. At that moment I realized I had just spotted something that even two weeks in the jungles of Costa Rica could have never prepared me for
A small passenger jet liner.
Let me add that I live within five miles of a small county airport. My eyes had just played tricks on me. But at the very least it was a tribute and testament to the vividness of a Costa Rican experience.
Our trip to Costa Rica was during the green season (the rainy season) which runs from May through November. Flight tickets during the green season from North America tend to be cheaper and can run anywhere between 400-600 USD. Advance reservations for adventure activities are recommended but not necessary. We got lucky. Our tickets came up to 360 USD.
The exchange rate is: 1 USD= app. 500 Costa Rican Colons (CRC), or as Dave Barry said, “The exchange rate is roughly one dollar for 387 hillion skillion jillion colons. If you want to feel wealthy, get yourself some colons.”
Girija Sankar lives in Atlanta and works in the area of International Development.