The following is my uncut, unedited and unorganized journal – but with lots of (hopefully interesting) detail about what we have been up to!
December 9, 1999 – Monteverde Cloud Forest, Santa Elena
We are staying at Sapo Dorado and have so far experienced two insect adventures at our hotel. – Yesterday Patty, who was suffering from “turista”, sipped ginger ale from her open can to find a cockroach in her mouth and this morning as we make preparations to go out on our day’s hike she finds a scorpion in the band of her hat, which had been zipped inside her backpack suitcase. We’ve been told that the scorpions here are not lethal – we prefer not to provide a human experiment.
We are now on the SkyWalk, which consists of 2.5 kilometers of walk in the rainforest through a cloud shrouded mist with thick moss growing on vines across seven very high, rickety suspension bridges in misty, high winds. We also have the option of going for a SkyTrek which involves high speed (at speeds up to 60 kilometers an hour) harnessed riding swinging hundreds of meters on cables through the canopy, which seems interesting and enticing until we cross our first bridge and determine that we can only take so much excitement in one day. (This was on my birthday and I decided to “treat” myself to the acknowledgment that was far too terrifying an activity to be sanely engaging in – although it sounded like fun). I try to mask my own terror on the bridges of the SkyWalk to keep that from spreading through the group.
Ben yells out “Toucan” to get our attention. He is rapidly becoming the rainforest version of The Boy Who Cried Wolf – The Ben Who Cried Toucan.
Because of the lush environment, everything is oversized – you feel like you are in the Jurassic period looking at the 20 ft. leaves of the fern plants dripping with epiphytes and expect dinosaurs around every bend.
Patty points out that what is really amazing in this walk is that with all the “awareness” of rainforests in the United States, we are actually now walking in the midst of it with the thick mosses and dripping vegetation. We don’t see much fauna on this walk, but the flora is amazing and the jungle sounds are wind, rain drops, birds singing, cackling and chirping – all interspersed with Ben’s “never ending story” about James Bond, Trevlyn, Bill Gates and Double Trouble in an ongoing battle using flash light guns, laser cannons and other implements of destruction.
We cross seven 300-400 foot long bridges suspended several hundred feet above the deep valleys below, some of which have raging streams. The SkyWalk was developed three years ago, and the SkyTrek was built last year, both by a local family of three brothers.
Later in the day we hike in Bosque Eterno de los Ninos (BEN). It was a “Save the Rainforest” project started by a group of Swedish school children and over the past 15 years it has grown in size to over 50,000 acres from an initial purchase of 8 acres and now exceeds the Monteverde Conservation League owned area.
Tourism to Monteverde has grown from 200 visitors in 1973 to over 50,000 in 1998 and it is currently one of the most visited sites in the country. While this certainly diminishes the sense of undiscovered treasure of an Osa peninsula, it does provide for a range of fascinating educational visitor activities and tourism services such as hotels, pizzerias, butterfly and orchid gardens, etc.
Monteverde seems to be a prime example of eco-tourism really working – wage scales are dramatically higher than in the rest of Costa Rica, the tourists are generally well accepted and not resented and there is virtually not theft. (Our local guide left his own backpack unlocked in our car when we went into one of the sites. When we asked him about that, he said, “Oh no one would steal anything here.” A very refreshing change from the paranoia that we have been feeling.) There is also a fairly large “gringo” and other non-Tico population living in the area, which has mixed well with the local populace, and the conservation ethic feels very strong. In fact, it is a gringo, who gave a slide show at our hotel, Sapo Dorado. (He is the ex-president of the Monteverde Conservation League, which is responsible for the preservation of the Cloud Forest and has been living in the area for the past twenty years.) A Costa Rican married to an American owns the hotel, and we understand that approximately half of the hotels are locally owned.
One of the reasons why eco-tourism may be working so well here is the roughly 1 ü-2 hour deeply pot-holed and rutted road here off the Inter-American highway, and the lack of any air strips providing more convenient access. This seems to discourage the more “whiney” type of tourist, consequently providing a “natural selection” of those who are willing to endure and even appreciate the journey to reach their destination.
A highlight in the area is a visit to the Monteverde Butterfly Garden, set up and owned by a private conservation group (as are all facilities in the area – there is no “National Park” in Monteverde). The researchers and volunteers provide fascinating insight into the world of tropical bugs and butterflies. We learned about the Hercules Beetle, with a three-inch long shiny black body able to lift and carry 5 pounds, the Assassin Bug, which injects a strong anti-coagulant into unsuspecting victims while they’re sleeping. The anti-coagulant itself is not the source of its menacing name – after feeding on its host’s blood the beetle then defecates on its victim leaving a bloody, dirty mess. The problem comes in the morning when the victim awakens, scratches the bite, which introduces the fecal matter into its blood stream. Flu like symptom ensues for a week or so and then the infection goes dormant for up to twenty years until it manifests itself in heart muscles, tripling in size leading to cardiac failure. There are occasional stories of twenty year old Central & South American athletes dying on the court of heart failure – and the Assassin Bug bite is frequently the culprit. There are no vaccinations against Chagas Disease, although antibiotics are effective if caught and treated within a few weeks. We are assured that these bugs are almost non-existent in Costa Rica and in other Latin America countries are found predominately in the thatched roof housing of the poor without adequate sanitation. That said, when one is in those areas, since this disease is responsible for more deaths in Central and South America than AIDS, malaria and dengue fever combined, we’re advised to tuck in mosquito netting under mattresses. We learn a host of other information about the bright iridescent blue Morpho Butterfly, Owl Butterfly and others. (Alex and Katie, our fact collectors, actually remember much of the specifics.).
We also visit the Hummingbird Gallery, with huge numbers of brightly colored birds feeding (and learn that the hummingbird beats its wings 80 times per second and its heart 1,200 times per minute, requiring it to eat at least 50% of its body weight daily for energy.) The Orchid Garden, set up by a local orchid collector, now contains 326 of the approximately 500 species of orchids found in Monteverde. This includes flowers that are only visible through a microscope and are pollinated by tiny fruit flies to larger brilliant blooms, which we are more accustomed to, all with a distinctive triangular formation.
We cancelled our visit to the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve itself due to torrential rains as we approach the entrance gate. (“Cloud” is one thing, taking a pleasant walk in a tropical downpour with three children is another!)
We also visit the Monteverde Cheese Company, founded in the 1950’s by an American Quaker community, which took over a week to push cars and carts up the mountain during their initial pilgrimage. The factory’s production has since grown from 10 kilos of daily cheese production to over a thousand kilos. The factory is now a worker and vendor owned cooperative and we see collections of large aluminum milk cans awaiting pick up at the side of the road along the countryside. The cheese itself was originally only exported to the United States to be sold at premium prices, but is now available throughout Costa Rica and Latin America. Although the dairy and Quaker school remain, the religious community has largely been absorbed and intermarried into the Costa Rican community.
In general, the reflection on the Monteverde region would be a prosperous community and a beautiful location, fully visited and inhabited (although not overwhelmingly or offensively) by gringos and foreigners who seem to mix well with the Tico population.
December 11, 1999 – Arenal Lodge – Two weeks into the trip we are beginning to evolve into a pattern of activities, responsibilities, expectations, roles and “behaviors needing modification”. Patty takes primary responsibility for the home-schooling on which she worked many months to understand and develop, I am the logistics and technical support expert (in this land of the blind-my “one-eyed” technical expertise is valued) and Alex, Katie and Ben generally cooperatively do their schooling, work on reports, carry their luggage and help out while occasionally being young children and siblings, bicker and torment each other and embarrass us in public settings (I really am working on “We our the ambassadors of our country, so behave!” It sometimes works.) Alex and Katie read voraciously whenever we are in the car, Ben tells his never ending stories of battles involving an eclectic group of characters, Katie is sometimes maliciously excluded by “the boys” and at other times is the joyously giggling center of attention.
I will point out with great parental pride that during the day that Patty and I were both suffering from turista, (or Montezuma’s revenge as it’s known in Mexico or “Contra’s revenge” in Costa Rica, based on US/Nicaraguan relations) which fortunately the children had managed to avoid, the three went together without us to breakfast and lunch at the restaurant, ordered, and signed for the bill. (Alex was very proud!) The restaurant staff later reported to me that the children were very “serious”, formal and well behaved – the solution may be to always let them go to their own meals and Patty and I and other diners will enjoy the peace and solitude.
Patty is the driver. (She enjoys driving and I enjoy not being directed as how to drive – therefore – Patty drives and I navigate and ask questions, a vastly superior and marriage-enhancing solution to back seat driving. Even the best roads here have huge sporadic potholes – it is said that if you see someone driving straight on a Costa Rican road, rather than avoiding potholes, they are probably drunk.
The Arenal Lodge is the most comprehensive and “upscale” resort hotel facility we’ve stayed at to date. There is a 2-kilometer, paved and cut stone and brick driveway rising into the mountain above Lake Arenal that takes you to the 12 year old Lodge with its 34 rooms and separate chalets. At the top, there is a sign that says, “Welcome – You’ve Made It!”
We are in the “Master Suite” (in order to fit five in the room) which, is reminiscent a jungle lodge, with its ultra high vaulted ceilings, dark wood, ceiling fans and a balcony with stunning views of the Arenal volcano (when it is clear out!!). (There is, of course, the addition of a modern sunken bathtub leading out to a view of a private enclosed Japanese garden.) (Ben paid the hotel his ultimate compliment when he told us that our room looks like James Bond’s room.)
The formal dining room with its multiple crystal wine glasses per place setting also offers a volcano view, although the food, while adequate, certainly doesn’t match the appointments (I ordered “spa chicken in its own juices with lemon” for dinner last night and was served chicken breast masked by a thick heavy cream sauce with light lemon flavor, a large piece of “spa-like” cheesy lasagna and duck pate.) The Lodge also features a wide range of activities from horse back riding and organized tours to a fully stocked game room with foosball (Alex is rapidly becoming a world champion), chess, Scrabble and Yahtzee, as well as the dreaded Nintendo 64. (We are very proud of ourselves – we set a 20-minute total limit on Nintendo for our visit here and have stuck with it, although we have endured hours of arguing, complaining and rationalizations as to why more time would really be appropriate/advisable.)
There is no pool or health club however. For a pool we will enjoy the Tabacon Hot Springs facility later today, ideally, as we watch flowing lava, and the health club became less necessary as the torrential downpour ceased and I was able to take a jog through the hills and down to the lake.
We then notice vents of steaming gas coming out of the side. At 11:00 a.m. our perspective on Arenal changed dramatically as the mist started to lift and we were able to see the volcano cone from our balcony. At 11:15 a.m. it changed even more dramatically when we hear the explosion of a volcanic eruption in the distance and see vapor and smoke coming off the cone. Two hours later the fog and cloud on Arenal has cleared and we hear an explosion and see smoke in the air. The volcano has erupted! This is volcano we were looking for.
Following the lead of David Cohen in his book, One Year Off, we visit the hot spring pools at Tabacon Lodge. The Lodge is an interesting mix of natural beauty, sitting in the shadow of the volcano and owing its existence to the thermal springs which are heated by its activity, and transformed into a series of swimming pools heated to varying decrees, with the temperature determined by mixing thermal and unheated water, as well as by distance from the other spring. The pools range from those with sculpted waterfalls and natural volcanic stone bottoms to manmade slides, in-pool bars servings frozen daiquiris and other “tropical delights” complete with pink umbrellas, maraschino cherries and 60’s 70’s & 80’s rock and roll and disco music over the loud speakers.
At Tabacon we find and purchase our first English language newspaper in over two weeks – USA Today’s travel feature is on the undiscovered wonders in Bhutan. It lures us with enticing descriptions of colorful festivals in that remote Buddhist kingdom. My highlight of that experience will be wondering through the labyrinth of landscaped and manicured trails to come upon a three foot long yellow snake (which I later learn is the very deadly Eyelash Viper) slithering along with a yellow toad in his jaws. The sight, which was certainly unscripted and undoubtedly undesirable as far as management trying to appeal to the majority of its several hundred tourists a day coming off their tour buses to “experience” the “natural hot springs”. It was a wonderful example of nature triumphant over man’s efforts.
At dusk, we drive to Los Lagos up a winding road to the “observatory” a thatched roof on four pillars, which provides a fantastic view of the Arenal Volcano only a few kilometers away. The excitement builds as dark approaches and we see red streaks of lava racing down the mountainside. The lava flows at Arenal are composed of super heated rocks and debris glowing red as opposed to molten or plastic lava that flows at other volcanoes. The Arenal Volcano is only 7,000 years old and as recently as 1996 has had a major eruption. I shoot an entire roll at exposures of 5 to 30 seconds, (which I’m sure will show up as a few red dots on a totally black field – but I had to try and do SOMETHING!) and we return to the Lodge for the night. At 1:15 a.m. A loud explosion coming from the volcano awakens me, and Patty and I watch in wonder as the entire left side is deeply bathed in red flows. I truly wish I had better descriptive powers (or a useable photograph) this was really something to behold.
December 12, 1999 – Arenal Lodge – We take a one hour complimentary horse back ride around the grounds in the morning – I much preferred the rent a horse for a day in Osa – “Senor, here is your horse, here are the reins, (no map, no instructions, no guides) now go ride the beaches, roads or trails as you find -see you in a few hours.”
I spend the better part of an hour wrestling with the telephone system trying to place a Happy Birthday call to my mother (or Nanny, as she is affectionately known by the kids). The problem is NOT with the Costa Rican phone system, but with MCI Worldcom which maybe succeeding in becoming a global telecommunication house but has a long way to go in customer service. Their automated attendant system hung up on me three times, they had disconnected and had no record of one of our multiple MCI calling cards, spent 10 minutes taking American Express credit card information (there are only 15 digits in the number – it’s not clear to me how they managed to spend all that time) before they determined that, “Oh, no, we can’t use your credit card on calls going to the United States because of fraud problems.” I am issued an “expedited” American Express guaranteed card, which will “only” take four hours to be available. Four hours later, the card is showing up as working on the customer service screens, but not yet “truly functional” (of any use whatsoever) in charging telephone calls. After another ü hour shuttling the calling card representatives and senior customer service advisory personnel, someone finally offers that since it may take another four hours and since a birthday only occurs once in a year and since three children are by then very impatiently (and loudly), waiting in the background, they would place the call as “a courtesy” call. We have the minute satisfaction of (I think?) having an extended free call back to the United States.
December 13, 1999 – Selva Verde Lodge, on the banks of the Serapiqui River – We arrived last night amidst a downpour which we learned has been almost continual over the past 2-3 weeks. The grounds, the room, our clothing and our spirits are dampened by the weather – this is a clear drawback of a rainforest. Selva Verde is on the banks of the Serapiqui River and is actually a fascinating series of bungalow like structures connected by elevated wooden walkways above the muddy jungle floor. Our fauna viewing last night consisted of dodging hovering bats as the feasted on the available insect population and watching lizards climbing on window screens.
I woke up at 4:30 a.m. to a very strange sound – silence – as the downpour had stopped. I look forward to a jog at sunrise, but I’m thwarted by a resurgence of the celestial flooding at 5:00 a.m.
The rain stopped again at 7:00 a.m. and I am now out enjoying the respite from torrents and believe I may have spotted a faint speck of blue on the distant horizon. There is only one effective strategy for visiting a rain forest – ignore the rain. Once we recognized this yesterday, the experience here improved dramatically.
All of this rain does lead to raging streams and the incredible plant life, five to ten foot wide and long leaves and a lushness which is indescribable.
The air is filled with a pervasive aroma of jungle flowers overwhelmed by the smell of vegetation decay in the drenched forest. The tree canopy is full of “second story” epiphytic orchids and bromeliads and other plants – those that never come in contact with the ground, but derive their nutrients from the decomposing leaves and other plant matter which rests on the upper branches, forming a very complete soil layer, with greater access to the sun for photosynthesis. The bromeliad plant collects water in special pockets at the base of its leaves. These small pools become the homes for many different types of water animals. Literally hundreds of animals may be found living and dying there. The droppings and carcasses of these animals provide extra nutrients for the plant. Much of the rainforest is coated in a thick layer of dark green, fully saturated, mossy, liverworts.
December 14, 1999 – Selva Verde Lodge
The story of the hotel itself is a fascinating one. As explained by the hotel display boards In 1984 Giovanna and Juan Holebrook, owners of Holebrook travel booked a birding tour to the Serapiqui region of Costa Rica. Unfortunately, the travelers were turned away at their arranged facility due to an overbooking. Giovanna immediately flew in to remedy the situation. After a happy resolution to the crisis she learned of plans to destroy 500 acres of primary forest in the area. Following a tour to the threatened forest, Giovanna made a down payment to purchase the land. Later she mused, “Well, I knew that Mother Nature had taken centuries to grow those trees and that we take only minutes to print paper money. I didn’t hesitate. I put the deposit down.” The idea of Selva Verde Lodge, meaning green jungle, was born and the rest is “history.” There are now 45 guest rooms, bungalows, and a research facility criss-crossed by covered wooden walkways on elevated concrete pilings and steal beams.
The Holebrooks have a very close relationship with Elder Hostel, a fantastic program of travel and education with trips and classes throughout the world for over 55 year olds. There are approximately 50 Elder Hostlers staying at the Lodge. (We are the only family with children.) We all eat somewhat institutional food in the communal dining room. (Taste is in the palette of the beholder – our kids insist this is the best food that we’ve had on the trip – large portions of arroz con pollo, refried beans, and gallo pinto (rice and beans – all prepared with abundant amounts of lard and served from massive caldrons. (The canned half peaches in heavy syrup and Cool-Aid based orange pineapple and strawberry juice in a land of incredible fresh tropical fruit were particularly interesting.)
The most exciting part of staying in a hotel in the jungle is the chance encounters. I was leaving our room for breakfast and came upon four huge yellow tailed, yellow beaked Montezuma Oro Pendulums a few feet away, which I probably would have never discovered in hours of jungle walks and guided tours.
During our walk I try to impress our children to keep in their mind an image of the lush tropical jungle vegetation, as we will not be seeing this through the trip. That concept seems to be lost on them, as children tend to view the world in the current, which subsumes the past and the present, and whatever is will always be. We’ve also noticed an interesting phenomenon that the “best part” of the trip is usually something that has occurred in the past 24 hours.
This area is known for world class white water river rafting, and after much discussion, we learn that there is a stretch which we can safely go on with the children – Class 1 and 2 rapids easily navigated in a raft. This is a great first rafting experience for the kids and something in which we could all enjoy together as a family, notwithstanding the very tame rafting experience. What we realized is that in general raft trips are so focused on the thrill as opposed to purely the setting, and we would be taking a leisurely float trip ride in the midst of some of the most amazing birding and wildlife settings in the world.
Our guide is Chino, originally from San Josł, who has spent the last seven years running raft trips here. (Chino, literally translated as “Chinaman”, is a nickname denoting his Asian facial characteristics.) In Costa Rica there are many gordos (fatty), flacos (skinny) and abuelos (grandfather – any older man).
This adventure includes viewing huge, 4+ foot iguanas high in the Chilimate tree tops 200 feet above us, river otters swimming through the water, great blue herons, osprey (fishing eagle), a variety of king fishers, vultures, hawks, cranes, green parrots, parakeets and macaws. (We learned that the scarlet macaw is making somewhat of a comeback in the area due to extensive public information campaigns after poaching for feathers and pets, valued at $5,000 U.S. per bird – a very strong incentive to go with the “dark side” of the force, decimated its population). The less brightly colored Green Macaw trades at $2,000 on the black market.)
We do NOT see crocodiles, which reportedly inhabit the Serapiqui banks during the summer dry season (January-May). (In the wet season they find it more difficult to locate prey in the quick moving, murky rapids.) We are assured that families with young children swim in the river throughout the year – the crocodiles allegedly find plenty of non-human prey and do not bother with tasty children.
All of this, while navigating rapids and avoiding huge vines hanging from the trees above. We are not “officially” birders (although we are now beginning our trip list of all kinds of animal species seen), but we were incredibly impressed and taken by the amazing setting and variety. No matter how taken with birds we become, I suspect we will always avoid the appellation of being “bird watchers” based on our experience fifteen years ago in the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania – known for huge concentrations of large African Savannah land mammals. While watching a pride of lions feasting on their freshly killed zebra, with hyenas and vultures circling and seeking scraps, the calm is interrupted by an otherwise wonderful woman pointing her binoculars in the opposite direction loudly exclaiming, “Oh Sally – Do You See That Little Brown Footed Brown Eyed Brown Breasted Greater Crested Lesser Bird? (or something like that)”. We peered out our high-powered binoculars to see what appears to be remarkably like a North American Sparrow.
Patty and I make plans to return the next day for a Class 3-4 rafting trip and the children will stay with Chino’s partner’s sister who allegedly speaks English, has a young brother who plays soccer, and will otherwise give the children a wonderful local Costa Rican experience as we seek the more adventurous side of the Serapiqui.
Pricing and financial expectations by the Ticos here is very erratic and totally dependant on exposure to foreigners of varying income levels. Our family raft trip was, I believe, very richly priced at $45.00 per adult and $35.00 per child (for a total of $195.00 plus a $10.00 tip for a very pleasant float trip ride.) in a country with laborers supporting a family making a few percent of that per diem. Our tip, while appropriate and expected in the circumstances, and graciously accepted by Chino, is equal to the same amount, but which represented a gross over-tipping, at the Lookout Inn for six days of maid service, cooking, etc. to the 14 year old Tica housekeeper.
For Patty and my trip, Chino offers to reduce the fee to $35.00, ($70.00 total) for a longer ride, providing we pay him directly rather than go through the hotel, which otherwise makes a substantial commission. Our goal is to maximize experiences – and if a Serapiqui raft trip seems over priced based on other local market conditions, but is otherwise a fantastic adventure, we rationalize that its just part of the cost of the travel and watch unbridled free enterprise and a supply and demand pricing model at work. On the other hand, I am frustrated as I walk by our Toyota 4Runner, which has been sitting idle in the parking lot for the last two days at $110 per day. (We tried smaller less expensive Toyota Corolla Wagon at 1/3 the price and decided the additional life insurance premiums on the winding, rutted, potholed roads tilted the equations in favor of the 4Runner).
Our earlier boat ride through the mango swamps at Isla Damas by Manuel Antonio National Park was similarly priced at $160.00 for the family. Once you leave the comfort and convenience of hotels, arranging English speaking guides and tours through the hotel, prices drop dramatically, although presumably there may be less quality control.
Our kids have been doing wonderfully with their home-schooling. Patty’s organization and our positive approach to it has them looking forward to opportunities to do their schooling and although we are only a bit over two weeks into the trip, they are into their fifth week of material. They are also doing very well learning Spanish and absorbing information about the flora and fauna of the area. Alex very excitedly sent email lists of animals he had seen and they all enthusiastically search out new species. In addition, Alex becomes more and more computer savvy by the day, emailing, installing programs and otherwise demonstrating his prowess, Katy is the prolific journal writer/illustrator, as well as seamstress, creating embroider clothing for her stuffed “Monkey”. Ben takes it all in, tells his stories, and enthusiastically does his school work (while instructing us as to “how it really should be taught” because this is the way Mrs. Cain does it).
We could certainly get used to this traveling!!!!
We are now coming to the end of the rainy season – last week we see evidence and are told that the river level was 20 feet higher. As we begin our walk in the primary forest, we dawned our high rubber boots and our guide Alehandro tells us that there are four venomous snakes and the one-inch long bullet ant, whose bite will cause vomiting for days. We see walking palms with elevated web like root structures that look like mangroves. We learn about the Fer de Lance, which grows up to 9 feet and is nocturnal, highly poisonous and occasionally sited on Selva Verde passageways at night. Seeing walking palm through the progression of roots that grow and decay end up moving as much as a foot per year in new directions. We learn about the relative potency of various bites on the order of magnitude scale – 1 would be a bee sting; 10X would be a wasp sting; 10X would be a Costa Rican scorpion sting; a Bullet Ant would be 10X. Then comes the Fer de Lance with 20-minute life expectancy after a bite.
Alex spots a bullet ant within a minute of being warned of it. With a Fer de Lance bite you have 20 minutes to administer anti-venom unlike the other vipers we you have a leisurely hour and a half before paralysis and a painful death sets in. The other challenge is each snakebite requires its own species-specific anti-venom. You must be able to identify (and preferably kill and bring with you the offender in order to be sure which medicine to take. We also learned stings from the four species of scorpions here hurt but are not life threatening – we have all taken up the habit of carefully checking our bedding and clothes and using flashlights if nature calls at night. The yellow Eyelash Viper lies in wait in the bright red colored Heleconia flower for unsuspecting hummingbirds. Which as it turns out, is the snake we had seen at Tabacon Lodge eating the yellow frog.
Our guide has never seen the Eyelash Viper in his three years of guiding in the area. We do see a Fer de Lance Frog – so called because it is colored similarly to the snake but not poisonous. Katie finds the red venomous poison dart frog less than half an inch long, dark blue and red with poison sacks. They are safe to touch, providing you have no scratches or open cuts and diligently remember to wash your hands before eating. Based on our table manners we make sure that none of the children go anywhere near it.
Forty people a year die in Costa Rica of Fer de Lance bites – mostly farmers stricken by its potent neurotoxins. The farmers are stricken when they are clearing fields during the day with machetes and awaking the Fer de Lance, which strikes them. Our trip through the primary forest ends with a return to the Lodge and of course there we site a huge colony of army ants and several brightly colored toucans in the trees above. Life in the forest can be seen as occupying different stories of a huge three-dimensional city where each occupant is perfectly suited to their own story and possibly quite oblivious to life in other stories. In the canopy, life is vastly different than anywhere else in the forest. Intense tropical sunlight energy can bake and kill any organism not adapted to living there. Plant leaves tend to be small and tough to protect them from moisture loss. Seeds tend to be winged to let the wind disperse them. Immediately below the canopy is the understory. Here the temperatures are more moderate and most of the species of animals and plants are adapted to living in this environment. Finally, the forest floor connects all the layers of life with its vines and aerial roots. One prominent feature of tropical forests is the layered trunks of many trees. Since primary forest soil is usually poor, most trees do not have deep anchoring root systems. Most of the forest’s giants instead support themselves with “buttresses” that spread out at the base of the tree for increased support.
The Poison Dart Frog is so named because the Chaco Indian hunters run the tips of their blow dart guns on the back of the frog. Such a dart with the toxic skin secretions from the frog will kill a Howler Monkey in a minute or less. Although more than 120 species of frogs are collectively known as poison dart frogs, only three are actually used to poison the tips of darts. Many other species of poison dart frogs have skin secretions that create a strong unpleasant taste or intense vomiting should any of the frogs be eaten. They range from ü inch to 2 inches long.
Many harmless small animals call the forest of fur on the sloth home. Algae growing there cause the green tinge of the fur. The algae help to camouflage the sloth. Some people believe the sloth moth feeds on this algae. When the sloth takes its weekly toilet break at the base of its tree, the moths fly to the sloth’s dropping and lay their eggs there. The hatching caterpillars feed and develop in the resulting compost and eventually return to the sloths as adult moths. The Three Toed Sloth is a relative of the Koala Bear. He does not have teeth, merely small bony surfaces to partially crush leaves. Digestion is actually accomplished in its stomach by protozoans who need a warm temperature to flourish. Consequently, the sloth hangs in the upper story of trees upside down, exposing its stomach to the sun in order to foster protozoan growth. In a cooler climate, the sloth could actually starve to death even with a full stomach because it is unable to accomplish digestion on its own.
The caffeine in your coffee, the flavors in your tea, the active agents in many of your medicines are products of the war waged between plants and their predators. In small doses to large animals, these ingredients provide stimulation, pleasure or relief, but to small plant eating insects and other herbivores, these same compounds could be deadly. Many tropical flowers engage us in their beauty, but in truth they serve another purpose altogether. The colors, nectars, scents of flowers are meant only to attract animals to help these plants reproduce. The water-filed moats of some Heliconias and Gingers serve to protect their precious stores of nectar from chewing insects. These moats also provide homes for many water dwelling creatures.
Patty and I take a raft trip down the Serapique’s Class 3 rapids. We stop for a twelve foot dive off the cliff into the rapidly moving current and at one point are flipped out of the raft as we all lean out rather than in at a sharp turn. We feasted on a fresh cut and quartered pineapple on the riverbank that our guide picked up enroute and cut with his machete when we were doing our 12-foot dives off the cliff.
Meanwhile, the kids are staying with a Costa Rican woman, the sister of one of the raft guides, who allegedly speaks English. We were looking forward to this as a really different multi-cultural experience for them – the experience was hampered by the fact that the “English speaking” was extremely limited and didn’t include such necessities as “Where is the bathroom”, (a question which Ben asked a few minutes into their 2 ü hour visit).
It was an experiment in babysitting which everyone, notwithstanding some grumbling to the fact, took very well. We’ve learned that next time we will either have someone come to the hotel room or plan more structured activities, and in any case will “interview” the individual in English to make sure there is sufficient language comprehension.
We experienced two ecological phenomenon that we hadn’t seen for awhile. Bright sun during the raft trip and a brisk cool night that required us to actually turn off the fan and get blankets.
Costa Rica has no standing army, a population of approximately 4 million people plus approximately ü million illegal Nicaraguan aliens here for the better economic opportunity, education and health care. There were approximately 800,000 tourists in 1988 and the expectation for this season is to exceed 1 million.
Minimum wage here is approximately $150 per month with average wage for an employed person of $258 per month.
While there is no standing army, there is a 7,000-person police force, of which approximately 2,000 represent border guards who do receive military training. However, with no air force, tanks, navy or infantry, notwithstanding non-aggression pacts with their neighbors and defense pacts with Venezuela, the US and others, it is amazing to me that the country has not been absorbed into one of its more aggressive neighbors. Those resources are then plowed into education for the highest literacy rate in Central America and relative affluence. It is estimated that 20% of the population is below the poverty line, 50% middle class and 30% upper middle to upper class. As compared to other countries in the region with a very small, very wealthy upper class and huge poverty rates.
In route, we pass miles and miles of banana plantations leased out to Delmonte and Dole and learned that the banana trees are actually genetically bread from single cells in the laboratory and then transplanted to greenhouses before finally being planted in the fields. That entire process through harvesting takes twelve months at which time the tree is cut down the root shoots out a new trunk, which is then harvested 9 months later. We learned about the blue plastic bags put around the fruit to enhance production and fruit appearance and to protect the bananas from sunburning and to deter insects that in general are not attracted to the blue color. In addition, the plastic is impregnated with a fungicide to further protect the fruit. All of this on land which would otherwise be virgin rain forest if it had not been cut and converted to commercial use.
December 16, 1999 – On a morning boat ride through the Tortuguero National Park, we see green macaws. There are only fifty nesting pairs remaining in Tortuguero and they are in danger of extinction.
Walking Palms “move” by detecting where there is the greatest source of light and feeding roots on that side and starving and leaving to decay roots on the darker side. This is a result of the fierce competition for life in the rain forest.
The Leaf Cutter Ants live on the fungus growing on the leaves they bring into their nest. This fungus has lost the ability to reproduce, other than when they are moved by Leaf Cutter Ants to form a new colony. A perfect example of a symbiotic relationship. Leaf Cutter Ant hills can be as much as 150 feet in diameter. Soldier ants with small bodies, large heads and very large jaws defend them. They come out to defend the nest when the ground above them is disturbed. The air is literally thick with mosquitoes which amazingly find enough mammal and bird blood to drink. We walk in knee-deep water which overflows the top of our rubber boots – and now have murky jungle slime surrounding our feet – an excellent antidote to worrying about the mosquitoes buzzing about our heads. There is now probably competition between the leeches, which may be infesting our boots, and the mosquitoes as to which one will imbibe the most blood. The leeches are just a bit of poetic license – I hope.
We pass a long column of Army Ants and are reminded of Charlton Heston’s The Naked Jungle with its Marabunta Ants devouring everything in its path. True Army Ants will are nomads and will travel with a forward column as much as 9 feet across, devouring any insects, amphibians or small reptiles in its path. At night they will stop and form interlocking layers with their own bodies to create a biosack with the queen in the center. Termite nests are held together by a fecal Crazy Glue.
The bright and iridescent blue of the Morpho Butterfly is actually caused by the prismatic effect of its brown scales. Under a microscope there is no blue in the scales. At Mawamba Lodge Katy comes to describe the available lunch for me. We have a choice of meat with fat or pasta with butter. Twenty days into the trip an amazing thought hits me, and one which I’m not particularly pleased about. We have not yet been in a typical local restaurant and in fact, the only times we have eaten away from our hotel has been at a very tourist oriented restaurant at the entrance to Manuel Antonio National Park over two weeks ago.
The Three Toed Sloth’s green algae grow in the microscopic grooves in its hair. We see many Montezuma Oro Pendulo with their bright yellow tails. We take a boat ride through the canals and rivers and visit the highest “mountain” on the Caribbean side between Nicaragua and Panama, a three hundred foot rise – there are taller trees in this area.
It is Thursday, which means malaria pill day. We have 250 mg pills for which we have a special pill cutter and pill crusher to facilitate ingestion. It is bitter tasting but not completely vile, however, the children brought up on sweetened flavored medicine, it tastes like “ugh, a pill.” Katy consistently wins the award for grimacing, putting it into some potato or ham and eating it. Alex tends to suffer more and eventually finish it. Ben on the other hand, until last week, involved major battles each time, now we’re trying the ginger ale approach – letting the pill itself dissolve in the ginger ale. As Alex is working to eat his, dissolving it in Guava juice, he notices that there is a dead fly floating in his glass. At least the dead fly will not be a successful vector of malaria to him. We remove the fly; continue the process and eventually all of the Melefloquin is consumed. I add some of Patty’s red wine to Ben’s ginger ale and that does the trick. At least he won’t be a malarial alcoholic.
Friday, December 17, 1999
The entire concept of a place like Mawamba Lodge is fraught with anachronisms. After an hour and a half drive from Serapiqui to Guapiles we arrive at the Rio Danta restaurant where we are met by our guide Marco and an assortment of other travelers to continue two hours in an air conditioned mini bus through increasingly rural roads, past miles of banana plantations through Matina and finally arrive at our destination, a small dock in Puerto Something. There, under the thatched roof awnings, we are fed cut fruit and soft drinks as we pose with the pet parrot (its wings have been clipped) and then go on our twenty passenger covered boat for another 2 ü hours through the natural rivers and man-made canals which provide the sole means of transportation in this completely flat low lying jungle. We arrive at Mawamba Lodge and are greeted by staff dressed in white starched jacket carrying frozen fruit drinks as we then proceed to the large swimming pool and dinning area. When we arrived, we were the only eleven guests in the 54-room establishment which supports a staff of over 30. A fleet of over a dozen boats, back up generators, etc.
We’re paying daily more than most of the staff makes monthly and the entire “lodge” experience is very surrealistic – luxury hewn out of raw jungle. The alternative route here as opposed to our seven-hour journey, is one of two daily flights on fifteen and twenty passenger from Sansa and Travelair. Approaching from the air however, one would not fully appreciate the remoteness and true jungle isolation. The Lodge is located on an island not more than 100 yards across at points between the Caribbean Sea and Rio Something
On Sunday evening when we arrived in Selva Verde amidst the seemingly never ending tropical downpour, we gave serious thought to leaving the next morning, skipping the Serapiqui and Tortuguero and spending a day in San Jose and beginning our visit to Guatemala early to allow more time there. We had envisioned a week of monsoon like rains and being trapped in our room with three children to avoid the rains. Since then we have had bright sunshine, very little rain, and very comfortable wild life viewing days.
I take a morning run on the beach, where I am assured that the Caribbean breezes keep away the mosquitoes. That statement of fact is indeed correct. What was inadvertently omitted was an adequate description of the voracious horse flies (Shetland Ponies being their smaller cousins) which takes substantially more interest in my legs than any human being has for decades. Complaints aside, there are miles and miles of relatively pristine (although littered) beach and I appear to be the sole human inhabitant. This beach area is prime Leather Back Turtle nesting area in March and April and is really overrun by turtles in July and August. In those seasons, the locals make a concerted effort to police the beach for plastic trash washed ashore – in the off season, the task is too daunting for the relatively few visitors and the are far too many discarded bottles, Styrofoam scraps, plastic cups, sandals, shoe soles and other non-biodegradable debris along with the much more interesting coconut crabs, shells and driftwood. (Tortuguero literally meaning area of the turtles.) (Much of the trash presumably from offshore cruise ships [whether or not it’s true] – we’d much prefer to believe that the locals have much more respect for their environment and the primary source of their income.) Even discarded aerosol bug repellant containers and Niagara Spray Starch (got to keep those uniforms pressed).
What to Patty and I seems like Iconoclastic (?) luxury set in the jungle (the kids still don’t have a reasonable point of reference) others find excessively rustic. A honeymoon couple from the upper west side of Manhattan focuses much of their efforts here on risk, danger and discomfort, unfortunately missing out on some of the wonderment. Patty and I honeymooned in Cancun almost 17 years ago. That area was far too developed, resorty and comfortable for our tastes and we left within 24 hours for the then more remote and “authentic” Cozumel and Isla Mujeres, also on Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula.
Soá we voluntarily choose to and enjoy being deprived of comforts which we could be receiving for substantially less than we pay for the relatively rustic Mawamba Lodge.
The children occasionally bickering – Alex made the comment at one point that he was sibling impaired.
A huge thank you must be given to Karla Mezza of Horizontes Nature Travel in San Jose who did an amazing job in arranging everything, including dozens of changes and even, toward the end of trip, providing me with tape cassettes for the journal. Horizontes can be reached at www.Horizontes@sol.racsa.co.cor
December 18, 1999 – 6:30 a.m. We take the 15 seat, Cessna Caravan, Sansa flight after taking a shuttle boat to the landing area where the check-in counter is (without even a thatched roof waiting area) the sole airstrip employee coming onto your boat looking for vouchers. You’re then called over to the boat, handed an umbrella to walk over the water hyacinth and then walk through the field in the driving rain to our plane. It is a single engine – which has none of us feeling very comfortable and has shoulder harnesses as well as lap belts. At least it is not the former Soviet Aeroflot discard which we had on our flight from Puerto Jimenez to San Jose with clear Russian explanation of fastening seatbelts still affixed.
At least the flight is completely on time and as we’ve noted over the last several days, has been very punctual. This, despite weather that would cause massive delays at Logan or other major airports. From the air, you gain an even greater perspective on how narrow the strip of land is between the intercoastal canal/river and the Caribbean Sea. This strip supports not just Mawamba Lodge and Tortuguero Village, but Tortuguero Lodge, the National Park Office, microwave and water tower, etc.
Just missing the rainy season in Osa, in this morning’s downpour, we also realized how fortunate we have been with weather, clear skies for Arenal, generally good weather in Monteverde (with the sole exception of missing the cloud forest itself due to the torrential rains at that moment) and a beautiful day for the day we spent boating and hiking in Tortuguero.
We make a single stop at Bora Colorado, ten minutes to the north, on the coast.
Renting a car in Costa Rica is an interesting experience. In addition to all the paperwork, passports, driver’s licenses, credit cards, etc. you spend 15 minutes with a thorough vehicle identification, identifying every ding, dent, scrape and chip. If you bring the car back with any more marring, they charge you, but never repair the damage. It is a pure revenue center with no costs associated with it. Furthermore, you’re charged $20 a day for insurance on top of the $90 a day for the vehicle rental. They do not allow you to waive the insurance; notwithstanding you’re already fully covered with your American Express card.
On our return to San Jose, we arrive again at Apartotel Maria Alexandra and quickly unpack to dry out our belongings from the humidity and the rain forest. It is amazing!!!! Everything, including those items that we had dried at Mawamba Lodge, ranges from very damp to soaked. The paper has to be carefully separated and laid out to dry, lest it harden into a sodden mass.
Our guide at the rain forest tram is Erica (Erica Baron phone 228-84-87). The experience is very Jurassic Park like – everything executed perfectly, including the covered ski lift ride, carefully selected organic spices in the gift shop and a fantastic video presentation to get one into the karma. We are always learning more, and are now hearing about hemi-epiphytic plants, those that have some roots in the ground but then climb as vines on the trees in the competition for light such as the Philodendron. The tram employees excellent English speaking guides, offers cappuccino and does 80% of their business with cruise passengers. This is providing these passengers with an opportunity for a true nature experience in Costa Rica as opposed to a San Jose or Leon city tour.
We travel 100+ feet over the forest floor below, crossing several rushing streams on a 6 person, open air (but with plastic roof) ski lift type baskets. We’re all wearing our $8.50 Rain Park Canopy ponchos – de rigueur in the torrential rainfall – Disney should have it so good!
We learn that many of the vines that we see coming from the tops of the trees are actually roots of plants which have started at ground level, grown up the tree, grown at the top of the tree and are now sending down new roots as they seek to continue their growth from tree to tree.
An interesting distinction between Liana which starts at the forest floor and shoots up versus vines which encompasses both Lianas and plants like philodendron which continue to grow and shoots out leaves at it continues to climb the tree. True epiphytes do not send down roots, as by definition, they do not make contact with the soil. Epiphytes derive all of their nutrition from the air – they will put roots into the moss only as an anchor to the tree, not as a food source. This is as distinct from parasites which actually send roots into the host plant and sap some of its nutrition. Vines such as the Monkey Ladder grow in length rapidly, but in diameter only one millimeter per year. This is used to determine their age, as they do not set rings, as do trees. There is on vine at the Earth Institute almost a meter in diameter or about 1,000 years old. The vines live much longer than the trees that support them, which is how you end up with dangling vines or vines hanging between two trees in a manner that is hard to discern the origins of.
An interesting factoid, bright colored red, orange and yellow flowers attract insects and birds for pollination, bright colored fruits frequently repel them by signaling dangerous poisonous content.
Nicaragua’s president, Aliman, has been exercising his muscle recently in disputes with Colombia over San Andreas Island, which although it is closer to Nicaragua than Colombia, had been formerly deeded to Colombia by an earlier treaty and more ominously imposed a $5.00 per person tax on Costa Ricans on the San Juan River which borders the two countries. It had in the past been shared by both, and now there is a restriction that Costa Rican security forces on that river are no longer allowed to carry weapons. Notwithstanding Erica’s and other Costa Rican’s comments that their best defense is not having an army, which was abolished in 1948 by the then president in order to reinvest the funds in health in education, and discussions of mutual defense treaties between Costa Rica and its Latin neighbors, we had the experience of having been in Taiwan in 1982 the day that the US “unrecognized” its staunch Anti-Communist ally of 30 years in order to placate it’s new found friend, the People’s Republic of China.
The gift shop contains an array of very well done and fully priced t-shirts, jungle jewelry kits and even natural cures from the rain forest – a safe alternative to chemical medicines, non-toxic, non-narcotic, no side effects, easy to use, just brew and drink for everything from anemia, and appetite aids to diarrhea, constipation, and colitis. Not to forget nervousness, stomach acid, as well as colds, fever, and finally, Viagra watch out – impotency.
The entry gates are even reminiscent of Jurassic Park with the lettering and logo split and entering into the unknown. The trails in the park are extremely well maintained made of either wood, covered with screening to avoid slippage, concrete or paved. The park receives off the cruise ships senior citizens, some of whom are mobility impaired, using walkers or other assistance and are able to experience the rain forest through the tram ride. Pricing was $49.00 for adults, $37.50 (I believe) for children or we could have taken a package from San Jos³ for $78.50 each including transportation and lunch. Costa Ricans have a full day package for $49.00.
Further concern on the Nicaraguan situation is that there are half a million Nicaraguan illegal aliens in Costa Rica. Many of them work for the various security services and are fully armed. During our visit to Toy Story2, we saw two guards, one with an imposing shotgun and two with pistols. Every hundred feet there are more guards. The concern is that the Nicaraguans could stage a complete invasion without ever sending a force across the border by merely having the armed security guards change allegiance.
December 19, 2000 – Yesterday, on our way back from the aerial which receives 50,000 visitors a year, as many as visit all of Monteverde, we learned from Erica who we gave a ride home to, about the dynamics of cruise ship tours. The one day “visiting” to Costa Rica to either see a rapid city tour of San Jose (scripted to the minute to include a three hour drive to and from the port of Limon and three hours in the city, including lunch) or a trip to the tram – the tram being the clear first choice.
This morning at 5:00 a.m. (Why, one might wonder, am I up at 5:00 a.m. doing this – the answer is I’m otherwise up because stress is almost totally internal and does not seem to know national boundaries or even current activities. I also have a quiet hour or so before the crew awakens with requests for their own computer time, complaints that their sibling has had more computer access than they have or Ben “my tummy’s hungry”.) During this time, while working on journals and emails, I received a technological shock, which certainly did no good for my blood pressure – the primary notebook computer would not start. I verified that there was power in the battery, that the battery light showed it was charging when the AC adapter was connected and yet trying to push the power on button to no avail. My first step was to Stay Calm – notwithstanding the fact that I had done quite the back up procedure as originally planned, particularly foolish and irresponsible taking computers through airports and working in tropical rain and cloud forest humidity. On the second computer, otherwise known as Patty’s and Kids’ computer (don’t touch Daddy’s), I was able to load and read Toshiba’s online manual, which was of absolutely no use. Fully panicked, I placed a call back to the States to the Toshiba technical support line hoping that it would be staffed early Sunday morning. In order to reach the 800 number, I had to call through MCI as a toll call – which is a lot better than the older system where you could not reach US based toll free lines from abroad. As I was navigating my way through the myriad of automated attendant options and on hold, I turned over the computer and with glasses on, was barely able to discern a lock/un-lock button. Apparently, I inadvertently locked the computer off, so I toggled the switch on and everything went perfectly, both the computer and my own blood pressure.
The most recent technical problem is that our click drive which we use for transferring files between computers and backup is intermittently malfunctioning – all this with three weeks into the trip. I can’t wait to see what happens when they’re subjected to further abuse over time. My only hope is that my own technical competence (albeit derived out of desperation) grows at the same pace as our equipment fails so that I maintain a fighting chance.
Overall, our Costa Rica experience is best summed up as wonderful, fantastic and amazing – we came seeking incredible nature experiences and certainly found them. There were a few missed opportunities – a visit to Cano Island off the Osa Peninsula, which we had originally planned to do but were surprised and overwhelmed by the logistical obstacles. And of course my non-photo of the Scarlet Macaw. Of course we spent a total of five awake hours in San Jose, having seen none of the local sites or museums (and based on our current state of mind not feeling any worse for the lack of that experience having focused on the nature). Other than that, and our early theft, we have had an amazing array of adventures and are looking forward to Guatemala.
Jogging through Escazu on a Sunday morning gives a clear sense of the affluence in the area. Many of the children are out riding the streets in their all-terrain vehicles, (the children are even wearing safety helmets, the first we’ve seen of these other than on the occasional bicycle rider from the US, Canada or Europe) armed security guards with watch dogs everywhere, and I am waived away from the US Ambassador’s residence by his security forces. There are also many nannies in starched white uniforms and even a homeless person plying the trash. There is a billboard advertising a new condominium for sale with 300 square meters (approximately 4,000 sq. ft. with exceptional views from the third floor). Even Italian opera wafting was very loudly from one of the homes.
We spent the afternoon with Lionel Peralta of the Cost Rica YPO chapter, with his three children, Lionel, Jr., 12 ü, Tatiana, 11 ü and Isabella, 3 at their marvelous finca 40 minutes outside of San Jose. He is involved in three businesses, the National Car Rental franchise, a heavy equipment dealership and a finance company which owns banks, leasing and other services. We had a fantastic lunch of grilled beef tenderloin, (not from one of his cows – they have a cattle ranch in the northeast near San Ramon), rice and refried beans, picadillo (a spiced minced vegetable) and desert consisting of layers of crushed pecans, sweetened condensed milk and fresh whipped cream. All this washed down with fresh sweet lemon (much like an orange juice) that we picked from their trees. We enjoyed their 23 horses, all-terrain vehicles (Lionel, Jr. keeps it like a perfect vintage car when he’s not racing it around at speed of up to 60 mph). Lionel, Jr. proudly earned his ATV as a combination birthday present and reward for making the National Junior Honor Society. Alex, Katie and I sped around their farm on Lionel, Jr.’s ATV We saw their newest Peruvian Paso (?) pony, born only 15 hours earlier and swam in their gorgeous tiled swimming pool. They were incredibly gracious hosts, but unfortunately his wife, Maribel, was home in San Jose still suffering from a week of a prevalent flu strain here called Huesos Quebrados (“broken bones” due to aches and pains suffered by its victims.
He is a marathoner and actually ran in Boston’s 100th marathon, has done the NYC marathon twice and runs an hour a day in the morning.
December 20, 1999 – Last night, to finish our Costa Rica stay, we spent awhile writing in our journals and then went to a local video store to rent Air Force One. In the morning, we are off on the flight for Guatemala.